A Place So Foreign

by Cory Doctorow

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: In the title tale, narrator James 14 returns home with Mama to 1898 village when his father Les, time-traveller Ambassador to aliens, vanishes from 1975 jet-pack city. When the "mothaship" takes the anointed few into the brave new world, those left behind are angry. "0wnz0red" asks - what happens when hackers hack the human body?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

My Pa disappeared somewhere in the wilds of 1975, when I was just fourteen years old. He was the Ambassador to 1975, but back home in 1898, in New Jerusalem, Utah, they all thought he was Ambassador to France. When he disappeared, Mama and I came back through the triple-bolted door that led from our apt in 1975 to our horsebarn in 1898. We returned to the dusty streets of New Jerusalem, and I had to keep on reminding myself that I was supposed to have been in France, and “polly-voo” for my chums, and tell whoppers about the Eiffel Tower and the fancy bread and the snails and frogs we’d eaten.

I was born in New Jerusalem, and raised there till I was ten. Then, one summer’s day, my Pa sat me on his knee and told me we’d be going away for a while, that he had a new job.

“But what about the store?” I said, scandalised. My Pa’s wonderful store, the only General Store in town not run by the Saints, was my second home. I’d spent my whole life crawling and then walking on the dusty wooden floors, checking stock and unpacking crates with waybills from exotic places like Salt Lake City and even San Francisco.

Pa looked uncomfortable. “Mr Johnstone is buying it.”

My mouth dropped. James H Johnstone was as dandified a city-slicker as you’d ever hope to meet. He’d blown into town on the weekly Zephyr Speedball, and skinny Tommy Benson had hauled his three huge steamer trunks to the cowboy hotel. He’d tipped Tommy two dollars, in Wells-Fargo notes, and later, in the empty lot behind the smithy, all the kids in New Jerusalem had gathered ‘round Tommy to goggle at the small fortune in queer, never-seen bills.

“Pa, no!” I said, without thinking. I knew that if my chums ordered their fathers around like that, they’d get a whipping, but my Pa almost never whipped me.

He smiled, and stretched his thick moustache across his face. “James, I know you love the store, but it’s already been decided. Once you’ve been to France, you’ll see that it has wonders that beat anything that store can deliver.”

“Nothing’s better than the store,” I said.

He laughed and rumpled my hair. “Don’t be so sure, son. There are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamed of in your philosophy.” It was one of his sayings, from Shakespeare, who he’d studied back east, before I was born. It meant that the discussion was closed.

I decided to withhold judgement until I saw France, but still couldn’t shake the feeling that my Pa was going soft in the head. Mr Johnstone wasn’t fit to run an apple-cart. He was short and skinny and soft, not like my Pa, who, as far as I was concerned, was the biggest, strongest man in the whole world. I loved my Pa.

Well, when we packed our bags and Pa went into the horsebarn to hitch up our team, I figured we’d be taking a short trip out to the train station. All my chums were waiting there to see us off, and I’d promised my best pal Oly Sweynsdatter that I’d give him my coonskin cap to wear until we came back. But instead, Pa rode us to the edge of town, where the road went to rutted trail and salt flats, and there was Mr James H Johnstone, in his own fancy-pants trap. Pa and me moved our luggage into Johnstone’s trap and got inside with Mama and hunkered down so, you couldn’t see us from outside. Mama said, “You just hush up now, James. There’s parts of this trip that we couldn’t tell you about before we left, but you’re going to have to stay quiet and hold onto your questions until we get to where we’re going.”

I nearly said, “To where we’re going?” but I didn’t, because Mama had never looked so serious in all my born days. So I spent an hour hunkered down in there, listening to the clatter of the wheels and trying to guess where we were going. When I heard the trap stop and a set of wooden doors close, all my guesses dried up and blew away, because I couldn’t think of anywhere we would’ve heard those sounds out in the desert.

So imagine my surprise when I stood up and found us right in our very own horsebarn, having made a circle around town and back to where we’d started from! Mama held a finger up to her lips and then took Mr Johnstone’s soft, girlish hand as he helped her down from the trap.

My Pa and Mr Johnstone started shifting one of the piles of hay-bales that stacked to the rafters, until they had revealed a triple-bolted door that looked new and sturdy, fresh-sawn edges still bright and yellow, and not the weathered brown of the rest of the barn.

