A Place So Foreign
Science-Fiction Age, January 2000
This is the longest story I've ever sold, at 18,000 words. By a very happy coincidence, I sold it to the highest-paying market in the business.
I owe much about this story to the Great Brain books of John D. Fitzgerald. This autobiographical children's series captured my imagination when I was a boy, and I find myself returning to them again and again.
My Pa disappeared somewhere in the wilds of 1975, when I was just fourteen years old. He was the Ambassador to 1975, but back home in 1898, in New Jerusalem, Utah, they all thought he was Ambassador to France. When he disappeared, Mama and I came back through the triple-bolted door that led from our apt in 1975 to our horsebarn in 1898. We returned to the dusty streets of New Jerusalem, and I had keep on reminding myself that I was supposed to have been in France, and "polly-voo" for my chums, and tell whoppers about the Eiffel Tower and the fancy bread and the snails and frogs we'd eaten.
I was born in New Jerusalem, and raised there till I was ten. Then, one summer's day, my Pa sat me on his knee and told me we'd be going away for a while, that he had a new job.
"But what about the store?" I said, scandalised. My Pa's wonderful store, the only General Store in town not run by the Saints, was my second home. I'd spent my whole life crawling and then walking on the dusty wooden floors, checking stock and unpacking crates with waybills from exotic places like Salt Lake City and even San Francisco.
Pa looked uncomfortable. "Mr Johnstone is buying it."
My mouth dropped. James H Johnstone was as dandified a city-slicker as you'd ever hope to meet. He blown into town on the weekly Zephyr Speedball, and skinny Tommy Benson had hauled his three huge steamer trunks to the cowboy hotel. He'd tipped Tommy two dollars, in Wells-Fargo notes, and later, in the empty lot behind the smithy, all the kids in New Jerusalem had gathered 'round Tommy to goggle at the small fortune in queer, never-seen bills.
"Pa, no!" I said, without thinking. I knew that if my chums ordered their fathers around like that, they'd get a whipping, but my Pa almost never whipped me.
He smiled, and stretched his thick moustache across his face. "James, I know you love the store, but it's already been decided. Once you've been to France, you'll see that it has wonders that beat anything that store can deliver."
"Nothing's better than the store," I said.
He laughed and rumpled my hair. "Don't be so sure, son. There are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamed of in your philosophy." It was one of his sayings, from Shakespeare, who he'd studied back east, before I was born. It meant that the discussion was closed.
I decided to withhold judgement until I saw France, but still couldn't shake the feeling that my Pa was going soft in the head. Mr Johnstone wasn't fit to run an apple-cart. He was short and skinny and soft, not like my Pa, who, as far as I was concerned, was the biggest, strongest man in the whole world. I loved my Pa.