I should go to a hospital. Maybe I would go if I knew where one was—and I knew how I got here. Right now I’m relying on these images I experience to poke holes in the black curtain that’s blocking my memory.
Here’s my latest image: I see a guy who’s lost his short-term memory running through a parking lot. Another guy keeps popping up from behind parked cars. The first guy isn’t sure whether he’s the chaser or the chasee. A bullet ricochets off the side door of a car he’s running past. Now he’s pretty sure he’s the one being chased.
My memory loss is far worse than short-term. But the environment I find myself in is positively idyllic. There’s a string of bungalows forming a horseshoe around the grassy field in which I’m standing. To my right is a wooded area with other bungalows, set more closely together, and a larger building, which I believe the owner said was the dining hall. To my left is a wide-open field. In the distance, at the end of the field, there’s a bunch of kids playing punch ball.
There is a parking lot here, but it’s not at all threatening. It’s got a bunch of old cars in surprisingly good condition. The bad news is that my car isn’t there. Not that I can remember what kind of car I have. But I’ve got my car keys and my wallet, so whatever happened to me was not the result of a robbery. The keys are for a Volkswagen. There’s not a single VW in the lot.
The bright side is that I seem to be in good health, I can read, and my powers of reasoning appear to be intact. My best guess as to what happened is that I had a car accident that left me with this hopefully temporary amnesia. Looking for help, I stumbled down the road and came upon this rustic retreat for antique car owners.
It seems like a good place for self-healing, but not without problems. For one, the proprietor is not that hospitable. He’s short and pudgy, goes around in an undershirt and shorts, and wears horn-rimmed glasses. I spoke to him in that tiny combination rental office and general store just off the dirt road as you enter. The name of this place is One Accord. According to my driver’s license and badge ID, I live and work in Marietta, Georgia. The cars in the parking lot all have New York license plates.
The rates are dirt-cheap. I tried to pay with a credit card. He looked at me as if I were crazy.
“Cash only,” he said brusquely. “One week in advance.”
Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of cash.
He took the twenty I handed him and held it up to the light. What was wrong with this guy?
“It’s good, it’s good,” I said.
“Kind of narrow.”
I looked at him as if he were crazy.
He practically threw a key at me. “Take bungalow eight,” he said, and then muttered, “I don’t know why I always fall for things like this.”
For the next week, at least I’ve got a roof over my head—barely. The cabins are primitive. No air conditioner, television, or dishwasher. There’s an ancient refrigerator and gas stove. I can’t say the appliances are in the kitchen, because there is no kitchen. There are two small bedrooms, a tiny bathroom, and a combination living room, dining room, and kitchen. Aside from the stove and refrigerator against the left wall, this combination room has just a couch, easy chair, and kitchen table with four chairs.
The surroundings, however, are beautiful. Look, if the weather holds up, I’ll spend most of my time outdoors.
There’s a punch ball game going on in a field to the right of the cabins. Behind the right fielder of the punch ball game, there’s a skinny little kid batting around a white tennis ball with a wooden, junior-size tennis racquet. The kid looks like he’s around six years old.
Almost like I’ve fallen into a trance, I get another image. It’s an image of someone who looks like this kid.
He’s a little older, but just as skinny. He’s in a bedroom, talking to a woman. The woman is short and stocky. She has dark hair. Her face has very fine features. She speaks to him in a gentle voice.
It’s like I’m in the room observing them. There are two windows to my right, overlooking a back yard. Another two windows are on the far wall, facing the second floor of another house very close by. Like my cabin, there’s not a lot of furniture in this room—a single bed to my right, a child’s desk and chair straight ahead, and another single bed and chest of drawers to my left. There are some boxes in bright wrapping paper on the chest.
“Can I open my presents now?” the kid pleads.
The setup in the apartment is strange. There are two bedrooms in back. A hallway leads to a good-sized kitchen. But there’s a formal dining room, with doors on either end, that these people are using as a bedroom. I guess it’s not that bad an idea. A hallway goes around this bedroom to the living room.
The woman smiles. “Do you think that’s right? Your birthday isn’t until tomorrow.”
“Just one,” the kid bargains. “The one from Uncle Steve.”
“Well, Uncle Steve won’t be here tomorrow for your party, so I guess it’s all right. But remember—just one.”
The kid obviously adores her, and now does so even more than before. He reaches up and takes the smallest box from the chest. He rips into the wrapping paper, tears open the box, and extracts the contents. It’s a kid’s baseball glove. He looks puzzled.
“It’s a glove,” she says.
“Where’s the other one?”
She smiles. “It’s a baseball glove.” The smile relaxes. “Uncle Steve thinks you’re a ballplayer.”
She walks out of the room. The kid still looks puzzled. He looks like he might start to cry, but holds back the tears. He’s done something to displease her, but doesn’t know what. He just wants some time to figure it out.
* * *
The kid in the field picks up the tennis ball and decides to investigate the punch ball game. I follow behind him.
The punch ball players look like they’re between nine and eleven years old. There are two women on the sidelines. They both are wearing sundresses. One is coaching at third base. The other is by the first base line trying to keep three and four-year-olds from running on the field.
