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Chapter 19


And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me,

0 mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee:

because thou has sold thyself to work evil

in the sight of the Lord.

Kings 21:20

WE DID the last ninety miles down 66 from Clinton to Oklahoma City pushing hard, ignoring the fact that we were flat broke again, nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep.

We had seen a dirigible.

Of course this changed, everything. For months I had been nobody from nowhere, penniless, dishwashing my only trade, and a tramp in fact. But back in my own world - A well-paying job, a respected position in the community, a fat bank account. And an end to this truly infernal bouncing around between worlds.

We were riding into Clinton middle of the morning, guests of a farmer taking a load of produce into town. I heard Margrethe gasp. I looked where she was staring I and there she was! - silvery and sleek and beautiful. I could not make out her name, but her logo told me that she was Eastern Airlines.

'Dallas-Denver Express,' our host remarked, and hauled a watch out of his overalls. 'Six minutes late. Unusual.'

I tried to cover my excitement. 'Does Clinton have an airport?'

'Oh, no. Oklahoma City, nearest. Goin' to give up hitchhiking and take to the air?'

'Would be nice.'

'Wouldn't it, though. Beats farmin'.'

I kept the conversation on inanities until he dropped us outside the city market a few minutes later. But, once Margrethe and I were alone, I could hardly contain myself. I started to kiss her, then suddenly stopped myself. Oklahoma is every bit as moral as Kansas; most communities have stiff laws about public Iallygagging.

I wondered how, hard I was going to find it to readjust, after many weeks in many worlds not one of which had the high moral standards of my home world. It could be difficult to stay out of trouble when (admit it!) I had grown used to kissing my wife in public and to other displays, innocent in themselves, but never seen in public in moral communities. Worse, could I keep my darling out of trouble? I had been born here and could slip back into its ways... but Marga was as affectionate as a collie pup and had no sense of shame whatever about showing it.

I said, 'Sorry, dear, I was about to kiss you. But I must not.'

'Why not?'

'Uh, I can't kiss you in public. Not here. Only in private. It's - It's a case of "When in Rome, one must do as the Romans do." But never mind that now. Darling, we're home! My home, and now it's-your home. You saw the dirigible.'

'That was an airship truly?'

'Really and truly... and the happiest sight I've seen in months. Except - Don't get your hopes up too high, too fast. We know how some of these shifting worlds strongly resemble each other in many ways. I suppose there is an outside possibility that this is a world with dirigibles... but not my world. Oh, I don't believe that but let's not get too excited.'

(I did not notice that Margrethe was not at all excited.)

'How will you tell that this is your world?'

'We could check just as we have before, at public libraries. But in this case there is something faster and better. I want to find the Bell Telephone office - I'll ask at that grocery store.'

I wanted the telephone office rather than a public telephone because I wanted to consult telephone books' before making telephone calls - was it my world?

Yes, it was! The office had telephone books for all of Oklahoma and also books from major cities in, other states - including a most familiar telephone book for Kansas City, Kansas. 'See, Margrethe?' I pointed to the listing for Churches United for Decency, National Office.

'I see.'

'Isn't it exciting? Doesn't it make you want to dance and sing?'

(She made it sound like: 'Doesn't he look natural? And so many, lovely flowers.')

We had the alcove where the telephone books were to ourselves. So I whispered urgently, 'What's the trouble, dear? This is a happy occasion. Don't you understand? Once I get on that phone we'll have money. No more menial jobs, no more wondering how we will eat or where we will sleep. We'll go straight home by Pullman - no, by dirigible! You'll like that, I know you will! The ultimate in luxury. Our honeymoon, darling -the honeymoon we could never afford.'

:You will not take me to Kansas City.'

What do you mean?'

'Alec... your wife is there.'

Believe me when I say that I had not thought once about Abigail in many, many weeks. I had become convinced that I would never see her again (regaining my home world was totally unexpected) and I now had a wife, all the wife any man could ever want: Margrethe.

I wonder if that-first shovelful of dirt hits a corpse with the same shock.

I pulled out of it. Some. 'Marga, here's what we'll do. Yes, I have a problem, but we can solve it. Of course you go to Kansas City with me! You must. But there, because of Abigail, I must find a quiet place for you to stay while I get things straightened out.' (Straightened out? Abigail was going to scream bloody murder.) 'First I must get at my money. Then I must see a lawyer.' (Divorce? In a state where there was only one legal ground and 'that one granted divorce only to the injured party? Margrethe the other woman? Impossible. Let Margrethe be exposed in stocks? Be ridden out of town on a rail if Abigail demanded it? Never mind what would be done to me, never mind that Abigail would strip me of every cent - Margrethe must not be subjected to the Scarlet Letter laws of my home world. No!)

