by Ken Grimwood



Jeff spent the rest of the evening walking the streets of downtown Atlanta, his eyes and ears attuned to every nuance of the recreated past: ‘White’ and ‘Colored’ signs on public rest rooms, women wearing hats and gloves, an ad in a travel-agency window for the Queen Mary to Europe, a cigarette in the hand of almost every man he passed. Jeff didn’t get hungry until after eleven, and then he grabbed a burger and a beer at a little joint near Five Points. He thought he vaguely remembered the nondescript bar and grill from twenty-five years ago, as someplace he and Judy had occasionally gone for an after-movie snack; but by now he was so confused, so exhausted by the unending flood of new/old sights and places, that he could no longer be sure. Each store-front, each passing stranger’s face, had begun to seem disturbingly familiar, though he knew he couldn’t possibly have a recollection of everything he saw. He had lost the ability to sort false memories from those that were undoubtedly real.

He desperately needed to get some sleep, to shut all this off for a little while and perhaps, against all hope, awake to the world he’d left. What he wanted most of all was an anonymous, timeless hotel room with no view of the altered skyline, no radio or television to remind him of what had happened; but he didn’t have enough money, and of course he had no credit cards. Short of sleeping in Piedmont Park, Jeff had no choice but to return to Emory, back to the dorm room. Maybe Martin would be asleep.

He wasn’t. Jeff’s roommate was wide awake, sitting at his desk, thumbing through a copy of High Fidelity. He looked up coolly, put down the magazine as Jeff let himself into the room.

‘So,’ Martin said. ‘Where the hell have you been?’

‘Downtown. Just wandering around.’

‘You couldn’t find time to just wander by Dooley’s, huh? Or maybe even wander by the Fox Theater? We almost missed the first part of the goddamned movie, waiting for you.’

‘I’m sorry, I … wasn’t feeling up to it. Not tonight.’

‘The least you could’ve done was to leave me a fucking note, or something. You didn’t even call Judy, for Christ’s sake. She was going out of her mind, worrying about what had happened to you.’

‘Look, I’m really wiped out. I don’t much feel like talking, OK?’

Martin laughed without humour. ‘You’d better be ready to talk tomorrow, if you want to see Judy again. She’s gonna be pissed as all hell when she finds out you aren’t dead.’

Jeff dreamed of dying, and woke to find himself still in that college dorm room. Nothing had changed. Martin was gone, probably to class; but it was Saturday morning, Jeff remembered. Had there been Saturday classes? He wasn’t sure.

In any event, he was alone in the room, and he took advantage of the privacy to poke at random through his desk and closet. The books were all familiar: Fail-Safe, The Making of the President – 1960, Travels with Charley. The record albums, in their new, unfaded, and unwarped sleeves, conjured up a hundred multi-sensual images of the days and nights he had spent listening to that music: Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto, the Kingston Trio, Jimmy Witherspoon, dozens more, most of which he’d long since lost or worn out.

Jeff turned on the Harman-Kardon stereo his parents had given him one Christmas, put on ‘Desafinado,’ and continued to rummage through the belongings of his youth: hangers draped with cuffed h.i.s. slacks and Botany 500 sports jackets, a tennis trophy from the boarding school outside Richmond that he’d gone to before Emory, a tissue-wrapped collection of Hurricane glasses from Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans, neatly ordered stacks of Playboy and Rogue.

He found a box of letters and photographs, hauled it out, and sat on the bed to sort through the contents. There were pictures of himself as a child, snapshots of girls whose names he couldn’t recall, a couple of hamming-it-up photo-booth strips … and a small folder full of family pictures, his mother and father and younger sister at a picnic, on a beach, around a Christmas tree.

On impulse, he dug a handful of change from his pocket, found the pay phone in the hall, and got his parents’ long-forgotten old number from information in Orlando.

‘Hello?’ his mother said, with the distracted tone that had only increased as the years had passed.

‘Mother?’ he said tentatively.

‘Jeff!’ Her voice was muffled for a moment as she turned away from the mouthpiece. ‘Honey, pick up in the kitchen. It’s Jeff!’ Then, clear and distinct again: ‘Now, what’s this “Mother” business? Think you’re getting too old to call me “Mom,” is that it?’

He hadn’t called his mother that since he was in his early twenties.

‘How – how’ve you been?’ he asked.

‘Not the same since you left, you know that; but we’re keeping busy. We went fishing off Titusville last week. Your father caught a thirty-pound pompano. I wish I could send you some of it; it’s just the tenderest you’ve ever tasted. We’ve got plenty left in the freezer for you, but it won’t be the same as it was fresh.’

