Picking up from Part 13, in which I met Michael.
As I walked out Mike's door, I knew the newspaper would be worthless (and it was: a coup, a ferry tragedy, and the ubiquitous political crap), but by the time I reached the elevator I realized that I could use it as a reference for further thoughts. And so I got a few pieces of scrap paper from the man at the desk and borrowed a pen. As I read the paper I made notes on random ideas that it spawned:
A new car. How far from Vegas to Dallas? Shows I could see in Vegas. Flights between Vegas and Dallas. Magazines and newsletters dedicated to photography. Banks with safe deposit boxes in Vegas. Getting a driver's license in case I ever got stopped. Sporting events I'd like to catch. People I'd like to meet.
This was starting to get exciting again.
After nearly an hour, Michael showed back up in the lobby, but he didn't walk directly to me. Instead he walked to the man at the desk and made some kind of arrangements. I folded up my notes, stuck them in my pocket, and waited.
Finally Michael came back to me with a somber expression and sat.
"I had to call my doctor," he said, "and it was bad news."
"I'm so sorry, Michael. What can I do?"
"Nothing that I can think of, Paul. But I need to get back to Chicago right away. I have a heart condition and high blood pressure. I saw the doctor the day before I started following you, and the test results say that I'm pretty close to the brink. I should be on some new medicine right away."
He looked like he was grimly contemplating his death.
"Then let's stop worrying and start doing, shall we?"
He smiled. "Yes, that's a good idea. Let's go get some dinner and hash it out."
* * * * *
The doctor had stressed to Michael the urgency of the matter. His blood pressure was far too high and his heart weak. He had to get back home fast.
I was sure we could find a pharmacy in Minneapolis with the right drug, but that would require multiple phone calls and a lot of coordination. Another option was for Michael to drive back home. I could go with him and help of course, but that would still take two days… either that or driving day and night, which would be too stressful.
"I have an idea Mike, and it could solve problems for both of us."
"Sell me your car and I'll get you on a flight directly to Chicago from Minneapolis. I'll bet they have three or four per day."
"Then I'll have to buy a new car when I get back home."
"Yes, but time seems to be essential here, and I'll pay you whatever it's worth. It's a reliable car, isn't it?"
"Oh, yeah. It's only two years old and still has less than 10,000 miles."
"Then name your price. This plan will get you home tomorrow, with a minimum of strain."
He agreed to sell me the car for $1,400, and we went back to our menus at the same restaurant from the night before. My dinner there with Robert and Jim – literally 24 hours prior – seemed a week in the past.
We ordered and discussed Mike's condition, his son and daughter-in-law (with whom he might stay for a few days upon returning), and the fact that he wouldn't be telling anyone about our conversations. He trusted his son, but this story would simply sound crazy to him and would only cause trouble.
"I do have one thing I need to ask you," he said over the main course.
"What happened to the blond lady?"
"Yeah, we passed over that, didn't we?"
"Yeah, we did."
Now I had more decisions. I took a sip of wine to buy a few seconds as my mind worked quickly. How should I explain the reason she let herself die?
"That lady, Mike… that lady was not from Earth. She was human but not from Earth."
He sat almost entirely still.
"Yes, that means that humanity – our race here on Earth – is just one branch of a larger family."
He still sat unmoving, but at least he blinked.
"Now, I can't swear that it's true, but that's what I was told, and I do believe it."
He took a sip of wine himself and seemed to be absorbing what I had said. So I continued.
"She had a very hard time with what she called the Earth ambient, and I know what she meant."
He was engaging again, a good sign, especially considering his heart condition.
"I could feel a difference between 2016 and 1963 as I popped from one into the other. 1963 is heavier, for lack of a better word. And the difference between this and her world was much more than the difference I felt."
His eyes began to glaze and he got a far-off stare. At first I worried, and then I saw he was starting to cry.
"The pain and fear and worry and shame," he said, not to me so much as to himself and even to the universe. "It's worse here than it should be… It wasn't me that was deficient; it was the conditions that were bad."
I reached across the table and placed my hand on his.
"It was never your fault, Mike. This world and the people in it are underdeveloped. They're making progress, but you're ahead of them, and that's a painful position to be in."
The waitress noticed him crying and started over, I presume to see what was wrong. I waived her off and let Michael's emotions work themselves out.
He was wiping his face a few minutes later and drained his water glass.
"So," he finally said, "what happened to her?"
"It was a strange thing, Michael… she died… on purpose."
"No…" I struggled to find any word for it. "She said this was too rough on her and that to get back home, she was going to let herself die. She had me take her to a fancy hotel in Minneapolis, where they had a doctor on call. She checked in, went to her room – she told me it would take a few hours – then called for the doctor when it was almost done. That way there would be almost no fuss over it. It would be just a minor mystery."
