One thing led to another and my sister hit me between the eyes with the green-striped croquet mallet about as hard as a six-year-old can hit.
Then I noticed everybody else was moving and talking faster than normal.
The King of Where-I-Go|
by Howard Waldrop
|When I was eight, in 1954, my sister caught polio.
It wasn't my fault, although it took twenty years before I talked myself out of believing it was. See, we had this fight
· · · · ·
We were at my paternal grandparents' house in Alabama, where we were always taken in the summer, either being driven from Texas to there on Memorial Day and picked up on the Fourth of July, or taken the Fourth and retrieved Labor Day weekend, just before school started again in Texas.
This was the first of the two times when we spent the whole summer in Alabama. Our parents were taking a break from us for three entire months. We essentially ran wild all that time. This was a whole new experience. Ten years later, when it happened the second time, we would return to find our parents separatedme and my sister living with my mother in a garage apartment that backed up on the railroad tracks and my father living in what was a former motel that had been turned into day-laborer apartments a half mile away.
Our father worked as an assembler in a radio factory that would go out of business in the early l960s, when the Japanese started making them better, smaller, and cheaper. Our mother worked in the Ben Franklin 5¢-10¢-25¢ store downtown. Our father had to carpool every day into a Dallas suburb, so he would come and get the car one day a week. We would be going to junior high by then, and it was two blocks away.
But that was in the future. This was the summer of 1954.
Every two weeks we would get in our aunt's purple Kaiser and she would drive us the forty-five miles to our maternal grandparents' farm in the next county, and we would spend the next two weeks there. Then they'd come and get us after two weeks and bring us back. Like the movie title says, two weeks in another town.
We were back for the second time at the paternal grandparents' place. It was after the Fourth of July because there were burned patches on my grandfather's lower field where they'd had to go beat out the fires started by errant Roman candles and skyrockets.
There was a concrete walk up to the porch of our grandparents' house that divided the lawn in two. The house was three miles out of town; some time in the 1980s the city limits would move past the place when a highway bypass was built to rejoin the highway that went through town and the town made a landgrab.
On the left side of the lawn we'd set up a croquet game (the croquet set would cost a small fortune now, I realize, though neither my grandparents or aunt was what people called well-off).
My sister and I were playing. My grandfather had gone off to his job somewhere in the county. My grandmother was lying down, with what was probably a migraine, or maybe the start of the cancer that would kill her in a few years. (For those not raised in the South; in older homes the bedroom was also the front parlorthere was a stove, chairs for entertaining, and the beds in the main room of the house.) The bed my grandmother lay on was next to the front window.
My sister Ethel did something wrong in the game. Usually I would have been out fishing from before sunup until after dark with a few breaks during the day when I'd have to come back to the house. Breakfast was always made by my grandfatherwho had a field holler that carried a mile, which he would let out from the back porch when breakfast was ready, and I'd come reluctantly back from the Big Pond. My grandfather used a third of a pound of coffee a day, and he percolated it for at least fifteen minutesyou could stand a spoon up in it. Then lunch, which in the South is called dinner, when my aunt would come out from her job in town and eat with me and my sister, my grandmother, and any cousins, uncles, or kin who dropped by (always arranged ahead of time, I'm sure), then supper, the evening meal, after my grandfather got home. Usually I went fishing after that, too, until it got too dark to see and the water moccasins came out.
But this morning we were playing croquet and it was still cool so I must have come back from fishing for some reason and been snookered into playing croquet.
"Hey! You can't do that!" I yelled at my sister.
"Do what?" she yelled back.
"Whatever you just did!" I said.
"I didn't do anything!" she yelled.
"You children please be quiet," yelled my grandmother from her bed by the window.
"You cheated!" I yelled at my sister.
"I did not!" she hollered back.
One thing led to another and my sister hit me between the eyes with the green-striped croquet mallet about as hard as a six-year-old can hit. I went down in a heap near a wicket. I sat up, grabbed the blue croquet ball, and threw it as hard as I could into my sister's right kneecap. She went down screaming.
My grandmother was now standing outside the screen door on the porch (which rich people called a verandah) in her housecoat.
"I asked you children to be quiet, please," she said.
"You shut up!" said my sister, holding her knee and crying.
My forehead had swelled up to the size of an apple.
My grandmother moved like the wind then, like Roger Bannister who had just broken the four-minute mile, Suddenly there was a willow switch in her hand and she had my sister's right arm and she was tanning her hide with the switch.
So here was my sister, screaming in two kinds of pain and regretting the invention of language and my grandmother was saying with every movement of her arm, "Don't-you- ever-tell-me-to-shut-up-young-lady!"
She left her in a screaming pile and went back into the house and lay down to start dying some more.
I was well-pleased, with the casual cruelty of childhood, that I would never-ever-in-my-wildest-dreams ever tell my grandmother to shut up.
I got up, picked up my rod and tackle box, and went back over the hill to the Big Pond, which is what I would rather have been doing than playing croquet anyway.
That night my sister got what we thought was a cold, in the middle of July.
Next day, she was in the hospital with polio.
· · · · ·
My aunt Noni had had a best friend who got poliomyelitis when they were nine, just after WWI, about the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt had gotten his. (Roosevelt had been president longer than anybody, through the Depression the grown-ups were always talking about, and WWII, which was the exciting part of the history books you never got to in school. He'd died at the end of the war, more than a year before I was born. Then the president had been Truman, and now it was Ike.) My aunt knew what to do and had Ethel in the hospital quick. It probably saved my sister's life, and at least saved her from an iron lung, if it were going to be that kind of polio.
