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Return Engagements (Book One) PART 6… in which my companion rouses herself

Picking up from Part 5, in which my guide prepared to die.

From 4:24 AM until sunup, Michael Burroughs lay in his bed, replaying the experience, slowly and repetitively. For a good portion of that time he was half asleep, but his examinations of the brief experience didn’t stop.

It’s funny how these things work, he reasoned with himself. They take time to unfold themselves.

And it did take time. At sunrise, Michael went through his usual bathroom routine, but then, instead of pouring a cup of coffee, he lay back down on his bed and replayed the experience yet again.

After another hour he was done. He had the details worked out as best he could, and he was clear on four facts:

First, that the presence he felt was basically benevolent, though clearly not divine. Along with good intentions, he also sensed something like uncertainty… something that was almost, but not really, confusion.

Second, that there were two beings involved. Somehow he could feel that much.

Third – and this was the point he was clearest on – that the two persons were headed north to Wisconsin and from there intended to head west. He was also sure from their position and speed that they were driving a car.

Finally, and least clearly of all, that their car had come from Z Frank. He wondered if he only thought that because his friend Gene ran the service department there, but he felt it all the same.

Sitting at his kitchen table, Michael sipped his coffee, ate a piece of coffeecake, and decided that he wanted to pursue this. However strange it might be, he had already wasted too much of his life fearing that people would think he was crazy. That, he had learned too many times, was an invisible prison.

No more a company man, he recited to himself, standing up to wash his dishes, I don’t have anything I’m beholden to, so why the hell not?

He felt a surge of something good or at least healthful as he started packing a small bag and then phoned Gene.

“Can you get me in right away, Gene? I’m gonna drive cross-country, and I’d like your guys to check my car’s tires, fluids, and so on.”

“Yeah, I guess I can get you in. There’s a lot of commotion around here this morning but not many customers.”

“What’s going on?” Michael asked, suddenly feeling like he was suspended in the air.

“A crazy thing,” Gene answered. “Someone broke in here last night and stole a car and the petty cash… but they could have taken much more expensive cars. And they could have stolen some pretty valuable artwork in the boss’s office, but they didn’t.”

Michael almost didn’t know how to answer. “Huh… that is strange,” somehow slipped out of him.

“Yeah, it is. But anyway, come on down. The sooner, the better.”

Michael thanked him, hung up the phone, and staggered to his kitchen chair.

“I live by what’s in me,” he said in the tone of a prayer, “not by what the world expects.”

* * * * *

Michael didn’t make it to the Edens Expressway until after noon, but he was on his way, impelled by what was in him, in open defiance of all that would be considered sensible, and feeling very clean about it.

All through northern Illinois and over the Wisconsin border, he thought he could feel some type of residue of the people he was following, almost like a trail of bread crumbs. But as he passed Highway 50, he lost the trail. It took him a few miles to convince himself that this was true – and then thought that it really shouldn’t have taken him so long to convince himself of it. He got off at another exit, turned around, and picked up the scent again on Highway 50 heading west.

At Z Frank (and he was keeping a good straight face by then), Gene had explained to him that the thief had taken a blue ’63 Impala and almost $1,000. No one could tell how the thief got in, but to exit, they merely opened a service bay door and drove out.

The manager at Friedman’s Deli, a 24-hour place a few blocks away, told the police that he saw such a car with no license plates driving past as he arrived for the morning shift at about 4:00 AM. He was fairly sure the driver was a woman with short blond hair.

As the service on Michael’s car was being finished, Gene, who was enjoying the mystery, informed him that a set of license plates had been reported stolen just off Granville and Ridge. That pretty well cinched it that the short-haired blond was the culprit.

At least he knew whom he was chasing.

* * * * *

My companion slept for almost two hours straight. I hesitated to wake her up, but it looked like an hour to downtown Minneapolis, and she had specified this time. On top of that, I very much needed to hear what she had to say; my needs mattered in this too. I had been pulled across 53 years and was about to be abandoned there.

