Behold, I go forward, but he is not there;
and backward, but I cannot perceive him: On the
left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot
behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand,
that I cannot see him.
MARGRETHE SAID, 'What did you do with the soap?'
I took a deep breath, sighed it out. 'Did I hear you correctly? You're asking what I did with the soap?'
'What would you rather I said?'
'Uh - I don't know. But not that. A miracle takes place... and you ask me about a bar of soap.'
'Alec, a miracle that takes place again and again and again is no longer a miracle; it's just a nuisance. Too many, too much. I want to scream or break into tears. So I asked about the soap.'
I had been halfway to hysteria myself when Margrethe's statement hit me like a dash of cold water. Margrethe? She who took icebergs and earthquakes in her stride, she who never whimpered in adversity... she wanted to scream?
'I'm sorry, dear. I had the soap in my hands when you were shaving me. I did not have it in my hands when I rinsed my face. I suppose I laid it on the bank. But I don't recall. Does it matter?'
'Not really, I suppose. Although that cake of Camay, used just once, would be half our worldly goods if I could find it, this razor being the other half. You may have placed it on the bank, but I don't see it.'
'Then it's gone. Marga, we've got urgent things to worry about before we'll be dirty enough to need soap again. Food, Clothing, shelter.' I scrambled up onto the bank. 'Shoes. We don't even have shoes. What do we do now? I'm stumped. If I had a wailing wall, I'd wail.'
'Steady, dear, steady.'
'Is it all right if I just whimper a little?'
She came close, put her arms around me, and kissed me. 'Whimper all you want to, dear, whimper for both of us. Then let's decide what to do.'
I can't stay depressed with Margrethe's arms around me. 'Do you have any ideas? I can't think of anything but picking our way back to the highway and trying to thumb a ride... which doesn't appeal to me in the state I'm in. Not even a fig leaf. Do you see a fig tree?'
'Does Texas have fig trees?'
'Texas has everything. What do we do now?'
'We go back to the highway and start walking.'
'Barefooted? Why not stand still and wave our thumbs? We can't go far enough barefooted to matter. My feet are tender.'
'They'll toughen up. Alec, we must keep moving. For our morale, love. If we give up, we'll die. I know it.'
Ten minutes later we were moving slowly east on the highway. But it was not the highway we had left. This one was four lanes instead of two, with wide paved shoulders. The fence marking the right of way, instead of three strands of barbed wire, was chain-link steel as high as my head. We would have had a terrible time reaching the highway had it not been for the stream. By going back into the water and holding our breaths, we managed to slither under the fence. This left us sopping wet again (and no towel-shirt) but the warm air corrected that in a few minutes.
There was much more traffic on this highway than there had been on the one we had left, both freight and what seemed to be passenger cars. And it was fast. How fast I could not guess, but it seemed at least twice as fast as any ground transportation I had ever seen. Perhaps as fast as transoceanic dirigibles.
There were big-vehicles that had to be freight movers but looked more like railroad boxcars than they looked like lorries. And even longer than boxcars. But as I stared I figured out that each one was at least three cars, articulated. I figured this out by attempting to count wheels. Sixteen per car? Six more on some sort of locomotive up front, for a total of fifty-four wheels. Was this possible?
These behemoths moved with no sound but the noise of air rushing past them, plus a whoosh of tires against pavement. My dynamics professor would have approved.
In the lane nearest us were smaller vehicles that I assumed to be passenger cars, although I could not 'see anyone inside. Where one would expect windows appeared to be mirrors or burnished steel. They were long and low and as sleekly shaped as an airship.
And now I saw that this was not one highway, but two. All the traffic on the pavement nearest us was going east; at least a hundred yards away another stream of traffic was going west. Still farther away, seen only in glimpses, was a limit fence for the northern side of the widest right of way I have ever seen.
We trudged along on the edge of the shoulder. I began to feel gloomy about the chances of being picked up. Even if they could see us (which seemed uncertain), how could they stop quickly enough to pick up someone on the highway? Nevertheless I waved the hitchhikers' sign at each car.
