Al let me help him into his bedroom, and even muttered “Thanks, buddy” when I knelt to unlace his shoes and pull them off. He only balked when I offered to help him into the bathroom.
“Making the world a better place is important, but so is being able to get to the john under your own power.”
“Just as long as you’re sure you can make it.”
“I’m sure I can tonight, and I’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. Go home, Jake. Start reading the notebook — there’s a lot there. Sleep on it. Come see me in the morning and tell me what you decided. I’ll still be here.”
“Ninety-five percent probability?”
“At least ninety-seven. On the whole, I’m feeling pretty chipper. I wasn’t sure I’d even get this far with you. Just telling it — and having you believe it — is a load off my mind.”
I wasn’t sure I did believe it, even after my adventure that afternoon, but I didn’t say so. I told him goodnight, reminded him not to lose count of his pills (“Yeah, yeah”), and left. I stood outside looking at the gnome with his Lone Star flag for a minute before going down the walk to my car.
Don’t mess with Texas, I thought. . but maybe I was going to. And given Al’s difficulties with changing the past — the blown tires, the blown engine, the collapsed bridge — I had an idea that if I went ahead, Texas was going to mess with me.
After all that, I didn’t think I’d be able to get to sleep before two or three in the morning, and there was a fair likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep at all. But sometimes the body asserts its own imperatives. By the time I got home and fixed myself a weak drink (being able to have liquor in the house again was one of several small pluses in my return to the single state), I was heavy-eyed; by the time I had finished the scotch and read the first nine or ten pages of Al’s Oswald Book, I could barely keep them open.
I rinsed my glass in the sink, went into the bedroom (leaving a trail of clothes behind me as I walked, a thing Christy would have given me hell about), and fell onto the double bed where I now slept single. I thought about reaching over to turn off the bedside lamp, but my arm felt heavy, heavy. Correcting honors essays in the strangely quiet teachers’ room now seemed like something that had happened a very long time ago. Nor was that strange; everyone knows that, for such an unforgiving thing, time is uniquely malleable.
I crippled that girl. Put her back in a wheelchair.
When you went down those steps from the pantry this afternoon, you didn’t even know who Carolyn Poulin was, so don’t be an ass. Besides, maybe somewhere she’s still walking. Maybe going through that hole creates alternate realities, or time-streams, or some damn thing.
Carolyn Poulin, sitting in her wheelchair and getting her diploma. Back in the year when “Hang On Sloopy” by the McCoys was top of the pops.
Carolyn Poulin, walking through her garden of daylilies in 1979, when “Y.M.C.A.” by the Village People was top of the pops; occasionally dropping to one knee to pull some weeds, then springing up again and walking on.
Carolyn Poulin in the woods with her dad, soon to be crippled.
Carolyn Poulin in the woods with her dad, soon to walk into an ordinary smalltown adolescence. Where had she been on that time-stream, I wondered, when the radio and TV bulletins announced that the thirty-fifth President of the United States had been shot in Dallas?
John Kennedy can live. You can save him, Jake.
And would that really make things better? There were no guarantees.
I felt like a man trying to fight his way out of a nylon stocking.
I closed my eyes and saw pages flying off a calendar — the kind of corny transition they used in old movies. I saw them flying out my bedroom window like birds.
One more thought came before I dropped off: the dopey sophomore with the even dopier straggle of goatee on his chin, grinning and muttering, Hoptoad Harry, hoppin down the av-a- new. And Harry stopping me when I went to call the kid on it. Nah, don’t bother, he’d said. I’m used to it.
Then I was gone, down for the count.
I woke up to early light and twittering birdsong, pawing at my face, sure I had cried just before waking. I’d had a dream, and although I couldn’t remember what it was, it must have been a very sad one, because I have never been what you’d call a crying man.
Dry cheeks. No tears.
I turned my head on the pillow to look at the clock on the nightstand and saw it lacked just two minutes of 6:00 A.M. Given the quality of the light, it was going to be a beautiful June morning, and school was out. The first day of summer vacation is usually as happy for teachers as it is for students, but I felt sad. Sad. And not just because I had a tough decision to make.
