BOB, OF BOB’S TREES, stamped his feet to warm himself. The Wisconsin cold froze his bones this year because business sucked.
Most years, Bob sold trees, bundled trees, fresh-cut their butt ends, and carted them to people’s cars, hardly aware of the weather. After twelve hours on his feet, he gorged himself on the calorie-laden supper that Peg kept on simmer for him, then lapsed into a coma till dawn. Sometimes he fell into bed on arrival, leaving Peg to simmer for the both of them. From Thanksgiving to Christmas Bob could lose twenty pounds.
Most years, there would be a few days with gaps between customers, welcome respite. Then he would sit in his little office shack and listen to the carols on the radio.
But this year, trade slumped so that he stood in the elements and waved to motorists to remind them they needed a tree for Yule. This cajolery drew in every hundredth car, so it repaid the vigil in the bitter cold.
Here came one now—a black Lexus SUV that turned left into the mall parking lot, then continued around to the square of pavement occupied by Bob’s Trees each December for the past twenty years. The driver backed into a space against Bob’s curb blocks—a good sign. Backer-inners meant business. They came to buy a tree and would not go home without one.
The car sat idling while Bob shifted his weight from one foot to the other. At last the motor died and the doors swung open. Out stepped a middle-aged woman, a lanky teen boy, and a slender girl who came up to the boy’s shoulder. Their black face coverings prompted him to remember the plague. He slipped his Packers-themed COVID mask in place.
“Merry Christmas!” he called. “Welcome to Bob’s Trees.”
The woman, cloaked in a long cashmere coat over Italian leather boots, gave a curt nod. Her green eyes skipped his face to scan the trees ranged on his lot. “Are these the tallest you have?”
That voice. Bob peered at the patch of face above her mask but nobody came to mind. “How big a tree were you looking for, Ma’am?”
“The tallest you have.”
“That would be these in the corner.” He strode across the lot. The woman followed. The boy stumbled along behind, thumbs on his smart phone, while the girl hugged herself and chattered her teeth.
Bob plunged a hand into the wall of greenery and pulled out a nine-foot Norway spruce.
The woman’s brows beetled. “I don’t know. I was hoping for something taller.” She leaned back to view its top. “What do you think, Rory?” She nudged her son’s calf with the toe of her boot. “Will it stand out in the great room?”
The boy jerked at the touch of her toe, rolled his eyes, dived back into his phone. She put her hands on her hips, head forward, and glowered.
“Maggie!” It came to him. “You’re Maggie Flensgaard, aren’t you?”
She snapped her head toward Bob, green eyes round with surprise. “I am Margaret Prescott.” She sniffed. “I haven’t been Maggie Flensgaard for . . . ever so long. And you”—her eyes flashed with recognition—“Bobby! Bobby Achtemeier. Is it really you?”
“Rory, look!” The girl’s eyes glowed with interest. “It’s Mom’s old boyfriend.”
The boy looked up from his phone.
“Shush, you. Mister Achtmeier happens to be an old school chum. From way back, isn’t that right, Bobby?”
“Not all that long ago, Mags. But things are way different now, I guess.” Your tangled brown hair has become smooth and chestnut, with hints of auburn and whispers of silver. What was wild is now controlled, and controlling.
The girl looked up at Bob. “Hi, I’m Veronica. You can call me Ronnie. All my friends do.” Her brown eyes sparkled above the black virus mask.
She must be thirteen. Going on twenty. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Ronnie punched Rory in the arm. “Dolt! Show some respect to your elders.” Whoops, back to thirteen.
Rory raised his hand to slug her back.
“Stop it, you two.” Maggie sighed. “What’s it been, Bob? Twenty years?”
He snorted. “Good deal more than that, my dear. I won’t say how long. Little pitchers have big ears.”
“They know I had them late in life,” she muttered. “They may not know exactly how late.” Her eyes rested on him, took him in. “Look at you. I thought you’d wind up a tycoon.”
He spread his arms to span the Bob’s Trees empire. “Exhibit A.”
She had the grace to look embarrassed. “Well, yes. Touché.”
He saw himself reflected in her eyes: A thickset old guy doing roustabout work out in the weather. I won’t tell her about our winters in Florida.
“I kind of lost track of you after we . . . after high school, Maggie. What became of you?”
She gave him a weird sideways look.
“No, I didn’t mean it that way. You know. What have you been doing with yourself all these years—besides raising these two delightful children, I mean?”
Veronica giggled. Rory pinched her.
Margaret Prescott waved her hand self-consciously, the very gesture Maggie Flensgaard would have used. “Just the usual. Went to college. Worked in New York for a while. Then I came back home and married a guy that owns a lumber yard.”
Bob smiled. “Guess you got into the finished end of the tree business. Me, I’m closer to the raw product.”
“But you can’t sell Christmas trees all year. You must do something else.” She looked desperate for him to explain this was only a hobby.
He shuffled his feet. “Oh, Peg and me got a few rental units up in Door County. Keeps us busy in the summertime, you know.”
“Peg. You married Peggy Schneidermann?”