You can't imagine how much those pictures in newsreels scared us allrows of kids, only their heads sticking out of what looked like long tubular industrial washing machines. Polio attacked many things; it could make it so you couldn't breathe on your ownthe iron lung was alternately a hypo- and hyperbaric chamberit did the work of your diaphragm. This still being in vacuum-tube radio times, miniaturization hadn't set in, so the things weighed a ton. They made noises like breathing, too, which made them even creepier.
If you were in one, there was a little mirror over your head (you were lying down) where you could look at yourself; you couldn't look anywhere else.
Normally that summer we would have gone, every three days or so, with our aunt back to town after dinner and gone to the swimming pool in town. But it was closed because of the polio scare, and so was the theater. (They didn't want young people congregating in one place so the disease could quickly spread.) So what you ended up with was a town full of bored schoolkids and teenagers out of school for the summer with nothing to do. Not what a Baptist town really cares for.
Of course you could swim in a lake or something. But the nearest lake was miles out of town. If you couldn't hitch a ride or find someone to drive you there, you were S.O.L. You could go to the drive-ins for movies. The nearest one was at the edge of the next countyagain you needed someone with wheels, although once there you could sit on top of the car and watch the movie, leaving the car itself to the grownups or older teenage brothers and sisters. (They'd even taken away the seats in front of the snack bar where once you could sit like in a regular theater, only with a cloud of mosquitoes eating you all up, again because of polio.)
Me, I had fishing and I didn't care. Let the town wimps stew in their own juices.
· · · · ·
But that was all before my sister made polio up close and personal in the family and brought back memories to my aunt.
But Aunt Noni became a ball of fire.
I couldn't go into the hospital to see my sister, of courseeven though I had been right there when she started getting sick. Kids could absolutely not come down to the polio ward. This was just a small county hospital with about forty beds, but it also had a polio ward with two iron lungs ready to go, such was the fear in those days.
My aunt took me to the hospital one day, anyway. She had had a big picture-frame mirror with her, from her house.
"She's propped up on pillows and can't move much," my aunt said. "But I think we can get her to see you."
"Stay out here in the parking lot and watch that window," she said. She pointed to one of the half-windows in the basement. I stayed out there until I saw my aunt waving in the window. I waved back.
Then my aunt came out and asked, "Did you see her?"
"I saw you."
"She saw you," she said. "It made her happy." Yeah, I thought, the guy who kneecapped her with the croquet ball.
"I don't know why," I said.
Then Aunt Noni gave me some of my weekly allowance that my parents mailed to her in installments.
I took off to the drugstore like a bullet. I bought a cherry-lime-chocolate coke at the fountain, and a Monster of Frankenstein, a Plastic Man, and an Uncle Scrooge comic book. That took care of forty of my fifty cents. A whole dime, and nowhere to spend it. If it would have been open, and this had been a Saturday, when we usually got our allowance, I would have used the dime to go to the movies and seen eight cartoons, a Three Stooges short, a newsreel, a chapter of a serial, some previews, and a double feature: some SF flick and a Guy Madison movie if I was lucky, a couple of Westerns if I wasn't.
But it was a weekday, and I went back to the office where my aunt Noni was the Jill-of-all-trades plus secretary for a one-man business for forty-seven years (it turned out). It was upstairs next to the bank. Her boss, Mr. Jacks, lived in the biggest new house in town (until, much later, the new doctor in town built a house out on the highway modeled on Elvis' Graceland). Mr. Jacks' house, as fate would have it, was situated on a lot touching my aunt's, only set one house over and facing the other street back.
He wasn't in; he usually wasn't in the office when I was there. Aunt Noni was typing like a bunny, a real blur from the wrists down. She was the only one in the family who'd been to college. (Much later I would futz around in one for five years without graduating.) She could read, write, and speak Latin, like I later could. She read books. She had the librarian at the Carnegie Library in town send off to Montgomery for books on polio; they'd arrived while I was having the Coca-Cola comic book orgy and she'd gone to get them when the librarian had called her. There was a pile on the third chair in the office.
I was sitting in the second one.
"I want to know," she said as she typed without looking at her shorthand pad or the typewriter, "enough so that I'll know if someone is steering me wrong on something. I don't want to know enough to become pedantic"
"Huh?" I asked.
She nodded toward the big dictionary on the stand by the door.
I dutifully got up and went to it.
"P-E-D-A," said my aunt, still typing.
I looked it up. "Hmmm,' I said. "Okay." Then I sat back down.
"They're talking like she won't walk again without braces or crutches. That's what they told my friend Frances in nineteen and twenty-one," she said. "You see her motorboatin' all around town now. She only limps a little when she gets really tired and worn out."
Frances worked down at the dress shop. She looked fine except her right leg was a little thinner than her left.
"My aim is to have your sister walking again by herself by next summer."
"Will it happen?"
"If I have anything to do with it, it will," said Aunt Noni.
I never felt so glum about the future as I did sitting there in my aunt's sunny office that July afternoon. What if she were wrong? What if my sister Ethel never walked again? What would her life be like? Who the hell would I play croquet with, in Alabama in the summer, if not her, when I wasn't fishing?
Of course, a year later, the Salk vaccine was developed and tried out and started the end of polio. And a couple of years after that came the Sabin oral vaccine, which they gave to you on sugar cubes and which tasted like your grandfather's old hunting socks smelled, which really ended the disease.
