The Yanks Are Coming

As told to Keith by his father Edward Kenny

We were the Class of ’41, Lincoln High School, Van Dyke Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Graduation was in June, seven months before Pearl Harbor, and I was seventeen.

Jobs were scarce that summer—the country was climbing out of the depression—but all my buddies from school had found some sort of work. We called ourselves the “Cherokee Club.” When I wasn’t working or visiting with my high school sweetheart, Phyllis ‘Phyl’ Bender, I met with them to play basketball or have fun. The war changed everything.

We all decided to go down and enlist in the United States Army Air Corps and become flyers. Of the 28, eight managed to pass the physical and mental tests, and three eventually qualified for flight training. Bob Schronic died the year after he was called up in a flight school accident. Bob Brown made flight officer but shifted to bombardier training.

It was several months before I got into the Aviation Cadet Program for ground school. I was called to active duty in February 1943 and shipped to Miami Beach, Florida, for Army Basic. That May I was sent to Kent State University in Ohio for Officer’s Candidate School, meteorology, and geography. There I was appointed student officer of cadets.

Phyl had written to me every day and was my lifeline throughout training. We married on campus in the chapel of Kent State University on June 27, 1943. It was a quick wedding. Her family drove down from Detroit. We got a license at the county clerk’s office. Phyl changed to her wedding dress at the back of the office, and I wore my uniform. All my buddies attended. They’d taken up a collection for a present, twenty-one dollars, mostly in pennies.

That night, we had dinner at a hotel in Dayton. Next morning after breakfast, Phyl’s family left for home. When the sergeant told me that my two-day pass had not been approved, I went AWOL for the weekend. I was back for muster Monday morning. The sergeant gave me fifty guard tours for punishment—it was worth it. Phyl took a room off campus, and we got together whenever I could get a pass.

Graduation came later that summer. After the ceremony, the sergeant handed me rail and meal tickets for the entire class of 110 students. As Officer of Cadets, I was in charge of getting us from Kent State to the Aviation Cadet Center in San Antonio, Texas. We boarded three buses for Cleveland early the next morning, everyone in crisp tan uniforms, dark ties, and brown leather jackets. We caught the Nickel Plate train that ran from Cleveland to Chicago on the Kankakee line. We were to have lunch in Chicago and change trains to head South.

We pulled into Chicago a little late, but veteran services had our lunches ready on the platform; a row of picnic tables with bags of sandwiches, fried potatoes, soft drinks, and, of course, popcorn balls, all served by pretty girls and their mothers in bright print dresses. The popcorn balls had names and mailing addresses rolled up inside—in case a soldier wanted to write a girl back home. While the cadets ate, I looked for depot number three, where we were to catch the train to San Antonio.

The stationmaster checked our tickets and boarding time then scratched under the bill of his uniform cap. “Sir, these are for the CB&Q, the Burlington train leaving Union Station on Canal Street. This is Central Station, Michigan Avenue.”

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“How do we get over there?” I asked, noting the boarding time.

“You could wait for a bus, but you can’t all get on one, and it’s not due for another twenty minutes. It’s not a long walk. A little over a mile and a half.” He pointed the way. “Cross Michigan Avenue Boulevard, take 12th Street West across the Chicago River, turn right on Canal Street North. Takes you right to the Canal Street station.”

I ran back down the platform to rouse the cadets from their lunches and conversations. “Gotta march, boys. Grab your bags. We’ll finish eating on the way.” I heard some grumbling, but no one lingered. We lined up smartly and headed out two-by-two. When we crossed Michigan Avenue, the walkway narrowed and our march slowed. A Chicago policeman rode up on a motorcycle.

“Officer,” I showed him the tickets, “we’re supposed to be on the Burlington train leaving the Canal Street station at 4:40.” He nodded, waved us from the walkway onto the road then led us up the street. At the next corner, he talked to two policemen directing traffic. They jumped in a patrol car and sped off, clearing our path to the Canal Street.

We lined up four-abreast and made good time marching in the center of the road. About a quarter mile out, one of the cadets took up singing and everyone joined in.

