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Thanks. Ive already lost half the damn disciples off the shelf in my bedroom, and I mourn every one. They were my moms. Poppers are earth tremors. We get a lot of em, but most of the big-daddy quakes are in the Midwest or out California way. Europe and China too, of course.

People tying up their boats in Idaho, are they? I was still at the mantelpiece, now looking at the framed pictures.

Hasnt got that bad yet, but you know four of the Japanese islands are gone, right?

I looked at him with dismay. No.

Three were small ones, but Hokkaidos gone, too. Dropped into the goddam ocean four years ago like it was on an elevator. The scientists say its got something to do with the earths crust. Matter-of-factly he added: They say if it dont stop, itll tear the planet apart by 2080 or so. Then the solar systemll have two asteroid belts.

I drank the rest of my whisky in a single gulp, and the crocodile tears of booze momentarily doubled my vision. When the room solidified again, I pointed to a picture of Harry at about fifty. He was still in his wheelchair, but he looked hale and healthy, at least from the waist up; the legs of his suit pants billowed over his diminished legs. Next to him was a woman in a pink dress that reminded me of Jackie Kennedys suit on 11/22/63. I remember my mother telling me never to call a woman who wasnt beautiful plain-faced; they were, she said, good-faced. This woman was good-faced.

Your wife?

Ayuh. That was taken on our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. She died two years later. Theres a lot of that going around. The politicians will tell you the A-bombs did itbeen twenty-eight or-nine swapped since Hanoi Hell in 69. Theyll swear it until theyre blue in the face, but everyone knows the sores and the cancer didnt start getting really bad up this way until Vermont Yankee went China Syndrome. That happened after years of protests about the place. Oh, they said, there wont be any big earthquakes in Vermont, not way up here in Gods Kingdom, just the usual little shakers and poppers. Yeah. Look what happened.

Youre saying a reactor blew up in Vermont.

Spewed radiation all over New England and southern Quebec.


Jake, are you pulling my leg?

Absolutely not.

June nineteenth, 1999.

Im sorry about your wife.

Thank you, son. She was a good woman. Lovely woman. She didnt deserve what she got. He wiped his arm slowly across his eyes. Been a long time since I talked about her, but then, its been a long time since Ive had anyone to talk with. Can I pour you a little more of this joy-juice?

I held my fingers a smidge apart. I didnt expect to be here long; I had to take in all this bogus history, this darkness, in a hurry. I had a lot to do, not least of all bringing my own lovely woman back to life. That would mean another chat with the Green Card Man. I didnt want to be loaded when I had it, but one more little one wouldnt hurt. I needed it. My emotions felt frozen, which was probably good, because my mind was reeling.

Were you paralyzed during the Tet Offensive? Thinking, Of course you were, but it could have been worse; on the last go-round you died.

He looked blank for a moment, then his face cleared. I guess it was Tet, come to think of it. We just called it the Great Saigon Fuck-All of 1967. The helicopter I was in crashed. I was lucky. Most of the people on that bird died. Some of em were diplomats, and some of them were just kids.

Tet of 67, I said. Not 68.

Thats right. You wouldnt have been born, but surely you read about it in the history books.

No. I let him pour a little more scotch into my glassjust enough to cover the bottomand said, I know that President Kennedy was almost assassinated in November of 1963. After that I know nothing.

He shook his head. Thats the funniest case of amnesia I ever heard of.

Was Kennedy reelected?

Against Goldwater? You bet your ass he was.

Did he keep Johnson as his running mate?

Sure. Kennedy needed Texas. Got it, too. Governor Connally worked like a slave for him in that election, much as he despised Kennedys New Frontier. They called it the Embarrassment Endorsement. Because of what almost happened that day in Dallas. You sure you dont know this? Never learned any of it in school?

You lived it, Harry. So tell me.

I dont mind, he said. Drag up a rock, son. Quit lookin at those pictures. If you dont know Kennedy got reelected in 64, youre sure not apt to know any of my family.

Ah, Harry, I thought.


