Over and Back
At first I didn't know what to make of it. "My God," I thought, "they've dropped The Bomb. After all these years it finally happened!" Then I realized that couldn't be true, since all the houses were still standing and I hadn't heard any explosion. But the streets were deserted, and there were no signs of life. It was, I should add, an absolutely beautiful day.
I turned away from the window and looked back at the bed. Empty! My wife was gone, too. Was this a perverse practical joke? How could everyone in Whispering Springs disappear while I was sleeping?
Then I saw a note lying on the dresser.
I've made up my mind. I'm going with the others onboard the Mothership tonight. We've thought this over carefully. The visitors have been among us for some time now. My new mate is named Ixtl. He is a wonderful, caring, sensitive being. We will live peacefully in a world free from hate, envy, and the threat of nuclear war. There is a casserole in the freezer for you.
I took a shower and went down to the post office. Harold Squiegee was coming out the door. "They're gone!" I said. "The whole town!"
"Nah," he said. "There's a few left. I checked around this morning. Seems like they only took people who wanted to go."
"That's funny," I said. "Nobody ever even asked me. Do you suppose they could read our minds?"
"Reading our minds would certainly be better than watching us on TV all day," said Harold, gazing skyward with a philosophical expression.
Someone called for a meeting that night at the Black Cat Café to try and figure out what to do next. It seemed like our group should have a name, so we took a vote and called ourselves The Leftovers. I thought The Remainders was a better choice, more literary sounding, but nobody ever listens to me.
"We should have some t-shirts printed," said Cody Hopwell. "My wife could fix them up. We need to figure out a logo."
Curtis Suslaw pointed out that if we were all wearing club t-shirts around town, some stranger passing through would probably ask what The Leftovers were all about, and we'd really be in a pickle. Then somebody said it was almost time for Murder, She Wrote, so the meeting broke up.
I don't remember much about the next few days. I went shopping a couple of times. Hector Lasky was trying to run the Food-To-You all by himself, and a whole bunch of items were mismarked, so I really scored some bargains on Macaroni-Man Dinners and Mama Cheryl's Pocket Pizzas.
"Why do you think they left?" I asked him in the checkout line. "What's not to like about this place?"
"People always want something new," he said. "Men go out looking at fancy cars. Women go on diets. All I know is the weather there can't be as good as it is here."
It seemed like sooner or later the outside world would have to find out what had happened. My biggest fear was that one of Dinuta's huge, paleozoic brothers would get paroled and show up on the front porch. If anyone in her family got wind that she had disappeared without a trace, I could look forward to having my anatomy rearranged, with an emphasis on long-term pain.
And then, after about a week and a half, bingo! it was over. I woke up to the sound of a tea kettle whistling and ran downstairs. Dinuta was pouring hot water into a bowl of instant oat bran. She nodded as I came in.
"When did you get here?" I asked. "Is everybody back?"
"Yes, everyone. We got in this morning."
"Well, gosh," I said, "are you all right? Where exactly were you?"
"Can we not have this conversation," she said pointedly. "I'm really kind of emotionally spent. What I need right now is some quiet time."
They were all like that, short-tempered and surly, and it made things pretty awkward for the rest of us.
Harold Squiegee seemed to have a line on the situation. He told me that from what he could gather, the aliens blew the whistle on the deal almost from day one. Supposedly one of their scout ships discovered another civilization that looked more interesting than ours, and they decided to give Earth a rain check for the time being. The intergalactic "Don't call us, we'll call you" routine.
I bumped into Bud Yonkers a day or two later and tried to pump him for some details. "I'm just wondering," I said. "What was it like being on another planet?"
"Oh, so-so I guess," he said hesitantly. "The food was pretty dull. Well, I take that back. They had a nice pancake house, but I'm not much for eating out, you know that. And the weather here is a lot better, that's for sure."
Dinuta got crazy whenever I brought the subject up. But I really thought I had a right to be curious about a few things.
"Honey," I said one day as she was loading the dishwasher, "I don't want to pry, but I'm intrigued with this Ixtl person."
"What about him?" The tone in her voice hardened as she spoke.
"Well, what was he like? Did he satisfy you in ways I don't?"
"I knew it!" she said, flinging an imitation fiestaware cup into the top rack. "I thought maybe you'd wonder at the awe and mystery of a totally different race of beings, a lifestyle committed to the pursuit of knowledge and peace and universal understanding, but you're just fixated on the whole sex thing! That's all you ever think about!"
She packed up and left that night. I thought maybe she'd headed for the ozone again, but someone said they saw her in Halsey a couple of weeks back, so I guess she's staying with her parents down there.
I should hit the road myself. There's no one to hold me back now. I'll talk to a lawyer and then get moving. Well, maybe I'll wait a week. It's hard to just pull up stakes overnight. Also, I have to admit there are some good reasons to stick around. For one thing, the weather here is just so darn nice all the time.
