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Half an Oaf

When the upper half of an extremely fat man materialized before him over the pool table in the living room, Spud nearly swallowed his Adam's apple. But then he saw that the man was a stranger, and relaxed.

Spud wasn't allowed to use the pool table when his mother was home. Mrs. Flynn had been raised on a steady diet of B-movies, and firmly believed that a widow woman who raised a boy by herself in Brooklyn stood a better than even chance of watching her son grow into Jimmy Cagney. Such prophecies, of course, are virtually always self-fulfilling. She could not get the damned pool table out of the living room door—God knew how the apartment's previous tenant had gotten it in—but she was determined not to allow her son to develop an interest in a game that could only lead him to the pool hall, the saloon, the getaway car, the insufficiently fortified hideout and the morgue, more or less in that order. So she flatly forbade him to go near the pool table even before they moved in. Clearly, playing pool must be a lot of fun, and so at age twelve Spud was regularly losing his lunch money in a neighborhood pool hall whose savoriness can be inferred from the fact that they let him in.

But whenever his mother went out to get loaded, which was frequently these days, Spud always took his personal cue and bag of balls from their hiding place and set 'em up in the living room. He didn't intend to keep getting hustled for lunch money all his life, and his piano teacher, a nun with a literally incredible goiter, had succeeded in convincing him that practice was the only way to master anything. (She had not, unfortunately, succeeded in convincing him to practice the piano.) He was working on a hopelessly impractical triple-cushion shot when the fat man—or rather, half of the fat man—appeared before him, rattling him so much that he sank the shot.

He failed to notice. For a heart-stopping moment he had thought it was his mother, reeling up the fire escape in some new apotheosis of intoxication, hours off schedule. When he saw that it was not, he let out a relieved breath and waited to see if the truncated stranger would die.


The did not die. Neither did he drop the four inches to the surface of the pool table. What he did was stare vacantly around him, scratching his ribs and nodding. He appeared satisfied with something, and he patted the red plastic belt which formed his lower perimeter contentedly, adjusting a derby with his other hand. His face was round, bland and stupid, and he wore a shirt of particularly villainous green.

After a time Spud got tired of being ignored—twelve-year-olds in Brooklyn are nowhere near as respectful of their elders as they are where you come from—and spoke up.

"Transporter malfunction, huh?" he asked with a hint of derision.

"Eh?" said the fat man, noticing Spud for the first time. "Whassat, kid?"

"You're from the Enterprise, right?"

"Never heard of it. I'm from Canarsie. What's this about a malfunction?"

Spud pointed.

"So my fly's open, big deal . . ." the let go of his derby and reached down absently to adjust matters, and his thick muscles rebounded from the green felt tabletop, sinking the seven-ball. He glanced down in surprise, uttered an exclamation, and began cursing with a fluency that inspired Spud's admiration. His pudgy face reddened, taking on the appearance of an enormously swollen cherry pepper, and he struck at the plastic belt with the air of a man who, having petted the nice kitty, has been enthusiastically clawed.

". . . slut-ruttin' gimp-frimpin' turtle-tuppin' clone of a week-old dog turd," he finished, and paused for breath. "I shoulda had my head examined. I shoulda never listened ta that hag-shagger, I knew it. `Practically new,' he says. `A steal,' he says. Well, it's still got a week left on the warranty, and I'll . . ."

Spud rapped the butt-end of his cue on the floor, and the stranger broke off, noticing him again. "If you're not from the Enterprise," Spud asked reasonably, "where are you from? I mean, how did you get here?"

"Time machine," scowled the fat man, gesturing angrily at the belt. "I'm from the future."

"Looks like half of you is still there." Spud grinned.

"Who ast you? What am I, blind? Go on, laugh—I'll kick you in . . . I mean, I'll punch ya face. Bug-huggin' salesman with his big discount, I'll sue his socks off."

The pool hall had taught Spud how to placate enraged elders, and somehow he was beginning to like his hemispheric visitor. "Look, it won't do you any good to get mad at me. I didn't sell you a Jap time machine."

"Jap? I wish it was. This duck-fucker's made in Hoboken. Look, get me offa this pool table, will ya? I mean, it feels screwy to look down and see three balls." He held out his hand.

Spud transferred the cue to his left hand, grabbed the pudgy fingers, and tugged. When nothing happened, he tugged harder. The moved slightly. Spud sighed, circled the pool table, climbed onto its surface on his knees, braced his feet against the cushion, and heaved from behind. The half-torso moved forward reluctantly, like a piano on ancient casters. Eventually it was clear of the table, still the same distance from the floor.

"Thanks, kid . . . look, what's your name?"

"Spud Flynn."

"Pleased to meetcha, Spud. I'm Joe Koziack. Listen, are your parents home?"

"My mother's out. I got no father."

"Oh, a clone, huh? Well, that's a break anyway. I'd hate to try and talk my way out of this one with a grownup. No offense. Look, are we in Brooklyn? I gotta get to Manhattan right away."

"Yeah, we're in Brooklyn. But I can't push you to Manhattan—you weigh a ton."

Joe's face fell as he considered this. "How the hell am I gonna get there, then?"

"Beats me. Why don't you walk?"

Joe snorted. "With no legs?"

"You got legs," Spud said. "They just ain't here."

Joe began to reply, then shut up and looked thoughtful. "Might work at that," he decided at last. "I sure an' hell don't understand how this time-travel stuff works, and it feels like I still got legs. I'll try it." He squared his shoulders, looked down and then quickly backed up, and tried a step.

