The pumping was the worst, he said to himself. Of all the thousand and one tasks a sailor was called upon to do, it was pumping they hated most. Most of what they did was strenuous, all of it was tedious, and much of it was dangerous. They complained about it all, but the pumps were different. They broke men.
He put his shoulder under the steel bar and heaved it up until he could brace his arms under it and straighten up. The top of the upstroke was just at his fingertips when he stretched up, so that for a few seconds he dangled there, unable to brace himself against the heaving deck. Then his weight would gradually draw the bar down. When it passed his chest he threw his weight over the bar and forced it down, until his knuckles rasped against the deck. Then he’d heave his back straight and use his legs to raise it again. Each stroke was an exhausting effort, and there was no way to vary it in the slightest. Each required the same awkward series of heaves. And of course it never ended.
Like as not if the pumps are needed, the ship is in trouble. But pump trouble wears many different aspects. The ship may have sprung a leak impossible to find or to plug at sea, and you’re driving desperately for a safe harbor before the sea rises over the decks. Then your greatest fear is the calm, when a sunny smiling blue sea swallows a ship and leaves her crew drifting in a boat to nearly certain starvation.
Sometimes your ship is some ancient hulk that should have been broken up years before, but which seemed like such a thrifty purchase to some far-off investors committee. And some unlucky bastards are trying to keep it together long enough to allow them to jump ship at the first port. Half the crew is over the side in a bosun’s chair all day, trying to keep the planks on the frames, and the other half is at the pumps.
But most often it’s like this, he thought glumly, throwing his stomach onto the bar for the ten thousandth time, landing on exactly the same bruises each time. You’re in a full gale, simply trying to keep the ship on top of the water until the storm passes. All thought of the world beyond the next wave crest fades away; even the holiest duties of the seamen, holding a course and maintaining the ship, are forgotten. It’s not possible to cook, so there’s no food - besides, the cook and the steward, sometimes even the third mate, are needed at the pumps.
No wonder the cry “Below watch to the pumps!” was so dreaded. They knew when it was likely, and they lay awake in their bunks, still dressed in their streaming oilcloth, staring up into the dank and creaking darkness of the foc’s’l, waiting. When the call came, there was none of the usual chorus of groans and rough punches to waken exhausted sleepers. They were all awake, and each man just sat up silently in his bed, dropped to the deck, and pulled himself wearily up the ladder.
When you first threw back the scuttle and looked out, it was seldom encouraging. Usually night, usually snowing or raining, usually blowing so hard there’s but a rag of a lower fore-tops’l on her, and that like as not blown out and thundering itself to pieces up there in the dark. On every side waves loom threateningly over the ship, foam streaking their great mountainsides and spindrift whipping from their crests. The ship would be wallowing, now and again driving her nose deep into a sea, which rolled aft to cover the scuttle and break with a roar over the main hatches. Many an exhausted man has hesitated there in the scuttle to rub the sleep from his eyes and has been swept into the sea before being fully awake.
The trick was to listen for the right moment, then throw open the scuttle, leap out, jerk the scuttle closed, and grab for the lifeline, all at the same time. When the first sea swept over you, you realized that you had forgotten just how cold the water was. Clutching the whipping lifeline, you dragged yourself aft to the fiferail at the foot of the mainmast. There in the darkness, eight dark shapes leaped and bowed in some mad satanic dance. At first sight of the off watch creeping toward them, they would fall from the bars and lay crumpled on the deck, their arms locked around the lifeline. Then it was your turn. The pumps could not stop or they would lose their prime. You leaped at the bars and heaved. With the tenth stroke your whole body cries out in complaint, with the hundredth you feel that you will certainly collapse before the next, with the thousandth you think of nothing.
Hunhh! He threw his body over the bar again. His knuckles were bleeding where they rubbed the deck at the bottom of each stroke, but he dared not open his hands to spare them, for waves constantly swept the deck. Foaming water swirled around their knees, and masses of icy ocean lunged heavily and erratically about the deck. It was cold, of course, bone-chilling cold, but they had been cold and wet for so many weeks now that they hardly noticed. But now and then the ship would roll heavily to weather and a great gray sea would roll unimpeded over the bulwark, sweeping the men from their feet. They would roll and twist in the dark water for an eternity, feeling the sea tug at their legs, at their clothes, trying to pluck them from the cold steel bars that were their salvation and their damnation. Then the ship would lurch and fling the sea over the lee rail, and the men would struggle to their feet and resume the hated pumping.
Sometimes he pumped with his eyes closed. It seemed that even the effort of holding his eyes open was too much to add to the pumping. He was often nearly asleep, moving without thinking at all. There was nothing much to think about. There could be no complaint, no question of the imminent danger, or its only remedy. The ship is full of water; we must keep pumping it out until we reach safety or we sink. No other actions are possible.
More often he kept his eyes open, locked on the greasy, mossy lip of the oak pump. It was square, a yard across, with a heavy plug of oak for a piston and a leather flap for the valve. Each upstroke sucked up another three or four buckets of water from the well of the bilge, some thirty feet below, and it vomited from the throat of the pump onto the deck at their feet. The water was dark and oily as it swirled around their boots, and flecked with chips of paint and soggy bits of rope. It was not a pretty sight by any standards, but they watched it for hours on end - it was the only sign that their endless purgatory had a purpose.
The flow of water was impressive, and it seemed that surely such a flood of water would quickly empty the ship. Then the pumps would give forth a last sludgy discharge and, with a lugubrious gargle and a whiff of putrid breath, lose their prime and suck air. What a wonderful sound that was! The bars would suddenly fall slack in your hands, and the men would stand staring dully at each other, not quite understanding that there was nothing more for them to do.
But they had been pumping now for over forty hours, and there was no sign of an end. The storm was as bad as ever, the seas were if anything worse. The ship had been hove to with lashed wheel for a day and a night. Every two hours the mate and the carpenter sounded the well to determine the level of water in the ship. If it were falling, the mate would cry encouragement to the men, cheering them on. But sometimes the carpenter spoke in a low voice, and the mate crept aft and went below to report to the old man, and they knew that the sea was gaining on them. But there was no way to increase their efforts - the pumping just went on as before.
He heaved the bar up from the deck and glanced at the man beside him. It was Luis, the steward. He had no oilcloth, but worked in his short tarred jacket that he used to serve the officers’ meals. His black face was devoid of all expression, but he moved like a machine, never altering his stroke even when a sea swept over him. His head would rise dripping from the sea, still rising and falling in the same unhurried motion.
He looked at the two men on the other side of the pump. Roberts, the Australian boy, looked done in. This was his first passage, and he had yet to develop the immunity to pain and discomfort that the old hands had - not so much from physical fortitude as from a kind of resigned apathy. His lips were white and pressed tightly together, so it looked as if he were grinning across the pump at you.
