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CARS



It was a 39 Chevrolet, I found out later, four-door, with the six-cylinder inline nailhead engine stick shift, of course a car there, with a man behind the wheel, watching me as I walked up.

Its all right, Margery said to me. Hes a friend. That seemed hardly likely, since he didnt even know me. What she meant was, she was willing to vouch for him. The other thing was that she had uttered an undoubted clich'e; I had heard it issue from the mouths of actor after actor, and if I had heard it so often, how many additional times must it have been uttered? But then I realized something else. Margery was no dummy, but she was a rustic, and I was going to get just so much a range of utterances out of her. Well, so be it. There are worse things to be than a rustic.

All right. I nodded; that was twice Id gotten nodding right. As for whether she was trustworthy enough to vouch for anyone, that was an order of question that was beyond me to judge. Okay, I said. And?

He wants to talk to you about a job.

Really? He was in his middle twenties, I found out, a spare, blue-jawed man with black hair that hung over his forehead in oily spikes. He was wearing farm clothes a blue chambray shirt and bib overalls and a cigarette dangled out of a small, thin-lipped mouth. I went around to the drivers window. Hello, I said, watching him carefully. Im Jack

Mullica, he said. His mouth twisted into a mirthless grin. My names Roland Lapointe. Get in. He gestured toward the passenger seat in front and waited for me, his eyes appraising me while I made up my mind. I finally walked around to the other side of the car and got in. Margery got into the backseat, and Lapointe drove out of the farmyard. The engine ticked over flawlessly; Lapointe, or somebody, had taken very good care of it during the war.

Thats the ticket, Lapointe was saying. I like my people to do what theyre told.

I glanced at him. Your people.

When you work for me, youre my people.

And what makes you think Ill work for you?

Havent got much choice. Cant expect Margery to keep feeding you for free. Cant expect to live in the barn forever its all right now, but winter does come.

I could get another job.

Not if I say no. Nobodyll give you a job if I say not to. Now, suppose you sit and think about that until we get to where were going. His voice was flat; he might have been giving the time of day.

I glanced at him again. As far as I could tell, he also hadnt changed expression once while speaking. I got the definite impression Lapointe was a genuinely tough man. Maybe not the brightest. But his outstanding quality would always be his toughness; it would carry him far. Doubtless, it had carried him far already. The important thing was, he was tougher than I.

Well, come to that, Margery was tougher than I. The jury was out on Margerys father, but the likelihood was that he was at least as tough as I. So as far as I knew, every single inhabitant of Earth was tougher than I. It made a fellow proud to be a soldier.

We drove along. Lapointe turned several corners, and we left unpaved surface and pulled onto a main road, though it was still only two lanes of asphalt. We passed several farms. Then we came to a corner. We pulled up outside a structure I recognized as a garage.

There were two things out front that were gas pumps, obviously, and then there were actually a couple of buildings a small one in front and a much bigger one about twenty-five yards back from both roads, set behind the small building and separated from it by a drive way. The small building had a window with oil jars in it, and in front of the building were several oil drums.

I studied it with some intensity. We dont depend anywhere near as much on individual transport as Earthpeople do, though there was a time when we did. Now our cars and trucks run on a modification of a spaceship engine. The roaring, stinking, polluting Earth car was utterly foreign to me. And utterly intriguing. The idea of getting into your own vehicle and roaring off at speeds of about a hundred miles per hour and going on for miles far more miles than apparently made sense in a culture with plentiful trains, planes, and buses and having a garage on practically every street corner in most parts of the nation well, it was grotesque. And it was quaint. And it was, in its own way, glorious.

We forget, now; so much is different. But that was the time when America was the undoubted leader in the world, and gasoline was twenty-five cents a gallon, and cars new cars cost a thousand dollars, and the United States was about to buy a highway system that would cover the country from one end to the other, replacing a highway system that was the envy of all other nations. I understood, even then, that without question the best way to understand these people was to understand their infatuation with cars. And apparently I was going to get my chance.

All right, Lapointe said. What Ill want you to do is tend the garage. Pump gas, fill tires, hand out road maps, tell people the John is out of order. You wont be a mechanic. Ill take care of that. Youll sleep inside at night, youll get three meals a day, and a dollar a day. Sundays were closed.

Youre offering me that job.

Yes.

I dont know how to drive.

Lapointe turned in his seat and looked back at Margery.

So teach him, she said. How hard can it be?