The kid with the tennis racquet studies what’s going on. “Hey,” the shortstop yells, “you guys need an extra guy. Let the little kid play.” He starts laughing and then covers his mouth with his hand.
The woman by the first base line leans over and talks to the kid with the racquet. “Do you want to play?” she asks.
The kid shakes his head no. “Come on,” she cajoles, handing him a pink Spaldeen. “It’s fun. You just go up to the plate there and punch the ball as hard as you can.”
Reluctantly, the kid takes the Spaldeen and walks toward home plate. The shortstop waves all the outfielders in.
The outfielders are now almost even with the infielders.
“How about letting him use that tennis racquet?” the woman shouts.
“All right,” the first baseman says. “Why not?”
The kid steps up to the plate and gives the Spaldeen a whack with the racquet. The ball soars over the left fielder’s head. The kid stands there, watching the flight of the ball.
Pandemonium breaks loose. “Run to first! Run to first!” his teammates shout. He starts running toward third. The left fielder is chasing the ball. The woman by the first base line grabs the kid and pushes him in the direction of first. He barely beats the relay throw from the shortstop.
The next batter lines what should be a double to left, but the little kid stops at second. The following batter punches the ball in the gap in right center. The third base coach pleads with the kid to run to third, and then sends him home, “where you started.” The kid jumps on home plate, closely followed by two of his teammates.
After the game, I decide to go back and see how bad my cabin really is. The kid is running behind me. There’s a man, about forty years old, walking toward me. He’s wearing a polo shirt with orange and blue vertical stripes, and gray shorts. He’s a good-looking man with a thin moustache. He’s smoking a pipe. Even though he’s heavy around the midsection, he has an athletic gait and that suggests he might have once been quite slender.
The kid runs right past me. “Daddy,” he shouts, “I hit a home run.”
The man stops right near me. “Did he really?” he asks, looking at me.
He’s about 5’5″, about six inches shorter than I am. “Well,” I say, “he really gave that ball a whack and scored a run. It might have been a home run if his teammates had told him how to run the bases.”
The man chuckles. “Look,” he says, “the kid’s only seven years old.”
“I’m going to tell Mom,” the kid says, and runs off toward the cabins.
“You new here?” the man asks.
“Just stumbled in this morning.”
“Name’s Abe,” he says, extending his hand.
“My name’s Jon. J-O-N.”
“Hah,” he says. “Big Jon, Little Jon.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“Where are you from, Jon?”
“I live in Marietta, Georgia.” At least that’s what it says on my driver’s license.
“Wow. You’re a long way from home.”
This pretty much confirms what I thought.
“And what kind of work do you do?” Abe asks.
The badge ID that I keep in my wallet helps me out here. “I work for a computer company.”
He looks puzzled. “You mean calculators?”
Abe studies me. “Wait a minute,” he says. “I saw that term in an article I just read. There’s a guy at the University of Pennsylvania who’s building this huge calculator. Might be good for the war effort. It calculates the trajectories of artillery shells. Same first name as you. Your last name isn’t Mauchly, is it?”
“No,” I say, smiling. But I’ve heard that name before.
We approach the cabin area. “You play softball?” Abe asks. “We have a men’s softball game this afternoon.”
“I can’t remember the last time I played softball.”
“Good,” Abe says, smiling. “We’ve got some guys in that same category.”
He stops in front of Cabin 18. “This is my bungalow,” he says. “You having lunch in the dining hall?”
“I think I paid for that.”
“You’ll sit at our table,” Abe says. “I’ll save a seat for you.”
* * *
As I walk toward the dining hall, I suddenly find myself in a tunnel. It looks more like the catacombs. It’s an enclosed archway, completely lined, walls and ceiling, with glassy black vacuum tubes. The inside of this machine does not have the cramped feeling I expected. The floor is about four feet wide, and the apex of the ceiling is a good foot-and-a-half from my head. Univac I. I knew there could be a little man in these things—maybe several little men—feverishly doing the calculations.
My first job. I worked for a company that publishes a news report on business automation. There are so many new announcements that some companies in the trade press claim the free lunches as a job benefit. I never met John Mauchly. I did meet his partner, Pres Eckert—J. Presper Eckert makes the Univac III press announcement. After the luncheon, after the stroll through Univac I, I ask him a question. He’s short, balding, and wears a brown suit. It’s a basic, straightforward question, but he seems nervous. Maybe he knows the game is really over. IBM says virtually nothing, but the word is that they’re building and selling computers like mad. Remington Rand Univac has blown its huge lead. Somehow it all went wrong.
As soon as I enter the dining hall, it’s obvious that Abe is running the show. In fact, Abe is the show. The room is not that large. There’s a string of tables placed end-to-end, in banquet fashion, in the center of the room. At the far end, Abe sits at the head of the table. Like box seats, there are single tables along each of the sidewalls. The guests seated opposite the walls at these tables have turned their chairs toward the center to watch Abe perform.
His humor is a combination of gentle bantering, jokes, and reminisces of the immigrant past. It’s an inclusive type of humor. He draws in not only those at the banquet table, but those at the single tables as well.
“Here he is,” he announces as I walk toward his table. He’s saved a seat for me immediately to his left. “Our newest arrival. Folks, say hello to Jon. Just stumbled in here this morning. His own words.”
