I opened my eyes. The stink of the dirty abandoned restroom had been replaced by the stink of a textile mill operating full bore in a year when the Environmental Protection Agency did not exist. There was cracked cement under my feet instead of peeling linoleum. To my left were the big metal bins filled with fabric remnants and covered with burlap. To my right was the drying shed. It was eleven fifty-eight on the morning of September ninth, 1958.
Harry Dunning was once more a little boy. Carolyn Poulin was in period five at LHS, perhaps listening to the teacher, perhaps daydreaming about some boy or how she would go hunting with her father in a couple of months. Sadie Dunhill, not yet married to Mr. Have Broom Will Travel, was living in Georgia. Lee Harvey Oswald was in the South China Sea with his Marine unit. And John F. Kennedy was the junior senator from Massachusetts, dreaming presidential dreams. I was back.
I didn’t walk to the chain this time, but instead stood there for what felt like an eternity as I rehearsed what I was going to do. I had plenty of time here in 1958, but only a few hours in 2011 before Al’s death would padlock the diner and eliminate access to the rabbit hole forever. I stepped back into the rabbit hole, going slowly up the steps. With each passing step, I felt the atmosphere change, with the loud shat-HOOSH shat-HOOSH of the weaving flats fading away. I bumped my head against the ceiling of Al’s pantry. As I stepped out of the pantry, I looked around Al’s Diner. It looked like my 2011 again, as much as any 2011 could be mine any more. Spending 5 years of your life in a different era will have that effect. As I exited the diner, I checked Al’s Town Wall of Celebrity. Hanging on the wall was the picture of Harry Dunning and I holding Harry’s diploma, with his tie slightly askew.
I knew my time was short, so I raced back to my house, tripping over Elmore in the process. I never had a cat in the Land of Ago and forgot that I had one here in the Land of Ahead. It was still just midnight, giving me 6 hours to prepare for my final trip back to 1958.
I got on the net—my heart beating so hard it sent dots flashing across my field of vision—and called up the Dallas Morning News website. After punching in my credit card number (a process that took several retries because of my shaking fingers), I was able to access the archives. The story about an unknown assailant taking a shot at Edwin Walker was there on April 11 of 1963, but nothing about Sadie on April 12. Nothing the following week, or the week after that. I kept hunting. I found the story I was looking for in the issue for April 30.
MENTAL PATIENT SLASHES EX-WIFE, COMMITS SUICIDE
By Ernie Calvert (JODIE)
67-year-old Deacon “Deke” Simmons and Denholm Consolidated School District Principal Ellen Dockerty arrived too late on Sunday night to save Sadie Dunhill from being seriously hurt, but things could have been much worse for the popular 30-year-old school librarian.
According to Douglas Reems, the Jodie town constable, “If Deke and Ellie hadn’t arrived when they did, Miss Dunhill almost certainly would have been killed.”
The two educators had come with a tuna casserole and a bread pudding. Neither wanted to talk about their heroic intervention. Simmons would only say, “I wish we’d gotten there sooner.”
According to Constable Reems, Simmons overpowered the much younger John Clayton, of Savannah, Georgia, after Miss Dockerty threw the casserole at him, distracting him. Simmons wrestled away a small revolver. Clayton then produced the knife with which he had cut his ex-wife’s face and used it to slash his own throat. Simmons and Miss Dockerty tried to stop the bleeding to no avail. Clayton was pronounced dead at the scene.
Miss Dockerty told Constable Reems that Clayton may have been stalking his ex-wife for months. The staff at Denholm Consolidated had been alerted that Miss Dunhill’s ex-husband might be dangerous, and Miss Dunhill herself had provided a photograph of Clayton, but Principal Dockerty said he had disguised his appearance.
Miss Dunhill was transported by ambulance to Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, where her condition is listed as fair.
Though I was never a crying man, I fought back tears. If Sadie had died in Clayton’s attack, I couldn’t go back to save her. Because she survived, I can return. I forced myself back to the task at hand.
Sadie was alive.
Alive, alive, alive.
I spent the rest of the night finding ways to make my last trip to the Land of Ago safe. No more bookies, no more betting. I needed safe, reliable money that would last for as long as I had. While Al never bothered with the stock market, it was the best way for a man from the future to turn the small amount of money he had into a fortune. It had the added benefit of letting me avoid the Fratis, Eduardo Gutierrez, and Greenville Avenue for the rest of my life.