Halfway to the shower, three words popped into my mind: Kowabunga, Buffalo Bob!
I stopped, naked and looking at my own wide-eyed reflection in the mirror over the dresser. Now I remembered the dream, and it was no wonder I’d awoken feeling sad. I’d dreamed I was in the teachers’ room, reading Adult English themes while down the hall in the gymnasium, another high school basketball game wound down toward another final buzzer. My wife was just out of rehab. I was hoping that she’d be home when I got there and I wouldn’t have to spend an hour on the phone before locating her and fishing her out of some local waterhole.
In the dream, I had shifted Harry Dunning’s essay to the top of the pile and begun to read: It wasnt a day but a night. The night that change my life was the night my father murdirt my mother and two brothers. .
That had gotten my full attention, and in a hurry. Well, it would get anybody’s, wouldn’t it? But my eyes had only begun to sting when I got to the part about what he’d been wearing. The outfit made perfect sense, too. When kids went out on that special fall night, carrying empty bags they hoped to bring back filled with sweet swag, their costumes always reflected the current craze. Five years ago, it seemed that every second boy who showed up at my door was wearing Harry Potter eyeglasses and a lightning-bolt-scar decal on his forehead. On my own maiden voyage as a candy-beggar, many moons ago, I’d gone clanking down the sidewalk (with my mother trailing ten feet behind me, at my urgent request) dressed as a snowtrooper from The Empire Strikes Back . So was it surprising that Harry Dunning had been wearing buckskin?
“Kowabunga, Buffalo Bob,” I told my reflection, and suddenly ran for my study. I don’t keep all student work, no teacher does — you’d drown in it! — but I made a habit of photocopying the best essays. They make great teaching tools. I never would have used Harry’s in class, it was far too personal for that, but I thought I remembered making a copy of it just the same, because it had provoked such a strong emotional reaction in me. I pulled open the bottom drawer and began thumbing through the rat’s nest of folders and loose papers. After fifteen sweaty minutes, I found it. I sat down in my desk chair and began to read.
It wasnt a day but a night. The night that change my life was the night my father murdirt my mother and two brothers and hurt me bad. He hurt my sister too, so bad she went into a comah. In three years she died without waking up. Her name was Ellen and I loved her very much. She love to pick flowers and put them in vayses. What happen was like a horra movie. I never go see horra movies because on Halloween night in 1958 I lived thru one.
My brother Troy was to old for trick and treat (15). He was watching TV with my mother and said he would help us eat our candy when we came back and Ellen, she said no you won’t, dress up and get your own, and everybody laughed because we all loved Ellen, she was only 7 but she was a real Lucile Ball, she could make anybody laugh, even my father (if he was sober that is, when he was drunk he was always mad). She was going as Princess Summerfall Winterspring (I look it up and that’s how you spell it) and I was going as Buffalo Bob, both from THE HOWDY DOODY SHOW we like to watch. “Say kids what time is it?” and “Let’s hear from the Penut Galery” and “Kowabunga, Buffalo Bob!!!” Me and Ellen love that show. She love the Princess and I love Buffalo Bob and we both love Howdy! We wanted my brother Tugga (his name was Arthur but everyone called him Tugga, I dont remember why) to go as “Mayor Fineus T. Bluster” but he wouldnt, he said Howdy Doody was a baby show, he was going as “Frankinstine” even though Ellen she said that mask was to scary. Also, Tugga, he gave me some s-t about taking my Daisy air rifle because he said Buffalo Bob didnt have any guns on the TV show, and my mother she said, “You take it if you want to Harry its not a real gun or even shoot preten bullets so Buffalo Bob wouldnt mind.” That was the last thing she ever said to me and I’m glad it was a nice thing because she could be strick.
So we was getting ready to go and I said wait a sec I have to go to the bathroom because I was so excited. They all laugh at me, even Mom and Troy on the couch but going to pee then save my life because that was when my dad come in with that hammer. My dad he was mean when he drank and beat up my mom “time and again.” One time when Troy try to stop him by argueing him out of it, he broke Troys arm. That time he almost went to jail (my dad I mean). Anyway my mom and dad were “separated” at this time I’m writing about, and she was thinking about divorcing him, but that wasn’t so easy back in 1958 like it is now.
