Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a
man be more pure than his maker?
Teach me, and I will hold my tongue: and cause
me to understand wherein I have erred.
AT A drugstore in downtown Flagstaff I exchanged that gold eagle for nine cartwheels, ninety-five cents in change, and a bar of Ivory soap. Buying soap was Margrethe's idea. 'Alec, a druggist is not a banker; changing money is something he may not want to do other than as part of a sale. We need soap. I want to wash your underwear and mine, and we both need baths... and I suspect that, at the sort of cheap lodging Steve urged us to take, soap may not be included in the rent.'
She was right on both counts. The druggist raised his eyebrows at the ten-dollar gold piece but said nothing. He took the coin, let it ring on the glass top of a counter, then reached behind his cash register, fetched out a small bottle, and subjected the coin to the acid test.
I made no comment. Silently he counted out nine silver dollars, a half dollar, a quarter, and two dimes. Instead of pocketing the coins at once, I stood fast, and subjected each coin to the same ringing test he had used, using his glass counter. Having done so, I pushed one cartwheel back at him.
Again he made no comment - he had heard the dull ring, of that putatively silver coin as well as I. He rang up 'No Sale', handed me another cartwheel (which rang clear as a bell), and put the bogus coin somewhere in the back of the cash drawer. Then he turned his back on me.
At the outskirts of town, halfway to Winona, we found a place shabby enough to meet our standards. Margrethe conducted the dicker, in Spanish. Our host asked five dollars. Marga called on the Virgin Mary and three other saints to witness what was being done to her. Then she offered him five pesos.
I did not understand this maneuver; I knew she had no pesos on her. Surely she would not be intending to offer those unspendable 'royal' pesos I still carried?
I did not find out, as our host answered with a price of three dollars and that is final, Se~nora, as God is my witness.
They settled on a dollar and a half, then Marga rented clean sheets and a blanket for another fifty cents - paid for the lot with two silver dollars but demanded pillows and ' clean pillow-cases to seal the bargain. She got them but the patr'on asked something for luck. Marga added a dime and he bowed deeply and assured us that his house was ours.
At seven the next morning we were on our way, rested, clean, happy and hungry. A half hour later we were in Winona and much hungrier. We cured the latter at a little trailer-coach lunchroom: a stack of wheat cakes, ten cents; coffee, five cents no charge for second cup, no limit on butter or syrup.
I Margrethe could not finish her hot cakes- they were lavish - so we swapped plates and I salvaged what she had left.
A sign on the wall read: CASH WHEN SERVED - NO TIPPING - ARE YOU READY FOR JUDGMENT DAY? The cook-waiter (and owner, I think) had a copy of The Watch Tower propped up by his range. I asked, 'Brother, do you have any late news on when to expect Judgment Day?'
'Don't joke about it. Eternity is a long time to spend in the Pit.'
I answered, 'I was not joking. By the signs and portents I think we are in the seven-year period prophesied in the eleventh chapter of Revelation, verses two and three. But I don't know how far we are into it.'
'We're already well into the second half,' he answered.
'The two witnesses are now prophesying and the antichrist is abroad in the land. Are you in a state of grace? If not, you had better get cracking.'
I answered, '"Therefore be ye also ready: for such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh."'
'You'd better believe it!'
'I do believe it. Thanks for a good breakfast.'
'Don't mention it. May the Lord watch over you.'
'Thank you. May He bless and keep you.' Marga and I left.
We headed ' cast again. 'How is my sweetheart?'
'Full of food and happy.'
'So am I. Something you did last night made me especially happy.'
'Me, too. But you always do, darling man. Every time.'
'Uh, yes, there's that. Me, too. Always. But I meant something you said, earlier. When Steve asked, if you agreed with me about Judgment Day and you told him you did agree. Marga, I can't tell you how much it has worried me that you have not chosen to be received back into the arms of Jesus. With Judgment Day rushing toward us and no way to know the hour - well, I've worried. I do worry. But apparently you are finding your way back to the light but had not yet discussed it with me.'
We walked perhaps twenty paces while Margrethe did not say anything.