In order for me to feel good about staying in the Land of Ago, I had to know what was caused by me and what wasn’t. Because the past works to protect itself, I felt confident that I would know if I were causing too many problems. On my last trip, the bigger the change I made, the more that the past fought it. It never fought my time with Sadie, so I felt confident I wouldn’t make too many ripples.
Nevertheless, from my conversation with Zach Lang and the alternate future Harry, the primary way you can tell seemed to be earthquakes. I searched out the main earthquakes between 1958 and now – from Alaska in 1964 to Japan in 2011 – and wrote them down. If the earth started to deviate from its course, I could always come back to the rabbit hole and return to now. Scratch that…I only have until 1990 when Al moves his restaurant down from Auburn. Once it moves on top of the bubble, it probably becomes a one-way trip.
The last thing I needed was enough knowledge of the early 1960s to convince Sadie that I was a time traveler. There will come a time where Sadie will want to remove the broom between us and I can’t allow the Rolling Stones to pop out of my mouth again and ruin everything. The timing will have to be right, and the only way she will think I’m not a mental patient is if I can prove what will happen.
Once I had everything I needed, I turned off my computer and headed to Al’s Restaurant. It was 5:45 in the morning. Time enough for me to go back to 1958 and live life with Sadie. As I walked into Al’s pantry for the last time, all I could think was that she might not want to have anything to do with me. We’re no longer going to be thirty-five and twenty-eight; this time I’d be forty and I look even older. But I believe in love, you know; love is a uniquely portable magic. I don’t think it’s in the stars, but I do believe that blood calls to blood and mind calls to mind and heart to heart.
I opened my eyes after my feet hit cracked cement. It was once again eleven fifty-eight on the morning of September ninth, 1958.
I walked to the chain and ducked under it. On the other side I stood perfectly still for a moment, rehearsing what I was going to do. Then I walked to the end of the drying shed. Around the corner, leaning against it, was the Green Card Man. Only Zack Lang’s card was no longer green. It had turned a muddy chartreuse shade, halfway between green and yellow. His out-of-season overcoat was dusty, and his formerly snappy fedora had a battered, somehow defeated look. His cheeks, previously clean-shaven, were now stubbled . . . and some of that stubble was white. His eyes were bloodshot. He wasn’t on the booze yet—at least I couldn’t smell any—but I thought he might be soon. The greenfront was, after all, within his small circle of operation, and holding all those time-strings in your head has to hurt. Multiple pasts were bad enough, but when you added multiple futures? Anyone would turn to drink, if drink were available. I had spent an hour in 2011. Maybe a little more. How long had it been for him? I didn’t know. I didn’t want to know.
“Thank God,” he said . . . just as he had before. But when he once more reached to take my hand in both of his, I drew back. His nails were now long and black with dirt. The fingers shook. They were the hands—and the coat, and the hat, and the card in the brim of the hat—of a wino-in-waiting.
“You have to go back,” he said.
“I know that’s what you want me to do.”
“Want has nothing to do with it. You have to go back one last time. If all is well, you’ll come out in the diner. Soon it will be taken away, and when that happens, the bubble that has caused all this madness will burst. It’s a miracle that it’s stayed as long as it has. You have to close the circle.”
He reached for me again. This time I did more than draw back; I turned and ran for the parking lot. He sprinted after me. Because of my bad knee, it was closer than it would have been otherwise. I could hear him right behind me as I passed the Plymouth Fury that was the double of the car I’d seen and dismissed one night in the courtyard of the Candlewood Bungalows. Then I was at the intersection of Main and the Old Lewiston Road. On the other side, the eternal rockabilly rebel stood with one boot cocked against the siding of the Fruit.
I ran across the train tracks, afraid that my bad leg would betray me on the cinders, but Lang was the one who stumbled and fell. I heard him cry out—a desperate, lonely caw—and felt an instant of pity for him. Hard duty, the man had. But I didn’t let pity slow me down. The imperatives of love are cruel.
The Lewiston Express bus was coming. I lurched across the intersection and the bus driver blared his horn at me. I thought of another bus, crowded with people who were going to see the president. And the president’s lady, of course, the one in the pink suit. Roses laid between them on the seat. Not yellow but red.
“Jimla, come back!”