We didn't know any of that then. And the future didn't help my sister any right then.
· · · · ·
My parents had of course taken off work and driven from Texas at the end of the first week; there were many family conferences to which the me part of the family was not privy. My parents went to see her and stayed at the hospital.
What was decided was that my sister was to remain in Alabama with my grandparents for the next year and that I was to return to my dead hometown in Texas with my parents and somegoddamnhow survive the rest of the summer there.
My sister Ethel would be enrolled in school in Alabama, provided she was strong enough to do the schoolwork. So I fished the Big Pond and the Little Pond one last time, til it was too dark to see and the bass lost interest in anything in the tackle box, and I went over the low hill to my grandparents' house, robbed of a summer.
Next morning we got the car packed, ready to return to Texas, a fourteen-hour drive in a flathead 6 1952 Ford. Then we stopped by the hospital. Aunt Noni was already there, her purple Kaiser parked by the front door. My parents went in; after a while Aunt Noni waved at the window, then I saw a blur in the mirror and a shape and I waved and waved and jumped up and down with an enthusiasm I did not feel. Then I got in the car and we went back to Texas
Somehow, I did live through that summer.
· · · · ·
One of the things that got me through it was the letters my aunt took down from my sister and typed up. The first couple were about the hospital, til they let her go, and then about what she could see from the back room of my grandparents' house.
We'd usually only gone to Alabama for the summer, and sometimes rushed trips at Christmas, where we were in the car fourteen hours (those days the Interstate Highway System was just a gleam in Ike's eyeso he could fight a two-front war and not be caught short moving stuff from one coast to the other like they had in the Korean War when he was running Columbia University in NYC). We stayed at our grandparents' places Christmas Eve and on Christmas morning and then drove fourteen hours back home just in time for my parents to go to work the day after Christmas.
So I'd never seen Alabama in the fall or the spring. My sister described the slow change from summer to fall there after school started (in Texas it was summer til early October, and you had the leaves finish falling off the trees the third week of December and new buds coming out the second week of January.) She wrote of the geese she heard going over on the Mississippi flyway.
She complained about the schoolwork; in letters back to her I complained about school itself: the same dorks were the same dorks, the same jerks the same jerks, the same bullies still bullies. And that was third grade. Then, you always think it's going to change the next year, until you realize: these jerks are going to be the same ones I'm stuck with the rest of their lives. (As "Scoop" Jackson the senator would later sayit's hard to turn fifty-five and realize the world is being run by people you used to beat up in the fourth grade.)
Third grade was the biggest grind of my life. My sister was finding Alabama second grade tough too; there was no Alamo, no Texas-under-six-flags. In Alabama there was stealing land from the Choctaws and Cherokees, there was the cotton gin and slavery, there was the War for Southern Independence, and then there was the boll weevil. That was about it. No Deaf Smith, no Ben Milam, no line drawn in the dirt with the sword, no last battle of the Civil War fought by two detachments who didn't know the war was over, six weeks after Appomattox; no Spindletop, no oil boom, no great comic-book textbook called Texas History Movies which told you everything in a casually racist way but which you remembered better than any textbook the rest of your life.
I told her what I was doing (reading comics, watching TV) and what I caught in the city park pond or the creek coming out of it. It was the fifties in Texas. There was a drought; the town well had gone dry, and they were digging a lake west of town which, at the current seven inches of rain a year, would take twenty-two years to fill up, by which time we'd all be dead.
I told her about the movies I'd seen once the town's lone theater had opened back up. (There were three drive-ins: one in the next town west, with a great neon cowboy round-up scene on the back of the screen, facing the highwayone guy strummed a green neon guitar, a red neon fire burned at the chuck wagon, a vacquero twirled a pink neon lasso; one at the west edge of our town; and one near the next town to the east.)
Anyway, I got and wrote at least one letter a week to and from my sister; my aunt wrote separate letters to me and my parents; they called each other at least once a week.
Somehow, Christmas dragged its ass toward the school year; my parents decided we'd go to Alabama during the break and see my sister and try to have a happy holiday.
· · · · ·
My sister was thinner and her eyes were shinier. She looked pretty much the same except her left leg was skinny. She was propped up in bed. Everybody made a big fuss over her all the time. There was a pile of Christmas presents for her out under the tree in the screened-in hall that would choke a mastodon.
I was finally in her room with no one else there.
"Bored, huh?" I asked.
"There's too many people playing the damned fool around here for me to get bored," she said.
"I mean, outside of Christmas?"
"Well, yeah. The physical therapist lady comes twice a day usually and we go through that rigmarole."
"I hope people got you lots of books," I said.
"I've read so many books I can't see straight, Bubba."
"Have you read All About Dinosaurs?" I asked.
"I've got my copy with me. You can read it but I gotta have it back before we leave. I stood in a Sears and Roebuck store in Ft. Worth for six hours once while they shipped one over from the Dallas warehouse. The last truck came in and the book wasn't there. They were out and didn't know it. I'd saved up my allowance for four weeks! Without movies or comic books! I told anybody who would listen about it. A week later one came in the mail. Aunt Noni heard the story and ordered it for me."
"Bless her heart."
"I'm real sorry all this happened, Sis," I said, before I knew I was saying it. "I wish we hadn't fought the day before you got sick."
"What? What fight?"
"The croquet game. You hit me."
"You hit me!" she said.
"No. You backsassed Mamaw. She hit you."
"Yes she did," said my sister Ethel.
"Anyway, I'm sorry."
