Emend by Eclipse
Copyright© 2020 by Lazlo Zalezac
September 6, 1973
Geography isn’t usually much of an element to a story, except when it’s actually a critical element to the story. A tale that takes place in the Grand Canyon or on Mount Everest is going to owe a lot to geography. That’s not true when the locale is an upper middle class suburban subdivision which is basically laid out in a north-south, east-west grid with regular spacing between streets and houses. The only role the geography has to play is one of scale.
Benny lived in a neighborhood that had been built in that transition between the small tract housing with a blue collar emphasis to tracts scaled up for white collar middle management and professionals during a time while land prices were still reasonably low. This meant ranch houses that ranged from 1500 to 1750 square feet; large, but not a McMansion such as would become so common in the twenty-first century. The lots were large so that the suburbanites could spend hours a week grooming and caring for lawns. Having an immaculate lawn was socially important.
A neighborhood like that is spread out with each ranch house sitting on its own lot along streets wide enough to parks cars on and still drive past them easily. The streets are long with fifteen tracts on each side giving thirty houses on each block. This particular subdivision had single lane paved alleys down the center of the block and was where residents placed their trashcans for pickup twice a week. It made it quite convenient for people to visit backdoor neighbors. This produced blocks that were three hundred yards long and a hundred yards wide.
That doesn’t seem so bad until one considers that a single subdivision might have thirty or forty blocks. Getting from inside the subdivision of houses to a grocery store or a school suddenly becomes a distance of miles. There’s no bus service, so getting anywhere is a matter of walking, riding a bicycle, or driving. In the early sixties, a lot of households owned only a single car, which meant Mom had to drive Dad to work on days when she needed to run errands, or wait until Saturday when Dad was at home. That was okay for a couple of years, but it wasn’t long before most families owned two cars. When the kids hit driving age, that often went up to three or even more cars.
For folks under driving age, they usually had to walk, ride bicycles, or have their parents drive them places. For the most part, kids walked or rode bicycles. Riding bicycles wasn’t all that dangerous since there was actually very little traffic within the subdivision. Even some of the major access roads connecting subdivisions didn’t have much traffic. The result was that there were often a lot of kids riding bicycles to and from school, the park, the houses of friends, or shops.
Back when he was 13 thirteen, Benny had earned money by doing odd jobs around the neighborhood and saved enough to purchase a used three speed bicycle from a kid who was moving up to a ten speed bike. It was not a light framed racing bike. In fact, it was large, heavy and not very well geared, but it was better than the single gear bike that he had outgrown.
For most trips, such as to the community center which was almost three miles from home, a convenience store which was only two miles from home, and to the movie theater which was more than five miles from home, he would ride his bicycle. The trip to the movie theater, which was as far from home as his parent felt comfortable with him riding, only required him to cross two major streets and that was at traffic lights. Even those major streets weren’t high density traffic except during rush hour early in the morning and at five in the afternoon, although weekends were typically characterized by higher traffic during the entire day.
Benny did not use his bicycle to get to and from high school, which was only just a tad more than mile from his house. He walked. It was a trip that covered three streets: an east-west street on which he lived, a north-south minor thoroughfare through the subdivision, and an east-west minor thoroughfare that connected several subdivisions. The creek which he had visited the previous day ran southward and was crossed by the third street. It only took him fifteen minutes to walk to school and that was at a leisurely pace.
This morning, Benny was walking at a slower pace than usual. He carried two books with him, one on partial differential equations and one on the history of Civil War. He hit the end of his street and headed north. He wasn’t the only kid walking that route, although most of the juniors and seniors who lived near him were actually driving their cars (often filled with friends who were without cars). The majority of cars were headed in the same direction he was going. The morning flow towards the school and the afternoon flow from the school was such a part of the normal pulse of the community that he barely even noticed it.
He reached the street that would take him to the high school and turned onto it. It was only a hundred yards from that corner to the bridge which crossed the creek. He paused to look down the creek wondering what happened to the older man he had met the previous afternoon. He didn’t hold out much hope for the guy. The survival rate for the first heart attack wasn’t good. The survival rates for a second one were horrible.
