Late! Late! Late! Late! Late!
Twelve minutes after nine on the cold face of his golden Bulova.
Heartbeat drumming ... hurry, hurry ... pulse like a jackhammer
under his skin ... hurry, hurry ... neck itchy with sweat in the
wet August heat ... hurry, hurry . . . somebody gets in the way,
push them aside ... hurry, hurry, hurry!
Johnny Strickland was almost running on the Fifth Avenue
sidewalk, dodging in and out of other blurry shapes, hitting the
slower ones and knocking them aside. Somebody yelled, "Watch
it, mac!" when he shouldered the guy out of his way, but he
had a long stride and he was out of range of a punch within
seconds. He could almost hear time ticking past, and he kept his
black briefcase in front of him like a wedge to dig a path before
him. He would not now be twelve minutes late if he hadn't stayed
up until after three in the morning poring over the layout roughs
for Hammerstone Seafoods; he detested being late but he knew Mr.
Randisi would forgive him. Packed into his briefcase were
dynamite ideas that would surely bring old hard-assed Hammerstone
around to renewing the contract. And if these ideas didn't do the
trick, he'd work all night tonight to come up with better ones.
No way am I going to be left behind! he told himself, his teeth
clenched and his jaw jutting out like the prow of a speedboat. No
way! Those junior execs are going to be eating my dust this time
next year and wondering who passed them!
He had hardly spoken to Anne this morning, had crammed a
blueberry croissant into his mouth and washed it down with ebony
coffee to get his batteries charged. He was in such a rush to
gather all the work together and finish his report that he'd
hardly had time to think; of course he'd missed his subway train
by only a few minutes, and he damned himself for pausing at the
apartment's front door to let Anne kiss him before he darted off
to the white-collar wars.
She would have to understand that being a rising young star in
one of the most muscular ad agencies in Manhattan had to come
first, he reasoned as he plowed through the sidewalk crowd. Sure,
she didn't understand now. She didn't see why he couldn't slow
down just a little bit, why he couldn't take the time for
a leisurely dinner with her, go out to the movies or the theater
or just sit and talk like they used to. But Jesus Christ,
everybody had time to do that sort of stuff when they were
kids and just married! Now he was twenty-five years old and he
was on the fast track at Kirby, Weingold and Randisi, and if he
landed Hammerstone again he'd get a hoped-for bonus that would
pump his pockets up to thirty thousand scoots a year. Anne didn't
understand that Fletcher and Hecht and Anderson—as well as
a dozen other Ivy League grads— were breathing down his
neck, and the only way to keep ahead of them on that fast track
was to put the pedal to the metal, the nose to the grindstone,
the coals to the fur—
"Pencils?" a high, thin voice asked, and a tarnished metal
cup full of them was shoved upward in Johnny Strickland's path.
He almost stumbled over the figure before him, cursed and drew
himself up short. His hand was locked to the briefcase's grip,
and a surge of fury coursed through him at being even momentarily
"Pencils, mister?" the man asked again. He was small
and gnarled and as ugly as yesterday's headlines; he wore a
ragged green coat, even in this stifling heat, and on his head
was a filthy Mets cap. He had no legs, and he was confined to a
little red wagon that looked as if it had been salvaged from the
dump. He cocked his angular, grimy face in Johnny's direction,
and Johnny could see that both eyes were filmed with
grayish-white cataracts. Hanging on rubber bands around his neck
was a crudely-lettered cardboard sign that read: I AM BLIND.
PLEASE HELP ME IF YOU CAN. THANK YOU.
The beggar shook the can of pencils in Johnny's face. "Wanna
buy a pencil, mister?"
Johnny almost shrieked with frustration. The revolving doorway to
the Brennan Building was little more than a block away!
"No!" he snapped. "Move out of my way!" He
started to go around the old man, but the beggar suddenly reached
out and caught Johnny's trouser leg:
"Hold it. How 'bout a nice wristwatch, huh?" And he
thrust his skinny right arm out of his coat sleeve; on it were
maybe eight or nine watches, all of them showing different times.
"For you, wholesale."
