Mobley turned in his sleep.
Slowly: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
Mobley, dreaming, heard a far-off booming. It was like thunder, but too regular for thunder; like some sort of building construction, but too broad and heavy for any building on earth. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Followed by a vast silence.
Mobley began to float upwards out of the dream.
As he floated upward, he saw a desk with a card on it, and on the card was written a number. The dream let him know it was a telephone number. Someone he was supposed to call? He awoke in his sparsely furnished, dirty, chilly room. The dream stayed with him; he remembered the card and the number on it clearly.
It was an odd sequence of digits, and didn't look like a telephone number. But in the dream he knew that was what it was, and he remembered.
Mobley lived alone in a small, dark building on West 16th Street in New York City, caught between two warehouses or factories. It would be decades before the coming onslaught of gentrification and fashion could reach this little dusky pocket. Mobley lived on the cheap; the apartment had been inherited from his mother, and was long rent-controlled. Although there was nothing overtly wrong or off-putting about him, he was now in middle age and had somehow missed, drifted past, the modest successes of ordinary life: he had no wife or child, no regular, nine-to-five job, few prospects and fewer surviving ambitions — nor did he miss them, most of the time.
For money, his did proofreading for a publisher, not of the smart-young-college-girl- works-for-a-book-publisher-or-magazine sort, but rote test questions to be published in booklets for the purpose of testing modest people with modest abilities. It was off-and-on work, from both the employer's and the workers' points of view. Sometimes they had work; some people would show up when called, and do several hours of badly paid, boring, unimportant proofreading. They were, vaguely speaking, Mobley's sort of people, the odds and ends of urban life. Their stories, though variegated, resembled each other in their ending, one of being washed ashore in a strange place, so to speak, and having nowhere further to go.
One morning of this out-of-the-way life, then, Mobley awakened with the telephone number of a dream firmly in mind. There wasn't much of a dream to go with it — he had been dreaming about the number written on a pad next to an old style of telephone, one with a rotary dial, under a table lamp. In the dream, it seemed to be late at night. There was the distant booming. When Mobley awoke, however, the sun was beating against the drapes of his long, dirty windows, leaking in the the front room of his apartment, and truck traffic ground in the street, telling him that the morning was well advanced for those with energy and ambition.
He wrote the number down and then forgot about it, and went on with his day, such as it was. No paid work had been appointed for that day, but he had some chores to do, some calls to make, something to read, some time to kill walking around. It was a few days later that, having nothing better to do, he decided to call the number and see what happened.
After dialing the number there were a few clicks and a long wait, with nothing coming over the line but some faint interstellar whispering, and he was about to give up when, without any sound of ringing, a woman's voice said, ‘Hallo? Wer ruft an?’ It was a sort of dark, husky, but definitely feminine voice, speaking German.
By a gathering of odd chances, certain relatives, a few years of classes in a school where one had to take some language or other, and a business scheme that had faded away, Mobley knew rather more German than one might expect of his sort of person. He exercised it now with a certain stiff pleasure, like long disused muscles.
‘Ich heisse Mobley.’ ‘My name is Mobley.’
‘And you are calling for...?’ replied the voice.
‘Someone gave me the number,’ Mobley replied. Could a dream be someone? ‘I dreamed that somone gave me this number, and said I should call.’
There was laughter from the other end. ‘I have heard a great many stories from those who call me, but I think that is the best story of all. And you have a really excellent imitation of an American accent. But you see, even I know that it's impossible; this country and your country are at war, and they always cut the telephone lines in a war, first thing. So who is this really?’
‘There has been no war between the United States and anyone in Europe for many years,’ said Mobley. ‘I know the Russians make trouble....’
‘The Russians! At the moment the Russians are very far away! Listen — I have things to do right now, I must run out, but if you call me another time, we'll have some more fun. You have very funny ideas. My name is currently Marika. Do call again please.’ There was laughter and then an clicking noise and no further answers to Mobley's ‘Hello? Hello?’
The voice hooked Mobley, but he shook it off. After all, if you call a number someone gave you in a dream, you might as well get someone who thinks it's the 1940s.
Nevertheless, toward the end of another vacant morning, he tried the number again, and again, after the interstellar whispring, came the voice.
‘“Marika” here; and you must be the “American” again,’ it said. ‘What is your name, by the way, Mr. American?’