His upper torso moved forward two feet.

"I'll be damned," he said happily. "It works."

He took a few more steps, said, "OUCH, DAMMIT," and grabbed at the empty air below him, leaning forward. "Bashed my cop-toppin' knee," he snarled.

"On what?"

Joe looked puzzled. "I guess on the wall back home in 2007," he decided. "I can't seem to go forward any farther."

Spud got behind him and pushed again, and Joe moved forward a few feet more. "Jesus, that feels weird," Joe exclaimed. "My legs're still against the wall, but I still feel attached to them."

"That's as far as I go," Spud panted. "You're too heavy."

"How come? There's only half as much of me."

"So what's that—a hundred and fifty pounds?"

"Huh. I guess you're right. But I got to think of something. I gotta get to Manhattan."

"Why?" Spud asked.

"To get to a garage," Joe explained impatiently. "The guys that make these time-belts, they got repair stations set up all the way down the temporal line in case one gets wrecked up or you kill the batteries. The nearest dealership's in Manhattan, and the repairs're free till the warranty runs out. But how am I gonna get there?"

"Why don't you use the belt to go back home?" asked Spud, scratching his curly head.

"Sure, and find out I left my lungs and one kidney back here? I could maybe leave my heart in San Francisco, but my kidney in Brooklyn? Nuts—this belt stays switched off till I get to the complaint department." He frowned mightily. "But how?"

"I got it," Spud cried. "Close your eyes. Now try to remember the room you started in, and which way you were facing. Now, where's the door?"

"Uh . . . that way," said Joe, pointing. He shuffled sideways, swore as he felt an invisible doorknob catch him in the groin, and stopped. "Now how the hell do I open the door with no hands?" he grumbled. "Oh, crap." His torso dropped suddenly, ending up on its back on the floor, propped up on splayed elbows. The derby remained fixed on his head. His face contorted and sweat sprang out on his forehead. "Shoes . . . too slop-toppin' . . . slippery," he gasped. "Can't get . . . a decent grip." He relaxed slightly, gritted his teeth, and said, "There. One shoe. Oh Christ, the second one's always the hardest. Unnh. Got it. Now I gotcha, you son of a foreman." After a bit more exertion he spread his fingers on the floor, slid himself backward, and appeared to push his torso from the floor with one hand. Spud watched with interest.

"That was pretty neat," the boy remarked. "From underneath you look like a cross-section of a person."

"Go on."

"You had lasagna for supper."

Joe paled a little. "Christ, I hope I don't start leaking. Well, anyhow, thanks for everything, kid—I'll be seein' ya."

"Say, hold on," Spud called as Joe's upper body began to float from the living room. "How're you gonna keep from bumping into things all the way to Manhattan? I mean, it's ten miles, easy, from here to the bridge. You could get run over or something. Either half."

Joe froze, and thought that one over. He was silent for a long time.

"Maybe I got an angle," he said at last. He backed up slightly. "There. I feel the doorway with my heels. Now you move me a couple of feet, okay?" Spud complied.

"Terrific! I can feel the doorway. When I walk, my legs back home move too. When I stand still and you move me, the legs stay put. So we can do it after all."

" `We' my foot," Spud objected. "You haven't been paying attention. I told you—I can't push you to New York."

"Look, Spud," Joe said, a sudden look of cunning on his pudding face, "how'd you like to be rich?"

Spud looked skeptical. "Hey, Joe, I watch TV—I read sf—I've heard this one before. I don't know anything about the stock market thirty years ago, I couldn't even tell you who was president then, and you don't look like a historian to me. What could you tell me to make me rich?"

"I'm a sports nut," Joe said triumphantly. "Tell me what year it is, I'll tell you who's gonna win the World Series, the Rose Bowl, the Stanley Cup. You could clean up."

Spud thought it over. He shot pool with one of the best bookies in the neighborhood, a gentleman named "Odds" Evenwright. On the other hand, Mom would be home in a couple of hours.

"I'll give you all the help I can," Joe promised. "Just give me a hand now and then."

"Okay," Spud said reluctantly. "But we gotta hurry."

"Fine, Spud, fine. I knew I could count on you. All right, let's give it a try." The closed his eyes, turned right and began to move forward gingerly. "Lemme see if I can remember."

"Wait a minute," said Spud with a touch of contempt. Joe, he decided, was not very bright. "You've gotta get out of this room first. You're gonna hit that wall in a minute."

Joe opened his eyes, blinked. "Yeah."

"Hold on. Where your legs are—is that this building, thirty-two years from now? I mean, if it is, how come the doors are in different places and stuff?"

"Nah—I started in a ten-year-old building."

Spud sneered. "Cripes, you're lucky you didn't pop out in midair! Or inside somebody's fireplace. That was dumb—you should have started on the ground out in the open someplace."

Joe reddened. "What makes you think there is anyplace out in the open in Brooklyn in 2007, smart-mouth? I checked the Hall of Records and found out there was a building here in 1976, and the floor heights matched. So I took a chance. Now stop needlin' me and help me figure this out."

"I guess," Spud said reluctantly, "I'll have to push you out into the hall, and then you can take it from there, I hope." He dug in his heels and pushed. "Hey, squat a little, will you? Your center of gravity's too high." Koziack complied, and was gradually boyhandled out into the hall. It was empty.

"Okay," Spud panted at last. "Try walking." Joe moved forward tentatively, then grinned and began to move faster, swinging his heavy arms.

"Say," he said, "this is all right."