“Was he drunk?” someone calls out.
“Well, if he was,” Abe says, “he’s sobered up. He’s kind of mysterious about how he got here and what kind of work he does. He might work for the OSS or be on some other secret mission… ”
I both wave to everyone and shake my head no.
“Anyway,” Abe goes on, “don’t ply him with a lot of questions. Remember: ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships.’”
I sit down at the table. Abe goes on to another routine, but I don’t hear him. Opposite me is the same woman I saw in my vision of the apartment.
I try not to stare, but I’m sure it’s the same person. She seems shy, thoughtful, perhaps a little aloof from the others the table. She laughs heartily at all of Abe’s jokes.
To her right is a slender, balding, softspoken man about the same age as Abe. The adults here appear to be between thirty-five and fifty, with either young kids or preteens. The kid next to the slender man is a freckle-faced blond, about nine years old. To my left is a plump, blonde, serene-looking woman. Next to her are two little girls, maybe seven and six. The younger one has the blondest hair I’ve ever seen.
Abe is on to softball now. “As you know,” he says, “the men’s softball game is at two o’clock this afternoon. For most of us, the only time we play is when we’re right here. But we all played as kids. The house I grew up in was right near a sandlot. After school, of course, we were all playing ball. But after school you had to have Torah instruction. Right?”
The men at the table chime their assent.
“You didn’t have a Hebrew school like you have today,” Abe continues. “You were taught by a melamed who came to your house. What’s the English word for melamed?”
“Teacher,” someone shouts.
“Tutor,” someone else suggests.
“Right. Tutor,” Abe says. “He came to your house to teach. But at that time, I didn’t want to be taught. I wanted to play ball.
“‘Abie!’ the melamed calls from our front porch. ‘Come inside now. It’s time for your lesson.’
“It just so happens I’m at bat. ‘Just a minute,’ I call back.
“Well, the melamed knows that a minute can turn into an hour, so he comes out to get me. I line a base hit to right center. You know, as a kid I was a fast runner. I didn’t have this corporation then.” He pats himself on the stomach. “So I tried to stretch that single into a double. When I approached second base, guess who’s waiting to tag me out?”
“The shortstop!” the nine-year-old calls out.
“You’re right, Ronnie. It was the shortstop. But there was someone else there.”
“The second baseman!” the little blonde girl shouts.
“That’s a good guess, Carol,” Abe says. “But the second baseman was in right center to make the relay throw. It was the melamed!”
A wave of laughter sweeps across the room. “The shortstop was waiting with the ball,” Abe goes on, “and the melamed was waiting with the prayer book. I slide into second and they both fall on top of me.”
Abe waits for the laughter to subside. “‘Abie,’ the melamed says, opening the book, ‘I want you to read this passage for me.’”
Some guests along the side get up and start to leave. “Hey, folks, don’t forget the baseball game today.” He looks toward the slender man to his right. “Jon, this is my friend Dave, and this is his wife, Edie.”
Dave stands up and shakes my hand, and the woman to my left smiles a hello.
“Dave,” Abe says, “against my better judgment, I’m going to let Jon be on your team. After all, we beat you guys pretty badly last week.”
* * *
The ball field looks quite different from this morning. Some of the men are taking batting practice. Others, in the field, are shagging flies and fielding grounders. There are plenty of women and kids behind the first and third baselines and behind the backstop. The men look out of shape, but that can be misleading. Dave is in center field shagging flies. He does not look out of shape. A pitcher’s best friend: a center fielder who runs down everything.
Dave sees me by the first baseline and comes running toward the infield. “Glad you could make it,” he says. “What position do you play?”
The words come tumbling out almost automatically. “Well, I can’t judge fly balls, and my throws from the infield have a curve that drive first basemen nuts. So if you need a pitcher, I’ll give it a try.”
“You’ve got it,” Dave says, handing me a glove. The glove seems incredibly small. “Don’t take this too seriously,” he adds. “It’s just a fun game.”
The pitching mound feels surprisingly comfortable. Left toe at the back of the rubber, right heel in front. Rotate the hips and fire. I like to throw my fastball low at the knees. It’s hard to get a softball to curve, but mine breaks a little. My favorite pitch is a change-up that I grip like an old-fashioned knuckleball. I try to float it in letter-high. It doesn’t dance at all, but it doesn’t rotate either. The batters who are transfixed by a pitch that has absolutely no rotation usually pop it up. For those who are not impressed, it’s bye-bye baseball.
The comfort of the mound is offset by antagonism toward the batter. The batter is the enemy. The batter must be defeated. He must be overwhelmed or tricked.
Abe comes to the plate. He’s playing first base for the other team. As I face him and he studies me, there’s nothing comedic about him. And I realize that somehow I’ve got the book on him. He thrives on knee-high fastballs. I try a belt-high fastball, but it goes inside. A curve doesn’t break and stays inside. I try the change-up, but it sails high. There is no way I’m going to walk this guy. I throw a knee-high fastball and he lines a rope into right center for a double.
After the game the two teams shake hands by the pitcher’s mound and walk off the field. “Hey,” Abe says, putting his arm around my shoulder, “where’d you learn to pitch like that?” Before I can answer, he says, “I know. You have no idea.”
