a story
 by Lewis Shiner

         Reprinted by Permission of the author. Originally appeared in
The Raleigh News and Observer, Dec 27, 1998.

[Lewis Shiner and I first met in 1988 or thereabouts, at a Science Fiction Research Association Convention in Corpus Christi, Texas. We both ended up in one of those peripatetic, amoebic dinner groups that are so much a part of the carnival aspect of most academic conferences, and sat across from each other at several meals, eating good food and making pleasant conversation.

At the time, I'd never read a word of his, and was a bit embarrassed by the fact, so I kept my mouth shut more than is my wont. After the conference, I read his stories "Jeff Beck" and "Love in Vain." And liked them a lot. So when we met again, at another SFRA, two years later, in Long Beach, California, the conversation got a whole lot livelier. We left that conference as friends, and though we've not seen each other since, friends we've remained: a true contemporary friendship, conducted in recent years almost entirely by e-mail, but sharing the same bits and pieces of our lives and giving the same support to each other that friends generally do.

I became acquainted with Lew's first novel, Frontera (1984), the closest thing to a "hard" science fiction story he's ever written, at that conference and bought a copy of the second, Deserted Cities of the Heart (1988) , there. It's hard to describe: think sort of a Mayan fantasy with more-or-less explicit references to the Popol Vuh and Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand Faces. It's beautifully written, with characters whose lives and choices a reader really winds up caring about. I read it on the train ride back to Chicago and Carbondale (Dave, my husband, was then in the Theatre Department at S.I.U. and working on his law degree), so engrossed that I devoured it overnight, and then in the morning began it again, slowly and methodically savoring every bit of it. When I got home, there was an autographed copy of his third novel, Slam (1990) waiting. Dave and I read that one aloud to each other and learned some of our first "lawyer" jokes there. Slam was followed by Glimpses (1993), and more recently Say Goodbye (1999), very different novels but alike in that they show Lew's encyclopedic knowledge of music, and some of the frustrated musician's desire that is one of the things we have in common.

There's a new collection of short stories, Love in Vain, out last fall from Subterranean Press, to add to his earlier collections Nine Hard Questions about the Nature of the Universe and The Edges of Things. He's edited a collection of pacifist stories (When the Music's Over) and had a secret life as a writer of detective fiction. (He claims to be personally responsible for the demise of two mystery magazines, but I cannot believe this, even of him.) He has written comic books, including an adaptation of the Wild Cards series from the George RR Martin anthologies (I have them in my office if anyone is interested). He is, in short, prolific, eclectic, difficult to categorize, and very, very good, despite the fact that he agonizes sometimes over not spending enough time on his writing. There's a new novel in the works, and he hopes to have a draft completed within the year.

With a fair wind and a following sea, he'll be reading here next year, and folks can judge for themselves. I think we're in for a treat. The story below, a recent one, seems to me almost unbearably sad. But you read it and decide.——Carol Stevens.]

I t was not yet noon when they pulled into the motel.  Rain in the early morning had rinsed the air and left it fresh and cool, tasting of the fall to come.  Lee's father set the handbrake but left the engine running as he got out, boots crunching in the gravel.

Lee crawled halfway over the front seat to look at the dashboard clock.  He crossed the fingers on both hands, daring to hope that the day's driving was already over, that they would not have to try motel after motel.  Lee had a good feeling about this one.  Its wooden siding was the color of milk chocolate, and the air through his open window tickled his nose with the green scent of pines and junipers.  There was even a pool, though in truth it was too cold to think about swimming.

A white-haired lady opened cabin seven for Lee's father, and a few seconds later Lee heard a toilet flush, followed by a repeated clacking as his father tested the lock on the front door.  Finally he came out nodding and then stood for a moment in the watery sunshine, long-sleeved khaki shirt buttoned to the throat, hands in the pockets of his pleated trousers, looking into the distance.

Lee tried to smile at his mother, who seemed oblivious.

They locked their suitcases in the room and drove back into town.  Lee's father was whistling now, his right arm up on the seat back, his left elbow propped in the window, as if he were another man entirely from the one who'd been driving with fierce concentration since dawn.  "So," he said to Lee's mother, "what do you think?  Nice place, huh?"

She smiled bravely.  "Very nice."

"There's a Rexall," Lee said.  "With a fountain.  Can we?  Can we?"

His father sighed.  "I suppose so."

