Al offered me a cup of coffee, but I shook my head. My stomach was still sudsing. He poured himself one, and we went back to the booth where we had begun this madman’s journey. My wallet, cell phone, and money were piled in the middle of the table. Al sat down with a gasp of pain and relief. He looked a little less drawn and a little more relaxed.
“So,” he said. “You went and you came back. What do you think?”
“Al, I don’t know what to think. I’m rocked right down to my foundations. You found this by accident?”
“Totally. Less than a month after I got myself set up here. I must have still had Pine Street dust on the heels of my shoes. The first time, I actually fell down those stairs, like Alice into the rabbithole. I thought I’d gone insane.”
I could imagine. I’d had at least some preparation, poor though it had been. And really, was there any adequate way to prepare a person for a trip back in time?
“How long was I gone?”
“Two minutes. I told you, it’s always two minutes. No matter how long you stay.” He coughed, spat into a fresh wad of napkins, and folded them away in his pocket. “And when you go down the steps, it’s always 11:58 a.m. on the morning of September ninth, 1958. Every trip is the first trip. Where did you go?”
“The Kennebec Fruit. I had a root beer. It was fantastic.”
“Yeah, things taste better there. Less preservatives, or something.”
“You know Frank Anicetti? I met him as a kid of seventeen.”
Somehow, in spite of everything, I expected Al to laugh, but he took it as a matter of course. “Sure. I’ve met Frank many times. But he only meets me once—back then, I mean. For Frank, every time is the first time. He comes in, right? From the Chevron. ‘Titus has got the truck up on the lift,’ he tells his dad. ‘Says it’ll be ready by five.’ I’ve heard that fifty times, at least. Not that I always go into the Fruit when I go back, but when I do, I hear it. Then the ladies come in to pick over the fruit. Mrs. Symonds and her friends. It’s like going to the same movie over and over and over again.”
“Every time is the first time.” I said it slowly, putting a space around each word. Trying to get them to make sense in my mind.
“And every person you meet is meeting you for the first time, no matter how many times you’ve met before.”
“I could go back and have the same conversation with Frank and his dad and they wouldn’t know.”
“Right again. Or you could change something—order a banana split instead of a root beer, say—and the rest of the conversation would go a different way. The only one who seems to suspect something’s off is the Yellow Card Man.