"I said no!" He pulled his leg free, started to
And he felt the beggar's claw grip his ankle, with much more
strength than he would've imagined the frail-looking old man
possessed. Johnny tripped, almost fell but righted himself. His
face flamed with anger.
"In a hurry, ain't you?" the beggar said, and when he
grinned his teeth were the color of mud. "Businessman. Young
bull, thinkin' the world's movin' in slow-motion, right?"
"Listen, I'm going to call a cop if you don't—"
"Hush," the beggar told him, and the sound of his voice
made Johnny stop speaking. "I'll tell you somethin', and
I'll tell it true: Time flies."
"Time flies," the old man repeated. His grin widened.
"Nice watch you got on. How much it put you back?"
"It ... was a present ... from my wife ..." He caught
himself suddenly, realized he was talking to this old, smelly
coot like the bastard was somebody! My God! he thought,
and dared to look at his watch again. I'm seventeen minutes late!
"Time flies," the beggar said, and nodded. "You
remember that." And he released Johnny's ankle with a
Johnny took three long strides, turned and shouted, "You're
a public menace, jerk!" but the old man was already pushing
himself along with one hand and shaking the can of pencils in
someone else's irritated face. Johnny pushed his way forward, his
face red to the roots of his curly, dark brown hair, and finally
shoved through the Brennan Building's revolving doors at exactly
nineteen minutes after nine o'clock.
He had to endure a wry, snide glance from Peter Fletcher as he
came off the elevator onto the sixth floor and hurried past Nora,
the attractive auburn-haired receptionist. Fletcher was bending
over the desk, making chitchat; but Johnny knew he was trying to
look down her dress, and anyway Fletcher was a married man the
same as Johnny. But then he was past that point of torture and
striding along the corridor, past the secretaries at their desks
and to his own small, windowless office. He went in, closed the
door and paused for a moment to take a couple of deep breaths; he
was feeling dizzy, light-headed, and he thought that his
encounter with the blind pencil seller had affected him more
deeply than he'd known. Jesus Christ, the cops ought to get stuff
like that off the streets! That guy could've broken my leg!
He knew Mr. Randisi would be calling him in a few minutes, and
he'd better have the notes and outlines organized. He laid the
briefcase atop his desk like a crown jewel. On the desk were
files and folders from other accounts, and on the floor were
stacks of newspapers, ad magazines and various other
publications. Johnny was nothing if not a voracious reader,
particularly if it helped his climb to the advertising
stratosphere—and he planned to be in that celestial realm
by the time he was thirty years old.
He started to open the briefcase, and then he realized something
was wrong. He had caught from the comer of his eye the number of
the calendar that hung on the back of his door; it said
Tuesday, August 11, 1987. But that wasn't right. No, he'd
forgotten to pull the page off when he'd left the office
yesterday. Probably in too much of a hurry. But that bothered
him, and so he crossed the cramped little office, reached up and
ripped the page away. And now the date was correct: Wednesday,
August 12, 1987. He was a man of dates and times, and now he
felt a lot better. This office was a second home to him. Small
wonder, he mused as he went to his desk and sat down. I probably
spend a lot more time here than at the apart—
His intercom buzzed. He quickly punched it on. "Yes?"
"Randisi, Johnny. Got the work done?"
"Yes sir. Be there in one minute."
"Make it thirty seconds." The intercom clicked off.
There was no time to check the work. His heart pounding, Johnny
picked up the briefcase, quickly adjusted his tie and left his
office. He walked down the corridor, turned to the left and faced
Mr. Randisi's blond, streamlined young receptionist. Oh, the big
guys really knew how to pick 'em! he thought. But then again, she
wasn't prettier than Anne. Anne was the most beautiful woman he'd
ever seen, and once all this rush died down he was going to buy
her flowers and take her to dinner at a real four-star res—
"He's waiting for you," the receptionist said, and
Johnny went in.
Mr. Randisi, thick and gray-haired and possessor of a blue-eyed
stare that could chip flint, was parked behind his dark slab of a
desk. "Got it for me, Johnny?" he asked in his hearty
"Yes sir, right here." He patted the briefcase as he
put it on the blotter atop Mr. Randisi's desk. "I stayed up
pretty late last night, finishing it up, so that's why I came in
a little tardy this morning. Sorry. It won't happen again."