The fourth man was Svenson, the old Swede. He was sour and taciturn and spoke little to anyone except when he was drunk. Then he would rattle on for hours in his gravelly voice, accent still thick after fifty years in British ships. Then he talked of the old days, when men were really men and not these soft-handed city boys one got at sea nowadays. He had been around the Horn twice before he was nine, and so many times since that he had long since lost track. He seemed a part of the ship, a piece of the equipment that had been installed along with the winches by the builders.
He stared across at Svenson, and the old man stared back, their eyes locked as they rose and fell oppositely. He couldn’t even tell that Svenson looked tired. His face looked the same as ever, as if he were painting a hatch cover instead of trying to pump the Atlantic out of the ship.
Suddenly Svenson disappeared in a welter of foam, and an instant later they were all under water, each as alone as a man can be, enduring the clutching of the sea and the burn of salt water in the nose. His fingers were peeled from the bar as if they had no more strength than paper. For a second he floated in the sea, then something struck his back. The water rushed away. He was lying under the fife rail, back against the mainmast, one hand still grasping for the pump handle. The mate clung in the main shrouds and shouted at him, but he couldn’t hear above the howl of the storm. He looked dazedly around and saw Luis clinging to the lifeline a few feet away. There was no sign of Roberts or Svenson. He was shocked that Svenson could have been moved by any sea.
Another sea surged over him, throwing him painfully against the fiferail, then drawing him out and up, away from the ship. His head broke the surface. As he rose on the swell, he saw that there was no sign of the ship’s deck above the sea. The masts rose from the water as if they had grown there, like pines leaning on a steep mountain slope. He had a glimpse of someone clinging to the mizzen shrouds, a white face glimmering toward him in the dark, then the sea rose again and covered everything. He was pulled under, and the sea filled his mouth. He felt calm, even relieved.
“At least I’m through with the bloody pumps!”
copyright 1989 by Brian K. Crawford
I opened the door and you walked in, a changed person.
"What is it? What’s the matter?"
"I know all about it," you said.
"You what?" I stammered.
"I know about her."
The room suddenly got ten degrees hotter. I tried to will the blood from rushing to my face. "Wh... what do you mean?"
"I know about you and Maxine."
My stomach twisted into a knot. I had that panicky nightmare weakness in my legs, a swirl of vertigo. I clutched the back of a chair, hoping I looked casual, but my knuckles were white.
"M… Maxine? Who’s Maxine?"
"The girl from work. The one you’re having the affair with."
I forced out a wheezing laugh. "Oh, her? Don’t be absurd. What makes…"
"Let’s just say a little bird told me."
"Honey, you’re just being hormonal. You know how you get when…"
"You were seen together."
I tried to force my hands to stop trembling. I could feel my palms wet on the polished wood. My heart was pounding.
"Whoever said that must have been mistaken. Who told you that?"
"Never mind. Someone who would not have been mistaken."
"They must have seen somebody else. I’m not all that unusual looking. People often mistake me for someone else." I chuckled. "I remember one time a perfect stranger came up and…"
"They saw you get out of your car. They recognized your car, too."
My ribs tightened around my lungs. I could feel a lopsided smile on my face, but I couldn’t stop it.
"Do you know how many gray BMW’s there are in this town?"
"They described the girl to me and I recognized her from the Christmas party. You were with Maxine."
I gulped, tried to think. "Wait, wait, when was this?"
"Last week. My friend had to get up her nerve to tell me."
"Oh, last week," I said. "That’s it. That was Secretary’s Day. Each manager took one secretary out to lunch. You know, to show our appreciation. Boy, those gals work so hard. Well, I drew Maxine’s name out of the hat and so I…"
"You were holding hands," you said.
"We were?" Iron bands closed around my chest, crushing the air out of my lungs. I couldn’t catch a breath, couldn’t think clearly. "Oh, I remember," I said. "Maxine – is that her name, Maxine? – her boyfriend had just broken up with her and she was pretty upset about it. I guess the wine must have gone to her head – she’s just a kid, you know, really – and she suddenly wanted to tell me all about it. So naturally I had to look all symp…"
"You kissed her."
"No! No, I certainly didn’t kiss her. I mean, it wouldn’t look right. I was trying to console her, of course, she really just needed a male shoulder to cry on, but it wouldn’t be proper for a manager to kiss one of his girls, no matter how innocent. What with all this sexual harassment nonsense nowadays, a man can’t be too careful, you know. Some of those girls are positively predatory."
"Are you denying it?"
"Of course I’m denying it. I swear to you, honey, there is nothing, absolutely nothing between that girl and me."
"You care nothing for her?"
"Nothing at all. She’s a child, a foolish child. She’s nothing to me."
"That’s not what she thinks. She thinks you’re planning to leave me for her."
"You talked to… she said that?" I was sweating so hard now I could smell myself, a humid reek of cringing fear, like a cornered animal. "I swear, where do kids get these ideas? You know how young girls can be, they think every man who glances at them is in love with them."
"She said you spent a weekend together. That weekend you told me you had a conference, you spent it in a B and B on the coast, with her."
My legs turned to water. I sagged, barely able to stand. I felt as if stones were being piled on me.
"I… I had no idea she had such fantasies about me. My God, I must be old enough to be her father."
The room grew dark around the edges. I felt pains shooting down my left arm. I could barely hear what you were saying. I fumbled in my jacket pocket for the nitroglycerin tablets, but I couldn’t seem to find them. I dropped to my knees, looked up at you standing over me.
"Help me," I gasped. "You’re my wife, for God’s sake."
"No," you said. "I’m your widow."
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford
"Dear me, I'm afraid I have some peculiar news for you."
That's the way the letter started. I sat there staring at it in confusion. I'd just been walking through a park and decided to rest for a while. When I sat down on a bench, there was an envelope there beside me. No stamp, no address, no marks of any kind.
I looked around, but there was no one in sight. I thought it might be important to somebody. I looked inside to see if there was a name. It wasn't sealed, the flap was just folded in. I took out a few sheets of paper printed on a laser printer, and began to read.
"Dear me, I'm afraid I have some peculiar news for you. Right now you're trying to figure out this weird letter, right? Well, hang on, things are about to get a lot weirder. You're wondering who wrote it and just left it here? The truth is, you wrote it. Or you will, or you will have some day - sorry about the ambiguity here, the language just doesn't have enough tenses to talk about this stuff.
So I'm you. As you know, I... or we, in a manner of speaking, tend to sit around and think deep thoughts sometimes; you know, heavy philosophical stuff. So I was doing that one day, and I was really going strong. Ideas were just popping into my brain like bubbles in champagne. And suddenly I figured it all out. The Big One. The Big Enchilada Theory of Everything. You know, the Meaning of Life.
See, I thought about how there was a whole unresolvable paradox about time: either it goes on forever, or it doesn't. If it had a beginning, what was there before time began? It's a meaningless question, because the word "before" implies an earlier time. Same with an end. It's like the child's question, what number comes after infinity? Infinity is not a number, it's an idea. It's not a limit, it's a direction. How could a direction cease to exist? Even if all matter were to wink out of existence someday, can we believe that time would cease as well? An empty universe would have no events marking any instant of time, but the instants would continue to occur. We cannot conceive of something being without time.