They parked and Lee ran ahead.  Hand-lettered signs in the drug store window advertised typing taper, Alka-Seltzer, cold cream.  The sweet smell of frying meat hung in the air inside.  Lee spun himself around and around on his chrome and red vinyl stool while his father read the menu.  "Stop that," his father said, and Lee faced the counter, sitting on his hands to help himself keep still.  When it was his turn Lee ordered a hamburger and a chocolate milkshake and then asked, "Can I look around?"

His father seemed to be studying himself in the long mirror behind the fountain.  "Go," he said.

On a wire spin rack Lee found a Jules Verne he'd never seen before, a movie tie-in edition of Master of the World with Vincent Price on the cover.  He stashed the book behind a stack of Moonrakers and moved on to the toy aisle.  The cramped space was filled with Duncan yo-yos, Whammo Slip'N'Slides, and Mattel cap pistols.  On the bottom shelf Lee found a Wiffle Ball and orange plastic bat that filled him with a longing he thought might overwhelm him.

He went back to the lunch counter and wolfed his food, then sat with his arms wrapped around his narrow chest, trying to gauge his father's mood while struggling with his own impatience, hope, and fear.  His father ate slowly, drank a second cup of coffee, and smoked a cigarette while Lee's mother applied a fresh coat of lipstick.  Finally Lee's father stood up with the check and started for the register by the front door.  Lee tugged at his father's pants leg and showed him the book.  His father glanced at it and nodded.  "Okay."

He seemed distracted in a mild, pleasant way, so Lee pressed his advantage.  "Look," he said, and showed his father the bat and ball.

"I thought you wanted the book."

He didn't seem angry so Lee said, "Can I have this and the book too?"

"What would you do with it?  If I get this job, I'm not going to have time to play with you."  Lee knew his father wouldn't have time to play with him in any case, but he was caught by something in his father's voice.  His father was thinking about the job in the same way that Lee was thinking about the bat and ball.  And though Lee knew, even at ten years old, that the job would not work out, the hope itself was contagious.

"Please?" he said.

In the car Lee's father said, "Roger Maris back there is going to teach himself baseball and become a sports hero and the envy of all his friends.  If he had any."

The bat and ball were attached with wire to a long red piece of cardboard that read "Junior Slugger."  It made Lee happy to just to hold it in his lap--the newness of it, the hard perfection of the plastic.  The possibilities.

They got back to the motel with the entire afternoon still in front of them.  Lee begged his father to play with him and eventually his father relented.  They stood under the sharp-smelling trees and Lee swung at three pitches and missed them all, having to chase the ball after each one.  "Not so hard!" he said.

His father, cigarette in the corner of his mouth, grunted and tossed him an easy, underhanded pitch.  Lee connected and the ball sailed past his father's outstretched hand, through the trees, to land near the swimming pool.

"Don't look at me," his father said.

Lee ran after it, and by the time he got back his father was gone.

Lee tried to toss the ball up with one hand and hit it as it dropped.  It was harder than it looked, and after a while he went back inside.

His father was teaching his mother a game he'd just learned.  He had five small dice that he kept in a prescription vial.  It was like poker, he told her, and he showed her how to draw up a score sheet on a piece of scratch paper.

Lee's bed smelled like clean ironing, and he made a pile of pillows to lean against while he read.  His new book was about a man named Robur who was brilliant but had no use for the world.  He built a flying platform and circled the earth in it, refusing to come down.  As he read, Lee was distantly aware of the patter of the dice and his mother's nervous laughter.

Finally Lee's father said to him, "Why don't you get your nose out of that goddamned book and go outside for a while?"

As Lee closed the door, carrying his new bat and ball, he heard the lock turn behind him.  Ahead of him was the new city and the rest of the world.

He sat for a while in a green wooden chair at the edge of the swimming pool.  The water had the pale color of a hot summer day, while the sky was a deep, artificial blue, the color of swimming pools and plastic cars.  It was like the world was upside down.

Nearly four decades later, with a happy marriage, an elegant North Carolina home, a secure job, Lee has everything his father always dreamed of.  But somehow one day has become like the next.  That afternoon in Flagstaff haunts him, and the thing he least understands is how his memory of it could be suffused with such a quiet glow of happiness.

And in 1961 Lee raises the plastic bat to his shoulder, tosses the ball high above his head once more, and swings.

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