The Nostalgia Gene

by Roy Hutchins

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: If you cannot get the "good old days" out of your mind, there is only one person to blame--Edgar's grandmother!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Folks who knew Edgar Evans said he was a strange young man. Certainly he was the darling of the old ladies and the despair of the young. The sternest fathers positively beamed when Edgar called for their daughters, but fellows his own age declared in the authoritative tones of youth that Edgar was a square.

Handsome enough he was. The real reason for all the fuss was Edgar’s manners. The trouble was that he had them.

For Edgar had been orphaned at four by an Oklahoma tornado and raised by his Hoosier grandmother, a dear old lady whose hand had once been kissed by a passing Barrymore. The result was Edgar’s manners. He realized, of course, that one didn’t kiss a lady’s hand these days, but such was Edgar’s gracious way that women always got the impression he was about to.

One parent, in something of a trance after encountering Edgar, summed up the reaction.

“That kid,” he told his wife dazedly, “akshully called me ‘sir.’ Them other punks come aroun’ afta Milly, they call me ‘Mac.’ Too bad that there Edgar was born fifty years too late.”

Before very long, Edgar came to the same conclusion.

He knew a good many young men, but none he could call friend. The bop talk which fascinated them seemed to him a repulsive travesty upon English, just as their favorite music sounded like the braying of asses in agony.

Many girls were willing enough when Edgar asked for a first date, but an amazing number of them developed ill health when he suggested a second evening of classical records or good conversation.

The girls themselves could not be blamed if they mistook his courtly approach for a new dreamy line. Alas, the very hearts which fluttered at his old-world chivalry grew icy when no pass was made. A girl wants to know her charms are appreciated.

So Edgar sank more deeply into himself. He recalled his grandmother’s stories about life and living back near the end of the century, when folks knew how to be pleasant and kind.

Even at his job--he was a technician in an electronic lab--Edgar couldn’t stop longing for that era when existence had been more gentle, simple and leisurely. His social life virtually ceased.

“Man, you ain’t livin’,” said one of the technicians he worked with. “We’re gonna buzz a few dives tonight. Why not drag it along with us?”

Edgar blanched. “Thank you just the same, but I--I have some work to do.”

After a while, naturally, they stopped asking.

He continued to dream hopelessly, miserably, but one day he was yanked out of it by--of all people--a military man. The brass were on inspection tour and the lab’s Chief Engineer was apologizing for a faulty run of synchros which had occurred some time ago, when the Brigadier snorted.

“What’s past is finished. I’m interested in five years from now!”

Edgar found himself staring fixedly at a top secret gadget still in the breadboard stage.

“Great heaven!” he thought. “I have a fixation. This isn’t doing me any good.”

But what would? Suppose, instead of dreaming, he spent time actually working toward what he wanted most?

Here in the lab, he helped to build amazing machines, things which daily did the impossible. He no longer marveled at what could be done with electronics and, more important, he knew the methods and the details.

That was when Edgar decided to build a time machine.

It was two months before he touched a transformer or a capacitor and during that period he did nothing but try to answer the question, What is time? How could he overcome it or change its flow or whatever had to be done?

He read everything he could find on the subject from Dr. Cagliostro to Dr. Einstein without gaining much insight. Many a midnight, when his neck muscles ached from trying to hold up his throbbing head, he caught himself dreaming of grandmother’s wonderful stories. And every time he forced himself furiously back to the books, but he couldn’t stop the nostalgia entirely. It was in him.

Eventually, Edgar came to think of time as an infinite series through which the Universe was constantly expanding. Something like a set of stop-motion photos taken microseconds apart, each complete, the changes becoming apparent only when they are viewed in sequence. He was wrong, of course, but that was unimportant.

Time must therefore be a function of human motion and consciousness, Edgar reasoned, and that was important.

“That’s it!” he exclaimed, and then apologized gracefully to the elderly gentleman glaring across the library table.

Now that he knew what his time machine must do, he could begin building, adapting circuits, experimenting. Obviously, consciousness could move forward through the series only; hence, consciousness must be completely suspended, as in death, to move back in time.

It required some heartbreaking months for Edgar to learn that brain waves couldn’t be stopped, but that the simple trick of introducing random electrical noise suspended all the brain functions.