But the idea of eternal time is just as paradoxical. If the universe is not just ancient but is truly eternal, an infinite amount of time has already passed. In an infinite time, every infinitely unlikely event will already have occurred. Pigs must have already flown, hell must have frozen over. Everything is inevitable.
This gives life the uncomfortable flavor of determinism. If all possible paths of history have already occurred, whatever happens next is absolutely certain to have happened before in exactly the same way. And since the future is infinite as well, it is doomed to repeat itself over and over again, endlessly, with no possible hope of breaking the cycle.
Now stay with me here. This is where it starts to get strange. I considered that time is just another dimension of space. We had the same trouble considering infinite space. The ancients always wondered what would happen if you kept walking in a straight line: would you keep coming to new countries forever, or would you come to some kind of end to the world? Neither seemed likely. Finally they discovered that neither theory was correct - the world was a sphere and if you walked far enough you would come back to the same spot from the opposite direction. The same thing happened when we looked out into space and wondered how far it went. Does it go on forever, or does it end? If it has a limit, what's outside that limit? And if it doesn't, how could it be expanding, as has been long ago confirmed?
The space paradox was of course resolved when the universe too was found to be curved. It is the curved surface of a closed four-dimensional solid. If you travel far enough, you would eventually return to your home planet from the opposite direction.
Now don't give up on this. We're getting to the punch line. I figured that time is just another dimension of this closed solid. It must work the same way. If you go far enough on into the future, you'll arrive right here from the past. Got that? A resolution to the old end-of-time paradox, right? So I was feeling pretty pleased with myself for figuring this out. But then I thought about it some more.
In one way, circular time seems fine. Who cares that it goes around and around, the same things happening over and over? It's like going around the world over and over; you're going to keep getting to the same places in the same order. The rub is that if you get tired of travelling, you can change direction or just stop. With time travel - and we're all travelling through time - you can't. No stopping, no turning, no parking. You can't even speed up or slow down. It's like we're on a model railroad layout, chugging around and around the same little piece of track. But again, who cares, right? We won't be around to see it repeat.
Ah, there's the rub. What if we are? The whole thing depends on the diameter of time, you see. We don't complain about being stuck on this round planet because it's diameter is eight thousand miles. Not many people get around it even once in their lives. There's a lot to see. But what if it were only eight miles in diameter? It wouldn't take much wandering around before you'd seen it all, before you started coming to the same places again and again. Make the diameter eight feet and you have a terrifying prison.
It's the same with time. If the diameter is big, history repeats itself every ten billion years and who's to care? Nobody gets bored. But what if it's only a thousand years? Say in the year 2000 we all suddenly return to the year 1000. But we wouldn't be wandering around in our Reeboks taking pictures of it. We'd all be medieval people. And just like now, we'd have records of the past. It's like the world just sprang into existence in 1000, with all its memories and histories completely formed. We'd all remember the year 999, but it never really happened. The world changes and evolves for a thousand years, then suddenly snaps back to 1000 and starts over.
No one would notice, because everything else jumps back with them. People wouldn't be moaning about missing their microwaves, they'd be busy building castles, completely ignorant that it had all been done before. So nobody minds the repetition. Still, it's a fairly bleak view of the world, you have to admit. There's no real progress, no free will. There is no future after 2000, so what does it matter what people do? What's the point of anything?
But there's an evening more alarming possibility. What if the diameter of time is only days, or hours, or minutes? We, the animals, the stars, every atom, would be locked into a ritual dance, endlessly repeating the same completely meaningless motions. Where is the joy in such a world, where is there room for love? It is full of sound and fury, signifying less than nothing. Again, if such is the case, we would not know it. Each of us would be making the same stylized gestures, feeling the same flow of emotions and reactions, over and over again. But each of us has a different part to play. Millions are in their cars, driving from a place they have never been to a place they'll never reach. Half are asleep, forever missing the only reality there will ever be. Some are experiencing joy, some fear, some ecstasy, some agony. Some are forever unborn, others forever dying.
For myself, I believe that I may have the hardest role of all. I am the one that figured it out. Whatever fraction of history actually occurred and how much is complete fiction, I have no way of knowing. I know that this moment is real, because this is the one in which I made my discovery. Cogito, ergo sum. I discovered that time repeats, and I have discovered it a trillion trillion times before. Of all the inhabitants of this planet (and who knows how many more?), I alone am aware of the senseless dance we are forced to repeat forever; the futile fugue of time. I have no way of knowing how much time I have before I am plunged back into forgetfulness. It could happen years from now, or this second, or this one, or this.
So what shall (or did) I do with this brief interval of awareness allotted to me? I thought of you, my successor. I pitied you having to come to this realization the way I did, at the last minute (assuming there is more than one minute). I wanted to warn you early, give you a chance to do something different if you can. I'll write a letter and leave it for you to find. I can leave it anywhere and know that you will (or I did) find it. When you do, make an "X" on the back to show you got it, and leave it for the next one of us.
So that's it. The Meaning of Life. Do with the knowledge as you will (as I did)."
I put the letter down and laughed out loud. What a great thing to write and just leave on a park bench for someone to find! I read it through again to make sure I understood the train of logic. What an idea! Could such a bizarre world be true? I thought about it and decided to go along with the gag. I'd make an "X" on the back of the letter to let the next me know that not only had my predecessor written the letter, but that I had received it.
I dug around in my gear until I found a stub of a pencil. Then I turned the letter over and stopped, staring. The back of the letter was covered in X's!
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford
It was one of those steamy, muggy summer days I remembered from childhood. I went up on the porch, feeling like a giant standing there on the little concrete stoop. I pressed the doorbell and waited, while Lucy and Jeremy waited below on the walk. A shadow moved through the glass blocks beside the door, then the door opened. A man in his early sixties looked us over through the screen door, no doubt expecting me to hand him a tract. A newspaper dangled from his hand. He was in his stocking feet.
"Yes?" he asked cautiously.
"Good day, sir. My name is Peter Merrill and this is my wife Lucy and my boy Jeremy. This is a bit of a strange request, but I grew up in this house."
The man's face softened. "You did? When?"
"Let's see. I lived here from '50 to '65. My parents sold it in '68."
"Do tell. Well, come on in." He called over his shoulder as he opened the screen door. "Hey, honey, we got company. You decent?"
A woman appeared at the end of the hall, drying her hands on a towel. Lucy and Jeremy stepped into the hallway diffidently and stood together against the wall.
"Honey, this man grew up in this house."
"Really?" She came forward as I pulled the screen door shut behind me.
"Yes, ma'am. We really don't want to intrude, but we live in California and don't get out to the Midwest very often. We're on a vacation trip."
"Niagara Falls," said Jeremy.