Over there, over there,

Send the word, send the word, over there

That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming

The drums rum-tumming everywhere …

Other songs followed. It was a beautiful sunny day. People left the shops and sang with us; some marched with us, too. Musicians pulled up chairs along the sidewalk, played, smiled and waved. We turned north on Canal, and the crowd followed. Policemen stopped traffic and waved us along.

As soon as the station came in sight, we broke into a run. By the time we reached the platform on our tickets, our train was nearly out of sight. We’d missed it.

“Whatcha got,” the stationmaster asked, waving me over. He was a short, heavy-set man in a tight, dark uniform and a billed, conical cap. I showed him our tickets, and he checked them against the passenger train schedule.

“Next train out to St. Louie ’ll be here Thursday, three days.” My face dropped and my arms fell to my sides. The stationmaster added, “Course that won’t get you to San Antone. These tickets call for switchin’ trains in St. Louie, I—” He looked at the tickets again then at a pocket watch he pulled from his vest. “Hmmm. There’s a three-hour lay over.”

He walked into the station house, cranked up the wall phone, held the speaker to his ear, and leaned into the mouthpiece. “Helen, Charlie, be a doll and connect me to the president CB&Q. Got a problem at Union Station, Canal Street.”

I looked back at my 110 pilot cadets. One played “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” on his harmonica. Most sat on their bags or leaned on platform posts, smoking or waiting silently.

The stationmaster hung up the phone then hurried to collar an engineer and conductor coming off shift. They had a quick exchange. Both men looked at me, nodded, and ran off across the yard. The stationmaster strolled back with a swagger in his step and a wide smile on his muffin face.

“Mister, we got you a train to St. Lou. A fast ‘n, too, so you should make your connection to San Antone.”

“How—?”

“Courtesy of my boss, the President of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad.” His smile told me he held something back. “You said a hundred and ten cadets?” I nodded and he nodded back. “I told the engineer to hook up five Pullman sleepers and a diner car, so you’ll be ridin’ in style.” Hearing that, my cadets cheered, jumped up, and began talking loudly.

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The locomotive was the Burlington Zephyr Rocket, top of the line, with seven cars attached. The conductor helped me get everyone settled in their bunks and cleared it with the diner to accept our meal tickets. We’d had a long day, so it wasn’t long before everyone turned in. I heard a long, sharp whistle, felt the train lurch, and saw the lights of the Canal Street station slip slowly past the windows.

I thanked the conductor, a tall, lean, black man who never lost his smile, then said, “Now I need to find some place to curl up.”

“No thanks necessary, sir. Come with me.” He led me to the back of the train to the last car, unlocked the door, and motioned inside. “The President of CB&Q Railroad said you was to have his personal coach.” He showed me around. It was a millionaire’s executive rail car, done up like a nineteenth-century luxury hotel room, polished brass, cut glass, imported furniture, and a full bath.

“You’ll want to say goodbye,” the conductor said, leading me outside onto the rear platform. I heard the wind rush by, the powerful chugging of the engine, and the clickety-clack of wheels running over the rails.

As the city lights receded in the distance, the conductor handed me a cold bottle of Old Milwaukee beer. “Sir,” he said, holding up one of his own.

We clicked bottles, and I offered a toast, “To your fine city, to Chicago, and to fine folks like yourself.” We drank down the beers and had a couple more.

As I looked out and listened to the clickety-clack, clickety-clack, I thought of Phyl taking another train to San Antonio. She followed me throughout my year of training, camp-to-camp, and took rooms off post.

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Opening Soon

Kaylee felt cold and empty, like a rusty, railroad spike had been driven deep into her heart and brutally wrenched out. She’d been with Tim three years. Three years. That morning in Holly’s Café, he’d told her of his engagement plans. He and Stasi would be married in October.

“I’m happy for you,” She’d said, shaking inside. He cheerfully invited her to the wedding then rushed off to meet Stasi and Father Antonio at Saint Mary’s. Kaylee left the café alone.