I kept my misgivings to myself. After we had been walking a dismal time, a car that had just passed us dropped out of the traffic lane onto the shoulder, stopped at least a quarter of a mile ahead of us, then backed toward us at a speed I would regard as too fast if I were going forward. We got hastily off the shoulder.
It stopped alongside us. A mirrored section a yard wide and at least that high lifted up like a storm-cellar door, and I found myself looking into the passenger compartment. The operator looked out at us and grinned. 'I don't believe it!'
I tried to grin back. 'I don't believe it myself. But here we are. Will you give us a ride?'
'Could be.' He looked Margrethe up and down. 'My, aren't you the purty thing! What happened?'
Margrethe answered, 'Sir, we are lost.'
'Looks like. But how did you manage to lose your clothes, too? Kidnapped? Or what? Never mind, that can wait. I'm Jerry Farnsworth.'
I answered, 'We're Alec and Margrethe Graham.'
'Good to meet you. Well, you don't look armed - except for that thing in your hand, Miz Graham. What is it?'
She held it out to him. 'A razor.'
He accepted it, looked at it, handed it back. 'Durned if it isn't. Haven't seen one like that since I was too young to shave. Well, I don't see how you can highjack me with that. Climb in. Alec, you can have the back seat; your sister can sit up here with me.' Another section of the shell swung upward.
'Thank you,' I answered, thinking sourly about beggars and choosers. 'Marga is not my sister, she's my wife.'
'Lucky man! Do you object to your wife riding with me?'
'Oh, of course not!'
I think that answer would cause a tension meter to jingle. Dear, you'd better get back there with your husband.'
'Sir, you invited me to sit with you and my husband voiced his approval.' Margrethe slipped into the forward passenger seat. I opened my mouth and closed it, having found I had nothing to say. I climbed into the back seat, discovered that the car was bigger inside than out; the seat was roomy and comfortable. The doors closed down; the 'mirrors' now were windows.
'I'm about to put her back into the flow,' our host said, 'so don't fight the safeties. Sometimes this buggy bucks like a Brahma bull, six gees or better. No, wait a sec. Where are you two going?' He looked at Margrethe.
'We're going to Kansas, Mr Farnsworth.'
'Call me Jerry, dear. In your skin?'
'We have no clothing, sir. We lost it.'
I added, 'Mr Farnsworth - Jerry - we're in a distressed state. We lost everything. Yes, we are going to Kansas, but first we must find clothes somewhere - Red Cross, maybe, I don't know. And I've got to find a job and make us some money. Then we'll go to Kansas.'
'I see. I think I do. Some of it. How are you going to get to Kansas?'
'I had in mind continuing straight on to Oklahoma City, then north. Stick to the main highways. Since we're hitchhiking.'
'Alec, you really are lost. See that fence? Do you know the penalty for a pedestrian caught inside that fence?'
'No, I don't.'
'Ignorance is bliss. You'll be much better off on the small side roads where hitching is still legal, or at least tolerated. If you're for Oke City, I can help you along. Hang on.' He did something at controls in front of him. He didn't touch the wheel because there wasn't any wheel to touch. Instead there were two hand grips.
The car vibrated faintly, then jumped sideways. I felt as if I had fallen into soft mush and my skin tingled as with static electricity. The car bucked like a small boat in a heavy sea, but that 'soft mush' kept me from being battered about. Suddenly it quieted down and only that faint vibration continued. The landscape was streaking past.
'Now,' said Mr Farnsworth, 'tell me about it.'
'Of course, dearest. You must.'
'Jerry... we're from another world.'
'Oh, no!' He groaned. 'Not another flying saucer! That makes four this week. That's your story?'
'No, no!' I've never seen a flying saucer. We're from earth, but... different. We were hitchhiking on Highway Sixty-Six, trying to reach Kansas -'
'Wait a minute. You said, "Sixty-Six".'
'Yes, of course.'
'That's what they used to call this road before they re-built it. But it hasn't been called anything but Interstate Forty for, oh, over forty years, maybe fifty. Hey. Time travelers! Are you?'
