FOREIGN AFFAIRS

This story started out as a writing assignment for a writing class. The assignment was to write a passage imitating an author I admire. I attempted to copy Neal Stephenson’s voice in the first paragraph. Once I had made that attempt I thought what the heck why not see where this might go as a story. So, I give you Foreign Affairs.

On a crisp fall morning in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Twenty, in time to the chirping rhythms designed to aid sight impaired individuals know which street to cross, Aldous Thundershanks stepped off the curb at the corner of Second South and State street in Salt Lake City, Utah. Aldous had more important matters on his mind than trivia, like which light was green and which light was red. The moment before that step, Aldous had received a message on his phone, the contents of which drew his considerable eyebrows together in a tangle reminiscent of the Amazonian jungle. As he took his second step, his eyebrows unknitted themselves in a process resembling untangling snarled cords and his mouth rounded into a perfect O. Those massive eyebrows just had time to leap impossibly far up his forehead when a bicycle messenger shouting vile curses arrowed into Aldous’ outstretched leg, spinning him hard into the asphalt. In a failed attempt to avert disaster, Aldous threw out his hand for balance. Unfortunately, that hand held his phone and extending it only added to the force with which it slammed into the ground, shattering its screen. On the pavement, blood streaming from a cut on his forehead, starred glasses turning the world into a crazed Kaleidoscope, Aldous Thundershanks was numb, his every sense focused on the text he’d received in his erstwhile phone—“Emergency protocol Alpha invoked. Report immediately to rendezvous Tempest Five. A sentinel is gone.”  

Anxious hands helped Aldous to his feet.

“Are you okay, man?” The bike messenger brushed wet leaves from Aldous’ suit coat. At other times the damage to his Mr. Mac two for one suit would have annoyed Aldous, but the words “protocol Alpha” and “Tempest Five” tolled doom in his mind drowning out everything else. It was too soon; they weren’t ready. With a worried glance at his shattered phone, he pivoted and strode back the way he’d come.

“I’m sorry,” the messenger shouted at Aldous’ back. “He stepped right in front of me,” the messenger explained to a bystander.

Weaving among pedestrians on the crowded sidewalk, Aldous stuffed his useless phone in a pocket and fished out a flip phone. When he’d received training on this device, he’d prayed he’d never have to use it. Now, he cursed his luck. This day was never supposed to come in his lifetime. That it had, was tragedy enough, but why today of all days? A flick of his thumb and the phone popped open. The number string sprang to his mind and he tapped it out. That done, he hit a final three number combination and tossed the phone to the gutter where it steamed. Somewhere deep in the bowls of Earth’s telecom system, software packages were opening up and sending activation signals.

Wetness trailing down his cheek and odd looks from people he passed reminded him of his injury. After a moment’s hesitation, he decided his suit was beyond saving anyway and swiped a sleeve across his forehead smearing blood onto the coat. With his phone out of commission, its shattered screen wouldn’t function, he’d have to find another way to alert Mari. Once in the facility, he’d be isolated. The system he’d just activated would provide her with directions, but the compulsion to say good bye forced his hand. His associates had warned him away from the relationship, but he’d ignored them.

“You will pay a price,” his friend Merrick had said.

“Maybe,” Aldous had responded, “but whatever price that is, I’m willing to pay it.”

Now he stared at the bill.

Another trickle. He swiped again. Ahead, a neatly bearded man sat on the edge of a concrete planter fiddling with his phone. With another swipe to remove the worst of the blood, Aldous stopped in front of the man and cleared his throat. “Pardon me,” Aldous said. The man refused to acknowledge him. Aldous tried again. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’ve just ruined my phone and I desperately need to text my wife. It’s an emergency.”

Head down, focused on his phone, the bearded man didn’t respond.

With a sigh—Aldous hated this sort of thing—he drew his SIG Sauer P320, flipped the safety with an audible snick, placed its barrel under the man’s chin and raised it. He didn’t want to kill the man, but now or within a day, the man was dead either way.

Eyes the size of quarters, the man sputtered. “What the hell?”

“I require you phone,” Aldous said, “just for a moment, then you can have it right back.”

The man’s eyes flicked wildly, searching passersby for help. No one met his gaze. In Aldous’ experience, most people wouldn’t react to this sort of blatant display of force. Either they would pretend it wasn’t really happening or they’d make up a story for themselves in which the gun wasn’t real or the two of them were engaged in an elaborate game, anything to support their sincere desire not to become involved.

“Now, please,” Aldous said. “I have enough blood on my clothes as it is.” Truly, Aldous disliked the terror now shaking the man causing him to fumble the phone and nearly drop it. Aldous mouth turned down in distaste at the stink. As a young man, Aldous never believed that fear smelled. It had seemed to him a creation of fiction writers with overactive imaginations. His mind had changed when he’d first smelled it on himself. Now, the man positively reeked of the heavy musk. Aldous noted more of a urine tint to this one’s smell. With a glance, Aldous understood. A spreading wetness in the man’s crotch accounted for it.

Aldous took the offered phone and with a practiced hand engaged the messenger app and tapped in Mari’s number. “The day has arrived, my love. I’m on a stranger’s phone, but it’s me. We knew it might happen. Remember the plan. If we survive, I will find you. Love forever, A.”

He tossed the phone back. “Thank you,” Aldous said and set off again. At his car, Aldous slid into the driver’s seat and it hit him. He strangled the steering wheel against the tremors. His body shook under each blow of his pounding heart. And the smell. Yes, fear filled the car. After a moment, the wave passed and his training took control. Get to the rendezvous point. He found the indentation on the steering wheel and pressed it. He was about to surprise a few earthers. With a grim smile, he pressed the hollow, and the engine thrummed to life. “Tempest Five,” Aldous said, and his car shot into the air at two thousand miles per hour. Inertia dampened, Aldous felt as if he were standing still. At eighty thousand feet, the car’s program stopped his ascent and hurtled him forward. Sorrow took the place of his fading fear. He’d thought he had time, time for a normal life. If that word described anything about his relationship with a human. His great eyebrows twisted and tangled together again in concern. Mari was safe from the initial assault. He had to believe that their precautions sufficed to preserve their chosen few from the first assault. But if he and his colleagues failed, their efforts were futile.

Half an hour later, above a peak in Alaska’s Brooks Range, the car halted and dropped toward a snow-covered peak. Just before smashing into the mountainside, a thousand square feet disappeared and Aldous’ car sank into the hole. A roof reformed overhead as his car settled to the ground.

“Status,” Aldous said as he left the car, his voice echoing in the cavernous space.

Light suffused the cave glowing from the rock walls revealing six desks at which sat three men and two women. Peter, Harold, and Weston occupied the three on the right, Rita and Carly the two on the left. Carly waved at Aldous as he strode to the empty desk. In his vision, a scene unfolded. Into a star flecked view a ship appeared. Aldous’ stomach clenched at the ship’s distinctive curved lines. Clordan. They’d suspected, of course. If they spotted the signs, the Clordan might too. Sparks fled from the ship, heading at Aldous. Within seconds they expanded into missiles. The picture winked out. A notation showed the time. Two hours ago.

“How they found the sentinel is a mystery,” Carly said, her head shake sending her hair in long black curls swaying. “Lucky for us, the sentinel got the jump drone away before it bit the dust.”

Lucky indeed, if they’d had to rely on the EM signal, they wouldn’t have known the Clordan had arrived until it was all over. Aldous plunked into the chair before the empty desk. With a wave of his hand, the display above the desk lit, showing the solar system from above the plane of the ecliptic. A bright red star marked the sentinel’s former position. Marked in green, their weapons assets sparked in the darkness. Scattered evenly in a sphere centered on the sun and roughly the diameter of the asteroid belt, those thirty assets were poised to swarm to the Clordan ship. They had been scattered because no one knew from which direction the Clordan would arrive. But they had also counted on surprise, assuming the first contact would be a lone unit, something they could handle before the entire planet was destroyed. With surprise, odds were good they could contain the damage. Their sentinel’s destruction shot that theory in the head. There had been no surprise, and the Clordan ship had disappeared. It would reappear in a matter of minutes and destroy Earth.