Benny froze and then slowly turned to the person who had called him that. Barely able to believe what he had heard, he said, “Sir Timothy?”
“At your service, Sir!” Timothy had a smile that went from ear to ear while giving a fake bow.
Benny was stunned and had to lean against the rail of the bridge to remain standing. His legs were threatening to fold. The particular form of exchanging greetings went back to the years when Benny and Tim both owned Volkswagen Beetles. They spent so much time working on them, that they had dubbed themselves, Knights of the Royal Order of Bug Mechanics.
“How did you know?”
“I went looking for you. I first checked the smoking area, but I couldn’t find you.”
“I didn’t take up smoking.”
“Same here. I saw you yesterday in the cafeteria, but I wasn’t sure you were you. I didn’t recognize you with the minimalist hairdo. What happened to your hair?”
“I started using the clippers on it every week.”
“I didn’t want to argue with my Dad anymore.”
“Smart. At least Calvin has fought that battle for me.”
Calvin was Tim’s older brother. Katy was his older sister. She was actually the same age as Benny.
“You were lucky.”
“I was going to try to become friends anyway, even though I was afraid that it wouldn’t be possible. When I learned that you’ve been reading college level math books, I knew that you had come back, too. What’s a PhD in Mathematics going to do in high school? He’s going to read something that will keep him from pulling his hair out.” Timothy gestured at the book and said, “I recognized that book. You were reading that your sophomore year in college.”
“I thought I’d revisit the basics and see what I remember, can recover, and could reinvent.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’m still getting a handle on being here.”
“It’s been rough for me. I can’t imagine how bad it has been for you. You never could stand our peers.”
Tim was the friendly one. He was outgoing and energetic. Everyone liked Tim and Tim could get along with anyone. Benny was a different story altogether. He was sullen by nature and solitary by choice. He had an abrasive manner than rubbed people the wrong way. He often made sarcastic comments that made people cringe.
“So when did you die?”
Timothy looked down the creek. “It’s not a coincidence that we’re both back. You died during the eclipse of 2017, right at totality. I died in the middle of the 2024 solar eclipse, right at totality.”
“What killed you?”
“Lung cancer, same as you. I guess vaping wasn’t as safe as I thought it was.”
“How long have you been back?”
“It’s been fifteen months for me.”
“You’ve been here for fifteen months? How did you manage to stay sane? I’ve been going crazy after just two months. Nobody listens to me. I can’t do a damned thing. They’ve kept me in the slow classes and I’m bored out of my mind. The naivete of our peers is disgusting.”
“Our peers are stupid. They were now and they remained that way until we died.”
“Were we that stupid?”
“Yes and no. We did believe the lies a lot of adults were telling. We didn’t do much with our peers because we couldn’t buy into the peace and love bullshit world our peers were spouting. They were assholes and bigots. Assholes and bigots are the last people who create peace and love. You and I circled our wagons and kept the bad people out, but unfortunately we included a lot of good people on the do not invite list.”
“Benny, you were always more distant with our peers. If I kept them at arms length, you kept them away using a ten foot pole. I was a bridge between you and the rest of the world. I can’t do that today. I know what kinds of jerks most of them became. Maybe we’re supposed to make the world better.”
“Do you think we’re here to save the Murrah Building?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I was a mathematician. You worked maintenance. We aren’t crime fighters or detectives. I came back in 1972. You came back this year. That bombing wasn’t until 1995. I don’t think we’re supposed to sit around for 22 or 23 years to right that one wrong.”
“There are other things between now and then.”
“Do you remember them? Who was involved? What were the dates?”
“Well ... no. I don’t remember those details.”
“Neither do I.”
“So why are we here?”
“I don’t know.”
The two of them turned to looked down at the creek below. In a way, ‘why are we here?’ is one of the great questions of life. For them, it had taken on an even larger dimension.
Benny said, “I don’t feel like going to school.”
“Neither do I.”
“Your house or mine?”
“My Mom is home.”
“So is mine.”
“I guess it’s about time to introduce Mom to her juvenile delinquent son.”
“I’m not that bad.”
“I wasn’t talking about you.”
