REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

THIRTEEN  (continued)

July and August were a sinkhole of torpid inertia, the dank heat of Florida’s ‘dog days’ broken only by the violent thunderstorms that appeared almost every afternoon. Jeff went fishing with his father, taught his sister how to drive; but most of the time he spent in his room, watching reruns of ‘The Defenders’ and ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ Waiting for the telephone to ring.

His mother fretted over his inactivity, his sudden loss of interest in friends and girls and midnight cruising at the local drive-ins. Jeff wanted to leave, to escape the oppressive parental concern and the stultifying boredom of Orlando, but there was no place he could go. The freedom of movement he’d grown so used to was severely limited by his lack of funds: The Derby and the Belmont had already been run, and he had no other immediate source of income.

Summer ended, with no word from Pamela. Jeff went back to Atlanta, ostensibly to begin his sophomore year at Emory. He registered for a full course load, just so he could be assigned space in one of the dormitories, but he never bothered to attend any of the classes. He ignored the threatening letters from the dean’s office, bided his time until October.

Frank Maddock had graduated the previous June, and was now at Columbia, beginning law school without ever having met his erstwhile partner. Jeff found another rakish gambler in the senior class who was willing to place the World Series bet for him. Only for a flat fee, though; nobody wanted a percentage, no matter how generous, of such a patently foolish wager. Jeff bet a little under two thousand dollars, won a hundred and eighty-five thousand. At least he wouldn’t have to worry about money again for a while.

He moved to Boston, took an apartment on Beacon Hill. History moved through its familiar paces: Diem was overthrown in Saigon; John Kennedy was murdered yet again. The Vatican Council de-Latinized the Catholic Mass, and the Beatles arrived to lighten the hearts of America.

Jeff called the Phillips’s house in March, the week Jack Ruby was convicted and sentenced to death for the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald; no one had ever heard of Nelson Bennett. Pamela’s mother answered the phone.

‘Hello, may I speak with … Pam, please?’

‘May I tell her who’s calling?’

‘This is Alan Cochran, a friend of hers from school.’

‘Just a minute, let me see if she’s busy.’

Jeff nervously coiled and uncoiled the telephone cord as he waited for Pamela to come on the line. He’d dredged the false name out of his memory, as someone Pamela had once mentioned having dated in high school; but had she even met the boy at this point? He had no way of knowing.

‘Alan? Hi, what’s up?’

‘Pam, please don’t hang up; this isn’t Alan, but I need to talk to you.’

‘Who is it, then?’ There was more intrigue than annoyance in her kittenish voice.

‘It’s Jeff Winston. I came by your house one morning last summer, and –’

‘Yeah, I remember. My dad said I’m not supposed to talk to you, ever.’

‘I can understand that he might feel that way. You don’t have to tell him I called. I just … wondered if you’d started to remember anything yet.’

‘What do you mean? Like remember what?’

‘Oh, maybe about Los Angeles.’

‘Yeah, sure.’

‘You do?’

‘Sure, my folks and I went to Disneyland when I was twelve. How come I wouldn’t remember that?’

‘I was thinking more along the lines of something else. A movie, maybe, one called Starsea? Does that sound at all familiar?’

‘I don’t think I ever saw that one. Hey, you’re pretty weird, you know that? How come you want to talk to me, anyway?’

‘I just like you, Pamela. That’s all. Do you mind if I call you that?’

‘Everybody else calls me Pam. And besides, I shouldn’t even be talking to you. I better hang up now.’

‘Pamela –’

‘What?’

‘Do you still have the letter I sent you?’

‘I threw it away. If my dad had found it, he’d’ve had a fit.’

‘That’s OK. I’m not in Florida anymore; I’m living in Boston now. I know you don’t want to write my number down, but I’m listed with information. If you ever feel like getting in touch with me –’

‘What makes you think I’d want to do that? Boy, you really are weird.’

‘I guess so. Don’t forget, though, you can call me any time, day or night.’

‘I’m gonna hang up now. I don’t think you ought to call me anymore.’

‘I won’t. But I hope I’ll hear from you soon.’

‘’Bye.’ She sounded wistful, her youthful curiosity piqued by this persistent young man with his peculiar questions. But curiosity meant nothing, Jeff thought sadly as he told her goodbye; he remained a stranger to her.