“Fudge!” cursed Edgar, thinking of the wasted time.

Only a man filled with the longing which obsessed Edgar could have found the aching perseverance and brain-wrenching ingenuity the job needed. Only a man driven by a terrible master that rode in his glands.

But four months later, he stood with his hand on a switch, sweating with nervous excitement as he eyed the spot from which a live rabbit had just disappeared. The rabbit was on the table, but he was there an hour ago and Edgar was here now, so the table appeared empty.

He pressed another switch and there was the bunny, wriggling its soft nose in perplexity, but perfectly healthy. Edgar’s own trip, of course, would be strictly one way since the machine stayed in the present. He could be brought back only if he stepped into its field on a date for which the machine was set and he had absolutely no intention of venturing near this vicinity again, once his aim was accomplished.

He thought about arranging a small explosive charge to blow the equipment to what he thought of as The Hot Place. It seemed to him, however, that there was some kind of law against that sort of thing. Besides, even if the machine should come to the attention of the authorities, who would know what it was? He could devise a mechanical scrambler to change all the control settings once he was gone, and it was unlikely that anyone could operate it again.

Most likely the landlady would simply sell it for junk, especially if he left owing her a week’s rent. The idea hurt his conscience.

“I know!” he exclaimed to himself. “I’ll buy a bank check and arrange to have the bank mail it to her a month after I’ve left!”

He felt much better about that.

Three weeks later, Edgar Evans was the newest boarder at Mrs. Peterson’s, on Elm Avenue in Greencastle, Indiana. He had arrived on April 3, 1893, the day after Easter, and already he was being referred to as “that nice young man staying at Emma’s.”

Edgar snuggled into the life of the ‘90s like a showgirl into mink. He went to work as a clerk in Cloud’s Emporium and was soon regarded as logical choice for the next manager. Anxious mamas filled his evenings with dinner invitations and “at homes” and he had a dazzling choice of partners for the numerous socials.

Edgar waltzed his partners with zest and propriety, contributed a determined tenor at parlor sings, and sampled dozens of cakes and pies baked by maidens bent on winning his heart via the traditional route. And always he had a gracious compliment, an appropriate phrase for every situation.

Within a month, the entire feminine population of Greencastle was his for the asking, though he’d never have recognized nor admitted the fact. The men sought his company, too, and even asked his advice on how to win their girls back from him. Edgar, almost sick with happiness, told them, of course.

On the eleventh of November, he was sick with something else. He went to bed with a fever right after getting home from the Emporium, Mrs. Peterson hovering helplessly with offers of hot broth or tea. But Edgar felt hot and dry and his side hurt when he breathed.

“I don’t want anything ... thank you,” he gasped politely.

By the next noon, when the alarmed Emma Peterson had Dr. Ward in, Edgar was barely conscious. Dr. Ward frowned, ordered hot water bottles and gave Edgar a huge dose of hot whiskey with lemon.

“Penicillin, please,” whispered Edgar painfully. “Or sulfa. It’s pneumonia, isn’t it?”

“Poor fellow’s delirious,” said the doctor to Mrs. Peterson.

Edgar realized dimly that he had made a blunder, but that no one would know. Then the fever took over and he blanked out.

Dr. Ward claimed ever afterward that clean living was what pulled Edgar through--the fact that he wasn’t conditioned to liquor gave the medicinal whiskey virgin ground to work in.

All Edgar knew was that he came to and found himself so weak that he could scarcely speak. Mrs. Peterson and her daughter, Marta, bustled in and out to care for him. He hadn’t paid particular attention to Marta before, but in the days of lying helpless and being literally spoon-fed, he began to know her very well.

Marta was a plain girl, he had thought, but he had never seen her private smile before. Marta was rather dumpy, he had thought, but he had never watched her bend to pick something up or twist to reach for a medicine bottle. Her dresses, he discovered, were deliberately all wrong for her--Mrs. Peterson had no intention of disturbing her boarders unnecessarily.

In the shocking intimacy of his bedroom, Edgar was increasingly disturbed. Marta was unfailingly cheerful, eager to wait on him. Every half-hour, he heard her step in the hall.

“Hello!” Marta would say, sweeping lightly to his bedside. “How’s our patient now? Feeling better? Oh, dear, do let me just straighten that sheet. It’s all wrinkled. Would you like some milk or some fruit?”