Anyway, he came in the door and I was in the bathroom peeing and I heard my mother say “Get out of here with that thing, youre not suppose to be here.” The next thing was she start to scream. Then after that they was all screaming.
There was more — three terrible pages — but it wasn’t me who had to read them.
It was still a few minutes shy of six-thirty, but I found Al in the phone book and punched in his number without hesitation. I didn’t wake him up, either. He answered on the first ring, his voice more like a dog’s bark than human speech.
“Hey, buddy, ain’t you the early bird?”
“I’ve got something to show you. A student theme. You even know who wrote it. You ought to; you’ve got his picture on your Celebrity Wall.”
He coughed, then said: “I’ve got a lot of pictures on the Celebrity Wall, buddy. I think there might even be one of Frank Anicetti, back around the time of the first Moxie Festival. Help me out a little here.”
“I’d rather show you. Can I come over?”
“If you can take me in my bathrobe, you can come over. But I got to ask you straight up, now that you’ve had a night to sleep on it. Have you decided?”
“I think I have to make another trip back first.”
I hung up before he could ask any more questions.
He looked worse than ever in the early light flooding in through his living room window. His white terrycloth robe hung around him like a deflated parachute. Passing up the chemo had allowed him to keep his hair, but it was thinning and baby-fine. His eyes appeared to have retreated even farther into their sockets. He read Harry Dunning’s theme twice, started to put it down, then read it again. At last he looked up at me and said, “Jesus H. Christ on a chariot-driven crutch.”
“The first time I read it, I cried.”
“I don’t blame you. The part about the Daisy air rifle is what really gets me. Back in the fifties, there was an ad for Daisy air rifles on the back of just about every goddam comic book that hit the stands. Every kid on my block — every boy, anyway — wanted just two things: a Daisy air rifle and a Davy Crockett coonskin cap. He’s right, there were no bullets, even pretend ones, but we used to tip a little Johnson’s Baby Oil down the barrel. Then when you pumped air into it and pulled the trigger, you got a puff of blue smoke.” He looked down at the photocopied pages again. “Son of a bitch killed his wife and three of his kids with a hammer ? Jee-zus. ”
He just start laying on with it, Harry had written. I run back into the living room and there was blood all over the walls and white stuff on the couch. That was my mother’s brains. Ellen, she was laying on the floor with the rocker-chair on top of her legs and blood coming out of her ears and hair. The TV was still on, it was this show my mom liked about Elerie Queen, who solve crimes.
The crime that night had been nothing like the bloodlessly elegant problems Ellery Queen unraveled; it had been a slaughter. The ten-year-old boy who stopped to pee before going out trick-or-treating came back from the bathroom in time to see his drunken, roaring father split the head of Arthur “Tugga” Dunning as Tugga tried to crawl into the kitchen. Then he turned and saw Harry, who raised the Daisy air rifle and said, “Leave me alone, Daddy, or I’ll shoot you.”
Dunning rushed at the boy, swinging the bloody hammer. Harry fired the air rifle at him (I could hear the ka-chow sound it must have made, even if I had never fired one myself), then dropped it and ran for the bedroom he shared with the now-deceased Tugga. His father had neglected to shut the front door when he came in, and somewhere—“it sounded 1000 miles away,” the janitor had written — neighbors were shouting and trick-or-treating kids were screaming.
Dunning would almost certainly have killed the remaining son as well, if he hadn’t tripped on the overturned “rocker-chair.” He went sprawling, got up, and ran down to his younger sons’ room. Harry was trying to crawl under the bed. His father hauled him out and fetched him a lick on the side of the head that surely would have killed the boy if the father’s hand hadn’t slipped on the bloody handle; instead of splitting Harry’s skull, the hammerhead had only caved in part of it above the right ear.
I didnt pass out but almost. I kept crawling for under the bed and I hardly felt him hit my leg at all but he did and broke it in 4 diferent places.