At last she said quietly, 'Beloved, I would put your mind at rest. If I could. I cannot.'
'So? I do not understand. Will you explain?'
'I did not tell Steve that I agreed with you. I said to him that I did not disagree.'
'But that's the same thing!'
'No, darling. What I did not say to Steve but could have said, in, full honesty is that I will never publicly disagree with my husband about anything. Any disagreement with you I will discuss with you in private. Not in Steve's presence. Not anyone's.'
I chewed that over, let several possible comments go unsaid - at last said, 'Thank you, Margrethe.'
'Beloved, I do it for my own dignity as well as for yours. All my life I have hated the sight of husband and wife disagreeing - disputing - quarreling in public. If you say that the sun is covered with bright green puppy dogs, I will not disagree in public.'
Ah, but it is!'
'Sir?' She stopped, and looked startled.
'My good Marga. Whatever the problem, you always find a gentle answer. If I ever do see bright green puppy dogs on the face of the sun, I will try to remember to discuss it with you in private, not face you with hard decisions in public. I love you. I read too much into what you said to Steve because I really do worry.'
She took my hand and we walked a bit farther without talking.
'Yes, my love?'
'I do not willingly worry you. If I am wrong and you are going to the Christian Heaven, I do want to go I with you. If this means a return to faith in Jesus - and it seems that it does - then that is what I want. I will try. I cannot promise it, as faith is not a matter of simple volition. But I will try.'
I stopped to kiss her, to the amusement of a carload of men passing by. 'Darling, more I cannot ask. Shall we pray together?'
'Alec, I would rather not. Let me pray alone - and I will! When it comes time to pray together, I will tell you. I
Not long after that we were picked up by a ranch couple who took us into Winslow. They dropped us there without asking any questions and without us offering any information, which must set some sort of record.
Winslow is much larger than Winona; it is a respectable town as desert communities go - seven thousand at a guess. We found there an opportunity to carry out something Steve had indirectly suggested and that we had discussed the night before.
Steve was correct; we were not dressed for the desert. True, we had had no choice, as we had been caught by a world change. But I did not see another man wearing a business suit in the desert. Nor did we see Anglo women dressed in women's suits. Indian women and Mexican women wore skirts, but Anglo women wore either shorts or trousers - slacks, jeans, cutoffs, riding pants, something. Rarely a skirt, never a suit.
Furthermore our suits were not right even as city wear. They looked as out of place as styles of the Mauve Decade would look. Don't ask me how as I am no expert on styles, especially for women. The suit that I wore had been both smart and expensive when worn by my patr'on, Don Jaime, in Mazatl'an in an I other world... but on me, in the Arizona desert in this world, it was something out of skid row.
In Winslow we found just the shop we needed: SECOND WIND - A Million Bargains - All Sales Cash, No Guarantees, No Returns - All Used Clothing Sterilized Before Being Offered For Sale. Above this were the same statements in Spanish.
An hour later, after much picking over of their stock and-some heavy dickering by Margrethe, we were dressed for the desert. I was wearing khaki pants, a shirt to match, and a straw hat of vaguely western style. Margrethe was wearing considerably less: shorts that were both short and tight - indecently so - and, an -upper garment that was less than a bodice but slightly more than a brassi`ere. It was termed a 'halter'.
When I saw Marga in this outfit, I whispered to her, 'I positively will not permit you to appear in public in that shameless costume.'
She answered, 'Dear, don't be a fub so early in the day. It's too hot.'
'I'm not joking. I forbid you to buy that.'
'Alec, I don't recall asking your permission.'
'Are you defying me?'
She sighed. 'Perhaps I am. I don't want to. Did you get your razor?'
'You saw me!'
'I have your underpants and socks. Is there anything more you need now?'
'No. Margrethe! Quit evading me!'
'Darling, I told you that I will not quarrel with you in public. This outfit has a wrap-around skirt; I was about to put it on. Let me do so and settle the bill. Then we can go outside and talk in private.'