He said nothing and sat there looking stunned, as before.
"I saved the newspaper from the next day with the story in it. I can show it to you when we get back."
"Yeah, I'd like that."
We continued eating and chatting about the details of checking out of the hotel and getting to the Minneapolis airport.
Then Michael turned to me and asked, "Was she confident?"
"You mean my blond friend?"
"Actually, yes. But it wasn't an overt confidence. She talked about dying like I'd talk about… maybe taking a nap. Of course I'll wake up afterward… I don't even think about anything else. The truth is, Michael, that her attitude about dying – about really, truly dying, in just an hour or two – it was a revelation to me, and I think I'll be coming to grips with it for some time."
"I can see that… and I'm a lot closer to it than you are."
"Your condition is that bad?"
"Apparently so. The doctor says that even in the best case, I'll be lucky to get two years. You have better medicine in your time, I hope?"
"We do. There are still things we can't fix, but it's definitely much better."
"Good," he muttered. "That's the way it should be."
* * * * *
We were both checked out of the hotel by 6:30 the next morning and were driving north a few minutes later. I had Michael write out a bill of sale on one of my legal pads as we drove. On the next sheet, Michael wrote his address and phone number. I promised to both write and call, something I felt a strong need to do. Not only was Michael an exceptional man, but he was literally my only friend in the world. And I very much doubted I'd tell anyone else the things I had told him.
I walked him into the airport, to the ticket counter for Northwest Airlines, and then to the gate. We hugged before he boarded and wished each other luck. I sat another half hour at the airport bar, sipping a Coke and writing him a four-page letter. I was able to coax an envelope and stamp from the bartender and mailed the letter at the mailbox in front of the terminal.
Then I headed to my new car, found my way back to I-35 and headed south to Des Moines in a haze. Again I was back on my own – alone to stay this time, I was sure – in 1963. It was troubling and exciting at once. Again I wanted very much to be home, and again I could barely believe the opportunities that were laid open to me. How does a man reconcile all of that?
I forced myself out of my haze just before Des Moines and pulled into a truck stop. I gassed up, bought some food and drinks (bottled water was nowhere to be found), and pulled back onto the road in the early afternoon, headed west.
I-80 was under construction in western Iowa, and the going was slow. But I flipped on the radio and entertained myself with old songs and then an agricultural report read by a young Orion Samuelson, which blew my mind: Samuelson was still the agricultural reporter for WGN in 2016! It was rush hour as I got to Omaha, and so I decided to stop for the day.
* * * * *
It was at dinner, and especially when I got to my room after, that the depth of my situation really came down upon me. There were no more hyper-intense situations to keep my mind focused, and the crazy reality of it all surged in. I was alone, stranded in 1963 and scheduled to be blipped out of existence in January of 1966.
I wouldn't see my family for more than two years. I couldn't call or peek through a bedroom door to be sure they were okay. I was hopelessly, impossibly far away, beyond the borders of the known universe!
It would be hard to convey the depth of that loneliness. Without scientific knowledge it would have been serious, but with that knowledge it was staggering. Yes, I believed Jim and Robert and the woman (whatever her name was) that I'd end up back home in my bed – and that was in fact comforting – but until then, I was still utterly stranded.
But was I really alone? I knew dozens of people currently alive in Chicago. They might not know me, but if we became friends in 1970 and '80 and '90 and 2000, it was highly likely that we could become friends now too.
And then came the issue of improving the world… my 2016 world. No human had ever had this opportunity, at least as far as my friends knew, and they were in positions to know. I had to give that my strength, but exactly how?
Lying in my bed, I could feel that I was going to make myself sick if I kept those thoughts going. Then, out of nowhere, I recalled a conversation with a psychologist friend. I had said something about the uselessness of booze, and he corrected me: "It can create lots of problems," he said, "but it does reduce stress."
Immediately I got up, went to the hotel bar, and ordered a Jack Daniel's on the rocks. Jackie Gleason was on the TV, followed by Joey Bishop and then a few boxing matches. All the while I kept up conversations with a couple of businessmen stuck in town for the weekend.
I reminded myself to ask them questions, which would be lighter work than answering theirs. And they seemed happy to play along. I must have had four whiskies. I remembered to drink lots of water too, but I kept enough booze going to beat back those stress levels, as I laughingly repeated to myself.
It was after midnight when I crawled into bed, purposely thinking about anything but my earlier thoughts: the last boxing match, a silly skit on one of the comedy shows, and a funny story told by the salesman from California. I soon enough fell asleep, thinking only of trivialities.
* * * * *