The Air of Castor Oil

by Jim Harmon

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Let the dead past bury its dead? Not while I am alive, it won't!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

It surely was all right for me to let myself do it now. I couldn’t have been more safe. In the window of the radio store a color television set was enjoying a quiz by itself and creased in my pocket was the newspaper account of the failure of a monumental human adventure in the blooming extinction of a huge rocket. The boys on the corner seemed hardly human, scowling anthropoids in walrus-skin coats. It was my own time. Anybody could see I was safe, and I could risk doing what I ached to do.

I turned the corner.

The breaks were against me from the start. It didn’t come as any surprise. I could never get away with it. I knew that all along.

There was a Packard parked just beyond the fire plug.

The metal and glass fronts of the buildings didn’t show back here, only seasoned brick glued with powdering chalk. The line of the block seemed to stretch back, ever further away from the glossy fronts into the crumbling stone.

A man brushed past me, wearing an Ivy League suit and snap-brim hat, carrying a briefcase. And, reassuringly, he was in a hurry.

I decided to chance it. I certainly wanted to do it in the worst way.

My footsteps carried me on down the block.

A little car spurted on past me. One of those foreign jobs, I decided. Only it wasn’t. I fixed the silhouette in my mind’s eye and identified it. A Henry J.

Still, I wasn’t worried. It was actually too early in the day. It wasn’t as if it were evening or anything like that.

The little store was right where I left it, rotting quietly to itself. The Back Number Store, the faded circus poster proclaimed in red and gold, or now, pink and lemon. In the window, in cellophane envelopes, were the first issue of Life, a recent issue of Modern Man with a modern woman fronting it, a Big Big Book of Buck Rogers and the Silver Cities of Venus, and a brand-new, sun-bleached copy of Doctor Zhivago.

There was a little car at the curb. This time I recognized that it wasn’t an import, just a Crosley.

I went in, the brass handle making me conscious of the sweat on my palm.

The old man sat behind a fortress of magazines and books, treacherously reading the funnies in a newspaper. His bald head swiveled on the hunched shoulders of his sweater which was azuring toward white. He grinned, toothless.

“Came back for more of the stuff, did you?”

He laid down the newspaper. (That subheadline couldn’t really be making so nasty a suggestion to a noted general, could it?)

“Yes,” I laughed, not very true.

“I know what a craving can be. I shouldn’t smoke, but I do. I’ve tried to stop but I lie there thinking about cigarettes half the night. Long ones, short ones, smoked ones, ones unlit. I feel like I could smoke one in each hand. It like that with you?”

“Not that bad. To me it’s just--”

“Don’t tell me reading isn’t a craving with some of you fellows. I’ve seen guys come in here, hardly two threads stuck together on them, and grab up them horror magazines and read and read, until sweat starts rolling off the end of their nose. I’ve hardly got the heart to throw ‘em out.”

Horror magazines. Ones with lovely girls about to have their flesh shredded by toothy vampires. Yes, they were a part of it. Not a big part, but a part.

“That’s not what I want to see. I want--”

The old man snickered. “I know what you want. Indeed I do. This way.”

I followed his spidering hand and sure enough, there they were. Stacks upon stacks of air-war pulp magazines.

“Fifteen cents for ones in good condition,” the old man pronounced the ritual, “a dime for ones with incomplete covers, three for a quarter, check ‘em at the desk when you go.”

I ran my hand down a stack. Wings, Daredevil Aces, G-8 and his Battle Aces, The Lone Eagle, all of them.

The old man was watching me. He skittered back across the floor and snatched up a magazine. It was a copy of Sky Fighters with a girl in a painted-on flying suit hanging from the struts of a Tiger Moth.

“This one, this one,” he said. “This must be a good one. I bet she gets shoved right into that propeller there. I bet she gets chopped to pieces. Pieces.”

“I’ll take it.”

Reluctantly he handed over the magazine, waited a moment, then left me.

I stared at the stacks of flying story magazines and I felt the slow run of the drop of sweat down my nose.

My sickness was terrible. It is as bad to be nostalgic for things you have never known as for an orphan who has never had a home to be homesick.

Living in the past, that was always me. I never watched anything on TV made later than 1935. I was in love with Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Dolores del Rio. My favorite stars were Richard Dix, Chester Morris and Richard Arlen.

The music I listened to was Gershwin and Arlen and Chicago jazz.

And my reading was the pulp literature harking back to the First World War. This was the biggest part of it all, I think.