Fuming, I went along with what she proposed. I might as well admit that, under her careful management, we came out of that bazaar with more money than we had had when we came in. How? That suit from my patr'on, Don Jaime, that looked so ridiculous on me, looked just right on the owner of the shop - in fact he resembled Don Jaime. He had been willing to swap, even, for what I needed - khaki shirt and pants and straw hat.
But Margrethe insisted on something to boot. She demanded five dollars, got two.
I learned, as she settled our bill, that she had wrought similar magic in getting rid of that tailored suit she no longer needed. We entered the shop with $7.55; we left it with $8.80... and desert outfits for each of us, a comb (for two), a toothbrush (also for two), a knapsack, a safety razor, plus a minimum of underwear and socks - all second hand but alleged to be sterilized.
I am not good at tactics, not with women. We were outside and down the highway to an open place where we could talk privately before Margrethe would talk to me and I did not realize that I had already lost.
Without stopping, she said, 'Well, dear? You had something to discuss.'
'Uh, with that skirt in place your clothing is acceptable. Barely. But you are not to appear in-public in those shorts. Is that understood?'
'I intended to wear just the shorts. If the weather is warm. As it is.'
'But, Margrethe, I told you not to -'She was unsnapping the skirt, taking it off. 'You are defying me!'
She folded it, up neatly. 'May I place this in the knapsack? Please?'
'You are deliberately disobeying me!'
'But, Alec, I don't have to obey you and you don't have to obey me.'
'But - Look, dear, be reasonable. You know I don't usually give orders. But a wife must obey her husband. Are you my wife?'
'You told me so. So I am until you tell me otherwise.'
'Then it is your duty to obey me.'
'But that is a wife's first duty!'
'I don't agree.'
'But - This is madness! Are you leaving me?'
'No. Only if you divorce me.'
'I don't believe in divorce. Divorce is wrong. Against Scripture.'
She made no answer.
'Margrethe... please put your skirt on.'
She said softly, 'Almost you persuade me, dearest. Will you explain why you want me to do so?'
'What? Because those shorts, worn alone, are indecent!'
'I don't see how an article of clothing can be indecent, Alec. A person, yes. Are you saying that I am indecent?'
'Uh - You're twisting my words. When you wear those shorts - without a skirt - in public, you expose so much of yourself that the spectacle is indecent. Right now, walking this highway, your limbs are fully exposed... to the people in that car that just passed, for example. They saw you. I saw them staring!'
'Good. I hope they enjoyed it.'
'You tell me that I am beautiful. But you could be prejudiced. I hope that my appearance is pleasing to other people as well.'
'Be serious, Margrethe; we're speaking of your naked limbs. Naked.'
'You are saying my legs are bare. So they are. I prefer them bare when the weather is warm. What are you frowning at, dear? Are my legs ugly?'
('Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee!') 'Your limbs are beautiful, my love; I have told you so many times. But I have no wish to share your beauty.'
'Beauty is not diminished by being shared. Let's get back to the subject, Alec; you were explaining how my legs are indecent. If you can explain it. I don't think you can.'
'But, Margrethe, nakedness is indecent by its very nature. It inspires lewd thoughts.'
'Really? Does seeing my legs cause you to get an erection?'
'Alec, stop being a fub! I asked a simple question.'
'An improper question.' '
She sighed. 'I don't see how that question can possibly be improper between husband and wife. And I will never concede that my legs are indecent. Or that nakedness is indecent. I have been naked in front of hundreds of people -'
She looked surprised. 'Surely you know that?'
'I did not know it and I am shocked to hear it.'
'Truly, dear? But you know how well I swim.'
'What's that got to do with it? I swim well, too. But I don't swim naked; I wear a bathing suit.' (But I, was remembering most sharply the pool in Konge Knut - of course my darling was used to nude swimming. I found myself out on a limb.)
'Oh. Yes. I've seen such suits, in Mazatl'an. And in Spain. But, darling, we're going astray again. The problem is wider than whether or not bare legs are indecent or whether I should have kissed Steve good-bye or even whether I must obey you. You are expecting me to be what I am not. I want to be your wife for many years, for -all my life - and I hope to share Heaven with you if Heaven is your destination. But, darling, I am not a child, I am not a slave. Because I love you I wish to please you. But I will not obey an order simply because I am a wife.'
