Is shirt-sleeves, the way I generally worked, I sat sketching a bar of
soap taped to an upper corner of my drawing board. The gold-foil wrapper
was carefully peeled back so that you could still read most of the brand
name printed on it; I'd spoiled the wrappers of half a dozen bars before
getting that effect. This was a new idea, the product to be shown ready
for what the accompanying copy called "fragrant, lathery, lovelier
you" use, and I had the job of sketching it into half a dozen
layouts, the bar of soap at a slightly different angle in each.
It was just exactly as boring as it sounds, and I stopped to look out
the window beside me, down twelve stories at Fifty-fourth Street and the
little heads moving along the sidewalk. It was a sunny, sharply clear
day in mid-November, and I'd have liked to be out in it, the whole
afternoon ahead and nothing to do; nothing I had to do, that is.
Over at the paste-up table Vince Mandel, our lettering man, thin and
dark and probably feeling as caged-up today as I was, stood working with
the airbrush, a cotton surgical mask over his mouth. He was spraying a
flesh-colored film onto a Life magazine photo of a girl in a
bathing suit. The effect, when he finished, would be to remove the suit,
leaving the girl apparently naked except for the ribbon she wore slanted
from shoulder to waist on which was lettered MISS BUSINESS MACHINES.
This kind of stunt was Vince's favorite at-work occupation ever since
he'd thought of it, and the retouched picture would be added to a
collection of others like it on the art-department bulletin board, at
which Maureen, our nineteen-year-old paste-up girl and messenger,
refused ever to look or even glance, though often urged.
Frank Dapp, our art director, a round little package of energy, came
trotting toward his partitioned-off office in the northeast comer of the
artists' bullpen. As he passed the big metal supply cabinet just inside
the room he hammered violently on its open door, yodeling at full
bellow. It was an habitual release of unused energy like a locomotive
jetting steam, a starting eruption of sound. But neither Vince nor I nor
Karl Jonas at the board ahead of mine glanced up. Neither did anyone in
the typists' pool outside, I knew, although strangers waiting in the
art-department reception room just down the hall had been known to leap
to their feet at the sound.
It was an ordinary day, a Friday, twenty minutes till lunchtime, five
hours till quitting time and the weekend, ten months till vacation,
thirty-seven years till retirement. Then the phone rang.
"Man here to see you, Si." It was Vera, at the switchboard. "He has no
"That's okay. He's my connection; I need a fix."
"What you need can't be fixed." She clicked off. I got up, wondering who
it was; an artist in an advertising agency doesn't usually have too many
visitors. The main reception room was on the floor below, and I took the
long route through Accounting and Media, but no new girls had been
Frank Dapp called the main reception room Off Broadway. It was decorated
with a genuine Oriental rug, several display cases of antique silver
from the collection of the wife of one of the three partners, and with a
society matron whose hair was also antique silver and who relayed
visitors' requests to Vera. As I walked toward it my visitor stood
looking at one of the framed ads hung on the walls. Something I don't
like admitting and which I've learned to disguise is a shyness about
meeting people, and now I felt the familiar slight apprehension and
momentary confusion as he turned at the sound of my approaching
footsteps. He was bald and short, the top of his head reaching only to
my eye level, and I'm an inch short of six feet. He looked about
thirty-five, I thought, walking toward him, and he was remarkably
thick-chested; he'd outweigh me without being fat. He wore an
olive-green gabardine suit that didn't go with his pink redhead's
complexion. I hope he's not a salesman, I thought; then he smiled
as I stepped into the lobby, a real smile, and I liked him instantly and
relaxed. No, I told myself, he's not selling anything, and
I couldn't have been more wrong about that.
"Mr. Morley?" I nodded, smiling back at him. "Mr. Simon Morley?" he
said, as though there might be several of us Morleys here at the agency
and he wanted to be certain.
He still wasn't satisfied. "Just for fun, do you remember your army
serial number?" He took my elbow and began walking me out into the
elevator corridor away from the receptionist.
I rattled it off; it didn't even occur to me to wonder why I was doing
this for a stranger, no questions asked.
"Right!" he said approvingly, and I felt pleased. We were out in the
corridor now, no one else around.
"Are you from the army? If so, I don't want any today."