"Yes, and I took a detour..."
"A rather long detour," said Lucy.
"... so I could take a look at the old hometown. So we came here and sat out there looking at the house. And it seemed strange to me, y'know? One time I would have just run up those steps and banged through the door, and now I sit in a car across the street like a stranger. I just wondered..."
"If you could look around?" said the man. "Sure, I can understand that."
"Oh Lordy," said the woman. "The place is a mess. If you had called..."
"Yes, I know," I said, my surge of resolve quickly fading. "I didn't know I was going to ring the bell until I got here."
"I assure you," put in Lucy, "that I'm not sure I'd let strangers come trooping through my house most days."
"Oh, it's not a mess, honey," said the man. "You always say that."
"The beds aren't even made."
"So what? You call that a mess? A mess is something you step in. Do you folks always make your beds in the morning?"
"Us?" I asked. "Uh, no. Not really."
"Sometimes I do," said Jeremy. I grinned nervously, feeling an urge to backhand him.
"We're not going to be examining your things," I said.
"I think Pete is only going to see these rooms as they looked in the fifties anyway," said Lucy. They both chuckled and that broke the ice. The woman showed us into the living room and offered us lemonade. We accepted gladly and she went off to the kitchen. We sat on antimacassared sofas and exchanged introductions, but I forgot both their names before they were finished speaking. He and Lucy made small talk while I looked around.
The room was tiny! A barcalounger's footrest in the corner was only a foot or two from the hassock in front of the chair opposite. I remembered that space as huge. Whole battles were fought on that plain, racetracks and towns and oceans came and went. The fireplace I'd remembered as massive, almost big enough to walk into, was only a modest little brick thing, but it was the same one. There was a smooth gouge in one brick and I remembered how it felt to run my thumb along it.
"Peter?" said Lucy.
The woman stood beside me, offering a tray of tall lemonades.
"Oh, thank you," I said, taking one. "I'm sorry."
"Admiring the fireplace?" asked the husband.
"Yes, I'd remembered it as much bigger." Then I thought that he might take offense - that I was sneering at the man's hearth.
"Nice work, though," he said. "I always liked it."
"The proportions are nice," said the woman, taking a seat beside it.
"My dad laid those bricks," I said. "I helped carry them."
"My sakes, is that right?" exclaimed the woman. "Did your father build this house then?"
"A lot of it. He contracted for the plumbing and such, that he knew he didn't know how to do. But most of the rest he did on his own, after work and on weekends."
"When was this?"
"1949. Finished in '50."
"Well, think of that. You hear that, honey, this feller built this fireplace."
She looked at me with a distant look like she was calculating. "You don't look old enough," she said.
"Well, I always believed Dad and I built the fireplace, but I suspect an uneven division of labor. I was three." Looking at the hearth, I imagined a toddler sitting there, face straining with the effort of handing a brick to his father. Suddenly it occurred to me that Dad might have finished the house in one year if I hadn't been helping him.
"Would you like to look around?" said the man.
"I would," I said. "Thank you."
"Are you sure that's okay, Hilda?" Lucy asked.
"Oh sure," she laughed. "You know how it is. When somebody comes to visit you always wished your house looked like those ones on TV. Go ahead, look around."
"We don't want to disturb you."
"We're not doing anything. Go ahead. Don't mind us."
"Thank you. That's really very kind."
I went into the dining room. There was a big but uninspired seascape on the wall where Mom had had a mirror. The windows that had looked out on sun-baked cornfields were now screened with trees, through which I could see a row of houses sprung up like mushrooms across Thompson's back acre.
"Those houses weren't there then," I said. "Are they new?"
"Lord, no, Mr. Merrill," the man replied. "We have friends in that blue one there. They've lived there twenty years or more."
Jeremy squeezed in front of me to peer out the window.
"See that big tree over there, Jeremy?" I said.
"We kids used to have a treehouse up there. Where those houses are used to be a cornfield. We'd sit up there and pick off the enemy as they came across the cornfield."
"I don't know. Indians, Johnny Rebs, Russians, Martians. Whatever. We were the outpost charged with defending headquarters here."
"This is where I used to do my homework, over by that big furnace vent. It was the warmest place on cold days."
He looked where I pointed, but didn't say anything. I wondered if he saw me sprawled there as an adult, or did he see a little boy, or did he just look because I told him to? I walked through into the kitchen. It was tiny too, barely enough room to squeeze between the refrigerator and the table.
"Oh, you've redone the kitchen," I said. "Very nice."
"Wasn't us," said the husband. "Must have been a previous owner."
"The back door used to be on this side, and the sink was over there."
"That so? You know, I found a capped off pipe in that cupboard. That must have been the sink."
"Mom used to stand there when she was cooking or washing dishes. She liked to look out that window when she worked."
"Did grampa and gramma live here too?" asked Jeremy.
"Sure. They're my mom and dad, you know."
"Well, yeah, but..." He trailed off, apparently still having trouble picturing me as a kid here.
"Uncle Bob lived here too, you know."
"Of course. We were two little kids, brothers, like Luke and Sam, living here with our mom and dad." For some reason I wanted him to get it, to picture it in his mind. I considered that this is what comes of living away from my roots, not having an extended family, no visible ties to my past. My son has no idea of my having been a kid like him. He thinks I just sprang full-grown from the ground to be his father.
I turned to the husband.
"Would it be okay if we went upstairs?"
"Sure. You put away all that naughty stuff in the bedroom, Hilda?"
"Harold!" his wife said, punching him in the shoulder. "You hush up. We don't know these nice people. They'll think you mean it."
Lucy laughed and said something to Hilda, but I was already starting up the stairs. They were so narrow and steep. And I thought they were high, twenty or thirty steps at least - in fact it was only ten steps up to the upstairs hall. I looked in the front bedroom. Twin beds, an oak dresser, chintz curtains with fluffy valances, a nightstand between the beds with a milk glass lamp, a Danielle Steele open beside it. I hesitated about going in, but not because it was Harold and Hilda's - it had been Mom and Dad's bedroom and we boys were never allowed to play in there. I turned around and went to my bedroom. Jeremy and Lucy poked their heads into the front bedroom, then followed me back.
The room was half the size I remembered, the beds were Early American and turned the wrong way, but it was the same room Bobbie and I had slept in for almost twenty years. It had an unused feel to it, a guest room in a house that received few guests. A basket of potpourri on a nightstand had long since lost its scent. I opened the closet doors and looked in. They were full of winter coats and spare blankets. An ancient golf bag leaned in a corner.
"Uncle Bob and I used to play spaceship in these closets. This was the bridge. That one was the engine room. One time we drew dials and controls all over the walls in here. Boy, did Mom get mad at us."
Jeremy poked his head in and looked around as if he expected to see the marks still there. Just a musty-smelling closet in a strange little house in a faraway town. How could he relate to a little boy who'd played here forty years ago? What did that boy and his dad have in common?