She found a bench along the street. A taxi slowed at the curb. A young woman jumped out wearing a fashionable tennis outfit. A tall man in red jogging shorts and a red Adidas shirt swept her up and spun her around. Still embracing, they exchanged remarks on their good timing then dashed into Holly’s Café. Three pre-teen girls bounced past laughing, music in their steps, books and a jump rope clutched in their hands, talking nonstop. “My momma, she said …”

Kaylee hugged her purse to her chest and bent over it, staring at the pavement. The life she’d planned. Gone.

Tiny drops of rain tapped her cheek, joining her tears. The flow came faster, the drops harder. Shoppers, joggers, and service people, young and old, covered their heads with packages and backpacks and quickened their pace. Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain soaked Kaylee’s dress and shoes as she ran. Cars sped by, splashing waves onto sidewalks from puddles and fast filling gutters.

Kaylee ducked between yellow-brick buildings on a narrow walking street and leaned on the lee side of one of the buildings. The wind shifted and blew harder, driving the downpour horizontal. She spotted an old theater down the walk, ran to it, and took cover under the entrance marquee. All she could see beyond her shelter were curtains of gray water. How long must she wait for the storm to pass so she could go home?

A split banner spanned the old theater doors, red letters printed on white: THEATER diagonally across one door, CLOSED across the other. Cupping her eyes against the dark glass, she saw a vacant lobby with an empty concession stand, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in glass-fronted cases. She pulled the door handle. The door opened.

The lobby smelled of mildew and moldy carpet. Pink and tan paths, worn threadbare in the red carpet, arced to both sides of the concession stand, ending at tall, double doors. Kaylee followed the path to the left and pushed through the swinging doors.

The auditorium was empty, cold, and dark—a place that matched her mood, a place to be alone and think. A steady drip, drip, dripping sound came from an unseen bucket. The faint glow from the exit door signs illuminated shadowy rows of seats and an aisle sloping down to the stage. Kaylee chose an aisle seat in the fourth row. As her eyes adjusted, she noted scattered trash and seats with torn upholstery. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, two folding, metal chairs, and a shaded floor lamp.

Something scurried at the foot of the stage. “Maybe Tim,” Kaylee snorted then hung her head. She took a tissue from her purse and touched the corners of her eyes to lift the sting of tears. Tim had been so cheerful that morning, sharing his big news, totally indifferent to how she might feel. His crass ambivalence was disturbing. Was it that easy for him to dismiss her? To forget how they’d touched and held one another? To forget their kisses? Fleeting visions of running in the surf together, picnics, and flying kites felt like distant fantasies. Never again. Could she endure hearing his laughter, now in harmony with another’s laugh? Would she ever laugh again?

Soft footsteps crossed the dark stage. Then the stage lights came up full. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with a palm against her forehead. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and untucked, white T-shirt stood center stage. He laid a sheaf of papers on the card table, turned on the floor lamp, and rattled a metal chair as he sat. The man pulled one sheet off the stack, crossed his legs, and leaned back. His lips mouthed words as he read.

An older, motherly looking woman walked from the back of the stage down the steps to the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me. If you have a few moments, would you sit in and read a few lines for us? Just until Jenna arrives.”

Kaylee sat up, embarrassed, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, my dear, life goes on?”

Kaylee startled. “Excuse me, what did you say?”

“The play we’re rehearsing, My Dear, Life Goes On. You may have heard of it. It’s by a local playwright.

“Oh, of course. I’m sorry, my mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

While reviewing her lines, Kaylee noticed that the card table had acquired a fine, white cover cloth, and its legs were polished, carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the young man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown. Instead of a floor lamp, a crystal chandelier glittered above the table.

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Heavy stage curtains parted to reveal a packed auditorium. The audience buzzed with whispered anticipation. A formal dinner scene set on stage glowed in the spotlights. How lovely, Kaylee thought. She stumbled over her first lines, but no one seemed to mind. Her gestures and lines smoothed as she and the young man proceeded, scene after scene. Soon she no longer needed the script.