You identify with the hero of any story if it’s well enough written. But the identification I felt with the pilots in air-war stories was plainly ridiculous.

I was there.

I was in the saddle of the cockpit, feeling on my face the bite of the slipstream--no, that was a later term--the prop-wash?--no, that was still later--the backlash from the screw, that was it. I was lifting to meet the Fokker triplanes in the dawn sky. Then in a moment my Vickers was chattering in answer to Spandaus, firing through the screw outfitted with iron edges to deflect bullets that did not pass to the left and right. And back through the aerial maps in the cockpit pocket at my knee.

Here he comes, the Spandaus firing right through the screw in perfect synchronization. Look at that chivalrous wave. You can almost see the dueling scar on his cheek from old Krautenberg. He can afford to be chivalrous in that Fokker. I’d like to trade this skiddoo for it. That may be just what I do too if I don’t watch it.

You ain’t any Boelcke, mister, but this is from the Fifth for Squadron 70.


Hard on that rudder! God, look at the snake in that fabric. At least it was a lie about them using incendiaries.

One of your own tricks for you, Heinie. Up on the stick, up under your tail, into the blind spot. Where am I? Where am I? Right here.

Look at that tail go. Tony can’t be giving you as good stuff as he claims.

So long. I’m waving, see.

He’s pulling her up. No tail and he’s pulling her up. He’s a good man. Come on. A little more. A little more and you can deadstick her. Come on, buddy. You’re doing it. You’re pulling her up--

But not enough.

God, what a mess.

I’m sick.

That damned castor oil in the carburetor. I’ll be in the W. C. until oh-six-hundred...

No, the air wasn’t one of castor oil but the pleasant smell of aged paper and printer’s ink.

I’d been daydreaming again. I shouldn’t forget things were getting different lately. It was becoming dangerous.

I gathered up an armload of air-war magazines at random.

Leaning across the table, I noticed the curtain in back for the first time. It was a beaded curtain of many different colors. Theda Bara might have worn it for a skirt. Behind the curtain was a television set. It was a comforting anti-anachronism here.

The six- or eight-inch picture was on a very flat tube, a more pronounced Predicta. The size and the flatness didn’t seem to go together. Then I saw that the top part of the set was a mirror reflecting an image from the roof of the cabinet where the actual picture tube lay flat.

There was an old movie on the channel. An old, old movie. Lon Chaney, Sr., in a western as a badman. He was protecting a doll-faced blonde from the rest of the gang, standing them off from a grove of rocks. The flickering action caught my unblinking eyes.

Tom Santschi is sneaking across the top of the rocks, a knife in his dirty half-breed hand. Raymond Hatton makes a try for his old boss, but Chaney stops his clock for him. Now William Farnum is riding up with the posse. Tom makes a try with the knife, the girl screams, and Chaney turns the blade back on him. It goes through his neck, all the way through.

The blonde is running toward Farnum as he polishes off the rest of the gang and dismounts, her blouse shredded, revealing one breast--is that the dawn of Bessie Love? Chaney stands up in the rocks. Farnum aims his six-shooter. No, no, say the girl’s lips. “No!” “No!” says the subtitle. Farnum fires. Swimming in blood, Chaney smiles sadly and falls.

I had seen movies like that before.

When I was a kid, I had seen Flicker Flashbacks between chapters of Flash Gordon and Johnny Mack Brown westerns. I looked at old movies and heard the oily voice making fun of them. But hadn’t I also seen these pictures with the sound of piano playing and low conversation?

I had seen these pictures before the war.

The war had made a lot of difference in my life.

Comic books were cut down to half their size, from 64 to 32 pages, and prices had gone up to where you had to pay $17 for a pair of shoes, so high that people said Wilson should do something about it.

Tom Mix had gone off the air and he and his Cowboy Commandos beat the Japs in comic books. Only, hadn’t he sold Liberty Bonds with Helen Morgan?

And at school I had bought Defense--War--Savings--Security--Liberty--Freedom--I had bought stamps at school. I never did get enough to trade in for a bond, but Mama had taken my book and traded parts of it in for coffee. She could never get enough coffee...

“Nobody would look at my magazines,” the old man chuckled, “if I put it out front. My boy got me that. He runs a radio and Victrola store. A good boy. His name’s in the fishbowl.”

I pressed some money on him and walked myself out of the store. Shutting the door, I saw that the copy of Doctor Zhivago had been replaced by Gone With the Wind.

