The Greatest Game of Grab-Ass Ever

Let no man suggest that it was panic that brought Haskell fully to his feet. Simply because a man gets up from his bar stool does not mean that he entertains thoughts of escaping through the front door, out into the dark and anonymous sanctuary of the night. People who frequent bars often rise from their drinks to take advantage of the facilities in the rear. Occasionally they rise with some measure of urgency. And, now and then, it might happen that one will catch a heel in the rung of the stool as he turns.

But we haven’t calculated the odds of the afore-mentioned game of grab-ass taking a particularly violent turn at the precise moment that Haskell lost his balance. Nor have we analyzed the momentum of the tangle of careening students that crashed into his stool, the constituent forces of which coalesced in a manner sufficient to lift him clear of the stool and drop him, nearly vertical, on his head in the big brass spittoon. One thing, however, was abundantly clear to the assembled merrymakers as he rose to a sitting position on the floor: he was now hopelessly and irretrievably attached to the spittoon.

* * *

On bare pavement, the sudden application of brakes generates a strident scream of rubber that cannot be mistaken for any other sound. Its shriek will strike mindless terror into the hearts of everyone up and down the block and inside every building facing the street. But the sound of brakes applied in panic on an ice-covered street is low and liquid. And it conveys a more personal message, speaking only to the driver and to the unfortunate pedestrian who perceives too late the out-of-control vehicle bearing down upon him.

When the moist whisper of rubber sliding down the ice-bound street divulged its horrid secrets in Haskell’s ear, he was unable – blind and helpless as he was – to respond to its urgent message.

Prelude to a Kiss

Just the top of her head, just a few golden curls, protrude through the collar of his jacket. The aroma of her cologne wends its way home to his nostrils, and her breath on his neck engenders in him an almost unbearable ecstasy. She has worked her arms around his waist and now holds him as though in fear that he will run from her – an ambition of which he is, of course, altogether innocent. He can feel her full lips against the bare skin of his neck, and – in his fantasy – they part, ever so slightly. He imagines that she applies a barely perceptible vacuum, that he hears the faint wet release of her lips. With his eyes closed, he can almost believe that she has kissed him.

Teach Me Tonight

Let us reflect for a moment on this enchanted hour of adolescence, when awakened passion overwhelms the hesitant heart and renders logical contention irrelevant; when parental exhortation and reasoned contemplation are banished into the shadows of neglect, to wither and perish in the gloom. Recall the raging appetite of youth that numbs its harried victim to all other hungers − all other thirsts. Remember a time when we too have happily suffered starvation and endured the symptoms of incipient dehydration sooner than deny this consumptive craving, borne of hormonal secretions newly coursing through our veins.

But there remains one physiological function to which even young love must defer; one dominant urge that will not be denied, will not be diminished, will not be delayed. And so at last the lovers, in response to the urgency that has been quietly building within them, separate for an anguished interval to relieve the pressure in their bladders.

* * *

We must not judge him harshly if, for the moment, Haskell is less concerned with the nature of the accident or the condition of Mr. and Mrs. Jessup than he is with the lingering scent of Unforgettable and the remembered taste of Jennifer’s breath. He is young and not yet acquainted with tragedy. He does not yet believe in death.

And if, in his innocence, he sees only happiness ahead – if he believes that he and Jennifer have their entire lives to share – it is not for us to disabuse him. He will learn soon enough of twisted metal and broken bodies, of funerals and custody hearings, of maiden aunts in Omaha who will intercept his letters and forbid his further correspondence.

By the time Jennifer runs away and returns to Bobcat Crossing in search of her lost childhood, he will have left home to join the merchant marine.

He will know other girls along the way, of course – experience other diversions – share other secrets. But, all the remaining voyage of his life he will look back on this evening as a singular experience – never to be forgotten – never quite equaled.

So let him smile one moment longer – smile with his entire being – the way only children and young lovers still may smile. And, as he watches Jennifer’s rapidly departing figure, let him sing along with the latest Theresa Brewer hit:

“I will keep my promise true,

‘til I waltz again with you.”

Something Has Gone Horribly Awry

An older lady of some considerable heft, pushed herself away from the bar to leave, and, as she passed – with no observable strain – appropriated Jennifer’s jacket.

And that, gentle readers, was the final straw. Jennifer had had about as much of this shit as she intended to take. It might have been a rebel yell, an Indian war whoop or the ululation of a Tuareg warrior, but was simply her own personal roar of frustration, “Give me that jacket, you old bitch. I paid damn near a hundred dollars for that jacket, and I’m not gonna let you just waltz out of here with it.”

She jumped on the woman and tried to tear the jacket out of her hands.