"It wasn't your fault," she said.
I really was going to talk to her more but some damnfool uncle came in wearing his hat upside down to make her laugh.
· · · · ·
My sister grew up and. walked again, and except for a slight limp and a sometime windmilling foot (like my aunt's friend Frances when she was very tired), she got around pretty well, even though she lost most of a year of her life in that bed in Alabama.
I remember walking with her the first day of school when she had come back to Texas and was starting third grade.
"Doing okay?" I asked. We lived three whole blocks from school then, but I wanted her to take it slow and not get too tired.
"Yeah. Sure," she said.
· · · · ·
I remember the day they handed out the permission forms for the Salk polio vaccine, which was a big shot with a square needle in the meat of your arm.
My sister laughed and laughed. "Oh, bitter irony!" she said "Oh, ashes and dust!"
"Yeah," I said, "well
"Have Mom and Pop sign yours twice," she said. "At least it'll do you some good."
"Once again, Sis, I'm sorry."
"Tell that to the school nurse," she said.
· · · · ·
At some point, when we were in our late teens, we were having one of those long philosophical discussions brothers and sisters have when neither has a date and you're too damned tired from the school week to get up off your butt and go out and do something on your own, and the public library closed early. Besides, your folks are yelling at each other in their bedroom.
The Time Machine was one of my favorite movies (they all are). I had the movie tie-in paperback with the photo of Rod Taylor on the back; the Dell Movie Classic comic book with art by Alex Toth, and the Classics Illustrated edition with art by Lou Cameronit had been my favorite for years before the movie had come out in 1960.
"What would I do," I repeated Ethel's question, "if I could travel in time? Like go see dinosaurs, or go visit the spaceport they're going to build just outside this popsicle burg?
"Most people would do just what I'd do: first I'd go to the coin shop, buy ten early 1930s Mercury dimes, then go back to 1938 and buy ten copies of Action Comics #1 with Superman's first story, and then I'd go write mash notes to Eve Arden."
I'd just finished watching reruns of Our Miss Brooks on TV.
"No," she said. "I mean, really?"
"No," I said. "I mean, really."
"Wouldn't you try to stop Oswald?" she asked. "Go strangle Hitler in his cradle?"
"You didn't ask 'What would you do if you could travel in time to make the world a better place?' You asked 'What would you do if you could travel in time?'"
"Be that way," she said.
"I am that way."
· · · · ·
And then she went off to work at some Rhine-like lab in North Carolina. That's not what she set out to dowhat she set out to do was be a carhop, get out of the house and our live local version of the Bickersons. (Bickering=Pow! Sock! Crash!)
She first worked as a carhop in town, from the time she was fourteen, and then she got the real glamour job over in Dallas at the biggest drive-in cafe there, twenty-five carhops, half of them on skates (not her). She moved in with two other carhops there. A few months later, King and Bobby Kennedy got killed and half the US burned down.
Something happened at the cafeI never found out exactly what. But a week later she called home and said this research lab was flying her to North Carolina for a few days (she'd never flown before). And then she left.
I started getting letters from her. By then our parents had gotten a divorce; I was living in the house with my father (who would die in a few months of heart failureand a broken heart). My mom had run off with the guy she'd been sneaking around with the last couple of years and we weren't talking much. I was in college and seeing the girl I would eventually marry, have a kid with, and divorce.
My sister told me they were really interested in her; that other institutes were trying to get her to come over to them and that she wasn't the only polio survivor there. My first thought waswhat's going on? Is this like Himmler's interest in twins and gypsies, or was this just statistically average? This was the late '60s; lots of people our age had polio before 1955, so maybe that was it?
Her letters were a nice break in the college routineclasses, theater, part-time thirty-six-hour-a-week job. Of course I got an ulcer before I turned twenty-two. (Later it didn't keep me from being drafted; it had gotten better after I quit working thirty hours a week in theater plus the job plus only sleeping between three and six A.M. seven days a week.)
"The people here are nice," she said. "The tests are fun, except for the concentration. I get headaches like Mamaw used to get, every other day." She sent me a set of the cardsRhine cards. Circle, triangle, star, square, plus sign, wavy horizontal lines. They had her across the table from a guy who turned the cards, fifty of them, randomly shuffled. She was supposed to intuit (or receive telepathically) which cards he'd turned over. She marked the symbol she thought it was. There was a big high partition across the middle of the tableshe could barely see the top of the guy's head. Sometimes she was the one turning the cards and tried to send messages to him. There were other, more esoteric onesthe tests were supposed to be scientific and repeatable.
From one of her letters:
I don't mind the work here, and if they prove something by it, more's the better. What I do mind is that all the magazines I read here think that if there is something to extrasensory perception, then there also has to be mental contact with UFOs (what UFOs?) and the Atlanteans (what Atlantis?) and mental death rays and contact with the spirit-world (what spirit-world?).
I don't understand that; proving extrasensory perception only proves that exists, and they haven't even proved that yet. Next week they're moving me over to the PK unitPsychoKinesis. Moving stuff at a distance without, as Morbius said, "instrumentality." That's more like what happened at the drive-in anyway. They wanted to test me for this stuff first. Evidently I'm not very good at this. Or, I'm the same as everybody else, except the ones they catch cheating, by what they call reading the other personphysical stuff like in poker, where somebody always lifts an eyebrow when the star comes upstuff like that.
Will write to you when I get a handle on this PK stuff.
· · · · ·
"You would have thought I set off an atom bomb here," her next letter began. She then described what happened and the shady-looking new people who showed up to watch her tests.