'What year is this?' I asked.
'That's our year, too. Wednesday the eighteenth of May. Or was this morning. Before the change.'
'It still is. But - Look, let's quit jumping around. Start at the beginning, whenever that was, and tell me how you wound up inside the fence, bare naked.'
So I told him.
Presently he said, 'That fire pit. Didn't burn you?'
'One small blister.'
'Just a blister. I reckon you would be safe in Hell.'
'Look, Jerry, they really do walk on live coals.'
'I know, I've seen it. In New Guinea. Never hankered to try it. That iceberg - Something bothers me. How does an iceberg crash into the side of a vessel? An iceberg is dead in the water, always. Certainly a ship can bump into one but damage should be to the bow. Right?'
'I don't know, Alec. What Jerry says sounds right. But it did happen.'
'Jerry, I don't know either. We were in a forward stateroom; maybe the whole front end was crushed in. But, if Marga doesn't know, I surely do not, as I got banged on the head and went out like a light. Marga kept me afloat - I told you.'
I Farnsworth looked thoughtfully at me. He had swiveled his seat around to face both of us while I talked, and he had showed Margrethe how to unlock her chair so that it would turn, also, which brought us three into an intimate circle of conversation, knees almost touching - and left him with his back to the traffic. 'Alec, what became of this Hergensheimer?'
'Maybe I didn't make that clear - it's not too clear to me, either. It's Graham who is missing. I am Hergensheimer.
When I walked through the fire and found myself in a different world, I found myself in Graham's place, as I said. Everybody called me Graham and seemed to think that I was Graham - and Graham was missing. I guess you could say I took the easy way out... but there I was, thousands of miles from home, no money, no ticket, and nobody had ever heard of Alexander Hergensheimer.' I shrugged and spread my hands helplessly. 'I sinned. I wore
his clothes, I ate at his table, I answered to his name.'
'I still don't get the skinny of this. Maybe you look enough like, Graham to fool almost anyone... but your wife would know the difference. Margie?'
Margrethe looked into my eyes with sadness and love, and answered steadily, 'Jerry, my husband is confused. A strange amnesia. He is Alec Graham. There is no Alexander Hergensheimer. There never was.'
I was left speechless. True, Margrethe and I had not discussed this matter for many weeks; true, she had never flatly admitted that I was not Alec Graham. I was learning again (again and again!) that one never won an argument with Margrethe. Any time I thought I had won, it always turned out that- she had simply shut up.
Farnsworth said to me, 'Maybe that knock in the head, Alec?'
'Look, that knock in the head was nothing - a few minutes' unconsciousness, nothing more. And no gaps in my memory. Anyhow it happened two weeks after the fire walk. Jerry, my wife is a wonderful woman... but I must disagree with her on this. She wants to believe that I am Alec Graham because she fell in love with Graham before she ever met me. She believes it because she needs to believe it. But of course I know who I am: Hergensheimer. I admit that amnesia can have some funny effects... but there was one clue that I could not have faked, one that said emphatically that I, Alexander Hergensheimer, was not Alec Graham.'
I slapped my stomach, where a bay window had been. 'Here is the proof: I wore Graham's clothes, I told you. But his clothes did not fit me perfectly. At the time of the fire walk I was rather plump, too heavy, carrying a lot of flab right here.' I slapped my stomach again. 'Graham's clothes were too tight around the middle for me. I had to suck in hard and hold my breath to fasten the waistband on any pair of his trousers. That could not happen in the blink of an eye, while walking through a fire pit. Nor did it. Two weeks of rich food in a cruise ship gave me that bay window... and it proves that I am not Alec Graham.'
Margrethe not only kept quiet, her expression said nothing. But Farnsworth insisted. 'Margie?'
'Alec, you were having exactly that trouble with your clothes before the fire walk. For the same reason. Too much rich food.' She smiled. 'I'm sorry to contradict you, my beloved... but I'm awfully glad you're you.'