The street was full of wooden-paneled station wagons, blunt little roadsters with canvas tops, swept-back, tailless sedans. Only one dark, tailed, over-thyroided car moved through the traffic. It had a light on the roof.

I dodged in front of a horse-drawn garbage wagon and behind an electric postal truck and ran for that light, leaving a trail of gaudy air battles checkering the street behind me.

I grabbed the handle on the door, opened it and threw myself into the back seat.

“Madison Avenue,” I said from my diaphragm, without any breath behind it.

Something was wrong. Two men were in the front seat. The driver showed me his hard, expressionless face. “What do you think you are doing?”

“This isn’t a taxicab?” I asked blankly.

“Park Police.”

I sat there while we drove on for a few minutes.

“D. & D.,” the second man said to the driver.

“Right into our laps.”

The second officer leaned forward and clicked something. “I’ll get the City boys.”

“No, kill it, Carl. Think of all that damned paper work.”

Carl shrugged. “What will we do with him?”

I was beginning to attach myself to my surroundings. The street was full of traffic. My kind of traffic. Cars that were too big or too small.

“Look, officers, I’m not drunk or disorderly. I thought this was a cab. I just wanted to get away from back then--I mean back there.”

The two policemen exchanged glances.

“What were you running from?” the driver asked.

How could I tell him that?

Before I even got a chance to try, he said: “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!”

The car was turning, turning into shadows, stopping. We were in an alley. Soggy newspapers, dead fish, prowling cats, a broken die, half a dice, looking big in the frame of my thick, probably bullet-proof window.

The men opened their doors and then mine.


I climbed out and stood by the car, blinking.

“You were causing some kind of trouble in that neighborhood back there,” the driver announced.

“Really, officers--”

“What’s your name?”

“Hilliard Turner. There--”

“We don’t want you going back there again, Turner, causing trouble. Understand?”

“Officer, I only bought some books--I mean magazines.”

“These?” the second man, Carl, asked. He had retrieved them from the back seat. “Look here, Sarge. They look pretty dirty.”

Sarge took up the Sky Fighters with the girl in the elastic flying suit. “Filth,” he said.

“You know about the laws governing pornography, Turner.”

“Those aren’t pornography and they are my property!”

I reached for them and Carl pulled them back, grinning. “You don’t want to read these. They aren’t good for you. We’re confiscating them.”

“Look here, I’m a citizen! You can’t--”

Carl shoved me back a little. “Can’t we?”

Sarge stepped in front of me, his face in deadly earnest. “How about it, Turner? You a narcotics user?”

He grabbed my wrist and started rolling up my sleeve to look for needle marks. I twisted away from him.

“Resisting an officer,” Sarge said almost sadly.

At that, Carl loped up beside him.

The two of them started to beat me.

They hit clean, in the belly and guts, but not in the groin. They gave me clean white flashes of pain, instead of angry, red-streaked ones. I didn’t fight back, not against the two of them. I knew that much. I didn’t even try to block their blows. I stood with my arms at my sides, leaning back against the car, and hearing myself grunt at each blow.

They stood away from me and let me fold helplessly to the greasy brick.

“Stay away from that neighborhood and stay out of trouble,” Sarge’s voice said above me.

I looked up a little bit and saw an ugly, battered hand thumbing across a stack of half a dozen magazines like a giant deck of cards.

“Why don’t you take up detective stories?” he asked me.

I never heard the squad car drive away.

Home. I lighted the living room from the door, looked around for intruders for the first time I could remember, and went inside.

I threw myself on the couch and rubbed my stomach. I wasn’t hurt badly. My middle was going to be sorer in the morning than it was now.

Lighting up a cigarette, I watched the shapes of smoke and tried to think.

I looked at it objectively, forward and back.

The solution was obvious.

First of all, I positively could not have been an aviator in World War One. I was in my mid-twenties; anybody could tell that by looking at me. The time was the late ‘Fifties; anybody could tell that from the blank-faced Motorola in the corner, the new Edsels on the street. Memories of air combat in Spads and Nieuports stirred in me by old magazines, Quentin Reynolds, and re-runs of Dawn Patrol on television were mere hallucinations.

Neither could I remember drinking bootleg hooch in speak-easies, hearing Floyd Gibbons announce the Dempsey-Tunney fight, or paying $3.80 to get into the first run of Gone with the Wind.

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