I could say that I overwhelmed her with the brilliance of my rebuttal. Yes, I could say that, but it would not be true. I was still trying to think of an answer when a car slowed down as it overtook us. I heard a whistle of the sort called 'wolf'. The car stopped beyond us and backed up. Need a ride?' a voice called out.
'Yes!' Margrethe answered, and hurried. Perforce, I did, too.
. It was a station wagon with a woman behind the wheel, a man riding with her. Both were my age or older. He reached back, opened the rear door. 'Climb in!'
I handed Margrethe in, followed her and closed the door. 'Got room enough?' he asked. 'If not, throw that junk on the floor. We never sit in the back seat, so stuff sort o' gravitates to it. We're Clyde and Bessie Bulkey.'
'He's Bulkey; I'm just well fed,' the driver added.
'You're supposed to laugh at that; I've heard it before.' He was indeed bulky, the sort of big-boned beefy man who is an athlete in school, then puts on weight later. His wife had correctly described both of them; she was not fat but carried some extra padding.
'How do you do, Mrs Bulkey, Mr Bulkey. We're Alec and Margrethe Graham. Thank you for picking us up.'
Don't be so formal, Alec,' she answered. 'How far you going?'
'Bessie, please keep one eye on the road.'
'Clyde, if you don't like the way I'm herding this heap, I'll pull over and let you drive.'
'Oh, no, no, you're doing fine!'
'Pipe down then, or I invoke rule K. Well, Alec?'
'We're going to Kansas.'
'Coo! We're not going that far; we turn north at Chambers. That's just a short piece down the road, About ninety miles. But you're welcome to that much. What are you going to do in Kansas?'
(What was I going to do in Kansas? Open an ice cream parlor... bring my dear wife back to the fold. Prepare for Judgment Day -) 'I'm going to wash dishes.'
'My husband is too modest,' Margrethe said quietly. 'We're going to open a small restaurant and soda fountain in a college town. But on our way to that goal we are likely to wash dishes. Or almost any work.'
So I explained what had happened to us, with variations and omissions to avoid what they wouldn't believe. 'The restaurant was wiped out, our Mexican partner were dead, and we lost everything we had. I said "dishwashing" because that is the one job I can almost always find. But I'll take a swing at 'most anything.'
Clyde said, 'Alec, with that attitude you'll be back on, your feet before you know it.'
'We lost some money, that's all. We're not too old to start over again.' (Dear Lord, will You hold off Judgment Day long enough for me to do it? Thy will be done. Amen.)
Margrethe reached over and squeezed my hand. Llyde noticed it. He had turned around in his seat so that he faced us as well as his wife. 'You'll make it,' he said. 'With your wife backing you, you're bound to make it.'
I think so. Thank you. 'I knew why he was turned to face us: to stare at Margrethe. I wanted to tell him to keep his eyes to himself but, under the circumstances, I could not. Besides that, it was clear that Mr and Mrs Bulkey saw nothing wrong with the way my beloved was dressed; Mrs Bulkey was dressed the same way, only more so. Or less so. Less costume, more bare skin. I must admit, too, that,' while she was not the immortal beauty Margrethe is, she was quite comely.
At Painted Desert we stopped, got out, and stared at the truly unbelievable natural beauty. I had seen it once before; Margrethe had never seen it and was breathless. Clyde told me that they always stopped, even though they had seen it hundreds of times.
Correction: I had seen it once before in another world. Painted Desert tended to prove what I had strongly suspected: It was not Mother Earth that changed in these wild changes; it was man and his works - and even those only, in part. But the only obvious explanation seemed to lead straight to paranoia. If so, I must not surrender to it; I must take care of Margrethe.
Clyde bought us hot dogs and cold drinks and brushed aside my offer to pay. When we got back into their car, Clyde took the wheel and invited Margrethe to ride up front with him. I was not pleased but could not show it, as Bessie promptly said, 'Poor Alec! Has to put up with the old bag. Don't sulk, dear; it's only twenty-three miles to the turn-off for Chambers... or less than twenty-three minutes the way Clyde drives.'
