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"Spider Robinson is the hottest writer to hit science fiction since [Harlan] Ellison, and he can match the master's frenetic energy and emotional intensity, arm-break for gut-wrench."
— Los Angeles Times
"The future will be better tomorrow."
-- J. Danforth Quayle
It's always coldest before the warm.
Oh, it could have been colder that day, I guess -- I hear there are places up north where fifty below is considered a balmy day. But it could be a lot hotter than where I am now, if it comes to that. This is just about as warm as I care to be -- and the day the whole thing started, I was as cold as I ever hope to get again in my life.
It was only twenty below, that day ... but for Long Island, that's unusually frosty, even in the dead of winter. Which that winter surely was: dead as folk music. Dead as Mary's Place. Dead as Callahan's Place. Dead as my life, or my hopes for the future. You've read Steinbeck's The Winter of Our Discontent? Well, 1989 was the winter of our despair...
It's the little things you remember. You know how snow gets into your boots and makes you miserable? I had been forced to stagger through a drift of snow so deep it had gotten into my pants. A set of long underwear makes a wonderful wick. The damp patches from above and below had met at my knees almost at once.
Not that snow of yesterday's blizzard had fallen to a depth of waist height. Long Island isn't Nova Scotia or anything. My long soggies were simply the result of my tax dollars at work.
Just as I'd been in sight of my home -- driving with extreme caution, and cursing the damned Town of Smithtown that should have plowed this stretch of Route 25A yesterday, for Chrissake -- I had seen the town snowplow, coming toward me from the east. I'd experienced a microsecond of elation before thesituation became clear to me, and then I had moaned and banged my forehead against the steering wheel.
Sure enough, the plow sailed by my home at a stately twenty miles an hour, trailing a long line of cars and trucks nearly berserk with rage ... and utterly buried my driveway with snow, to the aforementioned waist height.
I knew perfectly well that there was nowhere else I could possibly park my car along that stretch of two-lane highway anywhere within even unreasonable walking distance of home in either direction -- except the one driveway that I knew perfectly well the sonofabitching plow was about to stop and plow out, which it did. The one right next door to mine. The driveway of the Antichrist, where I would not have parked at gunpoint.
Of course the traffic stacked up behind that big bastard surged forward the instant it fully entered Nyjmnckra Grtozkzhnyi's drive and got out of their way. Of course not one of them gave an instant's thought to the fact that the road under their accelerating tires would now no longer be cleared of snow and ice. And there I was, big as life, right in their way, with my forehead on the steering wheel...
So by the time I got that snow in my pants, trying to clamber over the new dirty-white ridge that separated my home from civilization, I no longer had to worry about parking the car. Or fixing the damn heater, or putting gas or oil in it, or any such chores. Just paying for the final tow -- and, of course, the rest of the payments to the bank. Needless to say, the only car in the whole pileup that had been totaled was mine; all the people who'd caused the accident drove away from the scene. And of course they'd all agreed it had been my fault.
On the bright side, I was reasonably unhurt. Indeed, the only wound I had to boast of was an extremely red face. Not from anger, or even from the cold. Those goddam air bags are not soft. They never mention that in the ads.
So I was not looking forward to going through my front door. In the first place, I hated having to tell Zoey that we were pedestrians again. A nursing mother does not often receive such news gladly -- and especially not when the temperature outside is twenty below and nothing useful lies within walking range. And in the second place--
--in the second place I knew exactly what I was going to see when I walked -- okay, hobbled -- through that door. And I just didn't know if I could take it one more time.
Is there anything sadder in all the world than a great big comfy superbly appointed tavern ... so unmistakably empty and abandoned that the cobwebs everywhere have dust on them?
I'd tried to keep up a brave front, and sustained it maybe six months. Then I'd gradually slacked off on the mopping and dusting and vacuuming and polishing. By the end of a year, I wasn't even fixing leaks. What was the point? No way in hell was Mary's Place ever going to reopen. We -- I, Jake Stonebender, its proprietor, and all of my highly irregular clientele -- had made the single, fatal mistake of pissing off Nyjmnckra Grtozkzhnyi. Our Ukrainian next-door neighbor -- and the beloved only aunt of Jorjhk Grtozkzhnyi.