Her words brought back a rush of memories, all tenuously related: summer weekends on his uncle’s boat in the Atlantic, the sun bright on the polished deck as a dark line of thunderheads hovered on the horizon … the ramshackle little towns of Titusville and Cocoa Beach before the great NASA invasion … the big white freezer in their garage at home full of steaks and fish, and above it shelves of boxes stuffed with all his old comic books and Heinlein novels …

‘Jeff? You still there?’

‘Oh, yeah, I’m sorry … Mom. I just forgot what I called about for a minute, there.’

‘Well, honey, you know you never need a reason to –’

There was a click on the line, and he heard his father’s voice. ‘Well, speak of the devil! We were just talking about you, weren’t we, hon?’

‘That’s right,’ Jeff’s mother said. ‘Not five minutes ago, I was saying how long it’d been since you called.’

Jeff had no idea whether that meant a week or a month, and he didn’t want to ask. ‘Hi, Dad,’ he said quickly. ‘I hear you bagged a prize pompano.’

‘Hey, you should’ve been there.’ His father laughed. ‘Bud didn’t get a nibble all day, and the only thing Janet came up with was a sunburn. She’s still peeling – looks like an overcooked shrimp!’

Jeff hazily remembered the names as belonging to one of the couples his parents had been friends with, but he couldn’t put faces to them. He was struck by how vital and full of energy his mother and father both sounded. His father had come down with emphysema in 1982, and seldom left the house anymore. Only with difficulty could Jeff picture him out on the ocean, besting a powerful deep-sea fish, the Pall Mall in the corner of his mouth soggy with spray. In fact, Jeff thought numbly, his parents were now almost exactly his own age – or the age he had been this time yesterday.

‘Oh,’ his mother said, ‘I ran into Barbara the other day. She’s doing just fine at Rollins, and she said to tell you Cappy got that problem all straightened out.’

Barbara, Jeff dimly recalled, was a girl he’d dated in high school; but the name Cappy meant nothing to him now.

‘Thanks,’ Jeff said. ‘Next time you see her, tell Barbara I’m real glad to hear that.’

‘Are you still going out with that little Judy?’ his mother asked. ‘That was such a darling picture you sent of her, we can’t wait to meet her. How is she?’

‘She’s fine,’ he said evasively, beginning to wish he hadn’t made this call.

‘How’s the Chevy doing?’ his father interjected. ‘Still burning oil like it was?’

Jesus; Jeff hadn’t thought about that old car in years.

‘Car’s OK, Dad.’ That was a guess. He didn’t even know where it might be parked. The smoky old beast had been a graduation present from his parents, and he’d driven it until it finally died on him during his senior year at Emory.

‘How about the grades? That paper you were griping about, the one on … You know, the one you told us last week you were having some trouble with. What was that, anyway?’

‘Last week? Yeah, the … history paper. I finished that. Haven’t got the grade yet.’

‘No, no, it wasn’t for history. You said it was some English Lit thing, what was it?’

A child’s voice suddenly came on the line, babbling excitedly. Jeff realized with a jolt that the child was his sister – a woman who’d been through two divorces, who had a daughter of her own just entering high school. Hearing her nine-year-old’s exuberance, Jeff was touched. His sister’s voice seemed the very embodiment of lost innocence, of time turned poignantly back upon itself.

The conversation with his family had grown stifling, uncomfortably disturbing. He cut it short, promised to call again in a few days. When he hung up, his forehead was damp with chill sweat, his throat dry. He took the stairs down to the lobby, bought a Coke for a quarter, drained it in three long gulps. Someone was in the TV room, watching ‘Sky King.’

Jeff dug in his other pocket, fished out a key ring. One of the six keys was for the dorm room, he’d used that to let himself back in last night; there were three others he didn’t recognize, and two that were clearly a set of General Motors ignition and trunk keys.

He walked outside, blinked at the bright Georgia sunshine. There was a weekend feel to the campus, a distinctive lazy quietude that Jeff recognized instantly. On fraternity row, he knew, captive squads of pledges would be mopping the houses clean and hanging papier-mâché decorations for the Saturday-night round of parties; the girls in Harris Hall and the unnamed new women’s dorm would be lounging about in Bermuda shorts and sandals, waiting for their afternoon dates to pick them up for a drive to Soap Creek or Stone Mountain. Off to his left, Jeff could hear the chanted cadences of the Air Force ROTC drill, being conducted without irony or protest. No one was playing Frisbee on the grass; no odour of marijuana hung in the air. The students here could not conceive of the changes the world was about to endure.

He scanned the parking lot in front of Longstreet Hall, searching for his blue-and-white ’58 Chevy. It was nowhere in sight. He walked down Pierce Drive, then made a wide circle on Arkwright past Dobbs Hall and up behind the other cluster of men’s dorms; the car wasn’t there either.