That was right. I was the Jimla after all, the monster in Rosette Templeton’s bad dream. I limped past the Kennebec Fruit, well ahead of the Chartreuse Card Man now. This was a race I was going to win. I was Jake Epping, high school teacher; I was George Amberson, aspiring novelist; I was the Jimla, who was endangering the whole world with every step he took.
Yet I ran on.
I thought of Sadie, tall and cool and beautiful, and I ran on. Sadie who was accident-prone and was going to stumble over a bad man named John Clayton. On him she would bruise more than her shins. The world well lost for love—was that Dryden or Pope?
I stopped by Titus Chevron, panting. Across the street, the beatnik proprietor of the Jolly White Elephant was smoking his pipe and watching me. The Chartreuse Card Man stood at the mouth of the alley behind the Kennebec Fruit. It was apparently as far as he could go in that direction.
He held out his hands to me, which was bad. Then he fell on his knees and clasped his hands in front of him, which was ever so much worse. “Please don’t do this! You must know the cost!”
I knew it and still hurried on. A telephone booth stood at the intersection just beyond St. Joseph’s Church. I shut myself inside it, consulted the phone book, and dropped a dime.
When the cab came, the driver was smoking Luckies and his radio was tuned to WJAB.
History repeats itself.
I spent a few days in the Tamarack Motor Lodge, Unit 7 before I made my way back to Lisbon Falls. I bought my Ford Sunliner from Bill Titus for $300 and made my way to Greenwich, Connecticut. I arrived on October 1.
In Derry, the Dunning kids are looking forward to Halloween and already planning their costumes. Ellen, that little red-haired kut-up kutie, plans to go as Princess Summerfall Winterspring. She’ll never get the chance. If I went to Derry today, I could kill Frank Dunning and save her Halloween, but I won’t. And I won’t go to Durham to save Carolyn Poulin from Andy Cullum’s errant shot.
There is only one thing that I have to do, and that is to make my way to Jodie and to Sadie.
After getting my degree from the United College of Oklahoma, I was able to get on as a substitute at Greenwich High, even though the school year had already started. I used my spare time to go back and forth to New York City and build my stock portfolio. It grew slowly at first, but within the first 6 months I had more than enough to make my broker jealous and make my way south to Sarasota.
I’m going to jump forward in the narrative again. You’ve heard the story already. I substituted a year in Sarasota, leaving at the end of the school year. Fortunately I didn’t have to leave town in the middle of the night this time to avoid being char-broiled in my rental house.
I made my way to Jodie via Dallas, arriving on the same day as I did five years ago. I passed the billboard proclaiming that the Denholm Lions have JIM POWER at the corner of Highway 77 and Route 109.
One day this billboard would scream a reminder that I am still a visitor here who should be in the Land of Ahead.
I stopped at Al’s Diner to have a Prongburger and discuss Catcher in the Rye with Miz Mimi and Deke.
Sure, there were things that I did slightly differently. I never made another bet, but I made sure to get vaccination records and build a better history for myself. I didn’t know if it would get me past Ellie’s review at the end of my first year teaching, but I figured that having it beats not having it.
I ended up back at Parkway Memorial Hospital during my first year in Jodie to get a vasectomy. I knew from my memories of the Chartreuse Card Man that if I had any hope of making this work, I had to minimize the ripples I created as much as possible.
Unfortunately for both Sadie and me that meant not having any kids.
While I was there, I also had them clean up the lingering mess in my knee. It wasn’t as good as it would have been in 2011, but that couldn’t be helped. I hoped that it would be enough to dance the Hellzapoppin at Sadie Hawkins in a few years.
I became a substitute at Denholm Consolidated High School in the English department, and I even rewrote The Murder Place. I finished it this time, but it was an exercise in keeping busy. I still directed Of Mice and Men and changed Mike Coslaw’s future, but some things were meant to be.
At the end of the year Miz Mimi and Deke Simmons made plans to marry and retire to Mexico. As before, I was standing by the bandstand watching Doug Sahm, beer in my hand, when history repeated itself.
“George? Come here and meet someone, would you?” I turned. Mimi was coming down the slope of the lawn with Sadie in tow.
My mind flashed forward (or was it backwards?).
I saw Sadie dancing the Madison, color high in her cheeks, laughing.
Sadie telling me to lick her mouth again.
Sadie asking if I’d like to come in and have poundcake.
One man and one woman. Is that too much to ask?
I don’t know, I don’t know.But I know I have to try.