‘Theodore,’ said Mobley. ‘Theodore Mobley.’
‘Sssstttthheawtttthhhorrre,’ imitated Marika. ‘That's a very good American “thhh”, one I could never get right. Well, Theodore, when are you coming to see me? That's what the game is about, isn't it? What do you do, anyway, far away there in the future, or wherever you are?’
‘I'm calling from New York City.’
‘How can you be calling from New York City? I told you there is a war going on, in case you still haven't heard. One doesn't just make telephone calls to the other side in a war.’
‘What war? There is no war.’
‘Oh, it's news? Well, there is a war. Germany is conquering the world, only they haven't quite finished the job yet. It's taking a little longer than expected. But after all, it's the Thousand-Year Reich, so there is plenty of time. Lately your country has been in the war too, after some difficulty with our dear friends the Japanese. Nobody informed you, eh?’
‘That sounds like 1944 or something!’
‘Indeed, it is 1944 or something! What do you think?’
‘Where I am it is almost forty years later and there is no war.’
‘That is a fine story,’ Marika said. ‘I like stories like that. Too bad I can't crawl through the telephone wire and drop out at that end. No doubt the sun is shining and the weather is warm, instead of gray and freezing as it is here.’
‘The sun is indeed shining. I dreamed of a telephone number, and I wrote it down and thought I might as well call it.’
‘I see,’ I said. ‘So what do you propose now? This is a clever game, but I'm rather tired now after a long day's work.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I'm a whore,’ Marika answered. ‘Isn't that why you called me? If I were not a whore I'd be long dead or in a concentration camp, so I have a good thing going here. And who are you — some friend the Herr Commandant Kellner, playing a joke?’ Let me in on it.‘
’I don't know any Herr Commandant Kellner.‘
’Well, dear Theodore,‘ I said, ’pleasant as this has been, I really am too tired to persist. Again, you will have to call me back. Call me tomorrow. Or perhaps you will get Lise in Budapest in 1792, or maybe you will get somebody on Mars that is even more interesting. Good-bye now.‘ The connection clicked off.
However, the next day, and the day after that, the calls Mobley made couln't penetrate the interstellar whispering. Mobley, hooked on the voice, worried about it. His thoughts about it began to take up his hitherto empty days.
After thinking about it for a couple of weeks, he decided to find and talk to Shemel. Shemel was not quite a friend, but more than an acquaintance; he and Mobley did each other significant favors from time to time. Mobely had an instinct for people who could benefit him at low or no cost, and Shemel was one of these people. In the past, while working at a short-lived but almost respectable job, Mobley had identified Shemel as a good candidate for being one hand that washes another, and made a point of diverting a good deal of billable work his way and letting Shemel know about it. A modest exchange of favors ensued.
Shemel, frowsy, snaggle-toothed, pot-bellied, shaggy, was a man who could do many mysterious things with wires and who had extensive knowledge of and contacts within the telephone company, or companies, as it was beginning to be in those days. For instance, for a fee, or sometimes as a favor, Shemel could provide lines on which any call could be made and yet for which no bill would ever appear, or ones which, when traced, would terminate in a defunct business or a vacant lot. Moreover, Shemel would ask no questions. Mobley called Shemel and asked him to come by at his convenience. This proved to be that very day.
Mobley described his conversation generally, without mentioning the parts about 1944 or Marika's name or profession; he just wondered if a line in central Europe could be traced. Shemel thought it would not be very difficult, and, having been given the mysterious number, called someone who called someone. After five or ten minutes of arcane telephonic matters, Shemel scribbled something in a notebook — he always carried a notebook around — he hung up.
’Interesting, interesting,‘ said Shemel. ’That section has been out of use for years. However, this doesn't mean the lines are all gone. There could be something there. If you were in over there, this guy (he meant a name he had written down) could show you where there wires go. But since you're not in over there....‘ Shemel shrugged.
’So if I went....‘ began Mobley.
Shemel lifted his eyebrows but said nothing.
