I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race
is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,
neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of
understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill;
but time and chance happeneth to them all.
PRAY TELL me why there is not a dishwashing school of philosophy? The conditions would seem ideal for indulging in the dear delights of attempting to unscrew the inscrutable. The work keeps the body busy while demanding almost nothing of the brain. I had eight hours every day in which to try to find answers to questions.
What questions? All questions. Five months earlier I had been a prosperous and respected professional in the most respected of professions, in a world I understood thoroughly - or so I thought. Today I was sure of nothing and had nothing.
Correction - I had Margrethe. Wealth enough for any man, I would not trade her for all the riches of Cathay. But even Margrethe represented a solemn contract I could not yet fulfill. In the eyes of the Lord I had taken her to wife... but I was not supporting her.
Yes, I had a job - but in truth she was supporting herself. When Mr Cowgirl hired me, I had not been daunted by 'minimum wage and no raises'. Twelve dollars and fifty cents per hour struck me as a dazzling sum - why, many a married man in Wichita (my Wichita, in another universe) supported a family on twelve and a half dollars per week.
What I did not realize was that here $12.50 Would not buy a tuna sandwich in that same restaurant - not a fancy restaurant, either; cheap, in fact. I would have had less trouble adjusting to the economy in this strange-but-familiar world if its money had been described in unfamiliar terms - shillings, shekels, soles, anything but dollars. I had been brought up to think of a dollar as a substantial piece of wealth; the idea that a hundred dollars a day was a poverty-level minimum wage was not one I could grasp easily.
Twelve-fifty an hour, a hundred dollars a day, five hundred a week, twenty-six thousand dollars a year Poverty level? Listen carefully. In the world in which I grew up, that was riches beyond dreams of avarice.
Getting used to price and wage levels in dollars that weren't really dollars was simply the most ubiquitous aspect of a strange economy; the main problem was how to cope, how to stay afloat, how to make a living for me and my wife (and our children, with one expected all too soon if I had guessed right) in a world in which I had no diplomas, no training, no friends, no references, no track record of any sort. Alex, what in God's truth are you good for?... other than dishwashing!
I could easily wash a lighthouse stack of dishes while worrying that problem alone. It had to be solved. Today I washed dishes cheerfully... but soon I must do better for my beloved. Minimum wage was not enough.
Now at last we come to the prime question: Dear Lord God Jehovah, what mean these signs and portents Thou has placed on me Thy servant?
There comes a time when a faithful worshiper must get up off his knees and deal with his Lord God in blunt and practical terms. Lord, tell me what to believe! Are these the deceitful great signs and wonders of which You warned, sent by antichrist to seduce the very elect?
Or are these true signs of the final days? Will we hear Your Shout?
Or am I as mad "as ':Nebudhadnezzar and all of these appearances merely vapors in my disordered mind?
If one of these be true, then the other two are false. How am I to choose? Lord God of Hosts, how have I offended Thee?
In walking back to the mission one night I saw a sign that could be construed as a direct answer to my prayers: MILLIONS NOW LIVING WILL NEVER DIE. The sign was carried by a man and with him was a small child handing out leaflets.
I contrived not to accept one. I had seen that sign many times throughout my life, but I had long tended to avoid Jehovah's Witnesses. They are so stiff-necked and stubborn that it is impossible to work with them, whereas Churches United for Decency is necessarily an ecumenical association. In fund raising and in political action one must (while of course. shunning heresy) avoid arguments on fiddling points of doctrine. Word-splitting theologians are the death of efficient organization. How can you include a sect in practical labor in the vineyards of the Lord if that sect asserts that they alone know the Truth, the whole Truth, and nothing but the Truth and all who disagree are heretics, destined for the fires of Hell?
Impossible. So we left them out of C.U.D.
Still - Perhaps this time they were right.
Which brings me to the most urgent of all questions: How to lead Margrethe back to the Lord before the Trump and the Shout.
But 'how' depends on 'when'. Premillenarian theologians differ greatly among themselves as to the date of the Last Trump.
I rely on the scientific method. On any disputed point there is always one sure answer: Look it up in the Book. And so I did, now that I was living at the Salvation Army mission and could borrow a copy of the Holy Bible. I looked it up again and again and again... and learned why premillenarians differed so on their dates.