Cotton in his mouth, Aldous tapped into the network looking for the status on his assigned sector. He knew what was coming next. His unit checked out, active and ready. A quick glance showed that was true for his group and the other four Tempests.

“We should bug out,” Weston said. “It’s a loss.”

His logic was impeccable. Upon detecting signs of sentience, the Clordan sent a lone ship to cleanse the infection. They adjusted their methods to the inhabitants’ technological sophistication. In Earth’s case that would consist of anti matter weapons delivered to every concentration of a thousand or more humans. Some would survive the initial blasts, but the follow on dust-triggered perma winter would take care of those. And the Clordan would leave behind spy drones patiently waiting to discover if any humans clawed their way back to using the EM spectrum or artificial lighting. At which point the Clordan would schedule another visit. Aldous and his people hadn’t developed an ability to predict a Clordan ship’s jump point.  What they had done before and once again in Earth’s system was to scatter weapons ready to pounce on the Clordan ship and destroy it when it appeared.  

Unfortunately, the Clordan always unleashed their weapons before they were themselves destroyed. So Aldous and his compatriots constructed underground bunkers in which a critical mass could be saved, removed to another planet, and instructed how to form a civilization without giving themselves away to the Clordan in the future. Unless the Clordan knew Aldous and his people had been to a planet, in which case the first strike was much more thorough. Because the Clordan had discovered Aldous’ people, when the Clordan next appeared in Sol’s system, Aldous and his people wouldn’t have enough time to prevent Earth’s total annihilation. Logically, their best course of action was to recall their assets, cut their losses and abandon humanity to its fate.

Rita, Harold, and Peter logged their assent. Acid churned his stomach, and Aldous wished he could calm this human body. Her eyes locked on Aldous’, Rita hesitated. “It’s the right thing to do,” she said. “I know you—

“You know nothing,” Aldous said, fuming. “We can’t abandon these people.”

Eyebrow raised, Peter chimed in. “You mean you can’t abandon those people.” Suspicion pinching his face, Peter continued. “Merrick told me you were too involved. I laughed at him. ‘Not our Aldous,’ I said. ‘Aldous knows better than that.’ But he was right, wasn’t he?”

Sweat prickling his forehead from a sudden heat, Aldous swept away his desk’s display with an angry gesture. He wouldn’t give up; he couldn’t give up. They had to help him. Peter didn’t speak for his group, and he hadn’t consulted the other four groups. Breathing hard, Aldous’ eyes flicked to the others. Harold and Rita were with Peter and Weston. Carly was on the fence. If he persuaded her, she might bring the others along. Aldous closed his eyes and brought his breathing under control. An angry outburst wouldn’t convince anyone. When he opened his eyes, he caught and held Carly’s gaze. “Remember Otozon V?”

Carly’s mouth lifted in a half smile.

“You were at Otozon?” Peter said, his head swiveling between Carly and Aldous.

“You know it’s not hopeless,” Aldous said to Carly, ignoring Peter. “We proved that at Otozon.”

Harold scoffed. “No one has yet replicated that victory. It was a one off. You guessed the Clordan ship’s entry point. You got lucky.”

Carly’s smile faded.

“It wasn’t luck,” Aldous said. “Carly, you know that because we did it together. And look!” With a gesture, a miniature holo of Earth’s system popped up about the desk. “Remind you of anything?”

Carly peered at the model. Her forehead creased as she concentrated. She gasped and straightened.

“Yes,” Aldous said, “I didn’t see it either until a few days ago.”

“What do you see, Carly?” Peter asked.

Carly pointed at the holo. “That geometry. Eight planets, four of which are gas or ice giants in the outer system and the inhabited planet, third from the star, with a sizeable moon. Same as Otozon.”

“And?” Weston said.

“That’s how we knew where the Clordan ship would appear when it attacked the third world,” Aldous said in triumph. “And how we’ll know where it will appear when it prepares to destroy Earth.”

“We tried to tell Central,” Carly said in dismay. “We showed scientists at Central our calculations and tried to convince them to research our method to generalize it beyond the one system configuration, but no one listened. They said it was luck and buried our work.” She turned to Weston, pleading. “Aldous is right. We can’t abandon Earth, not when we know how to save it.”

Weston’s lips firmed into a line and his eyes hardened. “I didn’t want to do this, but you’ve left me no choice, Aldous. Tell Carly and the rest what really is driving your decision.”

Aldous couldn’t breathe. Fear gripped his thoughts and held them. How had he found out?

Into the silence Weston said, “I don’t wonder at your reluctance, Aldous.” Eyes fixed on Aldous, Weston continued, “Aldous here used his host body to impregnate a female human.”

Hearing it said aloud, Aldous flinched. Carly recoiled, covering her mouth as if she’d discovered Aldous carried a deadly contagious disease.

It was one of the fundamental rules of their service. When embodied in another species, never use that body to procreate. The resulting attachments were too strong. They warped an agent’s judgment, prevented the agent from making hard decisions. And it was true. When he had met Marianne, he had intended never to let her into his heart and when she wormed her way in anyway he vowed to have no children, but this body’s pull was powerful and Mari had so wanted a child. And this was never supposed to happen. He was meant to live out a full life in this body before the Clordan showed up. He had been on his way to meet Mari for their first ultrasound when he had received the text.

When he found his voice, Aldous pleaded. “Yes, you’re right. I violated one of our principal directives and with my whole being I want to save Mari and our child, but that doesn’t change the fact that I know where the Clordan ship will appear and we can save Earth.” 

Peter shook his head in sorrow. “I’ll tell you what your entanglement does change. It changes whether you would exaggerate or out right lie about your ability to determine where that ship will appear.”

“We can’t trust you now, Aldous,” Rita said.

Lead in his stomach, Aldous turned to Carly. “Tell them, Carly. Tell them—”

“I thought I knew you, Aldous,” Carly said in horror. “I never thought you capable of….”

“Enough,” Weston said. “I’ve communicated our recommendation and the other Tempests have agreed. We’re jumping our assets to the base at Ceres. We’ll travel there as well, transfer from these human forms and leave.”

And there it was. Without his team’s help, Aldous’ chances of success were vanishingly small. Remaining behind meant almost certain death. But what awaited him if he left? When he’d taken this assignment, he had understood it meant living his life out on an alien world. He had already severed ties with the world of his birth. Nothing was left there for him. His life was here on Earth. That was a consequence of the prohibition he’d violated, but it couldn’t be helped now. The love of his life was here. His family was here. Death with them was preferable to life without them. Resolve transformed his face to stone. He would save Earth or die trying. “I’m staying,” Aldous said.

“Don’t, Aldous,” Carly said, pleading. “You can’t save her. ”

“You don’t know that, Carly,” Aldous said.

“Yes, I do,” Carly said, pleading. “What does adding your death to hers accomplish?”

Aldous turned to Weston. “Please Weston, leave the assets. Let me at least try to save the humans.”

Weston shook his head. “You know how valuable they are,” Weston said, his voice heavy with regret. “Headquarters will need them elsewhere.”

Carly took her lip in her teeth, and indecision wrinkled her forehead. Then her face cleared, and she squared her shoulders. “I told you Weston,” she said. “He’s right. Aldous may have compromised his objectivity, but I haven’t compromised mine. We have a chance to save Earth. And regardless of Aldous’ actions,” her nose wrinkled with disgust, “we can’t let his indiscretion sway us from our mission.”

Fists clenched, Aldous held his breath. Carly’s unexpected aid was welcome, but he was unsure if it would be enough to persuade Weston. A decision to stay and fight would itself violate their protocols. If they were unsuccessful, Weston would suffer.

“I think we should give it a shot,” Peter said. “That victory at Otozon was one of the few bright spots we’ve had in the last thirty years.” He shrugged. “We won’t improve unless we do something different and different means going outside the regs.”

Lips compressed, Weston considered Aldous for a long moment. Finally, he sighed. “I don’t like it, but Peter’s right we need to change tactics and Carly vouches for you so….” He turned to his desk and raised a communication holo, contacting the other Tempests. “We have new information. We believe we can predict the Clordan entry point. I strongly recommend we stay and fight.” He glanced at Aldous with a faint smile. “Let’s nail these bastards.”

