Featured August 21, 2018 Humor Science Fiction Historical

The Time Mechanic

By Marie Vibbert
Aug 3, 2018 · 4,060 words · 15 minutes


From the editor:

A hapless tourist with a malfunctioning time machine has no choice but to beg help from Holly, a Prohibition-era mechanic in Dogleg Lick, Kentucky. Don’t miss this exuberant story by Marie Vibbert: 20-time published author, rollercoaster enthusiast, and former member of the Cleveland Fusion women’s football team.

The Time Mechanic

By Marie Vibbert

 

My buddy asked me to pick up some real Prohibition moonshine for him, and I’m not a guy to turn down an opportunity to show off my time machine. I did a web search for photos and the found one labeled “Dogleg Lick, KY, 1928,” right over the thigh of a cop breaking bottles against a wagon. Kentucky had great whisky. I’d read that somewhere, or maybe it was an ad.

I’m just pointing out that this was a lark, a short jaunt – a trip to the store, if you will.

The interior of my garage bubbled out, flexed and broke into a bramble of waxy rhododendron leaves. The console showed me the short path through the trees to my destination. I had to push my way through branches, but soon enough I was in a clearing in front of a shack, barely more than a dog shed, but there was that wagon from the photograph – I hadn’t realized it was painted a vivid orange. A few half-naked children looked up at me from their game of eat-the-dirt, and I questioned the sanitation of this establishment. Fortunately, the proprietor soon appeared, a lanky man of middle age. I stammered, but before I could state my needs, he nodded and led me behind the shack, where an impressive array of copper tubing and shining metal showed the moonshine operations, if not the childcare facilities, were top-notch.

He said a number, which I translated into coins, and voila! I had procured a crockery jug of the local vintage.

A straightforward errand, skillfully accomplished. I’d been there hardly an hour and I was already imagining how I’d describe it all to my friend. Having secured my booty behind the driver’s seat, I set the controls for home, strapped myself in, hit the confirmation button… and nothing.

I got out of the machine, walked around it, stared stupidly at it, got in and did it all again. The control panel informed me there was an error and assumed I’d know what to do about it.

I was in a town with a comically quaint name in the eastern Kentucky hills, in 1928, with a broken time machine.

After I finished hyperventilating, I started walking. The road from the whisky still to town was so narrow and poorly formed that I found it hard to credit the police would drive up it in a few week’s time.

Dogleg Lick was really just a church and a general store, the latter of which had an honest-to-god blacksmith’s shed on the side that had been recently converted to working on cars, though by the looks of things its only customer, ever, was the Model A sitting in front of it, a world-weary conveyance with much-patched upholstery.

A modestly prosperous farm stood within sight of these two edifices, and presumably other families lived within a short walk, but the valley being small and steep and heavily wooded, they were not immediately visible.

I bought a ginger ale at the store and sat on the trestle bench outside its door, telling myself that I’d give the machine an hour or so to think about what it had done and repent. Five cents for soda – highway robbery! I paid five dollars a pop for time-specific pennies. I determined, therefore, to get twenty dollars of enjoyment out of that soda, however my steadily building panic kept distracting from the folksy charm of vintage pop. Why hadn’t I packed a sandwich or a change of clothes or even a sleeping bag? My time machine had all the trunk space of a kayak, but I could have brought something to calm my nerves. An aspirin. A book.

I’ve changed a flat tire in dicey neighborhoods. I’ve been lost in a country where I didn’t speak the language. This was scarier. If the machine didn’t start working soon, I could spend the rest of my life in a world populated by gangsters with a world war looming in the future.

“You okay, mister?”

I looked up to see a young woman in denim coveralls wiping grease from her hands with a gingham cloth. She had a frizzy bob and freckles. “I’m fine,” I said.

“You look lost.”

“Oh, I know exactly where I am, thanks.”

“Ah,” she said, nodding, “so your car broke down?”

“My… no. Sort of. Not really.” I sighed. “You can’t help.”

“You might think that, on account of I’m a girl, but I’ve kept this old rattletrap running.” She waved at the Model A. “And I haven’t yet met a car I couldn’t fix.”