He put a finger on his nose. “You’re good. First guess.”
“I didn’t even know you two were an item. What a lovely girl.”
“We kept it kind of low-key.” Of course she hadn’t known. Why would she take an interest?
“And how is she?”
“Peg? Oh, she’s fine. Keeps the home fires burning.” Warming a stew that I’ll be grateful for tonight and will eat before I fall asleep, so help me God.
Rory and Ronnie now giggled like toddlers over Rory’s smart phone. What were kids all about these days, anyhow? Walter would not act that way. Of course, he was ten years beyond them, well-launched in life as a freelance accountant.
Margaret sighed: that long sigh that sounds like the satisfaction of shared memories but signals it’s time to wrap things up.
Bob shook the Norway spruce, spread its lower branches with his free hand. “It’s taller’n you might think.”
Margaret reached a hand out, touched the upright needles. “What do you think, kids? Good enough?” They both nodded. “Okay, I guess we’ll take it. How much?”
“All of these here are a hundred and fifty.”
“Really? That much?” Her question dangled in the frosty air, a gambit best declined.
Maggie Flensgaard might have got it for seventy-five. But Margaret Prescott will need to fork over a fistful of those finished lumber simoleons.
Bob smiled. “You wanted the tallest,” he said with a shrug of apology.
“Well, yes. I did.” She nodded defeat.
“Let me square off the end for you.”
“No, leave it. Don will want to cut it fresh himself. Just help us get it in the car.”
He led her into the office shack, scanned a QRC from her phone, printed a receipt for the tree plus tax. Then he helped Rory shoehorn the spruce into the back of the Lexus. They tied the tailgate down gently over the three feet of crown that protruded out the back.
“Keep in touch,” he said.
With a casual nod, Margaret drove off.
He visualized a svelte shape under her tapered woolen coat, considered the upscale tilt of her nose, the sheen and understated elegance of her hair. He gave thought to the half-formed Rory and Veronica.
He remembered Peg, waiting for him at home. His mind’s eye saw her solid form limp over to the kitchen stove, turn on a burner. She ought to get that knee replaced. She kept a dinner warm for him every night, whether he ate it or not.
He smiled to think of Walter, their stolid son, with his year-in, year-out accounting practice.
Would Bob and Peg manage their usual Florida rental, this COVID winter?
Sure we will. We’ll figure it out somehow.And then the vaccines will take hold, the virus will go away, and by June all Door County businesses and lodgings will be having a banner tourist season.
SHE SQUANDERED HERSELF IN PROTEST and fell to the ground, undone.
“Damn!” Roger set the inner cover, sticky side up, on the grass. He flicked her sting from his wrist with his steel hive tool. You’ve got to scrape them out quick. One time his whole hand had swollen hard and red like a red lobster claw for half a week, from a sting left too long.
He felt bad for this little darling, who had been squeezed as he laid the cover on the top box, whose alarmed response had spelled her doom. Workers are sacrificial creatures, not built to survive long. Any sting is a suicide mission.
“Damned bees,” Roger grumbled. “Don’t know why I put up with them.”
Well, there’s one reason, staring me in the face. Melvina Foster stood by her clothesline, there across the fence, sour as a crabapple. She grimaced as if in pain. A bit of a wasp herself.
He gave back her stare, then turned away sublimely indifferent, picked up the inner cover, and placed it back on hive number six.
He was dead sure that Melvina had authored the anti-bee ordinance proposed last week in the town council. “Bitter, vindictive old bitch,” he muttered under his breath.
“You! Roger!” An eldritch screech. Did the old bat have super-hearing, too?
He approached the fence with all the swagger he could muster, which he had to admit was considerable. His smooth, untroubled stride pleased him no end.
She pointed at a lump of wood in his yard. “I see you steer a wide berth around that old stump. I should think you’d have sense enough to remove it.”
“Tain’t a stump, it’s a log. I’ll move it when I’m good and ready. Was there something else you wanted, Miz Foster?”
She stood sideways, laundry basket under one arm. She shifted to stand a bit taller, winced as she did so. Maybe she was in actual pain.
He pursed his lips. “You all right, Melvina?”
“I was just wondering how many more of those death traps you plan to install.”
“You mean my apiary?” He scrunched up his face and scratched his chin. “Well, let’s see, I’ve got plenty of fresh cedar boards for new boxes. I do enjoy the woodworking. Keeps me out of mischief all winter, you know? Who knows how many new honey factories I’ll be ready to deploy next spring.”
Her mouth set in a firm line. “You’re baiting me, Roger Fjelstad. I won’t rise to the bait. But consider yourself warned. Some day your bees will attack a small child or somebody with an allergy and put them in the hospital. Or worse.” She clucked with concern for her purely imaginary sting victim. “How will you feel then, Mister Honeycomb?”
“These are the gentlest little Italian honey bees in the world, Ma’am. Don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”
“That’s what you always say.”
“Because it’s always true. Listen, Melvina Foster, you’ve got no idea what honeybees are about, how they work, or how to coexist with them. Why don’t you come over some time? I’ll introduce you.”