Aldous let out his held breath and sagged against his desk. Relief gave way to determination. “Help me here, Carly.”

Together they focused on the calculations while Weston and the others coordinated jumping the assets to near earth orbit. Powered by compact fusion reactors, the weapons platforms boasted a particle beam weapon and one antimatter missile. If they correctly calculated the Clordan jump point, they could amass all twenty platforms at that point to greet the Clordan ship.

Aldous’ fingers flew across his virtual keyboard. They’d wasted too much time arguing. Any second now the Clordan ship would appear. They had to know where. Carly swept a hand across her desk. Her calculations flashed into Aldous’ display. He integrated her results. There! Half way between Earth and its moon. That’s where it’d be. He threw the coordinates to Weston. Weston twisted his hand and twenty-five platforms popped up in Aldous’ display. In a globe, the platforms surrounded the point where—

The Clordan ship emerged from alt space. And loosed a dozen missiles at Earth. Platforms directed their energy weapons at the missiles and fired missiles of their own at the Clordan ship.

“They’re preparing to jump!” Weston shouted.

Aldous gripped the edge of his desk, muscles on his forearms popping out. He riveted his eyes on Clordan missile tracks. One, two, three flashes signaled the destruction of those deadly weapons. If even one escaped, it would devastate Earth. Another. Three more to go. A lightening flash and expanding gas ball signaled the end of the Clordan ship.

Another missile down. Two left.  Something hammered at Aldous’ chest. A flash. One left.

“It’s almost to the atmosphere,” Carly said. Once in the atmosphere, the chances of destroying it cratered.

“C’mon,” Aldous muttered

“Directing all assets at that missile,” Weston said.

The missile inched toward the atmosphere.

A flash. Aldous pounded the desk and threw up his arms in victory. “Yes!” he shouted.

Peter flashed a huge grin and grabbed Rita in a big hug, twirling her around. Even Harold slapped Weston on the back and pumped a fist.

Weston slumped into his chair and shook his head. “I never thought I’d see the day. An entire planet, a whole population saved. Just like at Otozon.”

“Which means,” Carly said, “we’d best get started.”

Aldous nodded, his euphoria fading. Carly was right. After Otozon, they’d had to evacuate the entire population to a new planet hidden from the Clordan. It was an enormous undertaking. And for him personally, it would be complicated.

“I’ll jump back to headquarters and start the process,” Weston said. He stepped to Aldous’ side and gripped his shoulder. “I’m sorry I doubted you, Aldous.” He clapped Aldous’ back. “You did outstanding work, you and Carly.”

Later, Aldous steered his car into the garage, shut off the engine and stared at the dashboard, twisting his hands on the steering wheel. Mari would return from the shelter any minute now.  Exhilaration from his victory had faded. He ran his tongue across dry lips. She’d have a lot of questions. He really needed to be in the house to greet her, but his hand wouldn’t move to the door handle. Mari didn’t know about him, about where he came from and why he was here. He had told her he was an important government official who had arranged for her evacuation to a special shelter in the event of a nuclear attack. She didn’t know her life on Earth was finished and the stars awaited. She didn’t know he had been born and raised to maturity in what to her would be a misshapen octopus. But he had to tell her. An anvil in his stomach, Aldous opened the door and dragged himself from the car.

Twenty minutes later, another car pulled into the garage.

“Honey? Aldous?” Mari said as she threw her keys on the kitchen counter. Aldous appeared and opened his arms. Mari stepped into his hug and squeezed. After a moment, she leaned back and searched his face. “That was strange. From your message, I thought this was the real thing and I might not see you again.” She pulled him back into her embrace. “I’m so glad they said it was a test. But please don’t scare me like that again. I don’t think I could survive it.”

“I’m glad too, sweetie,” Aldous said. “I couldn’t live without you.” Aldous released her, took her by the hand and led her to the living room. Seated next to her on the couch, Aldous held her hand and stared into her eyes, struggling to find the words that would change her life forever.

Eyebrows contorted in puzzlement, Mari cocked her head. “What is it? It was a drill, right? Everything’s okay now?”

Aldous fought through the dread and took a deep breath. “Mari, darling, I have something I need to tell you.”

A Battle of Wills

The other day, The Lovely Marianne and I hosted our son Andrew and his three children, Luke (5), Nora (3) and Brita (1). (That’s Nora on the right in the banner picture.) They had come for dinner, but it wasn’t quite ready when they arrived so Luke and Nora set about playing with some of the toys we keep on hand for such occasions. On this occasion, Luke and Nora wanted to play with Legos so they hauled the bin out from under a guest bed and went to work. At one point, Nora had added some Legos to a couple of containers and brought them down the hall from the bedroom where Luke was playing and in which the Lego bin was located.

Dinner was soon ready and Andrew asked Nora to put the Legos in the containers back into the Lego bin. This required Nora to move the containers from the piano room and down the hall.

Nora refused.

“No,” Nora said. Well, she’s three and more than a little headstrong, so this was not an unexpected response. At this point this was merely a routine refusal to do as she was asked. Andrew repeated his request a number of times. On Nora’s fourth refusal, Andrew introduced a consequence. “No desert if you don’t take them back to the bin.”

With desert on the line, Nora clearly was sorely tempted to do as she was asked. But, remember the part about her being headstrong? She had already put down her marker and she wasn’t going to abase herself. She’s also smart and saw a way to have desert and still save face.

“I can’t carry both of them,” Nora said. That was plainly not true as she had transported both containers originally from the bedroom. “You take one.” And there it was. A compromise was on the table. But Andrew is strong willed as well.

“No.” Andrew was calm, but unyielding. “Please take them both back or no desert.”

This upset Nora because she thought she had offered a reasonable resolution and couldn’t understand why her Dad wasn’t cooperating. Andrew came back to the table. With Nora seemingly inconsolable, lamenting her loss, I stepped in to try to help. I coaxed Nora to transport both containers half way down the hall by asking her to move the containers in stages. But halfway down the hall she realized what I was trying to do. There she stopped and wouldn’t budge.

“You take one!” she insisted when I tried to entice her to the Legos bin, just a few steps away. I ignored her and asked her to take one of the containers to the bin which she promptly did because that had been her offer all along.

“Now take the other one, please.” I had thought that by asking her to take them one at a time, she might comply and now that she was half way there, I was reasonably confident of success. But she recognized my subterfuge.

“No, you take it!”

I reiterated my request.

“No,” she repeated. “You take it.”

I tried two more times, but was met with the same refusal. At that point I gave up. “Okay, I guess you won’t have desert.”

Thinking about that incident, I wondered what was going on her head. Here she was half her task complete and the rest within a few steps of completion. Pick up the last container, walk ten feet down the hall and sweet, sweet desert was hers. But she refused. Well, she’s three and who knows what’s happening in her head. It’s a foreign land where adults are strangers. Or is it?

It didn’t take me too long to recall instances when I had exhibited the same stubborn refusal to do what I knew I should do. Something easy that would bring its own reward. So, what was I thinking in that moment? Stubborn, pig headed refusal is what I was thinking. I really haven’t learned much from when I was in Nora’s shoes. Maybe I understand Nora better than I’d thought.

Well, the Nora situation was soon resolved when TLM took up the challenge. She asked Nora to transport the remaining container to the Lego box. Nora immediately recognized the opportunity. Desert was within reach and she didn’t have to humiliate herself by giving in to someone whom she had previously refused to obey. Dignity thus preserved, she promptly picked up the container and trotted down the hall to the Lego bin and desert was hers.

But she made me pay. With a world class scowl she pointed at me. “I don’t like Grandpa. I’m sitting by Grandma not Dad or Grandpa.”

“Next time,” I told TLM, “I get to be the good cop.”

Almost a Christmas to Remember

At this joyous season, my thoughts turn to family, friends, and death. Okay, near death, very near death.