Later, they showed her some film smuggled out of the USSR of ladies shaped like potatoes doing hand-schtick and making candles move toward them.
My sister told them her brother could do the same thing with 2-lb test nylon fishing line.
"If I want that candle there to move over here, I'll do it without using my hands," she'd said.
And then, the candle didn't move.
"They told me then my abilities may lie in some other area; that the cafe incident was an anomaly, or perhaps someone else, a cook or another carhop had the ability; it had just happened to her because she was the one with the trays and dishes.
"Perhaps," she had told them, "you were wrong about me entirely and are wasting your motel and cafeteria money and should send me back to Texas Real Soon. Or maybe I have the ability to move something besides candles, something no one else ever had. Or maybe we are just all pulling our puds." Or words to that effect.
A couple of days later she called me on the phone. The operator told her to deposit $1.15. I heard the ching and chime of coins in the pay phone.
"Franklin," said Ethel.
She never called me by my right name; I was Bubba to everyone in the family.
"Yes, Sis, what is it?"
"I think we had a little breakthrough here. We won't know til tomorrow. I want you to know I love you."
"What the hell you talkin' about?"
"I'll let you know," she said.
Then she hung up.
· · · · ·
The next day was my usual Wednesday, which meant I wouldn't get any sleep. I'd gotten to bed the night before at 2 A.M. I was in class by 7 A.M. and had three classes and lab scattered across the day. At 6 P.M. I drove to the regional newspaper plant that printed all the suburban dailies. I was a linotype operator at minimum wage. The real newspaper that owned all the suburban ones was a union shop and the guys there made $3.25 an hour in l968 dollars. I worked a twelve-hour shift (or a little less if we got all the type set early) three nights a week, Mon.-Wed.-Fri. That way, not only did you work for $1.25 an hour, they didn't owe you for overtime unless you pulled more than a sixteen-hour shift one nightand nobody ever did.
Linotypes were mechanical marvelsso much so that Mergenthaler, who finally perfected it, went slap-dab crazy before he died. It's like being in a room of mechanical monsters who spit out hot pieces of lead (and sometimes hot lead itself all over youbefore they do that, they make a distinctive noise and you've got a second and a half to get ten feet away; it's called a backspill).
Once all linotype was set by hand, by the operators. By the time I came along, they had typists set copy on a tape machine. What came out there was perforated tape, brought into the linotype room in big, curling strands. The operatormeput the front end of the tape into a reader-box built onto the keyboard, and the linotype clicked away like magic. The keys depressed, lines of type-mold keys fell into place from a big magazine above the keyboard; they were lifted up and moved over to the molder against the pot of hot lead; the line was cast, an arm came down, lifted the letter matrices up, another rod pushed them over onto an endless spiraled rod, and they fell back into the typecase when the side of the matrix equaled the space on the typecase, and the process started all over. If the tape code was wrong and a line went too long, you got either type matrices flying everywhere as the line was lifted to the molder, or it went over and you got a backspill and hot lead flew across the room.
Then you had to turn off the reader, take off the galley where the slugs of hot type came off to cool, open up the front of the machine, clean all the lead off with a wire brush, put it back together, and start the tape reader back up. When the whole galley was set and cool, you pulled a proof on a small rotary press and sent it back to the typists, where corrections would come back on shorter and shorter pieces of paper tape. You kept setting and inserting the corrections and throwing away the bad slugs until the galley was okayed; then you pulled a copy of the galley and sent it up to the composing room where they laid out the page of corrected galley, shot a page on a plate camera, and made a steel plate from that; that was put on the web press and the paper was run off and sent out to newsboys all over three counties.
It was a noisy, nasty twelve-hour hell with the possibility of being hit in the face with molten lead or asphyxiating when, in your copious free time, you took old dead galleys and incorrect slugs back to the lead smelter to melt down and then ladled out molten lead into pig-iron molds which, when cooled down, you took and hung by the hole in one end to the chain above the pot on each linotypebesides doing everything else it did, the machine lowered the lead pigs into the pots by a ratchet gear each time it set a line. No wonder Mergenthaler went mad.
I did all that twelve hours a night three nights a week for five years, besides college. There were five linotypes in the place, including one that Mergenthaler himself must have made around 1880, and usually three of them were down at a time with backspills or other problems.
Besides that, there were the practical jokers. Your first day on the job you were always sent for the type-stretcher, all over the printing plant. "Hell, I don't know who had that last!" they'd say. "Check the composing room." Then some night the phone would ring in the linotype room; you'd go to answer it and get an earful of printers' ink, about the consistency of axle grease. Someone had slathered a big gob on the earpiece and called you from somewhere else in the plant. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
If you'd really pissed someone off (it never happened to me), they'd wait for a hot day and go out and fill all four of your hubcaps with fresh shrimp. It would take two or three days before they'd really stink; you'd check everywhere in the car but the hubcaps; finally something brown would start running from them and you'd figure it out. Nyuk nyuk nyuk.
That night I started to feel jumpy. Usually I was philosophical: Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it. Nothing was going on but the usual hot, repetitious drudgery. Something felt wrong. My head didn't exactly hurt, but I knew it was there. Things took on a distancing effectI would recognize that from dope, later on. But there was no goofer dust in my life then. Then I noticed everybody else was moving and talking faster than normal. I looked at the clock with the big sweep second-hand outside the linotype room. It had slowed to a crawl.