He spotted her as soon as she turned the corner. Since the fence between their backyards had neither gate nor stile, she had to scuttle around the block. Roger couldn’t help but notice she looked more off-kilter than usual.
When she turned up his front walk, he rattled his newspaper. “And how are you today, Melvina?” He leaned back in his wicker chair and looked down his nose at her.
“I’m calling your bluff,” said Melvina Foster. “I’ve come to meet your bees. Bet you thought I wouldn’t.”
He laid down his paper. “Ain’t you scared you’ll get mobbed to death by a swarm of African killer bees?”
She threw him a spiteful look. “You said yours were from Italy.”
He sighed and stood. “Benvenuto alla nostra domee-chee-lay.” He spread an arm in welcome.
Limping through the house en route to the backyard, Melvina said, “This looks just like it did when Doris was still with us.”
Roger stopped and stared at her. “Yeah?”
“I mean, you haven’t changed one thing.”
“Maybe I like the way she had it.”
“Except you’ve let it go to seed.”
“There, you see? I have changed things. Added my own special touch.” He gave her a grin that he hoped was savage.
In the backyard, she wouldn’t go near the hives.
“Come on, what’s to be afraid of?” Roger asked, standing smack dab in the flight path of a hundred foragers. “They’re just bees.”
“I can see them fine from over here.”
He lifted a hive lid, removed the inner cover, pulled a frame partway out.
She raised a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “Don’t you have one of those veils? Don’t I see you over here sometimes in a regular beekeeper’s outfit?”
“Veils are for sissies.”
She made a wry face.
He pinched a fat drone between thumb and forefinger. “Yes, I do have protective gear. I admit I’m a sissy sometimes. Mainly when I do something invasive, like collecting honey or giving mite treatments. The girls can get a little tetchy.” He carried the drone over to where Melvina stood.
As he came near, she poised for flight, like a sprinter on the starting blocks.
“Relax, he can’t hurt you. No stinger. This one’s a drone.” He opened his hand to let the bee crawl around on his palm. “Go ahead, you can pet him. See how fuzzy he is?”
Eyes open in wonder, she leaned over his hand, within a foot of the confused drone.
“You might spare him some sympathy. He’s an orphan.”
Her jaw dropped in disbelief. “An orphan? You’re pulling my leg.”
“I would never pull your leg, Melvina.” Heaven forfend. “All drones are fatherless. They grow from unfertilized eggs.”
“Is that a fact.”
He flicked his hand and the drone flew off toward the hive.
She looked uncertain. “I guess I could stand closer. If you’re sure I won’t get stung.”
He gave her a frankly evaluative stare. “There are no guarantees in life, Melvina.” He led her back toward the hives.
Halfway there, she stopped and looked down. “Just a rotten log, didn’t you say?”
She gave it a sharp kick. Dozens of insects flew out from underneath.
“Ow! Help! Oh, help!”
“Run, Melvina!” He sprinted away from her but still felt a couple of nasty stings. “Come on, quick!”
Waving her hands in panic, she flung herself crabwise into the screened back porch as he held the door open for her.
Roger slammed the door shut behind her. He swept his hands around her face and shoulders as she swatted at her bare legs. He grabbed a magazine, rolled it up, and chased down a couple of mad aggressors.
“Sit down,” he said. “How many times you get stung?”
“Hundreds!” She lowered herself onto a battered hassock.
He frowned. “No. Not hundreds. Breathe slowly. Can you do that?” Pink blotches had blossomed in several places on her face and neck.
He kept an epi-pen in case one of his bees should ever sting someone with a real allergy. He wondered if he should get it now.
She took a deep breath, in and out. “It hurts, you . . . degenerate!”
“Nobody said it didn’t. Couple of ’em got me, too—I just run faster than you. Listen, can you breathe okay?”
“Of course I can breathe.”
“I mean, your airway isn’t closing up, is it?”
She opened her eyes wide. “Airway? Am I in danger?”
“That’s what I’m asking. Do I need to get the epi-pen?”
She concentrated on her breath. “No. I just hurt all over. My heart is fluttering a bit.”
“You maybe took thirty or forty stings. Once they start in on you, all you can do is run. Each one of those little bastards can sting you over and over again.”
“Well, you and your damned bees owe me a big apology.”
He bridled. “That’s defamation. Wasn’t my bees. Them were yellowjackets that stung you. Not bees. That’s why there’s no stingers to remove from your hide.”
“German wasps. Ground dwellers. They’ll attack anything, anywhere, any time. You uncovered their nest. Now you see why I haven’t moved that log.”
She bolted up from her hassock. “I see that you’re a menace, is what I see! Bees, wasps, whatever, they’re a danger to the neighborhood. We’ll put a stop to it. Good day, Mister Mayhem.”
She marched out of the house, down the street, around the corner.
From his front porch he watched her go. She steamed down the sidewalk straight up-and-down, nothing off-kilter now. Propelled by righteous indignation.
His bees were threatened, through no fault of their own, by a vindictive bill on the council’s agenda for next week. It was sponsored by Matt Grosswisch, one of the five council members. But Matt never had an original thought in his life. Melvina had put him up to it.