The two of them laughed. In their first pass through life, they had ended up skipping school almost as often as they attended. The amazing thing was that they didn’t get into that much trouble. Benny had figured out that they had to go to the first class of the day, otherwise the school lost money and that ruffled feathers. For the rest of the day, it didn’t really matter. Benny could pass any test they threw at him without any problems. Just about everyone appreciated him not showing up to class. Tim had been placed into the ‘slow learners’ program and they were essentially just passing him through the system. It took Tim’s teacher a couple of months to realize that Tim’s grades were actually going up the more he missed school, so she turned a blind eye to his absences.
Their biggest problem was getting the parents to accept it. Tim’s parents realized that having him hang around Benny was actually a good thing. Tim had been slow to develop early in his school career and had been placed into what was officially called, ‘special ed,’ unofficially called, ‘slow learner,’ and often called ‘dummies class.’ The whole program was nothing more than a holding class for poor performing students. Few students put into the program bothered to graduate and those that did had a minimal education. Once in it, no one escaped it. Tim’s education, or lack of it, had never been an issue between Benny and Tim.
Benny’s parents had effectively given up on him being a good student. So long as he passed his classes, they were happy. The fewer calls they received re were from school, the happier they were. So far this year they had received no calls and they were ecstatic. Of course, it was only a few days into the school year so that didn’t mean much.
Tim opened the door and called out, “Hi, Mom! I’m back.”
“What’s the matter?”
While holding the door open for Benny, he said, “We didn’t feel like going to school today.”
“Benny and me,” Tim said.
Flooded with memories, Benny stepped into the house. Smiling he waved at Tim’s mother and said, “Hello, Mrs. Blake!”
“Wow! I see you’re reading ‘Time Enough For Love.’”
“It’s Heinlein’s newest book.”
Just in time, Benny stopped himself from saying that it was a classic. Instead, he managed, “I hope it’s as good as ‘Stranger in a Strange Land.’”
“I think it’s better.”
“Really?” Benny said although he personally agreed with that assessment. “Could I borrow your copy when you’re done with it?”
“How about some iced tea?” Tim asked. In the Blake household, ice tea was ever present. They even joked that it was a breakfast beverage.
“I’d love some.”
Tim headed into the kitchen. Benny closed the front door and went over to the couch. He dropped his books on the coffee table, and took what would become his place in the living room. He looked over at the woman who was like a mother to him and said, “Tim and I figured we’d skip school today. Don’t worry, we won’t get in trouble. Well ... at least not in the long term. When Tim’s grades start climbing, they’re going to figure his absences are not an issue. Me ... I think they’re relieved when I don’t show up.”
“I know, but we came over here so that it wouldn’t be a surprise to you. Don’t worry. It’s all going to work out.”
Tim came out of the kitchen with two glasses of iced tea. He handed one to Benny, and gave the other to his mother. He went back to get another glass.
“What they are doing to Tim at school is criminal. They think he’s stupid. He’s not. He’s as smart as they come, and has a phenomenal memory. He just doesn’t test well. Now he’s so far behind that there’s no way he can get a real education there.”
“They said... , “ Tim’s mother said.
Benny interrupted, “I know what they’re saying. They’re covering up their past mistakes.”
“I was in a car accident when I was pregnant with Tim. It...”
“If that had an effect on him, he’d be sitting here with his face twisted, tongue hanging out, and drooling,” Ben said and then twisted his face, hung his tongue out the side of his mouth, and breathed loudly.
Tim returned to the living room and laughed on seeing Benny. He had been listening to the conversation while in the kitchen. This was a discussion they had laid to rest years ago. The first time through, it had taken him years to accept that Benny didn’t see him as slow.
He dropped down onto the couch and said, “Outside of sitting around and making funny faces, what’s on the agenda?”
“We’re going to have to decide what we’re going to do. No matter what we decide, we’re going to need money, and lots of it.”
Tim’s mother had been taken aback by Benny’s comments about her son, and Tim’s laughter at the characterization of a slow learner. She was not unaware of comments people made about how her son was slow. To hear someone her son’s age dismiss that out of hand, and in such a casual manner, was shocking.
Tim said, “People still need their lawns mowed. We can paint curbs this weekend.”
“Mowing lawns is okay, but it’s is hot and hard work. I doubt we’ll be able to do curbs this weekend. We have to put together the brochure and take it down to the printer’s.”