He unsnapped the briefcase and lifted its lid.
"Tardy? This morning?" Randisi's gray eyebrows knitted
together. "I thought you were at your desk at
"Uh ... no sir. I just got in a couple of minutes ago.
Sorry." He took out the neatly-typed report and slid it
across the desk. "There you are, sir. And, if I can be so
bold as to say, I think Mr. Hammerstone's really going to jump at
"Mr. Hammerstone?" The eyebrows had almost merged.
"Johnny, what in the name of Hell's half-acre are you
Johnny had been smiling; now he felt the smile slip a notch.
"Well ... uh ... I mean ... Mr. Hammerstone's going to
appreciate the work that all of us have put into
"George Hammerstone had a heart attack in September,
Johnny," Randisi said, and his voice had turned from hearty
to a bit cautious. The blue eyes bored into Johnny's face.
"We went to his funeral together. Don't you remember?"
"Uh ... uh ... well, I—" He found himself looking
down at the typed title on the report; he saw it upside-down, and
he reached out to turn it around.
The title was Proposed Program For Weston Electronics
Multi-Media Campaign. And beneath it, in smaller letters, was
By John Strickland.
"You look sick, Johnny," Randisi said, and he glanced
at his own wristwatch. "Well, it's almost six now. You can
go home if you like. If I have any questions about this report,
I'll call you la—"
"Oh ... my God," Johnny whispered. He was staring at
the large window that looked down on Fifth Avenue.
It was snowing outside. Big, spinning, dead-of-winter snowflakes.
He went to that window like a sleepwalker. Snow was collecting on
the rooftops, and whirling in the wind. Down on Fifth Avenue,
people were wearing coats, hats and gloves.
And he suddenly realized that he was not wearing the lightweight
dark blue summer suit he'd hurriedly put on this morning; he was
wearing a tweed coat that he'd never seen before, dark brown
slacks and tan oxfords. The only thing he recognized about his
outfit was his brown-striped necktie, a Christmas gift from his
father-in-law two years ago.
"Johnny?" Randisi asked carefully. "Are you all
"Yes ... I mean ... I don't know what I mean." He shook
his head, entranced and terrified by the falling snow.
"It's August," he said softly. "August. I know it
is. It ... can't be snowing in August."
There was a long, terrible silence. "Say it's August, Mr.
Randisi," Johnny whispered. "Please, say it's
"Uh ... why don't you take a day tomorrow." It was a
statement, not a question. "A couple of days if you like. I
know the strain of working on three major accounts at the same
time must be damned heavy. I know / wouldn't have shouldered it
when I was your age. Anyway, if the workload overflows I can
shift some of it to Fletcher or Manning—"
"No!" Johnny spun toward the other man, and he saw
Randisi's heavy-lidded blue eyes blink. "I'm fine. Don't you
worry about me, no sir! I can handle anything you throw at me,
and I'll do it in half the time anybody else can!" He felt
sweat on his face, and his legs were shaking. "I'm
fine," he repeated. This time he sounded like he really
Randisi didn't move for a moment or so. His stare had returned to
full wattage. "Are you and Anne all right, Johnny?"
"Yes. Everything's fine." He heard his voice tremble.
"I hope so. Anne's a lovely, gracious young woman. I wish to
God I'd found a wife like her when I was your age, and maybe I
wouldn't be up to my neck in alimony right now. My ex-wives curse
my name, but my cash sure keeps 'em living in high style! Oh, my
ulcers!" He grimaced and put a hand to his belly, and it was
then that Johnny saw the little day-by-day calendar that sat on a
comer of Randisi's desk.
The date was Friday, January 8, 1988.
"No ... no," Johnny whispered. "It was ... August,
just a few minutes ago ..."
"Take a week," Randisi told him. "Go somewhere.
Relax. Forget about the accounts. I'll shift the workload to
"I can handle it!" Johnny protested. "I said I'm
"And I said, take a week." Randisi's tone was
final. He swiveled his chair around and busied himself—or
pretended to, at least—with the report Johnny had just
Johnny walked out of the office and closed the door behind him.