Pa took a key ring out of his vest pocket and unlocked the door, then swung it open. Each of us shouldered our bags and walked through, in eerie silence, into a pitch black room.

Pa reached out and pulled the door shut, then there was a sharp click and we were in 1975.

1975 was a queer sight. Our apartment was a lozenge of silver, spoked into the hub of a floating null-gee doughnut. Pa did something fancy with his hands and the walls went transparent, and I swear, I dropped to the floor and hugged the nubby rubber tiles for all I was worth. My eyes were telling me that we were hundreds of yards off the ground, and while I’d jumped from the rafters of the horsebarn into the hay countless times, I suddenly discovered that I was afraid of heights.

After that first dizzying glimpse of 1975, I kept my eyes squeezed shut and held on for all I was worth. After a minute or two of this, my stomach told me that I wasn’t falling, and I couldn’t hear any rushing wind, any birdcalls, anything except Mama and Pa laughing, fit to bust. I opened one eye and snuck a peek. My folks were laughing so hard they had to hold onto each other to stay up, and they were leaning against thin air, Pa’s back pressed up against nothing at all.

Cautiously, I got to my feet and walked over to the edge. I extended one finger and it bumped up against an invisible wall, cool and smooth as glass in winter.

“James,” said my Pa, smiling so wide that his thick moustache stretched all the way across his face, “welcome to 1975.”

Pa’s ambassadorial mission meant that he often spent long weeks away from home, teleporting in only for Sunday dinner, the stink of aliens and distant worlds clinging to him even after he washed up. The last Sunday dinner I had with him, Mama had made mashed potatoes and corn bread and sausage gravy and turkey, spending the whole day with the wood-fired cooker back in 1898 (actually, it was 1901 by then, but I always thought of it as 1898). She’d moved the cooker into the horsebarn after a week of wrestling with the gadgets we had in our 1975 kitchen, and when Pa had warned her that the smoke was going to raise questions in New Jerusalem, she explained that she was going to run some flexible exhaust hose through the door into 75 and into our apt’s air-scrubber. Pa had shook his head and smiled at her, and every Sunday, she dragged the exhaust pipe through the door.

That night, Pa sat down and said grace, and he was in his shirtsleeves with his suspenders down, and it almost felt like home -- almost felt like a million Sunday dinners eaten by gaslight, with a sweaty pitcher of lemonade in the middle of the table, and seasonal wildflowers, and a stinky cheroot for Pa afterwards as he tipped his chair back and rested one hand on his belly, as if he couldn’t believe how much Mama had managed to stuff him this time.

“How are your studies coming, James?” he asked me, when the robutler had finished clearing the plates and clattered away into its nook.

“Very well, sir. We’re starting calculus now.” Truth be told, I hated calculus, hated Isaac Newton and asymptotes and the whole smelly business. Even with the viral learning shots, it was like swimming in molasses for me.

“Calculus! Well, well, well --” this was one of Pa’s catch-all phrases, like “How about that?” or “What do you know?” “Well, well, well. I can’t believe how much they stuff into kids’ heads here.”

“Yes, sir. There’s an awful lot left to learn, yet.” We did a subject every two weeks. So far, I’d done French, Molecular and Cellular Biology, Physics and Astrophysics, Esperanto, Cantonese and Mandarin, and an alien language whose name translated as “Standard.” I’d been exempted from History, of course, along with the other kids there from the past -- the Chinese girl from the Ming Dynasty, the Roman boy, and the Injun kid from South America.

Pa laughed around his cigar and crossed his legs. His shoes were so big, they looked like canoes. “There surely is, son. There surely is. And how are you doing with your classmates? Any tussles your teacher will want to talk to me about?”

“No, sir! We’re friendly as all get-out, even the girls.” The kids in 75 didn’t even notice what they were doing in school. They just sat down at their workstations and waited to have their brains filled with whatever was going on, and left at three, and never complained about something being too hard or too dull.

“That’s good to hear, son. You’ve always been a good boy. Tell you what: you bring home a good report this Christmas, and I’ll take you to see Saturn’s rings on vacation.”

Mama shot him a look then, but he pretended he didn’t see it. He stubbed out his cigar, hitched up his suspenders, and put on his tailcoat and tophat and ambassadorial sash and picked up his leather case.