"Hey Jeremy," I said, trying to break the melancholy mood I was falling into. "Come over here. Remember me telling you there was an airport beacon light shining right into my window when I was a kid?"
"I used to fall asleep counting the seconds between flashes."
"Well, this is the window, and if you look right out there, you'll see... oh." The window looked right into the branches of a tree. Only a few feet of grass were visible below.
"Boy, that Chinese elm has really grown," I said. "It was just a little sapling."
We all looked out the window at the mature tree, its weathered bark enclosing a trunk at least eighteen inches across. I think that's when it hit me: that vast gulf of time that stood between me and the boy who had looked out this same window. I'd watched my Dad plant that tree, so spindly that he wired it to three stakes to hold it up. The sapling was gone, and so was the man who had planted it. But the boy was gone too, just as irretrievably, lost into old photographs and three minutes of jerky amateur movie film.
I looked down at my wife and son as they peered dutifully from a stranger's guest room, trying to read some meaning into the scene, some connection with the man they knew. But it wasn't there for them, it never could be. And it was only dimly there for me. Hilda and Harold's house was overlain on mine, like one of those paintings they x-ray and find another underneath. But theirs is the real house, mine the illusion. Bobbie would never come racing down that hall yelling, "Petey, Petey, here I come!" Mom's voice would never again float up those stairs: "Dinner time, boys. Wash up."
"Well, that's it," I said, straightening up. "That's the old homestead."
Lucy caught something in my voice and looked up at me. "Are you ready to go already?"
"Yeah, I think so. We've seen the place. That's all there is to see."
We trooped back downstairs. Harold was holding a battered shoe box.
"Some years back," he said, "we had some dry rot in that dormer in the attic. When I pulled the drywall off, I found this in the wall. For some reason I never threw it out. Had it in the garage all this time. Would this be yours by any chance, Mr. Merrill?"
He handed me the box. It was dusty and partly squashed, but I could see the Buster Brown logo and "size 6" on the end. A wind blew through me, bringing with it the scent of a dusty attic, sawdust, and gypsum. I remembered outlining that stupid dog's eyes with my thick elementary school pencil. I tried to remember what treasure I had put in it, but had no idea. I lifted the lid and our heads came together as we all looked down into the box.
A pack of baseball cards, the rubber band shrunken to a red sticky thread. A five hundred dollar bill from a Monopoly set. A blue rubber space alien with a thimble pushed on his head for a helmet. Three cardboard circles from milk bottle caps, each marked "One Credit, Allied National Teddy Space Army." A mouse skull. The neck of a green glass bottle. A broken water pistol. That was all.
"Yeah, it's mine," I said. "I hid it there so Bobbie wouldn't get all my cool stuff."
"Way cool, Dad," said Jeremy. We all laughed, but I could feel my chuckle was forced. Hey, it really was cool stuff once.
"You want it?" asked Harold.
"No, that's all right," I laughed. "They're not old enough to be antiques and not interesting enough to be collectibles. You can toss it."
"We certainly appreciate your letting us look around your house," said Lucy. "You have a very nice home, and it looks neat as a pin to me."
Hilda laughed, pleased. "Why, thank you, Mrs. Merrill. No trouble at all. If you're ever out this way again, please stop in."
"We will, thank you. And here, let me give you my card. If you ever want to get in touch with us, you can call us here. I'm sure if you ever have questions about the house or anything, Peter would..."
"Yeah, sure," I said. "I saw most of it built. If anything ever comes up, don't hesitate to call."
"Will do," Harold said, though neither of us could imagine anything that could come up to require my input. We started moving toward the door.
"Bye, now," said Hilda.
"Bye. And thank you again. If you ever come to California, please give us a call."
"Sure will," they said. "Nice to meet you."
I stood on the porch, looking out at the yard I'd mowed so many times. Lucy squeezed past me and went down onto the walk. Jeremy lingered by the door.
"Excuse me," he said to Harold.
"Could I have the box?"
"Why sure. I was just going to toss it. Here you go." He handed it around the screen door. Jeremy took it and looked down at it.
Lucy sighed. "Oh, Jeremy. Are you sure you want to bring that along? Whatever for? It's just some old junk."
"I know, Mom. But it was Dad's treasure box."
"It goes in your suitcase. I'm not lugging that dirty stuff around."
"Okay. Can I keep it?"
"I suppose so, if it's all right with your father."
I put my hand on his head and ruffled his hair as we started down the walk toward the car.
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, it's okay with me."
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford
Mabel sat motionless on the porch in the late afternoon sun, an afghan tucked in around her legs and the front wheels of her chair. In her lap one thin blue-veined hand clutched the other as if it were a bird she had caught. Her pale face was almost hidden by lank curls the color of old ivory. Her eyes were sunk deep into her angular face and were that peculiar watery blue one sometimes sees in blind people. But her eyes were still good and they darted about restlessly, seeing everything that happened on the wide lawn that stretched out around the old farmhouse like a green velvet skirt.
She followed a robin searching for worms in the grass - it pecked, listened, then took a few short stiff-legged hops before trying again. Further down the yard by the huge old oak tree, occasional sprays of red dirt arced above a gopher hole. A flicker of white in the boxwood hedge caught her eye. Was it that big magpie that had been making such a racket in the blackberries earlier? Then a small child stepped out of the hedge and stood brushing dead leaves from her hair.
It was a girl of five or six, but her calf-length dress made her look a few years older. She looked up at the house to see if anyone was watching. Their eyes met for a second, but the girl looked right through Mabel as if she weren't there, as children sometimes do with very old people. Then she ran off toward the oak, her flying skirts revealing black leggings and high-topped brown shoes. She climbed up onto the old swing that hung from one of the higher branches and started pumping vigorously. Mabel was pretty sure the little girl was supposed to be doing something else, probably her lessons, but she wasn't about to betray her. It must be one of her great-granddaughters, but Mabel wasn't sure which one. Names and faces were so hard to keep track of these days.
The child's hair flew behind her in long auburn curls as she swung higher and higher. Watching her, Mabel had a sudden body memory of swinging; the wind whipping through her hair, leaning back until her toes were pointing at the sky, the ropes scratchy in her hands. She remembered the delicious instant of weightlessness at the end of the arc, lying there motionless in the sky, free even of gravity. There would be a tingle in her belly - a mixture of danger, freedom, and total elation that Mabel only now recognized as an early sexual response.
A woman's voice floated clear in the still air, calling the little girl to her dinner. The girl stopped pumping and let the swing slow down by itself. The mother called again. The little girl jumped down and ran around to the back of the house, not looking at Mabel as she rounded the corner of the porch.
Mabel sat on, feeling the dry heat going out of the air as the shadows lengthened. The sun dropped behind the row of cedars that her Poppa had planted as a windbreak along the driveway, throwing diagonal stripes of butterscotch across the emerald lawn. Mabel watched a woodpecker moving erratically up the side of the old oak, his wings flashing white when he leaped to another branch.