His stomach was churning, his head pounded and he didn't know
what the hell was happening to him; his insides felt compressed
but his skin felt stretched. But he couldn't leave it like this,
couldn't let Mr. Randisi shoulder him aside and give more
work—more opportunities—to Peter Fletcher and
Mark Manning. No way! He turned abruptly and put his hand on the
"Can I help you, Mr. Strickland?"
An attractive Oriental woman was sitting at the receptionist's
desk, where the streamlined blonde had been a few minutes before.
She lifted her eyebrows and waited for him to answer.
He'd never seen her before in his life. "How ... do you know
She hesitated, looked confused, then smiled. "You're such a
kidder, Mr. Strickland! Really!"
"Listen, I don't know what this game's all about but you're
not Mr. Randisi's secretary!" He turned the doorknob—
and found the door was locked.
"Mr. Randisi's gone to lunch," the woman said, her
voice cool and wary now. "You know he goes to lunch everyday
from twelve until two."
"To lunch? Lady, I was just talking to him! I just walked
out that door!"
She glanced at her wristwatch, her face impassive. "That
door," she said, "has been locked for one hour and
twenty-seven minutes. Mr. Randisi will be back at two
He looked at his own Bulova. Whoever she was, she was right: it
was one twenty-seven. But what day? He almost screamed and
laughed at the same time. What day?
Because he'd realized the woman was wearing a summery pale blue
pin-striped dress, and on her desk was a glass of purple flowers.
He shook his head dazedly, strode past her and into the corridor
where the noise of clicking typewriters and teleprinters in the
secretarial work area sounded like summer hornets. He almost
collided with Mark Manning, tall and dapper, dark-haired and
confident as always. "In a hurry, aren't you, John?"
Manning asked him, but Johnny swept on past the man without
Turning down another corridor, he faced a window that looked
toward Central Park. He heard someone give a soft, strangled gasp
and realized it was his own voice.
The trees were green in Central Park. It was a beautiful
day—late May or early June, he thought it might
be—and the warm golden sunlight glowed in the windows of
nearby buildings. Off over the park, he caught the sight of a
kite sailing up and up in the breeze.
Johnny staggered back along the corridor in the direction of his
office. He needed a drink, a cigarette, something, anything to
clear his head. He closed his door, sat behind the cluttered
desk—again his gaze locked on the wicked, insane calendar.
It had changed again: now it said Monday, October 23,
1989. He heard the sound of thunder beyond the walls.
He pressed his hand to his mouth. It was a joke! It had to be a
crazy, evil joke! Oh my God, my God what's happening to me?
And then he saw the dates on some of the newspapers and magazines
that were stacked around him: 1989 ... 1989 . . . '89 ... '89....
But there was something else on his desk too. Something even more
It was a Hallmark greeting card, and on the front were the words
With Deepest Sympathy.
There were other cards too, and with shaking hands Johnny dared
to open one of them.
The signature said Max and Carol Davidson. They were his
parents' next-door neighbors in the little town of Harrington,
Delaware. Just above the signature either Max or Carol had
written: Your mother was a wonderful woman, Johnny. We're
going to miss her very much.
Tears sprang to his eyes. He flung the sympathy cards aside and
searched for the telephone in the jumble of papers on his desk.
His hand came up with a framed photograph of Anne, buried for God
only knew how long beneath a leaning tower of workpapers. He had
never seen that particular picture before, and as he stared at it
he realized that Anne's hair was cut shorter, and she somehow
looked older, tired, maybe disappointed. He wiped tears from his
eyes, found the phone and dialed their apartment.
"Yes?" she answered.
"Anne! Thank God!" he almost sobbed with relief.
"Oh Lord, I've got to tell you what's been—"
"Who is this, please?"
"It's me! Johnny!"
"I'm sorry, you must have the wrong number. Nobody named
Anne lives here."
It was not Anne's voice. This woman's voice was deeper, harsher.
"Wait!" Johnny said, before whoever it was could hang
up. "Please wait! This isn't 554-0989, is it?"
The woman paused. Then, "Yes, it is. But I'm telling you,
there's no Anne here, mister."