I turned on the radio and found some music, to wake her slowly. And to my shock the second song to come on, as she was stirring, was a Japanese pop song.

A Japanese song in 1963? I wondered to myself, and nearly out loud, but there it was just the same. And it was quite a pleasant little song.

By the time it ended, my companion was awake, and I turned off the radio.

“An hour to the city?” she asked.

“That’s my best guess,” I said, “but it could vary a bit… traffic in the Minneapolis of 1963 is a little beyond my memories.”

I smiled, and she seemed to get the humor of it, smiling back.

She asked for the coffee, which was cold by now, but she began drinking it just the same.

“Give me just a few minutes,” she said, “then I’ll start talking.”

“That’ll be just fine,” I answered and thought about turning the radio back on but decided against it.

I wanted to actively center my mind. This was going to be unique information, the kind that humans just don’t get. For everyone’s sake, I had to give it the best attention I could muster.

I checked the traffic, the cars nearby, and the general road conditions. Then I tried to clear my mind of all inertia and clutter.

She kept drinking her coffee.

* * * * *

By the time he reached Janesville, Wisconsin, Michael Burroughs was thinking about gasoline for his car, just as I had some hours earlier. At the same time, he was getting tired and starting to lose his hold on the bread-crumb trail. But he was as sure as he could be that the trail led into the truck stop just ahead.

He pulled to a gas pump and asked the attendant to fill his car and check all the fluids. Then he walked slowly in a semi-circular direction, to the rest rooms, then to the store.

He needed to decide what to do. He was tired. He had awakened early, and he was, after all, 64 years old. Over the past few years he had been sick more than in the past three decades combined, and he knew that he had begun paying the price for his abuse of his body when he was younger.

Among other assaults upon his own health, Michael Burroughs had spent the Second World War drunk… nearly the whole war.

It started intermittently with the invasion of Poland in 1939 and went full bore after Pearl Harbor. His son, his only child, was away at college, his wife was dead, and he was forming an independent perspective of the world as the war loomed. Hitler and Stalin clarified his view of the world, oddly enough, but the whole pageant of death was too much for him to bear, and he hid in the proverbial bottle.

Michael had been born on March 4, 1899, and had enjoyed a healthy and pleasant early childhood in an old farmhouse on what was becoming the far north end of Chicago. His grandparents had farmed there when Indians still came through from time to time and had passed their land to his father, from whence it would pass to him and his older brother.

And Chicago’s growth all but guaranteed that the land would become increasingly valuable. Michael and his brother would never have to worry about money.

This clearly was a fortunate child. But during his first week at the Eugene Field Elementary School (he didn’t start till nine years of age, which wasn’t terribly uncommon at the time), his world began to turn dark.

He had never before seen malice, and the fact that such a thing could exist in the world wounded him.

He had seen small errors in his parents and brother: mainly anger, bitterness and deception. But those were merely moments of weakness and overload among people who were essentially decent and well intentioned.

The children at school, however, or at least some of them, were openly and even essentially malevolent. That was nothing that he’d ever expected to see, and the case being that the malicious children were all larger than him, he was terrified on a daily basis.

He quickly learned to hide the fact that he was smarter and better than the eagerly brutish, but that merely saved him from special attention. Like most of the children he was bullied with some regularity.

Somehow he made it through the eighth grade at Eugene Field and moved on to the new Senn High School. By that time most of the bullying was ebbing, with two of the worst already having visited jails. He was feeling liberated and began a slow return to the innocent feelings of his early youth.

It was at Senn that Michael would enjoy the most purely happy year of his life. But not at first. His first year at Senn was an uneventful one. He went through his classes easily enough and began reading a better class of books than the dime novels he and his friends traded.

His second year was more of the same, save that he allowed himself to “be smart” that year and came to the attention of one of his teachers, who recommended him for accelerated classes the following year. That was also the year where he matured physically, growing more than six inches in the process.

It was in his third year that Michael emerged as a human being. Particularly important to him was his accelerated course on world history. The book they used was of limited value, but his teacher, Mr. Lang, gave him a sense of reasons and the lives of average people. (The book mentioned only kings, princes, and popes.) This provided some reference points his hungry mind could work from, and he came to love the feeling of putting pieces together.