’If I went, this guy you were talking to could actually show me the wires?‘
’That's what he said. I guess you'd buy him a drink and he'd show you the block of buildings or whatever that was connected to that exchange or cable or whatever it is. They keep things organized over there!‘ Shemel tore the page out of his notebook. He had scrawled a name and phone number. ’This is his name and number. He sort of speaks English and everything. He'll remember because he had to look it up in some old books. He was surprised.‘
It happened as Shemel said. Before long Mobley was in the city, he called the engineer, the engineer spared an hour for him, and they walked to a street where some old green wires emerged from an anonymous pipe and ran up the side of an ancient apartment building to about ten or twelve feet, where they turned and disappeared into a dark, narrow, twisting alley black with the soot of decades if not centuries along its sides.
The engineer declined to enter the alley, but he said that the wires connected to the back of the building on the other side of it. Mobley then treated the engineer to a few beers somewhere, and the engineer opined that the wires had been long dead but one never knows.
The next morning, by himself, Mobley edged into the alley, moving crablike sideways, watching the green wires as he moved into the increasing darkness.
+ + +
There was a light, muffled, but somehow determined pounding at the door. Marika was instantly awake, turning over in her head who or what it might be, and whether she should attempt to hide, escape, do nothing, or open the door. Had it been an assignation, the Commandant would have called her or informed her on her visits to the Nunnery, as they called it. There had been no word. Recently, things had been going well. In recent months, the Commandant had allowed her to make forays into the best parts of the city, into The Arcade — a broad passageway, covered with translucent glass, great, glassy, glossy, globular, golden. Everything not crystalline seemed to be made of rounded gold. There was a war on somewhere, but bombs never fell here; rather, behind the glittering windows on either side, sleek, well-fed women in elegant stylish clothes bought more elegant clothes or fed themselves even better. Among these women, largely deprived of men, free of men, perhaps, Marika insinuated herself looking for the knowing glances that would be the key to a fine meal, an afternoon or evening of pleasant sex, a warm bath, perhaps, and quite often a good opportunity to steal valuable items, or at least receive gifts of one kind or another. These went to the Commandant, of course, as his due. But now perhaps things were falling apart; there had been a couple of strange telephone calls, to the old, ornate telephone under the bed which only the Commandant supposedly knew how to reach. And now someone unexpected was knocking at the door.
She lay still. The light pounding occurred again. She got up to peer through the little telescope embedded in the door. Outside was an old man. No doubt, he was making some sort of mistake; he could be sent away. 'What do you want?' she called through the door.
'It's Theodore', the man answered.
Shocked, she opened the door, pulled him inside, and shut the door. No one was in the hallway; maybe no one had observed.
’I'm Theodore,‘ said the old man.
But he was old, old. His voice was the voice on the telephone in the night, but it was cracked and rusted.
’But you're a very old man, if you will forgive me for saying so‘, protested Marika, although hardly above an intense whisper. ’On the telephone you were perhaps a young man, a deranged man who maybe fell in love with a voice on the telephone, and kept calling, as a foolish young man might.‘
’I had to cross forty years,‘ he said. ’Someone has to pay the price.‘
’And how do you get back forty years in time?‘ Marika asked. ’People don't go back in time. They want to, but they can't. They just go forward, into the grinder.‘
’Don't you understand? This is my dream. People do things like that in dreams. I traced the telephone wires, and they went back in time as well in space. Finally I came to your apartment.‘
’I have news for you,‘ Marika hissed. ’I'm not someone you dreamed up. I have a life, a history, that you don't know anything about. My world isn't a dream world, it has a lot of hard edges, as you will find out if you bump into them.‘
’Didn't you ever meet anyone in a dream that you had never met in waking life, a real person but not from your own world, a person you had never met before?‘
’All right, Theodore. But aren't you going to have some problems? You're an enemy alien and no doubt a Jew on the soil of the Great German Reich, which is at war with your country these days. Or are you going to move in here and hide? Stay in the closet while I do my business?‘ Actually, Marika seldom did her business in this room any more, since her visits to the Arcade had proved so rewarding, and otherwise her business came from the Nunnery, and these could be resumed at any time at the direction of the Commandant; a guest of Mobley's sort was inconceivable.
Mobley seemed confused, or perhaps meditative. In any case, he said nothing.