She had not always been this way. Roger remembered when Melvina had been a vivacious, even daring, young woman. Sociable, too. It was her husband, Jack, who had been the town’s chief pain-in-the-ass in those days. Self-important, officious, hidebound, and narrow-minded—he had it all.
When Jack died of a heart attack at age 50, Melvina seemed to have been passed the torch of self-righteousness. She lost her amiable qualities, traded them in for the responsibility of making others’ lives miserable at every turn.
He sighed and went inside.
As he stood in the center of the living room, looking all about him, he had to admit that Melvina was right. He had let it become shabby. It would not have gone downhill like this when Doris was here. She, and she alone, had made this a home to live in.
Oh, God, how he missed her.
Well, at least he had his little Italian darlings. Until next week.
Roger stood on Melvina’s front stoop. He rang the bell. Having heard no sound of a chime inside the house—and his hearing was extraordinarily good for a man his age—he banged on the screen door. He knocked again, scuffing his knuckles in the attempt. He began to fear that she had come home, gone inside, suffered a delayed allergic reaction, and died. Maybe I should have brought the epi-pen.
The door swung open. There stood Melvina. Frowning, as best she could with her nose and lips distorted and swollen.
He presented a pink bottle with a flourish and burst into song: “You’re gonna need an ocean . . . dum, da-dum, da-dum . . . of calamine lotion—”
“Have you gone crazy?” She bunched up a fist and shook it in his face, but he did not flinch.
“Take it, Melvina. Right now it only hurts, but in a day or two those stings’ll itch like crazy. You’ll need this. Plus all the Benadryl you can tolerate.”
She uncurled her fist and took the bottle.
With his other hand, Roger presented his second gift—a heavy jar of golden liquid. “Here. This comes from the bees. They want you to know there are no hard feelings.”
She snorted. “That’s big of them. Seems to me I’m the one who should harbor a grudge.”
“God dammit, woman! Are you going to go around that way all your life?”
Her mouth fell. “All what way?”
“Chip on your shoulder.” He stood, holding the jar of honey, in what amounted to a posture of pure supplication.
She let out a sigh. “Well. To tell you the truth. It seems I may owe your bees a little gratitude after all.”
He resisted the urge to ask.
She looked almost shy, like a school girl. “Ever since, I would swear, almost since the moment of the attack, my knees have been free of pain. First time in years. I’m at a loss to understand it.”
“Funny you should say that, Melvina. Exact same thing happened to my knees when those yellowjackets stung me last month. Instant pain relief. And long-lasting.”
She smiled, nodded. “That’s good to know.”
“It’s such a benefit,” Roger said, “I’m ashamed to admit it was those damned yellowjackets done it, not my bees.”
“Whatever,” she said. Her hand closed over his offering of honey.
“The best hygiene for beginning writers or intermediate writers is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you can write one short story a week—it doesn’t matter what the quality is to start, but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of the year you have 52 short stories, and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or at the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful.”
—Ray Bradbury, from “Telling the Truth,” the keynote address of The Sixth Annual Writer’s Symposium by the Sea, sponsored by Point Loma Nazarene University, 2001
What a challenge! Your New Favorite Writer is champing, as they say, at the bit. For the next year, I shall endeavor to write one new story each week. Why? Consult George Mallory (R.I.P.) on the joys of mountaineering.
Here’s how you can help this project: The stories I will post here are first drafts. As Bradbury implies, they may not all be perfect. The one quality they will all share is that they have been written down.
So please read them, and let me know what you think. Praise them, pan them, suggest alternative plots or endings, criticize the style. This is a learning exercise for me, Dear Reader—and I hope for you as well. To help you with time management, I have begun posting read times at the head of each blog post. If you don’t have time now, come back for it later when you do have time.
Engage me in dialog by posting a comment below, by posting a comment on my Facebook page, or by emailing me: email@example.com.
Today’s story starts right below my picture. Happy reading!
The bozo who had knocked me sideways was halfway down the grassy embankment, galloping through the Tuesday night crowd at the Washington Park Velodrome.
Right behind him ran my 20-year-old granddaughter. Her face as she zipped by said she was up to her neck in trouble.
Trouble? I knew that girl. Naught but mortal danger would fling her pell-mell across people’s blankets, right through picnics and cuddle sessions, and across the floodlit track, heedless of bike racers sprinting at sixty miles per hour.
My granddaughter? Impossible. At age twenty myself in July 1964, I did sports for KENO-FM, always after the human angle, anything beyond times and speeds. Too busy for girlfriends, not to mention marriage.
How could I have a granddaughter my own age?
No time to think. She chased that nasty-looking leather-clad thug. My inner grandpa could not help it: I plummeted down the bank after them, disrupting carefree cycling fans for the third time in ten seconds.
“SPECTATORS OFF THE TRACK!” bellowed the P.A. announcer as I crossed the banked oval in the paths of two Schwinn Paramounts, which swerved perilously to miss me. On the green infield, a cop gave chase. I jinked to the right behind the red Kenosha Scouts Rescue Squad truck, where my granddaughter had gone, right behind the hoodlum, just seconds before.