"Well, let's get going before somebody comes along and sees you," Spud urged.

"Sure thing," Koziack agreed, quickening his pace. "Wouldn't want aaaaaaAAAAAARGH!!!" His eyes widened for a moment, his arms flailed, and suddenly he dropped to the floor and began to bounce violently up and down, spinning rapidly. Spud jumped away, wondering if Joe had gone mad or epileptic. At last the came to rest on his back, cursing feebly, the derby still on his head but quite flattened.

"You okay?" Spud asked tentatively.

Joe lurched upright and began rubbing the back of his head vigorously. "Fell down the mug-pluggin' stairs," he said petulantly.

"Why don't you watch where you're going?"

"How the hell am I supposed to do that?" Joe barked.

"Well, be more careful," Spud said angrily. "You keep makin' noise and somebody's gonna come investigate."

"In Brooklyn? Come on! Jesus, my ass hurts."

"Lucky you didn't break a leg," Spud told him. "Let's get going."

"Yeah." Groaning, Joe began to move forward again. The pair reached the elevator without further incident, and Joe pushed the DOWN button. "Wish my own building had elevators," he complained bitterly, still trying to rub the place that hurt. Migod, thought Spud, he literally can't find it with both hands! He giggled, stopped when he saw Joe glare.

The elevator slid back. A bearded young man with very long hair emerged, shouldered past the two, started down the hall and then did a triple-take in slow motion. Trembling, he took a plastic baggie of some green substance from his pocket, looked from it to Koziack and back again. "I guess it is worth two hundred an ounce," he said to himself, and continued on his way.

Oblivious, Spud was waving Joe to follow him into the elevator. The attempted to comply, bounced off empty air in the doorway.

"Shit," he said.

"Come on, come on," Spud said impatiently.

"I can't. My own hallway isn't wide enough. You'll have to push me in."

Spud raised his eyes heavenward. He set the "emergency stop" switch. Immediately alarm bells began to yammer, reverberating through the entire building. Swearing furiously, Spud scrambled past Joe into the hallway and pushed him into the elevator as fast as he could, scurrying in after him. He slapped the controls, the clamour ceased, and the car began to descend.

At once Joe rose to the ceiling, banging his head and flattening the derby entirely. The car's descent slowed. He roared with pain and did a sort of reverse-pushup, lowering his head a few inches. He glared down at Spud. "How . . . many . . . floors?" he grunted, teeth gritting with effort.

Spud glanced at the indicator behind Joe. "Three more," he announced.


The elevator descended at about three-quarter-normal speed, but eventually it reached the ground floor, and the doors opened on a miraculously empty lobby. Joe dropped his hands with a sigh of relief—and remained a few inches below the ceiling, too high to get out the door.

"Oh, for the luvva—what do I do now?" he groaned. Spud shrugged helplessly. As they pondered, the doors slid closed and the car, in answer to some distant summons, began to rise rapidly. Joe dropped like an anvil, let out a howl as he struck the floor. "I'll sue," he gibbered, "I'll sue the bastard! Oh my kidneys! Oh my gut!"

"Oh my achin' back," Spud finished. "Now someone'll see us—I mean, you. Supposed they aren't stoned?" Joe was too involved in the novel sensation of internal bruising; it was up to Spud to think of something. He frowned—then smiled. Snatching the mashed derby from Joe's head, he pushed the crown back out and placed the hat, upsidedown, on the floor in front of Joe.

The door slid back at the third floor: a rotund matron with a face like an overripe avocado stepped into the car and then stopped short, wide-eyed. She went white, and then suddenly red with embarrassment.

"Oh, you poor man," she said sympathetically, averting her eyes, and dropped a five-dollar bill in the derby. "I never supported that war myself." She turned around and faced forward, pushing the button marked "L."

Barely in time, Spud leaped onto Joe's shoulders and threw up his hands. They hit the ceiling together with a muffled thud, clamping their teeth to avoid exclaiming. The stout lady kept up a running monologue about a cousin of hers who had also left in Vietnam some parts of his anatomy which she was reluctant to name, muffling the sounds the two did make, and she left the elevator at the ground floor without looking back. "Good luck," she called over a brawny shoulder, and was gone.

Spud made a convulsive effort, heaved Joe a few feet down from the ceiling, and leaped from his shoulders toward the closing door. He landed on his belly, and the door closed on his hand, springing open again at once. It closed on his hand twice more before he had enough breath back to scream at Joe, who shook off his stupor and left the elevator, snatching up his derby and holding the door for Spud to emerge. The boy exited on his knees, cradling his hand and swearing.

Joe helped him up. "Sorry," he said apologetically. "I was afraid I'd step on ya."

"With WHAT?" Spud hollered.

"I said I was sorry, Spud. I just got shook up. Thanks for helping me out there. Look, I'll split this finnif with you . . ." A murderous glare from Spud cut him off. The boy held out his hand.

"Fork it over," he said darkly.

"Whaddya mean? She give it to me, didn't she?"

"I'll give it to you," Spud barked. "You say you're gonna make me rich, but all I've got so far is a stiff neck and a mashed hand. Come on, give—you haven't got a pocket to put it in anyway."

"I guess you're right, Spud," Joe decided. "I owe ya for the help. If a grownup saw me and found out about the belt, it'd probably cause a paradox or something, and I'd end upon a one-way trip to the Pleistocene. The temporal cops're pretty tough about that kind of stuff." He handed over the money, and Spud, mollified now, stuffed it into his pants and considered his next move. The lobby was still empty, but that could change at any moment.