’I'm a whore, remember?‘ prompted Marika. ’Isn't that why you're here?‘
’No,‘ said Mobley. ’I just loved your voice. I thought I'd visit. Why not? Nothing else ever happened in my life. Now I'll go back. I can show you the way.‘
’There is no 'way'‘, answered Marika. ’The only thing that keeps me alive is the will of my boss, the Commandant. His business is to scan the camps for desirable women, usually plump, soft, mournful Jewesses, and bring them here, where they save their lives at least temporarily by servicing important clients in a building we call 'the Nunnery', although I think it was actually a girls' school. If I am found on the street without papers, if the Commandant can't be reached, it's back to the camps or maybe just a bullet right away.‘
’Well,‘ said Mobley slowly, ’you're not a plump, soft Jewess, surely.‘
’He wanted me for officers with special tastes,‘ said Marika. ’Men who want a boy but dare not admit it, even to themselves. If they turn me around, I'm boyish enough. Do you really want to hear all this?‘
Mobley didn't say anything; he seemed to be out of air. He sat down in the one chair in the room.
’I'm not complaining,‘ said Marika. ’The Commandant has saved all our lives, even if he and his subordinates are pigs. His clients are afraid of him, but not too afraid.‘ She paused. ’I'm here because my father and my fiance are Communists; that's the same as a Jew in the New Order.‘
Mobley seemed to not be paying much attention. He got a key out of his pocket, and wrote something on a piece of paper. ’I'm going to show you how I got here. Maybe you can get through. Maybe I'll be there, or maybe not — if I have to pay another forty years, maybe not. This is my address. If you get through, you'll be in the 1980s. Maybe you can get to New York. If you do, you can come to this address, let yourself in, stay there for awhile if you want. There's money hidden in the desk, middle drawer, false back. Unless someone broke in and took it forty years from now. It's a long chance, but as I recall from history in school, the situation here is about to get very, very bad. History is something from which most of us should try to escape. Which most of us would be very lucky to escape.‘ Mobley stood up, slowly and uncertainly.
’...were Communists,‘ said Marika.
’Well, I'm going back now‘, said Mobley. ’Are you going out? I'll show you the alley and then you'll go your way and I'll go mine. I've done what I could.‘
’Well,‘ said Marika, ’I do have to go to work. That takes a little preparation. Then I must “work”. Then after work I must report to the Commandant at the Nunnery with my earnings and see if he has any assignments for me. I don't think I'll want to take you to these occasions. But if you can spare half an hour, I can take a look at your wonderful alley.‘
Half an hour later, Marika, now dressed as a corrupt urban waif, followed Mobley down the stairs and out the door into the dark day, now getting on toward evening. A few meters away, at the side of the building, was the narrow alley from which Mobley had emerged; he walked over to it. Marika looked in; it seemed oddly lit even considering the ambiguous hour of the day.
While Marika watched, Mobley looked around at the otherwise deserted street, and after giving her a sort of sad wave of farewell, slid himself into the alley sideways. Marika walked up and looked in. Although it was dark, she could see him inching, edging along. Then there was a kind of bend or crook in the alley and he either disappeared around the bend or turned into a puff of black dusty smoke; it was hard to tell. She shook her head and rubbed her eyes, but he was clearly gone.
Far off came the distant thuds of bombing, but it was nowhere near as yet. Some said there was an agreement between the leaders of the belligerent powers to avoid bombing and shelling each others' homes and playgrounds. The thuds came in groups of eight, the contents of a bomber or of one of its bomb racks. The eight arms of death, as yet signaling from afar.
Marika walked to the Arcade. The encounter with Mobley had thrown her off, made her anxious. It was still quite early in the evening, but the high clouds darkened everything and, given the possibility of bombing, street and house lights were off. But the Arcade could be lit inside, because the skylights were covered now. As she walked, Marika began to get in character for her role, anticipating in spite of her anxiety the game, the pleasures, and the rewards. Before long the Arcade came into view. Marika slipped through the covered gates and doors into the light and warmth. All was as ever; the shops and restaurants and cafes were brightly lit, full of happy, opulent people, mostly women; waiters and servants hastened to bring them food and drink. Marika waited for her instincts to tell her which mark to pick. Oddly at that moment the mild chaos of voices died down; people stopped talking and eating and seemed to be listening for something.