As we walk off the field, I begin to think that I could really get to like this life. But I have to leave sometime, and I have this dilemma. Where in hell is my car?
I turn toward Abe. “I wonder if you could do me a favor.”
“Sure,” he says.
“Could you drive me down 209 for a bit? I think I left my car by the side of the road.”
“Did the car break down?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe I just ran out of gas.”
“If that’s all it is,” Abe says, “we can take care of that. Dave keeps a gallon of gas in his Chevy. That will get you into town so you can get your tank filled up.”
“I’d really appreciate that.”
“Just as long as you have your ration stamps,” Abe says.
Ration stamps? What kind of rationing? I seem to remember long gas lines, but no rationing.
“What kind of car is it?” Abe asks.
I suspect I didn’t speak clearly. “A Volkswagen,” I say, a little louder.
Abe looks puzzled. “Isn’t that a German car?”
“Sure,” I say. This place is remote, but not that remote.
“Dave,” Abe calls out, “we’ve got a problem.”
Dave is on his way back to the cabins. He turns around and joins us.
“Dave,” Abe says, “Jon’s car either broke down last night or ran out of gas. He left it by the side of the road on 209.”
“Not a problem,” Dave says. “I keep a gallon— ”
“He’s driving a German car. A Volkswagen”
“That’s a problem,” Dave says. “Is it an old car—like an antique?”
“I don’t think so,” I reply. I like efficiency in cars. I can’t understand what the difficulty is.
Dave puts his hand to his chin. “If the owner of this place finds out, he’ll toss him right out of here.” He turns toward me. “Where did you get this car—this Volkswagen?”
“They sell them all over the U.S.”
Dave laughs. “I don’t think so.”
“I feel sorry for guys who have German cars,” Abe says. “Like Mercedes-Benzes. They’re good cars.”
“They’re for rich people,” Dave says. “Look, here’s an idea. Abe and I are leaving tomorrow afternoon. Why don’t you two take a drive down 209 now and see exactly where the car is? Tomorrow I can go with Jon and take a look at it. If it’s just a minor repair, or if it ran out of gas, we can take care of that. Afterward, Jon, I suggest that you drive that car home and keep it in your garage until the war is over.”
“He’s right,” Abe says. “Look, you seem like a good kid. Just don’t go around driving a German car.”
* * *
Abe and I are driving down Route 209 in his black 1936 Dodge. This is one cool car. It’s in amazing shape for a ’36. It’s even got running boards.
“Nice car,” I say.
“Well, it’s going to have to last us for a long time.”
I’ve decided to stop referring to these cars as antique cars. Everyone either looks offended or thinks I’m making a joke.
“What do you think of the newer models?” I ask.
Abe laughs. “Right now there are no newer models,” he says. “All manufacturers stopped making new cars for the public this year.”
Now this car situation is leaving me more confused than ever. I decide to concentrate on finding my own. So far there is no VW by the side of the road. Only countryside. This area is really rural. There’s an occasional farmhouse and lots of cornfields.
“How far are we from the town?” I ask.
“Only about a mile.”
“Let’s go back,” I say. “I wouldn’t have walked this far.”
At the next dirt-road intersection, Abe makes a U-turn. “Did I tell you that back home we just moved to new neighborhood?” he says, as we start back. It’s kind of weird. Abe talks to me like we’ve known each other all our lives. “New college, new high school, real good public schools,” he goes on. “Everything within walking distance. We live on the second floor of a three-family house. The only problem is the rent is higher than what we’ve been paying.”
“And the kids? How do they like the new neighborhood?”
Abe smiles. “Mixed,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve met my daughter. She’s nine now. Very smart. And very social. She was devastated by the move. Forced to say goodbye to all her friends. But the little guy didn’t care at all. He doesn’t seem to have any friends. To him, the move was a big adventure.”
“Just out of curiosity,” I say, “in your apartment, is the dining room used as a third bedroom?”
He looks at me, astounded. “You’ve been there?”
He shakes his head. “I don’t see how you knew that. We set it up that way because Miriam thought each of the kids should have his own room.”
“And your friend Dave? Does he live nearby?”
“Dave lives in an area that’s not quite as upscale, but he’s in the good school district.”
“Sounds like you made a good move.”
“Maybe we did,” Abe says, smiling. “But how about you? Are you living within your means? Down there in the Deep South?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, I suspect the cost of living is a lot cheaper where I am than in the city.”
“We’ll never leave the city,” Abe says. “The problem is where in the city we should live. We can make it where we are now. We’ve cut down on our vacation expense. I’m slowly building up my practice. The problem is the future. Miriam wants to buy.”
“The house you’re living in now?”
“No. That’s a three-family, each floor with its own kitchen and bathroom. She wants a one-family. There’s a gray, foreboding house on the next block that’s been vacant for two years. Two years! The neighbors there call it the haunted house. We can get it at a very good price. Dave has looked at it and says the house is structurally sound. Miriam says a complete coat of white paint on the outside will do wonders for that house. She figures out that our monthly payments will be only a few dollars more than what we’re paying in rent now. And part of that payment, she says, will be to ourselves.”