“Good night, son. Good night, Ulla. I’ll see you on Wednesday,” he said, and stepped into the teleporter.

That was the last time I ever saw him.

“He died from bad snails?” Oly Sweynsdatter said to me, yet again.

I balled up a fist and stuck it under his nose. “For the last time, yes. Ask me again, and I’ll feed you this.”

I’d been back for a month, and in all that time, Oly had skittered around me like a shy pony, always nearby but afraid to talk to me. Finally, I’d grabbed him and shook him and told him not to be such a ninny, tell me what was on his mind. He wanted to know how my Pa had died, over in France. I told him the reason that Mama and Mr Johnstone and the man from the embassy had worked out together. Now, I regretted it. I couldn’t get him to shut up.

“Sorry, all right, sorry!” he said, taking a step backwards. We were in the orchard behind the schoolyard, chucking rotten apples at the tree-trunks to watch them splatter. “Want to hear something?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Tommy Benson’s sweet on Marta Helprin. It’s disgusting. They hold hands -- in church! None of the fellows will talk to him.”

I didn’t see what the big deal was. Back in 75, we had had a two-week session on sexual reproduction, like all the other subjects. Most of the kids there were already in couples, sneaking off to low-gee bounceataria and renting private cubes with untraceable cash-tokens. I’d even tussled with one girl, Katebe M’Buto, another exchange student, from United Africa Trading Sphere. I’d picked her up at her apt, and her father had even shaken my hand -- they grow up fast in UATS. Of course, I’d never let on to my folks. Pa would’ve broken an axle. “That’s pretty disgusting, all right,” I said, unconvincingly.

“You want to go down to the river? I told Amos and Luke that I’d meet them after lunch.”

I didn’t much feel like it, but I didn’t know what else to do. We walked down to the swimming hole, where some boys were already naked, swimming and horsing around. I found myself looking away, conscious of their nudity in a way that I’d never been before -- all the boys in town swam there, all summer long.

I turned my back to the group and stripped down, then ran into the water as quick as I could.

I paddled around a little, half-heartedly, and then I found myself being pulled under! My sinuses filled with water and I yelled a stream of bubbles, and closed my mouth on a swallow of water. Strong hands pulled at my ankles. I kicked out as hard as I could, and connected with someone’s head. The hands loosened and I shot up like a cork, sputtering and coughing. I ran for the shore, and saw one of the Allen brothers surfacing, rubbing at his head and laughing. The four Allen boys lived on a ranch with their parents out by the salt flats, and we only saw them when they came into town with their folks for supplies. I’d never liked them, but now, I saw red.

“You pig!” I shouted at him. “You stupid, rotten, pig! What the heck do you think you were doing?”

The Allens kept on laughing -- I used to know some of their names, but in the time I’d been in 75, they’d grown as indistinguishable as twins: big, hard boys with their heads shaved for lice. They pointed at me and laughed. I scooped up a flat stone from the shore and threw it at the head of the one who’d pulled me under, as hard as I could.

Lucky for him -- and me! -- I was too angry to aim properly, and the stone hit him in the shoulder, knocking him backwards. He shouted at me -- it was like a roar of a wild animal -- and the four brothers charged.

Oly appeared at my side. “Run!” he shouted.

I was too angry. I balled my fists and stood my ground. The first one shot out of the water towards me, and punched me so hard in the guts, I saw stars. I fell to the ground, gasping. I looked up at a forest of strong, bare legs, and knew they’d surrounded me.

“It’s the Sheriff!” Oly shouted. The legs disappeared. I struggled to my knees.

Oly collapsed to the ground beside me, laughing. “Did you see the way they ran? The Sheriff never comes down to the river!”

“Thanks,” I said, around gasps, and started to get dressed.

“Any time,” he said. “Now, let’s do some swimming.”

“No, I gotta go home and help Mama,” I lied. I didn’t feel like going skinny dipping anymore -- maybe never again.

Oly gave me a queer look. “OK. See you.”

I went straight home, pelting down the road as fast as I could, not even looking where I was going. I let the door slam behind me and took the stairs two at a time up to the attic ladder, then bolted the trap-door shut behind me and sat in the dark, with my knees in my chest.

Down below, Mama let out a half-hearted, “James? Is that you?” like she always did since I came back home. I ignored her, like always, and she stopped worrying about it, like always.