Lapointe looked at me. Um.

Lapointe had gone into the other building. Margery and I were alone. Listen, Margery said to me, hes all right. Hes hard. But hes all right. And she had brought my kit; the coveralls, and the kit. She sat on the corner of the battered desk in the garage, with her pants down around her ankles, while I worked on her. There was something a little bit evasive about her all of a sudden, and that had to be Lapointe, but she flexed and moved the leg almost normally, and she spoke to me in a tone that was much gentler than the one she used to use.

You keep your nose clean, and youll be all right, she was saying. Dont jump to any hasty conclusions. And Ill be around. You got any questions, you ask me first. Got that?

I cocked my head. Whats wrong? I said.

Nothings wrong unless you screw up. And you wont screw up all the way; youve got sense, even if it isnt horse sense.

Look, Margery

I owe you more than you can imagine, she said, sliding off the desk and pulling up her pants. You cant dream how much what youre doing to my leg means to me. But thats not the only thing in the world. Anyway, I got you the best job you could possibly get. Youll learn to drive, youll get a Social Security card, pretty soon youll blend right in with us Americans.

What do you mean? I asked with a sinking feeling.

Jack, she said, looking at the floor, you wouldnt fool a four-year-old right now. Theres only one place you could have come from, and thats a Russian ship. Probably a submarine. All right? Get this through your head we dont care. You obviously arent here to commit sabotage. Chances are youre glad to get away. I know I would be it doesnt sound like a decent way for the ordinary guy to live, communism. All right; fine. Well help you. And if some of the things we ask in return arent exactly legal, well, whats legal?

It was my turn to look down at the floor. I see.

So you keep your nose clean, and well gradually make an American out of you.

Yes.

And I really do thank you for my leg. I didnt know you people could do that. Im grateful.

Yes, well.

And if you want to bed me, thats all right, too. Both of us were looking at the floor.

Things were going too fast for me. I what about Lapointe?

Lapointe is my brother. Half-brother. Weve got the same mother. Came out of the barrens, settled with old man Lapointe first, when he died she moved in with my old man. One day Pop woke up and she was gone. Found out she hitched a ride on the highway. Last anybody here has seen of her.

My God.

Margery shrugged. It was a long time ago, now. She wasnt the first funny thing that came out of the barrens. She looked at me. Wasnt the last. Though I will say, it wasnt usual for somebody from the barrens to name themselves for the Mullica River.

Things at Lapointes Garage settled into a routine very quickly.

Roland did teach me how to drive, by the simplest method, which was to sit me behind the wheel in the middle of a large open field, point out the accelerator, brake, and clutch and the functions of each, and then stand back and let me stall out a few times, swing around wildly a few times, damned near run into a tree a few times even if this meant wandering far afield, and fairly soon learn to coordinate everything. I did not, of course, tell him that I knew how to drive our ground cars. He, on the other hand, did not tell me that I was a good driver, which I very soon was.

The name of the town, if it can be called a town, was Phyllis. The name of the next town was Wertenbaker. The name of the town three miles down a side road, fronting a lake, was Serena Manor. At some early point in our relationship, Margery explained this to me. Daniel Wertenbaker had named Phyllis for his daughter, and Serena Manor for his wife. There was no particular reason for the towns in the first place; of the combined population of about three hundred, two hundred fifty were engaged in raising chickens, one of the few crops that would grow profitably on the soil. The narrow spaces in the woods that the three towns represented were crammed with two-and three-story chicken coops, housing well over a million chickens, and they smelled like it. At night you could hear the chickens snoring. During the day you could hear them eating, and pecking weaker chickens to death.

Margery came to see me every day after work, and I used up all of my muscle balm. By the time I did that, she was walking normally, and it would have taken a very sharp eye to detect the difference between her legs; in effect, there was none.

She had to account for it somehow. At first, it had been a sort of miracle, but one that could fail. The leg could go back to what it had been. The whole thing might have been some kind of illusion born of hope. But now it wasnt failing, and if she didnt find some way to account for it, there were too many questions to ask about me. And she saw me every day, and I worked in a garage. What could be mysterious about me?

Its the Sister Kenny treatment, isnt it? she said, referring to a long, hard course of hot towels and massage that only worked sometimes, and only if it was started the minute the paralysis set in. Some variation on the Sister Kenny treatment.

Yes, I said. A variation on it, as if I really knew what I was talking about. And she brightened up.