“That’s true. You build up equity by owning. It’s even better if the house appreciates in value.”
“The problem,” Abe says, “is that I’ve never owned a house. We’ve always rented. And I’m not handy with repairs like Dave is. I’m a lawyer. And besides, I worry that if the new coat of paint magically makes the house look great, the city will reassesses it, and the taxes go sky-high. Property taxes are already high in our area.”
“Owning is always a risk. But if you can get a good deal… ”
“I agree with you,” Abe says. “If buying that house were the only problem, I’d go ahead and do it.”
Abe pauses. “Tell me,” he says, “Am I bombarding you with too many problems?”
“Not at all. I’m very interested.”
“The big problem,” Abe says, “the problem Miriam and I argue about most these days, is summer camp for the kids.”
“Are there camps around here? I mean, it seems like just farms. And a few bungalow colonies.”
“There are a few closer to the city. But they’re very expensive. Miriam claims she’s found one in Connecticut that’s quite reasonable.”
“But what’s wrong with the bungalow colony? This is so cheap. And there are plenty of kids here.”
“I’m going to invite you to attend our next argument,” Abe says. “That’s exactly what I told Miriam. But she’s worried about the little guy. Unlike his sister, my son has no friends. Miriam feels that if he’s in a structured environment, with an emphasis on sports, his teammates will be his friends. I mean, it’s not a bad theory. But how are we going to afford that?”
“What does Miriam say?”
“She says she’ll go to work.”
“And is that such a bad idea?”
“It’s a terrible idea,” Abe says. “I don’t want my wife working. Her job is to run the house and bring up the kids. She wants to work during the summer. She says with the kids away, there’s no need for her to be at home. She is a very proficient legal secretary. But working in those hot, sweaty offices in July and August? I don’t like it one bit.”
Ahead is the sign for One Accord. Abe makes a left onto the dirt road.
“Did you say you’re here only for the weekend?” I ask.
“Yes. Dave and I go back late tomorrow afternoon.”
“Do you ever stay on? Take some vacation?”
“Not these days,” Abe says. “Dave and I have to be at work tomorrow night at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.”
“Didn’t you say you were a lawyer?”
Abe pulls into the parking lot. He turns toward me and holds up two fingers.
“Two jobs,” he says, smiling. “Days in the office, nights in a defense plant. Don’t you know there’s a war going on?”
* * *
In the darkness of my cabin I’m a little nervous about going to sleep. The combination of mystery and serenity surrounding this place makes me uneasy. Then again, the freshness of the air here should be very conducive to sleep.
Tennis is on the schedule for tomorrow morning. Abe and Miriam have a regularly-scheduled game at 9:00 a.m. against Dave and Edie. Abe said Miriam loves tennis. Edie, however, usually tires after one set, and they have to look for someone to take her place. If I’m interested, Abe said, come by the courts around ten.
Although I’m having a good time during this sojourn, I suspect I may be making a mistake trying to figure out by myself what’s going on. The date on my driver’s license is November 1973, so it’s at least that date. My birthdate is November, 1935. This is the summer, so I’m at least thirty-seven years old. There’s a war going on, which is probably the Vietnam War. There’s a gasoline shortage, which must be the result of an oil embargo. I remember gasoline lines, but not gasoline rationing. Of course, I don’t remember too much of anything.
I suppose I should find out exactly what year it is. Actually, it’s not that easy to ask what year it is. “By the way, do you know what the current year is?” For some reason, I’m under enough suspicion for the type of car I own. I know tomorrow is Sunday. Abe, Dave, and all the other men go back to the city on Sunday. Since it’s the summer, it’s probably July or August. Judging by the afternoon heat, it feels like August. The speculation tires me and I fall into a deep sleep.
I awake in the morning feeling quite refreshed. Too refreshed. It’s ten minutes to ten and I said I’d meet Abe at the tennis courts at ten. I quickly get dressed, have some orange juice and a bowl of cold cereal, and set out for the courts.
The two courts are red clay, with an eight-foot cyclone fence behind the baselines. Dressed completely in white, Dave and Edie are at a bench on the sidelines, placing their racquets in wooden presses. No one else is at the courts.
Dave looks up as I approach. “Abe and Miriam couldn’t make it this morning,” he says. “But I can hit with you for a while. Edie’s a little tired. You can use her racquet.”
“Is everyone feeling okay?”
“Oh, yes,” Dave says. “No one’s sick or anything. Abe just has to get back to the city a little early. He’s going to leave before lunch.”
“I think I’ll pass on the tennis,” I say. “Thanks anyway. I want to say goodbye to Abe before he leaves.”
The door to Abe’s cabin is open. Inside, I see Abe sitting in the easy chair. His son sits on the floor, facing him. The kid looks stoical, but there are tears running down his cheeks. Abe is holding the kid’s hand.
To my amazement, I find that when I close my eyes I see the same image.
“Look,” Abe is saying. “I’ll be back next Friday night. It’s only five days. Grownups have fights with each other. They don’t throw any punches at each other—at least not yet. But they do get mad, and say things they wish they hadn’t. But after a few days, it’s all forgotten. Everything is back to normal. You’ll see.”