At the end, the audience stood and applauded. Her leading man stepped back and extended his arm, insisting she take a solo bow. “This is wonderful,” she said, closing her eyes and inhaling the moment.

The stage lights dimmed. Everything quieted and faded—the audience, her acting partner, the matronly lady in the front row. Cloth-covered, carved wood returned to being a bare card table, upholstered seats to folding chairs, and the gleaming chandelier to a dark floor lamp. Her gown was again the dress she’d worn that morning, still damp from the rain. As she followed the dim-lit aisle out to the lobby, and heard the slow drip, drip, dripping from an unseen bucket.

Outside the rain had stopped. The sun broke through the last cumulous clouds and cast a brilliant halo with rays of bright sunshine. Kaylee shaded her eyes and glanced up at the marquee she’d been unable to read in the rain. The last show was still on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters had fallen away. Tim_ of Your Life the sign now read, followed by “CLOSED.”

Kaylee shook her head at the irony then caught her breath. The line at the very bottom of the billboard read in large letters: NEW PLAY—OPENING SOON.

The Child Has Good Instincts

“She has sad eyes,” the four-year-old girl said, tapping Terrell’s crossed knee and watching the creature on the examining table. “Can I show her my dog?”

She was the beetle Professor Terrell brought back from his travels. The shiny black Madagascar beetle tipped the scale at 176 pounds. Her six splayed legs drooped over the table edges. The beetle’s compound, black eyes glistened under the lamps. Smaller simple eyes glinted along its dark-bristled forehead.

Without lifting his eyes, Terrell nodded and pointed an index finger from the touchpad.

Little Jenny dashed to the lab table, carrying a squirming golden retriever puppy in her arms. “Want to play with Chloe?” she asked. She offered the puppy to the dark, horn-ridged creature. Terrell noted the time and turned on the recorder.

The beetle touched the sniffing puppy two or three times with its antennae then extended a clawed forward leg. Chloe leaned into the outstretched claw, stretching to better feel the saw-toothed edge comb across her back and down her rump and tail.

Jenny laughed and said, “Chloe likes that.” She sidled up close to stroke her dog’s head and look into the beetle’s eye. “Can you talk, Mister Beetle?”

The beetle ratcheted a few squeaks.

“It’s okay if you can’t. Mommy says I talk enough for two people. I talk to Chloe all the time, and she never says anything. Some of my stuffed toys talk, but you have to squeeze them.”

“Aaaaa,” Jenny’s mother screamed and raced into the room. “Jenny, don’t.” She snatched up her little girl then backpedaled, keeping her eyes on the beetle. The beetle arched one antenna in her direction. Chloe curled tight and closed her eyes as the beetle continued smoothing and stroking her coat.

The mother screamed her outrage at Professor Terrell. “How could you let such a thing happen? Put my precious little Jenny in such terrible danger?” The professor shrugged and made another note. “I’m calling the police. I’ll have you investigated for child endangerment.”

She looked down at Jenny, nearly crushed in her tight-wrapped arms. “Are you okay, my darling? Did that nasty, nasty thing harm you? Oh, when I think … oh my, what it might have done, killed you, eaten you.”

She pressed the back of her hand to her lowered face then glared at Terrell. Waving to the beetle, she said, “We don’t know anything about this, this awful thing.”

“We know it likes Chloe, and it likes me,” said Jenny, wide-eyed and smiling. “Mommy, could you get me one? Please? It’s very sweet.”

Her mother winced, baring her teeth. Jenny wiggled free and ran to the beetle, handing it the fuzz-stuck, lime lollipop from her pocket.

Professor Terrell made a note. “Observation: the child has good instincts as does the dog. Unlike the adult subject, they appraised the situation with open minds.”

My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

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I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.

Name’s Cole…Morty Cole

“Gotta go,” the girl said, taking a last draw on her half-smoked Pall Mall. She snubbed it out in the molded glass ashtray and hopped out of bed.

