REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

ONE

Jeff Winston was on the phone with his wife when he died.

‘We need –’ she’d said, and he never heard her say just what it was they needed, because something heavy seemed to slam against his chest, crushing the breath out of him. The phone fell from his hand and cracked the glass paperweight on his desk.

Just the week before, she’d said something similar, had said, ‘Do you know what we need, Jeff?’ and there’d been a pause – not infinite, not final, like this mortal pause, but a palpable interim nonetheless. He’d been sitting at the kitchen table, in what Linda liked to call the ‘breakfast nook’, although it wasn’t really a separate space at all, just a little formica table with two chairs placed awkwardly between the left side of the refrigerator and the front of the clothes drier. Linda had been chopping onions at the counter when she said it, and maybe the tears at the corner of her eyes were what had set him thinking, had lent her question more import than she’d intended.

‘Do you know what we need, Jeff?’

And he was supposed to say, ‘What’s that, hon?’ was supposed to say it distractedly and without interest as he read Hugh Sidey’s column about the presidency in Time. But Jeff wasn’t distracted; he didn’t give a damn about Sidey’s ramblings. He was in fact more focused and aware than he had been in a long, long time. So he didn’t say anything at all for several moments; he just stared at the false tears in Linda’s eyes and thought about the things they needed, he and she.

They needed to get away, for starters, needed to get on a plane going somewhere warm and lush – Jamaica, perhaps, or Barbados. They hadn’t had a real vacation since that long-planned but somehow disappointing tour of Europe five years ago. Jeff didn’t count their annual Florida trips to see his parents in Orlando and Linda’s family in Boca Raton; those were visits to an ever-receding past, nothing more. No, what they needed was a week, a month, on some decadently foreign island: making love on endless empty beaches, and at night the sound of reggae music in the air like the smell of hot red flowers.

A decent house would be nice, too, maybe one of those stately old homes on Upper Mountain Road in Montclair that they’d driven past so many wistful Sundays. Or a place in White Plains, a twelve-room Tudor on Ridgeway Avenue near the golf courses. Not that he’d want to take up golf; it just seemed that all those lazy expanses of green, with names like Maple Moor and Westchester Hills, would make for more pleasant surroundings than did the on-ramps to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the glide path into LaGuardia.

They also needed a child, though Linda probably felt that lack more urgently than he. Jeff always pictured their never-born child as being eight years old, having skipped all the demands of infancy and not yet having reached the torments of puberty. A good kid, not overly cute or precocious. Boy, girl, it didn’t matter; just a child, her child and his, who’d ask funny questions and sit too close to the TV set and show the spark of his or her own developing individuality.

There’d be no child, though; they’d known that was impossible for years, since Linda had gone through the ectopic pregnancy in 1975. And there wouldn’t be any house in Montclair or White Plains, either; Jeff’s position as news director of New York’s WFYI all-news radio sounded more prestigious, more lucrative, than it actually was. Maybe he’d still make the jump to television; but at forty-three, that was growing increasingly unlikely.

We need, we need … to talk, he thought. To look each other straight in the eye and just say: It didn’t work. None of it, not the romance or the passion or the glorious plans. It all went flat, and there’s nobody to blame. That’s simply the way it happened.

But of course they’d never do that. That was the main part of the failure, the fact that they seldom spoke of deeper needs, never broached the tearing sense of incompletion that stood always between them.

Linda wiped a meaningless, onion-induced tear away with the back of her hand. ‘Did you hear me, Jeff?’

‘Yes. I heard you.’

‘What we need,’ she said, looking in his direction but not quite at him, ‘is a new shower curtain.’

In all likelihood, that was the level of needs she’d been about to express over the phone before he began to die. ‘– a dozen eggs,’ her sentence probably would have ended, or ‘– a box of coffee filters.’

But why was he thinking all this? he wondered. He was dying, for Christ’s sake; shouldn’t his final thoughts be of something deeper, more philosophical? Or maybe a fast-speed replay of the highlights of his life, forty-three years on Betascan. That was what people went through when they drowned, wasn’t it?

This felt like drowning, he thought as the expanded seconds passed: the awful pressure, the hopeless struggle for breath, the sticky wetness that soaked his body as salt sweat streamed down his forehead and stung his eyes.

Drowning. Dying. No, shit, no, that was an unreal word, applicable to flowers or pets or other people. Old people, sick people. Unlucky people.

His face dropped to the desk, right cheek pressing flat against the file folder he’d been about to study when Linda called. The crack in the paperweight was cavernous before his one open eye: a split in the world itself, a jagged mirror of the ripping agony inside him. Through the broken glass he could see the glowing red numerals on the digital clock atop his bookshelf:

1:06 PM OCT 18 88

And then there was nothing more to avoid thinking about, because the process of thought had ceased.

Jeff couldn’t breathe.

Of course he couldn’t breathe; he was dead.

But if he was dead, why was he aware of not being able to breathe? Or of anything, for that matter?

He turned his head away from the bunched-up blanket and breathed. Stale, damp air, full of the smell of his own perspiration.

So he hadn’t died. Somehow, the realization didn’t thrill him, just as his earlier assumption of death had failed to strike him with dread.

Maybe he had secretly welcomed the end of his life. Now it would merely continue as before: the dissatisfaction, the grinding loss of ambition and hope that had either caused or been caused by the failure of his marriage, he couldn’t remember which anymore.

He shoved the blanket away from his face and kicked at the rumpled sheets. There was music playing somewhere in the darkened room, barely audible. An oldie: ‘Da Doo Ron Ron,’ by one of those Phil Spector girl groups.

Jeff groped for a lamp switch, thoroughly disoriented. He was either in a hospital bed recovering from what had happened in the office, or at home waking from a dream that was worse than usual. His hand found the bedside lamp, turned it on. He was in a small, messy room, clothes and books strewn on the floor and piled haphazardly on two adjacent desks and chairs. Neither a hospital nor his and Linda’s bedroom, but familiar, somehow.

A naked, smiling woman stared back at him from a large photograph taped to one wall. A Playboy centrefold, a vintage one. The buxom brunette lay demurely on her stomach, atop an air mattress at the afterdeck of a boat, her red-and-white polka-dotted bikini tied to the railing. With her jaunty round sailor’s cap, her carefully coiffed and sprayed dark hair, she bore a distinct resemblance to the young Jackie Kennedy.

The other walls, he saw, were decorated in a similarly dated, juvenile style: bullfight posters, a big blowup of a red Jaguar XK-E, an old Dave Brubeck album cover. Above one desk was a red, white, and blue banner that read, in letters made of stars and stripes, ‘FUCK COMMUNISM.’ Jeff grinned when he saw that; he’d ordered one just like it from Paul Krassner’s then-shocking little rag, The Realist, when he was in college, when –

He sat upright abruptly, pulse sounding in his ears.

That old gooseneck lamp on the desk nearest the door had always come loose from its base whenever he moved it, he recalled. And the rug next to Martin’s bed had a big blood-red stain – yes, right there – from the time Jeff had sneaked Judy Gordon upstairs and she’d started dancing around the room to the Drifters and knocked over a bottle of Chianti.

The vague confusion Jeff had felt on waking gave way to stark bewilderment. He threw off the covers, got out of bed, and walked shakily to one of the desks. His desk. He scanned the books stacked there: Patterns of Culture, Growing Up in Samoa, Statistical Populations. Sociology 101. Dr … what? Danforth, Sanborn? In a big, musty old hall somewhere on the far side of campus, 8:00 A.M., always had breakfast after class. He picked up the Benedict book, leafed through it; several portions were heavily underlined, with margin notes in his own handwriting.

‘… WQXI pick hit of the week, from the Crystals! Now, this next one goes out to Bobby in Marietta, from Carol and Paula. Those pretty girls just want to let Bobby know, right along with the Chiffons, they think “He’s Soooo Fine” …’

Jeff turned off the radio and wiped a film of sweat from his forehead. He noticed uncomfortably that he had a full erection. How long had it been since he’d got that hard without even thinking about sex?

All right, it was time to figure this thing out. Somebody had to be pulling an extremely elaborate joke on him, but he didn’t know anyone who played practical jokes. Even if he had, how could anyone have gone to this amount of trouble? Those books with his own notes in them had been thrown away years ago, and no one could have recreated them that precisely.

There was a copy of Newsweek on his desk, with a cover story about the resignation of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. The issue was dated May 6, 1963. Jeff stared fixedly at the numbers, hoping some rational explanation for all this would come to mind.

None did.

The door of the room swung open, and the inner knob banged against a bookcase. Just as it always had.

‘Hey, what the hell are you still doing here? It’s a quarter to eleven. I thought you had an American Lit test at ten.’

Martin stood in the doorway, a Coke in one hand and a load of textbooks in the other. Martin Bailey, Jeff’s freshman-year roommate; his closest friend through college and for several years thereafter.

Martin had committed suicide in 1981, right after his divorce and subsequent bankruptcy.

‘So what’re you gonna do,’ Martin asked, ‘take an F?’

Jeff looked at his long-dead friend in stunned silence: the thick black hair that had not yet begun to recede, the unlined face, the bright, adolescent eyes that had seen no pain, to speak of.

‘Hey, what’s the matter? You OK, Jeff?’

‘I’m … not feeling very well.’

Martin laughed and tossed the books on his bed. ‘Tell me about it! Now I know why my dad warned me about mixing Scotch and bourbon. Hey, that was some honey you hit on at Manuel’s last night; Judy would’ve killed you if she’d been there. What’s her name?’

‘Ahh …’

‘Come on, you weren’t that drunk. You gonna call her?’

Jeff turned away in mounting panic. There were a thousand things he wanted to say to Martin, but none of them would have made any more sense than this insane situation itself.

‘What’s wrong, man? You look really fucked up.’

‘I, uh, I need to get outside. I need some air.’

Martin gave him a puzzled frown. ‘Yeah, I guess you do.’

Jeff grabbed a pair of chinos that had been thrown carelessly on the chair at his desk, then opened the closet next to his bed and found a Madras shirt and a corduroy jacket.

‘Go by the infirmary,’ Martin said. ‘Tell ’em you’ve got the flu. Maybe Garrett’ll let you make up that test.’

‘Yeah, sure.’ Jeff dressed hurriedly, slipped on a pair of cordovan loafers. He was on the verge of hyperventilating, and he forced himself to breathe slowly.

‘Don’t forget about The Birds tonight, OK? Paula and Judy are gonna meet us at Dooley’s at seven; we’ll grab a bite first.’

‘Right. See you.’ Jeff stepped into the hallway and closed the door behind him. He found the stairs and raced down three flights, shouting back a perfunctory ‘Yo!’ as one of the young men he passed called out his name.

The lobby was as he’d remembered it: TV room on the right, empty now but always packed for sports events and space shots; a knot of girls giggling among themselves, waiting for their boyfriends at the base of the stairs they were forbidden to ascend; Coke machines across from the bulletin boards where students posted notices seeking or selling cars, books, apartments, rides to Macon or Savannah or Florida.

Outside, the dogwood trees were in full bloom, suffusing the campus with a pink-and-white glow that seemed to reflect off the clean white marble of the stately Graeco-Roman buildings. It was Emory, no question about that: the South’s most studied effort to create a classically Ivy League-style university, one that the region could call its own. The planned timelessness of the architecture was disorienting; as he jogged through the quadrangle, past the library and the law building, Jeff realized it could as easily be 1988 as 1963. There were no certain clues, not even in the clothing and short haircuts of the students who ambled and lounged about the grassy expanses. The youthful fashions of the eighties, aside from the postapocalyptic punk look, were virtually indistinguishable from those of his own early college days.

God, the times he had spent on this campus, the dreams engendered here that had never been fulfilled … There was that little bridge that led towards the church school; how many times had he lingered there with Judy Gordon? And over there, down by the psych building, that was where he’d met Gail Benson for lunch almost every day during his junior year: his first, and last, truly close platonic friendship with a woman. Why hadn’t he learned more from knowing Gail? How had he drifted so far, in so many different ways, from the plans and aspirations born in the reassuring calm of these green lawns, these noble structures?

Jeff had run over a mile by the time he came to the main campus entrance, and he expected to be out of breath, but wasn’t. He stood on the low rise below Glenn Memorial Church, looking down at North Decatur Road and Emory Village, the little business district that served the campus.

The row of clothing shops and bookstores looked more-or-less familiar. One spot in particular, Horton’s Drugs, brought back a wave of memories: He could see in his mind the magazine racks, the long white soda fountain, the red-leather booths with individual stereo jukeboxes. He could see Judy Gordon’s fresh young face across a table in one of those booths, could smell her clean blond hair.

He shook his head and concentrated on the scene before him. Again, there was no way to tell for sure what year it was; he hadn’t been to Atlanta since an Associated Press conference on Terrorism and the Media in 1983, and he hadn’t been back to the Emory campus since … Jesus, probably a year or two after he’d graduated. He had no way of knowing whether all those shops down there had remained the same or had been replaced by high-rises, maybe a mall.

The cars, that was one thing; now that he noticed, he realized there wasn’t a Nissan or Toyota in sight down there on the street. Nothing but older models, most of them big, gas-hungry, Detroit machines. And ‘older,’ he saw, didn’t mean just early-sixties designs. There were plenty of monster-finned beasts cruising past that dated well back into the fifties, but of course there’d be as many six- and eight-year-old cars on the streets in 1963 as there were in 1988.

Still nothing conclusive, though; he was even beginning to wonder whether that brief encounter with Martin in the dorm room had been no more than an unusually realistic dream after all, one he’d woken up in the middle of. There was no questioning the fact that he was wide awake now, and in Atlanta. Maybe he’d got smashed trying to forget about the dreary mess his life had become, and had flown down here on some spur-of-the-moment midnight flight of nostalgia. The preponderance of old cars could easily be coincidence. Any moment now, somebody would drive past in one of those little Japanese boxes he’d grown so used to seeing everywhere.

There was a simple way to settle this once and for all. He loped down the hill towards the cab stand on Decatur Road and got into the first of the three blue-and-white taxis lined up there. The driver was young, maybe a grad student.

‘Where to, fella?’

‘Peachtree Plaza Hotel,’ Jeff told him.

‘Say again?’

‘The Peachtree Plaza, downtown.’

‘I don’t think I know that one. You got an address?’

Christ, taxi drivers these days. Weren’t they supposed to take some kind of test, memorize city maps and landmarks?

‘You know where the Regency is, right? The Hyatt House?’

‘Oh, yeah, yeah. That where you want to go?’

‘Close enough.’

‘You got it, fella.’

The driver headed south a few blocks and took a right on Ponce DeLeon Avenue. Jeff reached for his hip pocket, suddenly aware that he might not have any money in these unfamiliar pants, but there was a worn brown wallet there, not his.

At least there was money inside it – two twenties, a five, and some ones – so he wouldn’t have to worry about the cab fare. He’d reimburse whomever it belonged to when he returned the wallet, along with these old clothes he’d picked up from … where? Who?

He opened one of the small compartments of the wallet, looking for answers. He found an Emory University Student ID card in the name of Jeffrey L. Winston. A library card from Emory, also in his name. A receipt from a dry cleaner’s in Decatur. A folded cocktail napkin with a girl’s name, Cindy, and a phone number. A photograph of his parents standing outside the old house in Orlando, the one they’d lived in before his father had got so sick. A colour snapshot of Judy Gordon laughing and throwing a snowball, her achingly young and jubilant face framed by a white fur collar upturned against the cold. And a Florida driver’s licence for Jeffrey Lamar Winston, with an expiration date of February 27, 1965.

Jeff sat alone at a table for two in the UFO-shaped Polaris bar atop the Hyatt Regency, watching the denuded Atlanta skyline rotate past him every forty-five minutes. The cab driver hadn’t been ignorant, after all: The seventy-storey cylinder of the Peachtree Plaza didn’t exist. Gone, too, were the towers of the Omni International, the grey stone bulk of the Georgia Pacific Building, and Equitable’s great black box. The most commanding structure in all of downtown Atlanta was this one, with its widely copied atrium lobby. A brief conversation with the waitress, though, had made it clear that the hotel was new and as yet unique.

The hardest moment had come when Jeff had looked into the mirror behind the bar. He’d done so purposefully, knowing full well by then what he would see, but still he was shocked to confront his own pale, lanky, eighteen-year-old reflection.

Objectively, the boy in the mirror looked somewhat more mature than that; he’d seldom had problems being served liquor at that age, as with the waitress just now, but Jeff knew that was merely an illusion caused by his height and his deep-set eyes. To his own mind, the image in the mirror was of an untried and unscarred youth.

And that youth was himself. Not in memory, but here, now: these unlined hands with which he held his drink, these sharply focused eyes with which he saw.

‘You ready for another one yet, honey?’

The waitress smiled prettily at him, lips bright red beneath her heavily mascaraed eyes and antiquated beehive hairdo. She wore a ‘futuristic’ costume, an iridescent blue mini-dress of the sort that would be worn by young women everywhere in another two or three years.

Two or three years from now. The early sixties.

Jesus Christ.

He could no longer deny what had happened, couldn’t hope to rationalize it away. He had been dying of a heart attack, but had survived; he had been in his office, in 1988, and now was … here. Atlanta, 1963.

Jeff groped without success for an explanation, something that would make even the vaguest sort of sense. He’d read a fair amount of science fiction as an adolescent, but his current situation bore no resemblance to any of the time-travel scenarios he’d ever encountered. There was no machine, no scientist, mad or otherwise; and, unlike the characters in the stories he’d read so eagerly, his own body had regenerated to its youthful state. It was as if his mind alone had made the leap across the years, obliterating his earlier consciousness to inhabit the brain of his own eighteen-year-old self.

Had he escaped death, then, or merely sidestepped it? In some alternate stream of future time was his lifeless body lying in a New York mortuary, being sliced and dissected by a pathologist’s scalpel?

Maybe he was in a coma: hopelessness twisted into an imaginary new life, at the behest of a ravaged, dying brain. And yet, and yet –

‘Honey?’ the waitress asked. ‘You want me to freshen that up or not?’

‘I, uh, I think I’ll have a cup of coffee instead, if that’s all right.’

‘Sure thing. Maybe an Irish coffe?’

‘No, just plain. A little cream, no sugar.’

The girl from the past brought his coffee, and Jeff stared out at the scattered lights of the half-built city as they came on beneath the fading sky. The sun had disappeared beyond the red-clay hills that stretched towards Alabama, towards the years of sweeping and chaotic change, of tragedy and dreams.

The steaming coffee burned his lips, and he cooled them with a sip of ice water. The world beyond those windows was no dream; it was as solid as it was innocent, as real as it was blindly optimistic.

Spring 1963.

There were so many choices to be made.

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