Pa’s last trip had been to the Dalai Lama’s court in 1975. The man from the embassy said that he was going to talk with the monks about a “white-paper that the two embassies were jointly presenting on the effect of mimetic ambassadorships on the reincarnated soul.” It was all nonsense to me. He’d never arrived. The teleporter said that it had put him down gentle as you like on the floor of the Lama’s floating castle over the Caspian Sea, but the monks never saw him.

And that was that.

It had been a month since our return. I’d ventured out into town and looked up my chums, and found them so full of gossip that didn’t mean anything to me; so absorbed with games that seemed childish to me; so strange, that I’d retreated home. I’d prowled around our house like a burglar at first, and when I came back to the attic, all the numbness that had enveloped me since the man from the State Department had teleported into our apt melted away and I started bawling.

The attic had always been Pa’s domain. He’d come up here with whatever crackpot invention he’d ordered this month out of a catalog or one of the expensive, foreign journals he subscribed to, and tinker and swear and hit his thumbnail and tear his pants on a stray dingus and smoke his cheroots and have a heck of a time.

The muffled tread of his feet and the distant cursing while I sat in the parlour downstairs had been the homiest sound I knew. Mama and I would lock eyes every time a particularly forceful round of hollers shook down, and Mama would get a little smile and her eyes would crinkle, and I felt like we were sharing a secret.

Now, the attic was my private domain: there was the elixir shelf, full of patent medicines, hair-tonics, and soothing syrups. There was the bookcase full of wild theories and fantastic adventure stories. There were the crates full of dangerous, coal-fired machines -- an automatic clothes-washing-machine, a cherry-pitter, and other devices whose nature I couldn’t even guess at. None of them had ever worked, but I liked to run my hands over them, feel the smooth steel of their parts, disassemble and reassemble them. Back in 75, I’d once tried to take the robutler apart, just to get a look at how it was all put together, but it was a lost cause -- I couldn’t even figure out how to get the cover off.

I walked through the cool dark, the only light coming from the grimy attic window, and fondled each piece. I picked up an oilcan and started oiling the joints and bearings and axles of each machine in turn. Pa would have wanted to know that everything was in good working order.

“I think you should be going to school, James,” Mama said, at breakfast. I’d already done my morning chores, bringing in the coal, chopping kindling, taking care of the milch-cows and making my bed.

I took another forkful of sausage, and a spoonful of mush, chewed, and looked at my plate.

“It’s time, it’s time. You can’t spend the rest of your life sulking around here. Your father would have wanted us to get on with our lives.”

Even though I wasn’t looking at her when she said this, I knew that her eyes were bright with tears, the way they always got when she mentioned Pa. His chair sat, empty, at the head of the table. I had another bite of sausage.

“James Arthur Nicholson! Look at me when I speak to you!”

I looked up, reflexively, as I always did when she used my full name. My eyes slid over her face, then focused on a point over her left shoulder.


“You’re going to school. Today. And I expect to get a good report from Mr Adelson.”


We have two schools in New Jerusalem: the elementary school that was built twenty years before, when they put in the wooden sidewalks and the town hall; and the non-denominational Academy that was built just before I left for 1975.

Miss Tannenbaum, a spinster lady with a moustache and a bristling German accent terrorised the little kids in the elementary school -- I’d been stuck in her class for five long years. Mr Adelson, who was raised in San Francisco and who had worked as a roustabout, a telegraph operator and a merchant seaman taught the Academy, and his wild stories were all Oly could talk about.

He raised one eyebrow quizzically when I came through the door at 8:00 that morning. He was tall, like my Pa, but Pa had been as big as an ox, and Mr Adelson was thin and wiry. He wore rumpled pants and a shirt with a wilted celluloid collar. He had a skinny little beard that made him look like a gentleman pirate, and used some shiny pomade to grease his hair straight back from his high forehead. I caught him reading, thumbing the hand-written pages of a leatherbound volume.

“Mr Adelson?”

“Why, James Nicholson! What can I do for you, sonny?” New Jerusalem only had but 2,000 citizens, and only a hundred or so in town proper, so of course he knew who I was, but it surprised me to hear him pronounce my name in his creaky, weatherbeaten voice.

“My mother says I have to go to the Academy.”

“She does, hey? How do you feel about that?”