"No, you certainly may not," came a man's voice from the house. "You are not to walk out with that boy; not tonight, and not any night. And let that be the final word on the matter."
The screen door behind her opened with a rising squeal of springs, then slammed shut with a flat dry bang that Mabel had always associated with summer. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a teen-aged girl walk past her and stand looking out at the evening, her thighs pressed against the porch railing, arms folded tightly under her breasts. Mabel could tell from her tensed shoulders and white knuckles that the girl was furious but determined not to cry. She brushed her long brown hair back from her face with an impatient gesture. Mabel wanted to say something to her, but again she wasn't sure of the girl's name. A few moments later, a man came out of the house and stood behind the girl. His hands lifted to touch her shoulders, hesitated, then clenched and fell to his sides.
"Princess," he whispered. "I know right now you think I'm as cruel as Kaiser Bill, but I'm only thinking of you. You're too good for that Ledbetter boy. His father's only a shopkeeper."
"I don't care about that, Poppa," she said. "That's not important. Hi's been my boyfriend for years."
"Yes, you were playmates when you were children. But you're not children anymore. You're growing up, and things change."
"But I love him, Poppa. I have to follow my heart."
He chuckled. "Is that a line from one of your romance novels? You're only sixteen. What do you know about love?"
She whirled to face him. Her blue eyes flashed in the fading light.
"What do you know about love?" she blurted angrily. "You work and you eat and in the evenings you read your old paper. You don't have any romance in your soul."
His face darkened. He wasn't used to having his children talk back to him. He opened his mouth to reprimand her, but then stopped. A last beam of sun turned her hair to copper.
"If you think I don't know about love," he said quietly. "you haven't been paying attention these last sixteen years. And as for romance, your mother could... well, we'll let that be. You're a lovely girl, Princess, and you're going to be a beautiful woman very soon. Boys will be falling all over themselves to be with you. Don't waste yourself on boys like Hiram Ledbetter. He'll never amount to anything."
"But I love him, Poppa!" she sobbed, the tears coming at last. She turned and ran down the steps and across the lawn. She flopped down in the swing, sulking and miserable. Her father watched her helplessly for a few moments, then turned and went back in.
Mabel watched the girl idly twisting in the swing, looking like a sad little marionette hanging from its strings; tethered, controlled. Mabel's chest grew tight remembering how frustrating it was to be that young. She had the emotions of a woman but the restrictions of a child. She was burning with impatience to be grown up. Strange new hormones were gushing through her like runaway trains, tugging her violently this way and that, making her say and do things she had never done before, like talking back to her father. Life was confusing, unstable; all the certainties of childhood were sliding away like the sand beneath her feet when she stood in the waves. Mabel thought of calling the girl over, trying to explain it to her. But Mabel had learned the ancient sorrow of parenthood - that you cannot spare your children their pain. You have to watch them make the same mistakes you did.
The girl rocked idly in the swing, her shoes scuffing in the bare path under the swing, until it was fully dark and the fireflies were dancing above the grass. Finally, with a deep sigh audible all the way to the house, she came up the steps and went inside, letting the door bang behind her. She didn't even glance in Mabel's direction.
Mabel wondered who the girl was. She hated not being able to remember; it was humiliating to have to ask. It must be one of the granddaughters - perhaps Sally's youngest. But wasn't she in college now? The comings and goings of the family became a hopeless swirl in her mind and she let the tangle drift away.
She sat watching, enjoying the still evening air. She looked up at the indigo sky, staring at a patch of sky until as if by magic it filled with stars. She could hear bats squeaking up there above the porch eaves, and knew that the mosquitoes were coming out. She half expected some one to come out and collect her, but no one did. The sounds from the house diminished and stopped. Eventually the last lights in the house went out. Soft snoring came from an open upstairs window. Well, it was a warm summer night. She was quite comfortable where she was. It was relaxing not to have to talk with the family, always trying to remember who everyone was and having them chuckle at her if she asked the same question more than once. They were all very kind, of course, but they treated her as if she weren't all there, as if she had always been old and a little confused.
Mabel's head jerked up. Something had moved out on the lawn. She strained her eyes into the darkness, trying to make it out. It flitted to the corner of the porch, stealthy, listening. She caught her breath, wondering if it was an intruder. A soft scrunch of a foot on a gravel path. Whoever it was moved toward the foot of the steps. She held her breath, but he didn't seem to notice her sitting there in the darkness. He stooped suddenly and picked up a handful of gravel, then tossed a single pebble onto the porch roof. It seemed to make a lot of noise as it rolled down the shingles and fell onto the lawn, but she didn't think it was enough to wake anybody up. Nevertheless, she heard an upstairs window slide up. The shadow on the lawn melted into the forsythias beside the steps.
Then the porch roof creaked and Mabel could hear someone moving cautiously across it to the side of the house. There was soft rustling, then something white appeared in the top of the wisteria trellis. The dark shape ran to help a girl in a white nightgown climb down the last few feet. They embraced.
"Oh, darling," she whispered. They were only a few feet away from Mabel and she could hear their whispers and even the soft wet click of a kiss. She could just make them out against the starlit grass, while she sat in the black shadows of the porch.
"Are you sure this is safe?" came a husky male whisper. It was the voice of a young man, but certainly not an adolescent. This couldn't be the young Hiram Ledbetter that the argument had been about. How many boyfriends did the girl have?
"Of course. I've climbed down this way lots of times. They've never heard me." There was another long silence. More kissing. Their breathing was fast, excited. Mabel, an unwilling eavesdropper, heard the rustle of their clothes as their hands moved over each other's eager bodies. She was embarrassed to be so close to them, to hear their most intimate sighs. Perhaps she should cough or clear her throat, warn them that she was there? But she did nothing, just listened.
"Where can we go?" the young man whispered at last. "We can't get down on the grass. The dew's fallen. You'll get your gown all wet."
For a moment Mabel was terrified they were going to come up on the porch and discover her. But then the girl gave a soft laugh. "I know," she said, and in one motion pulled the nightgown over her head. Mabel gasped in spite of herself, but the young man's own strangled exclamation covered the slight sound.
"My God, what are you doing?" he hissed. "You're naked!"
"I thought that's the way you wanted me," said the girl saucily, stepping out into the starlight and turning a pirouette before her lover. Mabel could see her young girl's breasts standing out high, the straight back, the strong legs. She was like a colt, slim and muscular and leggy, bursting with life. Mabel could hear a tremor of fear in the girl's voice. She knew she was playing a part, trying to shock the young man, to seem older and more experienced. But she was also driven by desires she only partially understood. Listening to the girl's husky voice, Mabel could remember her own first flushes of lust so long ago, how the raw need had boiled through her body like hot oil.