The Bible is the literal Word of God; let there be no mistake about that. But nowhere did the Lord promise us that it would be easy to read.
Again and again Our Lord and His incarnation as the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, promises His disciples that their generation (i.e., first century AD) will see His return. Elsewhere, and again many times, He promises that He will return after a thousand years have passed... or is it two thousand years... or is it some other period, after the Gospel has been preached to all mankind in every country?
Which is true?
All are true, if you read them- right. Jesus did indeed return in the generation of His twelve disciples; He did so at the first Easter, His resurrection. That was His first return, the utterly necessary one, the one that proved to all that He was indeed the Son of God and God Himself. He returned again after a thousand years and, in His infinite mercy, ruled that His children be given yet another grant of grace, a further period of trial, rather than let sinners be consigned forthwith to the fiery depths of Hell. His Mercy is infinite.
These dates are hard to read, and understandably so, as it was never His intention to encourage sinners to go on sinning because the day of reckoning had been postponed,. What is precise, exact, and unmistakable, repeated again and again, is that He expects every one of His children to live every day, every hour, every heart beat, as if this one were the last. When is the end of this age? When is the Shout and the Trump? When is* the Day of Judgment? Now! You will be given no warning whatever. No time for deathbed contrition. You must live in a state of grace... or, when the instant comes, you will be cast down into the Lake of Fire, there to burn in agony throughout all eternity.
So reads the Word of God.
And to me, so sounds the voice of doom. I had no period of grace in which to lead Margrethe back into the fold... as the Shout may come this very day.
What to do? What to do?
For mortal man, with any problem too great, there is only one thing to do: Take it to the Lord in prayer.
And so I did, again and again and again. Prayer is always answered. But it is necessary to recognize the answer... and it may not be the answer you want.
In the meantime one must render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's. Of course I elected to work six days a week rather than five ($31,200 a year!) - as I needed every shekel I could garner. Margrethe needed everything! and so did I. Especially we needed shoes. The shoes we had been wearing when disaster struck in Mazatl'an had been quite good shoes - for peasants in Mazatl'an. But they had been worn during two days of digging through rubble after the quake, then had been worn continuously since then; they were ready for the trash bin. So we needed shoes, at least two pairs each, one pair for work, one for Sunday-go-to-meeting.
And many other things. I don't know what all a woman needs, but it is more complex than what a man needs. I had to put money into Margrethe's hands and encourage her to buy what she needed. I could pig it with nothing more than shoes and a pair of dungarees (to spare my one good outfit) - although I did buy a razor, and got a haircut at a barber's college near the mission, one where a haircut was only two dollars if one was willing to accept the greenest apprentice, and I was. Margrethe looked at it and said gently that she thought she could do as well herself, and save us that two dollars. Later she took scissors and straightened out what that untalented apprentice had done, to me... and thereafter I never again spent money on barbers.
I But saving two dollars did not offset a greater damage. I had honestly thought, when Mr Cowgirl hired me, that I was going to be paid a hundred dollars every day I worked.
He didn't pay me that much and he didn't cheat me. Let me explain.
I finished that first day of work tired but happy. Happier than I had been since the earthquake struck, I mean happiness is relative. I stopped at the cashier-s stand where Mr Cowgirl was working on his accounts, Ron's Grill having closed for the day. He looked up. 'How did it go, Alec?'
'Just fine, sir.'
'Luke tells me that you are doing okay.' Luke was a giant blackamoor, head cook and my nominal boss. In fact he had not supervised me other than to show me where things were and make sure that I knew what to do.
'That's pleasant to hear. Luke's a good cook.' That one-meal-a-day bonus over minimum wage I had eaten at four o'clock as breakfast was ancient history by then. Luke had explained to me that the help could order anything on the menu but steaks or chops, and that today I could have all the seconds I wanted if I chose either the stew or the meat loaf.
I chose the meat loaf because his kitchen smelled and looked clean. You can tell far more about a cook by his meat loaf than you can from the way he grills a steak. I took seconds on the meat loaf - with no catsup.