I grabbed onto the bed of the cold iron proof-press and held on to it. Later, when I turned fifty or so, I was in a couple of earthquakes on the West Coast, but they were nothing compared to what I was feeling at that moment.
One of the tape compositor ladies, a blur, stopped in front of me and chirped out "Doyoufeelallright, Frank?"
"Justa headacheI'llbeokay," I twittered back.
I looked at the clock again.
The sweep-hand stopped. I looked back into the linotype room.
People moved around like John Paul Stapp on the Sonic Wind rocket sled.
I looked at the clock again. The second hand moved backward.
And then the world blurred all out of focus and part of me left the clanging clattering linotypes behind.
· · · · ·
I looked around the part of town I could see. (What was I doing downtown? Wasn't I at work?) The place looked like it did around 1962. The carpet shop was still in business- it had failed a few months before JFK was shot. Hamburgers were still four for a dollar on the menus outside the cafes. The theater was showing Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and The Manster, which was a 1962 double feature. Hosey the usher was leaving in his '58 Chevy; he quit working at the theater in 1964, I knew. I had a feeling that if I walked one block north and four blocks west I could look in the window of a house and see myself reading a book or doing homework. I sure didn't want to do that.
Then the plant manager was in front of me. "Hey! You've got a backspill on #5, that crappy old bastard, and #3's quit reading tape."
"Sorry," I said/ "I just got a splitting headache for a minute. Got any aspirin?" I asked, taking the galley off #5.
"Go ask one of the women who's having her period," he said. "I just took all the aspirin in the place. The publisher's all over my ass this week. Why, I don't know. I robbed the first-aid kit: don't go there."
"That would have been my next stop," I said. I brushed a cooled line of lead off the keyboard and from the seat and up the back of the caster chair in front of the linotype. I closed the machine back up and started it up and went over and pounded on the reader box of #3. It chattered away.
For a while I was too busy to think about what had happened.
· · · · ·
"Feeling a little weird?" asked my sister, this time on a regular phone.
"What the hell happened?"
"Talk to this man," she said.
She put on some professor whose name I didn't catch.
He asked me some questions. I told him the answers. He said he was sending a questionnaire. My sister came back on.
"I think they think I gave you a bad dream two thousand miles away," she said. "That would be a big-cheese deal to them."
"What do you think?" I asked. "I saw Hosey."
"Either way, you would have done that," she said.
"What do you mean, either way? Why are you involving me? Is this fun?"
"Because," she said, "you're my brother and I love you."
," I said. "Why don't you mess with someone you don't like? Who's that guy who left you in Grand Prairie to walk home at 5 A.M.?"
"I killed him with a mental lightning bolt yesterday," she said. Then, "Just kidding.
"Well, I'm glad you're just kidding, because I just shit my pants. I don't want to ever feel like I did last night, again, ever. It was creepy."
"Of course it was creepy," she said. "We're working at the frontiers of science here."
"Are you on the frontiers of science there," I asked, "or
She finished the sentence with me: "
are we just pulling our puds?" She laughed. "I don't have a clue. They're trying to figure out how to do this scientifically. They may have to fly you in."
"No, thanks!" I said. "I've got a life to live. I'm actually dating a real-live girl. I'm also working myself to death. I don't have time for hot dates with Ouija boards, or whatever you're doing there. Include me out."
She laughed again. "We'll see."
"No you won't! Don't do this to me. I'm
There was a dial tone.
· · · · ·
So the second time I knew what was happening. I was at home. I felt the distancing effect; the speeding up of everything around, except the kitchen clock. It was the kind where parts of numbers flipped down, an analog readout. It slowed to a crawl. The thin metal strips the numbers were painted on took a real long time before they flipped down.
A bird rocketed through the yard. The neighbor's dog was a beige blur. I could barely move. My stomach churned like when I was on the Mad Octopus at the Texas State Fair. The clock hung between 10:29 and 10:50 A.M. Then it was 10:29. 10:28. 10:27. Then the readout turned into a high whining flutter.
· · · · ·
This time everything was bigger. Don't ask me why. I was at my favorite drugstore, the one next to the theater. The drugstore was at the corner of Division and Center Street. I glanced at a newspaper. June 17, 1956. If memory serves, I would have been over in Alabama at the time, so I wouldn't be running into myself. I reached in my pocket and looked at my change. Half of it hadn't been minted yet. (How was that possible?) The guy at the register ignored mehe'd seen me a million times, and I wasn't one of the kids he had to give the Hairy Eyeball to. When I came in, I came to buy.
I looked at the funny book rack. Everything except the Dell Comics had the Comics Code Seal on them, which meant they'd go to Nice Heaven. No zombies, no monsters, no blood, no Blackhawks fighting the Commies, who used stuff that melts tanks, peopleeverything but wood. No vampires "saaaaking your blaaad." Dullsville. I picked up a Mad magazine, which was no longer a comic book, so it wouldn't be under the Comics Code, but had turned into a 25¢What, me cheap?magazine. It had a Kelly Freas cover of Alfred E. Neuman.
I fished out a 1952 quarter and put it down by the register. There wasn't any sales tax in Texas yet. Fifty years later, we would be paying more than New York City.
I looked at the theater marquee when I stepped outside. Bottom of the Bottle and Bandidoone with Joseph Cotten and Richard Egan, the other with Glenn Ford and Gilbert Roland. I'd seen them later, bored by the first except for a storm scene, and liked the second because there were lots of explosions and Browning .50 caliber machine guns. Nothing for me there.
I walked down toward Main Street.