'Then we will go to Denmark.' (No, it can't be divorce.)

'We will?'

'We will. Darling, you are my wife, now and forever. I can't leave you here while I get things worked out in Kay See; the world might shift and I would lose you. But we can't go to Denmark until I lay hands on my money. All clear?' (What if Abigail has cleaned out my bank account?)

'Yes, Alec. We will go to Kansas City.'

(That settled part of it. But it did not settle Abigail. Never mind, I would burn that bridge when I came to it.)

Thirty seconds later I had more problems. Certainly the girl in charge would place a call for me long distance collect. Kansas City? For Kansas City, either Kansas or Missouri, the fee to open the trunk line for query was twenty-five cents. Deposit it in the coin box, please, when I tell you. Booth two.

I went to the booth and dug into my pocket for coins, laid them out:

A twenty-cent piece;

Two threepenny coppers;

A Canadian quarter, with the face of the Queen (queen?);

A half dollar;

Three five-cent pieces that were not nickels, but smaller.

And not one of these coins carried the familiar 'God Is Our Fortress' motto of the North American Union.

I stared at that ragbag collection and tried to figure out when this last change had taken place. Since I last was paid evidently, which placed it later than yesterday afternoon but earlier than the hitch we had gotten just after breakfast. While we slept last night? But we had not lost our clothes, had not lost our money. I even had my razor, a lump in my breast pocket.

Never mind - any attempt to understand all the details of these changes led only to madness. The shift had indeed taken place; I was here in my native world... and it had left me with no money. With no legal money.

By Hobson's choice, that Canadian quarter looked awfully good. I did not try to tell myself that the Eighth Commandment did not apply to big corporations. Instead I did promise myself that I would pay it back. I picked it up and took the receiver off the hook.

'Number, please.'

'Please place a collect call to Churches United for Decency in Kansas City, Kansas. The number is State Line I224J. I'll speak to anyone who answers.'

'Deposit twenty-five cents, please.' I deposited that Canadian quarter and held my breath - heard it go tingthunk-thunk. Then Central said, 'Thank you. Do not hang up. Please wait.'

I waited. And waited. And waited.

'On your call to Kansas City - Churches United for Decency reports that they do not accept collect calls.'

'Hold it! Please tell them that the Reverend Alexander Hergensheimer is calling.'

'Thank you. Please deposit twenty-five cents.'

'Hey! I didn't get any use out of that first quarter. You hung up too soon.'

'We did not disconnect; the party in Kansas City hungup.'

'Well, call them back, please, and this time tell them not to hang up.'

'Yes, sir. Please deposit twenty-five cents.'

'Central, would I be calling collect if I had plenty of change on me? Get them on the line and tell them who I am. Reverend Alexander Hergensheimer, Deputy Executive Director.'

'Please wait on the line.'

So I waited again. And waited.

'Reverend? The party in Kansas City says to tell you that they do not accept-,collect calls from - I am quoting exactly - Jesus: Christ Himself.'

'That's no way to talk on the telephone. Or anywhere.'

'I quite agree. There was more. This person said to tell you that he had never heard of you.'

'Why, that -'I shut up, as I had no way to express myself within the dignity of the cloth.

'Yes, indeed. I tried to get his name. He hung up on me.'

'Young man? Old man? Bass, tenor, baritone?'

'Boy soprano. I gathered an impression that it was the office boy, answering the phone during the lunch hour.'

'I see. Well, thank you for your efforts. Above and beyond the call of duty, in my opinion.'

'A pleasure, Reverend.'

I left there, kicking myself. I did not explain to Margrethe until we were clear of the building. 'Hoist by my own petard, dear one. I wrote that "No Collect Calls" order myself. An analysis of the telephone log proved to me beyond any possible doubt that collect calls to our office were never for the benefit of the association. Nine out of ten are begging calls... and Churches United for Decency is not a charity. It collects money; it does not give it away. The tenth call is either from a troublemaker or a crank. So I set this firm rule and enforced it... and it paid off at once. Saved hundreds of dollars a year just in telephone tolls.' I managed to smile. 'Never dreamed that I would be caught in my own net.'

'What are your plans now, Alec?'

'Now? Get out on Highway Sixty-Six and start waving my thumb. I want us to reach Oklahoma City before five o'clock. It should be easy; it's not very far.'

'Yes, sir. Why five o'clock, may I ask?'