“Well, there’s always a first time.”

She put her fist on her hip. “What is it? New? Foreign?”

“What if I told you it was mostly made in China?”

She snorted. “Chinese don’t make cars.”

“Well, they made this one, and you wouldn’t even know which end the engine is in.”

Instead of being insulted, she looked excited. “Aw, let me see it? I never seen a Chinese car.”

I looked helplessly around the abandoned Main Street. There wasn’t so much as a shiny rock to distract her with. “I’m sorry,” I said, the words I had read so long ago in the owner’s manual, “I can’t show you my vehicle, and nothing you say will convince me to.”

She un-balled and re-balled her handkerchief and studied me carefully. “Are you some kind of time traveler?”

I blinked, shocked but also a little hopeful. “What makes you say that?”

She cocked her head. “That was a joke, mister. Why you reactin’ so peculiar?”

“No reason. Uh… science fiction? Do you guys even get that down here?”

Narrowed eyes. “Show me your car.”

“No.”

“I’ll fix ‘er for free!”

“I lied. There is no car. I walked here from, uh, Cat-Leg Bone.” I really should have glanced at a map before I came.

She sat down on the bench next to me with her eyes steady on my face. “You look like what I’d think a time traveler would look. There’s something off about your clothes; they don’t fit right, but they’re all spanking new.”

“That’s a very personal statement, criticizing a stranger’s clothing.”

“And you talk all very careful and slang-free. And there’s how you won’t let me look at your car, even though you’re obviously sick with worry over it. Now, plenty of guys have refused to let me help them, on account of my sex and all, but they outright say it. You haven’t so much as called me ‘missy’ or ‘little girl.’ In fact, you kinda look straight at me, like you were talking to a man.” She tilted her head. “Also, a normal city slicker wouldn’t let himself look so scared and worried in front of a country gal.”

She was an annoyingly smart country bumpkin in prohibition Kentucky. I cleared my throat. “There’s no such thing as time travel.”

She nudged me with her bare elbow – her floral sleeve was rolled up to the mid-bicep. “Okay. So where you from?”

“Cleveland.”

She leaned forward. Her grease-rag was uncomfortably close to my knee. “Tennessee or Ohio?”

“Ohio.”

“Did you catch the Indians game last night on the radio?”

She was trying to catch me in a lack of time-appropriate knowledge. I had a ready answer for that. “I don’t follow sports.”

“I don’t believe you, but okay. Why’d you come to Dogleg?”

I bit my lip, trying to come up with an answer that wasn’t moonshine.

“Ah,” she said. “You came to visit Wallace’s whisky still.” At my shock, she laughed. “It’s okay. The coppers aren’t hiding behind the woodshed. In fact, if you like, I have some very nice cherry brandy stocked up, for medicinal purposes only.”

It was my turn to give her a shrewd look. “You want to get me drunk so I’ll show you my time machine.”

Her smile was all sharp points. “So you DO have a time machine.”

“No. That was a joke.”

 She mm-hmm’ed for about eight syllables, and then, nodding to herself, got up and walked away.

I felt bereft. She’d gotten my mind off the prospect of being stuck in the past. Also, I was out of ginger ale and period-appropriate money. The dappled light on the Model A and the old-fashioned gas pump hurt my eyes.

But then she sashayed back from the blacksmith shop with a canning jar full of something that gleamed like garnet in the sun. She plopped back down beside me and unscrewed the lid. “If you won’t let me fix your car, at least have a sip of somethin’ to take your mind off it.”

The red liquid tasted like warm, ripe cherries straight off the tree. Like how I’d forgotten cherries could taste. “That’s… wow.”

“Name’s Holly. Come on back to my shop, there’s plenty.”

Well, I’m not made of stone.

Inside the blacksmith shed there was a big fat anvil still in place, probably too heavy to move, and a section of steel rail lying across the rough-hewn beams of the roof, a rusty chain dangling from it. Oil and grease smells mixed with sawdust and the grassy smell of livestock. Over the tool bench, a bookshelf stood filled with beautiful ruby-red canning jars.