A man from down the block who had been out canvassing the neighborhood for candy with his daughter came running in at that point. In spite of the slaughter in the living room, the neighbor had the presence of mind to grab the ash shovel out of the tool bucket beside the kitchen woodstove. He slugged Dunning in the back of the head with it while the man was trying to turn the bed over and get at his bleeding, semiconscious son.
Afterwards I went uncontchus like Ellen only I was lucky I woke up. The doctors said they might have to ampantate my leg but in the end they didnt.
No, he had kept the leg and eventually become a janitor at Lisbon High School, known to generations of students as Hoptoad Harry. Would the kids have been kinder if they’d known the origin of the limp? Probably not. Although emotionally delicate and eminently bruisable, teenagers are short on empathy. That comes later in life, if it comes at all.
“October of 1958,” Al said in his harsh dog-bark voice. “Am I supposed to believe that’s a coincidence?”
I remembered what I’d said to the teenage version of Frank Anicetti about the Shirley Jackson story and smiled. “Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke and a coincidence is just a coincidence. All I know is that we’re talking about another watershed moment.”
“And I didn’t find this story in the Enterprise because?”
“It didn’t happen around here. It happened in Derry, upstate. When Harry was well enough to get out of the hospital, he went to live with his uncle and aunt in Haven, about twenty-five miles south of Derry. They adopted him and put him to work on the family farm when it became clear he couldn’t keep up in school.”
“Sounds like Oliver Twist, or something.”
“No, they were good to him. Remember there were no remedial classes in those days, and the phrase ‘mentally challenged’ hadn’t been invented yet—”
“I know,” Al said dryly. “Back then, mentally challenged means you’re either a feeb, a dummy, or just plain addlepated.”
“But he wasn’t then and he isn’t now,” I said. “Not really. I think mostly it was the shock, you know? The trauma. It took him years to recover from that night, and by the time he did, school was behind him.”
“At least until he went back for his GED, and by then he was middle-aged going on old.” Al shook his head. “What a waste.”
“Bullshit,” I said. “A good life is never wasted. Could it have been better? Yes. Can I make that happen? Based on yesterday, maybe I can. But that’s really not the point.”
“Then what is? Because to me this looks like Carolyn Poulin all over again, and that case is already proved. Yes, you can change the past. And no, the world doesn’t just pop like a balloon when you do it. Would you pour me a fresh cup of coffee, Jake? And get yourself one while you’re at it. It’s hot, and you look like you could use one.”
While I was pouring the coffee, I spied some sweet rolls. When I offered him one, he shook his head. “Solid food hurts going down. But if you’re determined to make me swallow calories, there’s a six-pack of Ensure in the fridge. In my opinion it tastes like chilled snot, but I can choke it down.”
When I brought it in one of the wine goblets I’d spied in his cupboard, he laughed hard. “Think that’ll make it taste any better?”
“Maybe. If you pretend it’s pinot noir.”
He drank half of it, and I could see him struggling with his gorge to keep it down. That was a battle he won, but he pushed the goblet away and picked up the coffee mug again. Didn’t drink from it, just wrapped his hands around it, as if trying to take some of its warmth into himself. Watching this, I recalculated the amount of time he might have left.
“So,” he said. “Why is this different?”
If he hadn’t been so sick, he would have seen it for himself. He was a bright guy. “Because Carolyn Poulin was never a very good test case. You didn’t save her life, Al, only her legs. She went on to have a good but completely normal existence on both tracks — the one where Cullum shot her and the one where you stepped in. She never married on either track. There were no kids on either track. It’s like. .” I fumbled. “No offense, Al, but what you did was like a doctor saving an infected appendix. Great for the appendix, but it’s never going to do anything vital even if it’s healthy. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“Yes.” But I thought he looked a little peeved. “Carolyn Poulin looked like the best I could do, buddy. At my age, time is limited even when you’re healthy. I had my eyes on a bigger prize.”