"That's my number, damn it!" he almost shrieked into
the phone. "That's my apartment! What do you mean, there's
nobody named Anne there! Listen, I know that place! The front
door sticks when it rains, and there's a crack that looks like a
dinosaur's backbone on the bathroom wall! The toilet makes a
jingling noise when you flush it, and down in the front lobby,
there's a mailbox with my name on it—John Strickland!"
The woman was silent. Then she said, "Strickland? I know
that name. Yes, I used to get mail for the Stricklands. Magazines
and stuff. I didn't know where to send them, but the lawyer came
by one day and picked some stuff up for the woman. I believe her
name was Anne."
"The lawyer? What lawyer?"
"Her lawyer, I guess. They divorced a few years ago. I don't
know, I don't try to find out the life stories of the previous
tenants. Listen, this is my apartment. You want to find somebody
named Anne, call the Lonely Hearts Club." And she hung up.
He sat with the receiver clenched in his fist, his eyes seeing
nothing. They divorced a few years ago. A few years ago. Years
He could feel the calendar calling his eye. Could sense it there,
waiting for him to look. He heard the steady ticking of his
wristwatch, and he kept his neck rigid so he couldn't even glance
at it. Time had gone crazy. Had jumped its tracks like a runaway
train, and was carrying him on a headlong journey to oblivion.
On his desk was a copy of the New York Times. The headline read
President Redford OKs Second Manned Space Station. And the
dateline—the hated evil dateline—said it was
Wednesday, September 16, 1992.
The sunlight of dying summer painted the walls of his office.
Only his office had had no windows—until now, that is.
He swiveled around in his chair and looked out over Fifth Avenue.
A new building was going up, its sides shimmering with blue
glass. He could see the workmen, high up in the skyscraper's iron
bones. And higher up in the sky a blimp floated past with FEDERAL
EXPRESS emblazoned on its side.
The intercom on his polished walnut desk buzzed. He turned toward
it, as slowly as if locked in a nightmare. The buttons were
different, and it took him a few seconds to find the right one.
"Yes," he said tonelessly.
"Mr. Kirby's waiting to see you, Mr. Strickland," said
a bright, cheerful female voice.
"Tell him ... tell him I'll be there in a few minutes."
"Oh, no sir. He's right outside. Can I send him in?"
He thought he said yes. He didn't know for sure. Anyway, the door
opened and Frederick Kirby—the commanding force of Kirby,
Weingold and Randisi—came in, followed by a willowy and
very attractive young blond woman wearing a yellow VASSAR
pullover and a plaid skirt.
Mr. Kirby had had swirls of gray in his hair yesterday, Johnny
remembered. Now his hair was totally gray, and receding in front.
"Here's our boy wonder!" Mr. Kirby said;
he was holding the girl by the elbow, and now he pushed her
forward. "John, I want you to meet Kim. She's just back from
Europe. I told her you'd have a lot in common, since you both
seem to like London so much. Don't you think she favors her
father?" He smiled, showing his perfect teeth; she smiled
too, but her teeth looked sharper.
"Yes sir. I ... guess she does."
"Yes sir?" Kirby laughed. "So what's with
the sir bit? Kim, this man before you has brought six new
accounts in one year to Kirby, Weingold and Strickland. I ought
to be calling him 'sir'. Now, isn't he as dashing as I
told you he'd be?"
She smiled only with her mouth. Her eyes were very blue, but they
were not warm. "I've always liked older men," she said.
"We want you to come out to the house on Saturday night for
dinner. Seven o'clock cocktails. Kirn's in town for a few weeks
before she heads out to Hollywood for a visit, and I'd like for
you two to get acquainted. That suit you, John?"
Johnny nodded. Or thought he did. Nothing was real anymore, and
nothing seemed to matter worth a damn.
"Keep up the good work, John," Mr. Kirby said as he and
his daughter were leaving. "We're depending on you to bring
in the Cartier account before September 1. Okay?"
"Okay," Johnny said, and his face almost cracked when
Before September 1, Mr. Kirby had said. And then his eye
was pulled to a gold-rimmed calendar that sat on the edge of the
desk, exactly where it had sat when this desk had belonged to Mr.