Morty marveled at how her upturned nipples jiggled tiny circles when she gestured. She was pretty and cute, he thought, the way a small animal is cute. Her slender ass swayed as she walked to the bathroom. He hoped she’d leave the door open, but she closed and locked it. The shower faucet squeaked, water flowed, and the toilet flushed. Maybe she thought she could find another customer before morning.

The hotel Régale was hosting a cyber technology seminar, and he’d met the girl in the cocktail lounge. She said she was a nursing student and needed money. Name was Laini. Morty didn’t believe her or that she’d be interested in him, a pock-faced, middle-aged man.

He rolled out of bed and pulled on his boxers, noting how his roll of flab hid the elastic. He touched the entertainment panel on the side table. The opening sequence to Trevor Hart Secret Agent burst across the wall display. A big-breasted blond swooned into Trevor Hart’s open arms. Then came a scream, a car crash, an explosion, and a rapid exchange of gunfire. Morty slid down the volume bar.

He clapped a pack of Pall Malls on his hand until a cigarette emerged. Lighting one, he took a long suck and exhaled then checked his watch. Almost midnight. Huh, little nursy-girl made good time.

With one eye on the bathroom door, Morty pulled his sample case from the closet shelf. He pressed the latches and lifted the lid. Inside were quantum processors and optical chips arrayed in tailored slots of black foam. Secure in slot 3Z-7102, the slot normally reserved for standard processors, was the quantum ‘Zuigau’ chip passed to him that afternoon in a discarded Gyro Palace sandwich wrapper.

The exchange in the park had gone almost as planned, except Dr. Ho hadn’t noticed the young man on the park bench pretending to play a video game. The man wore a red Manchester United football jersey. When the doctor tossed his sandwich wrap into the waste bin Morty was pushing, ‘Manchester’ leaped to his feet.

Morty swung the dustpan up, pressed the lever lifting the cover cap, and sent a toxin-laced needle into Manchester’s chest. The man stumbled, grabbed the back of the park bench, and sat for the last time. The needle dissolved quickly. Its pollutant-emulating toxins would be dismissed as confirmation of environmental warnings. No further investigation would be required.

Morty heard the water stop and the shower door slide. He pinched both interior edges of the sample case and lifted the chip display. Below lay the lethal dustpan, a hairpiece and mustache, and fragments of a plastic nose.

“Sir,” the young woman called from the steaming doorway while covering her chest.

“Yes, Laini,” Morty said, securing his case and thinking how strange it was that some women became modest after selling their bodies.

“I can stay the night if you’d like…for a little extra.” She glanced up at the projection. Agent Trevor Hart was one-handing his roadster on a winding road pursued by a convoy of rocket and machinegun-firing spies. “Oh, I just love it when he says,” she deepened her voice, “‘Hart, Trevor Hart,’ and levels those smoldering eyes.”

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Morty wanted company. He always felt lonely and guilt-ridden after wet work. But the girl’s eyes remained glued to the projected action scene, her real interest, he suspected. “That would be wonderful, Laini, but no, I’ll just grab a drink downstairs then turn in.”

She shrugged and came out wrapped in a towel. On the edge of the bed she slipped on her stockings and kept her eyes on the projection—Trevor Hart rewarding himself in the arms of a chesty Italian countess.

Sighing, the girl rested her chin on her pulled-up knees. “A secret agent. It would be great to meet a man like that.” She glanced sideways at Morty.

He nodded.

 

That evening, the Régale lounge bartender asked whom to charge the drinks to. Morty looked straight at him. “The name’s Cole…Morty Cole.” The bartender shrugged and put a vodka martini on his tab.

Fill in the Blank

“The time has come, the walrus said, to talk of many things …”  – Through the Looking-Glass

 

Booths on one bare wall of the windowless waiting room were flanked by glass cases on two walls and opposite a single metal door centered on the far wall.

A new human strode boldly from one of the booths toward the exit. It wore red tights and a canary-yellow, breast-peaked T-shirt, and had spiky blue hair, pouty lips, and impossibly blue, saucer eyes. A second human wearing a white dress shirt, dark tie, and beige canvas trousers, walked out more slowly, her face buried in a schematic design for a fusion rocket motor.