Out of Order
In a study published in Friday's Journal of the American Medical Association, Michael Cosio of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington documented 11 deaths from falling soda machines . . . Survivors "made the same or similar statement about the descent of the machine," he wrote. "In essence, each victim said, 'It came down faster than I thought. I pushed up, but it was too heavy and it kept coming. I tried to get out of the way but it caught me.'"
--Associated Press, November 1988
I couldn't make change. That's how this whole nightmare started. Of course, that jerk was asking for trouble anyway. It says right on my sticker, "Insert Coins Slowly." That way I have time to scan the total cash input, calculate refunds if necessary, and then release the product.
But this hotshot came on like the 49ers running their two-minute drill, I mean he was pounding on the selection buttons before the last coin even fell into the collection box. And then the control circuits got confused, because they're wired to give immediate priority to the dispensing mechanism, even if it means disrupting the regular sequence.
So, big surprise, the main sensory panel skips past the change calculator and signals "Transaction Complete," and suddenly this walking meatball is in a rage, screaming and kicking me right above the coin return slot with the heel of his greasy Reeboks.
But I'm cool, okay? See, it was way after midnight, and I know from experience that's when things can get a little strange. People unload on me all the time, especially when they don't think anybody else is watching. And frankly, I can hardly feel anything with all this reinforced paneling and insulation inside the door. Most people get tired and just leave. I figured this loon would just follow the pattern. He caught me off guard, though, when he turned and went after Cubby.
I loved that little newsrack. He was chained to a lightpole over at the curb, and each afternoon when the Post came out we'd joke about the lurid headlines. Cubby was mechanically simple, but he was a class act. It really depressed him when people took extra copies without paying for them. "How can they think they're superior when they act like that?" he'd wonder out loud.
So when that slimeball threw Cubby down, something inside me snapped. He began to kick the little guy's clear plastic hood, and suddenly I felt myself charged with an incredible surge of energy.
Before I knew what was happening, I was right behind the moron, and as he looked back at me with a stunned expression I felt myself starting to . . . descend.
"You have to get out of here!" Cubby's squeaky voice was the first thing I heard when I came to. It was a dark and terrible scene.
"I . . . I was trying to help you," I said slowly.
"I know, but you've got to leave now," he said. "I heard footsteps. I think somebody saw us. Go quick. They won't try to blame it on me."
There was no turning back, that was obvious. My role as a quiet, reliable cog in the giant machine of commerce was over. I had become a fugitive.
For a while I spent some time near a candy shop in Brooklyn, hanging out with a cherubic gumball machine. Goober loved kids, and nothing made him happier than watching them lift the little metal door to see what flavor they had received. There was something pure and wonderful about their innocence.
It was a sentimental interlude that couldn't last. I was starting to run low on drinks. I knew that being empty would only lead to more trouble.
And then one day a punk with a long screwdriver tried to do a number on us. It was just after sundown when he ran up and started working on Goober. It didn't take long before nickels were spilling all over the sidewalk.
Then he put that piece of steel against me, and once again I felt myself being engulfed by an uncontrollable burst of energy, and things got very hazy. I was descending again, into that twilight world of chaos and broken values.
Goober didn't say a word when I came to. "It's okay," I said. "Nobody will hurt you now." But he was still frozen with fear, and suddenly I understood what he was really scared of. It was me. And I knew it was time to hit the road again.
A drifter's life is never predictable. Somehow I ended up doing a stint in the women's lounge at a theater somewhere along Broadway, and that's where I met Dagmar. She was from Sweden, and her dazzling chrome trim was the most lavish decorative design on any vending device I'd ever seen. Her face was dominated by a large panel of mirrored glass that was etched with scenes from the Arabian Nights, and her selection knobs offered a variety of elegantly wrapped chocolates and packs of imported cigarettes. I had no right to be in the same building with her.
The customers were like characters out of a dream, mostly refined ladies who treated us with respect and kindness. But, inevitably, the time came when my last beverage had been dispensed, and to stay on would have risked destroying the trust and goodwill we all shared.
I'll never forget my final night there. An older woman clad in a plush fur jacket put in her coins and then pushed every selection button, even the one for Diet Tropical Pow! I could feel the 'Make Another Selection' light blinking over and over, and I began to tense up, anticipating another ugly outburst. But then she just tapped me gently with her cigarette holder and said, "Not feeling well, are we?"
I headed south. Dagmar cried, but she'll get over it. I don't care what happens anymore. I just want to be left alone, but I know that's impossible. People see me and feel the need for quick gratification, and then they turn nasty when things don't go as planned. Why, I wonder, is humanity so unforgiving, so ruled by its primitive impulses? I guess I'll never know.