As he walked towards Clifton Road Jeff could again hear the barked commands and rote responses from the ROTC field. The sound made something click in his mind, and he turned left over a small bridge across from the post office, then trudged up a road past the Phi Chi medical fraternity. The campus property ended there, and a block farther on he found his car. He was a freshman, so he couldn’t get a parking sticker until next fall; he’d had to park off campus that first year. Even so, there was a ticket on the windshield. He should’ve moved the car that morning, according to the hours posted on a sign above him.

He sat behind the wheel, and the feel and smell of the car evoked a dizzying jumble of responses. He’d spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours in this tattered seat: at drive-in movies and restaurants with Judy, on road trips with Martin or other friends or by himself – to Chicago, Florida, once all the way to Mexico City. He had grown from adolescence to adulthood in this car, more so than in any dorm room or apartment or city. He’d made love in it, got drunk in it, driven it to his favourite uncle’s untimely funeral, used its temperamental yet powerful V-8 engine to express anger, jubilation, depression, boredom, remorse. He’d never given the car a name, had considered the idea of doing so juvenile; but now he realized how much the machine had meant to him, how thoroughly his own identity had been meshed with the quirky personality of that old Chevy.

Jeff put the key in the ignition, started it up. The engine backfired once, then rumbled to life. He turned the car around, took a right on Clifton Road past the half-constructed bulk of the Communicable Disease Center. They’d still call it the CDC in the eighties, but by then the initials would stand for Center for Disease Control, and the place would be world-renowned for its studies of such panic-inducing scourges of the future as Legionnaire’s Disease and AIDS.

The future: hideous plagues, a revolution in sexual attitudes achieved and then reversed, triumph and tragedy in space, city streets haunted by null-eyed punks in leather and chains and spiked pink hair, death-beams in orbit around the polluted, choking earth … Christ, Jeff thought with a shudder, from this viewpoint his world sounded like the most nightmarish of science fiction. In many ways, the reality he’d grown used to had more in common with movies like Blade Runner than it did with the sunny naïveté of early 1963.

He turned on the radio: crackling, monaural AM, no FM band on the dial at all. ‘Our Day Will Come,’ Ruby and the Romantics crooned at him, and Jeff laughed aloud.

At Briarcliff Road he turned left, drove aimlessly through the shaded residential neighbourhoods to the west of the campus. The street became Moreland Avenue after a way, and he kept on driving, past Inman Park, past the Federal Penitentiary where A1 Capone had served his time. The city street signs disappeared, and he was on the Macon Highway, heading south.

The radio kept him company with its unending stream of pre-Beatle hits: ‘Surfin’ USA,’ ‘I Will Follow Him,’ ‘Puff, the Magic Dragon.’ Jeff sang along with all of them, pretended he was listening to an oldies station. All he had to do was hit another button, he told himself, and he’d hear Springsteen or Prince, maybe a jazz station playing the latest Pat Metheny on compact disc. Finally the signal faded, and so did his fantasy. He could find nothing across the dial except more of the same antiquated music. Even the country stations had never heard of Willie or Waylon; it was all Ernest Tubbs and Hank Williams, not an outlaw in the pack.

Outside McDonough he passed a roadside stand selling peaches and watermelons. He and Martin had stopped at a stand just like that on one of their Florida drives, mainly because of the long-legged farm girl in white shorts who’d been selling the fruit. She’d had a big German Shepherd with her, and after some pointless city-boy/country-girl banter, he and Martin had bought a whole bushel basket full of peaches from her. They hadn’t even wanted the damned things, got sick of smelling them after thirty miles or so, and started using them for target practice on road signs, whooping with inane glee at the ‘Splat – Kerblang!’ that resulted from a successful toss.

That had been, what, the summer of ’64 or ’65? A year or two from now. As of today, he and Martin hadn’t made that trip, hadn’t bought those peaches, hadn’t stained and dented half the speed-limit signs from here to Valdosta with them. So what did that mean now? If Jeff were still in this inexplicably reconstructed past when that June day rolled around again, would he make the same trip, share the same jokes with Martin, throw those same ripe peaches at the same road signs? And if he didn’t, if he chose to stay in Atlanta that week, or if he simply drove past the girl with the legs and the peaches … then what of his memory of that episode? Where had it come from, and what would happen to it?

In one sense he appeared to be reliving his life, replaying it like a video tape; yet it didn’t seem that he was bound by what had taken place before, not entirely. So far as he could tell, he had arrived back at this point in his life with every circumstance intact – enrolled at Emory, rooming with Martin, taking the same courses that he had a quarter of a century before – but in the twenty-four hours since he’d reawakened here, he’d already begun to subtly veer from the paths he had originally followed.