"Look," he said finally, ticking off his options on his fingers, "we can't take the subway—we'd cause a riot. Likewise the bus, and besides, we haven't got exact change. A Brooklyn cabbie can't be startled, but five bucks won't get us to the bridge. And we can't walk. So there's only one thing to do."

"What's that?"

"I'll have to clout a car."

Joe brightened. "I knew you'd think of something, kid. Hey, what do I do in the meantime?"

Spud considered. Between them and the curtained lobby-door, some interior decorator's horribly botched bonsai caught (or, more accurately, bushwacked) his eye; it rose repulsively from a kind of enormous marble wastebasket filled with vermiculite, a good three feet high.

"Squat behind that," he said, pointing. "If anybody comes in, make out like you're tying your shoelace. If you hear the elevator behind you, go around the other side of it."

Joe nodded. "You know," he said, replacing his derby on his balding pink head, "I just thought. While we was upstairs at your place I shoulda grabbed something to wear that went down to the floor. Dumb. Well, I sure ain't goin' back."

"It wouldn't do you any good anyway," Spud told him. "The only clothes we got like that are Mom's—you couldn't wear them."

Joe looked puzzled, and then light slowly dawned. "Oh, yeah, I remember from my history class. This is a tight-ass era. Men couldn't wear dresses and women couldn't wear pants."

"Women can wear pants," Spud said, confused.

"That's right—I remember now. `The Twilight of Sexual Inequality,' my teacher called it, the last days when women still oppressed men."

"I think you've got that backwards," Spud corrected.

"I don't think so," Joe said dubiously.

"I hope you're better at sports. Look, this is wasting time. Get down behind that cactus and keep your eyes open. I'll be back as soon as I can."

"Okay, Spud. Look, uh . . . Spud?" Joe looked sheepish. "Listen, I really appreciate this. I really do know about sports history. I mean, I'll see that you make out on this."

Spud smiled suddenly. "That's okay, Joe. You're too fat, and you're not very bright, but for some reason I like you. I'll see that you get fixed up." Joe blushed and stammered, and Spud left the lobby.

He pondered on what he had said, as with a small part of his attention, he set about stealing a car. It was funny, he thought as he pushed open an unlocked vent-window and snaked his slender arm inside to open the door—Joe was pretty dumb, all right, and he complained a lot, and he was heavier than a garbage can full of cement—but something about him appealed to Spud. He's got guts, the boy decided as he smashed the ignition and shorted the wires. If I found myself in a strange place with no legs, I bet I'd freak out. He gunned the engine to warm it up fast and tried to imagine what it must be like for Joe to walk around without being able to see where he was going—or rather, seeing where only part of him was going. The notion unsettled him; he decided that in Joe's place he'd be too terrified to move an inch. And yet, he reflected as he eased the car—a battered '59 Buick—from its parking space, that big goon is going to try and make it all the way to Manhattan. Yeah, he's got guts. 

Or perhaps, it occurred to him as he double-parked in front of the door of his building, Joe simply didn't have the imagination to be afraid. Well, in that case somebody's got to help him, Spud decided, and headed for the opaquely-curtained front door, leaving the engine running. He had never read Of Mice and Men, but he had an intuitive conviction that it was the duty of the bright ones to keep the dumb ones from getting into scrapes. His mother had often said as much of her late husband.

As he pushed open the door he saw Joe—or rather, what there was to see of Joe—bending over a prostrate young woman, tugging her dress off over her head.

"What the hell are you doing, you moron!" he screamed, leaping in through the door and slamming it behind him. "You trying to get us busted?"

Joe straightened, embarrassement on his round face. Since he retained his grip on the long dress, the girl's head and arms rose into the air and then fell with a thud as the dress came free. Joe winced. "I'm sorry, Spud," he pleaded. "I couldn't help it."

"What happened?"

"I couldn't help it. I tried to get behind the thing like you said, but there was a wall in the way—of my legs, I mean. So while I was tryin' ta think what to do this fem come in an' seen me an' just fainted. So I look at her for a while an' I look at her dress an' I think: Joe, would you rather people look at you funny, or would you rather be in the Pleistocene? So I take the dress." He held it up; its hem brushed the floor.

Spud looked down at the girl. She was in her late twenties, with long blond hair and a green headband. She wore only extremely small and extremely loud floral print panties and a pair of sandals. Her breasts were enormous, rising and falling as she breathed. She was out cold. Spud stared for a long time.

"Hey," Joe said sharply. "You're only a kid. What're you lookin' at?"

"I'm not sure," Spud said slowly, "but I got a feeling I'll figure it out in a couple of years, and I'll want to remember."

Joe roared with sudden laughter. "You'll do, kid." He glanced down. "Kinda wish I had my other half along myself." He shook his head sadly. "Well, let's get going."

"Wait a minute, stupid," Spud snapped. "You can't just leave her there. This is a rough neighborhood."

"Well, what am I sposta do?" Joe demanded. "I don't know which apartment is hers."

Spud's forehead wrinkled in thought. The laundry room? No, old Mrs. Cadwallader always ripped off any clothes left here. Leave the two of them here and go grab one of Mom's housecoats? No good: either the girl would awaken while he was gone or, with Joe's luck, a cop would walk in. Probably a platoon of cops.

"Look," Joe said happily, "it fits. I thought it would—she's almost as big on top as I am, an' it looked loose." The had seemingly become an integer, albeit in drag. Draped in paisley, he looked like a psychedelic priest and something like Henry the Eighth dressed for bed, As Anne Boleyn might have done, Spud shuddered.