This time Clyde took thirty minutes. But he waited and made sure that we had a ride to Gallup.
We reached Gallup long before dark. Despite $8.80 in our pockets, it seemed time to look for dirty dishes. Gallup has almost as many motels and cabin courts as it 'has Indians and almost half of these hostelries have restaurants. I checked a baker's dozen before I found one that needed a dishwasher.
Fourteen days later we were in Oklahoma City. If you think that is slow time, you are correct; it is less than fifty miles a day. But plenty had happened and I was feeling decidedly paranoid - world change after world change and always timed to cause me maximum trouble.
Ever seen a cat play with a mouse? The mouse never has a chance. If he has even the brains the good Lord gives a mouse, he knows that. Nevertheless the mouse keeps on trying... and is hauled back every time.
I was the mouse.
Or we were the mice, for Margrethe was with me... and she was all that kept me going. She didn't complain and she didn't quit. So I couldn't quit.
Example: I had figured out that, while paper money was never any good after a world change, hard money, gold and silver, would somehow be negotiable, as bullion if not coin. So, when I got a chance to lay hands on hard money, I was stingy with it and refused to take paper money in change for hard money.
Smart boy. Alec, you're a real brain.
So on our third day in Gallup Marga and I took a nap in a room paid for by dishwashing (me) and by cleaning rooms (Margrethe). We didn't intend to go to sleep; we simply wanted to rest a bit before eating; it had been a long, hard day. We lay down on top of the bedspread.
I was just getting relaxed when I realized that something hard was pressing against my spine. I roused enough to figure out that our hoarded silver dollars had slipped out of my side pocket when I had turned over. So I eased my arm out from under Marga's head, retrieved the dollars, counted them, added the, loose change, and placed it all on the bedside table a foot from my head, then got horizontal again, slid my arm under Marga's head and fell right to sleep.
When I woke up it was pitch dark.
I came wide awake. Margrethe was still snoring softly on my arm. I shook her a little. 'Honey. Wake up.'
'It's late. We may have missed dinner
She came quickly awake. 'Can you switch on the bed lamp?' '
I fumbled at the bedside table, nearly fell out of bed. 'Can't find the pesky thing. It's dark as the inside of a pile of coal.' Wait a sec, I'll get the overhead light.'
I got cautiously off the bed, headed for the door, stumbled over a chair, could not find the door - groped for it, did find it, groped some more and found a light. switch by it. The overhead light came on.
For a long, dismal moment neither of us said anything. Then I said, inanely and unnecessarily, 'They did it again.'
The room had the characterless anonymity of any cheap motel room anywhere. Nevertheless it was different in details from the room in which we had gone to sleep.
And our hoarded silver dollars were gone.
Everything but the clothes we were wearing was gone knapsack, clean socks, spare underwear, comb, safety razor, everything. I inspected, made certain.
'Well, Marga, what now?'
'Whatever you say, sir.'
'Mmm. I don't think they'll know me in the kitchen. But they still might let me wash dishes.'
'Or they may need a waitress.'
The door had a spring lock and I had no key, so I left it an inch ajar. The door led directly outdoors and looked across a parking court at the office - a corner room with a lighted sign reading OFFICE - all commonplace except that it did not match the appearance of the motel in which we had been working. In that establishment the manager's office had been in the front end of a central, building, the rest of that central building being the coffee shop.
Yes, we had missed dinner.
And breakfast. This motel did not have a coffee shop.
'Which way is Kansas?'
'That way... I think. But we have two choices. We can go back into the room, go to bed properly, and sleep until daylight. Or we can get out there on the highway and try to thumb a ride. In the dark.'
'Alec, I see only one choice. If we go back inside and go to bed, we'll get up at daylight, some hours hungrier and no better off. Maybe worse off, if they catch us sleeping in a room we didn't pay for
'I washed an awful lot of dishes!'
'Not here, you didn't. Here they might send for the police.'
We started walking.