Jerry said, 'Alec, many is the man who would walk through fire to get a woman to look at him that way just once. When you get to Kansas, you had better go to see the Menningers; you've got to get that amnesia untangled. Nobody can fool a woman about her husband. When she's lived with him, slept with him, given him enemas and listened to his jokes, a substitution is impossible no matter how much the ringer may look like him. Even an identical twin could not do it. There are all those little things a wife knows and the public never sees.'
I said, 'Marga, it's up to you.'
She answered, 'Jerry, my husband is saying that I must refute that - in part - myself. At that time I did not know Alec as well as a wife knows her husband. I was not his wife then; I was his lover - and I had been such only a few days.' She smiled. 'But you're right in essence; I recognized him.'
Farnsworth frowned. 'I'm getting mixed up again. We're talking about either one man or two. This Alexander Hergensheimer - Alec, tell me about him.'
'I'm a Protestant, preacher, Jerry, ordained in the Brothers of the Apocalypse Christian Church of the One Truth - the Apocalypse Brethren as you hear us referred to. I was born on my grandfather's farm outside Wichita on May twenty-second -'
'Hey, you've got, a birthday this week!' Jerry remarked. Marga looked alert.
'So I have. I've been too busy to think about it. - in nineteen-sixty. My parents and grandparents are dead; my oldest brother is still working the family farm -'
'That's why you're going to Kansas? -To find your brother?'
'No. That farm is in another world, the one I grew up in.'
'Then why are you going to Kansas?'
I was slow in answering. 'I don't have a logical answer. Perhaps it's the homing instinct. Or it may be something like horses running back into a burning barn. I don't know, Jerry. But I have to go back and try to find my roots.'
'That's a reason I can understand. Go on.'
I told him about my schooling, not hiding the fact that I had failed to make it in engineering - my switch to the seminary and my ordination on graduation, then my association with C.U.D. I did not mention Abigail, I did not mention that I hadn't been too successful as a parson largely (in my private opinion) because Abigail did not like people and my parishioners did not like Abigail. Impossible to put all details into a short biography - but the fact is that I could not mention Abigail at all without throwing doubt on the legitimacy of Margrethe's status and this I could not do.
'That's about it. If we were in my native world, you could phone C.U.D. national headquarters in Kansas City, 'Kansas, and check on me. We had had a successful year and I was on vacation. I took a dirigible, the Count von Zeppelin of North American Airlines, from Kansas City airport to San Francisco, to Hilo, to Tahiti, and there I joined the Motor Vessel Konge Knut and that about brings us up to date, as I've told you the rest.'
'You sound kosher, you talk a good game - are you born again?'
'Certainly! I'm afraid I'm not in a state of grace now... but I'm working on it. We're in the Last Days, brother; it's urgent. Are you born again?'
"Discuss it later. What's the second law of thermodynamics?'
I made a wry face. 'Entropy always increases. That's the one that tripped me.'
'Now tell me about Alec Graham.'
'Not much I can tell. His passport showed that he was born in Texas, and he gave a law firm in Dallas as an address. For the rest you had better ask Margrethe; she knew him, I didn't.' (I did not mention an embarrassing million dollars. I could not explain it, so I left it out... and Marga had only my word for it; she had never seen it.)
'Margie? Can you fill us in on Alec Graham?'
She was slow in answering. 'I'm afraid I can't add anything to what my husband has told you.'
'Hey! You're letting me down. Your husband gave a detailed description of Dr Jekyll; can't you describe Mr Hyde? So far, he's a zero. A mail drop in Dallas, nothing more.
'Mr Farnsworth, I'm sure you've never been a shipboard stewardess -'
'Nope, I haven't. But I was room steward in a cargo liner - two trips when I was a kid.'
'Then you'll understand. A stewardess knows many things about her passengers. She knows how often they bathe. She knows, how often they change their clothes. She knows how they smell - and everyone does smell, some good, some bad. She knows what sort of books they read - or don't read. Most of all she knows whether or not they are truly gentlefolk, honest, generous, considerate, warmhearted. She knows everything one could need to know to judge a person. Yet she may not know a passenger's occupation, home town, schooling, or any of those details that a friend would know.