There was a swooping sensation and a flutter of light and I was back home.
The analog readout on the clock clicked to 10:50 A.M.
· · · · ·
I went to the coin shop. I went to my doctor's office. I went to a couple of other places. I actually had to lie a couple of times, and I used one friendship badly, only they didn't know, but I did.
Then I found the second letter my sister had sent me from North Carolina and got the phone number of the lab. I called it the next morning. It took awhile, but they finally got Ethel to the phone.
"Feeling okay?" she asked.
"Hell no," I said. "I'm not having any fun. At least let me have fun. Two days from now give me an hallucination about Alabama. In the summer. I want to at least see if the fishing is as good as I remember it."
"So it is written," she said, imitating Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments, "so it shall be done."
I knew it really didn't matter, but I kept my old fiberglass spinning rod, with its Johnson Century spinning reel, and my old My Buddy tackle box as near me as I could the next two days. Inside the tackle box with all the other crap were three new double-hook rigged rubber eels, cheap as piss in 1969, but they cost $1.00 each in 1950s money when they'd first come out.
· · · · ·
This time I was almost ready for it and didn't panic when the thing came on. I rode it out like the log flume ride out at Six Flags Over Texas, and when the clock outside the college classroom started jumping backward, I didn't even get woozy. I closed my eyes and made the jump myself.
I was at the Big Pond and had made a cast. A two-pound bass had taken the rubber eel. The Big Pond was even bigger than I remembered (although I knew it was only four acres). I got the bass in and put it on a stringer with its eleven big clamps and swivels between each clamp on the chain. I put the bass out about two feet in the water and put the clamp on the end of the stringer around a willow root.
Then I cast again, and the biggest bass I had ever had took it. There was a swirl in the water the size of a #5 washtub and I set the hook.
I had him on for maybe thirty seconds. He jumped in the shallow water as I reeled. He must have weighed ten pounds. When he came down there was a splash like a cow had fallen into the pond.
Then the rubber eel came sailing lazily out of the middle of the commotion, and the line went slack in a backflowing arc. It (probably she) had thrown the hook.
There was a big V-wake heading for deeper water when the bass realized it was free.
I was pissed off at myself. I picked up the stringer with the two-pound bass (which now didn't look as large as it had five minutes ago ) and my tackle box and started off over the hill back toward my grandparents' house.
I walked through the back gate, with its plowshare counterweight on the chain that kept it closed. I took the fish off the stringer and eased it into the seventy-five gallon rainbarrel, where it started to swim along with a catfish my uncle had caught at the Little Pond yesterday. In the summer, there was usually a fish fry every Friday. We got serious about fishing on Thursdays. By Friday there would be fifteen or twenty fish in the barrel, from small bluegills to a few crappie to a bunch of bass and catfish. On Fridays my uncle would get off early, start cleaning fish, heating up a cast-iron pot full of lard over a charcoal fire and making up batter for the fish and hush puppies. Then, after my grandfather came in, ten or eleven of us would eat until we fell over.
Later the cooled fish grease would be used to make dogbread for my grandfather's hounds. You didn't waste much in Alabama in those days.
I washed my hands off at the outside faucet and went through the long hall from the back door, being quiet, as the only sound in the house was of SuZan, the black lady who cooked for my grandmother, starting to make lunch. I looked into the front room and saw my grandmother sleeping on the main bed.
I went out onto the verandah. I'd taken stuff out of the tackle box in the back hall, when I'd leaned my fishing rod up against a bureau, where I kept it ready to go all summer.
I was eating from a box of Domino® sugar cubes when I came out. My sister was in one of the Adirondack-type wooden chairs, reading a Katy Keene comic book; the kind where the girl readers sent in drawings of dresses and sunsuits they'd designed for Katy. The artist redrew them when they chose yours for a story, and they ran your name and address printed beside it so other Katy Keene fans could write you. (Few people know it, but that's how the internet started.)
She must have been five or sixbefore she got sick. She was like a sparkle of light in a dark world.
"Back already?" she asked. "Quitter."
"I lost the biggest fish of my life," I said. "I tried to horse it in. I should have let it horse me but kept control, as the great A.J. McClane says in Field and Stream," I said. "I am truly disappointed in my fishing abilities for the first time in a long time."
"Papaw'll whip your ass if he finds out you lost that big fish he's been trying to catch," she said. "He would have gone in after it, if he ever had it on." He would have, too.
"Yeah, he's a cane-pole fisherman, the best there ever was, but it was too shallow there for him to get his minnow in there with a pole. It was by that old stump in the shallow end." Then I held up the sugar-cube box.
"Look what I found," I said.
"Where'd you get those?"
"In the old chiffarobe."
"SuZan'll beat your butt if she finds you filchin' sugar from her kitchen."
"Probably some of Aunt Noni's for her tea. She probably bought it during the Coolidge Administration and forgot about it." Aunt Noni was the only person I knew in Alabama who drank only one cup of coffee in the morning, and then drank only tea, iced or hot, the rest of the day.
"Gimme some," said Ethel.
"What's the magic word?"
"Please and thank you."
I moved the box so she took the ones I wanted her to. She made a face. "God, that stuff is old," she said.
"I told you they was," I said.
"Gimme more. Please," she said. "Those are better." Then: "I've read this Katy Keene about to death. Wanna play croquet til you get up your nerve to go back and try to catch that fish before Papaw gets home?"
"Sure," I said. "But that fish will have a sore jaw til tomorrow. He'll be real careful what he bites the rest of the day. I won't be able to tempt him again until tomorrow."