Town Inspector Grtozkzhnyi...
Have you ever seen the total stack of paperwork required to legally operate a tavern in the Town of Smithtown in the County of Suffolk in the great State of New York in these United States of America? I don't mean the liquor license: assume you have that. Let's just say if I'd had that stack of paperwork -- all of it six-point type, and consisting mostly of blanks for me to fill in -- in the trunk of the car with me that day, I could have just climbed up on top of it and stepped over that goddam heap of snow left in my driveway by one of Inspector Grtozkzhnyi's minions. In order to open Mary's Place at all, back in '88 -- in less than five years, for less than half a million dollars -- I had been forced to run it outlaw, counting on its isolation and the fact that I made no effort at all to attract business to protect it from official attention.
But as Bob Dylan forgot to say, "To live outside the law, you must be lucky."
So it killed me, every time I walked through those swinging doors and saw my dream, shrouded in spiderwebs. I always saw it, for a brief instant, as it had briefly been: full of warmth and life and laughter and music and love and magic. It re-broke my heart every time. It had been much more than just my livelihood, far more than simply the only thing my wife and I owned besides a Honda presently being dragged away for burial, two noble but battered musical instruments, and a small fortune in baby gear.
It had been the home and the nucleus of an experiment so grand and important and urgent that I know of no parallel in human history, an experiment that, had it succeeded, might conceivably have brought an end to much human misery. And on the very verge of success, at the moment of its greatest triumph, the critical mass it had brought together and fanned to ignition temperature had been smashed, scattered like glowing gravel across the countryside by the most destructive force man has unleashed in the last two millennia: bureaucracy.
So it was with maximum reluctance and a deep sense of failure that I entered my home and former workplace that day. I lurched through the outer door, stopped in the foyer, called, "Hi, Homey, I'm Hun," to Zoey, and stomped my boots together to knock off a few shards of snow before pushing open the swinging doors to go inside. Unfortunately, someone had entered just before me and done the same thing, leaving a slick I had failed to notice.
Which is why I lost my footing and slipped and fell flat on my ass.
Now I had snow under my shirt, that had migrated up from my pants. (You see the little things you remember?) I said a few words that could have gotten me ejected from the cheapest brothel in Manila, and sat up. Thank heaven for the thick furry hat that had partially protected my skull when it whanged against the floor. I took it off and felt my head with my hand, was relieved to confirm that I probably wouldn't raise a lump. My ass was a different matter. I got wearily to my feet--
--well, I started to. I got just far enough to raise my entire, already inflamed face up in front of those swinging doors before they burst open.
The Big Bang. The slow, slow expansion. The Heat Death. Empty cold eternity. Someone slapping my fucking face--
"Jesus Christ, Duck, knock it off! What the hell are you doing back?"
"Nap later," the Lucky Duck said. "You're working."
Ernie Shea is known to one and all as the Lucky Duck because around him the laws of probability turn to Silly Putty -- which combined with his short stature explains and may even excuse an irascible sourpuss personality reminiscent of Daffy Duck. He is a mutant, the bastard offspring of a pookah and a Fir Darrig, two creatures commonly thought to be mythical (everywhere except Ireland), and strange things always happen around him. It's sort of a paranormal power.
I was too groggy to think through the implications of his presence.
"The hell I am," I snarled. "I haven't worked in over a year. The goddam bar is as dead as Nutsy's Kells ... and the Folk Music Revival developed ice crystals in the brain from the defrosting process, they had to put it back to sleep again. There is no work, you dumb pookah!"
"You're working," he repeated. "Nikky's here. Come on."
I levitated, then looked down and stuck my feet firmly to the floor. This was too weird not to be true. At my gesture, the Lucky Duck went back inside, and I followed him. And there, standing at my bar, impeccably dressed as always and wiping drool from the chin of my baby daughter Erin, was indeed and in fact Nikola Tesla.
