“The hell with you.” I stood up and jarred my coffee cup down. “I’ll hypnotize myself. That’s what it’s all about, anyway, isn’t it? Autosuggestion? It’s always me that puts me under?”

“You’re not trained, you don’t know how. Sit down, for Christ’s sake. I’ll help you find a good hypnotist. Hey!” Crumley laughed somewhat crazily. “What about A. L. Shrank, hypnotist?”

“God.” I shuddered. “Don’t even joke. He’d sink me down with Schopenhauer and Nietzsche and Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and I’d never surface again. You got to do it, Elmo.”

“I got to get you out and me to bed.”

He led me gently to the door.

He insisted on driving me home. On the way, looking straight ahead at the dark future, he said, “Don’t worry, kid. Nothing more is going to happen.”

Crumley was wrong.

But not immediately, of course. I awoke at six in the morning because I thought I heard three dozen rifle shots again.

But it was only the annihilators at the pier, the workmen dentists, yanking the big teeth. Why, I thought, do destroyers start so early to destroy. And those rifle shots? Probably just their laughter.

I showered and ran out just in time to meet a fogbank rolling in from Japan.

The old men from the trolley station were on the beach ahead of me. It was the first time I had seen them since the day their friend Mr. Smith who wrote his name on his bedroom wall had vanished.

I watched them watching the pier die, and I could feel the timbers fall inside their bodies. The only motion they made was a kind of chewing of their gums, as if they might spit tobacco. Their hands hung down at their sides, twitching. With the pier gone, I knew, they knew, it was only a matter of time before the asphalt machines droned along and tarred over the railroad tracks and someone nailed shut the ticket office and broomed away the last of the confetti. If I had been them, I would have headed for Arizona or some bright place that afternoon. But I wasn’t them. I was just me, half a century younger and with no rust on my knuckles and no bones cracking every time the big pliers out there gave a yank and made an emptiness.

I went and stood between two of the old men, wanting to say something that counted.

But all I did was let out a big sigh.

It was a language they understood.

Hearing it, they waited a long while.

And then, they nodded.

“Well, here’s another fine mess you got me in!”

My voice, on its way to Mexico City, was Oliver Hardy’s voice.

“Ollie,” cried Peg, using Stan Laurel’s voice. “Fly down here. Save me from the mummies of Guanajuato!”

Stan and Ollie. Ollie and Stan. From the start we had called ours the Laurel and Hardy Romance, because we had grown up madly in love with the team, and did a fair job of imitating their voices.

“Why don’t you do something to help me?” I cried, like Mr. Hardy.

And Peg as Laurel spluttered back, “Oh, Ollie, I… I mean, it seems, I…”

And there was silence as we breathed our despair, need, and loving grief back and forth, mile on mile and dollar on Peg’s dear dollar.

“You can’t afford this, Stan,” I sighed, at last. “And it’s beginning to hurt where aspirins can’t reach. Stan, dear Stanley, so long.”

“Oll,” she wept. “Dear Ollie, goodbye.”

As I said . . . Crumley was wrong.

At exactly one minute after eleven that night, I heard the funeral car pull up in front of my apartment.

I hadn’t been asleep and I knew the sound of Constance Rattigan’s limousine by the gentle hiss of its arrival and then the bumbling under its breath, waiting for me to stir.

I got up, asked no questions of God or anyone, and dressed automatically without seeing what I put on. Something had made me reach for my dark pants, a black shirt, and an old blue blazer. Only the Chinese wear white for the dead.

I held on to the front doorknob for a full minute before I had strength enough to pull the door open and go out. I didn’t climb in the back seat, I climbed up front where Constance was staring straight ahead at the surf rolling white and cold on the shore.

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Categories: Bradbury, Ray