We started playing croquet. I had quite the little run there, making it to the middle wicket from the first tap. Then my sister came out of the starting double wicket and I could tell she was intent on hitting my ball, then getting to send me off down the hill. We had a rule that if you were knocked out of bounds, you could put the ball back in a mallet-head length from where it went out. But if you hit it hard enough, the ball went out of bounds, over the gravel parking area, down the long driveway, all the way down the hill and out onto Alabama Highway 12. You had to haul your ass all the way down the dirt drive, dodge the traffic, retrieve the bail from your cousin's front yard, and climb all the way back up to the croquet grounds to put your ball back into play.
My sister tapped my ball at the end of a long shot. She placed her ball against it, and put her foot on top of her croquet ball. She lined up her shot. She took a practice tap to make sure she had the right murderous swing.
"Hey!" I said ."My ball moved! That counts as your shot!"
"Does not!" she yelled.
"Yes it does!" I yelled.
"Take your next shot! That counted!" I added.
"It did not!" she screamed.
"You children be quiet!" my grandmother yelled from her bed of pain.
About that time was when Ethel hit me between the eyes with the green-striped croquet mallet; I kneecapped her with the blue croquet ball, and, with a smile on my swelling face as I heard the screen door open and close, I went away from there.
· · · · ·
This time I felt like I had been beaten with more than a mallet wielded by a six-year-old. I felt like I'd been stoned by a crowd and left for dead. I was dehydrated. My right foot hurt like a bastard, and mucus was dripping from my nose. I'm pretty sure the crowds in the hall as classes let out noticedthey gave me a wide berth, like I was a big ugly rock in the path of migrating salmon.
I got home as quickly as I could, cutting History of the Totalitarian State 405, which was usually one of my favorites.
I called the lab long distance. Nobody knew about my sister. Maybe it was her day off. I called the Motel 6. Nobody was registered by her name." The manager said, "Thank you for calling Motel 6." Then he hung up.
Maybe she'd come back to Dallas. I called her number there.
"Hello," said somebody nice.
"Is Ethel there?"
"Oh. That must have been Joanie's old roommate."
I'd met Joanie once. "Put Joanie on, please?" I asked.
She was in, and took the phone.
"Joanie? Hi. This is FranklinBubbaEthel's brother."
"I can't get ahold of her in North Carolina."
"Why would you be calling her there, honey?"
"'Cause that's where she was the last two weeks."
"I don't know about that. But she moved out of here four months ago. I got a number for her, but she's never there. The phone just rings and rings. If you happen to catch her, tell her she still owes me four dollars and thirty-one cents on that last electric bill. I'm workin' mostly days now, and I ain't waitin' around two hours to see her. She can leave it with Steve; he'll see I get it."
"Steve. Work. Four dollars," I mumbled.
She gave me the number. The prefix meant south Oak Cliff, a suburb that had been eaten by Dallas.
I dialed it.
"Who is this? What the hell you want? I just worked a double shift."
"It's Bubba," I said.
"Brother? I haven't heard from you in a month of Sundays."
"No wonder. You're in North Carolina; you come back without telling me; you didn't tell me you'd moved out from Joanie's
"What the hell you mean, North Carolina?! I been pullin' double shifts for three solid weeks I ain't had a day off since September 26th. I ain't never been to North Carolina in my life."
"Okay. First, Joanie says you owe her $4.31 on the electric bill
"Four thirty-one," she said, like she was writing it down. "I'll be so glad when I pay her so she'll shut up."
"Okay. Let's start over. How's your leg?"
"Your left leg. The polio leg. Just the one that's given you trouble for fifteen years. That's which leg."
"Polio. Polio? The only person I know with polio is Noni's friend Frances, in Alabama."
"Does the year 1954 ring a bell?" I asked.
"Yeah. That was the first time we spent the whole summer in Alabama. Mom and Dad sure fooled us the second time, didn't they? Hi. Welcome back from vacation, kids. Welcome to your new broken homes."
"They should have divorced long before they did. They would have made themselves and a lot of people happier."
"No," she said. "They just never should have left backwoods Alabama and come to the Big City. All those glittering objects. All that excitement."
"Are we talking about the same town here?" I asked.
"Towns are as big as your capacity for wonder, as Fitzgerald said," said Ethel.
"Okay. Back to weird. Are you sure you never had polio when you were a kid? That you haven't been in North Carolina the last month at some weird science place? That you weren't causing me to hallucinate being a time-traveler?"
"Franklin," she said. "I have never seen it, but I do believe you are drunk. Why don't you hang up now and call me back when you are sober. I still love you, but I will not tolerate a drunken brother calling me while I am trying to sleep.
"Wait! Wait! I want to know, are my travels through? Can I get back to my real life now?"
"How would I know?" asked Ethel. "I'm not the King Of Where-You-Go."
"Maybe. Maybe not."
"Go sober up now. Next time call me at work. Nights."
She hung up.
· · · · ·
And then I thought: what would it be like to watch everyone slow down; the clock start whirling clockwise around the dial til it turned gray like it was full of dishwater, and then suddenly be out at the spaceport they're going to build out at the edge of town and watch the Mars rocket take off every Tuesday?
And: I would never know the thrill of standing, with a satchel full of comics under my arm, waiting at the end of Eve Arden's driveway for her to get home from the studio
Dedicated to Ms. Mary Ethel (Waldrop) Burton Falco Bray Hodnett, my little sister