Now and Forever
Рэй Дуглас Брэдбери

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‘Now, Mr Cardiff. You’re the first reporter’s visited in years. Nothing’s happened here since 1903, the year of the Small Flood. Or 1902, if you want the Big One. Mr Cardiff, what would a reporter be wanting with a town like this where nothing happens by the hour?’

‘Something might,’ said Cardiff, uneasily.

He raised his gaze and looked at the town all around. You’re here, he thought, but maybe you won’t be. I know, but won’t tell. It’s a terrible truth that may wipe you away. My mind is open, but my mouth is shut. The future is uncertain and unsure.

Mr Culpepper pulled a stick of spearmint gum from his shirt pocket, peeled its wrapper, popped it in his mouth, and chewed.

‘You know something I don’t know, Mr Cardiff?’

‘Maybe,’ said Cardiff, ‘you know things about Summerton you haven’t told me.’

‘Then I hope we both fess up soon.’

And with that, Elias Culpepper reined Claude gently into the graveled driveway of the sunflower yard of a private home with a sign above the porch: EGYPTIAN VIEW ARMS. BOARDING.

And he had not lied.

No Nile River was in sight.

FIVE (#ulink_d58af8b4-0493-571a-abf6-ded976116ce4)

At which moment an old-fashioned ice wagon with a full dark cavern mouth of frost entered the yard, led by a horse in dire need of his Antarctic cargo. Cardiff could taste the ice, from thirty summers long gone.

‘Just in time,’ said the iceman. ‘Hot day. Go grab.’ He nodded toward the rear of his wagon.

Cardiff, on pure instinct, jumped down from the bread wagon and went straight to the back of the ice wagon, and felt his ten-year-old hand reach in and grab a sharp icicle. He stepped back and rubbed it on his brow. His other hand instinctively took a handkerchief from his pocket to wrap the ice. Sucking it, he moved away.

‘How’s it taste?’ he heard Culpepper say.

Cardiff gave the ice another lick.

‘Linen.’

Only then did he glance back at the street.

It was such a street as could not be believed. There was not a roof on any house that had not been freshly tarred and lathed or tiled. Not a porch swing that did not hang straight. Not a window that did not shine like a mirrored shield in Valhalla halls, all gold at sunrise and sunset, all clear running brookstream at noon. Not a bay window that did not display books leaning against others’ quiet wits on inner library shelves. Not a rain funnel spout without its rain barrel gathering the seasons. Not a backyard that was not, this day, filled with carpets being flailed so that time dusted on the wind and old patterns sprung forth to rococo new. Not a kitchen that did not send forth promises of hunger placated and easy evenings of contemplation on victuals contained just south-southwest of the soul.

All, all perfect, all painted, all fresh, all new, all beautiful, a perfect town in a perfect blend of silence and unseen hustle and flurry.

‘A penny for your thoughts,’ said Elias Culpepper.

Cardiff shook his head, his eyes shut, because he had seen nothing, but imagined much.

‘I can’t tell you,’ said Cardiff, in a whisper.

‘Try,’ said Elias Culpepper.

Cardiff shook his head again, nearly suffering with inexplicable happiness.

Peeling the handkerchief from around the ice, he put the last sliver in his mouth and gave it a crunch as he started up the porch steps with his back to the town, wondering what he would find next.

SIX (#ulink_1faf3c42-f841-567f-b527-3f2bf42d6f7d)

James Cardiff stood in quiet amazement.

The front porch of the Egyptian View Arms was the longest he had ever seen. It had so many white wicker rockers he stopped counting. Occupying some of the rockers was an assortment of youngish not quite middleaged gentlemen, nattily dressed, with slicked-back hair, fresh out of the shower. And interspersed among the men were late thirties-not-yet-forty women in summer dresses looking as if they had all been cut from the same rose or orchid or gardenia wallpaper. The men had haircuts each sheared by the same barber. The women wore their tresses like bright helmets designed by some Parisian, ironed and curlicued long before Cardiff had been born. And the assembly of rockers all tilted forward and then back, in unison, in a quiet surf, as if the same ocean breeze moved them all, soundless and serene.

As Cardiff put his foot on the porch landing, all the rocking stopped, all the faces lifted, and there was a blaze of smiles and every hand rose in a quiet wave of welcome. He nodded and the white summer wickers refloated themselves, and a murmur of conversation began.

Looking at the long line of handsome people, he thought: Strange, so many men home at this hour of the day. Most peculiar.

A tiny crystal bell tinkled in the dim screen doorway.

‘Soup’s on,’ a woman’s voice called.

In a matter of seconds, the wicker chairs emptied, as all the summer people filed through the screen door with a hum.

He was about to follow when he stopped, turned his head and looked back.

‘What?’ he whispered.

Elias Culpepper was at his elbow, gently placing Cardiff’s suitcase beside him.

‘That sound,’ said Cardiff. ‘Somewhere …’

Elias Culpepper laughed quietly. ‘That’s the town band rehearsing Thursday night’s performance of the shortform Tosca. When she jumps it only takes two minutes for her to land.’

‘Tosca,’ said Cardiff, and listened to the far brass music. ‘Somewhere …’

‘Step in,’ said Culpepper, who held the screen door wide for James Cardiff.

SEVEN (#ulink_b4ea5ae2-7d44-52ce-8e56-c5fee5a6c8e4)

Inside the dim hall, Cardiff felt as if he had moved into a summer-cool milk shed that smelled of large canisters of cream hidden away from the sun, and iceboxes dripping their secret liquors, and bread laid out fresh on kitchen tables, and pies cooling on windowsills.

Cardiff took another step and knew he would sleep nine hours a night here and wake like a boy at dawn, excited that he was alive, and all the world beginning, morn after morn, glad for his heart in his body, and his pulse in his wrists.

He heard someone laughing. And it was himself, overwhelmed with a joy he could not explain.

There was the merest motion from somewhere high in the house. Cardiff looked up.

Descending the stairs, and pausing now at seeing him, was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Somewhere, sometime, he had heard someone say: Fix the image before it fades. So said the first cameras that trapped light and carried that illumination to obscuras where chemicals laid out in porcelain caused the trapped ghosts to rouse. Faces caught at noon were summoned up out of sour baths to reestablish their eyes, their mouths, and then the haunting flesh of beauty or arrogance, or the impatience of a child held still. In darkness the phantoms lurked in chemicals until some gestures surfaced them out of time into a forever that could be held in the hands long after the warm flesh had vanished.

It was thus and so with this woman, this bright noon wonder who descended the stairs into the cool shadow of the hall only to reemerge in a shaft of sunlight in the dining room door. Her hand drifted to take Cardiff’s hand, and then her wrist and arm and shoulder and at last, as from that chemistry in an obscura room, the ghost of a face so lovely it burst on him like a flower when the dawn causes it to widen its beauty. Her measuring bright and summer-electric eyes shone merrily, watching him, as if he, too, had just arisen from those miraculous tides in which memory swims, as if to say: Remember me?

I do! he thought.
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