That explains it,

Absolutely. As long as you didnt question it. And what do you suppose the chances were of her ever questioning it once she had hit upon Sister Kenny in the first place? She flirted the leg back and forth, feeling the power and the weight-carrying capacity of it. If she spoke of it skeptically, ever, might not the charm be broken? She licked her lips and nodded.

Yes, she said very softly. The offer to bed her was still good, I knew. I wanted to, but somehow I felt that it was too soon, and that Lapointe would hear us, and that in truth, I wanted to, very much, but the thought of interspecies well, I would get to it, but it would take some getting used to I was scared. I was scared green. Id had one or two women, not many, and I was afraid of all the usual things, plus giving myself away. I had no idea what the sexual appendage of an Earth male looked like. Whereas Margery knew very well. It would take special circumstances, and they had not yet occurred. And so we each had a secret thing between us.

I know it puzzled Margery that I did not take her up on the offer. But she was too polite to come out and ask me directly. I also presumed that the creation of a good leg meant, among other things, a change in her sex life more discrimination, certainly; perhaps even complete abstinence until she could fully assimilate the change, and fully assimilate the idea that she could be choosier than in the past.

I gradually learned Lapointes real business. Once or twice a month a tow truck dragging a car would pull up to the other building in the middle of the night, and once or twice a month a car would emerge from the building, a different color and usually with different accessories than when it went in at the end of a hook. The car would be driven away by Christie, Rolands right-hand man, and the following day, late, Christie would come back on the bus.

Christie was about five feet three inches tall, and I presume the lack of height weighed on him; he was muscular, young, and handsome, but didnt have a sense of humor at all. He kept to himself and handed Roland his tools.

In due course it was the spring Christie did not come back. Well, it was a weak point in Rolands system; there was nothing to compel Christie to come back, if he chose instead to keep the car, or the money from the car, and go and do something else thereafter. There was really little likelihood Roland would spare the time and trouble to find him. And if he found him, the money would likely already be spent.

Roland went around in a black rage. Finally I said to him: Roland.

What?

Roland, what if I were to deliver the cars?

Roland gripped me by the upper arm in a hold that bruised flesh. What the hell do you know about it?

The hold was not comfortable. But I pretended not to mind it. Ive got eyes. I know Christie takes the cars somewhere. I know he didnt come back. If the authorities had him, they would have been here by now. The other possibility is hes in cahoots with whoever receives the cars, but that makes no sense because that man would cut off his source of supply if he offended you. So Christie did this on his own. All right from now on, Ill be Christie. The difference is, Ill always come back.

Will you? Roland frowned. Why?

Because Margerys here, I said, and it was the truth. Somehow, without really meaning to, I had built up too many ties to cut.

Roland grinned mirthlessly. Yes. Little Sis Margery. Little Margery thats no longer crippled. I wonder how much I believe in Sister Kenny. I wonder, if its that easy, why dont more people use it. His eyes were very sharp on my face for a minute. Then he shrugged. All right, he said, and it was a moment before I realized he had okayed the deal. All right, he said again. You gonna stick with the Mullica name?

Its my name, I declared, because, after all, what else could I do?

Right, he said.

What difference does it make? I asked a little testily.

Gonna show up on your drivers license, thats why, he said, and walked away to use the phone.

And that is how I got a birth certificate, and then a Social Security card, and a drivers license in the name of Jack Mullica: on the strength of one phone call from Roland Lapointe to someone who could forge the basic document.

To this day, nobody ever checks back to the original issuing authority for the validity of the birth certificate. If you present the purported certificate in another state, the odds are very low of the particular clerks even knowing what a genuine certificate should look like. For that matter, states themselves change the appearance of their birth certificates from time to time. I presume the appearance of my certificate is actually genuine for its time frame. I dont actually know no one has ever questioned it, and I have never seen another one.

I took it, when I got it, to the Social Security office in Mays Landing, and to the drivers license station in Atlantic City, and in about as much time as it takes to tell, I was a valid citizen of the United States of America. Eventually I got a fake draft card, and that was a bit of a risk, but not as much of a risk as a physical examination would have been. I had to explain to Roland that I was a bit old to just take the exam in the regular way. He grumbled, but he saw the sense of it. In any event, no one has ever asked to see it. I marvel at such a country I dont complain.

Reconstruction. A.B.


FOOTNOTE | Hard Landing | FOOTNOTE