"Well," he said ironically, "at least you're not so conspicuous now."

"Yeah, that's what I thought," Joe agreed cheerfully. Spud opened his mouth, then closed it again. Time was short—someone might come in at any second. The girl still snored; apparently the bang on the head had combined with her faint to put her deep under. They simply couldn't leave her here.

"We'll have to take her with us," Spud decided.

"Hey," Joe said reproachfully.

"You got a better idea? Come on, we'll put her in the trunk." Grumbling, but unable to come up with a better idea, Joe picked the girl up in his beefy arms, headed for the door—and bounced off thin air, dropping her again.

Failing to find an obscenity he hadn't used yet, Spud sighed. He bent over the girl, got a grip on her, hesitated, got a different grip on her, and hoisted her over his shoulder. Panting and staggering, he got the front door open, peered up and down the street, and reeled awkwardly out to the waiting Buick. It took only a few seconds to smash open the trunk lock, but Spud hadn't realized they made seconds that long. He dumped the girl into the musty trunk with a sigh of relief, folding her like a cot, and looked about for something with which to tie the trunk closed. There was nothing useful in the trunk, nor the car itself, nor in his pockets. He thought of weighing the lid down with the spare tire and fetching something from inside the building, but she was lying on the spare, his arms were weary, and he was still conscious of the urgent need for haste.

Then he did a double-take, looked down at her again. He couldn't use the sandals, but . . .

As soon as he had fashioned the floral-print trunk latch (which took him a bit longer than it should have), he hurried back inside and pushed Joe to the car with the last of his strength. "I hope you can drive, Spud," Joe said brightly as they reached the curb. "I sure as hell can't."

Instead of replying, Spud got in. Joe lowered himself and sidled into the car, where he floated an eerie few inches from the seat. Spud put it in drive, and pulled away slowly. Joe sank deep in the seat-back, and the car behaved as if it had a wood stove tied to the rear-bumper, but it moved.

* * *

Automobiles turned out to be something with which Joe was familiar in the same sense that Spud was familiar with biplanes, and he was about as comfortable with the reality as Spud would have been in the rear cockpit of a Spad (had Spud's Spad sped). A little bit of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway was enough to lighten his complexion about two shades past albino. But he adapted quickly enough, and by the time the fifth homicidal psychopath had tried his level best to kill them (that is, within the first mile) he found his voice and said, with a fair imitation of diffidence, "I didn't think they'd decriminalized murder this early."

Spud gaped at him.

"Yeah," Joe said, seeing the boys puzzlement. "Got to be too many people, an' they just couldn't seem to get a war going. That's why I put my life savings into this here cut-rate time-belt, to escape. I lost my job, so I became . . . eligible. Just my luck I gotta get a lemon. Last time I'll ever buy hot merchandise."

Spud stared in astonishment, glanced back barely in time to foil the sixth potential assassin. "Won't the cops be after you for escaping?"

"Oh, you're welcome to escape, if you can. And if you can afford time-travel, you can become a previous administration's problem, so they're glad to see you go. You can only go backward into the past or return to when you started, you know—the future's impossible to get to."

"How's that?" Spud asked curiously. Time-travel always worked both ways on television.

"Damfino. Somethin' about the machine can recycle reality but it can't create it—whatever that means."

Spud thought awhile, absently dodging a junkie in a panel truck. "So it's sort of open season on your legs back in 2007, huh?"

"I guess," said Joe uneasily. "Be difficult to identify 'em as mine, though. The pictures they print in the daily Eligibles column are always head shots, and they sure can't fingerprint me. I guess I'm okay."

"Hey," Spud said, slapping his forehead and the horn in a single smooth motion (scaring onto the shoulder a little old lady in a new Lincoln Continental who had just pulled onto the highway in front of them at five miles per hour), "it just dawned on me: what the hell is going on back in your time? I mean, there's a pair of legs wandering around in crazy circles, falling down stairs, right now they're probably standing still on a sidewalk or something . . ."

"Sitting," Joe interrupted.

". . . sitting on a sidewalk. So what's going on? Are you causing a riot back there or what?"

"I don't think so," Joe said, scratching his chin. "I left about three in the morning."

"Why then?"

"Well, I . . . I didn't want my wife to know I was goin'. I didn't tell her about the belt."

Spud started to nod—he wouldn't have told his mother. Then he frowned sharply. "You mean you left your wife back there to get killed? You . . ."

"No, kid, no!" Joe flung up his hands. "It ain't like you think. I was gonna come back here into the past and make a bundle on the Series, and then go back to the same moment I left and buy another belt for Alice. Honest, I love my wife, dammit!"

Spud thought. "How much to you need?"

"For a good belt, made in Japan? Twenty grand, your money. Which is the same in ours, in numbers, only we call 'em Rockefellers instead of dollars."

Spud whistled a descending arpeggio. "How'd you expect to win that kind of money? That takes a big stake, and you said you sunk your savings in the belt."

"Yeah," Koziack smiled, "but they terminate your life-insurance when you go Eligible, and I got five thousand Rockies from that. I even remembered to change it to dollars," he added proudly. "It's right . . ." His face darkened.

". . . here in your pocket," Spud finished. "Terrific." His eyes widened. "Hey, wait—you're in trouble!"