I snuck a look at his face to see if he was putting me on, but I couldn’t tell -- he’d raised up his other eyebrow now, and was looking hard at me. There might have been the beginning of a smile on his face, but it was hard to tell with the beard. “I guess it don’t matter how I feel.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. This is a school, not a prison, after all. How old are you?”

“Fourteen. Sir.”

“That would put you in with the seniors. Do you think you can handle their course of study? It’s half-way through the semester now, and I don’t know how much they taught you when you were over in,” he swallowed, “France.”

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just stared at my hard, uncomfortable shoes.

“How are your maths? Have you studied geometry? Basic algebra?”

“Yes, sir. They taught us all that.” And lots more besides. I had the feeling of icebergs of knowledge floating in my brain, ready to crest the waves and crash against the walls of my skull.

“Very good. We will be studying maths today in the seniors’ class. We’ll see how you do. Is that all right?”

Again, I didn’t know if he was really asking, so I just said, “Yes, sir.”

“Marvelous. We’ll see you at the 8:30 bell, then. And James --” he paused, waited until I met his gaze. His eyebrows were at rest. “I’m sorry about your father. I’d met him several times. He was a good man.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said, unable to look away from his stare.

The first half of the day passed with incredible sloth, as I copied down problems to my slate and pretended to puzzle over them before writing down the answer I’d known the minute I saw the question.

At lunch I found a seat at the base of the big willow out front of the school and unwrapped the waxed paper from the thick ham sandwich Mama had fixed me. I munched it and conjugated Latin verbs in my head, trying to make the day pass. Oly and the fellows were roughhousing in the yard, playing follow-the-leader with Amos Gundersen out front, showing off by walking on his hands and then springing upright. Amos’ mother came from circus people in Russia, and all the kids in his family wanted to be acrobats when they grew up.

I tried not to watch them.

I was engrossed in a caterpillar that was crawling up my pants-leg when Mr Adelson cleared his throat behind me. I started, and the caterpillar tumbled to the ground, and then Mr Adelson was squatting on his long haunches at my side.

“How are you liking your first day, James?” he asked, in his raspy voice.

“It’s fine, sir.”

“And the work? You’re able to keep up with the class?”

“It’s not a problem for me. We studied this when I was away.”

“Are you bored? Do you need more of a challenge?”

“It’s fine, sir.” Unless you want to assign me some large-prime factoring problems.

“Right, then. Don’t hesitate to call on me if things are moving too slowly or too quickly. I mean that.”

I snuck another look at him. He seemed sincere.

“Why aren’t you playing with your chums?”

“I don’t feel like it.”

“You just wanted to think?”

“I guess so.” Why wouldn’t he just leave me alone?

“It’s hard to come home, isn’t it?”

I stared at my shoes. What did he know about it?

“I’ve been around the world, you know that? I sailed with a tramp steamer, the Slippery Trick. I saw the naked savages of Polynesia, and the voodoo witches that the freed slaves of the Caribbean worship, and the coolies pulling rickshaws in Peking. It was so hard to come home to Frisco, after five years at sea.”

To my surprise, he sat down next to me, in the dirt and roots at the base of the tree. “You know, aboard the Trick, they called me Runnyguts -- I threw up every hour for my first month. I was more reliable than the Watch! But they didn’t mean anything by it. When you live with a crew for years, you become a different person. We’d be out at sea, nothing but water as far as the eye could see, and we’d be playing cards on-deck. We’d told each other every joke we knew already, and every story about home, and we knew that deck of cards so well, which one had salt-water stains on the back and which one turned up at corner and which one had been torn, and we’d just scream at the sun, so bored! But then we’d put in to port at some foreign city, and we’d come down the plank in our best clothes, twenty men who knew each other better than brothers, hard and brown from months at sea, and it felt like whatever happened in that strange port-of-call, we’d come out on top.”

“And then I came back to the Frisco, and the Captain shook my hand and gave me a sack of gold and saw me off, and I’d never felt so alone, and I’d never seen a place so foreign.

“I went back to my old haunts, the saloons where I’d gone for a beer after a day’s work at the docks, and the dance-halls, and the theatres, and I saw my old chums. That was hard, James.”

He stopped then. I found myself saying, “How was it hard, Mr Adelson?”