When I was just a little kidfour, maybe even threea drunk uncle told me the story of Little Red Riding Hood. Not the one in the standard fairy-tale books, but the R-rated version, full of screams, blood, and the dull thump of the woodsmans axe. My memory of hearing it is vivid to this day, but only a few of the details remain: the wolfs teeth bared in a shining grin, for instance, and the gore-soaked granny being reborn from the wolfs yawning belly. This is my way of saying that if youre expecting The Concise Alternate History of the World as told by Harry Dunning to Jake Epping, forget about it. It wasnt just the horror of discovering how badly things had gone wrong. It was my need to get back and put things right.

Yet a few things stand out. The worldwide search for George Amberson, for instance. No joy thereGeorge was as gone as Judge Craterbut in the forty-eight years since the assassination attempt in Dallas, Amberson had become a near-mythical figure. Savior, or part of the plot? People held actual conventions to discuss it, and listening to Harry tell that part, it was impossible for me not to think of all the conspiracy theories that had sprung up around the version of Lee who had succeeded. As we know, class, the past harmonizes.

Kennedy expected to sweep Barry Goldwater away in a landslide in 64; instead he won by less than forty electoral votes, a margin only Democratic Party stalwarts thought respectable. Early in his second term, he infuriated both the right-wing voters and the military establishment by declaring North Vietnam less a danger to our democracy than the racial inequality in our schools and cities. He didnt withdraw American troops entirely, but they were restricted to Saigon and a ring around it that was calledsurprise, surprisethe Green Zone. Instead of injecting large numbers of troops, the second Kennedy administration injected large amounts of money. Its the American Way.

The great civil rights reforms of the sixties never happened. Kennedy was no LBJ, and as vice president, Johnson was uniquely powerless to help him. The Republicans and Dixiecrats filibustered for a hundred and ten days; one actually died on the floor and became a right-wing hero. When Kennedy finally gave up, he made an off-the-cuff remark that would haunt him until he died in 1983: White America has filled its house with kindling; now it will burn.

The race riots came next. While Kennedy was preoccupied with them, the North Vietnamese armies overran Saigonand the man whod gotten me into this was paralyzed in a helicopter crash on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Public opinion began to swing heavily against JFK.

A month after the fall of Saigon, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Chicago. The assassin turned out to be a rogue FBI agent named Dwight Holly. Before being killed himself, he claimed to have carried out the hit on Hoovers orders. Chicago went up in flames. So did a dozen other American cities.

George Wallace was elected president. By then the earthquakes had begun in earnest. Wallace couldnt do anything about those, so he settled for firebombing Chicago into submission. That, Harry said, was in June of 1969. A year later, President Wallace offered Ho Chi Minh an ultimatum: make Saigon a free city like Berlin or see Hanoi become a dead one, like Hiroshima. Uncle Ho refused. If he thought Wallace was bluffing, he was wrong. Hanoi became a radioactive cloud on August ninth, 1969, twenty-four years to the day after Harry Truman dropped Fat Man on Nagasaki. Vice President Curtis LeMay took personal charge of the mission. In a speech to the nation, Wallace called it Gods will. Most Americans concurred. Wallaces approval ratings were high, but there was at least one fellow who did not approve. His name was Arthur Bremer, and on May fifteenth, 1972, he shot Wallace dead as Wallace campaigned for reelection at a shopping mall in Laurel, Maryland.

With what kind of gun?

I believe it was a .38 revolver.

Sure it was. Maybe a Police Special, but probably a Victory model, the same kind of gun that had taken Officer Tippits life along another time-string.

This was where I began to lose the thread. Where the thought I have to put this right, put this right, put this right began to hammer in my head like a gong.

Hubert Humphrey became president in 72. The earthquakes worsened. The world suicide rate skyrocketed. Fundamentalism of all kinds blossomed. The terrorism fomented by religious extremists blossomed with it. India and Pakistan went to war; more mushroom clouds bloomed. Bombay never became Mumbai. What it became was radioactive ash in a cancer-wind.

Likewise, Karachi. Only when Russia, China, and the United States promised to bomb both countries back to the Stone Age did the hostilities cease.

In 1976, Humphrey lost to Ronald Reagan in a coast-to-coast landslide; The Hump couldnt hold even his native state of Minnesota.

Two thousand committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.