True story. Many years ago just before Christmas, I want to say it was 1991 our dishwasher quit. At that time, a quitting dishwasher was a tragedy. We were in the middle of what we identified to our children as the “austerity budget” years. Years in which we experienced the follow on events from a bad career choice I had made. A repairman was out of the question. But good news, a new dishwasher was ready and waiting for us on the moon; we just had to get there. Of course washing dishes by hand was always an option, The Lovely Marianne and I have hand washed our share, but I’ve always loved my dishwashers. It’s my favorite appliance, I take great pleasure in loading in dirty dishes, turning the thing on and removing clean dishes a short while later. I know, I’m easily pleased, but it’s the little things in life that are most satisfying.

I was, therefore, loathe to give it up. So it was that I partly dismantled the dishwasher to investigate the cause of its demise. Eventually, I determined the problem was a defective switch. In those pre-internet days, I had to phone around to find an appliance parts store with the proper part. Having done so, I left work early on Christmas Eve to retrieve the part. My goal was to repair the dishwasher before Christmas. I arrived home at noon or so and set to work. Our son James, ten at the time, was watching me in the kitchen and it was about to get interesting.

I had the panel off and had removed the old switch.

This was the old switch. At least, I remember it looking like this.

I grabbed the switch by the block and extracted it. So far so good. I took the new switch which looked like this

This was the new switch. Well, not exactly, but it did have the metal prongs arranged similarly.

Looks different, I know, but I was assured that it would fit. At this point James said, “Dad, do you need to flip the circuit breaker?”

Now, I don’t know where a ten year old gets that from. James was and is uncommonly bright so his question didn’t surprise me. But he was ten and I was the wise experienced adult. I haven’t the foggiest what went through my mind, but whatever it was convinced me that I, the grown up in the room, knew best and so, “No,” I said. “We don’t need to do that.”

Picture the scene then. It’s Christmas Eve. The Lovely Marianne is bustling in the kitchen preparing for the day stepping around me as I sat on the floor in front of the dishwasher. Diana (6) , Catherine (4), and Andrew (3) were running through the house chasing each other and making excited Christmas racket. In the midst of this holiday jollity I extended my hand to install the new switch.

Bang! Sparks everywhere! I dropped the switch and snatched my hand back. A cloud of choking smoke hung in the air. James yelped. “What happened?” he and TLM asked in unison.

I retrieved the new switch from where I’d dropped it. Look at the picture of the new switch again. See that bottom prong on the left side? Half that prong had melted.

Yes, when I went to install the switch it had arced with a live wire which was live because I hadn’t listened to James. “I think I’d better flip the breaker,” I said.

That was a close one. Fortunately, I had gripped the switch with only two fingers on the insulated middle part. Any contact with metal on that switch and BAM! there I would have been dead on the floor.

Surrounded by my family.

On Christmas Eve.

That would have been a Christmas to Remember.

As it was, I followed James’ advice, flipped the breaker and replaced the switch. Restored to operation, that dishwasher served us loyally for another ten years and that Christmas Eve faded into the background of other uneventful celebrations. Well, except for James who trots it out now and then as a reminder that I should always listen to his advice.

Bad Villains

The other night The Lovely Marianne and I were ridding ourselves of a few unwanted hours of consciousness in front of the television. (I kid. TLM was, as is her wont, on her laptop working on family history while keeping a half an eye on the mindless entertainment. I on the other hand was firmly glued to the box.) I won’t mention the show on the off chance someone reading this still thinks I’m a decent human being. In any event, in the course of the shoot ’em up, one of the good guys needed immediate access to the bad guys’ inner sanctum. Said sanctum was locked of course and the lock in question controlled by a keypad. You have to know the code to enter.

Unless.

Well, unless you have something with which to destroy the keypad. Heavily armed good guy had just the thing-a wicked looking gun. (I’m not a gun guy so the make, model and specs were beyond me. But it looked wicked.) A few bursts from the wicked looking gun, the keypad exploded and the inner sanctum doors sprang open. I paused the show to complain. “Can you believe that?” I asked TLM. This is not unusual behavior for me. I not infrequently stop a show to make observations and complaints. Mostly complaints. TLM, a woman of infinite patience, takes these interruptions in stride. “What dear?” she asked. “That!” I said pointing at the screen. “All they had to do to get into the inner sanctum was blow up the lock. I ask you what sense does that make?” She didn’t react because she knows by now. Ignore the crazy man and he’ll settle down.

Later, as I thought about this travesty, I was reminded of something my law school classmates reported to have been a sort of mantra for Professor Deem. A former Los Angeles County prosecutor, Deem taught the large section First Year Criminal Law class. (I was in the small section. Deprived of Professor Deems’ entertaining style, I was instructed by the much more cerebral Professor Durham. I know he was more intellectual because I never understood what was going on in class.) Professor Deem’s mantra? Criminals are stupid. And indeed it seemed like a basic security precaution not to allow such easy access to your inner sanctum.

Which led me further to contemplate a hilarious (at least to me) post I came across a number of years ago. The Top 100 Things I’d Do If I Ever Became An Evil Overlord That list is in essence a catalogue of stupid things bad guys do in fiction (particularly in movies and on television) formulated as an enumeration of things not to do. So I consulted the list and sure enough there it was. “No. 96 My door mechanisms will be designed so that blasting the control panel on the outside seals the door and blasting the control panel on the inside opens the door, not vice versa.”

It’s fun to peruse the list and identify stupid things fictional bad guys do to ensure or at least hasten their downfall. But there was one stupid thing I failed to locate on the list. Have you noticed that almost no one on television or in the movies protects their phones? It’s as if it never occurred to them to require a password or heaven forbid biometric identification on their phones. If you pick one up it’s Christmas! Data? Photos? Texts? Right there ready to provide needed clues. Grrr.

Now, I get it. Fictional people are smart or stupid as needed to move the story along. And I’ve been guilty of the same offence in my work. A beta reader and my editor both complained about Genia Calliot acting like an idiot (or at least very rashly) in Dawn’s Reach. I did my best to remedy that by explaining why she would act that way. I’m not sure how well that worked out. The best writers make a character’s smart or stupid decisions believable.

Do you think my irritation at the cluelessness I see on television will change my habits? No, that would be smart. I’m going back to that same well again, ready to watch the next episode in the show as soon as I’ve finished this blog post. That’s a dumb decision. Which makes me wonder. I think I’m being written by a terrible author.

Aliens Among Us

So, here’s something. One of the founders of Israel’s space effort has announced that aliens are real and have made agreements with the United States Government. I find this and other claims by, for example, people associated with the To The Stars Academy, to be fascinating on so many levels. On the one hand, I’m skeptical of claims that aliens have visited us, that we are in communication with them, that we have functioning (or non functioning for that matter) alien technology, etc. On the other hand some of those making the claims have significant backgrounds in fields not known for tolerating flights of fancy. This leaves me with an unanswerable question: should I believe them or not?

In considering my options, I have to account for their motives and behavior.

First do they themselves believe their own pronouncements? If so it seems to me there are three possibilities. One they are mentally unstable unable to separate fantasy from reality. Two they could have observed or experienced something they misinterpreted as evidence of aliens, alien technology, or alien interaction with humans. Or, three, their claims are the truth. Aliens exist, have communicated with us, reached agreements, with us, and (willingly or not ) shared technology.

Second do they themselves not believe their own pronouncements? If they are inventing these claims from whole cloth, what is their motive? It could be personal, they’re experimenting to see how gullible the rest of us are. It could be they are forced or convinced to make these claims by a body (such as a government, corporation, or other organization) pursing its own agenda. The first possibility feels unlikely given the stature of some of these individuals. I have no way to evaluate the second. I can’t think of any way false claims like these could benefit the government of other institution.

As with so many things in life, I’m left with a conundrum. Fortunately, it is a conundrum of the best kind: an inconsequential one. At this moment it makes no difference to me one way or the other. My behavior won’t change either way. One thing I firmly believe, however is that

Giving Thanks

Tis the season. Thanksgiving marks the start of the holidays. The Lovely Marianne and I spent a wonderful day with family.

Before you are concerned this photo is from 2019 NOT 2020. Inexplicably, we took no pictures this year. Most of the people pictured were not present.