“I’m not criticizing. But the Dunning family makes a better test case, because it’s not just a young girl paralyzed, terrible as something like that must have been for her and her family. We’re talking about four people murdered and a fifth maimed for life. Also, we know him. After he got his GED, I brought him down to the diner for a burger, and when you saw his cap and gown, you paid. Remember that?”
“Yeah. That’s when I took the picture for my Wall.”
“If I can do this — if I can stop his old man from swinging that hammer — do you think that picture will still be there?”
“I don’t know,” Al said. “Maybe not. I might not even remember it was there in the first place.”
That was a little too theoretical for me, and I passed it without comment. “And think about the three other kids — Troy, Ellen, and Tugga. Surely some of them will get married if they live to grow up. And maybe Ellen becomes a famous comedian. Doesn’t he say in there that she was as funny as Lucille Ball?” I leaned forward. “The only thing I want is a better example of what happens when you change a watershed moment. I need that before I go monkeying with something as big as the Kennedy assassination. What do you say, Al?”
“I say that I see your point.” Al struggled to his feet. It was painful to watch him, but when I started to get up, he waved me back. “Nah, stay there. I’ve got something for you. It’s in the other room. I’ll get it.”
It was a tin box. He handed it to me and told me to carry it into the kitchen. He said it would be easier to lay stuff out on the table. When we were seated, he unlocked it with a key he wore around his neck. The first thing he took out was a bulky manila envelope. He opened it and shook out a large and untidy pile of paper money. I plucked one leaf from all that lettuce and looked at it wonderingly. It was a twenty, but instead of Andrew Jackson on the face, I saw Grover Cleveland, who would probably not be on anyone’s top ten list of great American presidents. On the back was a locomotive and a steamship that looked destined for a collision beneath the words FEDERAL RESERVE NOTE .
“This looks like Monopoly money.”
“It’s not. And there’s not as much there as it probably looks like, because there are no bills bigger than a twenty. These days, when a fill-up can run you thirty, thirty-five dollars, a fifty raises no eyebrows even at a convenience store. Back then it’s different, and raised eyebrows you don’t need.”
“This is your gambling dough?”
“Some. It’s mostly my savings. I worked as a cook between ’58 and ’62, same as here, and a man on his own can save a lot, especially if he don’t run with expensive women. Which I didn’t. Or cheap ones, for that matter. I stayed on friendly terms with everybody and got close to nobody. I advise you to do the same. In Derry, and in Dallas, if you go there.” He stirred the money with one thin finger. “There’s a little over nine grand, best I can remember. It buys what sixty would today.”
I stared at the cash. “Money comes back. It stays, no matter how many times you use the rabbit-hole.” We’d been over this point, but I was still trying to get it through my head.
“Yeah, although it’s still back there, too — complete reset, remember?”
“Isn’t that a paradox?”
He looked at me, haggard, patience wearing thin. “I don’t know. Asking questions that don’t have answers is a waste of time, and I don’t have much.”
“Sorry, sorry. What else have you got in there?”
“Not much. But the beauty of it is that you don’t need much. It was a very different time, Jake. You can read about it in the history books, but you can’t really understand it until you’ve lived there for awhile.” He passed me a Social Security card. The number was 005-52-0223. The name was George T. Amberson. Al took a pen out of the box and handed it to me. “Sign it.”
I took the pen, which was a promotional giveaway. Written on the barrel was TRUST YOUR CAR TO THE MAN WHO WEARS THE STAR TEXACO . Feeling a little like Daniel Webster making his pact with the devil, I signed the card. When I tried to give it back to him, he shook his head.
The next item was George T. Amberson’s Maine driver’s license, which stated I was six feet five, blue eyes, brown hair, weight one-ninety. I had been born on April 22, 1923, and lived at 19 Bluebird Lane in Sabattus, which happened to be my 2011 address.
“Six-five about right?” Al asked. “I had to guess.”
“Close enough.” I signed the driver’s license, which was your basic piece of cardboard. Color: Bureaucratic Beige. “No photo?”
“State of Maine’s years away on that, buddy. The other forty-eight, too.”
“Hawaii won’t be a state until next year.”