Plunged into the truck’s half-shadow, I stopped cold. Where had they gone?
Pinpoint sparkles, shimmering in mid-air, formed a bead curtain of the beatnik variety. I dove through it.
Crowd noise vanished. Dusk became night—not gradually, as is customary, but all at once. I lay on damp grass, knees and hips aching. Had I hurt myself?
The joints screeched as I pushed off the grass to stand up. My hands looked funny, too, even in the dark. The floodlights atop their tall poles had gone out. No crowd sat on the embankment. The Boy Scout rescue truck, all the cyclists, bikes, and spare wheels, all the coaches and helpers were gone from the infield, too.
Tuesday night had vanished.
I stood dizzy and gasping. What’s wrong with me? I felt the urge to punch something. I clenched my fists but stopped when my stiff knuckles complained. Just then a bright beam struck my eyes.
“Gramps!” I’d know that sweet voice anywhere. “Is that you? What are you doing here?”
I splayed my hands in front of my face. In stark silhoutte, the fingers looked bumpy and twisted.
The dazzling light went away. I squinted towards the vector of her voice.
She called, “It’s me, Gramps. Kaitlyn. I’m over here.”
Kaitlyn? What kind of name was that?
I spotted her near the picnic shelter, fifty feet away. She waved her light above her head. I staggered towatds her. Why can’t I walk right?
“What are you doing here?” I asked. “You’re not supposed to be, that is . . . .” What do you say to someone who can’t exist, yet whom you love like life itself? Yet even her name eludes you? Mister Hot-shot Radio Guy was fresh out of glib.
She took my hand. Her other hand touched my shoulder. “Are you all right, old-timer?”
“Old-timer? Who, me? Well . . . I don’t know.”
“Oh!” she cried, pure concern on her winsome face. “How can I help?”
“Look. I need answers. Like, what happened to that hood you chased? If you ask me, he’s not your type.”
“You’re confused. He wasn’t wearing a hoodie.”
Hoodie? “Not wearing a hood!” I snapped. “He is a hood. Come on, don’t play dumb. Let me in on the gag.”
“There’s no gag, Gramps. Did you see where he went?”
I sighed. “No.”
“And why are you here all by yourself on a Monday night?”
“Monday? It’s Tuesday.” I saw she didn’t believe me. “At least, it started out Tuesday.” She looked askance. “And why did you chase that hooligan?”
“Hood, slimeball, thug—”
“Just protecting and serving, Gramps.”
The murk in my mind turned muddy. “What are you talking about, girl?”
“Didn’t Mom tell you about my new job?” She held up a slim rectangle of metal and glass. Tiny colored lights glowed on its face. She tapped it with her finger, and a shiny gold shield appeared on a field of white. “Kaitlyn Caruso,” she announced, “Special Agent, Temporal Fugitive Warrants Division.”
That dumbfounded me.
She tried to ease my befuddlement. “Think of me as a time ranger. A skip tracer on the Space-Time Continuum. My job is to nab felons who abscond from the twenty-first century.”
Twenty-first, did she say? “But, what happened to—”
“Guys like Jared Quickshift, for example. That creep you saw me pursuing. I had just collared him in 1964, but he slipped away and jumped back to now. He should be around here somewhere.” She swiveled her head, on the alert.
“Jared, Gramps. Although come to think of it, Jason applies. He’s on a quest for the Golden Fleece.”
“I knew it. What’s his game?”
“The warrant says intellectual property theft.”
I waggled my brow. “Isn’t that like trademark infringement? He looked like a more violent type.”
“He’s dangerous all right. That’s why I go armed.” She pointed to a holster on her hip.
She winked. “He can’t have gotten far, though. Stand back.”
Two doors stood side-by-side in the pavilion’s back wall. She stationed herself smack dab between them, about ten feet off, and drew her weapon. “Police, Jared! We know you’re in there. Come out with your hands up, or we’re coming in.” She leveled her weapon.
What did she mean, “we”? I hoped she would not tap me as a reinforcement. I felt weak and vulnerable.
After a tense silence, the door marked WOMEN banged open. The creep in the leather jacket burst out. He sprang sideways.
Kaitlyn twisted, her weapon on the criminal. “Halt!”
He didn’t halt.
A Pop!, like champagne being uncorked. Jason Nogoodnik sprawled on the concrete floor of the pavilion. He howled and wiggled in uncoordinated spasms.
Kaitlyn leapt on him, handcuffed him, looked up at me, and smiled.
I approached with caution. “Is he dead?”
She laughed. “Naw, he just wishes he were. Look here.” She whipped out her steel-and-glass rectangle and tapped one of the lighted squares. A bright beam leapt out from the tip of the thing. She aimed it at the crook’s head.
“Pretty good shot,” she said, matter-of-factly. “I had to find an unprotected area.” She pulled two small darts from the back of his neck. “These might have just bounced off his leather jacket.”
“What kind of a gun is that?”
“Called a taser. Less-than-lethal takedown option.”