He looked surprised, like he’d forgotten that he was talking to me. “Well, James, it’s like this: when you’re away that long, you get to invent yourself all over again. Of course, everyone invents themselves as they grow up. Your chums there --” he gestured at the boys, who were now trying, with varying success, to turn somersaults, dirtying their school clothes “-- they’re inventing themselves right now, whether they know it or not. The smart one, the strong one, the brave one, the sad one. It’s going on while we watch!

“But when you go away, nobody knows you, and you can be whoever you want. You can shed your old skin and grow a new one. When we put out to sea, I was just a youngster, eighteen years old and fresh from my Pa’s house. He was a cablecar engineer, and wanted me to follow in his shoes, get an apprenticeship and join him there under the hills, oiling the giant pulleys. But no, not me! I wanted to put out to sea and see the world. I’d never been out of the city, can you believe that? The first port where I took shore leave was in Haiti, and when I stepped onto the dock, it was like my life was starting all over again. I got a tattoo, and I drank hard liquor, and gambled in the saloons, and did all the things that a man did, as far as I was concerned.” He had a faraway look now, staring at the boys’ game without seeing it. “And when I got back on-board, sick and tired and broke, there was a new kid there, a negro from Port-Au-Prince who’d signed on to be a cabin boy. His name was Jean-Paul, and he didn’t speak a word of English and I didn’t speak a word of French. But I took him under my wing, James, and acted like I’d been at sea all my life, and showed him the ropes, and taught him to play cards, and bossed him around, and taught him English, one word at a time.

“And that became the new me. Every time a new hand signed on, I would be his teacher, his mentor, his guide.

“And then I came home.

“As far as the folks back home were concerned, I was the kid they’d said good-bye to five years before. My father thought I was still a kid, even though I’d fought pirates and weathered storms. My chums wanted me to be the kid I’d been, and do all the boring, kid things we’d done before I left -- riding the trolleys, watching the vaudeville shows, fishing off the docks.

“Even though that stuff was still fun, it wasn’t me, not anymore. I missed the old me, and felt him slipping away. So, you know what I did?”

“You moved to New Jerusalem?”

“I moved to New Jerusalem. Well, to Salt Lake City, first. I studied with the Jesuits, to be a teacher, then I saw an ad for a teacher in the paper, and I packed my bag and caught the next train. And here I am, not the me that came home from sea, and not the me who I was before I went to sea, but someone in between, a new me -- teaching, but on dry land, and not chasing dangerous adventures, but still reading my old log-book and smiling.”

We sat for a moment, in companionable silence. Then, abruptly, he checked his pocket watch and yelped. “Damn! Lunch was over twenty minutes ago!” He leapt to his feet, as smoothly as a boy, and ran into the schoolhouse to ring the bell.

I folded up the waxed-paper, and thought about this adult who talked to me like an adult, who didn’t worry about swearing, or telling me about his adventures, and I made my way back to class.

It went better, the rest of that day.

In 75, Pa had almost never been home, but his presence was always around us.

I’d call the robutler out of its closet and have it affix its electrode fingertips to my temples and juice my endorphins after a hard day at school, and when I was done, the faint smell of Pa’s hair-oil, picked up from the ‘trodes and impossible to be rid of, would cling to me. Or I’d sit down on the oubliette and find one of Pa’s journals from back home, well-thumbed and open to an article on mental telepathy. We did ESP in school, and it was all about a race of alien traders who communicated in geometric thought pictures that took forever to translate. We’d never learned about Magnetism and Astral Projection and all the other things Pa’s journals were full of.

And while I never doubted the things in Pa’s journals, I never brought them up in class, neither. There were lots of different kinds of truth.


“Yes, Mama?” I said, on my way out to chop kindling.

“Did you finish your homework?”

“Yes, Mama.”

“Good boy.”

Homework had been some math, and some biology, and some geology. I’d done it before I left school.

The report cards came out in the middle of December. Mr Adelson sealed them with wax in thick brown envelopes and handed them out at the end of the day. Sealing them was a dirty trick -- it mean a boy would have to go home not knowing whether to expect a whipping or an extra slice of pie, and the fellows were as nervous as long-tailed cats in a rocking-chair factory when class let out. For once, there was no horseplay afterwards.

I came home and tossed the envelope on the kitchen table without a moment’s worry. I’d aced every test, I’d done every take-home assignment, I’d led the class, in a bored, sleepy way, regurgitating the things they’d stuck in my brain in 1975.