Tim said, “We’ve got to find out how much the paint will cost and what colors to buy. Besides, we should get over to town hall and get the appropriate permits. We don’t want to get arrested.”
Benny and Tim looked at each other and grinned. First time through, they had been going door to door dropping off their ad and had been arrested for solicitation without a permit. They had been fined fifty dollars each. The judge had waived the court costs because he was impressed that they were so ambitious. The permits had then cost an additional five dollars each. It had hurt their total earnings, but they had made up the costs rather quickly.
It cost about fifty cents in materials to paint the house numbers on the curbs framing the two sides of the driveway. They charged three dollars which was actually a bargain. For the home owner to do the curb for one house, it cost a lot more than three dollars since it involved buying two cans of paint, a stencil, and tape. For them, the cans of paint did more than one house, the different numbers of the stencil could be used over and over, and one roll of tape lasted a month.
Their overhead was almost the same amount, forty-five cents. After their first few attempts, they had it down to an art. They had their ad printed on an envelope which was their biggest cost. The envelope had a nice little hole in the corner with a cheap rubber band threaded through it. They dropped the ad in the mail box. If the homeowner wanted the curb painted, they put the money in the envelope and hung it from their door knob by ten in the morning Saturday. Tim would walk down the street, spot the envelope, collect the money, paint the background on curb, and then go on to the next house. Fifteen minutes later, Benny would come along, tape together a stencil, and paint the number on the curb. They could easily do 12 twelve houses an hour.
With one street having thirty houses per block and the streets typically running two or three blocks, they could put out between sixty and ninety ads per street the night before. With anywhere between a third and a half of the houses agreeing to pay them, they could easily pull in anywhere from $40 to $90 in profit for a street. They made out like bandits, typically walking away for one day of work with a hundred dollars each. To put that into context, minimum wage in 1973 was $1.60 an hour.
It was easier work than mowing lawns. It even paid much better. They could give themselves a weekend off if they wanted. They were their own bosses. There was no reason that it wouldn’t work this time through life. In fact, this time through they could go into it big time.
She listened in amazement while the two young men laid out their strategy for making some money. From the way they were talking, it wasn’t like they were coming up with a new idea, but trying to remember elements of an old one. The thing that impressed her the most was that it was all kick-started by borrowing a lawnmower and mowing a couple of lawns. There wasn’t any begging to borrow a dime to do this.
Listening to them, she realized the dynamics between the two of them was unlike anything she had ever seen in any social situation involving Tim. They acted like they had been friends for an entire lifetime. They seemed to communicate a lot of information with just a gesture, an expression, or a single comment. There was mutual respect present. She’d watch Tim just overwhelm others just through a positive personality, but there was always this sense that he was working to achieve equal status. That wasn’t the case here -- they were equals.
She asked, “What’s with the math book?”
Tim answered, “Ben is the smartest person in the school. They let him work on his own stuff in classes, now.”
“Oh,” she said.
Tim reached over and picked up the book. “Pop quiz time.”
Tim chuckled and then asked, “What chapter are you in?”
Tim opened the book to the homework section of the second chapter. He picked a problem and then thumbed through to the back of the book. He look up the answer to that problem and wrote it down on a sheet of paper. He handed the paper to his mother and the book to Benny.
“Work problem 7.”
“All right. I’m going to get you back for this.”
This was nothing new for the two of them. First time through life, Tim would help Benny prepare for tests by doing exactly the same thing. He’d pick a couple of problems and Benny would solve them. He’d check the answers, which was a job of comparison, not understanding. Usually the challenge came out of the blue so that Benny wouldn’t have time to prepare for it. The whole point was that it helped Benny earn better grades.
Benny picked up the pad of paper and pencil. He started working through the problem. The pencil practically flew over the page. He finished and pushed his work to Tim’s mother. She compared the answers. They were the same.
“Don’t be,” Benny said while closing the book.
“Benny’s good at math. That’s all it is,” Tim said.
Tim’s mother glanced over at the clock surprised to see that so much time had passed. “Are you boys ready for lunch?”
“That would be great.”
