Hal lit his Pall-Mall with the business end of a soldering iron as he toiled over the radio circuit board. With the back of his wrist he pushed his eyeglasses up, the June heat and humidity having its effect. A shelf on one wall of his small shop held a dozen radios. Below it, on a tabletop, were several portable TVs. The radios were mostly of the plastic AM clock variety, with a couple of FM hi-fi models in oiled walnut. A lone console TV sat on the floor. All were ticketed, good to go.
It was past six o'clock, well after quitting time. Hal turned the front door's sign around so it read CLOSED to the world. Before retiring to his apartment above the shop, he stepped outside for his evening walk. A long walk helped him to sleep soundly. With a fresh pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, the last of the carton, he headed toward the college town bustle of Angell St., down to Wayland Square and its boutiques, across the supermarket parking lot, past the Salvation Army, over to the diner nestled at the foot of the bridge, and across the bridge, the river below, a speedboat passing under, a commercial ship on the horizon.
The river air carried a certain intoxication, carried Hal's mind to a distant place. He thought about how one could take a boat from here to the sound, into the Atlantic, point in a southerly direction, keep going along the entire east coast of South America, round the tip, and up and west until you discovered an island paradise, a place where no white man had ever set foot, find a tribe of gentle people, their skin a burnished bronze, smiling women in grass skirts, their lilting hips swaying in unison. In such a place he would be the Great Ivory God, marry a copper gal, just one, no harem, no need for greed. One would suffice.
Low-hanging and juicy fruit would practically fall from lush trees into one's palms, and the women would prepare some sort of poi pancakes, and fry fish the men gathered in nets. From gurgling, rushing streams the sweetest water in the world. Just dip a half-coconut shell for a drink fit for, well, a god.
At the end of the bridge, the Raybestos plant (We're the best-os! We're Raybestos!) and the corner drugstore, its fly-specked comic book rack collecting dust, and the blue-collar neighborhood of one and two-story clapboard homes, lawns punctuated with Virgin Mary statues. Up a hill and onward, Macduff, deeper into beckoning suburbia, wandering to a wonderland, away from all concerns and woes. The June eventide light suffused all in lavender.
Now Valhalla, the land of white-collar, not upper crust, but working middle class: new cement sidewalks, one-acre yards, mowed, neat as a pin, ranch houses and split-levels, some of brickface, picture windows allowing views into lit living rooms, and, if Hal paused for a bit, a look farther back to kitchens, dishes being washed, people chatting. Hal loved the feeling he got here, everything was well-maintained, the shrubbery clipped to geometric precision, like at a funeral home or a Howard Johnson's. He sighed and strolled along, took the pack of cigarettes from his shirt pocket, removed the cellophane, tore the foil.
Enjoying a smoke, Hal kept walking until he noticed a young couple in their backyard having a cookout.
"Say, friend! Would you care to join us? We've got more here than just the two of us can manage!"
"Sure, why not? I'd love to."
"Hi, friend! My name's Jim, Jim Nielsen! And this is my wife, Kathy!"
About five years younger than Hal, they were in their early 20s. Jim's face was chubby and florid, Kathy was blonde, perky, her sparkly blue eyes danced in the light from the barbecue fire. A portable phonograph on the back porch played an LP of Hawaiian slack-key instrumentals.
The three sat down to the picnic table. Overhead a weeping willow, and beyond that a field where some construction was underway, a foundation laid, a yellow bulldozer resting until morning.
"One thing, Hal, I have to say, and I mean no offense whatsoever, but we're Jehovah's Witnesses, and, gosh, we'd appreciate it if you didn't smoke. No tobacco, no alcohol, and for that matter, none of that gosh-dern rock music for us. Heh, I guess we're pretty old-fashioned..."
"Well, I can respect that," said Hal, bending to one side, stubbing his cigarette into the lawn. "And ya know what? It's filter-less, so watch this, a little trick I learned in the army." Hal tore the paper, letting the tobacco flakes scatter. Then he rolled the paper into a teeny ball and flicked it to oblivion.
"Well! Thank you, Hal! And a word of advice, meant with all due respect, meant with deep respect, sir: quit that filthy habit."
Hal's eyebrows scrunched, a slight frown appeared. After a pause he said, "Jim, you are correct. It is a filthy habit. I picked it up in the army, we were given free cigs. At the time I thought it was great, that they really cared about us! Hey, free cigs! But you know what? I quit, right here and right now." Hal rose, walked over to the metal trashcan to the side of the back porch, lifted the lid, and said, "May I?"
"You most certainly may, Mr. Zucker," said Kathy with a fanciful primness.
When Hal resettled at the table, Jim, hands folded, said grace over their meal of hamburgs, sweet pickles, and potato salad. "Dear Lord, please bless us and our food, Your bounty unto us. And please bless and guide our new friend, Hal Zucker, whom You have led to us thorough Your infinite wisdom this evening." Hawaiian music softly undulated, shimmered.
Kathy poured glasses of fresh lemonade. "Squeezed the lemons myself!" There was a period of quiet as they ate and meditated. Then Jim, holding his burger in two hands, shifted in his seat and said, "Say, Hal, you wouldn't happen to be a baseball fan, would you?"
"Sure am! BoSox!"
"Well, if'n that doesn't beat all! Me too! What say we make a safari, just us two fellas, to Fenway? Kathy will pack a lunch for us. No need to eat that ballpark garbage."