'Before the day of the fire walk I had been Alec Graham's stewardess for four weeks. For the last two of those weeks I was his mistress and was ecstatically in love with him. After the fire walk it was many days before his amnesia let us resume our happy relationship - and then it did, and I was happy again. And now I have been his wife for four months - months of some adversity but the happiest time of my whole life. And it still is and I think it always will be. And that is all I know about my husband Alec Graham.' She smiled at me and her eyes were brimming with tears, and I found that mine were, too.
Jerry sighed and shook his head. 'This calls for a Solomon. Which I am not. I believe both your stories - and one of them can't be correct. Never mind. My wife and I practice Muslim hospitality, something I learned in the late war. Will you accept our hospitality for a night or two? You had better say yes.'
Marga glanced at me; I said, 'Yes!'
'Good. Now to see if the boss is at home.' He swiveled around to face forward, touched something. A few moments later a light came on and something went beep! once. His face lighted up and he spoke: 'Duchess, this is your favorite husband.'
'Oh, Ronny, it's been so long.'
'No, no. Try again.'
'Albert? Tony? George, Andy, Jim -'
'Once more and get it right; I have company with me.'
'Company for dinner and overnight and possibly more.'
'Yes, my love. How many and what sexes and when will you be home?'
'Let me ask Hubert.' Again he touched something. 'Hubert says twenty-seven minutes. Two guests. The one seated by me is about twenty-three, give or take a bit, blonde, long, wavy hair, dark blue eyes, height about five seven, mass about one twenty, other basics I have not checked but about those of our daughter. Female. I am certain she is female as she is not wearing so much as a G-string.'
'Yes, dear. I'll scratch her eyes out. After I've fed her, of course.'
'Good. But she's no menace as her husband is with her and is watching her closely. Did I say that he is naked, too?'
You did not. Interesting.'
'Do you want his basic statistic? If so, do you want it relaxed or at attention?'
'My love, you are a dirty old man, I am happy to say. Quit trying to embarrass your guests.'
'There is madness in my method, Duchess. They are naked because they have no clothes at all. Yet I suspect that they do embarrass easily. So please meet us at the gate with clothing. You have her statistics, except - Margie, hand me a foot. 'Marga promptly put a foot up high, without comment. He felt it. 'A pair of your sandals will fit, I think. Zapatos for him. Of mine.'
'His other sizes? Never mind the jokes.'
'He's about my height and shoulders, but I am twenty pounds heavier, at least. So something from my skinny rack. If Sybil has a houseful of her junior barbarians, please use extreme prejudice to keep them away from the gate. These are gentle people; we'll introduce them after they have a chance to dress.'
'Roger Wilco, Sergeant Bilko. But it is time that you introduced them to me.
'Mea culpa. My love, this is Margrethe Graham, Mrs Alec Graham.'
'Hello, - Margrethe, welcome to our home.'
'Thank you, Mrs Farnsworth
'Katherine, dear. Or Kate.'
' "Katherine." I can5t tell you how much you are doing for us... when we were so miserable!' My darling started to cry.
She stopped it abruptly. 'And this is my husband, Alec Graham.'
'Howdy, Mrs Farnsworth. And thank you.'
'Alec, you bring that girl straight here. I want to welcome her. Both of you.'
Jerry cut in. 'Hubert says twenty-two minutes, Duchess.'
'Hasta la vista. Sign off and let me get busy.'
'End.' Jerry turned his seat around. 'Kate will find you a pretty to wear, Margie... although in your case there ought to be a law. Say, are you cold? I've been yacking so much I didn't think of it. I keep this buggy cool enough for me, in clothes. But Hubert can change it to suit.'
'I am a Viking, Jerry; I never get cold. Most rooms are too warm to suit me.'
'How about you, Alec?'
'I'm warm enough,' I answered, fibbing only a little.
'I believe -' Jerry started to say -
- as the heavens opened with the most brilliant light imaginable, outshining day, and I was gripped by sudden grief, knowing that I failed to lead my beloved back to grace.