We came, eventually, to her father’s farm – Nick’s farm – on the edge of the barrens. It was not much of a farm; the buildings were old, and even the house was swaybacked with age. Nor was it large. But on the other hand, the soil was a little better, there was grass, there were some towering trees which were clearly different from the barren pines. There were outbuildings, including a barn.
The whole layout was not large, but then, Nick Olchuck had long ago given up on the idea of actually making a living from it. There were a few animals – a pair of goats, a hutch full of rabbits, a dog, enough chickens running around to provide eggs for Nick and Margery, and of course cats, which were essentially wild. I knew little of this in detail, as I stood at the edge of the road, supporting a sweaty Margery in the first light of dawn, but one did not need detail to grasp the essentials. The dog, Prince, had come out of the barrel lying on its side beside the barn, where he was chained, and was barking furiously at me.
‘Home, sweet home,’ Margery said. She called to the dog: ‘Shut up, Prince. I said, shut up!’ and the animal subsided, stood beside his barrel, and regarded me stiffly. Margery turned to me. ‘All right. You can sleep in the barn. I’ll get you some food before I go to work. Now I’ve got to go inside and explain you to my father.’
I looked at her. Up to now, she had been body coolth and bulk and smells, and occasional glimpses, but this was the first time she had stood a little apart from me. Perhaps I had been much the same to her, because she took a minute to look me up and down, too.
She was about my height, and, except for a tendency to too much makeup, not bad-looking. I stood peering at her face for a moment, trying to figure out what was off about it; when I saw her again later, it was less vivid, and her eyes in particular looked much blander, and then I realized it had been makeup. What I did not realize, for years, was that I never actually saw her; she always had some makeup on. But that’s beside the point for the time being.
She had a slim, long-legged figure. But it was canted off to one side, and one of her legs was much thinner than the other. She was wearing a dress made out of a chicken feed sack – feed was sold in print sacks, with no company markings, for that express purpose – and she looked out of focus. I found out later that she was only nineteen when I first met her, and one of the purposes of the extreme makeup was to make her look older, but now it was smeared and awry.
‘All through?’ she said.
‘Are you all through looking at me?’
I tried a smile. ‘Yes. You’re not bad to look at, you know.’
‘Bullshit,’ she said, and turned to go into the house. It was painful to watch her make her way, especially since she knew I was watching her. I went to the barn and lifted the wooden latch, and went inside.
The barn had not been used for anything in particular for a long time. It smelled of something vaguely unpleasant – I learned later it was mildew – but not overwhelmingly so. There were some spots where other odors did overwhelm – cat turds and rat turds – but these were localized, and I avoided them with almost perfect success. There were some feed sacks along one wall, and there were several cats that looked up from sleeping in various nooks as I came in, but that was all. The barn was essentially an empty space enclosed by four walls and a roof. I went over to the feed sacks, and they made a respectable bed. That was my main concern. I was tired enough, God knows. And without further ado I lay down. I thought to myself that life on Earth was a little stranger than it ought by rights to be, and then I was asleep.
I woke up a long time later – late afternoon, it was, by the light that came in through the cracks – and beside me, on the floor of the barn, was an upside-down box that had not been there. I lifted it, and there was a sandwich and a glass of something, red and sweet. Kool-Aid, it turned out. I put the box back down over it and went to the back door, which was jammed shut and hadn’t been opened in years. But by tugging on it I got it to open an inch or two and managed to urinate outside. And it struck me funny, for a minute; here was water that had never been on Earth before. But I was not the first, and I went back to the food, which the cats were trying to figure a way into, and smiled, and chased them back, and ate every scrap, including draining the Kool-Aid, which I have not done very often after the first few occasions, for it almost always gives me indigestion. But I was pretty thirsty at the time.
I took stock. There was not much to take. I was in Margery Olchuck’s barn after abandoning my crashed flying saucer and the rest of my crew. I had on my issue fatigue uniform, which tended to resemble a coverall jumpsuit, my fatigue shoes, which looked only vaguely Earthlike – until Adidases came along, which was much later – but would pass, and my first-aid kit and my iron rations, which were in two of the patch pockets on my uniform pants.