The date was Tuesday, July 15, 1997.
Rain was running down the window. The walls of his office
sparkled with awards and plaques. The telephone hummed, and when
he picked it up a strident female voice said, "Don't you
hang up on me again! I swear to God I don't know why I put up
with this! We're supposed to have a garden party and look at this
weather! Did you order the champagne?''
"Who ... is this?"
"Look, you can play games with the other chickies around the
office, but not with me! Daddy's right down the hall, and Daddy
wouldn't like to hear how you've been treating his golden girl
And then he knew. "Kim," he said.
"Wow! Got it right the very first time!" she said
bitterly. "I swear to God, I ought to go back to Hollywood!
I could've been somebody out there! Now are you going to order
the champagne or do I have to do everything?"
"Oh ..." he said, as tears spilled down his cheeks.
"Oh, God ... I want to go back . . ."
"Cut the crap! Oh you'd like me to feel guilty, wouldn't
you? It wasn't my fault! Maybe I ought to go to that closet and
get that gun and put it to my head, and I'd curse you to Hell
when I pulled the trigger. How'd you like that, huh?"
"Please ... please," he begged, and he squeezed his
eyes shut when he put the receiver down.
When he opened them, he was looking right at the calendar. It was
Friday, March 19, 2004.
His hands were shaking. A mound of cigarette butts lay in a green
onyx ashtray on his desk. And suddenly he realized he was heavy,
and his shaking hands were thick. Something pounded and hurt down
deep in his stomach, and when he put his hand there he said,
"Oh, my ulcers!" and his hand sank into a cushion of
Time flies, he thought. And he saw the face of the pencil
seller, from what seemed to be both many years ago and a flicker
of time. He felt sluggish and tired, as if the gears of his brain
were bogging down in dark mire. I need a drink, he thought, and
he looked toward the little bar where the bottles were.
As he got up, cold sunlight sparkled on the face of his
wristwatch and drew his eye there. It was no longer a Bulova;
it was a Rolex, with diamonds where the numbers should be.
According to the watch, it was forty-one minutes after eight. In
the space of time it took Johnny to reach the bar, the light
changed. The sun went away, and sleet hit the window like a
scatter of birdshot. Bottles emptied and multiplied under his
hand, and he could never catch any of them. He turned again
toward the window, saw the sun slanting through heavy winter
clouds; he went closer, and saw a building fall like dead leaves
under the crash of a wrecking-ball. More new buildings were going
up, and other ones were falling. Down on Fifth Avenue, the cars
looked weird. Off in the distance, a bridge in the sky pulsed
with brilliant blue light.
Time flies, he thought. And he saw his own face, reflected
there in the glass.
It was not a face he knew. It had heavy jowls and sunken eyes,
and the curly hair on its head was going gray. And worst of
all—worst of all was that he could see in those staring
eyes so many things that had been lost a long, long time ago.
Maybe long before he was twenty-five, and hustling down Fifth
Avenue with dynamite ideas crammed into a black briefcase. He
glanced over his shoulder. The calendar said it was November 9,
2011. He blinked. May 28, 2017. Blinked again. February 7, 2022.
Time flies, he thought. Time flies.
"I want to go back," he whispered. His voice was harsh,
used to giving orders. "I want to go back."
And down on Fifth Avenue, in the hot sunlight of mid-summer, he
saw the figure pushing itself along in a child's red wagon.
His heart leaped and labored. Something was wrong with his lungs,
and his hands would not stop shaking. But he knew then what he
had to do, as he strode to the door on aching legs and . . .
hurry, hurry ... out past the red-haired receptionist he'd never
seen before ... hurry, hurry ... along the endless corridor that
had STRICKLAND, MANNING AND HINES on it in iron letters ...
hurry, hurry ... and down in the elevator ... hurry, hurry ...
out through the glass-walled lobby and into the street where . .
. hurry hurry hurry! ... a thin cold rain was falling.
Ghosts ebbed and flowed around him, moving to spectral pulses.