I turn away. I feel like I’m spying on a very private family conversation. I’ll catch Abe later before he leaves.
As I walk toward my cabin, I can’t stop thinking about the scene I just saw. Abe and Miriam had a fight. Because of that, Abe is leaving early.
I feel terrible. Abe was said the main thing he and Miriam argue about is money-related. I remember weighing in with some suggestions. I shouldn’t have done that. One really should avoid getting involved in married folks’ disputes.
I walk toward the ballfield, trying to clear my mind. Look, Abe is leaving this morning, Dave this afternoon. What’s the purpose of my staying here? I really should be getting back home. Maybe I can get a lift to the city with Abe, and take a train home.
When I get to Abe’s cabin, no one is there.
* * *
Without Abe, the dining hall at lunchtime seems somber, almost funereal. I try to make a few jokes, but my sense of humor is quite different from Abe’s. People laugh, sometimes out of politeness, and then seem to have a flash of doubt, as if wondering, “Was that really funny?” Some of the other men also try some jokes with the same lack of success. Everyone, it seems, comes up to Miriam to ask where Abe is. She tells them politely but succinctly that Abe had return to the city early. One woman presses onward, wanting to know why he had to go back. “Don’t worry,” Miriam says, a bit coolly, “he’ll be back Friday night to liven things up again.”
* * *
Miriam stands by the railing of the porch of her cabin, looking out toward the mountains. The way she wears her dark hair, tied back in a bun, seems to accentuate the fineness of her features. She waves to me as I approach.
“I’m really glad you came by,” she says. “Abe told me to be sure to tell you he said goodbye.”
“I came back here about a half hour before lunch,” I reply. “I must have just missed him.”
“He really likes you, you know.”
“Yeah. He said I was a good kid.”
She laughs. “Good kid? I mean, you’re probably only a few years younger than he is.”
“I guess so.”
She looks straight ahead. “He left early because we had a fight.”
This upsets her. “You know? Do you think everyone in this place knows?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I reply hastily. “When I came to the cabin earlier, I saw Abe telling your son why he was leaving. I didn’t want to intrude, so I just took a walk to the ballfield.”
“I hope you’re the only one who knows,” Miriam says. “It’s none of anyone else’s business. That busybody Ethel tried to find out at lunchtime why Abe left early.”
“I saw that. I thought you handled that very diplomatically.”
“Most of the men leave in the afternoon anyway,” Miriam says. “But Abe mentioned you were planning to stay the week.”
“I was. But this morning I decided maybe I should be getting back home. I was going to ask Abe if he could give me a lift to the city.”
“Well, it’s too bad you missed him,” Miriam says. “See if you can catch Dave before he leaves. I’m sure he’ll give you a lift.”
“That’s a good idea. By the way, I’d like to keep in contact with Abe. How do you spell your last name?” I’d never even found out their last name.
“Danielson,” Miriam says. “D-A-N-I-E-L-S-O-N. Just the way it sounds.”
“Same as mine.”
“Yes. You know, I thought I might even be related to your family.”
Miriam seems curious. “Did Abe ever tell you what we always fight about?”
“It goes deeper than that. Most married couples, when they start having a family, when their income starts increasing, move to better neighborhoods, better school districts. We’ve moved three times since our first apartment. Abe has resisted every move we’ve made.”
“But he’s gone along with each one of them.”
“Reluctantly,” Miriam says. “I know what the problem is. Abe needs to be a big fish in a small puddle. He wants to be the trusted neighborhood lawyer: the person who not only can handle your legal problems, but make you laugh along the way so they don’t seem that serious. And do you know something?” she says earnestly. “I could go along with that. The problem is we have two children.”
“I hear they’re smart kids—especially your daughter.”
“They need to be in an educational environment that challenges them. And my son has some additional problems.”
“I saw him playing in a punch ball game.”
“Well,” Miriam says, “you must be a good influence on him. He’s never played in a game like that before. He has no friends and no confidence in himself. He just goes around with that little tennis racquet we gave him, batting that ball around.”
“Kids can change, you know.”
“I want to make sure he does,” Miriam says. “You know, the argument Abe and I had this morning was ridiculous. It was about summer camp for the kids, not so much for my daughter, but for my son. But it’s an issue that’s not going to happen for a couple of years at least, and we’re arguing about it now.”
* * *
Wearing his dark brown overcoat, Abe sits crying noiselessly on the third step from the bottom of a staircase. His wine-colored cane is on the stairs beside him. The stairs end in a landing; five more steps lead down to the kitchen.
It’s a large, one-family house. The staircase goes up to a bedroom floor. There’s another staircase that leads to a three-room attic apartment.
I remove the cane and sit down beside him on the step. He stops crying and looks at me as if to say, “What are you doing here?”
“You know,” I tell him, “it wouldn’t be such a terrible thing if you didn’t go into the office for one day.”
He doesn’t even consider the suggestion. “Don’t you have a press conference today?” he asks.
“That’s not until one o’clock. Look, why don’t you just spend the day relaxing? Maybe this morning we could take a drive on the Belt, like we used to.”
He tenses both hands on the edge of the step. “I’ve got to get into work,” he says. “Help me up.”