The woman continued on her journey toward the door oblivious to the angry Jennifer on her back. And Jennifer found, while attempting to extricate her property, that the old lady was also carved of stone. Hard as Jennifer struck the woman and much as she scratched at her horrid face, the woman seemed not to notice. And, before she opened the door, with a shrug of her shoulders she discarded Jennifer like a paper doll.

* * *

“Haskell, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore. These things look like real people – even like people I know. But they’re not real. I don’t know what the hell happened while we were out there dodging cars, but this isn’t the same crowd that was here before. I don’t think it’s even the same bar. It’s like we’re on a different planet and these things – these robots or whatever the hell they are – are just made up to look like people.”

From behind her a voice from the distant past remarked, “It makes a mother proud to see her little girl drop her pants and wave her naked ass in the air for a bunch of drunks like that.”

And an equally familiar voice replied, “Well, we certainly must have done something right.”

Blood is Thicker Than Ectoplasm

“Haskell,” Mrs. Jessup interjected, “If you wouldn’t mind a fashion tip from a woman who has worn the same dress for twenty years, I’d get rid of that spittoon if I were you. It really doesn’t go with your shoes.”

“I nearly had my head torn off my shoulders the last time someone tried to get the spittoon off. I’m not sure I want to go through that again.”

“Well, suit yourself. It was only a suggestion.”

“You can get rid of it any time you want.” Mr. Jessup offered. “The spittoon really isn’t there, you know, and you don’t actually have a body. What you’ve been walking around in is only a projection. We project our bodies as we expect them to be. You have the cuspidor on your head only because you were wearing it when you died – just as Vivienne is still wearing the dress she had on when she died. If she should get tired of it, all she’d have to do is imagine herself without it. And just like that, it’d be gone.”

“Mother! You put your clothes back on.”

Sideways Through Time

There are formulas and processes in the universe that the human race is better off not knowing – at least not at this stage in its evolutionary development. Though a constant influx of knowledge is essential for the further understanding of ourselves and the universe we live in, too much knowledge too soon can be a curse; it is certainly not a blessing. From our understanding, which is necessarily grounded in fundamental knowledge, we must construct the mechanism by which we seek further knowledge. And from our further knowledge we will gain a yet deeper understanding.

It is essential that we climb our ladder to the stars, each rung in its turn. By attempting to leap over even a single step we risk falling, from the heights we have attained over the millennia, into an abyss of ignorance and barbarity from which we may never again ascend.

We would not allow children to play with loaded firearms – not until they are old enough to understand the terrible consequences of their misuse. Or, to cite another example, imagine what might have happened if the city-states of ancient Greece had been armed with thermonuclear weapons instead of swords and spears. The fear and distrust they harbored for their neighbors, scant hundreds of miles distant, would have compelled them to obliterate each other, completely erasing the cradle of western civilization and turning us once again into the hunter-gatherer society from which we had barely emerged.

Now imagine what it would mean if criminals had access to time travel – if, by disappearing into multidimensional time, they could be certain of evading capture and punishment for their multifarious misdeeds. Would any honest man remain to hold the threads of civilized society together?

Knowledge without concomitant understanding is a spark in the tinder box. With knowledge we learn to destroy. With understanding we will learn to persevere.

A time will come when mankind will discover for itself the secret of time travel. And by then there will be no need to fear that it will destroy itself with the knowledge. But that time has not come, and when it does finally happen, the creatures that will then call themselves men and women will think of all who have gone before as a quasi-human ancestral species.

Having said that, we offer no further apology for declining to reveal the mechanism by which our sojourners manipulate time. And we will tolerate no whining on this subject. You should consider yourself lucky we allow you to witness the journey itself.

Furthermore, we must insist that you refrain from rustling your papers or clearing your throats or otherwise distracting our pilgrims. Time travel, elegantly simple though the process is, requires intense concentration.

* * *

Haskell and Jennifer, who sat facing the front of the bar, had an excellent vantage point from which to observe the phenomenon of sideways travel through time. As you might imagine, forward or backward time travel, assuming the speed is not too great, looks very much like movie film respectively speeded up or reversed. Sideways travel more closely resembles the projection of a series of slightly different still slides.

A couple seated alone at a table suddenly swapped chairs. Then another couple occupied the empty chairs at the table. Then the table was empty; and another group appeared in their places. Empty stools became occupied; and vice versa. Empty bottles filled and spilled drinks returned to their glasses. Zippers and buttons magically fastened and unfastened. Hats appeared on bare heads; people disappeared and others took their places. A bald man suddenly sported a magnificent leonine mane. The bartender’s white shirt turned an electric blue, accented with yellow suspenders. The man with the dog, who had been comparatively sober, was suddenly exceedingly drunk. As they watched, the panorama constantly changed, not smoothly as through linear time but in fits and starts. And finally, sitting at the bar with his back to the wall upon which he had composed his imaginary painting, Haskell Yngren sat gazing into the gypsy dark eyes of Jennifer Jessup.