He smiled, but didn't answer the question, I noticed. He said, "I'm
Ruben Prien," and hesitated momentarily as though I might recognize the
name, then continued. "I should have phoned and made an appointment; but
I'm in a hurry so I took a chance on dropping in."
"That's all right, I wasn't doing anything but working. What can I do
He grimaced humorously at the difficulty of what he had to say. "I've
got to have about an hour of your time. Right now, if you can manage
it." He looked embarrassed. "I'm sorry, but...if you could just take me
on faith for a little while, I'd appreciate it."
I was hooked; he had my interest. "All right. It's ten to twelve; would
you like to have lunch? I can leave a little early."
"Fine, but let's not talk indoors. We could pick up some sandwiches and
eat in the park. Okay? It's not too cool."
Nodding, I said, "I'll get my coat and meet you here. You interest me
strangely." I stood hesitating, looking closely at this pleasant,
tough-looking, bald little man, then said it. "As I think you know.
Matter of fact, you've been through this whole routine before, haven't
you? Complete with embarrassed look."
He grinned and made a little finger-snapping motion. "And I thought I
really had it down. Well, it's back to the mirror, and more practice.
Get your coat; we're losing time."
We walked north on Fifth Avenue past the incredible buildings of glass
and steel, glass and enameled metal, glass and marble, and the older
ones of more stone than glass. It's a stunning street and unbelievable;
I never get used to it, and I wonder if anyone really does. Is there any
other place where an entire cloud bank can be completely reflected in
the windows of one wall of only one building, and with room to spare?
Today I especial??? enjoyed being out on Fifth, the temperature in the
high 50's, a nice late-fall coolness in the air. It was nearly noon, and
beautiful girls came dancing out of every office building we passed, and
I thought of how regrettable it was that I'd never know or even speak to
most of them. The little bald man beside me said, "I'll tell you what
I've come to say to you; then I'll listen to questions. Maybe I'll even
answer some. But everything I can really tell you I will have said
before we reach Fifty-sixth Street. I've done this thirty-odd times now,
and never figured out a good way to say it or even sound very sane while
trying, so here goes.
"There's a project. A U.S. government project I guess you'd have to call
it. Secret, naturally; as what isn't in government these days? In my
opinion, and that of a handful of others, it's more important than all
the nuclear, space-exploration, satellite, and rocket programs put
together, though a hell of a lot smaller. I tell you right off that I
can't even hint what the project is about. And believe me, you'd never
guess. I can and do say that nothing human beings have ever before
attempted in the entire nutty history of the race even approaches this
in absolute fascination. When I first understood what this project is
about I didn't sleep for two nights, and I don't mean that in the usual
way; I mean I literally did not sleep. And before I could sleep on the
third night I had to have a shot in the arm, and I'm supposed to be the
plodding unimaginative type. Do I have your attention?"
"Yes; if I understand you, you've finally discovered something more
interesting than sex."
"You may find out that you're not exaggerating. I think riding to the
moon would be almost dull in comparison to what you may just possibly
have a chance to do. It is the greatest possible adventure. I would give
anything I own or will ever have just to be in your shoes; I'd give
years of my life just for a chance at this. And that's it, friend
Morley. I can go on talking, and will, but that's really all I have to
say. Except this: through no virtue or merit of your own, just plain
dumb luck, you are invited to join the project. To commit yourself to
it. Absolutely blind. That's some pig in a poke, all right, but oh, my
God, what a pig. There's a pretty good delicatessen on Fifty-seventh
Street; what kind of sandwiches you want?"
"Roast pork, what else?"
We bought our sandwiches and a couple of apples, then walked on toward
Central Park a couple of blocks ahead. Prien was waiting for some sort
of reply, and we walked in silence for half a block; then I shrugged
irritably, wanting to be polite but not knowing how else to answer.
"What am I supposed to say?"
"Whatever you want."
"All right; why me?"
"Well, I'm glad you asked, as the politicians say. There is a particular
kind of man we need. He has to have a certain set of qualities. A rather
special list of qualities, actually, and a long list. Furthermore, he
has to have them in a pretty exact kind of balance. We didn't know that
at first. We thought most any intelligent eager young fellow would do.