I’ve done this many times before, so I know just how to do it. I put my right arm around his back, well beneath his bad shoulder.
“Hoist,” he says, smiling at me.
As I help him down the stairs, his spirits seem to revive. “Did I tell you,” he says, “I’m thinking of spending a few weeks in Arizona? A guy I know at work went there and said he felt much better. They say it’s the dry air.”
* * *
Recalling the morning’s argument seems to sadden Miriam. “Don’t you already live in a very good school district?” I ask.
“We do. But we’re renting now. It makes no sense to go on renting. When the war is over, rentals are going to skyrocket, as will the buying prices. We’ve really got to buy now.”
“That sounds smart,” I say. “I know you can get a good buy on that house on the next block. But don’t you think you might be able to get a better deal in another neighborhood—maybe like the one where Dave and Edie live? I believe you’d still be in that good school district.”
She ponders this. “I’d have to think about that,” she says.
“And this summer camp idea. Couldn’t you get almost the same benefit by sending the kids to a day camp? I mean, being able to sleep at home would be a lot less traumatic for them.”
She studies me. “You may have something there,” she says.
* * *
Dave and I are driving south on Route 209 toward the city. It’s a sunny afternoon. We have the highway to ourselves; there are no other cars in either direction.
Dave graciously offered to give me a lift to a subway station in northern Manhattan. I’ll take the subway to Grand Central, and from there, catch a train back home.
Earlier, we said our goodbyes to Miriam, Edie, and all the kids, and started out in Dave’s black Chevrolet. The car is a couple of years older than Abe’s, but in immaculate condition, inside and out. It’s about four o’clock in the afternoon. As I gaze out at the countryside, I feel more relaxed than at any time since I found myself in this area. Dave always seems relaxed.
“By the way,” Dave asks, “should we still be on the lookout for your car?”
“I’ve decided there’s a good chance I might find the car parked right in my driveway when I get home.”
“The odds definitely favor your being right.”
We pass by a huge stretch of cornfields. “What kind of work do you do, Dave?” I ask. My guess is a high-school guidance counselor. If he’s a friend of Abe’s, however, he may be a lawyer. Corporate lawyer, I would say.
“I’m a bookmaker,” he responds.
“An accountant?” I realize I’ve reacted too automatically—and too naively.
Dave smiles. “I accept wagers from people who want to place bets with me. It’s an honorable profession in England. The problem is, you don’t want to be in England at this time.”
So. Abe’s best friend is a bookie.
“If you’re wondering if Abe fritters away his money placing bets with me, forget it,” Dave says. “Abe and his brother-in-law lost their shirts in the stock-market crash of 1929. That cured him of any serious gambling tendencies. Sometimes, on a hunch, he’ll bet a couple of dollars with me on a horse. He’s actually been pretty lucky.”
I’m glad to hear this, but “Does Not Compute” alarm bells go off in my head. Abe can’t be more than four or five years older than me. According to my driver’s license, I was born in 1935. That means Abe was doing some prenatal wheeling and dealing.
“Don’t you mean that Abe’s father was the one who lost the money?”
This time Dave laughs. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Abe’s father died young. He did not have a good life when he came to the U.S. He had trouble putting food on the table for his family. I’m sure the furthest thing from his mind was investing in the stock market.”
I begin to feel uneasy again. “Do you think they’ll be okay?” I ask.
“Abe and Miriam. They had a fight, you know. That’s the reason Abe left early.”
“I know that,” Dave says. “Of course they’ll be okay. Married couples have these spats all the time. It doesn’t mean they don’t love each other. They work things out. Edie is constantly after me to find a better profession. My feeling is this is what I do, I’m honest at it, and I’m good at it. Deep down, she understands.”
“It may be okay for you. But I’m worried about Abe.”
“There is no need to worry,” Dave says. “Abe will lead a good life. He will outlive his father by at least twenty years. And his children will outlive him by at least twenty years.”
“I’m not talking life expectancy. I’m talking psychological stress.”
“Look,” Dave says consolingly, “what are the measures of a good life? The first is to be a moral person. Second is to provide a good environment for your family—better than the one you had. Third is to achieve some success in your chosen profession. And a distant fourth, perhaps, is to attain some material comforts. Abe will achieve all those things.”
“But at what cost?” I reply. “I mean, to accomplish those things, no one has to be sacrificed.”
Dave’s face tenses, but he quickly regains his composure. “No one is being sacrificed,” he says quietly.
Silence. We continue down the highway.
“I had a talk with Miriam before we left,” I say quietly.
“About the need to go slowly on these expensive life-style changes they’re planning.”
“Like what?” Dave asks. There’s a tinge of confrontation in his tone.
“Well, for one thing, about this house they’re planning to buy in the upscale neighborhood. I mean, it’s a good idea to buy rather than rent, but not to overextend yourself much. I suggested that they instead look at something in your neighborhood. It’s still in that good school district. And day camp for the kids would be a lot less expensive than the sleepaway camp she’s considering. I think I pretty much had her convinced.”
Dave suddenly pulls over onto a stretch of grass by the side of the road. “Why are you stopping?” I ask.