The iron rations you could keep; we had all eaten one meal of them, in accordance with shipboard drill, and no doubt they would keep body and soul together in a dire emergency. Nobody ever complained. They couldn’t – not the ones who actually had to live on the things. The first-aid kit had all sorts of goodies in it, but I did not need any of them. And that was it – oh, I had an identity, Jack Mullica, which was both woefully thin and too well established to abandon. I promised myself that if I were ever to be in a crashing flying saucer again, I would do much better next time.
And that really was it. I considered going into the house to talk to Nick, and felt a mild curiosity that he had not come out to investigate me, but he was too much of a cipher for me to pursue that seriously. I didn’t even know his name. So I sat down on the feed sacks, and watched the cats lick the plate and the glass, and scratched one of them behind the ears when it cautiously came over, before it jumped away. And that was it. I wondered what Margery might have in store for me. If not then, then I wondered very often later. I see no reason not to assume that I began that habit in that barn, without knowing it, or at least without knowing what it would cost me, over the years.
It hasn’t been that bad.
She came in the evening, carrying more food – a hamburger – and another glass of Kool-Aid. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt over a bra. I liked her breasts. She looked tired. She did not look sweet, or girlish. She looked all business. She handed me the food and sat down on the feed bags beside me. ‘He didn’t come in here?’ she asked, and I nodded my head, and then remembered and said, ‘No.’ She looked at me patiently. ‘Which is it?’ and I said ‘No’ again, and she nodded. ‘I didn’t think so.’ She shook her head. ‘He drinks. I drink, too, but he drinks.’
‘What else does he do?’
‘Well, that’s about it, really. We’re lucky to keep the farm. But he had the mortgage paid off before he started drinking, and my job with the glass company looks pretty solid.’
‘Kimble Glass. In Vineland. I ride the bus. I work in the office; payroll clerk.’
Vineland, I presumed, was a town. ‘What does Kimble Glass do?’
‘Medical glassware. We’re a division of Owens Corning.’ I didn’t know what that was, but it didn’t matter. ‘When are you planning to move on?’
Move on. I was reluctant to move on. ‘I don’t know. Do you want me to go soon?’
‘Eat your supper before it gets cold.’ Then she looked me right in the eyes and said: ‘We can’t afford to keep you for any length of time.’
Well, that had been pretty obvious. I bit into the hamburger. ‘Is there some kind of work I could do?’
‘Where did you say you were going when you bumped into me?’
‘I don’t believe I said. Nowhere, really.’
She nodded. There was infinite knowledge in her eyes. Not judgment; just knowledge. It was hard to face. ‘You don’t have anyplace to go on this continent, do you, Jack Mullica?’ And before I could formulate a reply to that, she said: ‘It’s okay. Some of us who were born here don’t have anyplace to go, either.’ She grinned crookedly. ‘I don’t know. I’ve got a few people around here who owe me things. Maybe we can find you a job. We’ll see.’
I had finished my meal. ‘Look.’ I had thought this over very carefully. ‘Look,’ I said again, ‘I want you to do me a favor.’
‘What kind of a favor?’
‘I want you to let me try something with your leg.’
She stared at me incredulously. Then she burst out laughing. ‘With my leg?’ It was not frank and open laughter. After the first instant of genuine shock, it was harsh and mechanical, echoing back from the walls of the barn in sarcasm and anger. She twisted around to face me with her whole body, and the leg was thrust out toward me. ‘My leg. I’ve done a lot of favors in my life,’ she said. ‘But not with my leg.’ Then she grinned crookedly. ‘Or did you mean my good leg?’
I went on doggedly. It was the only way I knew to eventually get through to her at the time, and the time was what I had to work with. So I persisted. ‘I want to use my first-aid kit on your leg.’
‘My first-aid kit.’ I took it out of its pocket. ‘I don’t know if it’ll do any good. But it won’t do any harm. I want to try it.’
‘Oh, yeah. I forgot. Your first-aid kit,’ she said. ‘First-aid kit!’ She began to laugh again. She reached out and took it. ‘First-aid kit.’ She shook her head, then looked more closely. She looked back at me. ‘I can’t read any of the words except Johnson & Johnson.’
She bit her lip momentarily, then looked at me again. ‘Do you really think it will do any good?’ And I heard the faint note of hope underneath everything else she put into the question, which was loaded with carelessness, ninety-nine percent.