Me, for example. Now we know, or think we do, that he has to be
physically right, psychologically right, temperamentally right. He has
to have a certain special way of looking at things. He's got to have the
ability, and it seems to be fairly rare, to see things as they are and
at the same time as they might have been. If that makes any sense to
you. It probably does, because it may be that what we mean is the eye of
an artist. Those are just some of what he must have or be; there are
others I won't tell you about now. Trouble is that on one count or
another that seems to eliminate most of the population. The only
practical way we've found to turn up likely candidates is to plow
through the tests the army gave its inductees; you remember them."
"I don't know how many sets of those tests have been analyzed; that's
not my department. Probably millions. They use computers for the early
check-throughs, eliminating all those that are comfortably wide of the
mark. Which is most of them. After that, real live people take over; we
don't want to miss even one candidate. Because we're finding damn few.
We've checked I don't know how many millions of service records,
including the women's branches. For some reason women seem to produce
more candidates than men; we wish we had more we could check. Anyway,
one Simon L. Morley with the fine euphonious serial number looks like a
candidate. How come you only made PFC?"
"A lack of talent for idiocies such as close-order drill."
"I believe the technical term is two left feet. Out of fewer than a
hundred possibilities we've found so far, about fifty have already heard
what you're hearing now, and turned us down. About fifty more have
volunteered, and over forty of them flunked some further tests. Anyway,
after one hell of a lot of work, we have five men and two women who just
might be qualified. Most or all of them will fail in the actual attempt;
we don't have even one we feel very sure of. We'd like to get about
twenty-five candidates, if we possibly can. We'd like a hundred, but we
don't believe there are that many around; at least we don't know how to
find them. But you may be one."
At Fifty-ninth Street as we stood waiting for the light, I glanced at
Rube's profile and said, "Rube Prien; yeah. You played football. When
was it? About ten years ago."
He turned to grin up at me. "You remembered! You're a good boy; I wish
I'd bought you some thick gooey dessert, the kind I can't eat anymore.
Only it was fifteen years ago; I'm not really the young handsome youth I
know I must seem."
"Where'd you play again? I can't remember."
The light clicked green, and we stepped down off the curb. "West Point."
"I knew it! You're in the army!"
I was shaking my head. "Well, I'm sorry, but it'll take more than you.
It'll take five husky fighting MPs to drag me back in, kicking and
screaming all the way. Whatever you're selling and however fascinating,
I don't want any. The lure of sleepless nights in the army just isn't
enough, Prien; I've already had all I want."
On the other side of the street we stepped up onto the sidewalk, crossed
it, then turned onto the curve of a dirt-and-gravel path of Central Park
and walked along it looking for an empty bench. "What's wrong with the
army?" Rube said with fake injured innocence.
"You said this would take an hour; I'd need a week just for the chapter
"All right, don't join the army. Join the navy; we'll make you
anything you like from bosun's mate to lieutenant senior grade. Or join
the De partment of the Interior; you can be a forester with your very
own Smokey-the-Bear hat." Prien was enjoying himself. "Sign up with the
post office if you want; we'll make you an assistant inspector and give
you a badge and the power to arrest for postal fraud. I mean it; pick
almost any branch of the government you like except State or the
diplomatic corps. And pick any title you fancy at no more than around a
twelve-thousand-a-year salary, and so long as it isn't an elective
office. Because, Si - all right to call you Si?" he said with sudden
"And call me Rube, if you care to. Si, it doesn't matter what payroll
you're technically on. When I say this is secret, I mean it; our budget
is scattered through the books of every sort of department and bureau,
our people listed on every roster but our own. We don't officially
exist, and yes, I'm still a member of the U.S. Army. The time counts
toward my retirement, and besides I like the army, eccentric as I know
that sounds. But my uniforms are in storage, I salute nobody these days,
and the man I take a lot of my orders from is an historian on leave from
Columbia University. Be a little chilly on the benches in the shade;
let's find a place in the sun."
We picked a place a dozen yards off the path beside a big outcropping of
black rock. We sat down on the sunny side, leaning back against the warm
rock, and began opening our sandwiches.
Excerpted from "Time and Again" by Jack Finney. Copyright © 1995 by Jack Finney. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.