He faces me directly. “You’ve given very foolish advice,” he says angrily. “Miriam will not like my neighborhood. The crime rate is higher there than in the one she’s looking at. And my neighborhood is right on the boundary of the good school district. School boards have a habit of manipulating those boundaries.”
Dave’s vehemence unnerves me. “Well, I mean, it was just a suggestion.”
“This is very important,” Dave says earnestly. “Important enough that I don’t mind getting home late. You’re going to go back to One Accord and un-convince her.”
“I’m going to turn around and we’re going back.”
“This is crazy!” I shout. “I’m not going back there.”
Dave calmly grasps the floor stick shift, puts the car in first, and eases back onto the highway.
This stretch of Route 209 is very flat and very straight. About a mile ahead, toward the center of the road, I see two blinking blue lights. There’s a long line of cars in front of the lights.
“Roadblock ahead,” Dave says, slowing down and shifting into second. “Could you reach into the glove compartment and hand me the registration?”
I easily find the registration, but I have to laugh. It’s an old one—really old. Single font, typewriter style. Expiration date: December 31, 1943.
“Is there another one in here?” I ask.
“No, that’s the one.”
I laugh again. “Dave, you can’t show them that. It’s an antique registration—for an antique car.”
“What are you talking about?” Dave says. “It’s completely up-to-date.”
“All right. What’s today’s date?”
“It’s August 15, 1943.”
1943, I remember. That was the year my family vacationed in this area.
I start to panic. There’s a sea of old cars lined up around us now—in front, in back, on the other side of the roadblock—Chevies, Buicks, Dodges, Fords, De Sotos. Even some Hudsons. And old-style pickup trucks.
I try to calm down. There are several possible explanations. One is I’ve gone completely nuts. Or it’s a scam—a scam by a small-time bookmaker. Or it’s a dream. If it’s a dream, I’d be waking up, bolting up in my bed, sweating profusely. Only I’m sweating profusely and not waking up. If it’s a scam, it’s an elaborate one. For what purpose? And I don’t feel like I’m crazy, but that could quickly change.
Or I’m a time traveler. Time travel is like a dream, but without the luxury of waking up when things get out of hand. I’ve always believed that time travel could occur, but if it did happen to me, I’d search for some way to disprove it. Right now it’s the only explanation that makes sense: the antique cars, war talk, gasoline rationing, anti-German sentiment, the completely rural nature of this area. There are also certain rules of the road for time travel: You can’t say or do anything that will alter the cause and effect continuum. It’s like being in a museum: You can look, but not touch.
As we inch forward, I see the source of the delay. It’s a goldenrod-colored van parked on a grassy shoulder of the road. I am totally familiar with that car. It symbolizes the transition in aspiration from luxury car to functionality and enjoyment. Volkswagen Microbus. Conversion for camping by Westphalia. The description races through my mind like a commercial. Bench seat folds down to sleep two. Table extends from the side. Roof pops up to create a bed. Canvas cot stretches across the front seat to form a child’s bed. Sixty-six horsepower pancake engine that somehow manages to push that car up mountains on two continents.
As we inch closer, my heart sinks. A towtruck with a winch comes into view. The van looks like it’s been dredged up from a lake. There’s water still dripping down the sides. The top and sides are covered with mud. There’s a bunch of stones on the roof.
Dave suddenly makes a right turn onto a dirt road. He drives about a hundred yards, stops, and turns toward me.
“At these roadblocks,” he says, “they check the identification of both the driver and all passengers.”
“You’ve run out of viable options. Believe me, when they find you’re the owner of a strange German car with an obviously phony registration, they’ll throw you in jail and ask questions later.”
“You don’t understand,” I say, my voice cracking. “He went to Arizona and he felt better. He wrote and said he was walking without a cane. But he ran out of money and had to come back. I did nothing. I just watched and did nothing.”
“Look,” he says, “I know how you feel. The end is difficult for everyone, no matter how good a life one’s led. I know you tried to give Miriam good advice, but sometimes doing what seems to be right can have terrible consequences.”
I stare straight ahead.
“We can’t go back to the highway now and go the other way,” Dave says. “It will look too suspicious. This dirt road, however, does lead to a back way to One Accord. You have to go back there.”
“There is no way I’m going back,” I say adamantly.
“You’re a damn fool,” Dave says grimly, making a U-turn and heading back toward the highway. “You turned out to be a damn fool.”
Bill Carr’s short story “Exquisite Hoax” was published in the Scholars And Rogues online literary journal. His short story “Execute Eric Smith” was published in the East Bay Review. His work has also appeared in Menda City Review and The Penmen Review. He has had several articles published relative to online education and the computer industry. He has taken various courses with internationally known Shakespeare scholar Professor Bernard Grebanier, as well as Professors Marion Starling and Seymour Reiter.
Many of his stories, including “Transcendental Tours”, published in Menda City Review, and “Exquisite Hoax,” are satiric; others contain athletic themes. He has been ranked statewide (North Carolina) and sectionally (Southern) in senior divisions of the United States Tennis Association. He played industrial-league basketball for thirty years, including three overseas.
Carr received his master’s degree in English from Brooklyn College, and he currently serves as chairperson of the North Carolina B’nai B’rith Institute of Judaism.