I went up to the attic and started reading one of Pa’s adventure stories, Tarzan of the Apes, by the Frenchman, Jules Verne. Pa had all of Verne’s books, each of them crisply autographed on the inside cover. He’d met Verne on one of his diplomatic missions, and the two had been like two peas in a pod, to hear him tell of it -- they both subscribed to all the same crazy journals.

I was reading my favorite part, where Tarzan meets the man in the balloon, when Mama’s voice called from downstairs. “James Arthur Nicholson! Get your behind down here now!”

I jumped like I was stung and rattled down the attic stairs so fast I nearly broke my neck and then down into the parlour, where Mama was holding my report card and looking fit to bust.

“Yes, Mama?” I said. “What is it?”

She handed me the report card and folded her arms over her chest. “Explain that, mister. Make it good.”

I read the card and my eyes nearly jumped out of my head. The rotten so-and-so had given me F’s all the way down, in every subject. Below, in his seaman’s hand, he’d written, “James’ performance this semester has disappointed me gravely. I would like it very much if I could meet with you and he, Mrs Nicholson, at your earliest convenience, to discuss his future at the Academy. Signed, Rbt. Adelson.”

Mama grabbed my ear and twisted. I howled and dropped the card. Before I knew what was happening, she had me over her knee and was paddling my bottom with her open hand, hard.

“I don’t” -- whack -- “know what“ -- whack -- “you think” -- whack -- “you’re doing, James.” -- whack -- “If your father“ -- whack, whack -- “were here,” -- whack -- “he’d switch you” -- whack -- “within an inch of your life.” And she gave me a load more whacks.

I was too stunned even to cry or howl. Pa had only beat me twice in all the time I’d known him. Mama had never beat me. My bottom ached distantly, and I felt tears come to my eyes.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?”

“Mama, it’s a mistake --” I began.

“You’re durn right!” she said.

“No, really! I did all my homework! I passed all the exams! I showed ‘em to you! You saw ‘em!” The unfairness of it made my heart hammer in time to the throbbing of my backside.

Mama’s breath fumed angrily out of her nose. “You go straight to your room and stay there. We’re going to see Mr Adelson first thing tomorrow morning.”

“What about my chores?” I said.

“Oh, don’t worry about that. You’ll have plenty of chores to do when I let you out.”

I went to my room and stripped down, and lay on my tummy and cracked my window so the icy winter air blew over my backside. I cried a vale of tears, and rained down miserable, mean curses on everyone: Mama, Pa, and especially the lying, snaky, backstabbing Runnyguts Adelson.

Mama didn’t get any less mad through the night, but when she came to my door at cock-crow, she seemed to be holding it in better. My throat and eyes were sore as sandpaper from crying, and Mama gave me exactly five minutes to wash up and dress before dragging me out to the horsebarn. She’d already hitched up our team and refused my hand when I tried to help her up.

I’d been angry and righteous when I woke, but seeing Mama’s towering, barely controlled fury changed my mood to dire terror. I stared out at the trees and farms as we rode into town, feeling like a condemned man being taken to the gallows.

Mama pulled up out front of the Academy and marched me around back to the teacher’s cottage. She rapped on the door and waited, blowing clouds of steam out of her nose into the frosty morning air.

Mr Adelson answered the door in shirtsleeves and suspenders, unshaved and bleary. His hair, normally neatly oiled and slicked, stuck out like frayed broom-straw. The muscles on his thin arms stood out like snakes. He blinked at us, standing on his doorstep. “Mrs Nicholson!” he said.

“Mr Adelson,” my mother said. “We’ve come to discuss James’ report card.”

Mr Adelson smoothed his hair back and stepped aside. “Please, come in. Can I offer you some coffee?”

“No, thank you,” Mama said, primly, standing in his foyer. He held out his hand for her coat and kerchief and she handed them to him. I took off my coat and struggled out of my boots. He took them both and put them away in a closet.

“I’m going to have some coffee. Are you sure I can’t offer you a cup?”

“No. Thank you, all the same.”