Things that no longer resembled cars purred and whined along the
avenue. The drizzle stopped, the sun came out, a cold wind blew,
a fog swept past, the sun burned hot, sleet cracked against the
concrete—but ahead of him, through the hurrying ghosts, was
the figure in the red wagon. Offering people pencils from a tin
Johnny could feel himself aging with every step, could feel the
clothes dissolving and reforming on his now-thickening
now-thinning body. Hours, days, years streaked past with every
footstep. His heart felt like it might explode, and he gasped for
air and prayed that he would not die of old age before he reached
that figure in the red wagon.
Cold wind lifted him off his feet. Someone shouldered him aside,
and he fell to the pavement. He lay there, his hands—
skinny and spotted with age—thrust out before him in the
ice-crusted snow. His heart kicked and pumped and his lungs
wheezed like an old steam furnace about to blow.
And over the sound of his own rapidly-approaching death came the
squeak of wagon wheels through the snow.
Then silence, but for the muted keening of the freezing wind.
Johnny slowly lifted his head, and looked up at the figure in the
The old man wore a ragged green overcoat, and on his head was a
cap with N.Y. Zaps on the front. But the grimy, angular face was
the same, and so were the cataract-covered eyes. When he smiled,
the old man's teeth were the color of mud. He rattled the can in
front of Johnny's face. "Pencils, old fella?" he asked
"Please ... please ... let me go back ... please ..."
"Let you go back?" The old man scowled.
"Well, you were in a hurry to get here, weren't you? Lord
A'mighty, you only get one trip! So here you are! Ain't you
pleased at the destination?"
"I'm dying," Johnny whispered, snow caked to his face.
"Please ... I'm dying."
"Like I said, time flies. Oh, something in you was dead way
back then, mister businessman! Figured you'd be happy if the rest
of you was the same way, too! Time flies! Don't you understand
"Yes ... I do understand. Please ... I've got to get back
... to my wife. To the way it was ... before. I've got to get
"Why?" The old man's eyes narrowed. "Why do you
have to get back?"
Johnny's eyelids were beginning to freeze together, and he could
hardly make his tongue move. "I've got to get back," he
whispered through numb lips, "so I ... can make the trip the
way it ought to be made. Not in a hurry. Not by hurting. Just ...
knowing that ... time flies."
"Right you are." The old man nodded, shook the can
again. Johnny could feel his heartbeat stuttering, getting slower
... slower ... slower....
"Well," the old man said, "take a pencil,
then." He offered the can to Johnny, then suddenly drew it
back as Johnny's gnarled fingers reached for it. "Uh,
uh," he said. "Not yet. First gimme that pretty
Johnny took off the diamond-studded Rolex, and the other old man
slipped it on his wrist with the rest of the wristwatches.
"Nice, real nice. Don't keep time worth a damn, though. Now
you take a pencil. Do it quick."
Johnny reached up. His groping fingers found one, and he pulled
it from the metal can.
And in a sweeping swirl of time the snowy avenue was gone. It was
hot August again, and a twenty-five-year-old Johnny Strickland
was standing on the crowded sidewalk with a pencil in one hand
and a briefcase in the other. The old man in the red wagon was
still before him, but now wearing the Mets cap again.
They stood staring at each other, and the crowd of people moved
around them as if they were islands in a fast-rushing stream.
"Well?" the old man asked. "What do you have to
say now, young businessman?"
Johnny looked past him, toward the Brennan Building. It occurred
to him that he hadn't had time to really look at Anne today, to
smell the perfume of her hair, to kiss her and hold her the way
he had when they were first married years—no,
minutes!—ago. And suddenly he let go a joyous whoop and he
flung the briefcase into the air, and as it soared higher and
higher it came open and all the papers, the report, the notes,
and the outlines, all of it tumbled out and sailed upward like
the kites of children who know that it's
never—never—truly too late.
"There you go," the old man said, and he smiled.
"Thank you!" Johnny told him. "Thank you! Thank
you!" He turned and started to run along Fifth Avenue, but
this time in the direction of home. A sudden thought struck him,
and he turned back toward the old man in the child's red wagon.
Johnny held up the pencil. "What am I supposed to do with
"Write your life story," the old man told him, and
pushed himself and the red wagon into the jungle of legs.
Johnny ran home laughing, and he did not look back again.