"Your legs are back in 2007, sitting on the sidewalk, right? So they're creating reality. Get it? They're making future—you can't go back to the moment you left 'cause time is going on after it already. So if you don't get back soon, the sun'll come up and some blood-thirsty nut'll kill your wife."

Joe blanched. "Oh Jesus God," he breathed. "I think you're right." He glanced at a passing sign, which read, MANHATTAN—10 MILES. "Does this thing go any . . . ulp . . . faster?"

The car leaped forward.

* * *

To his credit, Joe kept his eyes bravely open as Spud yanked the car in and out of high-speed traffic, snaking through holes that hadn't appeared to be there and doing unspeakable things to the Buick's transmission. But Joe was almost—almost—grateful when the sound of an ululating siren became audible over the snarling horns and screaming brakes.

Spud glanced in the mirror, located the whirling gumball machine in the rear-view mirror, and groaned aloud. "Just our luck! The cops—and us with only five bucks between us. Twelve years old, no license, a stolen car, a half a fat guy in a dress—cripes, even fifty bucks'd be cutting it close." Thinking furiously, he pulled over and parked on the grass, beneath a hellishly bright highway light. "Maybe I can go back and talk to them before they see you," he said to Joe, and began to get out.

"Wait, Spud!" Joe said urgently. He snatched a handful of cigarette butts from the ashtray, smeared black grime on Spud's upper lip. "There. Now you look maybe sixteen."

Spud grinned. "You're okay, Joe." He got out.

Twenty feet behind them, Patrolman Vitelli turned to his partner. "Freaks," he said happily. "Kids. Probably clouted the car, no license. Let me have it."

"Don't take a cent less than seventy-five," Patrolman Duffy advised.

"I dunno, Pat. They don't look like they got more than fifty to me."

"Well, all right," Duffy grumbled. "But I want an ounce of whatever they're smokin'. We're running low."

Vitelli nodded and got out of the black and white, one hand on his pistol. Spud met him halfway, and a certain lengthy ritual dialogue was held.

"Five bucks!" Vitelli roared. "You must be outa your mind."

"I wish I was," Spud said fervently. "Honest to God, it's all I got."

"How about your friend?" Vitelli said, and started for the Buick, which sat clearly illuminated in the pool of light beneath the arc light.

"He's stone broke," Spud said hastily. "I'm takin' him to Bellevue—he thinks he may have leprosy."

Vitelli pulled up short with one hand on the truck. "You got a license and registration?" he growled.

Spud's heart sank. "I . . ."

Vitelli nodded. "All right, buddy. Let's open the trunk."

Spud's heart bounced off his shoes and rocketed back up, lodging behind his palate. Seeing his reaction, Vitelli looked down at the trunk, noticing for the first time the odd nature of its fastening. He tugged experimentally, flimsy fabric parted, and the trunk lid rose.

Blinking at the light, the blond girl sat up stiffly, a muddy treadprint on her . . . person.

The air filled with the sound of screeching brakes.

Vitelli staggered back as if he'd been slapped with a sandbag. He looked from the girl to Spud to the girl to Spud, and his eyes narrowed.

"Oh, boy," he said softly. "Oh boy." He unholstered his gun.

"Look, officer, I can explain," Spud said without the least shred of conviction.

"Hey," said the blond girl, clearly dazed.

"Holy shit," said Duffy in the squad car.

"Excuse me," said Joe, getting out of the Buick.

Both cops gasped as they caught sight of him, and Vitelli began to shake his head slowly. Seeing their expressions, the girl raised up onto her knees and peered around the trunk lid, completing the task of converting what had been three lanes of rushing traffic into a goggle-eyed parking lot.

"My dress," she yelped.

Koziack stood beside the Buick a little uncertainly, searching for words in all the likely places. "Oh shit," he said at last, and began to pull the dress over his head, removing the derby. "Pleistocene, here I come."

Vitelli froze. The gun dropped from his nerveless fingers; the hand stayed before him, index finger crooked.

"Tony," came a shaky voice from the squad car, "forget the ounce."

Spud examined the glaze in Vitelli's eyes and bolted for the car. "Come on," he screamed at Joe. The girl barely (I'm sorry, really) managed to jump from the trunk before the car sprang forward like a plane trying to outrun a bullet, lurching off the shoulder in front of a ten-mile traffic pileup that showed no slightest sign of beginning to start up again.

Behind them Vitelli still stood like a statue, imaginary gun still pointing at where Joe had been standing. Tears leaked from his unblinking eyes.

As the girl stared around her with widening eyes, car doors began to open.

* * *

Spud was thoroughly spooked, but he relaxed a good deal when the toll-booth attendant at the Brooklyn Bridge failed to show any interest in a twelve-year-old driving a car with the trunk wide open. Joe had the dress folded over where his lap should have been, and the attendant only changed the five and went back to his egg salad sandwich without comment.

"Where are we going?" Spud asked, speaking for the first time since they had left the two policemen and the girl behind.

Joe named a midtown address in the forties.

"Great. How're we gonna get you from the car into the place?"

Joe chuckled. "Hey, Spud—this may be 1976, but Manhattan is Manhattan. Nobody'll notice a thing."

"Yeah, I guess you're right. What do you figure to do?"

Joe's grin atrophied. "Jeez, I dunno. Get the belt fixed first—I ain't thought about after that."

Spud snorted. "Joe, I think you're a good guy and I'm your pal, but if you didn't have a roof on your mouth, you'd blow your derby off every time you hiccuped. Look, it's simple: you get the belt fixed, you get both halves of you back together, and it's maybe ten o'clock, right?"