She went into the kitchen. One she was out of sight, Benny leaned towards Tim and in a low voice said, “I’d have never gotten through college without your help.”
“I’d have never gotten out of high school without yours, so I guess that makes us equal.”
Benny’s eyes teared. as he replied, “No. You kept me human.”
“After lunch, we’ve got to go over to your house so you can introduce me to Mrs. B.”
“Okay. After that, we’ll go to the city hall, the printer’s, and the hardware store.”
Lunch was mass produced sliced pressed ham lunch meat with a couple leavesfs of iceberg lettuce sandwiched between two slices of white bread that were slathered with yellow mustard. On the side was a small pile of chips and a pickle spear. It was the kind of lunch that Tim and Benny ate almost every day during the summer. The only difference from day to day was if it was ham, roast beef, pressed turkey, or bologna. The bread was slathered with either mustard, butter, or mayo depending upon the lunch meat. At Tim’s house, lunch was served with ice tea. At Benny’s house, it was served with milk.
With Tim pushing his bicycle and Benny walking beside him, the two young men made their way to Benny’s home. It was only a five minute walk, but it gave them a bit of time to discuss their long term thoughts about the future.
“I’ve been back fifteen months. One of the things that I’ve decided is to do things differently this time. I’ll go to college, but I won’t major in mathematics and I won’t get a doctorate. I’m not living in f•©king White Plains, New York. I may have lived in Columbia, Missouri for only two years, but I loved it there.”
“Your wife hated it. She moved back to White Plains right after you died.”
“She didn’t hate living there. She never lived in Columbia, she only visited it and stayed there because I was dying. With the choices I’m making there’s no way I’m going to ever meet her, much less marry her. I guess I loved her, but getting married was a mistake. I’m not husband material.”
“I understand. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met, but there’s something broken inside you.”
Most people would get upset about the comment concerning something being broken inside them. The problem was the Benny knew it. He knew that Tim knew. The thing that bound him to Tim was that Tim knew and didn’t care. He knew that his wife from his previous pass didn’t have a clue.
“I’ve never denied that. So what have you decided?”
“The first thing I decided concerns marrying Joyce.”
“You’d have to be crazy to marry her.”
“Don’t get upset. There’s no way I’d marry her. She destroyed my life.”
“But, she sure could f•©k. The problem was that she would f•©k anyone for drugs or money.”
“Yeah. Don’t you remember? I found out at the time of our divorce that she had been paying for her habit by stripping and hooking while I was overseas.”
“You told me about the stripping, but I don’t remember you saying anything about her hooking. Although I guess it follows that she had to be selling it if she was stripping to make money for drugs.”
“She was stripping and hooking.”
“I always wondered if I had been around if I’d have been able to keep her off the drugs.”
“You were already in White Plains. Even if you had been around, your wife wouldn’t let you near Joyce with a ten foot pole. There was no way you could have helped her.”
“That’s one of the things I can’t forgive my wife for doing. She treated you like shit.”
Tim waved it off with a dismissive gesture. “That’s because of Joyce. Any wife would bristle with Joyce around.”
“Still, my wife knew that you were my only and best friend.”
“She knew, but she didn’t understand.”
“I know,” Benny said with a sigh. “It was a mistake marrying Linda.”
They reached the house. Benny stopped at the garage door and opened it. Tim parked his bicycle in front of it. The front door opened and his mother looked out.
“Benny? What are you doing here when you’re supposed to be at school?”
“I skipped school today. I wanted to introduce you to Tim. Tim, this is my mom.”
“Hello, Mrs. Baker. It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice to meet you. How long have you known Benny?”
She wasn’t quite sure what to think of Tim. The guy seemed friendly enough, but Benny didn’t have friends. In fact, this was the first time that Benny had ever brought anyone home to meet the family.
Benny laughed. “Would it be all right if Tim stayed for dinner?”
His mother looked at him and then over at Tim. Speaking very slowly and clearly, she replied, “Sure. That would be fine.”
“Great. We’re biking over to city hall, then over to the shopping center, and then over to the hardware store.”
Benny climbed on his bike and said, “Let’s roll.”
Tim got on his bike. “It’s been nice meeting you. I’m looking forward to dinner.”