I sat on the anvil. “The revenuers don’t come here too often, I gather.”

She wouldn’t take the jar back from me but opened a second for herself. “The only people who care about Dogleg Lick are the people who live here and God, and he’s been less than forthcoming on the subject.”

“I can’t get drunk,” I said. The longest I’d been in the past was for three days. Any longer and parts of the machine would melt to prevent them from being reverse-engineered by scientists of the past. “I shouldn’t. I don’t have the time.”

I drank more brandy.

“You seen that picture by that French guy, Mel-e-yays? The one with the moon?”

I’d seen a documentary about it when I was a kid. “Isn’t that a little old?”

“I like old things. I think they ought to make a moving picture of ‘The Time Machine’, don’t you? I can just see it, how they’d do the part where they move through time. You could speed up the film, like.”

“Oh, I can imagine it,” I said, having seen the 1960 movie.

“I think traveling forward in time makes more sense. If you go back, you could mess things up terrible. Like if you killed your own daddy.”

“You’d mess it up for you,” I said. “The rest of the world wouldn’t give a crap.” I toasted my succinct explanation of the “Robust History Model” from Time Traveler Registration class. This would be the last time I felt smug in Dogleg Lick.

We ended up on the floor, our backs to the tool-bench, passing a nearly empty jar back and forth, and despite my better judgment I started blubbering a bit. “I could have just gotten him something from the damn liquor store. Poured it in a canning jar. Done.”

“Tell me about your liquor store, mister. What’s that like? Is it like a candy store?” Her face was blurry, but I could tell she was laughing at me.

“I just want a hot shower and a Best Western,” I sobbed. “Not even a Quality Inn. A Best Western’s all I ask.”

She took the empty jar from me. “You got some ‘shine from old Wallace, what you say we polish this off with something a little sharper?”     

It didn’t seem like such a bad idea, but the trudge back up the steep mountain path sobered me enough to question my decision-making skills. We pushed through the rhododendron thicket that hid my machine from view. The dirt-eating children were crawling all over it.

“Get out of there!” I cried, and waved my arms like a madman. The kids laughed. A completely naked little boy sat in my driver’s seat, one hand in his mouth, his other hand smearing baby-drool on my dashboard.

Holly did not help with the invasion of children but immediately started poking at the front of my machine.

“Hey. Stop! You don’t know what any of that does.”

Bent over, her hands on her knees, she shrugged. “Looks like a toy car, more than anything. Like the ones they push down hills, only made out of metal instead of apple boxes.”

By the time I’d wrestled Naked Dirt Boy out of the driver’s seat, she had the front cover off. “It’s a very sophisticated machine.”

“So what’s wrong with it?” She poked along every jointure and tube. “I don’t see anything loose.”         

“Because it’s not a go-cart. You aren’t going to be able to fix it. Nothing needs to be tightened or oiled or duct-taped.”

She gave me a half-smile over her shoulder. “Why don’t you tell me how it works, and we’ll see if we can find something to fix it together.”

My buzz was long gone, reduced to a throbbing headache. “Look, you’re being super nice, but the fact is, it would be like… like you explaining your Model A to a cave man.”

“Well, if the cave man had leather and a knife, he could replace a gasket long enough to get my engine started, couldn’t he?”

I wasn’t sure that science worked out, but she looked so confident I wondered if she hadn’t had her Model A repaired in the Neolithic. “It won’t turn on,” I said.

She gave me a look worthy of that helpful description of the problem. “Are you out of whatever you use for fuel?”

“No."

To my great horror, she fished a wrench out of her back pocket and started tapping things. “Where’s the starter?”

“Don’t touch that! That’s the spin glass. You’re not supposed to touch it.”

“This ain’t glass,” she said.

“It’s… there’s a thing. It acts like a glass. It has to do with magnets.”

“So how’s it work?”

“The power comes on, the magnetic field surrounds the machine, makes everything inside it appear to have a negative mass, and we drop through time like a pebble in a box of shaking sand.” Or it might have been negative energy. I got those mixed up. Anyway, I’d remembered the sand analogy right.