‘I don’t know,’ I repeated. ‘It’s worth a try.’
‘Well, what do I have to do?’
I looked down at the floor. ‘Take your pants off.’
She began to laugh again, and I turned on her. ‘Look, take your pants off or don’t; I think I can do you some good, but I may be wrong; if I wanted to copulate with you, I’d at least wait until tomorrow, considering that you haven’t even gotten any sleep after your last time; is that clear?’
She had started some reaction, but my choice of words choked it off before it got started. ‘Copulate with me?’ She giggled and put her hand over her mouth, but it did no good; the giggle grew, and turned into a guffaw. She looked at me as if I’d just gotten off the boat, and she couldn’t stop laughing. Still laughing, she stood up and opened the belt of her jeans, opened the buttons of the fly front, and pushed the jeans down. She was wearing white cotton panties. She stepped out of the jeans and kicked them aside, and said ‘Now what?’ still laughing a little, seemingly unaware for a moment how thin and wasted the leg looked in contrast to the good one, and then I saw that in fact she knew exactly how it looked, and she stood there like a young, if tired, queen, and she was utterly in command of the situation. The two of us faced one another in the barn and the relationship cemented itself, right there, nor has it changed to this day, whenever this day is. I pointed to the bags. ‘Sit down,’ I said, and she sat, but not as a favor to me – as a favor to herself – and waited.
I opened the kit and took out the tin of muscle stuff. It was intended to help bruises heal faster. It did not work miracles, but it did cut down healing time dramatically. Maybe it would do something for her. ‘Stretch the leg out,’ I said, and took two fingertips’ worth of the ointment. ‘Now. Just relax.’ I wiped the fingers over the outside of the upper thigh, and worked them around. The muscle felt strange, not like a usual muscle at all. But in half a minute the fingertips of my opposite hand, on the inside of her thigh, were slick with the ointment that had come through her leg. I wiped them on the peculiar-feeling muscle there, and worked them, and in a very short while the fingertips of my first hand were slick again. It was working back and forth, a little less emerging out the other side each time, until finally it was gone.
She was looking at me peculiarly. ‘It’s as if I could feel it going all through me,’ she said. I nodded. ‘And I taste garlic.’
‘You taste what?’
‘Garlic,’ she said, a little impatiently.
‘Interesting.’ So now I knew what garlic tasted like. ‘All right; now we do the rest of the leg.’ We did the rest of the leg. About a fifth of the ointment had been used. I looked up. ‘That’s all.’
She did not move the leg. Her voice was carefully neutral. ‘Just exactly what do you mean, that’s all?’
‘That’s all I can do, for now. You should feel something – a flush of heat, probably; less impediment to motion; perhaps a little growth in the flesh – within hours. It won’t be much, at first. It may never be much. In either case, we’ll do some more in twenty-four hours. And maybe something permanent will happen. That’s all.’
She got off the feed bags, feeling the ground with the toes of her bad leg, twisting it a little, looking down at it. Then she got back into the jeans. ‘It feels warm,’ she said.
‘That might just be the massage.’
‘I – don’t think so.’
‘Let it go,’ I said. ‘Let it go. It’ll start healing or it won’t, and what you think of it doesn’t matter. What I think of it, too. Just let it go.’ I stood there, putting the cap back on the ointment, realizing that I had started something from which there was no drawing back. I looked at her, just drawing her belt together, getting ready to button up the fly on her jeans. ‘All right?’ She had her head down; the wings of her hair fell around her face, and I couldn’t see her expression. ‘All right.’ Then she said: ‘Come on in the house; you could use a wash.’
‘All right,’ I said.
I met her father. He was sitting in the kitchen, a half-empty glass in front of him, and a bottle beside that. He looked blankly at me as I came into the house. He was in his fifties, I imagined, a square-headed man gone bald on top, with bad teeth and washed-out blue eyes, in an undershirt and work pants. Without changing his expression or raising his voice, he said to his daughter: ‘I thought I told you to keep your men out of this house. I said to you, very clearly—’
‘He’s not one of my men,’ Margery said.
‘You expect me to believe that?’
‘I’m not a liar.’
He frowned thoughtfully. Than he nodded. ‘No. You’re not.’ He frowned. ‘You’re not,’ he repeated. He looked at me. ‘That’s all right, then. What’s his name?’