In November of 1979, Iranian students overran the American embassy in Tehran and took not sixty-six hostages but over two hundred. Heads rolled on Iranian TV. Reagan had learned enough from Hanoi Hell to keep the nukes in their bomb bays and missile silos, but he sent in beaucoup troops. The remaining hostages were, of course, slaughtered, and an emerging terrorist group calling themselves The Baseor, in Arabic, Al-Qaedabegan planting roadside bombs here, there, and everywhere.

The man could speechify like a motherfucker, but he had no understanding of militant Islam, Harry said.

The Beatles reunited and played a Peace Concert. A suicide bomber in the crowd detonated his vest and killed three hundred spectators. Paul McCartney was blinded.

The Mideast went up in flames shortly thereafter.

Russia collapsed.

Some groupprobably exiled Russian hard-line fanaticsbegan selling nuclear weapons to terrorist groups, including The Base.

By 1994, Harry said in his dry voice, the oil fields over there were so much black glass. The kind that glows in the dark. Since then, though, the terrorism has kind of burned itself out. Someone blew up a suitcase nuke in Miami two years ago, but it didnt work very well. I mean, itll be sixty or eighty years before anybody can party on South Beachand of course the Gulf of Mexico is basically dead soupbut only ten thousand people have died of radiation poisoning. By then it wasnt our problem. Maine voted to become a part of Canada, and President Clinton was happy to say good riddance.

Bill Clintons president?

Gosh, no. He was a shoo-in for the 04 nomination, but he died of a heart attack at the convention. His wife stepped in. Shes president.

Doing a good job?

Harry waggled his hand. Not bad but you cant legislate earthquakes. And thats whats going to do for us, in the end.

Overhead, that watery ripping sound came again. I looked up. Harry didnt.

What is that? I asked.

Son, he said, nobody seems to know. The scientists argue, but in this case I think the preachers might have the straight of it. They say its God getting ready to tear down all the works of His hands, same way that Samson tore down the Temple of the Philistines. He drank the rest of his whisky. Thin color had bloomed in his cheeks which were, as far as I could see, free of radiation sores. And on that one, I think they might be right.

Christ almighty, I said.

He looked at me levelly. Heard enough history, son?

Enough to last me a lifetime.


I have to go, I said. Will you be all right?

Until Im not. Same as everyone else. He looked at me closely. Jake, where did you drop from? And why the hell should I feel like I know you?

Maybe because we always know our good angels?


I wanted to be gone. All in all, I thought my life after the next reset was going to be much simpler. But first, because this was a good man who had suffered greatly in all three of his incarnations, I approached the mantelpiece again, and took down one of the framed pictures.

Be careful with that, Harry said tetchily. Its my family.

I know. I put it in his gnarled and age-spotted hands, a black-and-white photo that had, by the faintly fuzzy look of the image, been blown up from a Kodak snap. Did your dad take this? I ask, because hes the only one not in it.

He looked at me curiously, then back down at the picture. No, he said. This was taken by a neighbor-lady in the summer of 1958. My dad and mom were separated by then.

I wondered if the neighbor-lady had been the one Id seen smoking a cigarette as she alternated washing the family car and spraying the family dog. Somehow I was sure it had been. From far down in my mind, like a sound heard coming up from a deep well, came the chanting voices of the jump-rope girls: my old man drives a sub-ma-rine.

He had a drinking problem. That wasnt such a big deal back then, lots of men drank too much and stayed under the same roofs with their wives, but he got mean when he drank.

I bet he did, I said.

He looked at me again, more sharply, then smiled. Most of his teeth were gone, but the smile was still pleasant enough. I doubt if you know what youre talking about. How old are you, Jake?

Forty. Although I was sure I looked older that night.

Which means you were born in 1971.

Actually it had been 76, but there was no way I could tell him that without discussing the five missing years that had fallen down the rabbit-hole, like Alice into Wonderland. Close enough, I said. That photo was taken at the house on Kossuth Street. Spoken the Derry way: Cossut.

I tapped Ellen, who was standing to the left of her mother, thinking of the grown-up version Id spoken to on the phonecall that one Ellen 2.0. Also thinkingit was inevitableof Ellen Dockerty, the harmonic version Id known in Jodie.

Cant tell from this, but she was a little carrot-top, wasnt she? A pint-sized Lucille Ball.

Harry said nothing, only gaped.

Did she go into comedy? Or something else? Radio or TV?