That was typical of the persecution we suffered in trying to get to Kansas. Yes, I said 'persecution'. If paranoia consists in believing that the world around you is a conspiracy against you, I had become paranoid. But it was either a 'sane paranoia (if you will pardon the Irishism), or I was suffering from delusions so monumental that I should be locked up and treated.
Maybe so. If so, Margrethe was part of my delusions an answer I could not accept. It could not be folie `a deux; Margrethe was sane in any world.
It was the middle of the day before we got anything to eat, and by then I was beginning to see ghosts where a healthy man would see only dust devils. My hat had gone where the woodbine twineth and the New Mexico sun on my head was not helping my state.
A carload of men from a construction site picked us up and took us into Grants, and bought us lunch before they left us there. I may be certifiably insane but I am not stupid; we owe that ride and that meal to the fact that Margrethe in shorts indecently tight, is a sight that attracts the attention of men. That gave me plenty to think about while I enjoyed (and I did enjoy it!) that lunch they bought us. But I kept my ruminations to myself.
After they left us I said, 'East?'
'Yes, sir. But first I would like to check the public library. If there is one.'
'Oh, yes! Surely.' Earlier, in the world of our friend Steve, the lack of air travel had caused me to suspect that Steve's world might be the world where Margrethe was born (and therefore the home of 'Alec Graham' as well). In Gallup we had checked on this at the public library - I had looked up American history in an encyclopedia while Marga checked on Danish history. It took us each about five minutes to determine that Steve's world was not the world Marga was born in. I found that Bryan had been elected in 1896 but had died in office, succeeded by his vice president, Arthur Sewall - and that was all I needed to know; I then simply raced through presidents and wars I had never, heard of.
Margrethe had finished her line of investigation with her nose twitching with indignation. Once outside where we didn't have to whisper I asked her what was troubling her. 'This isn't your world, dear; I made sure of that.'
'It certainly isn't!'
'But we didn't have anything but a negative to go on. There may be many worlds that have no aeronautics of any sort.'
'I'm glad this isn't my world! Alec, in this world Denmark is part of Sweden. Isn't that terrible?'
Truthfully I did not understand her upset. Both countries are Scandinavian, pretty much alike - or so it seemed to me. 'I'm sorry, dear. I don't know much about such things,' (I had been to Stockholm once, liked the place. It didn't seem a good time to tell her so.)
'And that silly book says that Stockholm is the capital and that Carl Sixteenth is king. Alec, he isn't even royal! And now they tell me he's my king!'
'But, sweetheart, he's not your king. This isn't even your world.'
'I know. Alec? If we have to settle here - if the world doesn't change again - couldn't I be naturalized?'
'Why, yes. I suppose so.'
She sighed. 'I don't want to be a Swede.'
I kept quiet. There were some things I couldn't help her with.
So in Grants we again went to a public library lo see what the latest changes had done to the world. Since we had seen no aeroplanos and no dirigibles, again it was possible that we were in Margrethe's world. This time I looked first under 'Aeronautics' - did not find, dirigibles but did find flying machines... invented by Dr Alberto Santos Dumont of Brazil early in this century - and I was bemused by the inventor's name, as, in my world, he had been a pioneer in dirigibles second only to Count von Zeppelin. Apparently the doctor's. aerodynes were primitive compared with jet planes, or even aeroplanos; they seemed to be curiosities rather than commercial vehicles. I dropped it and turned to American history, checking first on William, Jennings Bryan.
I couldn't, find him at all. Well, I had known that this was not my world.
But Marga was all smiles, could hardly wait to get outside the no-talking area to tell me about it. 'In this world Scandinavia is all one big country... and Kobenhavn is its capital!'
'Queen Margrethe's son Prince Frederik was crowned King Eric Gustav - no doubt to please the outlanders. But he is true Danish royalty and a Dane right down to his skull bone. This is as it should be!'
I tried to show her, that I was happy, too. Without a cent between us, with no idea where we would sleep that night, she was delighted as a child at Christmas... over an event that I could not see mattered at all.
Two short rides got us into Albuquerque and I decided that it was prudent to stay there a bit - it's a big place even if we had to throw ourselves On Salvation Army charity. But I quickly found a job as a dishwasher in the Coffee shop of the local Holiday Inn and Margrethe went to work as a waitress in the same shop.