‘My name’s Jack Mullica,’ I said. ‘I’m pleased to meet you, Mr Olchuck.’ I stuck out my hand.
He ignored it. ‘Are you? Pleased to meet Margery’s drunk of a father? I wouldn’t be.’ He drank from the glass. ‘Go on about whatever business you have here. Don’t bother being friendly. I don’t really take to it.’ He took another sip. ‘On the other hand, I’m not nasty. Count your blessings.’ He looked thoughtful. ‘Yes. All in all, I’d say count your blessings.’
‘Come on, Jack,’ Margery said, and tugged at my arm. And I went. What, pray tell, else would I do?
The bathroom was crowded – a sink, the John, and a bathtub with a shower attachment competed for space that left very little bare floor – but it was no worse than the analogous facility on the ship. In fact, it was a little more spacious. In any case, I didn’t complain. Earlier that evening, I’d been forced out of the barn long enough to crouch down behind some bushes, and then wipe myself with leaves; that experience makes you appreciate indoor comforts very quickly.
She looked me up and down. ‘I think some jeans and a shirt of my father’s will fit you. And underwear. That’ll have to do. All right, I’ll leave you now.’ And she did, with a little flirt of her head that might have meant anything,
But when I was through in the shower – and, oh, it was a good shower, once I figured out what it was, and how to work it – there are things you can’t learn adequately from television; not even the television of today, and in those days it was much worse – she opened the door a crack and passed through a small heap of clothing which turned out to be as described, with a pair of white cotton socks thrown in. ‘Pass me your old clothes,’ she said. ‘I’ll wash them the next time I do laundry.’
I did, after taking my iron rations and first-aid kit out of the pockets, and passed my clothes to her. Which left me with the first-aid kit exposed, because it wouldn’t fit in any of the jeans pockets. It didn’t really matter, I supposed, but I found myself staring at it, and wondering if it was doing her leg any good, and then realizing that it was the only thing, now, that was still mine to control from before the crash. It was an old friend, suddenly. And its content was waning. I stood there with the kit in my hand, looking at the lettering, and the lettering that wasn’t lettering, and suddenly I realized I had been down on this planet less than a day, and already I was more Earthman than not. Which was exactly what the people back on my home planet wanted, under these special circumstances. Everything was going well. Everything. I stood there in a bathroom in a marginal farmhouse in borrowed clothes, dependent on a very marginal girl and to some extent on an over-the-edge father; I had no job, no real place to sleep, no money, and everything was going well.
I spent another day in the barn, coming into the house only for a little bit of time at night. The father ignored me. Margery looked at me warily; she seemed, in what few glimpses I had of it, to be setting her leg a little differently, experimentally. But I couldn’t be sure, and she seemed to be almost hiding it. After dinner she went back out to the barn with me. ‘If you want to work on my leg some more, it’s all right,’ she said casually.
‘That’s right, it is twenty-four hours since the last time, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘Yeah.’ She opened her pants, dropped them, and sat down on the bags. I got out the first-aid kit, and the container of muscle ointment out of the kit, and went over to her. The leg was measurably better. It was less wasted, felt more like a normal leg, and seemed more responsive to stimuli. I did not comment on any of this. I simply applied the ointment, and she simply stared over my shoulder at the wall, her expression completely neutral. The only way you could tell, really, that there was something going on was the fact that she wept, silently and not very hard, but steadily, so that her cheeks were wet when we were finished and she got up and put her pants back on.
‘Your hands are warm,’ she said. ‘Your whole body’s warm. I noticed that from the first. You sick?’
I shook my head, getting it right. I had noticed that she was cold; not much colder than normal, but still … ‘No. It just is that way.’
She looked at me for a long time. Then she shrugged and left the barn.
The next day, after work, she came out to the barn, looking at me narrow-eyed, swinging her leg. She walked a lot closer to normal. We neither one of us said anything. It was either working or it wasn’t. It appeared to be working. What could you say beyond that, really? Finally she said ‘Come on’ and jerked her head toward something outside the barn. She stood with a hand on the door, and I went over to her.
‘What’s happening?’ I said, and she said, ‘Get in the car.’ I looked in the yard, and there was a car there.
– Mullica’s recollections, reconstructed