In keeping with the Thanksgiving spirit, last week I and TLM and millions of others expressed out thanks on social media for seven days. But today, I add to that list because of something near and dear to my…well not my heart or my head but to quite a different area of my body. Today I’m thankful for

Yep, Colonoscopies

I had my latest one this week. I’m certain that’s more than you ever wanted to know, but I have a particular reason for being grateful for this particular procedure. The colonoscopy was first developed and performed in the fall of 1969. But in the first years colonoscopies met with significant resistance with many doctors of the opinion that they were unnecessary and unduly dangerous. So it was that by 1975 colonoscopies were not widely used as a tool to screen for colon cancer when my dad was diagnosed.

That’s my dad on the right. I’m the handsome one in the center leaning into mom (and yes, smart alecks, that is hair). The young girl who looks like she wants you dead is my sister Lorna. My brother Lyle is on the left. I think this is 1973 and I was 17.

I was in Italy at the time (see my previous blog post). Dad died in 1976 a year after the cancer was discovered. He was 57.

Fast forward twenty years. The procedure that was thought dangerous and unnecessary in 1975 was considered safe and essential in 1996 when I turned forty. Because of the history of colon cancer in my family, my doctor told me I needed to have the procedure done starting at age forty. So, I dutifully downed the prep endured a day of intestinal distress and reported to the hospital. Afterward, I was told they found several polyps and later the pathologist identified them as pre-cancerous. Which means that but for the invention and widespread use of colonoscopies I wouldn’t be typing this blog entry. I may not have made it as long as my dad did.

So, yes, I am thankful for colonoscopies. I just wish progress had run a few years faster.

Death in Venice

Well, it wasn’t Venice; it was Pordenone. And it wasn’t death; it was a close encounter. But A Close Encounter in Pordenone doesn’t capture the attention like Death in Venice. Plus it’s not the title of a semi well-known German Novella and Italian Art Film, so there’s that.

Now that I have your attention, let me spin you a tale, one of danger, pride, and ambition, but also of nimble mind, courage and, ultimately, salvation.

Many years ago, I found myself at nineteen years of age in Italy. Armed with a two month intensive immersion in Italian, I was serving as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. A day after arriving at the Venice airport (hah! see there is a Venice connection), I was shipped off to Pordenone.

Pordenone is a smallish town located a few miles from Venice.

You can see Pordenone just above the green A28 sign.

I was assigned to work with a more experienced missionary named Kevin Call. Kevin was a great guy (he had the right first name anyway) and the day I arrived at our apartment two days after I had landed in Italy, he took me out to meet people and talk to them. Well, he talked to them; I struggled to identify a word or two and when I attempted to employ my vast knowledge of Italian it sounded like this “I Elder Bates to speak to you if you to want to.” Yes, as you can imagine there were lots of curious looks and requests to Kevin Call to translate.

Anyway, our apartment was located on Via Galileo Galilei in the town of Pordenone.

This is not a contemporary photo from when I was there, but I’m pretty sure these were the apartments.

We didn’t have a car. We traveled on bikes (in bicicletta) as they say. And that fact is important to the story. It is also important to know that when we went out speaking to people we stayed out until 9:00 pm or so. That first night I was out was in mid September. Which means it was dark by the time we were ready to turn in. Remember that: it was dark.

It is also important to know that I wore a dark suit and rode a black bicycle.

That’s me on the right with my trusty early 1900’s era bike. Dark suit. Black bike with no headlight. But a really cool tie.

Not shown in the picture above is one other piece of clothing I had on that first night: a black overcoat.

One more visual is necessary for the story.

This was the road we traveled to arrive at our apartment. From here we had to turn left to get to our street.

You can see above the street we rode on to our apartment. As noted, we had turn left to get to our place. Please observe how many street lights line the road.

Okay, now it’s night. I’m following Kevin Call to our apartment and since it’s my first night in the city I have absolutely no clue where I’m going. Following Kevin Call; that’s what I’m doing. Now picture the above road at night. In my black suit and black overcoat I’m on my black bike (with no headlight) riding along the right side of the road.

I’m tooling along watching Kevin in front of me. Without any warning, Kevin darts off to the left to make the turn to our apartment. Now, I’m in a strange town, in a foreign country. I have no clue where I’m at and if I lose Kevin Call, I am completely lost. I don’t know my address and even if I did no one would understand me if I tried to ask for directions. So, I have to follow him. Fortunately the truck oncoming in the left lane looks like it’s far enough away that I can make it across. I glance back and see another oncoming truck in the right lane, but I can avoid that one as well.

I quickly then dart to the center of the road. I look up. The oncoming truck was travelling much faster than I thought. I couldn’t make it across.

My first thought is to zip back to the other side of the road. But there’s a truck coming up behind me. No time to get back. My best bet is to ride the center line and pray.

The drivers of both trucks lay on their horns. The trucks arrive at the same time. Blinding lights and blaring horns. My overcoat whips around me. The wind of their passing causes me to wobble. Then they’re gone.

Kevin Call later tells me he was sure I was dead. I was sure I was dead. But no, thanks to the drivers’ skill, my luck and divine intervention, I lived another day. Needless to say that is one of my more vivid memories of my time in Italy. I have a few more and Kevin Call is involved in one of them. But that’s a story for another day.

I, Philistine

phil·is·tine/ˈfiləˌstēn/

noun

  1. a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.

Okay, so I’m not really indifferent to culture and the arts and while many question my understanding, I do have some. Understanding, that is. Just don’t try to confirm that with anyone who knows me well.

In any event, I propose to expand the definition a tad, because with my proposed expansion, philistine fits me well. I would add “indifference to wild animals.” So, yeah, I’m a philistine. Which is not to say I feel hostility to animals in the wild or want to do them harm, like say, shoot them (hi Rick!), but neither do their presence make my heart pound with excitement they way they do to some people (again, hi, Rick!). (Yes, yes, Rick falls in both categories. He loves seeing wild animals and he shoots them. Not always the same ones, mind you, but still. It kind of reminds me of a fictitious advertisement for the Navy I ran across many years ago.)

Fake poster recreated from memory. This is what passed for memes in my (very ancient now) day.

So, again I don’t have anything against (or for) animals in the wild, only, as the definition implies, I don’t really care whether I see them. I like to think wild animals and I have a symmetric relationship. They care as much about seeing me as I do about seeing them.

Now, I know you’re asking, Kev (in my head that’s what you all call me) how did you discover this about yourself. Funny you should ask. I was just about to explain.

The Lovely Marianne and I have have visited Yellowstone National Park three times in the last three years. Once in winter once in spring and once in summer. The differences between winter on the one hand and spring and summer on the other are stark.

Marianne in the Park, lovely in spring or winter

But there is a constant in any season. Traffic jams. Ah, I can hear you now,”Traffic jams in the winter? How is that possible? I can almost understand traffic jams in the summer, but winter? I used to enjoy your posts, but now you’re just making stuff up!” Not so, my friends. In the winter I said and in the winter I meant. And summer, winter, spring or fall, the cause is always the same–wildlife.

Picture this: you’re driving along admiring the scenery excited to get to Yellowstone Falls, or Old Faithful, or Norris Basin, when break lights flare up and everyone stops.

There they are, stopped.

Why? Because someone spotted, or think they spotted, or wanted to spot a __________ (fill in the blank with your favorite animal).

Ants?

Well, maybe not ants, but anything else. In the case of the jam pictured above, it was a bear.

Do you see a bear? Yeah, neither did we.

Or at least that was the rumor we heard from others who pulled off the road with us. “Oh, you just missed it!” Right. According to one of the crowd, the bear had disappeared into the brush on the left seconds before we exited our car. I remained dubious.

On occasion, very rare occasion, even I, philistine that I am, concede a traffic jam is unavoidable. When a buffalo ambles down the road in the oncoming traffic lane, okay, everybody has to slow down.

Yeah, that’s an exception.

But otherwise, seriously? Here for example.

See that black lump? That’s a bear. But I only learned that from someone with binoculars.

Okay, I see that is some form of animal, but really, from that distance without magnification, I would have no idea.

Bison are everywhere in the park. We stopped to use the potty at one point and this guy just wandered into my path, grazing away.

I didn’t approach the wildlife, honest. He approached me.

So, I have to ask, why does a line of cars come to a complete halt for this?

Home on the range where the buffalo roam.