We had been working there less than two hours when she came back to the scullery and slid something into my hip pocket while I was bent over a sink. 'A present for you, dear!'
I turned around. 'Hi, Gorgeous.' I checked my pocket - a safety razor of the travel sort - handle unscrews, and razor and handle' and blades, all fit into a waterproof case smaller than a pocket Testament, and intended to be carried in a pocket. 'Steal it?'
'Not quite. Tips. Got it at the lobby notions stand. Dear, at your first break I want you to shave.'
'Let me clue you, doll. You get hired for your looks. I get hired for my strong back, weak mind, and docile--disposition. They don't care how I look.'
'But I do.'
'Your slightest wish is my command. Now get out of here; you're slowing up production.'
That night Margrethe explained why she had bought me a razor ahead of anything else. 'Dear, it's not just because I like your face smooth and your hair short - although I do! These Loki tricks have kept on and each time, we have to find work at once just to eat. You say that nobody cares how a dishwasher looks... but I say looking clean and neat helps in getting hired for any job, and can't possibly hurt.
'But there is another reason. As a result of these changes, you've had to let your whiskers grow once, twice - I can count five times, once for over three days. Dearest, when you are freshly shaved, you stand tall and look happy. And that makes me happy.'
Margrethe made for me a sort of money belt - actually a cloth pocket and a piece of cloth tape - which she wanted me to wear in bed. 'Dear, we've lost anything we didn't have on us whenever a shift took place. I want you to put your razor and our hard money into this when you undress for bed.'
'I don't think we can outwit Satan that easily.'
'Maybe not. We can try. We come through each change with the clothes we are wearing at the time and with whatever we have in our pockets. This seems to fit the rules.'
'Chaos does not have rules.'
'Perhaps this is not chaos. Alec, if you won't wear this to bed, do you mind if I do?'
'Oh, I'll wear it. It won't stop Satan if he really wants to take it away from us. Nor does it really worry me. Once he dumped us mother naked into the Pacific and we pulled out of it - remember? What does worry me is - Marga, have you noticed that every time we have gone through a change we've been holding each other? At least holding hands?'
'Change happens in the blink of an eye. What happens if we're not together, holding each other? At least touching? Tell me.'
She kept quiet so long that I knew she did not intend to answer.
I 'Uh huh,' I said. 'Me, too. But we can't be Siamese twins, touching all the time. We have to work. My darling, my life, Satan or Loki or whatever bad spirit is doing this to us, can separate us forever simply by picking any instant when we are not touching.'
'Yes, my love?'
'Loki has been able to do this to us at any moment for a long time. It has not happened.'
'So it may happen the next second.'.
'Yes. But it may not happen at all.'
We moved on, and suffered more changes. Margrethe's precaution's did seem to work - although in one change they seemed to work almost too well; I barely missed a jail sentence for unlawful possession of silver coins. But a quick change (the quickest we had seen) got rid of the charge, the evidence, and the complaining witness. We found ourselves in a strange courtroom and were quickly evicted for lacking tickets entitling us to remain there.
But the razor stayed with me; no cop or sheriff or marshal seemed to want to confiscate that.
We were moving on by our usual method (my thumb and Margrethe's lovely legs; I had long since admitted to myself that I might as well enjoy the inevitable) and had been dropped in a pretty part of - Texas, it must have been - by a trucker who had turned north off 66 on 'a side road.
We had come out of the desert into low green hills. It was a beautiful day but we were tired, hungry, sweaty, and dirty, for our persecutors - Satan or whoever - had outdone themselves: three changes in thirty-six hours.
In one day I had had two dishwashing jobs in the same town at the same address... and had collected nothing. It is difficult to collect from The Lonesome Cowboy Steak House when it turns into Vivian's Grill in front of your eyes. The same was true three hours later when Vivian's Grill melted into a used-car lot. The only thing good about these shocks was that by great good fortune (or conspiracy?) Margrethe was with me each time - in one case she had come to get me and was waiting with me while my boss was figuring my time, in the other she had been working with me.