The clerk at the Harvard Coop rang up the sale, gave Jeff his change and the copy of Candy he’d just bought. Outside, the square teemed with students preparing to begin the new school year. A purposefully scruffy lot, Jeff noted; and as he glanced towards the University Theater, where A Hard Day’s Night was playing, he saw one bearded young man discreetly hawking five-dollar matchboxes of marijuana. It had already been a year and a half since Leary and Alpert were dismissed from Harvard and had set up their short-lived ‘International Federation for Internal Freedom’ across the river, on Emerson Place. The sixties as they’d be remembered were arriving earlier in Cambridge than they had at Emory. Even so, the transformation of eras wasn’t quite complete yet; only one lone protester stood in Harvard Square, quietly distributing leaflets decrying the growing American presence in Vietnam. At a table set up near the news-stand kiosk, a pair of students offered buttons reading ‘Stop Goldwater’ and ‘LBJ 64.’ Their disillusionment wouldn’t be long in coming.

Jeff went down the steps of the MTA station, entered one of the trolleylike old subway cars. Past Kenmore Square, the train came aboveground, crossed the Charles on Longfellow Bridge. To his right, Jeff could see workers on scaffolding putting the final touches on the new Prudential Center; the John Hancock Tower, with its ill-fated, popping windows, was still a long way in the future.

What would he do with that future now, he wondered, with the long and empty years he faced, again alone? It had been over a year since he’d begun this fourth replay of his life, and all the hopefulness with which he had once anticipated sharing this cycle with someone he fully loved, someone whose experience and understanding matched his own, had disappeared. Pamela remained an unfamiliar child, ignorant of who and what she – they – had previously been.

Perhaps some of her notions of eastern religion had been correct, in a manner unfathomable to either of them. Maybe she had attained complete enlightenment in her last existence, and her soul or essence or whatever had gone on to some form of Nirvana. Where, then, did that leave the innocent young girl who now lived in Westport? Was that person merely a shell of a body, now devoid of all spirit; a simulacrum of the real Pamela Phillips, moving through this lifetime without purpose? Maybe her, or its, purpose could be likened to an animated prop in a play or movie, a soulless robot. The unthinkable outside force that had set these replays in motion might be using the false Pamela solely to maintain the illusion that the world continued in its normal, original patterns, with its multibillion-person cast intact.

But for whose benefit? Who was the audience that was supposed to be fooled? Jeff? He had thought he was the first, and, until he met Pamela, the only, person this had ever happened to; perhaps, though, he’d been the last, or at least among the last, to become aware of the endless repetition. Pamela had theorized that these years would continue to reduplicate themselves until everyone on earth recognized what was going on. Could it instead be that the realization was intended to happen on a piecemeal basis, one individual at a time rather than a sudden planetary awareness? And as each person saw the truth, had he or she then begun the climb to escape the infinite recurrence of what had once been thought to be reality?

That meant all of human history, past and future, might be nothing but a sham: false implanted memories and records, deceptive hopes for a world to come. The creation of the human species, its cultures and technology and annals prechosen and already set in place by some unseen power, may have occurred in 1963 … and mankind’s total span on this earth might stretch no more forward in subjective time than 1988, or soon thereafter. This rhythmic loop might encompass the totality of the human experience, and recognition of that fact could be the hallmark of an individual’s having reached the zenith of awareness.

Which would mean that Jeff, and everyone else, had been unknowingly replaying for aeons, literally since the beginning of time; and this might be his final cycle, as the previous one had been Pamela’s. The rest of the population, then, existed either in a state of preconsciousness or as rote, mechanical figures whose real souls and minds had outgrown those bodies, as had Pamela. And there was no way to tell which of the people he encountered were still ‘sleeping,’ as it were, and which had already gone on to another level of being, leaving their living, breathing likenesses behind as part of the vast stage set that was earth.

It was too much to absorb at once. Even assuming it was true, he still had at least the twenty-five remaining years of this replay in which to grapple with the idea. For now he had to begin deciding how he was going to deal with those years on a day-to-day basis, having lost the only consummate companion he had ever known.