Please Take Notes; This Will Be on the Test

“We perceive time as a single stream flowing from an unknowable future into the irretrievable past. But that perception may be dictated by memory – in that we remember the past while the future remains a blank. But our inability to remember the future may have nothing to do with the passage of time. Instead of having no knowledge of the future, we may be overloaded with knowledge of the future – with so much knowledge that we can’t focus on any of it.

Looking back we see what appears to be a single stream stretching back to our earliest years just as, at any point when climbing a tree, we have taken only one path up from the ground. From our human perspective, we can’t see the multiple streams that continually branch off from the course we have followed – streams that create a confusion of realities running parallel to, or rather diverging from, the reality we know. On the other hand, looking forward we see not a single stream but an infinite number of possible choices branching out before us – so many possible realities that they cancel each other out. In effect we see nothing.

“Suppose you were to aim a camera behind you and take a single exposure. It would develop into a clear photograph. Now suppose you pointed your camera forward and repeatedly exposed the same frame at a scene continually in flux. Each additional exposure would render the resulting picture less clear, until at length, you would reach the point at which all gradations of grey will have been washed out to a uniform and featureless white. In just that same way, we can have no distinct picture of the future. Remembering such a profusion of futures would be much the same as remembering none.

Airing of Her Soilded Linen

“Okay, Jenny,” Arthur offered, “let’s go through this one more time. Anything that can happen will happen – must happen. When you – when she – met Haskell in the bar, they were bound to fight in some time streams, just as they were also bound to get along just fine in others. We happen to be witnessing a stream in which they’ve had an argument. We could as easily have followed one in which they got all lovey-dovey and maudlin. You will just have to be content with the knowledge that there are time streams in which you will grow old together and never have the slightest regret.”

“Well, how do we go about following one of those streams instead of this one? This one sucks.”

“I haven’t worked that out yet. Maybe we can’t choose. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw, as it was when we were alive: You pays your dime, and you takes your chances.”

“But, I’d like to know what caused the argument? How can I find out? It’s not like we could just walk up and ask her . . . I mean me. She . . . I can’t even see us.”

“Well,” Arthur proposed, “we could go back to the point at which, whatever it was that happened, happened.”

“Wait a sec.” Jennifer pleaded, “Now I’m not sure I want to know the answer. Or maybe I’m afraid I already know.”

“Okay, it’s up to you. Do we stay here . . . or do we go back to find out what happened?”

“Look, we’ll go then. I have to know for sure. But first I want to prepare Haskell – well, I want to prepare all of you. I don’t want what I have to say to come as a shock.

A Modest Proposal

“Actually,” Haskell interjected, “I do have a question. You say it’s not our place to forgive or to condemn, but what about mass murderers? Should we try to understand mass murderers? Could you understand someone like Hitler or Stalin?”

“No. No, I couldn’t understand Hitler. I just couldn’t comprehend the hatred he must have felt to torture and kill six million people, or Stalin’s complete indifference to the number of people who died under his brutal regime. I can try, however. For instance, I can keep reminding myself that, in other time streams, Hitler and Stalin will be perfectly normal human beings. I can also assume that there will be time streams in which I will be guilty of their crimes. That doesn’t guarantee that I will understand – some crimes are simply beyond comprehension – but at least I won’t feel so damned sanctimonious about the fact that I haven’t yet killed six million people.”

Search for a Dead Preacher

“As long as we’re conjuring,” Jennifer chimed in. “Why not go in style? What would you say to a troika? Ever since I saw that movie, The Brothers Karamozov, with Yul Brynner and Maria Schell, I’ve wanted to ride in a troika.” As she spoke, a bright red sleigh appeared at the curb, complete with harnesses for three horses – the horses were missing, however.”

“Well,” said Vivienne, “there appears to be a problem you didn’t anticipate. My guess is we can conjure up only inanimate objects.” Then she added, “It probably wouldn’t be so easy to find three dead horses we could press into service.”

“Actually, we wouldn’t need the horses.” Arthur spoke up. “Since the sleigh has no actual mass, it wouldn’t require any force to move it. We could move it through space the way we moved through time – wherever we want to go. “On the other hand,” he added, “there’s no reason not to go all out. It’s not every day our only child gets married”

As he spoke three elaborately carved and brilliantly painted carousel horses appeared side-by-side in the traces. “Climb aboard, folks. I’ll drive.”

A Date Which Will Live in Infamy

Traveling great distances through time and space may best be accomplished in a single leap; the scenic route is often not as scenic as one might suppose – especially if the journey takes one over a large expanse of water.

However, it may prove interesting to go back in time to 1941, noticing as you go the gradual disappearance of television sets and jet airplanes and the re-emergence of the jitterbug, car hops on roller skates, and bank night at the local movie theater. Then ride one of the luxurious steam trains that were the principal mode of overland transportation during that era; enjoy the sumptuous fare in the dining car and later drinks and cards in the club car, perhaps. Or you may prefer to get your kicks on Route 66 in the comfort of your ‘40 Lincoln Zephyr or ‘39 Cadillac La Salle, taking advantage of the hospitality offered in the many and varied motor hotels and tourist cabins along the way.

Finally, you could board one of the luxury liners that plied the waters of the eastern Pacific in relative safety, prior to Sunday, December 7, 1941. Mingle with the glitterati; dine at the captain’s table; dance under the stars to the music of a big band orchestra.

But, of course, you are not yet dead. That pleasure will have to wait. Our travelers, of course, had other matters on their minds; they took the express route.

Deadly Beloved

Nuptial rites, as currently practiced, have their origins far back in antiquity – predating what we tend to think of as modern religions and governments. The ritual union – in one form or another – of two or more participants almost certainly was practiced by proto-humans long before Cro-Magnon ascended the family tree. Indeed, many non-mammalian species have been observed in the performance of mating rituals, and if – as naturalists would have us believe – several species mate for life, then it is certainly open to speculation that the marriage ceremony – again in one form or another – may have been around for many millions of years – long before either deities or government bureaucracies asserted their dominion over the practice.

We have no data to suggest that star-crossed lovers in the past have ritually declared their fealty, post mortem, but neither have we reason to doubt that it has occurred. May we not wonder if, perhaps, Romeo and Juliet enjoyed a happier ending in the twilight realm?

It is not our intention here to display our encyclopedic knowledge on the subject of marriage. Our own experience has been quite limited and, even less, was it instructive. However, we are aware that, recently, the subject of exactly who may be allowed to marry whom has generated a great deal of heat, and hardly any light. We simply want to make it abundantly clear – to any among you who may believe that allowing dead people to marry will affect the quality of your own marriages – that we do feel your pain.

Nativity on a Back-Stairs Landing

Kitty Kat immediately ran to her mother and climbed up into her lap, but she was quite disturbed that Lizzy didn’t seem to notice her. The mother continued to watch the television, ignoring her child.

“Give Mommy a hug.” Grampa coaxed.

Kitty Kat spread her arms and reached out to her mother, laying her head against Lizzy’s swollen stomach. As she did so, first her head, and then the rest of her passed through and into the belly of her pregnant mother, just as – on the television – Judy Cairne looked directly into the camera and said, “Sock it to me!” and someone off-screen dumped a bucket of water over her head.

Lizzy began a titter that ended in a yelp; she grimaced and reached for her lower abdomen.

Departures and Destinations

We will now spare you the embarrassment of the goodbye scene, which we assure you was entirely too maudlin for a general audience. Many tears were shed; many hugs and kisses shared; many promises were made.

We might point out that, when next the promisers shall meet, they will be strangers, and any promises made will have been forgotten. But you already know that.

We will also allow any of you who wish to do so, the pleasure of imagining whatever you will about the lovers on their honeymoon. But if any of you believed we would allow you to tag along, well, you should just hang your heads in shame!

* * *

“At least you studied French in college. You can understand what they’re saying.” Jennifer had finally managed to drag Haskell away from a large table presided over by Henri Matisse, Maurice de Vlaminck, Andre Derain, and Georges Braque.

That wasn’t exactly true; his classroom French had ill-prepared him for French, as spoken by actual Frenchmen. He could make out an occasional word of their conversation, and it’s true, his comprehension was steadily improving, but he had vastly overestimated his bilingual abilities.

“Believe me, I’ve enjoyed about as much culture as any woman should have to endure.” She continued. “We went to the openings of those shows you wanted to see and several others besides. We‘ve visited the studios of dozens of artists from the 1870s right up through the 1930s. We’ve been back stage at the ballet to watch Degas work, and we spent three nights at the Moulin Rouge watching Toulouse Lautrec sketch ladies flashing their scanties. I’m surprised you didn’t take me to watch Van Gogh cut off his ear.”

“No dear, we’ll leave that treat for the art historians. I’m only interested in the way they approached a canvas, and how their work evolved. I have no interest in their personal lives.”

“Well, at least that would have been a change. I almost wish we would have watched Modigliani’s model jump out the window when he died.” Jennifer took three steps before she recanted, “No. I take that back. I’ve seen enough carnage for one lifetime – I mean one deathtime.”