“Oh.” I felt a little out of breath, as if someone had just punched me in the gut. “So. . you get stopped for speeding, and the cop just assumes you are who this card claims you are?”
“Why not? If you say something about a terrorist attack in 1958, people are gonna think you’re talking about teenagers tipping cows. Sign these, too.”
He handed me a Hertz Courtesy Card, a Cities Service gas card, a Diners Club card, and an American Express card. The Amex was celluloid, the Diners Club cardboard. George Amberson’s name was on them. Typed, not printed.
“You can get a genuine plastic Amex card next year, if you want.”
I smiled. “No checkbook?”
“I coulda got you one, but what good would it do you? Any paperwork I filled out on George Amberson’s behalf would be lost in the next reset. Also any cash I put into the account.”
“Oh.” I felt like a dummy. “Right.”
“Don’t get down on yourself, all this is still new to you. You’ll want to start an account, though. I’d suggest no more than a thousand. Keep most of the dough in cash, and where you can grab it.”
“In case I have to come back in a hurry.”
“Right. And the credit cards are just identity-backers. The actual accounts I opened to get them are going to be wiped out when you go back through. They might come in handy, though — you can never tell.”
“Does George get his mail at Nineteen Bluebird Lane?”
“In 1958, Bluebird Lane’s just an address on a Sabattus plat map, buddy. The development where you live hasn’t been built yet. If anybody asks you about that, just say it’s a business thing. They’ll buy it. Business is like a god in ’58—everybody worships it but nobody understands it. Here.”
He tossed me a gorgeous man’s wallet. I gaped at it. “Is this ostrich ?”
“I wanted you to look prosperous,” Al said. “Find some pictures to put in it along with your identification. I got you some other odds and ends, too. More ballpoint pens, one a fad item with a combination letter-opener and ruler on the end. A Scripto mechanical pencil. A pocket protector. In ’58 they’re considered necessary, not nerdy. A Bulova watch on a Speidel chrome expansion band — all the cool cats will dig that one, daddy. You can sort the rest out for yourself.” He coughed long and hard, wincing. When he stopped, sweat was standing out on his face in large drops.
“Al, when did you put all this together?”
“When I realized I wasn’t going to make it into 1963, I left Texas and came home. I already had you in mind. Divorced, no children, smart, best of all, young. Oh, here, almost forgot. This is the seed everything else grew from. Got the name off a gravestone in the St. Cyril’s boneyard and just wrote an application letter to the Maine Secretary of State.”
He handed me my birth certificate. I ran my fingers over the embossed franking. It had a silky official feel.
When I looked up, I saw he’d put another sheet of paper on the table. It was headed SPORTS 1958–1963. “Don’t lose it. Not only because it’s your meal ticket, but because you’d have a lot of questions to answer if it fell into the wrong hands. Especially when the picks start to prove out.”
I started to put everything back into the box, and he shook his head. “I’ve got a Lord Buxton briefcase for you in my closet, all nicely battered around the edges.”
“I don’t need it — I’ve got my backpack. It’s in the trunk of my car.”
He looked amused. “Where you’re going, nobody wears backpacks except Boy Scouts, and they only wear them when they’re going on hikes and Camporees. You’ve got a lot to learn, buddy, but if you step careful and don’t take chances, you’ll get there.”
I realized I was really going to do this, and it was going to happen right away, with almost no preparation. I felt like a visitor to the London docks of the seventeenth century who suddenly becomes aware he’s about to be shanghaied.
“But what do I do?” This came out in a near bleat.
He raised his eyebrows — bushy and now as white as the thinning hair on his head. “You save the Dunning family. Isn’t that what we’ve been talking about?”
“I don’t mean that. What do I do when people ask me how I make my living ? What do I say?”
“Your rich uncle died, remember? Tell them you’re piecing your windfall inheritance out a little at a time, making it last long enough for you to write a book. Isn’t there a frustrated writer inside every English teacher? Or am I wrong about that?”
Actually, he wasn’t.
He sat looking at me — haggard, far too thin, but not without sympathy. Perhaps even pity. At last he said, very softly, “It’s big, isn’t it?”