And yes, as I said, winter is just as bad. Our snowmobile group halted on numerous occasions because people were so excited to see animals.

The ubiquitous buffalo (or bison if you’re pretentious) and something else eating another something else.
The Lovely Marianne. Oh, and an elk in the background.

My philisitinism gradually surfaced as I examined my reactions to these constant, interminable slow downs. “For cryin’ out loud, it’s just a buffalo!” Or fill in the blank with your own least favorite animal. After a while (say midway through our first day in the park) I realized I didn’t care about the wildlife. I wanted to see a geyser. By the end of the first day, I knew what I was.

This is how ridiculous it gets. On our way back to West Yellowstone one evening cars in front of us slowed then stopped. At the Lovely Marianne’s urging, we pulled over and mingled with the crowd peering in the dusk for wildlife.

I don’t see any. Do you?

As you do in those situations when the reason for the gathering was not immediately apparent, I asked one of the crowd what everyone was looking at. “The sunset,” she said. “Isn’t it pretty?”

Yes, it was.

I lifted my eyes to the horizon. Yep, it was gorgeous. My impatience slackened. I had nowhere else to be. So, the Lovely Marianne and I lingered and enjoyed the show. It was spectacular, even without wildlife.

Lincoln in the Bardo

This was our latest book. In order to get this announcement you have to be familiar with the book. This is another attempt at mimicking a book’s style.

Dear all, last night sleep escaped me, so I took a midnight stroll. Crossing Falcon Park, I paused, chilled, at whispers swirling around me. I rushed home and recorded what I recalled.

I hear there will be—
patrick estrada

A meeting.
jane vargas

Would you quit—
patrick estrada

Interrupting you?
jane vargas

She’s yanking your chain, man. I think it’s funny.
jerry owens

I’m aware. It’s not amusing. Yes, a meeting. A book club meeting.
patrick estrada

Aptly named, for us, that book club—Thanatopsis, a contemplation on death.
jane vargas

Hey, speak for yourself. I’m not dead, just not been feeling myself lately.
jerry owens

Not feeling yourself or anything else. I think we should attend.
jane vargas

If you have a mind to, I have it on good authority the meeting will be held at 7:30 on Tuesday, July 28 and—
patrick estrada

They will discuss Lincoln in the Bardo at Nancy’s home.
jane vargas

Heh, there she goes again.
jerry owens

I do not have to put up with this. I am leaving. Do not pursue me Mrs. Vargas.
patrick estrada

The voices faded with the last comment and the air warmed appreciably. I transcribe here only what I heard. Make of it what you will.

Puzzled at the vaugeries and expanse of the universe and all the wonders it contains,
I remain, your humble, befuddled, servant,
The Girl.

A Matter of Time

The kernel of this story has been rattling around in my head for years. A couple of months ago, I started writing it, but was stuck after the first few paragraphs. I’d had an idea, but it wasn’t yet a story. I think I made the transition. What do you think?

A Matter of Time

Isabella said it was a terrible idea, but I went ahead anyway. Her wisdom and foresight became evident at sundown when Chester shied at a rattlesnake, stepped in a hole, and broke his leg. I rose from where I were throwed, slapped dust from my clothes and considered my poor animal. On the ground, eyes rolled up, good legs scrambling in the dirt, he whinnied in pain, muscles on his flank twitching and jumping.

It pained me. He had been an obedient horse, and I had nothing to ease his suffering. I could not bear to hear his torture, so I loosed the tie strap, gathered what little food was in the saddlebags and set off toward home. When Chester’s cries no longer echoed in my ears, I stopped and took stock.

The day had burned down to coals, leaving only an orange-red band on the western horizon. But a half moon rose in a clear sky—plenty of light for walking. Bedding down was an uncomfortable possibility—uncomfortable because even in high summer under the crystal sky the temperature would drop. I had no bedding. Tomorrow would be hard—all day in the sun.

Or I could start walking now. Home by midmorning, Isabella wondering where her fool husband had gotten off to this time. I grimaced, seeing her scolding face.

Walk now or walk later.

I set off. Exertion would keep me warm in the night, and my daytime travel would be in the morning before the proper heat. At a nice, even pace, I fell into a waking dream. A zephyr shushed the low scrub and an occasional owl hooted in search of a meal. Alone beneath the heavenly vault, I imagined myself separated from time and space. This confession will no doubt surprise people of my acquaintance, for I have never been one to philosophize or daydream, but I relate only what happened.

I came to myself as I started up a slight rise, crunching on gravel. At this unexpected sensation, I stopped. Gravel? Was I in a stream bed? A glance revealed me to be on a gravel covered embankment on top of which….

I squinted in the meager light, unsure of what I saw. Black. As black as a moonless night sky, a flat strip of something topped the rise. I had never seen the like. Scrambling to the top, I stood on the edge of that strip. It extended to my right and left, disappearing into the distance. Hesitantly, I touched the substance with the toe of my boot. Hard and unyielding, it didn’t move at my touch. I stepped on the surface.

Down the middle of the strip someone had painted white lines, but the paint was unfamiliar. It glowed in the moonlight, reflecting unlike any other paint I knew of. The lines were straight and even, extending the ribbon’s length, but spaced out like a bunch of dashes. And on each side of the Ribbon an unbroken strip of the same paint stretched to the horizon. The amount of paint on that ribbon even only along the ribbon’s length in my view was enormous.

I was flummoxed. Who had put this flat black ribbon here and how had I never seen it before? What purpose did it serve?

*

I could not keep my eyes open. It occurred to me that Mari had been right—stopping in Page would have been an excellent idea. I glanced at the clock on the dash—1:45 am and Kanab still a half hour away. With stars sprinkled in a night sky, a half moon, and an economics podcast my only companions, my head was heavy, nodding seemingly of its own accord. Ten minutes ago, a truck passing in the other direction had kept me alert for all of thirty seconds.

I reached to rub my eyes, and a man appeared on the roadway ahead. Adrenaline fueled panic drove my foot on the brake, slamming the pedal to the floor. Tires screeching, the car hurtled toward the man.  Time slowed then strobe-flickered.

I.

Wasn’t.

Going.

To.

Stop.

In.

Time.

With a vicious twist, I yanked the steering wheel to avoid him, only to send the car into a spin. Out of control, I spun once, twice. By some miracle I stayed on the road and missed the man ending up in the opposite lane facing back toward him. In my headlights, he raised a flat brimmed black hat, shielding his eyes from my headlights’ glare. He hadn’t budged from where I’d first seen him.

Lean, with a long beard, the man stared open-mouthed at my car. Where it was visible, his face was deeply tanned. He must have wandered away from a reenactment camp. Dressed in straight legged gray trousers that looked like canvas, he wore a black wrinkled coat over a gray rumpled shirt. Boots, suspenders and that old beat up hat completed his outfit.

Furious now, the adrenaline bolus had to go somewhere, I threw open the door, heedless of any oncoming traffic and stormed at the man who remained rooted. “What the hell were you thinking?” I admit to my chagrin that it came out as a scream.

*

A low hum interrupted my wonderings. Off to my left, light glinted along the ribbon. It grew brighter with the increasing noise until I had to squint. It was as bright as the sun at noon, but white and gave off no heat. With a horrible screech, the light wobbled from side to side on the ribbon and then spun. There were two lights now, and they were attached to a box. The box spun on the ribbon and came to a halt with its lights glaring in my face. An acrid, evil cloud enveloped me and set me to coughing. Even shielding my face from the light, I could not ascertain the nature of the box or what it was doing.

A man emerged from the light and screamed an obscenity at me. Pudgy, balding and red-faced, he vented his spleen at my audacity to be alive and standing before him. He wore blue pants of a material I had never seen and a loose, green, collared shirt.  Flummoxed by this whole experience and not yet convinced this was not a nightmare and I was really at home in bed, I laughed out loud at his antics. Oddly, this calmed the man, and he ran a hand across his head then gripped his neck.

“What are you doing in the middle of the road at night?” He asked.

