The Early Days
Howard Fairman and the time machine
by Paul Grissom
Rebel’s Isle is a tiny little wooded rock with a thirty by thirty foot wooden shack perched on its highest point. Old Howard Fairman built this place to house his wife and nine kids all summer, back when the fishing was good and the water was sweet to drink. But Howard was getting on and it was time to leave his beloved island. They tell me the day he left he sat on the marina dock and cried his eyes out. I’ll probably do the same some day.
Howard must have owned a time machine. He must have used it to travel ahead in time to learn that I would one day purchase his cottage on Lake Kasshabog from Cail MacLean, the pretty little girl of summer he’d sold it to, having despaired of his own brood ever getting together on who would have what, and do what, with the family cottage. I’m sure it was hard enough for Howard to sell to Cail even though he’d known her all her life. She was the daughter of Al MacLean, who had the place across the lake. Al and Howard were friends, and this would have made Cail worthy of inheriting his kingdom.
Sort of kept it in the family. She was young, recently married and seemed certain to carry on the tradition of bringing another generation of children to swing through the trees and splash in the shallows. Howard loved children. All summer, every summer, Rebel’s Isle (named after his dog) swarmed with his nine kids and all their cousins. Think of a tall ship at full sail in a brisk wind with full crew flying through the rigging and I think you’ll have the sense of what Rebel’s Isle was like on a fine summer’s day.
Howard must have spit nails when his time machine landed in 1986 to look in on Cail and her wee little ones, only to see me mucking about instead. He’d expected to see little kids swimming in the sheltered pool he’d built. I think he carried all those rocks and laid them in their ring of safety shortly after his grandson went over the edge off the swimming rock into water over his head. He was only three, but David remembers the silence of being underwater, of sinking down and looking up at the bright surface. And seeing his uncle’s huge hand reach in and haul him out.
I know about David because he tried to sneak a visit one day when he thought no one would be around. He was on leave from the military, perhaps about to go overseas. He’d been visiting family and old friends, and he’d hoped to give his wife and six-year-old daughter, Tabitha, a peek at where he’d spent the happiest days of his childhood.
David is a big man with large hands and ears that jut out from his head, or maybe it only looked that way because of the military haircut. He’s an easy person to like and so is his wife, although she didn’t say much. They were a bit embarrassed to find us here, but we insisted they stay and have a look around. Besides, I had a few questions. I wanted to know what it was like to be a kid back then, so together he and I slipped back in time.
We took a short walk. (No other kind on this little rock.) David showed me where the kid paths used to run, where they pitched horseshoes, where they cleaned fish, and where they all slept. There was a storage closet I’d torn out that was actually a bunk room where three boys slept on three narrow bunks with just enough room to climb in and out the ends. I learned how a cottage could sleep nine kids and two adults plus guests. It was easy; everyone went to bed at the same time. He told about meal times when they gathered around the big dining table, and how good manners ruled, and how Howard could silence an unruly boy with a sharp, “Hark!” I think we should bring back the word “Hark” if it works that well on unruly boys.
And he told about the day he slid off the edge into water over his head, of being underwater all of a sudden and looking up at the bright undersurface to see the great dark hand of his uncle breaking through, reaching down and pulling him up, and the sudden bursting into light and sound. He told stories about his grandfather and grandmother, how many things at Rebel came to be. And when it was time to go he had his daughter, Tabitha, take off her shoes and socks, and lifting her gently by the shoulders, he set her feet in the warm water of the swimming rock and held her there for several moments, where his own feet had been. And then he thanked us for our time, cranked up the outboard and they were gone. We stood quietly and waved goodbye.
I think if Howard had seen that from his time machine he may have had a change of heart towards me. But he didn’t. One day he popped up in his machine and saw me puttering about the place. And in a disappointed rage, seeing all his hopes and dreams for Rebel’s isle wasted on this interloper, an American, and worse an advertising guy, he returned to the past to plot his revenge.
That’s about the best I can do to explain why he built the window screens the way he did. Vengeance. Punishment. But Howard, did you have to fasten the screens down with upholstery tacks? What were you thinking when you used hundreds of tiny little upholstery tacks to hold the screens in place? Had you not heard about broad-headed nails? Had they not yet invented the staple gun? And didn’t you know that decades of painting and weathering would meld them with the surface of the window frames?
Yes, Howard Fairman, you knew. The day you saw me treading upon the sacred shores of your island kingdom, you went straight back in time and built those screens. Nobody uses hundreds of tiny little upholstery tacks to make screens without a purpose; yours was clear to me today.
But Howard, you lost. Your petty revenge didn’t work because I am a patient man. I did not bother to hurry. I knew at the first close look that this was going to be a long day. I got out my tiniest flathead screwdriver, a strong pair of pliers, and a pry bar. And one by one I dug at the paint seal around the edge of each tiny nail head until it prized loose and I could yank it out. I’m tired now, and I’ve a dime-sized stinging red blister on my palm. And I think my fingerprints are gone. But Howard, your damned screens are rolled and flattened and ready for the landfill. I just hope that putting them on was half as much trouble as removing them.
And now I’d like to propose a truce. You won’t win anyway, I think I’ve sprung just about all your traps. Over the last twenty years I’ve replaced all the mechanicals you installed. Your weird old toilet, that was for Grandma’s use only, is gone and a modern non-polluting composting unit is doing what your strange old rig never could. The cabin is wired. There are a lot more windows and fresh air can pass all the way through. There’s a new roof, new docks, and a new boathouse. But I’ve no doubt that another surprise awaits; I can feel it. I hear you cackling in the night.
And I’ve only got maybe ten-fifteen years to go, if I’m lucky, until I’ll have to sell and leave just like you did, so here’s my deal. You get back in your time machine and undo all the rest of the mean little traps you’ve laid, and when I’m ready to go maybe I’ll look up your grandson and see if any Fairmans are ready to return. I’ll see that it’s in good shape just in case they do, okay, Howard? Really, I’ve had enough of your upholstery tacks. It’s time we learned to get along.