Luke was generous in the slab of cherry pie he cut for me, then he added a scoop of vanilla ice cream... which I did not rate, as it was an either/or, not both.
'Luke seldom says a good word about white boys,' my employer went on, 'and never about a Chicano. So you must be doing okay.'
'I hope so.' I was growing a mite impatient. We are all the Lord's children but it was the first time in my life that a blackamoor's opinion of my work had mattered. I simply wanted to be paid so that I could hurry home to Margrethe - to the Salvation Army mission, that is.
Mr Cowgirl folded his hands and twiddled his thumbs. 'You want to be paid, don't you?'
I controlled my annoyance. 'Yes, sir.'
-'Alec, with dishwashers I prefer to pay by the week.'
I. felt dismay ' and I am sure my face showed it.
'Don't misunderstand me,' he added. 'You're an. hourly-rate employee, so you are paid at the end of each day if that's what you choose.'
'Then I do choose. I need the money.'
'Let me finish. The reason I prefer to pay dishwashers weekly instead of daily is that, all too often, if I hire one and pay him at the end of the day, he goes straight out and buys a jug of muscatel, then doesn't show up for a couple of days.' When he does, he wants his job back. Angry at me. Ready to complain to the Labor Board. Funny part about it is that I may even be able to give him his job back - for another one-day shot at it -because the bum I've hired in his place has gone and done the same thing.
'This isn't likely to happen with Chicanos as they usually want to save money to send back to Mexico. But I've yet to see the Chicano who could handle the scullery to suit Luke ... and I need Luke more than I need a particular dishwasher. Negras -Luke can usually tell me whether a spade is going to work out, and the good ones are better than a white boy any time. But the good ones are always trying to improve themselves... and if I don't promote them to pantry boy or assistant cook or whatever, soon they go across the street to somebody who will. So it's always a problem. If I can get a week's work out of a dishwasher, I figure I've won. If I get two weeks, I'm jubilant. Once I got a full month. But that's once in a lifetime.'
'You're going to get three full weeks out of me,' I said. 'Now can I have my pay?'
'Don't rush me. If you elect to be paid once a week, I go for a dollar more on your hourly rate. That's forty, dollars more at the end of the week. What do you say?'
(No, that's forty-eight more per week, I told myself. Almost $34,000 per year just for washing dishes. Whew!) 'That's forty-eight dollars more each week,' I answered. 'Not forty. As I'm going for that six-days-a-week option. I do need the money.'
'Okay, Then I pay you once a week.'
'Just a moment. Can't we start it tomorrow? I need some cash today. My wife and I haven't anything, anything at all. I've got the clothes I'm standing in, nothing else. The same for my wife. I can sweat it out a few more days. But there are things a woman just has to have.'
He shrugged. 'Suit yourself. But you don't get the dollar-an-hour bonus for today's work. And if you are one minute late tomorrow, I'll assume you're sleeping it off and I put the sign back in the window.'
'I'm no wino, Mr Cowgirl.'
'We'll see.' He turned to his bookkeeping machine and did something to its keyboard. I don't know what because I never understood it. It was an arithmetic machine but nothing like a Babbage Numerator. It had keys on it somewhat like a typewriting machine. But- there was a window above that where numbers and letters appeared by some sort of magic.
The machine whirred and tinkled and he reached into it and brought out a card, handed it -to me. 'There you are.'
I took it and examined it, and again felt dismay.
It was a piece of pasteboard about three inches wide and seven long, with numerous little holes punched in it and with printing on it that stated that it was a draft on Nogales Commercial and Savings Bank by which Ron's Grill directed them to pay to Alec L. Graham - No, not one hundred dollars.
Fifty-one dollars and twenty-seven cents.
'Something wrong?' he asked.
'Uh, I had expected twelve-fifty an hour.'
'That's what I paid you. Eight hours at minimum wage. You can check the deductions yourself. That's not my arithmetic; this is an IBM 1990 and it's instructed by IBM software, Paymaster Plus ... and IBM has a standing offer of ten thousand dollars to any employee who can show that this model IBM and this mark of their software fouled up a pay check. Look at it. Gross pay, one hundred dollars. Deductions all listed. Add ' 'em up. Subtract them. Check your answer against IBM's answer. But don't blame me. I didn't write those laws - and I like them even less than you do. Do you realize that almost every dishwasher that comes in here, whether wetback or citizen, wants me to pay him in cash and forget the deductions? Do you know what the fine is if they catch me doing it just once? What happens if they catch me a second time? Don't look sour at me - go talk to the government.'