“Next, L-F-O-O-Z, you’re next,” a handsome young walrus called from one of the assignment booths. A doughy blob in one of the glass cases looked around. None of the other blobs moved. It looked down at the label on its case. “Yes, you, Lfooz. Please come along. Don’t worry. Your name will change when you get assigned.”

The blob slid over the case wall onto the vinyl tile floor then oozed toward the assignment booth. The walrus official walk-paddled to the other side of a low counter and motioned for Lfooz to slide up. The nested stack of trays on the counter looked like one used to display jeweled earrings for purchase or to distribute communion cups.

“You understand why you’re here? Why this is important?” the walrus official asked, wiggling his close-cropped whiskers. Lfooz wrung itself like a wet towel. “Okay, let’s start with the basics. Do you know what you want to be in life?” Lfooz gave a slow twist.

“These,” the walrus said, setting a display tray in front of Lfooz, “are life choices.” The tray held capsules of all colors. “The one you pick determines your attributes: interests, character, intelligence, sense of humor, skills, and your setting—race, sex, nationality, family background. Some like to call it ‘the hand you’re dealt.’ Once you make your decision, you’ll proceed to birthing, forget your experience here, and live out your life. At life’s end, you’ll transfer to Ever-Endeavor (see explication in “Time Cube”) to harvest the fruits or wretchedness you’ve sown. Shall I show you some of your choices?” The walrus waved a flat flipper over the display trays.

Lfooz pointed a pseudopod. “What me? A walrus? Yah, some choices you only get once in life. I was being cocky—thought if I did something stupid they’d give me a do over.” Lfooz motioned to the door on the bare wall where the women had exited a moment before.

“Those two?” Lfooz’s dough body rose and fell. “You get to drive your life choice out of the showroom, but they’ll still have to go through birth, childhood, and adolescence. Sorry, that’s life.”

He pointed to a red capsule. “This one’s very athletic and doesn’t think too much. It comes in male and female versions, or a mix of both. Fans cheer and mates throw themselves at you. You make a lot of money, cover yourself with tattoos, abuse yourself with drugs and alcohol then die young in a bar fight. Comes with a full guarantee.” When he got no reaction, the walrus pointed to the blue capsule.

“This little baby is brilliant and also comes in male and female makes. It’s an inventor, a creator, makes a boatload of money designing stuff, but doesn’t have much time to spend it or to find mates. It lives a long quiet life with cars and cats for companions. Also guaranteed.” Lfooz rolled two doughy arms together, and the walrus moved on.

“The green capsule provides everything you need: food, housing, medical care, clothes, and you don’t have to lift a finger. You spend your days outside, looking at flowers and pigeons, and collecting money from passersby. It’s nondescript, most people won’t care what your sex is and neither will you. Guaranteed.”

The walrus went through the entire stack of trays and choices, and got no reaction. Then he asked, “See anything that interests you?”

Lfooz’s boneless mass rose and fell twice. It extended a dough finger to specific attributes for several capsules: the first, second, fifth, eighteenth, thirty-seventh.

“I see,” said the walrus, “you want a balance, to be a stable, healthy, wise, hard-working, dependable, and friendly person who divides time for family, profession, and other interests.” Lfooz rose and fell slowly.

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“Of course.” The walrus pulled a small cloisonné box from a rear shelf. Within its gold interior was a single white capsule. “This one can provide everything you hope for.”

Lfooz scanned the attributes list, each line followed with a single word “optional,” and pointed to the blank on the last line.

“No, it carries no guarantees.” When Lfooz looked puzzled, the walrus explained. “My mistake, it does have one guarantee. However you arrive in life, whatever your situation, your fate will be determined by decisions you make and the courage you have to see them through. This life starts where it starts and has neither ceiling nor floor.”

Lfooz took the white capsule and walked upright from the booth, determined to take the best of whatever life offered. No guarantees.