His question anchored me in reality; this was no dream. In an attempt to banish questions swirling in my head, I focused on his words. This was a road. Huh, I thought and looked back along the ribbon the way he had come. It made sense. Flat and rock hard, the material beneath my feet would indeed make a decent road. But it seemed extravagant for the wilderness. At the thought, questions spun back into my head, leaving me dizzy and confused. Nowhere I was familiar with had a road such as I stood upon, but as Isabella never tires of telling me—I am not an educated man. Somewhere on earth was a country with these roads. I would worry about how I traveled here later.  “Where am I?”

At this the man nodded as if I had confirmed a thought. “Had too much of a good time tonight? You’re just outside of Kanab, Utah. C’mon let’s get you in my car. I didn’t know there were any pioneer reenactments right now. But we’ll get you sobered up and back to your group.” He extended an arm towards the box with the lights.

My mind had blanked at the words Kanab Utah. Where was that? I had never heard tell of any place with those names. “Not an educated man,” Isabella’s voice rang in my head again. Still. I surveyed the landscape yet again, spotting familiar landmarks even in the scant heavenly light. I knew this place. I had traipsed all over this ground in the last two years. I was fifteen miles from home. Behind the man, outside the box’s glaring lights, Johnson’s ridge shouldered into the sky. Around the base of that ridge, home beckoned. The man opened a door in his box. Lights glowed within and a voice droned. With caution, I crept toward the opening. Whoever was within kept up a steady stream of words. I glanced into the interior, a sharp eye out for the other stranger. His voice grew in volume at my approach. Inside, the box was not large—two seats up front and a bench in back. Both were empty. Then it struck me. The voice was coming from the front. A tingle skittered down my back. The box itself was speaking.

I leaped back away from the box, striking the back of my head.  

*

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud.” I’d heard that some of these pioneer reenactors liked to immerse themselves in their parts, but this was ridiculous. We were in the middle of nowhere at two in the morning. Who was he trying to impress with his whole I’m-from-the-past-and-never-seen-a-car act?

“Just get in the car, I growled. Or not. At this point, I don’t care. I’m leaving.”  The man’s head swiveled between me and the open door. “Fine,” I said and moved to shut the door. I didn’t have the time or energy to indulge his fantasy. He was none the worse for our encounter. He could wander off back to where he came from.

Before I could move the door, the man laid a hand on it. “I will accompany you in your box,” he said and slid into the front seat.   

I rolled my eyes. What a dweeb.

Back in the driver’s seat, I started toward home once more. As we accelerated, the man stiffened, white knuckle gripping the seat’s edges, his eyes all whites. The seat belt warning chimed. “You need to put your seat belt on,” I said, sharply. Apparently frozen with fear, the man made no move to comply.

The seat belt warning sounded again and again, becoming more insistent. I clamped my jaw against the annoyance. It would stop eventually, and if this guy didn’t care about his life, I wasn’t going to insist. Eventually, the warning fell silent. I relaxed. Maybe if I could get him talking, he’d break character. “What’s your name?”

The man released one side of his seat and ran his sleeve across his forehead, then grabbed the seat again. “Lemuel,” he said. “Lemuel Parker.”

I puffed out my cheeks in frustration. There was zero chance his actual name was “Lemuel.” He was still deep in character. It was interesting that he chose that name, though. Faintly, hovering in the back of my mind, a bell was ringing. The surname was familiar. I had Parkers from my mom’s side all along my line.  “Where are you from?”

He shifted in his seat, settling in, losing some of his stiffness. Even as frustrated as I was, I had to admire his tenacity. Maybe his troupe or camp or whatever it was had a challenge to see who could stay in character the longest, though how anyone would know he hadn’t cheated was beyond me.

“I was born in Ohio.” He turned his head, looking out the window. “Kirtland, Ohio.”

In my head the bell rang louder. One of mom’s people was from there. Scoffing, I shook my head. Fatigue must be fogging my brain. “Well, Lemuel, when we get to town, where can I drop you?”

At his blank stare, I tried again. “Where do you want me to take you when we get to town?” His puzzlement remained. “Where are you staying while you’re here?”

“I live here.” he said.

“You live in Kanab?” The town wasn’t that large. I didn’t know everyone by any means, but Lemuel was distinctive enough I was certain I hadn’t seen him. Unless he was new. “How long have you lived here?”

He shook his head. “Isabella and I have lived here going on a year, but I do not know this Kanab.”

We topped a rise, and the town’s lights spread, twinkling before us. The man’s eyes widened and he gripped the seat again. “What are those lights?” In awe, he leaned forward blinking rapidly as if the lights were apparitions.

I sighed. At first I’d thought he was drunk, but there was no alcohol on his breath. High on something else then. That’s what I concluded. Mari wouldn’t like it, but we’d put him in a spare bedroom for the night. Everything would be clearer in the morning.

*

I awoke from the strangest dream. Or was I awake? The bed I lay in had none of the feeling of our straw tick mattress. It was soft and firm at the same time, like lying on a cloud. And the bedding was luxurious, fine cotton. My eyes flew open. If this was a dream, it was like none I had ever experienced. I was in a room alone. It contained the bed I was on, a wooden chest of drawers, and next to the bed a table with a metal sculpture on it. Over the bed light shone through a set of curtains. The room was the size of my home. I was in a palace then. I recalled my conversation of the night before. This Kanab place must be a mighty kingdom if a commoner like me could be afforded such luxury.

I swung my feet from the bed into a soft carpet. Morning duty called, but I had no idea where the outbuilding might be. To my right, a door stood open into a small room. Curious, I pushed the door open. In this room tiles made up the floor. At the far end, a tub grew from the tiles. At one end pipes erupted from the wall. A curious china construction sat next to the tub. In form, it resembled the seat in an outhouse. I puzzled over this contraption until it struck me. I had read about these. One or two fancy hotels in the east had installed these water closets. Because I was not certain how to make use of it, I resisted the urge for a time, but in the end succumbed. It was evident where to deposit the waste, but once I had done so, it sat in the water. I recalled reading there was a means to remove the waste. A gleaming metal lever looked likely. I pressed. Water in the bowl disappeared from the bottom carrying the waste with it. With no action on my part, the bowl again filled with water.

I had heard about this. Plumbing. This mansion I had awakened in was plumbed. My attention turned to the basin next to the Water Closet. A pipe arched from the back of the basin, another lever connected to it. I pushed the lever up and water gushed from the pipe. After a moment, it steamed. Could that be hot? With trepidation, I touched the water and snatched my hand back with a yelp. It was scalding.  

The door from the room with the bed opened easily and admitted the smell of sizzling bacon. Turning left into a hallway, I followed my nose and emerged into another enormous room. Covered with a cloth, a table set for a meal occupied the center. More windows opposite me gave a view of more of the same kind of road I had stumbled across last night and more of the boxes in which I had ridden. As I stared, a box glided silently along the road and disappeared.

“Oh, you’re awake,” a woman bustled into the room. Tall, slender with russet hair tied back and dressed in the same type of blue pants the man had sported last night and a flowing red shirt, she had the tanned skin of a day laborer. If he had to guess, she had not yet seen thirty years.  She carried a platter of bacon and pancakes. After setting them on the table, she turned and touched the wall. Lights flared overhead. From what I could make out through slitted eyes, globes of some unknown substance attached to the ceiling glowed.  “Lemuel is it?” I nodded. “I’m Mari. Don, my husband the one who picked you up last night will be out soon. Do you eat pancakes and bacon?”

“Yes, Ma’am, I do, and I thank you kindly for your hospitality.”

At this response, she gave me a curious look. Music sounded. I searched for its source, but it seemed to come from the woman herself. She inserted a hand in a pocket and withdrew a small, thin silver brick from which the music played. After glancing at the brick’s surface, she touched it and lifted it to her ear.

“Hello,” she said. I glanced about the room, supposing that another person had entered, surprising her.

After a moment of silence, she spoke, “It’s been two weeks,” she said, still with the brick to her ear, “and now you’re telling me not until Thursday?”

Confused now, I said, “I do not understand. What is happening Thursday?”

Her face twisted in annoyance, and she waved a hand at me. “Well,” she said, “if that’s the best you can do.”

My head whirled. She was addressing me with meaningless words. At a loss as to how to respond to her observation, I attempted once more to answer her. “I do not know what you expect of me, but be assured I will do my best.”