'I just don't understand it. It's new to me, all of it. Can you tell me what these deductions mean? This one that says "Admin", for example.'
'That stands for "administration fee" but don't ask me why you have to pay it, as I am the one who has to do the bookkeeping and I certainly don't get paid to do it.'
I tried to check the other deductions against the fine-print explanations. 'SocSec' turned out to be 'Social Security'. The young lady had explained that to me this morning... but I had told her at the time that, while it was certainly an excellent idea, I felt that I would have to wait until later before subscribing to it; I could not afford it just yet. 'MedIns' and 'HospIns' and DentIns' were simple enough but I could not afford them now, either. But what was 'PL217'? The fine print simply referred to a date and page in TubReg'. What about 'DepEduc' and 'UNESCO'?
And what in the world was 'Income Tax'?
'I still don't understand it. It's all new to me.'
'Alec, you're not the only one who doesn't understand it. But why do you say it is new to you? It has been going on all your life ... and your daddy's -and youi ,grand-daddy's, at least.'
'I'm sorry. What is "Income Tax"?'
He blinked at me. 'Are you sure you don't need to see a shrink?'
'What is a "shrink"?'
He sighed. 'Now I need to see one. Look, Alec. Just take it. Discuss the deductions with the government, not with me. You sound sincere, so maybe you were hit on the head when you got caught in the Mazatl'an quake. I just want to go home and take a Miltown. So take it, please.'
'All right. I guess. But I don't know anyone who would cash this for me.'
'No problem. Endorse it back to me and I'll pay you, cash. But keep the stub, as the IRS will insist on seeing all your deductions stubs before paying you back any overpayment.'
I didn't understand that, either, but I kept the stub.
Despite the shock of learning that almost half my pay was gone before I touched it, we were better off each day, as, between us, Margrethe and I had over four hundred dollars a week that did not have to be spent just to stay alive but could be converted into clothing and other necessities. Theoretically she was being paid the same wages as had been the cook she replaced, or twenty-two dollars an hour for twenty-four hours a week, or $528/week.
In fact she had the same sort of deductions I had, which paused her net pay to come to just under $290/week. Again theoretically. But $54/week was checked off for lodging fair. enough, I decided, when I found out what rooming houses were charging. More than fair, in fact. Then we were assessed $I05/week for meals. Brother McCaw at first had put us down for $I40/week for meals and had offered to show by his books that Mrs Owens, the regular cook, had always paid, by checkoff, $I0 each day for her meals... so the two of us should be assessed $I40/week.
I agreed that that was fair (having seen the prices on the menu at Ron's Grill) - fair in theory. But I was going to have my heaviest meal of the day where I worked. We compromised on ten a day for Marga, half that for me.
So Margrethe wound up with a hundred and. thirty-one a week out of a gross- of five hundred and twenty-eight.
If she could collect it. Like most churches, the Salvation Army lives from hand to mouth... and sometimes the hand doesn't quite reach the mouth.
Nevertheless we were well off and better off each week. At the end of the first week we bought new shoes for Margrethe, first quality and quite smart, for only $279.90, on sale at J. C. Penney's, marked down from $350.
Of course she fussed at getting new shoes for her before buying shoes for me. I pointed out that we still had over a hundred dollars toward shoes for me - next week - and would she please hold it for us so that I would not be tempted to spend it. Solemnly she agreed.
So the following Monday we got shoes for me even cheaper - Army surplus, good, stout comfortable shoes that would outlast anything bought from a regular shoe store. (I would worry about dress shoes for me after I had other matters under control. There is nothing like being barefoot broke to adjust one's mundane values.) Then we went to the Goodwill retail store and bought a dress and a summer suit for her, and dungaree pants for me.
Margrethe wanted to get more clothes for me - we still had almost sixty dollars. I objected.