“Not right now, thank you--perhaps a little later,” Edgar would reply, fixing his gaze determinedly on the window or the ceiling while she bent over his bed, disturbingly rounded and disastrously close.

And as Edgar’s recovery progressed, Mrs. Peterson dropped more and more into the background. On the day Dr. Ward said he might try sitting up for a while, it was Marta who stood by for the experiment.

Edgar started nobly, made about a foot of arc by himself and faltered. Instantly, it seemed, Marta’s arm was around his shoulders and a firm, warm projection cushioned his cheek.

He very nearly collapsed, but she sat him up.

Three days later, he held her hand for a moment and, though she blushed, she didn’t draw it away in a hurry.

After a proper interval, their engagement was announced. Half the maidens in Greencastle wept in the privacy of their pillows that night.

Edgar had had a serious problem and solved it. He had found the right girl and married her. This should be the end of his story and it would be, except for two things--Edgar’s gene and the date of his birth.

Edgar’s gene came from his grandmother via his father. The stories that gentle old lady told her orphaned grandson were the only outlet she had for her own powerful urge to turn back the times. And there had always been someone in the family who bemoaned the passing of the good old days, so strongly and constantly as to bore others to the verge of violence.

Back even a few decades, no carrier of the nostalgia gene had any outlet but conversation and dreams. Edgar, though, was born to an age where science provided the knowledge and the equipment for him to find the practical solution.

If Edgar’s gene had carried any other trait, red hair, placidity or hemophilia, for instance, or if it had been recessive instead of dominant, this might have been a very different world. But the result was inevitable from the moment of Edgar’s birth and the chain of events that proved it was as flawless as the steps of Gauss’s theorem.

He prospered after he and Marta were married. In three short years, he was made manager of Cloud’s Emporium and just before that, Marta had surprised him with a daughter--surprised him because he was certain of a son. He wasn’t inclined to be stubborn about it, however, and when the child put a pudgy little hand up to his cheek in a gesture that was probably caused by reflex or gas pains, he was completely won.

When little Emma reached three, she was incurably addicted to bedtime stories, though only those concerning knights in armor and their ladies fair. Edgar grew to hate the names of Arthur and Galahad, but if he tried to tell a different story, his daughter had her own way of stopping him. Rearing back in his arms, she merely shrieked, “Ting Arfur, Ting Arfur!” until she turned blue, at which point Edgar always gave in.

There was no doubt that little Emma had inherited the gene.

In 1906, old Cloud made Edgar a full partner in the Emporium and just eleven years later, little Emma wrote home from New York City with the shocking news that she was engaged to a doughboy from Brooklyn.

Edgar and Marta rushed East to unmask the scoundrel, praying they would be in time to save Emma’s honor.

The scoundrel, when unmasked, was a mechanic with weak eyes and a passion for poetry, who was completely miserable in the infantry. His manners were acceptable and he had enough intelligence to let Edgar beat him thoroughly at cribbage, whereupon Edgar offered to finance the opening of a garage in Greencastle if the young folks would move back there when Jim’s hitch in the Army was finished.

“Emma is all we have,” said Edgar in his classic style. “It’s quite lonesome back home for Mother and me since she’s been in the city. We--well, we should like to know that you and, later on, our grandchildren will be settling in a home near us.”

Emma blushed and Jim tried to dig the toe of his boot into a crack between the floorboards.

“Besides,” added Edgar, becoming aware of Marta’s look, “Greencastle is a fine town and right up with the times. I think a garage will do a fine business there.”

Jim was inclined to be reluctant, but Emma gave him a side-wise kick and said of course they’d come home and settle. She gave Edgar a big hug and a kiss and he beamed on everybody for the rest of the evening.

A few months later, Jim’s weak eyes caused him to pass a colonel without saluting and, within days, he had a medical discharge. Emma and the garage were waiting in Greencastle, so Jim took the first train.

In ‘19 and in ‘21, Emma produced grandsons, delighting everyone and especially Edgar. Emma herself was thoroughly puzzled when the boys reached the age for bedtime stories; she discovered that they were not particularly interested in tales of bold knights and fair ladies. She would have been happy to recite the legends of Arthur every night, but the boys, it seemed, preferred even poor poetry to a good, stirring joust.

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