Jeff got off the train at the next stop, walked down Charles Street past the flower shops and coffeehouses. The nasal whine of a folk singer drifted from the open door of the Turk’s Head, and a sign outside the Loft promised jug-band music on weekends. Up Chestnut Street the staid old homes, many of them now converted to apartments, presented a façade of urbane serenity.

What should he do? Go back to Montgomery Creek, spend the rest of his life – perhaps his final one – contemplating the incomprehensibility of the universe? Maybe he should make one last, albeit ultimately futile, attempt at improving humanity’s lot: reestablish Future, Inc. as a philanthropic foundation, pour all those hundreds of millions into Ethiopia, or India.

He climbed the steps to his second-floor apartment, his mind swimming against the tide of a thousand competing thoughts and unlikely options. If he simply gave up, committed suicide, what then? Would he –

One corner of the yellow envelope protruded into the hallway where it had been slipped beneath his door. He picked up the telegram, ripped it open:

BEEN CALLING ALL DAY. WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN? I’M BACK. I’M BACK. I’M BACK. GET HERE RIGHT AWAY. I LOVE YOU.

PAMELA

It was after eleven o’clock that night when he pulled up in front of the house in Westport. He’d tried to get a flight from Logan to Bridgeport, but there’d been nothing leaving immediately. It was quicker to drive, he decided, and he made the brief trip in record time.

Pamela’s father answered the door, and Jeff could see right away that this wasn’t going to be easy.

‘I want you to know that I’m allowing this meeting only because my wife insisted that I do so,’ the man began without preamble. ‘And even she was persuaded only because of Pam’s threats to leave home if we didn’t let her talk to you.’

‘I’m sorry this has become such an issue, Mr Phillips,’ Jeff said with all the sincerity he could muster. ‘As I told you last year, I never intended to cause any problems in your family; it’s all been an unfortunate misunderstanding.’

‘Whatever it is, it will not be repeated. I’ve spoken to my lawyer, and he says we can get a restraining order issued before the end of the week. That means you’ll be arrested if you come anywhere near my daughter again before she turns eighteen; so whatever you have to say to her, you’d better get it said tonight. Is that understood?’

Jeff sighed, tried to peer through the half-open door. ‘Could I just see Pamela now, sir? I won’t cause any problems, but I’ve waited a long time to talk to her.’

‘Come inside. She’s in the living room. You have one hour.’

Pamela’s mother had obviously been crying; her eyes were rimmed with red and haunted with defeat. Her fifteen-year-old daughter, sitting beside her on the sofa, was by contrast totally composed, though the girl’s wide grin told Jeff she was fighting to restrain the jubilant relief she at last felt. The ponytails were gone; she’d brushed her hair into an approximation of the style she’d worn as an adult. She wore a cashmere sweater with a beige wool skirt, stockings, heels, and light, expertly applied makeup. The change in her since the last time he’d seen her went far deeper than her physical appearance, however; in her alert, knowing eyes Jeff could see instantly that this was in fact the woman he had loved and lived with for a decade.

‘Hi, there,’ he said, returning her broad smile. ‘Want to go soaring?’

She laughed, a rich throaty laugh full of mature irony and sophistication. ‘Mother, Father,’ she said, ‘this is my dear friend Jeff Winston. I believe you’ve met before.’

‘How is it that you’ve suddenly decided you know this … man, after all?’ Her father had also noted the drastic change in Pamela’s voice and demeanour, Jeff could see, and was greatly displeased by her inexplicable overnight growth to adulthood.

‘I suppose my memory must have had some gaps in it last year. Now, you promised me we could have an hour alone together. Do you mind if we get started on that, please?’

‘Don’t try to leave the house.’ Her father scowled, addressing the two of them. ‘Don’t even leave the living room.’

Mrs Phillips rose reluctantly from her place beside her daughter. ‘Your father and I will be in the den if you need us, Pam.’

‘Thanks, Mother. Everything is fine, I promise you.’

Her parents left the room, and Jeff took her in his arms, hugging her as tightly as he could without crushing the breath out of her. ‘My God,’ he rasped in her ear, ‘where have you been? What happened?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said, pulling back to look at him. ‘I died in the house on Majorca just when I expected to, on the eighteenth. I only started replaying this morning; I was dumbfounded when I discovered what year it was.’