'Why not, Alec? You need clothes every bit as badly as I do... yet we have spent almost all that you have saved on me. It's not fair.'
I answered, 'We've spent it where it was needed. Next week, if Mrs Owens comes back on time, you'll be out of a job and we'll have to move. I think we. should move on. So let's save what we can for bus fare.'
'Move on where, dear?'
'To Kansas. This is a world strange to each of us. Yet it is familiar, too - same language, same geography, some of the same history. Here I'm just a dish washer, not earning enough to support you. But I have a strong feeling that Kansas - Kansas in this world - will be so much like the Kansas I was born in that I'll be able to cope better.'
'Whither thou goest, beloved.'
The mission was almost a mile from Ron's Grill; instead of trying to go 'home' at my four-to-six break, I usually spent my free time, after eating, at the downtown branch library getting myself oriented. That, and newspapers that customers sometimes left in the restaurant, constituted my principal means of reeducation.
In this world Mr William Jennings Bryan had indeed been President and his benign influence had' kept us out of the Great European War. He then had offered his services for a negotiated peace. The Treaty of Philadelphia had more or less restored Europe to what it had been before 1913.
I didn't recognize any of the Presidents after Bryan, either from my own world or from Margrethe's world. Then I became utterly bemused when I first ran across the name of the current President: His Most Christian Majesty, John Edward the Second, Hereditary President of the United States and Canada, Duke of Hyannisport, Comte de Quebec, Defender of the Faith, Protector of the Poor, Marshal in Chief of the Peace Force.
I looked at a picture of him, laying a cornerstone in Alberta. He was tall and broad-shouldered and blandly handsome and was wearing a fancy uniform with enough medals on his chest to ward off pneumonia. I studied his face and asked myself, 'Would you buy a used car from this man?'
But the more I thought about it, the more logical it seemed. Americans, all during their two and a quarter centuries as a separate nation, had missed the royalty they had shucked off. They slobbered over European royalty whenever they got the chance. Their wealthiest citizens married their daughters to royalty whenever possible, even to Georgian princes - a 'prince' in Georgia being a farmer with the biggest manure pile in the neighborhood.
I did not know where they had hired this royal dude. Perhaps they had sent to Estoril for him, or even had him shipped in from the Balkans. As one of my history profs had pointed out, there are always out-of-work royalty around, looking for jobs. When a man is out of, work, he can't be fussy, as I knew too well. Laying cornerstones is probably no more boring than washing dishes. But the hours are longer. I think. I've never been a king. I'm not sure that I would take a job in the kinging business if it were offered to me; there are obvious drawbacks and not just the long hours.
On the other hand -
Refusing a crown that you know will never be offered to you is sour grapes, by definition. I searched my heart and concluded that-I probably would be able to persuade myself that it was a sacrifice I should make for my fellow men. I would pray over it until I was convinced that the Lord wanted me to accept this burden.
Truly I am not being cynical. I know how frail men can be in persuading themselves that the Lord wants them to do something they wanted to do all along - and I am no better than my brethren in this.
But the thing that stonkered me was the idea of Canada united with us. Most Americans do not know why Canadians dislike us (I do not), but they do. The idea that Canadians would ever vote to unite with us boggles the mind.
I went to the library desk and asked for a recent general history of the United States. I had just started to study it when I noted by the wall clock that it was almost four o'clock... so I had to check it back in and hustle to get back to my scullery on time. I did not have library loan privileges as I could not as yet afford the deposit required of nonresidents.
More important than the political changes were technical and cultural changes. I realized almost at once that this world was more advanced in physical science and. technology than my own. In fact I realized it almost as quickly as I saw a 'television' display device.
I never did understand how televising takes place. I tried to learn about it in the public library and at once bumped into a subject called 'electronics'. (Not 'electrics' but 'electronics'.) So I tried to study up about electronics and encountered the most amazing mathematical gibberish. Not since thermodynamics had caused me to decide that I had a call for the ministry have I seen such confusing and turgid equations. I don't think Rolla Tech could ever cope with such amphigory - at least not Rolla Tech when I was an undergraduate there.