The third change did us out of a night's lodging that had already been, paid for in kind by Margrethe's labor.
So when that trucker dropped us, we were tired and hungry and dirty and my paranoia had reached a new high.
We had been walking a few hundred yards when we came to a sweet little stream, a, sight in Texas precious beyond all else.
We stopped on the culvert bridging it. 'Margrethe, how would you like to wade in that?'
'Darling, I'm going to do more than wade in it, I'm going to bathe in it.'
'Hmm - Yes, go under the fence, along the stream about fifty, seventy-five yards, and I don't think anyone could see us from the road.'
'Sweetheart, they can line up and cheer if they want to; I'm going to have a bath. And - That water looks clean. Would it be safe to drink?'
'The upstream side? Certainly. We've taken worse chances every day since the iceberg. Now if we had something to eat - Say, your hot fudge sundae. Or would you prefer scrambled eggs?' I held up the lower wire of the fence to let her crawl under. I
'Will you settle for an Oh Henry bar?'
'Make that a Milky Way,' I answered, 'if I have my druthers.'
'I'm afraid you don't, dear. An Oh Henry bar is all there is.' She held the wire for me.
'Maybe we'd better stop talking about food we don't have,' I said, and crawled under - straightened up and added, 'I'm ready to eat raw skunk.'
'Food we do have, dear man. I have an Oh Henry in my tote.'
I stopped abruptly. 'Woman, if you're joking, I'm going to beat you.'
'I'm not joking.'
'In Texas it is legal to correct a wife with a stick not ,thicker than one's thumb.' I held up my thumb. 'Do you see one about this size?'
'I'll find one.'
'Where did you get a candy bar?'
'That roadside stop where Mr Facelli treated us to coffee and doughnuts.' I
Mr Facelli had been our middle-of-the-night ride just before the truck that had dropped us. Two small cake doughnuts each and the sugar and cream for coffee had been our only calories for twenty-four hours.
'The beating can wait. Woman, if you stole it, tell me about it later. You really do have a real live Oh Henry? Or am I getting feverish?'
'Alec, do you think I would steal a candy bar? I bought it from a coin machine while you and Mr Facelli were in the men's room after we ate.'
'How? We don't have any money. Not from this world.'
'Yes, Alec. But there was a dime in my tote, from two changes back. Of course it was not a good dime, strictly speaking. But I couldn't see any real harm if the machine would take it. And it did. But I put it out of sight before you two got back... because I didn't have three dimes and could not offer a candy bar to Mr Facelli.' She added anxiously, 'Do you think I cheated? Using that dime?'
'It's a technicality I won't go into... as long as I get to share in the proceeds of the crime. And that makes me equally guilty. Uh... eat first, or bathe first?'
We ate first, a picnic banquet washed down by delicious creek water. Then we bathed, with much splashing and laughing - I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life. Margrethe had soap in her tote bag, too, and I supplied the towel, my shirt. First I wiped Margrethe with it, then I wiped me with it. The dry, warm air finished the job.
What happened immediately after was inevitable. I had never in my life made love outdoors, much less in bright daylight. If anyone had asked me, I would have said that for me it would be a psychological impossibility; I would be too inhibited, too aware of the indecency involved.
I am amazed and happy to say that, while keenly aware of the circumstances, I was untroubled at the time and quite able... perhaps because of Margrethe's bubbling, infectious enthusiasm.
I have never slept naked on grass before, either. I think we slept about an hour.
When we woke up, Margrethe insisted on shaving me. I could not shave myself very well as I had no mirror, but she could and did, with her usual efficiency. We stood knee-deep in the water; I worked up soapsuds with my hands and slathered my face. She shaved and I renewed the lather as needed.
'There,' she said at last, and gave me a sign-off kiss, 'you'll do. Rinse off now and don't forget your ears. I'll find the towel. Your shirt.' She climbed onto the bank while I leaned far over and splashed water on my face.
'I can't hear you; the water's running.'
I straightened up, wiped the water out of my eyes, looked around.
Everything we owned was gone, everything but my razor.