She does a DJ show on Province of Maine CBC, he said faintly. But how

Heres Troy and Arthur, also known as Tugga and heres you, with your mothers arm around you. I smiled. Just the way God planned it. If only it could stay that way. If only.

I you

Your father was murdered, wasnt he?

Yes. The cannula had come askew in his nose and he pushed it straight, his hand moving slowly, like the hand of a man who is dreaming with his eyes open. He was shot to death in Longview Cemetery while he was putting flowers on his parents graves. Only a few months after this picture was taken. The police arrested a man named Bill Turcotte for it

Ow. I hadnt seen that one coming.

but he had a solid alibi and eventually they had to let him go. The killer was never caught. He took one of my hands. Mister son Jake this is crazy, but were you the one who killed my father?

Dont be silly. I took the picture and hung it back on the wall. I wasnt born until 1971, remember?


I walked slowly down Main Street, back to the ruined mill and the abandoned Quik-Flash convenience store that stood in front of it. I walked with my head down, not looking for No Nose and Moon Man and the rest of that happy band. I thought if they were still anywhere in the vicinity, theyd give me a wide berth. They thought I was crazy. Probably I was.

Were all mad here was what the Cheshire Cat told Alice. Then he disappeared. Except for the grin, that is. As I recall, the grin stayed awhile.

I understood more now. Not everything, I doubt if even the Card Men understand everything (and after theyve spent awhile on duty, they understand almost nothing), but that still didnt help me with the decision I had to make.

As I ducked under the chain, something exploded far in the distance. It didnt make me jump. I imagined there were a lot of explosions now. When people begin to lose hope, theres bound to be explosions.

I entered the bathroom at the back of the convenience store and almost tripped over my sheepskin jacket. I kicked it asideI wouldnt be needing it where I was goingand walked slowly over to the piled boxes that looked so much like Lees snipers nest.

Goddam harmonies.

I moved enough of them so I could get into the corner, then carefully restacked them behind me. I moved forward step by small step, once again thinking of how a man or woman feels for the top of a staircase in utter darkness. But there was no step this time, only that queer doubling. I moved forward, watched my lower body shimmer, then closed my eyes.

Another step. And another. Now I felt warmth on my legs. Two more steps and sunlight turned the black behind my eyelids to red. I took one more step and heard the pop inside my head. When that cleared, I heard the shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH of the weaving flats.

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 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 Langs card was no longer green. It had turned a muddy ocher 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 wasnt on the booze yetat least I couldnt smell anybut 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 didnt know. I didnt 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 handsand the coat, and the hat, and the card in the brim of the hatof a wino-in-waiting.

You know what you have to do, he said.

I know 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, youll 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. Its a miracle that its 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 Id 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 outa desperate, lonely cawand felt an instant of pity for him. Hard duty, the man had. But I didnt 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 presidents 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 Templetons bad dream. I limped past the Kennebec Fruit, well ahead of the Ocher 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 lovewas 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 Ocher 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 dont do this! You must know the cost!

I knew it and still hurried on. A telephone booth stood at the intersection just beyond St. Josephs 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.

Final Notes


I holed up in Unit 7 at the Tamarack Motor Court.

I paid with money from an ostrich wallet that was given to me by an old buddy. Money, like meat bought at the Red & White Supermarket and shirts bought at Masons Menswear, stays. If every trip really is a complete reset, those things shouldnt, but its not and they do. The money wasnt from Al, but at least Agent Hosty let me run, which might turn out to be a good thing for the world.

Or not. I dont know.

Tomorrow will be the first of October. 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. Shell never get the chance. If I went to Derry today, I could kill Frank Dunning and save her Halloween, but I wont. And I wont go to Durham to save Carolyn Poulin from Andy Cullums errant shot. The question is, will I go to Jodie? I cant save Kennedy, that is out of the question, but can the future history of the world be so fragile that it will not allow two high school teachers to meet and fall in love? To marry, to dance to Beatles tunes like I Want to Hold Your Hand, and live unremarkable lives?

I dont know, I dont know.

She might not want to have anything to do with me. Were no longer going to be thirty-five and twenty-eight; this time Id be forty-two or-three. I look even older. But I believe in love, you know; love is a uniquely portable magic. I dont think its in the stars, but I do believe that blood calls to blood and mind calls to mind and heart to heart.