At this she turned away from me. “I’m sorry someone interrupted me. Would you say that again?”

The custom of facing away from a person with whom one is conversing was unknown to me. I assumed it was not rudeness, but merely a custom in her land, and endeavored to comply with her request. “I do not know what you expect of me,” I repeated, raising my voice in case her need for repetition indicated a loss of hearing, “but be assured—“

I gaped in astonishment as Mari stormed from the room after throwing a glance over her shoulder filled with animosity. I had offended, but was mystified as to how. My attention then turned to the food on the table before me and I endeavored to set aside any guilt for my offense. Don and Mari I decided must be among the wealthiest people in the district. They had water brought into their home from some source heated by unknown means. And they had set for me their finest china, gleaming utensils fashioned of an unknown metal and a sparkling crystal container for beverages. Along with the steaming pancakes and crisp bacon, a carafe of orange liquid was set out together with an oddly shaped translucent container with the word Milk printed on a piece of paper stuck to its side.

Curious, I reached for the carafe and immediately drew my hand back in shock. It was cold, so cold I was afraid I might damage my skin. What sort of miracle was this? Where in mid summer in this desert had they found ice sufficient to keep liquids this cold? My assessment of their wealth increased again.

And yet again when I poured the liquid and tasted it. Oranges! They could afford enough oranges to squeeze this much juice and offer it to a stranger? Oranges were costly and to obtain enough simply for juicing was an outrageous extravagance.

After discovering the miracle of their maple syrup, I ate with gusto, it having been many hours since my last meal.  Mari re entered the room. When she opened the door strange music drifted in with her. My first instinct was to crane my neck to see who was playing, but I was reminded of the voice from the box last night. By some magic, in the absence of any musicians, the music appeared in the air.

“I’m sorry about that,” Mari said. “That was our contractor. We had this house built and only moved in a month ago, but already we’ve had issues with our electrical. It’s 2020. You’d think by now they’d be able to do wiring right the first time.”

Puzzled yet again, I attempted to make sense of her words. Something in her statement raised the hairs on the back of my head. “Excuse me, Ma’am. When you said just now ‘it’s 2020’ what did you mean? What’s 2020?”

She chuckled then when I failed to laugh with her she frowned. “I meant the year of course—two thousand and twenty.”

Hands gripping the table I steadied myself against the whirling room. That was not possible. The year was 1857.

*

Frantically, I rooted through old journals. My mom had tasked me with transcribing these and I had always intended to, but never seemed to find the time. I had only agreed to her assignment after hearing her recount one of the stories. One of our ancestors had recorded a dream he’d had. A dream in which he traveled to the future.

There. Sometime in the past I’d attached a sticky note to it so I could locate it again.  The sticky note marked the story’s beginning. Here in a few pages of spidery handwriting the journal’s author described a dream in which he had traveled to the year…2020. A descendant of his had discovered him in the middle of the night and taken him home. Hand trembling with trepidation, I turned to the front of the book. “The Journal of Lemuel Parker.”

I burst into the dining room. Seated at the table his face drained of blood, Lemuel shook his head in denial. “No,” He said. “No, that cannot be.”

“It is,” I said brandishing the journal. From his demeanor, I guessed what he and Mari had been talking about. “It’s all here in your handwriting.” I gave him the journal. “That’s yours, right? That’s your handwriting and everything?”

Eyes glassy and unseeing, he accepted the journal and paged through it.

“What’s going on, Don?” She gestured at Lemuel. “Who is he and what is this journal?”

I passed a hand across my head. “This is going to sound crazy, but…” I was right it did sound crazy and I didn’t know how Mari would accept it.

“What’s going to sound crazy?” Mari said. “Don, tell me what this is all about.”

“Lemuel here is my great, great grandfather. In 1857 while homesteading in this area he recorded in his journal having a dream in which he traveled into the future to the year 2020 and met his descendant Don Parker and his wife, Mari.” Lemuel had finished reading his story. He sat head bowed over the words.

“Only it wasn’t a dream. Lemuel here really did travel to the future and is now seated at our table.”

With narrowed eyes, Mari considered me. Her eyes flicked to Lemuel and back to me. She grinned. “Okay, that’s pretty funny. A bit elaborate for you, I admit, but still amusing.” She took a seat across from Lemuel. “So who is this guy and what’s he doing in our house?”

Hours later, Mari had come around and our visitor from the past was settling in.

“So how does he return to his own time?” Mari asked. We were seated in the living room while I tried to explain to Lemuel about televisions, mobile phones, computers, the internet and a host of other to him outlandish aspects of the modern world.

“It’s all in the story,” I said. “On August 7th at ten am he’s down the street at Hamblin Park standing at home plate in the ball field. He disappears and wakes up a mile from his house on the day he left. He doesn’t write his experience until a few years after his travel, by which time he has begun to think of it as a dream.“

Mari smiled. “August 7th, two days from now.” She turned to Lemuel. “What do you want to do in the meantime. “

I nodded at the journal lying open on the coffee table in front of Lemuel. “That’s the best part. We have his trip all planned out.”

*

I did not need to wait years. It felt like a dream already. Endless food of a quality and variety I had in fact only dreamed of. Transportation to vast distances at speeds I had never imagined. Comfort and ease that exceeded the mind of anyone from my time. For some unknown reason, Don waxed nostalgic about the world I came from. “Purer,” he called it. “Closer to nature” and “Without the complications of modern life.” I did not understand this last reference. As near as I could tell those complications involved what of the many varieties of food to pluck from their magic boxes, how much and what type of entertainment to consume and how to occupy all their leisure time.

On the morning of my planned departure, Don and Mari sat me down.

“We want to say,” Don began his eyes brimming with tears, “because we won’t have another chance, how grateful we are to you for all the sacrifices you made for us.”

Mari nodded along with him.  “You and Isabella coming out here in the wilderness hacking a living out of unforgiving land so that we could build a better life for ourselves…” she paused and laid a hand on mine. “We can’t thank you enough.”

Outside, beyond their green, well-watered lawn, the sun baked a parched land. Already the temperature was rising, but in this house chilled air flowed over my exposed skin and the remains of a hot breakfast prepared effortlessly in an instant cooled on the table. A world’s knowledge lay in the brick Don toyed with in his hand. “You’re not an educated man,” Isabella’s voice rang in my head.

“Well, Don said as he stood, “time for you to go. We don’t know exactly how this works so you’d better be there early and at the right spot.” He chuckled, “you wouldn’t want to miss that boat.”

I rose while in my mind sorrow struggled with anticipation. Would I not? I took his extended hand.

“You know we’d accompany you, but the journal,” he pointed at the tattered book open on the table, “says you’re alone.”

I nodded. I knew what the book said. In the past two days I had poured over my words, not just the story of my journey here, but of the rest of the life that lay in my future and these peoples’ past—a boy born to Isabella a year from now, Isabella’s death at the birth. A failed farm and a string of failed businesses. Two loveless marriages after Isabella. Then, at the end, a note appended in a different hand “Thrown from a horse and killed.” He’d been fifty. It was interesting that I had already begun thinking of the man from the journal as someone else.

“Thank you for your generous hospitality,” I said. And I meant it. They had been kind to me. Too kind. “You are not an educated man.” These people had educated me. Funny thing about education—once your eyes have been opened, no matter how hard you try, you cannot close them again.  Weighed down with sadness now that the moment had come, I shook Don’s hand and hugged Mari. I supposed it would be painless, but I was not certain.

I left the house on my way to the park. At the corner I paused. To my left the park’s grass glowed a vibrant green in the sun. I turned right. Mounting a hill beyond Don and Mari’s home, I settled in the shade of a boulder.

Now that I thought of it, it must be painless. How could there be pain in simply ceasing to be? I considered the possibility that I might be mistaken, that the key was not the location, but something inside me. Shrugging off the concern, I stared at Don and Mari’s home then consulted a time keeping device I had stumbled across and had kept. At precisely ten am their home disappeared. I blinked to ensure I saw aright. Where their home had been was nothing but hard packed desert. I rose into the sun and indulged in a leisurely stretch, working the kinks out from my wait. I was not in a hurry. I had nothing but time.