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I had spoken up, and he had asked me about myself­–what my name was, what my trouble was. He wanted to know the name of the town, and the nation, and the date–day, month, and year. I told him. I’d seen him in his bandages, during the day, and a man in shape like that, you don’t argue about his ques­tions. You answer them. You’re glad for the chance to do him a kindness.

He was a smart man, too. He spoke a mess of languages besides English. He tried me in Hungarian for a while, but he knew it a lot better than I did. It’s been a long time since I left the folks in Chicago.

I told the nurse, the next day, that he’d been talking to me. The doctors tried to find out who he was and where from, but he didn’t talk to them. He convinced them, I think, that he was back in acoma again; they hadn’t much believed me when I said he’d talked sensibly at all. After that, I knew better than to tell anybody anything. If he wanted it his way, he was entitled. Except he found out, like I’ve said, that if he made a sound during the day, they’d give him another needle. You couldn’t blame them. It was their way of doing him a kindness.

I lay back, and watched the ceiling begin getting light from the first touch of day outside the windows. Traffic was picking up out­side, now. The rigs went by one after another. Farm produce, most likely, catching the market. Lettuce and potatoes, oranges and onions–I could hear the crates shifting on top of each other on the big stake bodies, and the creak of the tie ropes.

“Lenny!”

I answered right away.

“Lenny, the equation for coordinating spacetime is …” He wasin a hurry.

“Yeah.” I let it soak into the trick sponge in my mind, and when he asked me to read it back, I squeezed it dry again.

“Thank you, Lenny,” he said. I could barely hear him–I began thumbing the night-call bell on the cord draped over the head of my bed.

The next day, there was a new man in the next bed. He was a hunter–a young fellow, from New York–and he’d put a load of birdshot all through his right thigh. It was a couple of days before he wanted to talk, and I didn’t get to know him, much.

I guess it was the second or third afternoon after the new man had come in, when my doctor straightened up and pulled the sheet back over my stumps. He looked at me in a peculiar way, and said, offhandedly: “Tell you what, Lenny–suppose we sent you down to surgery and take a little bit more off each of those, hmm?”

“Nuts, Doc, I can smell it, too. Why bother?”

We didn’t have much more to say to each other. I lay thinking about Peoria, Illinois, which used to be more fun than it has been lately–for truckers, I mean–and St. Louis and Corpus Christi. I wasn’t satisfied with just the Eastern Seaboard anymore. Sacra­mento, Seattle, Fairbanks and that miserable long run over the Alcan Highway…

In the middle of the night, I was still remembering. I could hear the rigs out on the street, but I was really listening to the sound a Cummins makes going into one of those long switchback grades over the Rockies, and suddenly I turned my head and whispered: “Fellow! Hey, fellow–you awake?” to the new man in the next bed.

I heard him grunt. “What?” He sounded annoyed. But he was listening.

“You ever do any driving? I mean, you ever go down through New Jersey in your car? Well, look, if you ever need a break on tires or a battery, you stop by Jeffrey’s Friendly Gas and Oil, on Route 22 in Darlington, and tell ‘em Lenny Kovacs sent you. Only watch out–there’s a speed trap right outside town, in the summer. … And if you want a good meal, try the Strand Restau­rant, down the street there. Or if you’re going the other way, up into New England, you take the Boston Post Road and stop by … Fellow? You listening?”

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Credit: Owen Smith

Tagged: Communications, science, fiction, science fiction, Algis Budrys

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