'You can always ask anything and you know it. Knock off the Patient Griselda act, sweetheart; you've been moping ever since we saw that dirigible. Because there is a district office of C.U.D. in Oklahoma City and I want to be there before they close. Wait'll you see them roll out the red carpet, hon! Get to Oke City and'our troubles are over.'

That afternoon reminded me of wading through sorghum. January sorghum. We had no trouble getting rides - but the rides were mostly short distances. We averaged about twenty miles an hour on a highway that permitted sixty miles per hour. We lost fifty-five minutes for a good reason: a free meal. For the umpteenth time a trucker bought us something to eat when he ate... for the reason that there is almost no man alive who can stop to eat, and fail to invite Margrethe to eat if she is there. (Then I get fed, too, simply because I'm her property. I'm not complaining.)

We ate in twenty minutes, then he spent thirty minutes and endless quarters playing pinball machines... and I stood there and seethed and Margrethe stood beside him and clapped her hands and squealed when he made, a good score. But her social instincts are sound; he then drove us all the rest -of the way to Oklahoma City. There he went through town when he could have taken a bypass, and at four-twenty he dropped us at 36th and Lincoln, only two blocks from the C.U.D. district office.

I walked that two blocks whistling. Once I said, 'Smile, hon! A month from now - or sooner - we'll eat in the Tivoli.'

'Truly?'

'Truly. You've told me so much about it that I can't wait. There's the building!'

Our suite is on the second, floor. It warmed the cockles to see the door with lettering on the glass: CHURCHES UNITED FOR DECENCY - Enter.

'After you, my love!' I grabbed the knob, to open for her.

The door was locked.

I banged on it, then spotted a doorbell and rang it. Then I alternated knocking and ringing. And again.

A blackamoor carrying a mop and pail came down the corridor, started to pass us. I called, 'Hey, Uncle! DO you have a key to this suite?'

'Sure don't, Captain. Ain't nobody in there now. They most generally locked up and gone by four o'clock.'

'I see. Thanks.'

'A pleasure, Captain.'

Out on the street again, I grinned sheepishly at Margrethe. 'Red carpet treatment. Closing at four. When the cat is away, the mice will play. Some heads will roll, I promise you. I can't think of another clich'e to fit the situation. Oh, yes, I can. Beggars can't be choosers. Madam, would you like to sleep in the park tonight? Warm night, no rain expected. Chiggers and mosquitoes, no extra charge.'

We slept in Lincoln Park, on the golf course, on a green that was living velvet - alive with chiggers.

It was a good night's sleep despite chiggers. We got up when the first early golfers showed up, and we got off the golf course with nothing worse than dirty looks. We made use of public washrooms in the park, and rejoined much neater, feeling fresher, me with a fresh shave, and both of us filled with free water for breakfast. On the whole I felt cheerful. It was too early to expect those self-appointed playboys at C. U. D. to show up, so, when we ran across a, policeman, I asked the location of the public library, then I added, 'By the way, where is the airport?'

'The what?'

'The dirigible flying field.'

The cop turned to Margrethe. 'Lady, is he sick?'

I did feel sick a half hour later when I checked the directory in the building we had visited the afternoon before... I felt sick but unsurprised to find no Churches United for Decency among its tenants. But to make certain I walked up to the second floor. That suite was now occupied by an insurance firm.

'Well, dear, let's go to the public library. Find out what kind of world we are in.'

'Yes, Alec.' She was looking cheerful. 'Dearest, I'm sorry you are disappointed... but I am so relieved. I - I as frightened out of my wits at the thought of meeting your wife.'

'You won't. Not ever. Promise. Uh, I'm sort of relieved, too. And hungry.'

We walked a few more steps. 'Alec. Don't be angry.'

'I'll do no more than give you a fat lip. What is it?'

'I have five quarters. Good ones.'

'At this point I am supposed to say, "Daughter, were you a good girl in Philadelphy?" Out with it. Whom did you kill? Much blood?'

'Yesterday. Those pinball games. Every time Harry won free games he gave me a quarter. "For luck," he said.'

I decided not to beat her. Of course they were not 'good quarters' but they turned out to be good enough. Good enough, that is, to fit coin machines. We had passed a penny arcade; such places usually have coin-operated food, dispensers and this one did. The prices were dreadfully high - fifty cents for a skimpy stale sandwich; twenty-five cents for a bare mouthful of chocolate. But it was better than some breakfasts we had had on the road. And we certainly did not steal, as the quarters from my world were real silver.

Then we went to the public library to find out what sort of world we must cope with now.

We found out quickly:

Marga's world.




Chapter 18 | JOB: A Comedy of Justice | Chapter 20



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