“It is,” I said. “And Al. . man. . I’m just a little guy.”
“You could say the same of Oswald. A pipsqueak who shot from ambush. And according to Harry Dunning’s theme, his father’s just a mean drunk with a hammer.”
“He’s not even that anymore. He died of acute stomach poisoning in Shawshank State Prison. Harry said it was probably bad squeeze. That’s—”
“I know what squeeze is. I saw plenty when I was stationed in the Philippines. Even drank some, to my sorrow. But he’s not dead where you’re going. Oswald, either.”
“Al. . I know you’re sick, and I know you’re in pain. But can you come down to the diner with me? I. .” For the first and last time, I used his habitual form of address. “Buddy, I don’t want to start this alone. I’m scared.”
“Wouldn’t miss it.” He hooked a hand under his armpit and stood up with a grimace that rolled his lips back to the gumlines. “You get the briefcase. I’ll get dressed.”
It was quarter to eight when Al unlocked the door of the silver trailer that the Famous Fatburger called home. The glimmering chrome fixtures behind the counter looked ghostly. The stools seemed to whisper no one will sit on us again. The big old-fashioned sugar shakers seemed to whisper back no one will pour from us again — the party’s over.
“Make way for L.L. Bean,” I said.
“That’s right,” Al said. “The fucking march of progress.”
He was out of breath, panting, but didn’t pause to rest. He led me behind the counter and to the pantry door. I followed, switching the briefcase with my new life inside it from one hand to the other. It was the old-fashioned kind, with buckles. If I’d carried it into my homeroom at LHS, most of the kids would have laughed. A few others — those with an emerging sense of style — might have applauded its retro funk.
Al opened the door on the smells of vegetables, spices, coffee. He once more reached past my shoulder to turn on the light. I gazed at the gray linoleum floor the way a man might stare at a pool that could well be filled with hungry sharks, and when Al tapped me on the shoulder, I jumped.
“Sorry,” he said, “but you ought to take this.” He was holding out a fifty-cent piece. Half a rock. “The Yellow Card Man, remember him?”
“Sure I do.” Actually I’d forgotten all about him. My heart was beating hard enough to make my eyeballs feel like they were pulsing in their sockets. My tongue tasted like an old piece of carpet, and when he handed me the coin, I almost dropped it.
He gave me a final critical look. “The jeans are okay for now, but you ought to stop at Mason’s Menswear on upper Main Street and get some slacks before you head north. Pendletons or khaki twill is fine for everyday. Ban-Lon for dress.”
“Just ask, they’ll know. You’ll also need to get some dress shirts. Eventually a suit. Also some ties and a tie clip. Buy yourself a hat, too. Not a baseball cap, a nice summer straw.”
There were tears leaking from the corners of his eyes. This frightened me more thoroughly than anything he’d said.
“Al? What’s wrong?”
“I’m just scared, same as you are. No need for an emotional parting scene, though. If you’re coming back, you’ll be here in two minutes no matter how long you stay in ’58. Just time enough for me to start the coffeemaker. If it works out, we’ll have a nice cup together, and you can tell me all about it.”
If. What a big word.
“You could say a prayer, too. There’d be time for that, wouldn’t there?”
“Sure. I’ll be praying that it goes nice and smooth. Don’t get so dazed by where you are that you forget you’re dealing with a dangerous man. More dangerous than Oswald, maybe.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“Okay. Keep your mouth shut as much as you can until you pick up the lingo and the feel of the place. Go slow. Don’t make waves.”
I tried to smile, but I’m not sure I made it. The briefcase felt very heavy, as if it were filled with rocks instead of money and bogus ID. I thought I might faint. And yet, God help me, part of me still wanted to go. Couldn’t wait to go. I wanted to see the USA in my Chevrolet; America was asking me to call.
Al held out his thin and trembling hand. “Good luck, Jake. God bless.”
“George, you mean.”
“George, right. Now get going. As they say back then, it’s time for you to split the scene.”
I turned and walked slowly into the pantry, moving like a man trying to locate the top of a staircase with the lights out.
On my third step, I found it.