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His eyes were open a little too wide—as if something had just bitten him—and his smile was a little crooked.
They looked like aluminum Frisbees, but were thicker, each on its own square metal box.
by Bruce McAllister

The first time I met Stu, I was just a kid and there weren't any lights hovering over his house. The last time I saw him, when I was grown and we both knew what life could be if you let it, there were. That's the best way to start, I guess.

· · · · · 

That first time, our dad piled us into our old Chevy wagon—the kind you took to drive-in movies with sheets on the seats and your kids in pajamas—and drove us to the north county, saying only, "Stu is an inventor. He'll never see any royalties from his inventions because the Navy owns them, but he's an inventor, the kind that made America great."

Our dad was director of a Navy laboratory on Point Loma, and he was an inventor too—which made us proud—but he was very humble when it came to his friend Stu. "All I've invented," he would say, "is a car headrest, and I didn't do much with it." It was true. He'd invented a headrest for cars in the 1940s, when there weren't any, even if people needed them then, too. He'd even patented it but hadn't tried to sell the patent or find venture capital for it. After all, he was a career naval officer; the Navy was his life, and what a life. He got to work on classified projects with his favorite people: electronics experts, materials engineers, microwave physicists, and the kinds of inventors who, like Stu, had made America great.

How had he first met Stu? How does anyone in the Navy get to know a wide-eyed, crazy-haired inventor who wasn't at all "by the book," who shouldn't have been anywhere near the military but somehow was? On a Secret Project, of course. My brother and I—who were ten and six at the time—were sure of it. Our dad and Stu had to be working on a Secret Project together.

We had evidence. Only a few weeks earlier we'd gotten stuck after school waiting for our dad at the Lab, which is what they called the row of old converted Navy barracks. We'd stood there patiently in the parking lot until we couldn't stand it any longer, then started playing with the little pieces of neatly cut brass and other alloy that someone had tossed out a window instead of putting in a dumpster. When our dad finally came out to get us, he took us into the most secret-looking building of all, the one with darkened windows. There we saw them: The miniature brass ships, three or four different kinds, sitting on circular tables that were metal, too, and could turn. There were machines aimed at the little metal ships, but they weren't on. What kinds of beams, we wondered, could they send at the miniature ships? We'd seen The Day the Earth Stood Still and enough TV shows to know what space weapons looked like. What was the Secret Project we were sure our dad had risked his career—maybe even his life—to show us before he took us home that day? We never did find out, but after we met Stu that first time, we just knew he was involved too.

· · · · · 

Stu lived up near Escondido, in the avocado orchards, and the drive over took forty-five minutes. When we got there, he had this gigantic plastic above-ground swimming pool in his backyard and this machine suspended above it on a winch, the kind you use to lift engines out of cars. No one said a thing about the pool as we ate hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad in the backyard. But in the car driving home our dad said, "He's using it to look for oil."

"What?" we both said.

He looked at us slyly and said, "He's using sonar—sonar aimed down through the water in the pool—to look for oil. No one's ever done it before. The Navy's not interested in using it that way—which is why he can talk about it. But let's still keep it our little secret, okay, boys?"

We always kept things secret. When you're not even supposed to carry one of your dad's "Property of US Government" ballpoint pens to school, you learn to keep secrets—even ones the Navy isn't interested in.

"Sure, Dad," we said.

"If it works, won't he get rich?" I asked. I was the oldest, so I asked questions like that.

"No. He works for the Navy. Anything he invents belongs to them. Whether they're interested in it or not."

· · · · · 

The next time we visited Stu, I was twelve and the big plastic above-ground pool was gone. So was the machine with its winch. My brother and I looked around the yard for anything that looked like an invention, and couldn't see a thing. But when we went inside for dinner—Stu loved to barbecue, so it was patties and wieners again—there was Stu standing in the middle of the living room holding something and grinning. His white hair stuck out like Einstein's, and though he didn't wear a moth-eaten sweater like Einstein, he wore this little vest that looked just as silly. Stu's face was a little crazier-looking, too. His eyes were open a little too wide—as if something had just bitten him—and his smile was a little crooked.

He was holding a machine about the size of a workman's lunch pail; and when we saw how he was grinning at us, we knew he'd waited for us to come in before telling our mom and dad about it.

"Know what this is, boys?" he asked.

"No," I said for us, and our mom gave me a look. "No, Dr. Lundbergh," I added.

"Well"—he gave our dad a conspiratorial look—"this is a portable sonar unit. The usual sonar machines are the size of a dresser—maybe you've seen them at the Lab, Brian—and you certainly can't carry them around. This one doesn't weigh any more than a puppy. Want to hold it?"

He held it out and I took it. It wasn't really as light as a puppy, but, sure, you could carry it around if you were a grownup and needed to.

"I'm sorry, Stu," our dad was saying, and we didn't know what he meant.

Stu didn't stop grinning. "Doesn't matter. What matters is that it exists—that such a wonderful thing exists. Don't you agree, boys?"

We nodded our heads to let him know we did. Our dad seemed sad, or at least disappointed, but Stu seemed happy enough, and we didn't want to ruin it. We were smiling as hard as we could.

In the car, our dad said:

"He invented it for the Navy, boys. He—"

"Should you be telling them this, Jim?" our mom interrupted.