But the superior technology of this world was evident, in many more things than television. Consider 'traffic lights'. No doubt you have seen cities so choked with traffic that it is almost impossible to cross major streets other than through intervention by police officers. Also' no doubt you have sometimes been annoyed when a policeman charged with controlling traffic has stopped the flow in your direction to accommodate some very important person from city hall, or such.
Can you imagine a situation in which traffic could be controlled in greater volume with no police officers whatever at hand - just an impersonal colored light?
Believe me, that is exactly what they had in Nogales.
Here is how it works:
At every busy intersection you place a minimum of twelve lights, four groups of three, a group facing each of the cardinal directions and so screened that each group can be seen only from its direction. Each group has one red light, one green light, one amber light. These lights are served by electrical power and each shines brightly enough to be seen at a distance of a mile, more or less, even in bright sunlight. These are not arc lights; these are very powerful Edison lamps - this is important because these lights must be turned on and off every few moments and must function without fail hours on end, even days on end, twenty-four hours a day.
These lights are placed up high on telegraph poles, or suspended over intersections, so that they may be seen by teamsters or drivers or cyclists from a distance. When the green lights shine, let us say, north and south, the red lights shine east and west - traffic may flow north and south, while east and west traffic is required to stand and wait exactly as if a police officer had blown his whistle and held up his hands, motioning traffic to move north and south while restraining traffic from moving east and west.
Is that clear? The lights replace the policeman's hand signals.
The amber lights replace the policeman's whistle; they warn of an imminent change in the situation.
But what is the advantage? - since someone, presumably a policeman, must switch the lights on and off, as needed. Simply this: The switching is done automatically from a distance (even miles!) at a central switchboard.
There are many other marvels about this system, such as electrical counting devices to decide how long each light burns for best handling of the traffic, special lights for controlling left turns or to accommodate people on foot... but the truly great marvel is this: People obey these lights.
Think about it. With no policemen anywhere around people obey these blind and dumb bits of machinery as. if they were policemen.
Are people here so sheeplike and peaceful that they can be controlled this easily? No. I wondered about it and found some statistics in the library. This world has a higher rate of violent crime than does the world in which I was born. Caused by these strange lights? I don't think so. I think that the people here, although disposed to violence against each other, accept obeying traffic lights as a logical thing to do. Perhaps.
As may be, it is passing strange.
Another conspicuous difference in technology lies in air traffic. Not the decent, cleanly, safe, and silent dirigible airships of my home world - No, no! These are more like the aeroplanos of the Mexicano world in which Margrethe and I sweated out our indentures before the great quake that destroyed Mazatl'an. But they are so much bigger, faster, noisier and fly so much higher than the aeroplanos we knew that they are almost another breed - or are indeed another breed, perhaps, as they are called 'jet planes'. Can you imagine a vehicle that flies eight miles above the ground? Can you imagine a giant car that moves, faster than sound? Can you imagine a screaming whine, so loud that it makes your teeth ache?
They call this 'progress'. I long for the comfort and graciousness of LTA Count von Zeppelin. Because you can ' t get away from these behemoths. Several times a day one of these things goes screaming over the mission, fairly low down, as it approaches a grounding, at the flying field north of the city. The noise bothers me and makes Margrethe very nervous.
Still most of the enhancements in technology really are progress - better plumbing, better lighting indoors and out, better roads, better buildings, many sorts of machinery that make human labor less onerous and more productive. I am never one of those back-to-nature freaks who sneer at engineering; I have more reason than most people to respect engineering. Most people who sneer at technology would starve to- death if the engineering infrastructure were removed.
We had been in Nogales just short of three weeks when I was able to carry out a plan that I had dreamed of for nearly five months... and had actively plotted since our arrival in Nogales (but had to delay until I could afford it). - I picked Monday to carry it out, that being my day off. I told Margrethe to dress up in her new clothes as I was taking my best girl out for a treat, and I dressed up, too - my one suit, my new shoes, and a clean shirt... and shaved and bathed and nails clean and trimmed.
It was a lovely day, sunny and not too hot. We both felt cheerful because, first, Mrs Owens had written to Brother McCaw saying that she was staying on another week if she could be spared, and second, we now had enough money for bus fares for both of us to Wichita, Kansas, although just barely - but the word from Mrs Owens meant that could squirrel away another four hundred dollars for eating money on the way and still arrive not quite broke.