“You don’t have any idea what that all means, do you? Where’s your manual?” She tapped her wrench against her cheek three times before answering for me. “Of course you ain’t got it.” She squatted down again, her dirty nose perilously close to the coolant screen. “Is this all supposed to be dry?”

“Uh…”

She straightened, tucking her wrench in her back pocket. “Dip ‘er in grease. That’s always the first step.”

My panic turned to hope when she explained that she was going to siphon some of my “future science goo” from a reservoir she found under the chassis and dribble that “only over what looks like movin’ parts.” My job was to keep the kids out of it.

Twenty minutes and a lot of child-wrestling later, I had a greasy, still non-functional time machine. I lost it. “What did we do? What if it’s destroyed now? Do you have any idea how much this cost? Why did I trust a hillbilly grease-monkey to fix my time machine?”

The gingham rag hit the ground. Her nostrils flared in her little turned-up nose, and she stomped away, branches snapping and cracking all the way down the mountain.

The light was fading fast under the trees and a naked dirt-baby was trying to climb my leg. I had no plan. I was alone. I was sober.

Mr. Wallace poked his head into the clearing. “C’mnawgaldernkidsissupper.”

I realized why he was a man of few words. He didn’t much like separating his teeth from each other and everything came out as one long grumble. Still, the older children caught the syllables of “supper” and dashed off. I had to help him disentangle his youngest offspring from my leg.

Then I sat, forlorn, alone, in the dark. I hadn’t packed a flashlight. It was getting cold, and damp.

Mr. Wallace came back with a lantern. “Y’noplacetago?”

“My car won’t start,” I said.

“C’monbackamaplaceen.”

Honestly? It sounded like a good idea.

Ten never-recoverable hours later, I found Holly with her head down inside a big black car that dwarfed her Model A. The car’s owner stood over her, his hands in pants pockets, rucking up his tweed jacket, looking fascinated and irate.

“There,” Holly said, straightening. “That’ll do her. Give it a crank.”

I slammed my hands down on the side of the car. “You have to get me out of here.”

She scowled at me.

“The Wallace children never sleep. They never. Sleep.”

“That’ll be a dollar twenty, with the fuel,” she said to tweed-guy.

He bristled. “I’d pay a man-mechanic that much.”

She put her balled-up rag on her hip, but I was the first to shout, “Pay the lady, you sexist jerk! You’re getting a deal and you know it.”

Mechanic and customer both glared at me. I had to pace to stay quiet while they finished the transaction.

I followed her back into her shop. “You’ve got to help me. You’re right; I don’t know the first thing about how my machine works. I just bought it. I never had a problem before.”

Her back to me, she sorted her tools into their places on the bench. “You called me a hillbilly.”

“Because I’m an asshole. Please. God. Please. They have no toilet. The kids are filthy. I don’t know if what I ate for dinner last night was animal or vegetable.”

She scowled down at me. “Anthony Wallace does the best he can for his five children all on his own so don’t you be judging.”

“I’m an asshole,” I repeated, hoping it would soften her heart.

“You got that right,” she said, and turned back to her work.

No amount of humiliating pleas turned her head. I was increasingly aware of the clock ticking on my machine’s self-destruct, and it wasn’t helping me be charismatic and winning.

I gave up and went to the store. I fished around my pockets, hoping for another penny. I was starving. A chubby woman in calico was frying dough in an iron skillet on a pot-bellied stove. The heavenly smell filled the store. I tried to capture the expression my dog gets when I’m eating meat. It had no impact. I wandered to the magazine rack looking for something to distract myself. The very top slot of the rack, facing me, held Amazing Stories, its cheery red cover announcing “A Journey to the Future!”

I angrily turned its cover backward in the rack.

The next morning, I went to Holly’s shop while the sun was still having its second cup of coffee before deciding if it felt like rising. I dropped right down on my knees by her anvil and waited. She came in a few minutes later, and looked at me with alarm. I held my clasped hands up to her. “Please. You’re the smartest person I’ve ever met. If I can’t get out of here today the machine self-destructs.”

She got that excited gleam in her eyes again. “It does what?”