The man lolled helpless on the floor of the park shelter. I guess it took him down, all right.
Kaitlyn delved in his leathery pocket and drew out a black metal tube half a foot long, with a bulge at one end. “Here’s what it’s all about, Gramps.” She twisted the thing and light sprang forth. A further twist focused the beam to a spot on Jared’s face. “It’s a Mini-Maglite. He hoped to smuggle this into 1964, for reverse engineering by pirates. He stood to make a bundle.”
“I’ve never seen a flashlight like that.”
“No? They’ve been around since 1984. Mom always says you’re not very observant.”
“1984? How can that be?”
“I don’t know, Gramps. Look, here’s the point. What if this creep had pre-introduced this invention twenty years before its time? Think how that could twist up Space-Time. It’s lucky I managed to chase him back to now.”
I shook my head to try to clear the cobwebs. “I don’t understand.”
“Suppose some ’sixties car mechanic makes a quick repair out on I-94 on a snowy night because he’s got a flashlight small enough to hold in his mouth while he tapes two wires together. Otherwise he would have had to tow it in, the customer might have been late for his sales call the next morning, and—”
“It might have changed the course of events.”
“Bingo.” She nodded emphatically. “But we’ve got Jared and the Maglite, right back here in 2021, where they belong. So, no harm done.”
Suddenly, it all came clear to me.
Well, no. It was half clear to me.
I held up my hands in a gesture of supplication. “Let me just get one thing straight. You followed this bozo from 2021 to 1964 to apprehend him?”
“And now you’ve brought him back to 2021.”
She nodded. “So?”
“So, how do you do that?”
“Do what, Gramps?”
“Travel from one time to another.”
She snorted and jerked her head towards her prisoner, who now sat upright. “Guys like him figured it out before we did. The crooks are always a step ahead of the law, you know.”
“It was ever thus. But do go on.”
“Who knows how much damage they did to the future—that is, the present—before we caught on? We’ll never have any idea. However, we now know there are special places where time-holes open up for brief periods. You can just step through from one time to another.”
“Velodromes, to be precise.”
“Bike tracks. Like Washington Bowl.”
She smiled as she hoisted the now-docile Jared to his feet. “But only on Tuesday nights in the summer.”
“Something about a certain mass of chromium-molybdenum alloy—such as custom racing bike frames—orbiting a given spot at high speed. Sorry, I’m no scientist.”
“Ahh.” Neither was I a scientist, yet who can resist chromium-molybdenum alloys?
“So I left 2021 six days ago—last Tuesday night. I tracked Jared down right away, got the drop on him, and stashed him in a safe house off Sheridan Road until Tuesday night. As we crossed Washington Road on our way to the velodrome, he got away from me in the crowd, ran across the track, and jumped back into 2021. With me right on his tail, naturally.”
“All in a day’s work. What knocked me sideways was finding you here in the middle of the chase. You still haven’t told me what brought you here on this particular night.”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“If you don’t want to say, that’s all right. But my prowl car’s just over on Eighteenth Avenue, where I left it six days ago. Let me drive you home so you can get some rest.”
“Nothing doing, you young whippersnapper.”
“Gramps, what’s the matter with you?”
“I’m fifty-seven years too old, that’s what!”
She made a face as if I spoke gibberish.
“Listen,” I explained. “I started this night on Tuesday, July 21, 1964, but somehow ended up here, in the Buck Rogers era. It’s aged me some.” I held up gnarled, shaky hands.
“Who’s Buck Rogers?”
“Look him up in your Funk and Wagnall’s. The point is, to get home I’ve got to go through that curtain thingy backwards.”
Jason the Hoodlum spoke up. “He’s right, Madame Copper. You gotta send him back to the Sixties. Me too.” He gave a massive heave, to wrest himself out of her grip. She was too strong, too fast, too smart. Put him in a painful hold and knelt him back on the ground again. That’s my girl.
“Shut up, you.” She turned to me. “Gramps, what you say is impossible. No one can go forward in time, to the future. It doesn’t work that way.”
“How can you say that? You and Jason just did it.”
“No, we didn’t. We used something called Nerdleman’s Law to go from the present to the past. Then we used Axenberg’s Corollary to Nerdleman’s Law to return to our original time frame, that’s all.”
“Yes, and I came along, right behind you.”
She looked exasperated. “If you had, that would shatter our whole model of Space-Time. You’d be a resident of 1964 going into the future. That’s impossible, just as it would be impossible for Jared and me to step into, let’s say, the twenty-fifth centiury.”
“Because that’s our future, just as—if you were a 1964 person—now would be your future, a place you can’t get to except by the normal passage of time. Don’t you see?”
I filled my gaze with her gorgeous, red-headed earnestness. “Like all children, you’re cute as a button when you know you’re right despite the fact you’re wrong.” She glared at me. “I tell you, I dove—dived—dove right through that shimmering curtain of light behind the Scouts’ rescue truck.”
For the first time, her face showed doubt. She frowned at Jason, still on his knees, in her grip. He made a “How would I know?” shrug.