After dinner Hal and Jim scooted downstairs to the paneled basement of the split-level, two dehumidifiers humming away, Jim eager to show off his collection of sci-fi literature. Hal was something of a sci-fi fan and was dazzled by Jim's copious collection of pulp mags from the 1930s up to the 1950s, as well as paperbacks, hardcovers, and the so-called "digest" magazines. Hal had never imagined a collection so broad and deep, shelf after shelf taking up most of the basement, all in apple pie order. "Believe me, Hal, I anticipate my monthly C.A.R.E. package from the Science Fiction Book Club. But beyond that, I scour the bookstores, especially the used bookshops. I've found gems, mint condition rarities, for a nickel!" Hal smiled, appreciating Jim's enthusiasm.
"I'll tell you, Hal, I resent these smaller mags being referred to as digest magazines. They may be the size of Reader's Digest, but the stories within are unexpurgated! Take my favorite, Analog. These tales are often written by scientists and engineers, men of science, fellows with degrees. These are not abbreviated yarns for those on the run or on the can. They’re meant to be read with care and consideration. Makes my blood boil that people, especially those who know better, refer to such a magazine as a digest! Digest! As if it's food that has been masticated, swallowed, churned into vomit, entering the bowels! Disgusting!" Jim's scowl was taut, drawn to one side, his thin lips pink and passionate.
They discussed current events, including the war. "Hal, why on earth are we sending our good red-blooded boys over there to die? For what? Let those monkeys fight their own war. If they don't want to go Red, fine, God bless 'em! But let them do the fighting, just the way we did in 1776. And if we'd lost to good King George? Would that have been so awful? Taxes? We went to war over taxes? Gee whiz, glad we dodged that bullet! Glad we don't have an I.R.S.! Y'know what I call them? The Infernal Revenue Service! Abolish them, and the Federal Reserve, which by the way is not a federal agency! You probably did not know that, correct?"
"Correct!" In fact, Hal had only a vague notion of the Federal Reserve, he'd heard of it, but had no idea what it did. He pictured a majestic Romanesque building, Corinthian columns, serious men, but other than that, nothing.
Hal was impressed with Jim, found him to be intellectual. Beyond having a degree in engineering from the University of Illinois, Jim was a man who pondered, didn’t accept things at face value, looked at something from many angles before drawing a conclusion. Then, conclusion drawn, he could express his opinion with clarity and vigor. And although serious, he enjoyed a ballgame, nothing ivory tower about Jim. Hal's taste in sci-fi was somewhat limited, he was more of a Weird Tales and Arkham House sort: H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and their ilk. That said, Hal enjoyed Bob Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, and even some of the young rebels like Robert Sheckley. Although he could only boast a trade school degree, he knew enough of engineering and mechanics, and life in general, to know that Jim was savvy, profound even. Jim was different, marched to his own drummer.
Kathy called them upstairs for dessert, blueberry pie. "Straight from the oven! And a fresh pot of Chase & Sanborn will be served in a jiffy! C'mon up before the pie gets cold!" They ate and drank in the living room. Hal made sure not to let so much as a crumb fall to the aquamarine wall-to-wall carpet. The walls were knotty-pine, decor was early-American, Ethan Allen replicas, much nicer, Hal mused, than his tossed salad of an apartment. He guessed that Kathy had made the selections. Their home was civilized and cozy, the lady's touch apparent.
Afterwards it was officially dark, well past nine. Kathy gathered their plates and cups, scurried to the kitchen. Hal made his good-byes, but not before he'd agreed to attend a Sunday service. "We have a right friendly congregation," said Jim. "Right neighborly, all kinds. Look at me, management at the Raybestos plant, but we've got blue-collar families, some retirees, young families, all kinds, even a college kid, a good clean-cut boy. I think you'll find us a great crew. No hippies, no folk singing! We have a nice choir and a Lowrey organ. And Kathy's sister, Polly, is single, my friend! A looker!" He gestured to a framed photograph of Jim, Kathy and Polly on the mantelpiece above the unused fireplace. Hal nodded, eyebrows raised, his lower lip pouted. Polly was one gorgeous redhead! Jim tossed a gentle punch to Hal's shoulder as if to say, "Go, tiger!" In elementary school Hal had been pals with a cute copper-haired tomboy. But by ninth grade, they'd parted ways, she off to Catholic high school, he to trade school. Sometimes he wondered whatever happened to her, wondered if she ever thought of him.
Leaving the Nielsens, re-entering the winding sidewalk, the neighborhood was dark, homes silhouetted against the sky, like coffins lined up, one after another, for a long slumbering stretch. A black Plymouth drove into the night, taillights glowing, receding.
Crossing the bridge, Hal stopped about midway, surrounded by ebony night, looked down on the black waters reflecting the heavens. It was as if he were suspended in the cosmos, an astronaut on a spacewalk, floating away, his tether to the ship snapped. Standing there he thought, "When I was younger I used to believe in dreams, that if you dreamed hard enough, a dream came true. With the years I began to doubt, then dismiss. Now, I think, a dream can come true." With that he inhaled deeply of fresh air and walked home, thinking of something larger than dumb luck. He was thinking of Divine Providence. And Polly.
Somewhere faraway, in a little village, people, young and old, were dancing and clapping and laughing and singing.