“I don’t know. Some kind of acid dissolving thing. To prevent past scientists from figuring it out. Please. Please help me.”

She considered. I tried to look as pathetic as possible, which didn’t require much on my part considering the state of my clothes and hair. “So,” she said, “The spin glass is what really does the trick?”

“Yes.”

“And what powers that?”

I hung my head. If only I had the knowledge to match her wisdom. “Electricity starts it.”

“All cars start with electricity,” she said. I offered to carry her toolbox. In minutes she was back inside my machine. I sat in the dirt, too relieved to stay standing.

“Well, these lights are coming on, so the electric is working. I don’t see any loose wires.” She twisted around on one knee and pointed her wrench at me. “Think carefully. This spin-glass stuff. It’s magnetic, I got that. What is it magnetizing?”

“Everything I guess. It’s a magnet with, like, all the thingies pointing every which way instead of all the thingies in one way.”

“The magnetism is random instead of in one direction,” she translated. “There’s got to be something it’s affecting to cause the field. What is in that goo in the tin at the bottom?”

“I don’t know, but you tried that already.”

She tapped her lip with her wrench. “I’m thinking maybe the problem is it needs a little dirt in it.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“The purple goo is clear and pretty – maybe it doesn’t have what the magnetic field needs – something to push around. Now, look at this screen, here. Do you see these strings? They’re bristly.”

She held up a magnifying glass with a chipped edge and a wire-wrapped handle. I peered through it. “It’s just string.”

“Your machine is smooth all over. Whoever made it could make things as smooth or rough as they wanted, and this screen has bristles like twine. Like it’s meant to hold something – like paint in a brush.”

“Moonshine,” she said. She jumped up.

I ran after her as she went to the still. “How is that going to help?”

“You need material – something to interact with the magnets. Wallace’s moonshine is rife with impurities on account of his copper pipes and steel tub – different metals react with each other.”

I stopped a moment and had to jog to catch up. “You let me drink that?”

Wallace and his progeny watched as we ran paint brushes soaked in moonshine over the coolant screen. “You’re being a lot more sanguine this time,” Holly said.

“I’m pouring moonshine into a time machine; what could possibly go wrong?”

She shrugged. “I’m wrong and your machine melts in about an hour.”

I nearly dropped my paintbrush. She slugged me, rather hard, in the arm. “Or I ruined it all when I tried the purple stuff. We’ll know in a second. Crank it,” she said.

I poked the console.

The confirm button lit green and the countdown started. I quickly halted it, heart beating fast.

“Was that good?” Holly peered over my shoulder.

“Yes.” We stared at each other for a beat before I remembered what was customarily said at times like these. “What… what do I owe you?”

She folded her arms and shook her head. “Hell, I’m just tickled pink I fixed a time machine.”

Wallace roared with laughter, proving for the first time that he could, in fact, open his mouth all the way.

I bit my lip hard and tugged her close. “Uh, you can’t tell anyone about that. Pretty much ever.”

“You obviously over-estimate our chances for intelligent conversation around here. Ain’t nobody to tell. None that’d believe us.”

Wallace said, “Trunufffgaldarnit.” I took that to be vaguely affirmative.

I nodded and stuck out my hand. “Well, thanks. I’ll be going then.”

“Though you know,” she said, pulling back from the handshake, “every good mechanic does a test-drive before she turns over the repaired vehicle.”

“I can’t take you with me. There’s… you know, paradox and stuff.”

“Huh,” she said. “Well, I suppose if we find that removing me from the timeline creates a paradox, you can just drop me back here the moment you took me.”

“Lady, I can’t take you with me. It’s against the law.”

She got up in my face. “I bet it’s against the law to have some local yokel fix your time machine, too.”

What could I say?

Holly dealt with the authorities as well as she cleaned a time machine engine. I lost my time travel license, but got off with no fine or jail time. In gratitude I fronted the cash to get her started, and the rest, as we in the time travel biz try to avoid saying at all costs, is history.

Any time you’re in Cleveland, you can stop in Holly’s Time Mechanics on East 60th and Chester and see the sign – “Since 1928.” True, but both more and less impressive than it sounds.

This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.