"If those goniffs at the dealership don't take too long fixin' the belt," Joe agreed.

"So you give me the insurance money, and use the belt to go a few months ahead. By the time, with the Series and the Bowl games and maybe a little Olympics action, we can split, say, fifty grand. You take your half and take the time-belt back to the moment your legs left 2007, at 10:01. You buy your wife a time-belt first thing in the morning and you're both safe."

"Sounds great," Joe said a little slowly, "but . . . uh . . . "

Spud glanced at him irritably. "What's wrong with it?" he demanded.

"I don't want you should be offended, Spud. I mean, you're obviously a tough, smart little guy, but . . . "

"Spit it out!"

"Spud, there is no way in the world a twelve-year-old kid is gonna take fifty grand from the bookies and keep it." Joe shrugged apologetically. "I'm sorry, but you know I'm right."

Spud grimaced and banged the wheel with his fist. "I'll go to a lot of bookies," he began.

"Spud, Spud, you get into that bracket, at your age, the word has just gotta spread. You know that."

The boy jammed on the brakes for a traffic light and swore. "Dammit, you're right."

Joe slumped sadly in his seat. "And I can't do it myself. If I get caught bettin' on sports events of the past myself, it's the Pleistocene for me."

Spud stared, astounded. "Then how did you figure to accomplish anything?"

"Well . . ." Joe looked embarrassed. "I guess I thought I'd find some guy I could trust. I didn't think he'd be . . . so young."

"A grownup you can trust? Joe, you really are a moron."

"Well. I didn't have no choice, fragit. Besides, it might still work. How much do you think you could score, say, on one big event like the Series, if you hustled all the books you could get to?"

Twenty thousand, Spud thought, but he said nothing.

* * *

Joe had been right: the sight of half a fat man being dragged across the sidewalk by a twelve-year-old with ashes on his upper lip aroused no reaction at all in midtown Manhattan on a Friday night. One out-of-towner on his way to the theater blinked a few times, but his attention was distracted almost immediately by a midget in a gorilla suit, wearing a sandwich sign advertising an off-off-off-Broadway play about bestiality. Spud and Joe reached their destination without commotion, a glass door in a group of six by which one entered various sections of a single building, like a thief seeking the correct route to the Sarcophagus Room of Tut's Tomb. The one they chose was labeled, "Breadbody & McTwee, Importers," and opened on a tall stairway. Spud left Joe at the foot of the stairs and went to fetch assistance. Shortly he came back down with a moronic-looking pimply teen-ager in dirty green coveralls, "Dinny" written in red lace on his breast pocket.

"Be goddamn," Dinny said with what Joe felt was excessive amusement. "Never seen anything like it. I thought this kid was nuts. Come on, let's go." Chuckling to himself, he helped Spud haul Joe upstairs to the shop. They brought him into a smallish room filled with oscilloscopes, signal generators, computer terminals, assorted unidentifiable hardware, tools, spare parts, beer cans, as-yet unpublished issues of Playboy and Analog, overflowing ashtrays, a muted radio, and a cheap desk piled with carbon copies of God only knew what. Dinny sat on a cigarette-scarred stool, still chuckling, and pulled down a reference book from an overhead shelf. He chewed gum and picked at his pimples as he thumbed through it, as though to demonstrate that he could do all three at once. It was clearly his showpiece. At last he looked up, shreds of gum decorating his grin, and nodded to Joe.

"If it's what I t'ink it is," he pronounced, "I c'n fix it. Got yer warranty papers?"

Joe nodded briefly, retrieved them from a compartment in the time-belt and handed them over. "How long will it take?"

"Take it easy," Dinny said unresponsively, and began studying the papers like an orangutan inspecting the Magna Carta. Joe curbed his impatience with a visible effort and rummaged in a nearby ashtray, selecting the longest butt he could find.

"Joe," Spud whispered, "how come that goof is the only one here?"

"Whaddya expect at nine thirty on a Friday night, the regional manager?" Joe whispered back savagely.

"I hope he knows what he's doing."

"Me too, but I can't wait for somebody better, dammit. Alice is in danger, and my legs've been using up my time for me back there. Besides, I've had to piss for the last hour-and-a-half."

Spud nodded grimly and selected a butt of his own. They smoked for what seemed like an interminable time in silence broken only by the rustling of paper and the sound of Dinny's pimples popping.

"Awright," the mechanic said at last, "the warranty's still good. Lucky you didn't come ta me a week from now."

"The speed you're goin', maybe I have," Joe snapped. "Come on, come on, will ya? Get me my legs back—I ain't got all night."

"Take it easy," Dinny said with infuriating glee. "You'll get your legs back. Just relax. Come on over inna light." Moving with sadistic slowness, he acquired a device that seemed something like a hand-held fluoroscope with a six-inch screen, and began running it around the belt. He stopped, gazed at the screen for a full ten seconds, and sucked his teeth.

"Sorry, mister," he drawled, straightening up and grinning. "I can't help you."

"What the hell are you talkin' about?" Joe roared.

"Somebody tampered with this belt, tried to jinx the override cutout so they could visit some Interdicted Period—probably wanted to see the Crucifixion or some other event that a vested-interest group got declared Off-Limits. I bet that's why it don't work right. It takes a specialist to work on one of these, you know." He smiled proudly, pleased with the last sentence.

"So you can't fix it?" Koziack groaned.

"Maybe yes, maybe no, but I ain't gonna try 'less I see some cash. That belt's been tampered with," Dinny said, relishing the moment. "The warranty's void."