Suddenly, there was a slow series of eight enormously loud, sharp blasts, each one heavier than the last, as if some kind of obsessive lighting was striking nearby, and Marika felt the ground shake deeply as well. There was a tinkling of small objects falling somewhere. The light didn't change, the golden glow still suffused the polished brass rails and grills, but now the air was full of dust and the great crystal windows were cracked. In the silence that succeeded the noise, looking through the crazed windows, Marika could see the ladies slowly getting up from the tables, not in any hurry, putting on their garments, adjusting their hats, checking their makeup, picking up their purses, moving easily towards the doors, going out. They chatted as they walked down the Arcade and away. Some of them glanced at Marika, some she knew, but none betrayed any recognition. A old waiter stood at the door and Marika went up to him.
’What's happening?‘ she asked.
’The restaurant is closed, my dear,‘ he replied.
’It will be a closed, closed for a long time,‘ said the waiter. He had a certain calm satisfaction.
’And were are they going?‘ asked Marika, gesturing toward the backs of the departing women, now mostly gone except for a few stragglers.
’The richer ones will be going to Egypt, to Greece, to Italy, to Rio, who knows? As they always do when the weather is too warm or too cold. The less rich will be going to the country. And people like you and me will be going to our basements, if we are lucky enough to have any basements to go to.‘
’And awaiting their fate?‘
’That is what we all do, dear, rich and poor alike.‘
All the ladies were now gone from the arcade and those lights of the restaurants and boutiques still burning started going out. The philosophical waiter gave Marika an ironical little salute and went back inside the restaurant, closing and locking the door. After a moment its remaining lights went out.
Marika decided to walk back to the Nunnery. The bombing had receded, it seemed, and a few people were walking quickly or running along the darkened streets. There was an atmosphere of hesitation and confusion, of suppressed panic. Some kind of spell had been broken, and the world was falling, although as yet slowly.
When Marika reached the Nunnery, however, there was chaos. The building was one of those that had been struck by bombs; the top part of it was blown open, and there was a fire on the upper floors. In worse condition, however, was the Commandant. He was dead, lying in his uniform right on the pavement in front of the building with a large part of his head missing, in sympathy with his building. Clearly, when the building had been hit and set afire, he had run out, only to be the target of another bomb or falling debris. The other inhabitants had run out as well. Their meal ticket and passport out of the death camps had been canceled; they milled around in their nightgowns, uncertain what to do.
Worse still than the condition of the Commandant, in Marika's view, was the condition one of his subordinates, one of the military women assigned to the establishment, a sergeant, perfectly healthy, stuffed fatly into her uniform, waving a pistol around and screaming at the hapless Jewesses, who, she was promising, would now be dispatched ’to Paradise‘. When she saw Marika she became especially enraged; long suppressed hatred and jealousy were breaking free. Aiming the pistol at her head, the sergeant assured her that she would shoot her immediately if it were not for the much more elaborate attentions she planned for later. Debris was scattered all around, boards, beams, stones, plaster, wires, things burning. The fire was advancing quickly through the Nunnery.
As the sergeant turned around to herd or shoot the Jewesses, Marika picked up what seemed to have been a wall stud with a large nail protruding from it like a tooth, and brought it down as hard as she could on the sergeant's head, who promptly fell down, with the nail firmly embedded in her skull, and lay still where she fell. The pistol, dropping from her hand, clattered on the ground. For a few seconds nothing happened.
Then Marika bent down and picked up the pistol, and looked at the shocked women standing around in their nightgowns. ’Do any of you know how to use this?‘ she asked. There was a moment's hesitation, and one of them, a bit sharper than the rest, it seemed, stepped forward. ’I know what to do with it,‘ she said, with surprising determination. Marika gave it to her, wondering if the woman would shoot her as a first step, but she and the other women trooped off quickly into the darkened city, to God knew where.
Marika walked back to the building of her private room. It was as yet untouched, but nearby fires were taking hold in other buildings. She moved to the alley at the side and peered down where Mobley had entered a few hours before. As before, while it was completely dark overhead, a kind of odd light came from the other end. Marika thought she saw a vague reflection of sunlight, even, possibly, green fields, white clouds, blue sky. Or at least an illusion of them; it could have been a streetlamp or a fire. One could not be sure. She went upstairs, picked up Mobley's note and key and the little bag that was always packed and ready to go, and came down again. Acrid smoke drifted on the chilly air. She walked to the alley and stared in. Tentatively, began pushing herself into it the narrow space, scraping along the crumbling, dirty brick and mortar, toward the light. If it was light. Not so far off this time, more booming began. It was coming quite close, in fact.
Slowly: one, two, three....
Mobley turned in his sleep.