“As you wish.” He disappeared down the dark hallway, and Mama and I found our way into his tiny parlour. Books were stacked every which where, dusty and precarious. Mama and I sat down in a pair of cushioned chairs, and Mr Adelson came in, holding two mugs of coffee. He set one down next to Mama on the floor, then smacked himself in the forehead. “You said no, didn’t you? Sorry, I’m not quite awake yet. Well, leave it there -- there’s cream in it, maybe the cat will have some.”

He settled himself onto another chair and sipped at his coffee. “Let’s start over, shall we? Hello, Mrs Nicholson. Hello, James. I understand you’re here to discuss James’ report card.”

Mama sat back a little in her chair and let hint of a sardonic smile show on her face. “Yes, we are. Forgive my coming by unannounced.”

“Oh, it’s nothing.”

Mr Adelson drank more coffee. Mama smoothed her skirts. I kicked my feet against the rungs of my chair. Finally, it was too much for me. “What’s the big idea, anyway?” I said, glaring daggers at him. “I don’t deserve no F!”

“Any F,” Mr Adelson corrected. “Why don’t you think so?”

“Well, because I did all my homework. I gave the right answers in class. I passed all the tests. It ain’t fair!”

“Not fair,” my Mama corrected, gently. She was staring distractedly at Mr Adelson.

“What you say is true enough, James. What grade do you suppose you should’ve gotten?”

“Why, an A! An A-plus! Perfect!” I said, glaring again at him, daring him to say otherwise.

“Is that what an A-plus is for, James? Perfection?”

“Sure,” I said, opening my mouth without thinking.

Mama shifted her stare to me. She was looking even more thoughtful.

“Why do you suppose you go to school?”

“‘Cause Mama says I have to,” I said, sullenly.

“James!” Mama said.

“Oh, I suppose it’s to learn things,” I said.

Mr Adelson smiled and nodded, the way he did when one of the students got the right answer in class. “Well?”

“Well, what?” I said.

“What did you learn this semester?”

“Why, everything you taught! Geometry! Algebra! Latin! Geography! Biology! Physics! Grammar!”

“I see,” he said. “James, what’s the formula for determining the constant in the second derivative of an equation?”

I knew that one: it was one of Newton’s dirty calculus proofs. “It’s a trick question. There’s no way to get the constant of second derivative.”

“Exactly right,” he said.

“Yes,” I said, and folded my arms across my chest.

“Where did you learn that?”

“In --” I started to say 1975, but caught myself. “In France.”


“Yes,” I said. The fingers of dawn crept across my comprehension. “Oh.”

Mama smiled at me.

“But it’s not fair! So what if I already knew everything before I started? I still did all the work.”

“Why are you in school, James?” Mr Nicholson asked me again.

“To learn.”

“Well, then I think you’d better start learning something, don’t you? You’re the brightest student in the class. You’re certainly smarter than I am -- I’m just an old sailor struggling along with the rest of the class. But you, you’ve got it. You’ve been marking time in class all semester, and I daresay you haven’t learned a single thing since you started. That’s why you got F’s.”

“Mr Adelson,” Mama said. “Am I to understand that James performed all his assignments satisfactorily?”

It was Mr Adelson’s turn to squirm. “Yes, but madam, you have to understand --”

Mama waved aside his objections. “If James satisfactorily completed all the work assigned to him, then I think he should have a grade that reflects that, don’t you?” She took a sip of her coffee.

“Yes, well --”

“However, you do have a point. I didn’t send my son to your school so that he could mark time, as you put it. I sent him there to learn. To be taught. Have you taught him anything, Mr Adelson?”

Mr Adelson looked so all-fired sad, I forgave him the report card and spoke up. “Yes, Mama.”

Mama swiveled her head to me. “Really?”

“Yes. He taught me what I was at school for. Just now.”

“I see,” Mama said. “This is very good coffee, Mr Adelson.”

“Thank you,” he said, and sipped at his.

“James,” Mr Adelson said. “You’ve learned your first lesson. What do you propose your second should be?”

“I dunno,” I said, and went back to kicking the rungs of the chair.

“What is it that you have been doing since you came back to town, son?” he asked.

“Hanging around in the attic, mostly. Reading. Tinkering. Like my Pa.”

“My husband’s machines and journals are up there,” Mama explained.

“And his books,” I said.

“Books?” Mr Adelson looked suddenly interested. “What kind of books?”

“Adventure stories. Stevenson. Wells. Some of it’s in French. We have all of Verne.”

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