A brilliant thought came to me. “Listen, Catherine—”
“Ah—Kaitlyn—yes. Now, listen. If I’m right, your grandpa will be found alive and well here in 2021 Kenosha—but not in the form of me standing here in Washington Park.”
“You’re saying you’re a duplicate?”
I huffed in annoyance. “I’m saying, I’m twenty years old and I belong in 1964.”
She frowned. Jason, restive in her firm grasp, looked up at me in wonder.
“Here’s how you can prove it. Let’s lock Jason here in your squad car nice and snug. Then let’s go find a phone booth. Call your grandpa. If he answers, I promise it’s not me playing Señor Wences.” I dug in my pocket with shaky, withered hands. “A 1964 dime still work in a 2021 phone booth?”
She gave me a strange look, then sighed. “Okay, you win.”
She shoved Jason all the way to the ground and stood on his neck. Then she whipped out her strange little rectangle, touched a bright patch, then another one. She held the gizmo up to her ear. A sound like a telephone’s buzz was followed by a tinny little voice.
“Gramps?” Her and her eyes went wide. “Where are you?”
Silly question. He answered his phone. He must be at home.
After another string of tinny voice gibberish came out of the thing, Kaitlyn said, “I see. Okay, just checking. Sorry I disturbed you. Don’t lose too much.” She touched the rectangle again and the sound went dead.
I gloated. “See? You found him at home.”
“No. He was at a friend’s house, where he plays poker.”
A poker-playing friend? It had to be. “Lumpy Bernacchi? He still alive?”
Her jaw dropped. She nodded warily.
“See? That proves I’m him. He’s just not me. Not yet, anyhow. I belong back in the Sizzling Sixties.” I turned to go back the way I had come.
“Where you going, Gramps?”
“Back to the time curtain.”
“You won’t find it. It’s Monday night. No bikes.”
I looked back toward the track. Of course. She was right. I scanned the dark, silent velodrome. No spinning molybdenum in sight.
Kaitlyn pledged me to secrecy, so I can’t tell you the details. She found a place where I could stay, in reasonable comfort, in complete isolation from all the denizens of 2021—including my old friend Lumpy and my own adult daughter, whom I’ve never seen—for six days, until the next Tuesday night bike races. Then she spirited me over to the infield on a special police pass.
Now, I’m back in my own timestream.
When I first came back, I spent a long while confused. But now that I’ve had almost a year to mull it over, my dilemma has resolved itself.
I’m now convinced Axenberg and Nerdleman got it right. Known facts to the contrary notwithstanding, I could not have paid a visit to the year 2021. My real presence in 2021 would extinguish whatever future I have here in 1965. The only way I can possibly get to the twenty-first century is the old-fashioned way: Clean living and good luck.
My granddaughter’s phone call to my septuagenarian self cuts no ice. I won’t believe I live in 2021 until I actually do. Anyway, how could they have phones like that?
Right now I’m going to listen to the radio broadcast of the Liston-Clay rematch from Lewiston, Maine. I’ll have to break it off to go to the Tuesday night bike races, unless the fight goes short. Who knows? Maybe this time Sonny will flatten him in five.
When we first visited London, many years ago, we went to see the Queen’s Life Guards at the Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall. The changing of the guard was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. A crowd was already there when we arrived at the enclosure where the ceremony was to take place.
Two or three London bobbies herded onlookers into a space at the end of the courtyard, behind a pavement stripe. We scored a place near the front, where we could see and hear everything.
There were a few other Yanks, but most of the audience was British. It’s easy to tell who is a tourist, and thus equally evident who is not.
One of the locals, a dumpy man in a tweed cap and horn-rimmed glasses, recommended himself to my attention, because he had become the focus of the bobby’s attention.
The copper, a lank young man, stared at the chap in the tweed cap. “Got to push it, now, don’t we, luv?”
The man stared back, mute.
“You’re over the line. Move it.” The officer fingered his baton.
The man jiggled one notch backward.
The bobby stepped forward and stood in the man’s face. He slitted his ice-blue eyes and dimmed his voice to a purr. “Now, that won’t cut it, ducky. You’re courting a summons.” He cast his eyes downward, toward the man’s feet.
I craned my neck to see down. Mister Tweedcap’s shoes cut semi-ovals out of the pavement line, extending half an inch over.
The man jigged backwards again, crowding a woman who stood without interval behind him. His shoe-tips now just touched the line.
The bobby gave him one more cold look, then turned away to walk down the front of the crowd. He stopped after a few steps and looked back.
The man in the tweed cap stood like the Rock of Gibraltar. Silent as ever.
Satisfied the man’s feet had not moved, the bobby turned away again to troop the crowd.
The new guards, red and blue by regiment, cantered in on proud black steeds. After a bit of clip-clop and folderol, the old guards—every bit as flashy—departed.
Meanwhile, the bobby had returned to our sector.
The crowd knew the moment the rite was over. They lapsed into a slouch that was palpable.
Mister Tweedcap stepped over the line and lit a cigarette.
The bobby flashed a grimace of a smile. “See you tomorrow, Mick. Same time, same station.”