I took Margrethe to a place I had spotted the day I looked for a job as a dishwasher - a nice little place outside the tenderloin, an old-fashioned ice cream parlor.
We stopped outside it. 'Best girl, see this place? Do you remember a conversation we had when we were floating on the broad Pacific on a sunbathing mat and not really expecting to live much longer? - at least I was not.'
'Beloved, how could I forget?'
'I asked you what you would have if you could have anything in the world that you wanted. Do you remember I what you answered?'
'Of course I do! It was a hot fudge sundae.'
'Right! Today is your unbirthday, dear. You are about to have that hot fudge sundae.'
'Don't blubber. Can't stand a woman who cries. Or you can have a chocolate malt. Or a sawdust sundae. Whatever your heart desires. But I did, make sure that this place always has hot fudge sundaes before I brought you here.'
'We can't afford it. We should save for the trip.'
'We can afford it. A hot fudge sundae is five dollars. Two for ten dollars. And I'm going to be a dead game sport and tip the waitress a dollar. Man does not live by bread alone. Nor does woman, Woman. Come along!'
We were shown to a table by a pretty waitress (but not as pretty as my bride). I seated Margrethe with her back to the street, holding the chair for her, and then sat down opposite her. 'I'm Tammy,' the waitress said as she offered us a menu. 'What would you folks like this lovely day?'
'We won't need the menu,' I said. 'Two hot fudge sundaes, please.'
Tammy looked thoughtful. 'All right, if you don't mind waiting a few minutes. We may have to make up the hot sauce.'
'A few minutes, who cares? We've waited much longer than that.'
She smiled and went away. I looked at Marga. 'We've waited much longer. Haven't we?'
'Alec, you're a sentimentalist and that's part of why I love you.'
'I'm a sentimental slob and right now I'm slavering at the thought of hot fudge sundae. But I wanted you to see this place for another reason, too. Marga, how would you like to run such a place as this? Us, that is. Together. You'd be boss, I'd be dishwasher, janitor, handyman, bouncer, and whatever was needed.'
She looked very thoughtful. 'You are serious?'
'Quite. Of course we couldn't go into business for ourselves right away; we will have to save some money first. But not much, the way I plan it. A dinky little place, but bright and cheerful - after I paint it. A soda fountain, plus a very limited Menu. Hot dogs. Hamburgers. Danish open-face sandwiches. Nothing else. Soup, maybe. But canned soups are no problem and not much inventory.'
Margrethe looked shocked. 'Not canned soups. I can serve a real soup... cheaper and better than anything out of a tin.'
'I defer to your professional judgment, Ma'am. Kansas has half a dozen little college towns; any of them would welcome such a place. Maybe we pick a shop already existing, a mom-and-pop place - work for them a year, then buy them out. Change the name to The Hot Fudge Sundae. Or maybe Marga's Sandwiches.'
'The Hot Fudge Sundae. Alec, do you really think we can do this?'
I leaned toward her and took her hand. 'I'm sure we can, darling. And without working ourselves to death, too.' I moved my head. 'That traffic light is staring me right in the eye.'
'I know. I can see it reflected in your eye every time it changes. Want to swap seats? It won't bother me.'
'It doesn't bother me. It just has a somewhat hypnotic effect.' I looked down at. the table, looked back at the light. 'Hey, it's gone out.'
Margrethe twisted her neck to look. 'I don't see it. Where?'
'Uh... pesky thing has disappeared. Looks like.'
I heard a male voice at my elbow. 'What'll it be for you two? Beer or wine; we're not licensed for the hard stuff.'
I looked around, saw a waiter. 'Where's Tammy?'
I took a deep breath, tried to slow my heart, then said, 'Sorry, brother; I shouldn't have come in here. I find I've left my wallet at home.' I stood up. 'Come, dear.'
Wide-eyed and silent, Margrethe came with me. As we walked out, I looked around, noting changes. I suppose it was a decent enough place, as beer joints go. But it was not our cheerful ice cream parlor.
And not our world.