And it was in Mr. Lang’s class that he met Doreen Olson, the pretty and proud senior that half the boys in the school wished for. Doreen wasn’t quite as gifted as Michael, but enough so that she could recognize what he was.

Slowly, she began testing him to see if he was as good as he seemed to be. Michael, honest to the core when not forced to protect himself, had no real understanding of what she was doing when she asked him the occasional question about class or asked to borrow his notes after a sick day or carry secret notes to her friend, Maureen.

By the second half of the year – her last at Senn – she began opening herself to Michael. They walked home together, avoiding the streetcars to have longer conversations. Slowly but almost inevitably, they began holding hands and thinking about each other nonstop. By the time Doreen graduated, they had twice been caught kissing in school.

Doreen instantly took a job at the new Loyola University, first sorting mail and then managing their bookstore, and began to think of larger issues than school.

She stayed at her parents’ house most of the time but often stayed weekends with her older sister’s family. The sister’s house was closer to Michael’s, and they met there frequently. Doreen’s parents liked Michael, but they were clearly concerned about the relationship’s heat.

As Michael’s last year at Senn sped toward its end, he and Doreen became sexually intimate, and almost openly, an unheard of thing among children from respectable families in 1917. Doreen admitted it to her sister, who had eloped with her husband a few years earlier. She sympathetically kept it to herself.

But far larger was the moment when their friends found out. Doreen had left a note for Michael with one of them. In it, she mentioned “our possibility,” adding, “and if it is, I shall carry it proudly.”

It turned out that she wasn’t pregnant then, but the friend had read the note. Soon everyone in their circle knew.

That was when the two of them decided that they weren’t going to care even if the whole world knew. And this they repeated to themselves often.

What they were doing was good, healthful, and even pure. No matter what the world said, they were following the course of human nature, and even the very first divine command to humanity, to be fruitful and multiply. They shrugged off shame whenever it appeared.

Soon enough, Doreen was actually pregnant. Both families were horrified, and several efforts were made to send her to distant relatives. But the couple refused and found a small apartment of their own to escape to.

Seeing this, the parents backed off but begged them to marry, and to this they consented. Michael took a job working for a business associate of his father’s, at a real estate company in Evanston. It was only a short walk and street car ride away from their neighborhood.

Michael Jr. was born in January of 1918. By this time they had given up their apartment and moved in with Doreen’s sister, taking the spare bedroom and sharing expenses.

Feeling very much like outsiders, they began reading books written by various radicals (some horrible but others with good ideas) and confirmed to themselves that they would live in a better way than the rest of the world. They were deeply committed to each other, to their son, and to enlightenment of some type… even if they hadn’t yet found a suitable type.

It was later in 1918 that things began going wrong. First, Michael’s older brother, Lowell, was drafted into the Army. He was sent to France; that was ominous. At the end of the year, after the Armistice, they received the news that he been killed in the fighting at Argonne Forest.

Michael was depressed and disgusted. He and Lowell were separated by nearly five years, but they loved each other and looked after one another. They were looking forward to happy and intertwined adult decades.

But now, that was taken away. And for what? A slight shifting of the borders between France and Germany? President Wilson and his cohorts swore it would put an end to all wars, but only fools and newspaper editors believed him.

But though it seemed impossible at first, the shock of Lowell’s death passed and things returned to normal. Baby Michael was healthy, Doreen recovered beautifully from her pregnancy and delivery, and the following four years were loving and fulfilling beyond what most people experience.

In 1923, however, Doreen took ill and still hadn’t recovered after a week. Their doctor sent her to a nearby hospital, where she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She was sent home three days later, feeling better but not normal. And she never attained normal again, save for scattered days or weeks here and there.

She died in her sleep 10 years later, leaving Michael with a 15-year-old boy and a beaten heart. Pneumonia was blamed again, though there was also evidence of tuberculosis.

* * * * *

(Available now on Kindle)

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