‘I showed up late, too,’ Jeff said, ‘but only by about three months. I’ve been waiting for you for over a year.’

She touched his face, gave him a look of tender sympathy. ‘I know,’ she said. ‘My mother and father told me what happened that summer.’

‘You don’t remember, then? No, of course you wouldn’t.’

She shook her head sadly. ‘My only memories of that time are from my original existence, and the replays since. From my perspective, I last saw you just twelve days ago, on the dock at Puerto de Andraitx.’

‘The miniature,’ he said with a warm smile. ‘It was perfect. I wish I could have kept it.’

‘I’m sure you have,’ she said quietly. ‘Where it counts most.’

Jeff nodded, hugged her again. ‘So … how did you find me in Boston?’

‘I called your parents. They seemed to know who I was – vaguely, at least.’

‘I told them I knew a girl at school who was from Connecticut, when I first came up here.’

‘God, Jeff, it must have been awful when I didn’t recognize you.’

‘It was. But now that you’re back, I’m kind of grateful to have had a glimpse of what you were really like at fourteen.’

She grinned. ‘I bet I thought you were cute, whoever you were. Actually, I’m kind of surprised I didn’t lie, and tell my parents I did know you.’

‘I phoned you last March. You said you thought I was “weird” … but you did sound kind of interested.’

‘I’m sure I was.’

‘Pam?’ her father called from the hallway. ‘Everything all right in there?’

‘No problem at all,’ she answered.

‘You’ve got another forty-five minutes,’ he reminded her, and went back towards the rear rooms of the house.

‘This is going to be a problem,’ Jeff said with a worried frown. ‘You’re legally a minor; your father was talking about seeking a restraining order to prevent me from seeing you.’

‘I know,’ she said ruefully. ‘That’s partly my fault. There was a hell of a scene here this afternoon, after I told them I was expecting a call or a visit from you. I had no idea they’d ever heard of you before; my father went through the roof when I brought your name up, and I’m afraid I didn’t react too well in return. They never heard language like that out of me at this age, except in my second replay, when I turned rebellious. And of course, they don’t remember that.’

‘Do you think he’s serious about keeping us apart? He could really make things difficult if he chooses to.’

‘Unfortunately, he means what he says. We may have a rough time of it for a while.’

‘We could … run away together.’

Pamela laughed dryly. ‘No. I tried that route once, remember? It didn’t work out then, and it won’t now.’

‘Except that I have money now, and access to as much more as we need. It’s not as if we’d be out on the streets.’

‘But I’m still underage; don’t forget that. You’d be in a lot of trouble if they caught us.’

Jeff managed a grin. ‘Jailbait. I kind of like that idea.’

‘I just bet you do,’ she taunted. ‘But it’s no joke, particularly not in this era. The “Summer of Love” is still three years away; in 1964, they took that kind of thing very, very seriously.’

‘You’re right,’ he agreed dejectedly. ‘So what the hell are we going to do?’

‘We’re just going to have to wait for a little while. I’ll be sixteen in a few months; maybe by then they’ll at least let us date, if I butter them up and play the role of the obedient daughter for now.’

‘Christ … I’ve already waited a year and a half to be with you.’

‘I don’t know what else we can do,’ she said with compassion. ‘I don’t like the prospect any better than you do, but I don’t think we have any other choice right now.’

‘No,’ he admitted. ‘We don’t.’

‘What are you going to do in the meantime?’

‘I guess I’ll go back to Boston; it’s a nice city, not too far from here, and I’m more or less settled in there. Probably work on building up our nest egg, so we don’t have to bother with making money once we’re able to be together. Can I at least call you? Write you?’

‘Not here, I don’t think, not yet. I’ll get a post-office box so we can write, and I’ll call you as often as I can. From outside the house, after school.’

‘Jesus. You’re really going back to high school again?’

‘I have to.’ She shrugged. ‘I can put up with it. I’ve done it so many times before, I think I know every answer to every test.’

‘I’m going to miss you … You know that.’

She kissed him, long and passionately. ‘So will I, love; so will I. But the wait will be more than worth it.’

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