Standing up Judy last night – that was the biggest and most obvious change, though it wouldn’t necessarily affect anything one way or the other, in the long run. They’d only dated for another six or eight months, he recalled, until sometime around next Christmas. She’d left him for an ‘older man,’ he remembered with a smile, a senior, going on to medical school at Tulane. Jeff had been hurt and depressed for a few weeks, then started going out with a string of other girls: a skinny brunette named Margaret for a while, then another dark-haired girl whose named started with a D or a V, then a blonde who could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue. He hadn’t met Linda, the woman he would marry, until he was out of college and working at a radio station in West Palm Beach. She’d been a student at Florida Atlantic University. They’d met on the beach at Boca Raton …

Jesus, where was Linda right now? Two years younger than he, she’d still be in high school, living with her parents. He had a sudden urge to call her, maybe keep on driving south to Boca Raton and see her, meet her … No, that wouldn’t do at all. It would be too strange. Something like that might be dangerously far afield, might create some horrendous paradox.

Or would it? Did he really have to worry about paradoxes, the old killing-your-own-grandfather idea? That might not be an appropriate concern at all. He wasn’t an outsider wandering around in this time, afraid of encountering himself at an earlier age; he actually was that younger self, part and parcel of the fabric of this world. Only his mind was of the future – and the future existed only in his mind.

Jeff had to pull off the road and stop for a few minutes, head in hands, as he absorbed the implications of that. He’d wondered before whether he might be hallucinating this past existence. But what if the reverse were true, what if the whole complex pattern of the next two and a half decades – everything from the fall of Saigon to New Wave rock music to personal computers – turned out to be a fiction that had somehow sprung full-blown into his head, overnight, here in the real world of 1963, which he had never left? That made as much sense as, maybe more than, any alternative explanation involving time travel or afterlife or dimensional upheaval.

Jeff started the Chevy again, got back onto two-lane US 23. Locust Grove, Jenkinsburg, Jackson … the dilapidated, drowsy little towns of backwoods Georgia slid past like scenes from a movie of the depression era. Maybe that was what had drawn him to make this aimless drive, he thought: the timelessness of the countryside beyond Atlanta, the total lack of clues to what year or decade it might be. Weathered barns with ‘Jesus Saves’ painted in massive letters, the staggered highway rhymes of leftover Burma Shave signs, an old black man leading a mule … even the Atlanta of 1963 seemed futuristic compared to this.

At Pope’s Ferry, just north of Macon, he pulled into a mom-and-pop gas station with a general store attached. No self-service pumps, no unleaded; Gulf premium for thirty-three cents a gallon, regular for twenty-seven. He told the kid outside to fill it with premium and check the oil, add two quarts if it was low.

He bought a couple of Slim Jims and a can of Pabst in the store, clawed ineffectually at the beer can for a moment or two before he realized there was no pop top.

‘You must be mighty thirsty, hon.’ The old woman behind the counter chuckled. ‘Tryin’ to tear that thing open with your bare hands!’

Jeff smiled sheepishly. The woman pointed to a church-key hanging on a string by the cash register, and he punched two V-shaped holes in the top of the can. The boy from the gas pumps shouted through the ratty screen door of the store: ‘Looks like you need about three quarts of oil, mister!’

‘Fine, put in whatever it takes. And check the fan belts, too, will you?’

Jeff took a long sip of the beer, picked a magazine from the rack. There was an article about the new pop-art craze: Lichtenstein’s blowups of comic-strip panels, Oldenburg’s big, floppy vinyl hamburgers. Funny, he’d thought all that happened later, ’65 or ’66. Had he found a discrepancy? Was this world already slightly different from the one he thought he knew?

He needed to talk to somebody. Martin would just make a big joke of it all, and his parents would worry for his sanity. Maybe that was it; maybe he should see a shrink. A doctor would at least listen, and keep the talk confidential; but an encounter like that would carry the unspoken presupposition of a mental problem, a desire to be ‘cured’ of something.

No, there was really no one he could discuss this with, not openly. But he couldn’t just keep avoiding everyone for fear it might come out; that would probably seem stranger than any anachronistic slip of the tongue he might make. And he was getting lonely, damn it. Even if he couldn’t tell the truth, or whatever he knew of the truth, he needed the comfort of company, after all he’d been through.

‘Could I have some change for the phone?’ Jeff asked the woman at the cash register, handing her a five.

‘Dollar’s worth OK?’

‘I want to call Atlanta.’

She nodded, hit the no-sale key, and scooped some coins from the drawer. ‘Dollar’s worth’ll be plenty, hon.’

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide.

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning.