A World Apart

by Sam Merwin

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Most men of middle age would welcome a chance to live their lives a second time. But Coulter did not.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It wasn’t much of a bump. The shock absorbers of the liquid-smooth convertible neutralized all but a tiny percent of the jarring impact before it could reach the imported English flannel seat of Coulter’s expensively-tailored pants. But it was sufficient to jolt him out of his reverie, trebly induced by a four-course luncheon with cocktails and liqueur, the nostalgia of returning to a hometown unvisited in twenty years and the fact that he was driving westward into an afternoon sun.

Coulter grunted mild resentment at being thus disturbed. Then, as he quickly, incredulously scanned the road ahead and the car whose wheel was gripped by his gloved hands, he narrowed his eyes and muttered to himself, “Wake up! For God’s sake snap out of it!”

The road itself had changed. From a twin-laned ten-car highway, carefully graded and landscaped and clover-leafed, it had become a single-laned three-car thoroughfare, paved with tar instead of concrete and high-crowned along its center. He swung the wheel quickly to avoid running onto a dirt shoulder hardened with ice.

Its curves were no longer graded for high-speed cars but were scarcely tilted at all, when they didn’t slant the wrong way. Its crossings were blind, level and unprotected by traffic lights. Neat unattractive clusters of mass-built houses interspersed with occasional clumps of woodland had been replaced with long stretches of pine woods, only occasionally relieved by houses and barns of obviously antique manufacture. Some of these looked disturbingly familiar.

And the roadside signs--all at once they were everywhere. Here a weathered but still-legible little Burma-Shave series, a wooden Horlick’s contented cow, Socony, That Good Gulf Gasoline, the black cat-face bespeaking Catspaw Rubber Heels. Here were the coal-black Gold Dust twins, Kelly Springfield’s Lotta Miles peering through a large rubber tire, a cocked-hatted boniface advertising New York’s Prince George Hotel, the sleepy Fisk Tire boy in his pajamas and carrying a candle.

And then a huge opened book with a quill pen stuck in an inkwell alongside. On the right-hand page it said, United States Tires Are Good Tires and on the left, You are 3-1/2 miles from Lincolnville. In 1778 General O’Hara, leading a British raiding party inland, was ambushed on this spot by Colonel Amos Coulter and his militia and forced to retreat with heavy loss.

Slowing down because the high-crowned road was slippery with sun-melted ice, Coulter noted that the steering wheel responded heavily. Then he saw suddenly that it was smaller than he’d remembered and made of black rubber instead of the almond-hued plastic of his new convertible. And his light costly fabric gloves had become black leather, lined with fur!

A gong rang in his memory. He had driven this road many times in years gone by, he had known all these signs as quasi-landmarks, he had worn such gloves one winter. There had been a little triangular tear in the heel of the left one, where he had snagged it on a nail sticking out of the garage wall. But that had been many years ago...

He looked and found the tear and felt cold sweat bathe his body under his clothes. And he was suddenly, mightily, afraid...

He hit another bump and this time the springs did not take up the shock. He felt briefly like a rodeo cowboy riding a bucking mustang. The car in which he rode had changed. It was no longer the sleek convertible of the mid-1950’s. It was his old Pontiac sedan, the car he had driven for two years before leaving Lincolnville behind him twenty years ago!

Nor was he wearing the dark-blue vicuna topcoat he had reclaimed an hour before from the checkroom girl in the restaurant back in the city. His sleeves now were of well-worn camel’s hair. He didn’t dare pull the rear-view mirror around so he could see his face. He said again, fiercely, “Snap out of it! For God’s sake wake up before you hit something!”

He didn’t hit anything. Road, signs, car, clothing, all stayed the same. Fields abridged by wooded low hills fell away on either side of the road. The snow had been heavier away from the city and covered tillage, trees and stone walls alike with a tracked and sullen late-winter dark-white blanket.

He came to a hill and the obsolete engine knocked and panted. Once over the top of the hill, he thought with a sudden encouraging flash, he could prove that whatever was happening to him was illusion. At its foot on the other side had lain the Brigham Farm, a two-century-old house and barn converted into a restaurant by a pair of energetic spinsters. A restaurant where Coulter and his parents had habitually dined out on Thursday, the servants’ night off.

He had heard a long while ago that the Brigham Farm had been struck by lightning and burned during August of 1939. If it were still there...

He breasted the hill and there it was, ancient timbers painted a neat dark red with white door and window-frames and shutters. He held his eyes carefully away from it after the one look, held them on the road, which was now paved with a hard-packed layer of snow.

He passed an ear-flapped and baa-baa-coated farmer who sat atop a pung drawn by a patient percheron whose nostrils emitted twin plumes of steam. A pung! How many times had he and the other boys of Lincolnville ridden the runners of such utility sleighs on hitch-hiked rides through the by-ways of the lovely surrounding countryside!

Coulter maneuvered in his seat to take a quick look at this relic from the past--and caught a glimpse of his face in the mirror above the windshield. He said just one word--”Jesus!“ Nor was he blasphemous in saying it.

He thought of Jurgen, of Faust--for in some miraculous way he had reclaimed his youth or been reclaimed by it. The face that looked back at him was fresh-skinned, unlined, unweathered by life. He saw with surprise, from the detachment of almost two decades, that he had been better looking than he remembered.

He looked down, saw that his body, beneath the camel’s hair coat, was thin. The fat and fatigue of too many years of rich eating and drinking, of sedentary work, of immense nervous pressures, had been swept away without diet, without tiresome exercise. He was young again--and he almost ran the Pontiac into a ditch at the side of the road...

If it was a dream, he decided, it was a dream he was going to enjoy. He recalled what Shaw had said about youth being such a wonderful thing it was a pity to waste it on children. And he knew that he, at any rate, was no child, whatever the body that had so miraculously been restored to him.

The unhappy Pontiac cleared another hilltop and Lincolnville lay stretched out before Coulter, naked and exposed, stripped of its summer foliage. He had forgotten how dominated it was by the five church steeples--Unitarian, Episcopal, Trinitarian, Roman Catholic and Swedish Reform. There was no spire atop the concrete-and-stucco pillared building in which the Christian Scientists held their Sunday readings.

Half-consciously he dug for a cigar in his breast pocket, looked with mild surprise on the straight-stemmed pipe he found there. He had forgotten that he once smoked a pipe as completely as he had forgotten the churchly domination of his home town.

Even though Lincolnville remained fixed in his memory as it had looked twenty years ago--as it looked now awaiting his belated return--he was aware of many anachronisms while tooling the Pontiac slowly along Clinton Street. He had become used to the many outer changes of the past two decades, was unable completely to suppress surprise at not finding them present on his return.

For one thing there was the vast amount of overhead wiring. Coulter had forgotten how its lacework of insulation and poles took up space even in a comparatively small community. He had long since forgotten the English sparrows, erstwhile avian pest of America, that were to vanish so swiftly with the final abolition of the horse.

There were more horses than he recalled, parked here and there among the shoppers’ automobiles. And the cars themselves looked like refugees from a well-aged television movie, all straight-up-and-down windshields and unbuilt-in fenders and wooden spoked or wire wheels. He suspected the Pontiac he was driving would look as odd to him once he got out and examined it.

A dark-overcoated policeman, lounging against the front of the Rexall store at the main intersection, lifted a mittened hand in casual salute. Coulter replied in kind, drove on through the Center, took the fork past the old library with the skeleton of its summer coat of ivy looking bare and chilly against the sunset breeze. The bit of sky he could see through the houses and leafless trees was grey and yellow and cold.

The house was there, just as he had left it. It was still a good-sized mansion in comfortable ugly space-wasting Reign-of-Terror Tuscan, standing ornate and towered and turreted behind a fence of granite posts connected by long iron pipes that sagged in the middle as the result of children walking them on their way to and from the public schools around the corner on Sheldon Street.

Coulter turned left and felt the crunch of ashes under his tires as he drove across the sidewalk, through the fence opening, into the driveway to the open-doored garage awaiting him. He reminded himself to be careful of the jutting nail that had torn his glove.

The concrete floor of the garage felt cold against the soles of his shoes. Coulter stamped his feet as he turned on the heater and moved toward the door. It stuck--he had forgotten about that--and he swore lustily as he exerted strength he had forgotten ever possessing to yank it clear of the snag and across the front of the building.

He didn’t want the Pontiac to freeze. Not when he had a date with Eve Lawton ... A date with Eve Lawton ... He hadn’t thought of Eve in years, except on those occasional sleepless nights when he amused himself with seeking to visualize the women he had known in a Biblical sense of the word.

Most of them were faceless units in a faceless and somewhat undignified parade. But not Eve. She wasn’t pretty--not in the sense of the doll-faced creatures that adorned the movie magazines or even the healthy maidens with whom he occasionally rollicked since coming home from college.

Eve had a sensitivity of feature that was a sounding board for her emotions. Coulter paused against the garage door and thought about her. With the knowledge of twenty years he knew now that what Eve had, or had had twenty years ago, was the basis of beauty, the inner intangible which stamps a woman a woman above other women...

What in hell has happened to me, is happening to me? Coulter felt the chill of the evening wind stab deep into his bones. Then he looked down at his vanished embonpoint and patted with his gloves the flat hardness that had replaced it. It was all right with him as long as he didn’t wake up too soon--before his date with Eve anyway.

Coulter walked around the house and in through the front with its extra winter doorway. There was the big square sapphire-blue carpet with the worn spot at the foot of the stairs. There was the antique cherry card table which, to his definite knowledge, should be standing in the front hall of his own house in Scarborough, more than two hundred miles and twenty years away.

His mother appeared in the door of the library, edged with light from the cannel-coal fire in the grate behind her. She said, “Oh, there you are, Banny. I’m glad you’re back in time for ... Heaven’s sake, Banny! What’s all this for?”

Coulter felt himself grow hot with embarrassment. He and his mother had never been much given to outward show of affection. Yet, knowing she would be dead within the year, he had been unable to resist the urge to embrace her. He was going to have to watch his step. He said, fumbling a little, “I don’t know, mother. I guess I just felt like it, that’s all.”

“Well--all right.” She was mollified, patted the blue-white hair above delicately handsome features to make certain no strand had been disarranged. Then, “Did you remember to stop at MacAuliffe’s and pick up my lighter?”

Feeling lost, Coulter felt in the pockets of his polo coat. To his relief he found a small package in one of them, pulled it out. It was wrapped with the city jeweler’s tartan paper and he handed it to his mother. She said, “Thanks--I’ve missed it this last week.”

He had forgotten his mother was a smoker. Coulter took off his coat and hat and hung them up, trying to remember details of a life he had long since allowed to blur into soft focus. She had taken up the habit about a year after his father died of a ruptured appendix while on a hunting trip down in the Maine woods.

He noticed the skis and ski-boots and ski-poles standing at attention in the back of the closet, wondered if he could still execute a decent Christie. Then, emerging, he said, “Just us for dinner tonight, mother?”

“Just us,” she said, regarding him with a faint frown from over a fresh-lit cigarette.

“Good!” he said. “How about a drink?”

“Banny,” said his mother with patient sternness, “you know as well as I that you’re the family liquor-provider since your father died. I’m not going to deal with bootleggers. And there’s nothing but a little vermouth in the pantry.”

“Snooping again,” he said, carefully unsmiling. Good God, it was still Prohibition! Memory stabbed at him, bringing what had so recently emerged from past into present clearly into focus, technicolored focus. “I’ve got a little surprise upstairs in my closet.”

He found himself taking the stairs two at a time without effort. Shaw had definitely been right, he decided when he discovered the exertion had not winded him in the slightest. He went into the big room overlooking the front lawn, now covered with much-trodden snow, that he had fallen heir to after his father died.

Karen, the Swedish-born second maid, was opening the bed. He had completely forgotten Karen, had to battle against staring at her. She was a perfect incipient human brood-mare--lush not-yet-fat figure, broad pelvis, meaningless pretty-enough face. Now what the devil had been his relations with her?

Since he couldn’t remember, he decided they must have been innocuous. He said, “Hi, Karen, broken up any new homes lately?”

She said, “Oh--you, Mr. Coulter!” She giggled and fled, stumbling over the threshold in her hurry.

Coulter looked after her, his eyebrows high. Well, he thought, here was something he had evidently missed entirely. Karen’s crush was painfully apparent, viewed from a vantage of two decades of added experience. Or perhaps he had been smarter than he remembered.

The gallon of home-made gin was stuck behind the textbook-filled carton on the back floor of his closet, where somehow he had known it must be. It was between a third and half full of colorless liquid. He uncorked it, sniffed and shuddered. Prohibition was going to take a bit of getting used to after two decades of Repeal.

Half an hour later he sipped his rather dire martini and listened to his mother talk. Not to the words especially, for she was one of those nearly-extinct well-bred women, brought up in the horsehair amenities of the late Victorian era, who could talk charmingly and vivaciously and at considerable length without saying anything. It was pleasant merely to sit and sip and let the words flow over him.

She looked remarkably well, he thought, for a woman who was to die within a year of galloping cancer. She seemed to have recovered entirely from the emotional aftermath of his father’s death. So much so that he found himself wondering how deeply she had loved the man with whom she had spent some thirty-eight years of her life.

She was slim and quick and sure in her movements and her figure, of which she was inordinately proud, resembled that of a girl rather than the body of a woman nibbling late middle-age. Slowly he realized she had stopped talking, had asked him a question and was awaiting his answer. He smiled apologetically and said, “Sorry, mother, I must have been wool-gathering.”

“You’re tired, lamb.” No one had called him that in twenty years. “And no wonder, with all that running around for Mr. Simms on the newspaper.”

Mr. Simms--that would be Patrick “Paddy” Simms, his managing editor, the old-school city-room tyrant who had taught him his job so well that he had gone on to make a successful career of public relations and the organization of facts into words--at rates far more imposing than those paid a junior reporter during the Great Depression.

In his swell of memories Coulter almost lost his mother’s question a second time, barely managed to catch its meaning. He sipped his drink and said, “I agree, mother, the burning of the books in Germany is a threat to freedom. But I don’t think you’ll have to worry about Adolph Hitler very long.”

She misread his meaning, of course, frowned charmingly and said, “I do hope you’re right, Banny. Nellie Maynard had a few of us for tea this afternoon and Margot Henson, she’s tremendously chic and her husband knows all those big men in the New Deal in Washington--not that he agrees with them, thank goodness--well, she says the big men in the State Department are really worried about Hitler. They think he may try to make Germany strong enough to start another war.”

“It could happen, of course,” Coulter told her. He had forgotten his mother’s trick of stressing one syllable of a word. Funny, Connie, his wife--if she was still his wife after whatever had happened--had the same trick. With an upper-class Manhattan dry soda-cracker drawl added.

He wondered if he were going to have to live through it all again--the NRA, the Roosevelt boomlet, the Recession, the string of Hitler triumphs in Europe, the war, Pearl Harbor and all that followed--Truman, the Cold War, Korea, McCarthy...

Seated across from her at the gleaming Sheraton dining table, which should by rights be in his own dining room in Scarborough overlooking the majestic Hudson, he wondered how he could put his foreknowledge to use. There was the market, of course. And he could recall the upset football win of Yale over Princeton in 1934, the Notre Dame last-minute triumph over Ohio State a year later, most of the World Series winners. On the Derby winners he was lost...

When the meal was over and they were returning to the library with its snug insulating bookshelves and warm cannel-coal fire, his mother said, “Banny, it’s been so nice having this talk with you. We haven’t had many lately. I wish you’d stay home tonight with me. You really do look tired, you know.”

“Sorry, mother,” he replied. “I’ve got a date.”

“With the Lawton girl, I suppose,” she said without affection. Then, accepting a cigarette and holding it before lighting it, “I do wish you wouldn’t see quite so much of her. I’ll admit she’s a perfectly nice girl, of course. But she is strange and people are beginning to talk. I hope you’re not going to be foolish about her.”

“Don’t worry,” Coulter replied. Since when, he wondered, had wanting a girl as he wanted Eve Lawton been foolish. He added, “What’s wrong with Eve anyway?”

His mother lit a cigarette. “Lamb, it’s not that there’s anything really wrong with Eve. As a matter of fact I believe her family is quite distinguished--good old Lincolnville stock.”

“I’m aware of that,” he replied drily. “I believe her great, great, great grandfather was a brigadier while mine was only a colonel in the Revolution.”

His mother dismissed the distant past with a gesture. “But the Lawtons haven’t managed to keep up,” she stated. “Think of your schooling, dear--you’ve had the very best. While Eve...” With a shrug.

“Went to grammar and high-school right here in Lincolnville,” Coulter finished for her. “Mother, Eve has more brains and character than any of the debs I know.” Then, collecting himself, “But don’t worry, mother--I’m not going to let it upset my life.”

“I’m very glad to hear it,” Mrs. Coulter said simply. “Remember, Banny, you and your Eve are a world apart. Besides, we’re going to take a trip abroad this summer. There’s so much I want us to see together. It would be a shame to...” She let it hang.

Coulter looked at his mother, remembering hard. He had been able to stymie that trip on the excuse that he’d almost certainly lose his job and that new jobs were too hard to get in a depression era. He thought that his surviving parent was, beneath her well-mannered surface, a shallow, domineering, snobbish empress. Granted his new vista of vision, he realized for the first time how she had dominated both his father and himself.

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