But this was a different girl than the one earlier; taller, more mature - perhaps an older sister? Looking at her, partly shocked, partly admiring her daring, Mabel suddenly remembered how it felt to be a beautiful young woman - to be the center of attention, desired by every man who saw her. Oh, the power and the glory of it - to be able to control a man, even grown-up men, with a glance, a touch, a glimpse of leg or neckline. She could sense how excited the girl was. She was revelling in the man's eyes on her, letting his desire wash over her like a warm flood. Then he rushed forward and swept her up in his arms.
"The swing!" she murmured against his lips, and he carried her out into the darkness under the oak. Mabel couldn't see them any longer. Suddenly, with a pang so sharp that it caught in her throat, she reflected that never again would she feel a lover's hands on her. What a thought after all these years alone! Well, let them enjoy it while they can. She couldn't think of revealing her presence now. She could heard the swing creaking out there in the darkness, back and forth, back and forth. Mabel listened, a smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.
She woke with a start to find that the moon had risen. The swing hung empty. She blushed as she remembered what she'd been dreaming about. Silly old thing, she chuckled to herself. Well, it was all the fault of those young people.
Then the sound that had awakened her came again. The cry of a baby from within the house - a loud wail that soon grew to a continuous keening. Mabel was puzzled. There were no babies about the place, were there? Or did Annie have a little one? No, that was years ago, surely.
A rectangle of light slanted across the far end of the porch and a moment later a woman came out, carrying the wailing infant on her shoulder. No, that wasn't Annie. Or was it? Did Annie have that reddish hair? The woman, whoever it was, didn't see Mabel sitting there in the darkness under the wisteria. She paced back and forth, patting and cooing and saying, "Hush," all to no effect whatever.
"Honey?" came a man's aggrieved groan from the upstairs window. "Is he all right?"
"I think so," she replied. "I'm sorry if he woke you up, tonight of all nights, when you have to get up so early."
"Maybe if you didn't stand right under the bedroom window? This is my last chance to sleep in my own bed for a year or more."
"Oh, it won't be that long, will it?" she said. "General Pershing said it would be over by Christmas." There was no answer. She looked around. "Come on," she whispered to the child. "Let's go play on the swing. Does that sound like fun, a moonlight swing?" She walked across the lawn, trailing a stream of crying through the night like a motorboat wake on a lake. She sat on the swing with the baby on her shoulder. With her feet she gently rocked the swing. The timbre of the crying changed at once. Within a few moments it subsided into hiccups, then silence.
Mabel thought that they looked like a Madonna and child sitting like that in the moonlight. There is a sense of rightness and purpose that comes over a woman when she holds her own child, a fulfillment many women don't know they lack until they experience it themselves. For all the books and talk and fuss about love between men and women, it is only a shadow of what passes between a mother and her child. Mabel remembered holding her own baby like that so long ago, feeling his little fist clenching at her hair. She could see his eyes on hers, struggling to hold his head up to look at her. For a frightening moment she couldn't remember what had happened to that baby. Then she remembered that he was an old man now, a grandfather himself. Where was it he lived now? Somewhere out west, wasn't it? Perhaps this was one of his girls. But no, they're both older than this woman, aren't they? She wished she knew who all these people were.
When she next roused from her musings she was surprised to find that it was early morning already. A red-headed woman was pushing a boy of two or three on the swing. On each push she threatened to grab his feet and each time he squealed with delight. Mabel smiled, remembering the thrill of pleasure she'd felt every time she made a child laugh like that. The woman was laughing too, but suddenly she stopped, staring into the distance. She shaded her eyes with her hand, her body rigid as a metal post. Mabel followed her gaze, but all she could see was a lone bicyclist pedalling slowly along the dusty road toward the house. The child suddenly howled with indignation, and Mabel looked back in surprise. The swing was empty, swinging in a long diagonal. Mabel leaned forward just in time to see the woman, carrying the howling child, plunge into the glossy green jungle of a cornfield. Mabel stared in amazement, but she felt a tightening in her chest, a foreboding that she could not account for. Something was terribly, terribly wrong, but what could it be? Looking back to the road, she saw that the boy on the bicycle was a telegraph messenger. He stopped at the end of the lane, looking at the house. Then he hurriedly stuffed something in the mailbox and pedalled quickly back the way he had come. Mabel watched until he had disappeared. What was this terrible sense of despair she suddenly felt? So much of life was like that these days - people and events that clearly used to have meaning for her, but were now only hopeless puzzles that left her confused and tired.
She sighed. It was frustrating not being able to remember. It was all so long ago, and so much that had happened in between was hazy now, more and more of it slipping away every day. It was so strange to grow old. She couldn't believe it had finally happened to her. Where were all those young men who had wanted her so? Where where her friends, her classmates, her lovers? Dead, most of them, or as old and forgetful as she. It seemed so important to keep the memories alive. No one else remembered the things she remembered; the people, the places, the parties, the tears; and when she forgot them they would be gone forever.
"Hello there," came a voice. She was startled to find it bright daylight again. A black woman in a white dress was bending down before her. Mabel blinked in surprise. The woman gathered up the afghan and smiled down at Mabel.
"Time for lunch," she said. "And then we have to start getting you packed. You haven't forgotten about going to your new home this afternoon, have you? You'll like it there, I know. It'll be so much better than rattling around in this empty old house with just me to look after you." She bent and released the brakes on Mabel's chair.
"My sakes," she said from behind her. "You've been sitting here staring at that old stump in the yard for hours. Sometimes I wonder what you see out there, Miz Ledbetter."
copyright 1996 by Brian K. Crawford
Jim drove up the long twisting road to the Marin headlands and pulled over at one of the scenic overlooks. Dust flew up around the car when he left the pavement, so he quickly shut the car off and let it settle to the ground. He sat for a few minutes, taking in the sweep of the Golden Gate below him, with its bridge framing the famous skyline of San Francisco.
Then he got out, locked the car, stepped over the guard rail, and walked down a steep path to an old concrete bunker left over from World War II. There was a corner there where he could sit, sheltered from the ubiquitous wind, and admire the view in comfort.
It was a special place for him. He had been coming here when he felt the need, perhaps three or four times a year, ever since he had moved to the area twenty years before. It was his private place, but it was far from private, for there were always tourists there. But he didn’t mind them. He enjoyed just sitting quietly and listening to the “Ooohs” and “Ahhs” of those seeing it for the first time.
He settled himself comfortably. He had given himself the afternoon off, so he could stay here all day if he felt like it. And today he did. He watched a sloop battling its way slowly out of the bay, punching into the strong headwind. He could tell from the rips that the tide was flooding, or the sloop wouldn’t stand a chance of getting out.
Three young Japanese kids came down the trail and took turns snapping pictures of each other with the bridge behind them. He offered to take their picture and they gave him their camera and huddled giggling on the wall. He clicked off two shots, then returned the camera. They smiled and tried out their English by thanking him, then picked their way back up to the road.
Sometime later two teen-aged boys came past, climbed around on the walls, then went on down toward the bridge. A young couple started down from the road, but then stopped when they saw him in the corner of the wall. They stood talking for a few minutes, looking down at him. He tried to look non-threatening, but they turned and went back up, the young man gallantly but unnecessarily helping the girl over the steepest parts. Probably just wanted to neck, he decided. He returned to his meditation, though in fact he was doing little more than watching and relaxing.