Perhaps the name rings a bell? Forgotten Father of the Twentieth Century? Father of alternating current ... the condenser ... the transformer ... the Tesla Coil ... the very induction motor itself ... the remote control ... radio ... the crucial "AND-gate" logic circuit ... and all the essential components of the transistor? (Tesla held patents on all of these ... and literally a hundred more.) Friend of Mark Twain and Paderewski, sworn enemy of the evil Edison and treacherous Marconi? Perhaps the single most outrageously shafted and dishonored man in the history of the human race, screwed out of more credit and money than anyone since the guy who invented sex? That Nikola Tesla?
Okay, perhaps it seems a little odd that he was going bar-hopping in the snow at age 133. Especially since he'd died forty-six years earlier, in 1943. But Nikky has more fiber than I do, I guess: he doesn't let a little thing like death slow him down. "Hi, Nikky," I called out. "What's up?"
"Jake!" he cried, in that memorable baritone. "Excuse me, Erin."
"Sure, Uncle Nikky," my fourteen-month-old said, releasing his fingers.
"Thank heaven you are here," Tesla said to me, wiping his fingers off on Erin's barf-scarf and handing her to the Lucky Duck ... who reluctantly accepted her and held her at arm's length. "There is little time to lose."
I sighed. Somehow I knew what he was about to say. It had been that kind of a day. "Go ahead. Tell me about it."
He took a deep breath himself, and those incredible eyebrows of his drew together. "Jake, Michael and I need you to save the universe."
I slammed my hat to the barroom floor. "God damn it. AGAIN?"
"Jake--" Zoey began, coming out of our living quarters in the back.
"No, I mean it, Zoey. I'm sorry, Nikky, but this is starting to piss me off."
He nodded gravely. "It is exceedingly aggravating."
"Jake, it's not--"
"Zoey, when the hell did I ever sign any recruitment papers? I would have been a conscientious objector for Nam, if I hadn't already been 4-F."
"Jake, it's not as if--"
"Enough is enough, you know? You can go to the well once too often."
"Jake, it's not as if you had--"
"Do I have any training for this shit? Do I have my own tools? All I ever volunteered for in my life was going up on stage to make music, and running a bar, and helping you and Erin conquer the planet, and I've blown two out of three so far."
"Jake, it's not as if you had anything better--"
"No, I'm serious: twice is as much as any man ought to be asked to serve his ... I'm sorry, love, what did you say?"
"It's not as if you had anything better to ... oh, never mind, I won't say it."
Well, if she'd decided not to say it, then it was probably something that would have stung like hell to hear, so I stopped trying to guess what it might have been. Besides, by then she was taking my clothes off, which is likely to distract me no matter how busy we are.
"Jesus Christ, Jake," the Lucky Duck snickered, "even considering it's cold outside--"
"Duck," Zoey said, toweling me briskly with a huge bath towel, "would you like me to sit on you while Jake makes a snowman out of yours so you can compare?"
He shriveled. Making two of us.
"Out of his what, Mommy?" Erin asked. Zoey ignored her and kept drying me; I endured it with what dignity I could muster.
"Nikky," I said, "I appreciate the confidence you and Mike are placing in me -- I'm really flattered, okay? -- but--"
"Are they talking about Daddy's penis? That's silly. It gets much bigger than that, I've seen it--"
"--thank you, Erin, but excuse me, okay? Daddy has to tell Uncle Nikky he isn't going to save the universe this time: after that we can discuss my penis." Zoey pulled sweatpants up me to help change the subject. "Nikola, I would like to help you ... but you have got the wrong man."
He looked somber. "There is no other, Jacob."
I went into my Lord Buckley imitation. "'What's the matter, Mr. Whale? Ain't you hip to what's goin' down in these here parts? Don't you read the Marine News?'" He didn't recognize the quote, and I didn't have the heart to sustain it anyway. "Nikky, let me explain it in words of one syllable," I said in my normal voice. "It's all over. The Place is dead. I got no crew."
"They yet live."
Posted May 8, 2013
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