Sadie dancing the Madison, color high in her cheeks, laughing.

Sadie telling me to lick her mouth again.

Sadie asking if Id like to come in and have poundcake.

One man and one woman. Is that too much to ask?

I dont know, I dont know.

What have I done here, you ask, now that I have laid my good-angel wings aside? I have written. I have a fountain penone given to me by Mike and Bobbi Jill, you remember themand I walked up the road to a market, where I bought ten refills. The ink is black, which suits my mood. I also bought two dozen thick legal pads, and I have filled all but the last one. Near the market is a Western Auto store, where I bought a spade and a steel footlocker, the kind with a combination. The total cost of my purchases was seventeen dollars and nineteen cents. Are these items enough to turn the world dark and filthy? What will happen to the clerk, whose ordained course has been changedjust by our brief transactionfrom what it would have been otherwise?

I dont know, but I do know this: I once gave a high school football player the chance to shine as an actor, and his girlfriend was disfigured. You could say I wasnt responsible, but we know better, dont we? The butterfly spreads its wings.

For three weeks I wrote all day, every day. Twelve hours on some days. Fourteen on others. The pen racing and racing. My hand got sore. I soaked it, then wrote some more. Some nights I went to the Lisbon Drive-In, where theres a special price for walk-ins: thirty cents. I sat in one of the folding chairs in front of the snackbar and next to the kiddie playground. I watched The Long, Hot Summer again. I watched The Bridge on the River Kwai and South Pacific. I watched a HORRORIFFIC DOUBLE FEATURE consisting of The Fly and The Blob. And I wondered what I was changing. If I so much as slapped a bug, I wondered what I was changing ten years up the line. Or twenty. Or forty.

I dont know, I dont know.

Heres another thing I do know. The past is obdurate for the same reason a turtles shell is obdurate: because the living flesh inside is tender and defenseless.

And something else. The multiple choices and possibilities of daily life are the music we dance to. They are like strings on a guitar. Strum them and you create a pleasing sound. A harmonic. But then start adding strings. Ten strings, a hundred strings, a thousand, a million. Because they multiply! Harry didnt know what that watery ripping sound was, but Im pretty sure I do; thats the sound of too much harmony created by too many strings.

Sing high C in a voice thats loud enough and true enough and you can shatter fine crystal. Play the right harmonic notes through your stereo loud enough and you can shatter window glass. It follows (to me, at least) that if you put enough strings on times instrument, you can shatter reality.

But the reset is almost complete each time. Sure, it leaves a residue. The Ocher Card Man said so, and I believe him. But if I dont make any big changes if I do nothing but go to Jodie and meet Sadie again for the first time if we should happen to fall in love

I want that to happen, and think it probably would. Blood calls to blood, heart calls to heart. Shell want children. So, for that matter, will I. I tell myself one child more or less wont make any difference, either. Or not much difference. Or two. Even three. (It is, after all The Era of Big Families.) Well live quietly. We wont make waves.

Only each child is a wave.

Every breath we take is a wave.

You have to go back one last time, the Ocher Card Man said. You have to close the circle. Want has nothing to do with it.

Can I really be thinking of risking the worldperhaps reality itselffor the woman I love? That makes Lees insanity look piddling.

The man with the card tucked into the brim of his hat is waiting for me beside the drying shed. I can feel him there. Maybe hes not sending out thought-waves, but it sure feels like it. Come back. You dont have to be the Jimla. Its not too late to be Jake again. To be the good guy, the good angel. Never mind saving the president; save the world. Do it while theres still time.


I will.

Probably I will.


Tomorrow will be soon enough, wont it?


Still here at the Tamarack. Still writing.

My uncertainty about Clayton is the worst. Clayton is what I thought about as I screwed the last of my refills into my trusty fountain pen, and hes what Im thinking about now. If I knew she was going to be safe from him, I think I could let go. Will John Clayton still turn up at Sadies house on Bee Tree Lane if I subtract myself from the equation? Maybe seeing us together was what finally drove him over the edge. But he followed her to Texas even before he knew about us, and if he does it again, this time he might cut her throat instead of her cheek. Deke and I wouldnt be there to stop him, certainly.

: 2016-10-06; : 342 |




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