Some time later, he heard someone else coming down the trail, and turned around to look. A tourist robot was approaching, with that mincing little walk they get on uneven footing. In spite of the steep trail, the little square head wasn’t looking down, but was peering forward at the view. He smiled to himself. Even after all these years, he still thought robots were funny-looking. He knew, of course, that the sensors for walking were in the knees, but their erect heads gave them a haughty manner completely incongruous with their vacuum cleaner bodies.
The robot walked up to the wall and peered over. The sign on its back said “World Tours, San Francisco” and gave a phone number. He could hear the faintest whirring from its servos as the head swept from the Berkeley hills, along the bridge, and out toward the Point Bonita lighthouse. It studied the view, then turned to look at him. He nodded.
“Hello,” it said, in an accent he couldn’t place. Its voice was male and deep.
“Are you a native?” asked the robot.
He smiled. “Not many people here are. I’ve lived in the area twenty years, so I guess I’m an honorary native.”
The robot looked at him with its twin cameras. He wished they could think of a way to make a robot smile. He wondered if that were why some people weren’t comfortable around robots. People liked folks who smiled back at them.
“I don’t want to intrude,” it went on after a pause, “but I wondered if you could tell me if that is the Peace Tower over there?” One of its tubular arms swung out to point at Twin Peaks.
Jim pushed himself to his feet. “No, that’s the Sutro Tower. The Peace Tower is right downtown. There it is. See? Just to the right of the Mitsui Pyramid.”
The robot turned to follow his pointing arm.
“Ah, yes. Thank you.”
They stood side by side, looking at the white houses, row upon row, climbing up to Pacific Heights. The shimmering traffic moving down the streets looked like waterfalls in the distance.
“It is a lovely sight,” said the robot after a moment.
“It sure is. Even after all these years, I still like to come up and see it again.”
“Do you live in San Francisco?”
“No, I’m in San Anselmo, around on the other side of Mount Tamalpais.” He pointed behind them with his thumb and the robot turned to look, but they couldn’t see the mountain for the headlands looming above them. They both turned back to the view.
“Where are you from?” Jim asked.
“Nairobi, R.K,” said the robot, and then after a slight pause, “Republic of Kenya.” There was a hint of a question mark at the end of the statement, as if the robot were afraid he had offended Jim with the clarification. Jim smiled to reassure him.
“First time to the Bay Area?”
“It is my first time to America.”
“Oh? Well, welcome to the United States.”
“How long have you been here?”
“I came on Friday and must return Thursday.”
“Oh, that’s a good time. So many people come in for a day or two and say they’ve seen San Francisco. It can’t be done. Have you seen much of the area, taken any tours?”
“Oh, yes. I have a cousin who lives in Oakland. He picked me up at the travel bureau last week and has taken me all around. But today he went to work, so I’m out on my own.”
“Oh, that’s nice. You’ve seen some of the City then?”
“Yes, we went to Fisherman’s wharf, and the World Fairgrounds, and Golden Gate Park, and we rode the wire cars.”
“Oh, the cable cars. Did you like that?”
“Very much so, but it felt rather jerky and not entirely safe. A very primitive form of transport, is it not?”
“Oh, sure. They’ve been impractical for a hundred and fifty years, but the tourists like them and San Franciscans would howl if anyone ever suggested putting in a line of hoverbuses or something instead. This city is famous for being unconventional, but there are certain traditions that are almost sacred.”
“It is much the same in my country. People fly their cars into Nairobi and park them in fifty story parking garages, then put on beads and feathers and do a traditional hunting dance.”
Jim laughed. “Do you know, people here even celebrate earthquakes? The biggest celebration of the year is the parades and parties on March fifth, marking the anniversary of The Big One in ‘97.”
“Don’t people fear the earthquakes?”
“Some do, but they leave. Most people take a kind of pride in them. You know, that the City rebuilds every time and just keeps on going. People love to talk about where they were when it hit. And it’s always been like that. When I was kid there were still a few people who remembered the one in 1906, and that one almost burnt the City down. It’s a funny town.”
“It sounds like you enjoy living here.”
“I do. I wouldn’t live any place else.”
“That’s nice to hear. So many people complain about the places they live.”
“I know. I don’t know why they do it. If they’re unhappy, why don’t they move?”
“Perhaps because there’s no more room in San Francisco?” suggested the robot, gesturing at the crowded hills opposite.
Jim laughed, and the robot chuckled with him, a deep resonant sound. They stood looking at the view in silence. The robot’s head swung around to take in the view once more, then turned its cameras on him.
“You know, I was just going to comment about how hot and muggy it is today, but of course it isn’t here, is it?”
Jim laughed again. “Far from it. It’s quite chilly, and that wind off the sea is biting.”
The robot stared at him with its glassy eyes.
“Isn’t it odd,” it said, “to think that we can stand here talking like friends, and all the while you’re shivering in the Pacific wind and I’m sweltering in a tour booth in a travel bureau in downtown Nairobi?”
“I think it’s a great idea myself. People who can’t afford the time or the expense to travel can still get around, see far-off places, meet people from other walks of life.”
“Yes, it’s quite fun. The time difference is a bit disorienting at first - it’s well after midnight here, of course. But every morning I regale my wife with my adventures in exotic California during the night.”
“Have you been to other places?”
“We went to Antarctica for a three-day weekend last year. That was very interesting. Do you know, the penguins just came right up to us. They’re not intimidated by robots at all. And we were not at all sorry to miss experiencing the weather there.”
“I know what you mean. Last summer I spent three days in Copernicus. They don’t have any weather at all.”
“Really? I’ve always wanted to go to the Moon. Is it as strange as they say?”
“Every bit. I climbed the central peak and felt absurdly proud of myself for not even feeling tired. You wouldn’t believe the view of the full Earth.”
“I would like to try that some day, if I can talk my wife into it. She’s got her heart set on Switzerland next time.”
He took one more look around at the panorama. “Well, I must be going. My cousin will be expecting me. Thank you for telling me about your city.”
“A pleasure. You must come back in person some day. There is so much that you’re missing; the wine-tasting, the smell of the sea air, the steamed crabs down at the wharf.”
“I would like to do that, but true travel is so expensive these days, with the price of fuel what it is. I’m afraid that without these surrogates I would never get to go anywhere.”
“Well, I’m glad we could talk.”
“I as well. You must come to the R.K. some day. You’ve probably heard about nothing but the loss of wildlife in Kenya lately, but it is still a very lovely country.”
“I’d like that. Well, have a good stay.”
“Thank you. Goodbye.”
He watched as the squat little robot waddled daintily up the track. “Nice guy,” he thought, “but he still looks like an appliance putting on airs.”
copyright 1993 by Brian K. Crawford