Joe howled like a gutshot buffalo, and stepped forward. His meaty right fist traveled six inches from his shoulder, caught Dinny full in the mouth and dropped him in his tracks, popping the mechanic's upper lip and three pimples. "I'd stomp on ya if I could, ya smart-ass mugger-hugger," Joe roared down at the unconscious Dinny. "Think you're funny!"

"Easy, Joe," Spud yelled. "Don't get excited. We gotta do something."

"What the hell can we do?" Joe cried despairingly. "That crumb is the only mechanic in a hundred miles—we'll never get to the next one in time, and we haven't got a prayer anyway with four dollars and change. Crummy pap-lapper, I oughta . . . oh damn it." He began to cry.

"Hey, Joe," Spud protested, flustered beyond measure at seeing a sober grownup cry, "come on, take it easy. Come on now, cut it out." Joe, his face in his hands, shook his head and kept on sobbing.

Spud thought furiously, and suddenly a light dawned and was filled with a strange prescience, a déjà vu kind of certainty that startled him with its intensity. He wasted no time examining it. Stepping close to Joe, he bent at the waist, swung from the hip, and kicked the belt as hard as he could, squarely on the spot Dinny had last examined. A sob became a startled yell—and Joe's fat legs appeared beneath him, growing downward from the belt like tubers.

"What the hell did you kick me for?" Joe demanded, glaring indignantly at Spud. "What'd I do to you?"

Spud pointed.

Joe looked down. "Wa-HOO!!" he shouted gleefully. "You did it, Spud, I got my legs back! Oh, Spud, baby, you're beautiful, I got my legs back!" He began to caper around the room in a spontaneous improvised goat-dance, knocking equipment crashing in all directions, and Spud danced with him, laughing and whooping and for the first time in this story looking his age. Together they careened like an improbable vaudeville team, the big fat man and the mustached midget, howling like fools.

At last they subsided, and Joe sat down to catch his breath. "Woo-ee," he panted, "what a break. Hey, Spud, I really gotta thank you, honest to God. Look, I been thinkin'—you can't make enough from the bookies for both of us without stickin' your neck way out. So the hell with that, see? I'll give you the Series winner like I promised, but you keep all the dough. I'll figure out some other way to get the scratch—with the belt workin' again it shouldn't be too hard."

Spud laughed and shook his head. "Thanks, Joe," he said. "That's really nice of you, and I appreciate it—but `figuring out' isn't exactly your strong suit. Besides, I've been doing some thinking too. If I won fifty bucks shooting pool, that'd make me happy—I'd be proud, I'd've earned it. But to make twenty-thousand on a fixed game with no gamble at all—that's no kick. You need the money—you take it, just like we planned. I'll see the bookies tonight."

"But you earned it, kid," Joe said in bewilderment. "You went through a lotta work to get me here, and you fixed the belt."

"That's all right," Spud insisted. "I don't want money—but there's one thing you can do for me."

"Anything," Joe agreed. "As soon as I take a piss."

* * *

Three hours later, having ditched the car and visited the home of "Odds" Evenwright, where he placed a large bet on a certain ball club, Spud arrived home to find precisely what he had expected:

His mother, awesomely drunk and madder than hell, sitting next to the pool table on which his personal cue and balls still rested, waiting for him to come home.

"Hi, Mom," he said cheerfully as he entered the living room, and braced himself. With a cry of alcoholic fury, Mrs. Flynn lurched from her chair and began to close on him.

Then she pulled up short, realizing belatedly that her son was accompanied by a stranger. For a moment, old reflex manners nearly took hold, but the drink was upon her and her Irish was up. "Are you the tramp who's been teachin' my Clarence to shoot pool, you tramp?" she screeched, shaking her fist and very nearly capsizing with the effort. "You fat bum, are the one'sh been corrupting my boy?"

"Not me," Joe said politely, and disappeared.

"They ran out of pink elephants," he explained earnestly, reappearing three feet to the left and vanishing again.

"So I came instead," he went on from six feet to the right.

"Which is anyway novel," he finished from behind her, disappeared one last time and reappeared with his nose an inch from hers. Her eyes crossed, kept on crossing, and she went down like a felled tree, landing with the boneless grace of the totally stoned.

Spud giggled, and it was not an unsympathetic giggle. "Thanks, Joe," he said, slapping the on the back. "You've done me a big favor."

"Glad I could help, kid," Joe said, putting his own arm around the boy. "It must be tough to have a juicer for an old lady."

"Don't worry, Joe," Spud said, feeling that the same unexplainable certainty he had felt at the time-belt repair shop. "Somehow I've got a feeling Mom has taken her last drink."

Joe nodded happily. "I'll be back after the Series," he said, "and we can always try a second treatment."

"Okay, but we won't have to. Now get out of here and get back to your wife—it's late."

Joe nodded again. "Sure thing, Spud." He stuck out his hand. "Thanks for everything, pal—I couldn't have made it without you. See you in a couple o' weeks and then, who knows—Alice an' I might just decide this era's the one we want to settle down in."

"Not if you're smart," Spud said wryly.

"Well, in that case, maybe I'll be seein' ya again sometime," Joe pointed out. He reached down, making an adjustment on the time-belt, waved good-bye and vanished.

Or nearly. A pair of fat legs still stood in the living room, topped by the time-belt. As Spud stared, one of the legs stamped its feet in frustration and fury.

Sighing, Spud moved forward to kick the damned thing again.



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