Return Engagements (Book One) PART 9… in which I burn out

Picking up from Part 8, in which I waited for my companion and guide to die… leaving me stranded.

The farther I drove, the more I relaxed, and that was proving to be problematic. For one thing, I was half-drunk and seriously worn out by the day’s events. For another, I’d been pushing thoughts out of my head all day, a dozen sets of implications, each from a previously unimagined question, answer, or circumstance.

I was really, truly back in 1963. I could go back to Chicago and play with my five-year-old self, for God’s sake! What was I going to do with all of this?

I had driven south out of Minneapolis by random routes. I had nowhere to go, and random is better tradecraft. I was feeling directionless anyway – I had absolutely nowhere I needed to go – so I just went with it. Somehow I ended up on Highway 169 heading southeast.

My mental universe was still a mess: on the one hand, slowing down into sleep, and on the other, being pierced by a new and reasonably demanding thought every minute. Something was going to give pretty soon, and I wasn’t interested in driving off the road and into a ditch or tree. So I pulled off the road as far as I could and turned off the car.

There didn’t seem to be anyone around to be bothered by me, so I paced up and down for a minute. And then another car approached. I crouched and hid behind my Chevy, not wanting any company. Thankfully they continued on, but this wasn’t going to work either. I climbed back into the car and continued south.

A few miles farther I arrived at a small town called Belle Plain. The place was totally deserted at 3 AM, but there were streets with a few cars parked on them. Mine wouldn’t stand out. There was some kind of hill on the edge of the town, an isolated place where I could sit and not raise any alarms.

I parked the car quietly and got out, noticing that the night had become cool. I took every stich of clothing from the car and trudged up the hill. I was certain that no one had noticed me… and why would they?

Soon, and with a minimum of thought, I had put both sets of coveralls over my clothes and used a rolled-up sweater I had bought for my friend as a pillow. Still the battle for my consciousness raged, between my body’s need for rest and the very important questions that kept assailing my mind.

* * * * *

I awakened about halfway between dawn and noon, with the sun directly in my eyes. I rolled over for a minute and reoriented myself. For strictly dramatic purposes I suppose I should have asked myself if it had all been a dream, but that never entered my mind. Instead, I simply stared at the grass just in front of my eyes.

After a few minutes I sat up, took in my surroundings, and unzipped myself from the two sets of coveralls. I rolled everything up and headed back to the car, trying not to attract attention.

I must have slept at least five hours, a fairly reasonable amount for a night, but I still felt wasted. Maybe it was the effect of the beer. Either way, I was shortly back on 169, heading southwest toward Mankato.

I had heard of it before, but unless I stopped there on a puddle-jumper flight in about 1979, this would be my first time. In any event, it seemed to be a large enough town to have hotels and restaurants.

Mankato looked to be an hour’s drive away, which I felt I needed, still being a long way from settled with my situation. The depths of the situation I was in – back in time 53 years, my only way back home being to die, which wasn’t sounding fun to me, or to wait till the whole galaxy simply blips out of existence… and what would that feel like?

Then came more questions, including the immediate: What the hell am I going to do here? And how am I going to keep myself fed in the process?

Everything sounded fun in the sci-fi shows I used to watch, but real life gets a lot more complicated.

“Improve the world,” she’d said. But how, exactly would I do that? If I started inventing things like intermittent windshield wipers or cellphones, would that be sufficient to improve the world? Should I become some kind of itinerant teacher? Should I go to New York and become a writer? Go to LA and become a screenwriter? Would those things improve the world effectively?

I had no way of finding answers. It was just me, alone, with the future of my world somehow, crazily, resting upon my shoulders. On top of it all, my body was beaten and my mind burnt.

Welcome to 1963, kid.

* * * * * *

The morning measurements showed a weaker signal than expected, and slightly farther south, but that didn’t change their plan. The two of them packed up their equipment, went down to the lobby, checked out, ate a small breakfast, and waited for their car. Shortly they’d be in a limousine headed south to San Diego and then on to an airplane.

They’d have to fly through Chicago to get to Minneapolis, and they wouldn’t get there till late in the day. But by the following morning they’d have a local fix on their target and would head out to find her or him.

In all their years monitoring for such things – and they were on call for months or years at a time – they had never had an actual event. Nor had anyone they knew. But now they were on a live trail, not certain as to what they might find or what to do about it once they encountered their target.

* * * * *

Westward, Michael Burroughs said to himself, Westward to Minneapolis. But as he said the words, he had a slight feeling that Minneapolis wasn’t right. The right direction for the moment, but not the right destination.

It had been a good morning. He was out on the open road, following nothing but raw instincts and going where they led him. He liked that.

He woke this morning after 10 hours of sleep, feeling renewed. He had taken a long, luxurious shower. Then he sat on the bed and called his son and daughter-in-law and told his grandson that he loved him. After a good breakfast, he proceeded to the freedom of the open road and zero responsibilities.

He turned on the radio, found a music station, opened his window, and turned up the volume. Who says 64 has to be boring? He laughed surprisingly long at the thought, and kept laughing until he felt like stopping for his own, internal reasons.

* * * * *

Mankato, as it turned out, was a college town with two motels on the outskirts and a nice hotel in the center. But my first requirements were food and a restroom, and I found those right on 169, in the downtown strip.

I was pleasantly greeted as I walked into the restaurant. I took a seat, ordered, and then found the restroom. And that’s where I discovered that I looked like hell. I had pieces of grass all through my hair, a solid day’s growth of beard, and my face looked like I’d been rubbing it in the dirt, which I guess I had.

I washed up as best I could and tried to smooth my badly rumpled clothes. (To minimal effect.) There was little I could do about this until I found a clothing store, a shower, and a bed, but at least I could present myself as polite and well-mannered to the people at the restaurant. I sat back down and asked for a newspaper.

“The Free Press or the Minneapolis paper?” the waitress asked.

“Both, if you have them,” I replied, giving her my best friendly smile.

She smiled back. “Well, I’ll get you the Free Press first, then the Tribune once the man at the counter is done with it.”

“It’s a deal,” I said with a coy smile, hoping to initiate a little conspiracy with her.

The food was good, and I felt like I really needed it. I ate an omelette and toast with jelly, drank coffee, and stopped myself before ordering more.

I read the Free Press, the local paper, for a general orientation. After all, I’d be stuck in 1963 for a long time.

Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much news of note. The politicians were fighting each other and trying to convince everyone that their opponents were monsters, which still bored me.

But there was one item of interest: The University of South Carolina was ordered by a federal judge to admit its first colored student, one Henrie Monteith. I had half a mind to find Henrie once I got back to 2016. She’d have to be in her 70s, which meant there was a good chance she’d still be alive. I amused myself with those thoughts for a few minutes. Then I got the address of a decent-looking men’s store from the ads.

The Minneapolis Tribune, when it finally arrived, was more of the same. I searched it carefully for news about my friend, but there was none. Too soon, I thought, but there should be something tomorrow.

Still, the paper had a nice sports section, and I amused myself with the baseball coverage. It was full of names I knew from my youth: Mantle, Koufax, Gibson, Ford, Mays, Banks, and a dozen others. I probably had fun with that for half an hour. Once I was done, I felt as if I had unwound a bit.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)