“Righto, Kenny,” said the man, exhaling a puff of smoke. “Give my best to the missus.”
The copper nodded and moved off to protect some other part of the kingdom.
Had I been ordered by a cop to move back I would have said “Yes, sir” and removed myself to well behind the line, slacker that I am.
Our British cousin stood on his rights as an Englishman. He thereby reinforced a centuries-old framework of “English liberties”—the same liberties that would have given him, in a rural setting, the right to use long-established footpaths through farmers’ fields.
His grudging deference to the civil authorities, his insistence on toeing right up to the line, must not be sneezed at. English history is soaked in the blood, not to mention the tortured entrails and piked heads, of those who challenged authority. An Englishmen needs to know just how far he can go. The fellow in the tweed cap embodies the “village-Hampden who, with dauntless breast, / The little tyrant of his fields withstood.”
The strong have always ruled the weak.
At some time past, this hegemony gained the name of “government,” which derives ultimately from a Greek term that means to steer a ship. The idea of government was that ordinary folks needed to have their ship steered by experts, otherwise known as “the rightful authorities,” those in a position to exercise power.
The concept of “government,” with its accompanying whiff of political legitimacy, gave any tyrant the full justification for his particular tyranny.
Government employed a system of laws, at least since the time of Hammurabi, which applied to those governed but not, usually, to those who did the governing.
That is still largely the case. Some governments feign the hypothesis that laws apply equally to ruler and ruled. But the principle is carried into practice only when convenient.
Gradually, over millennia, societies have enshrined in tradition many customs that limit, in a practical way, the power of the ruler, of the ruler’s extended family, and of that corps of cronies and straphangers who constitute the ruling class.
Today we benefit from protective customs codified in Jewish, Greek, and Roman law; from feudal practices which arose in Europe during the days of the Holy Roman Empire; from the legal heritage of Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and post-Norman rule of Great Britain; and from American practices that began in colonial times and gave birth to Constitutional safeguards of our common rights.
All these things form a web of customs, understandings, and institutions which guard our liberty.
But in the human soul there is a craving for primacy.
In every village board, every bowling league, and every garden club across the land lurks a self-appointed leader who would become Caligula or Saddam Hussein without giving it a second thought—were not he or she restrained by the many strands in our ancient web of governing traditions.
Democracy, freedom, and equality are not the natural condition of society. Dictatorship is no temporary aberration; it is the rule, absent that multifarious system of closely tended liberties on which we depend just as does our cousin in the tweed cap. Despotism exercised by the most cunning, brutal, and lucky is the default order of things. We should thank God for the long, painfully developed, chain of specific practices and understandings which hold would-be tyrants at bay.
Fairness, justice, and decency are merely warm, fuzzy concepts that hold no sway. Without the common residues of parliamentary procedure, contract law, and long-established precendent—all of them dreary and tedious things, to say the least—we would be at the mercy of mere thugs.
Whenever a nicely uniformed and duly constituted authority requires us to stand in a box, we—at the very least—ought to jam our caps down over our brows and bump our toes right up to the line.
Pacesetting nation-state seeks Chief Executive Officer to guide it through the next four years.
Employer is on geostrategic Short List—you would definitely recognize its name. This global power has gone through turbulence in recent years and looks to recapture a previous golden era, the cause and timing of which is disputed by major parties, but everybody agrees it was pre-COVID. Unification of diverse perspectives is a much-lauded priority.
Applicant must meet all wishes of all residents of this multifarious democratic republic, everywhere, all the time. Deep skillset in partisan politics is considered essential. The successful applicant will show no mercy to the opposition, despite significant downside risk of premature termination. Core competencies include appropriate distribution of credit (Ours) and blame (Theirs).
Required duties also, from time to time, include leadership of the Free World.
No applicant will be considered for this position who cannot show strong evidence of personal instability, preferably to the point of derangement.
Although cash salary is inconsequential, non-monetary benefits include a nice house, convenient transport options, multiple opportunities for family enrichment, and a testimonial library located near applicant’s chosen retirement venue.
Apply by Tuesday, November 3, to the United States of America, ATTN: The Electorate.
THIS IS DEFINITELY THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION EVER HELD!!!!
You know—the election to determine whether our nation’s immediate future will be an Elysian idyll of prosperity, fairness, and brotherhood; or whether the bad guys will win and plunge the whole cosmos into an irrecoverable tailspin of poverty and totalitarian despair.
So we are told.
Do you believe that?
Do you believe those who disagree with you are evildoers, not to be trusted with the reins of government for a four-year period? And, so Bondvillainously effective that they will achieve their terrifying aims with one-hundred-percent efficiency once sworn into office?
Really? You really believe that?
If so, you might want to get out a bit and meet a few folks you don’t already know.
So many friends and neighbors have already sunk so deep in dystopian devotion to their wing—be it left or right—that riots and mayhem are expected to break forth, no matter who wins the election.
You and I, Kind Reader, need not compound this insanity.
We are permitted to take a deep breath.
Let us think, speak, and act like adult American citizens.