"It's okay. The Navy doesn't want it."

"The Navy doesn't want what?" I asked, afraid I knew. I wanted Stu to be happy. He was our dad's friend, after all.

"He's invented this portable sonar, and the Navy sat on it for six months. They finally told him: 'Because of the impact on personnel, we won't be implementing it.'"

My brother and I just sat there.

"I don't think the boys understand," our mom said, and she was right.

Our dad didn't say a thing for a minute.

"It would," he finally said, "improve things considerably, boys, if the Navy used it. Think of the possibilities. Navy commandos with their own portable sonar. The tiniest boat—even a rubber one—could have one. One- and two-man submersibles like the ones you've played on at the docks. The Arctic-explorer vehicles the Lab is working on could, too. But the Navy has decided that Stu's invention will—well, that it will cause too much trouble in terms of Navy jobs. That's what they're saying anyway …" He stopped and sighed.

We still didn't understand, but that's where it ended. Later—later in life, I mean—I'd understand what he was saying, how efficiency isn't always the goal, how all the wonderful inventions in the world may be less important sometimes than keeping things the way they are. But I didn't know that then.

· · · · · 

We didn't see Stu again for a couple of years. I'd graduated from high school and was in college when I saw him next. I was avoiding the draft, and certainly looked like I was—T-shirts with peace signs, long hair, the rest—and I was worried about what Stu might think. My dad, one of the kindest men you'd ever meet, had been very understanding. He'd said, "I don't know, Brian, what I would have done in WWII if all my friends had been avoiding the war the way your friends are. It would have been hard to keep the faith …" I still felt guilty. I admired my dad and I admired Stu, and I didn't want my hair and clothes to be an insult.

But when we got there, Stu just looked at me—my brother was in high school and hadn't discovered the sixties yet, so he was dressed just fine—and I could tell by his grin that nothing had changed. My hair and peace sign and scruffy beard didn't faze him. I was still the boy he remembered.

And he was holding something in his hands, as always.

This one was long—three or four feet—and appeared to be made out of plastic, but metal, too, and it was painted a camouflage pattern. Actually, it looked like a really bad imitation of a plant, or a kid's rocket disguised to look like a plant.

Stu didn't say anything about it at first. He just put it on the sofa—which got him a nasty glance from his good wife, Marjorie, since it had dirt on its pointed end—and went outside to start cooking hot dogs and hamburgers.

When our dad saw the object on the sofa, he frowned; and when he was outside by the grill, he said to Stu, "You sure you can talk about it?" I was standing in the shade of a big avocado and could hear them, but they couldn't see me.

"Don't worry, Jim. People don't believe things like that. But even if they did believe, would it matter? The world is full of miracles and people don't take notice—not really."

"We don't want you getting into trouble for telling the boys about it, that's all."

"They're interested, aren't they?

"Of course, Stu. What boys wouldn't be?"

"Then," he said laughing, "it's worth the risk, wouldn't you say? Maybe what they hear will change their lives. Maybe it will make them see how marvelous the world really is, or can be …"

"Okay, Stu."

That was that. And when they were done talking about Russia and Nixon and, for some reason, ovens—yes, ovens—I looked at Stu. He looked back at me, and I knew he'd known all along I was there. My father hadn't, but he had. He'd wanted me to hear that conversation because, as he'd said, it just might make a difference.

After dinner, when my brother was in the TV room watching The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with Stu's daughter, who was in high school too—Stu picked up the object from the sofa and said:

"If you went to Vietnam, Brian, you wouldn't see this, but it would be there. Even if you were near it—which I'd hope you wouldn't be—you wouldn't see it. It's called an 'ADSID,' and it's a beautiful thing. A miracle actually. That's one of the points I want to make now that you're a young man: that we can make our own miracles if we choose to.

"Three thousand of these have been dropped on the Ho Chi Minh trail from the Ca River Valley to the Mekong Delta. They drop down through the air like arrows and when they hit the ground—bare earth or jungle—they stick. What does it look like to you, Brian?"

I opened my mouth, but it took a few seconds. "A plant?"

"Yes. A plant. That's what I wanted it to look like. But a special one. One that listens. It hears things in the ground you and I couldn't hear. It's a seismic sensor—it detects vibrations in the earth—and it transmits what it hears to planes and listening posts in Laos and the sea. Why do we want it to do this?"

I'm thinking of all the NVA and VC traveling up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, but I'm not completely sure, so I say, "I don't know, Stu."

"I think you do, Brian. There are trucks running up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail for fifteen hundred miles, and these trucks carry the resupply for the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers in South Vietnam. Without the Trail, the communists wouldn't have a chance. So a thousand of these things drop and stick in the ground and listen and transmit what they hear—all of those trucks, even a few tanks—so that we know what's happening. Would you like to hold it?"

"Yes, sir."

I took it in my hands, and it really was wonderful. I wasn't supposed to like something like this, I knew. I was, after all, a college student opposed to the war, avoiding the draft, but how could I not like it? Silly as it looked, it really was beautiful. I tried my best—because my conscience told me to—to see it as some terrible instrument of the CIA or DIA or NSA—but it was hard. What I saw instead was an ingenious fake plant painted in cammie colors that had electronic ears I couldn't see and a voice I couldn't hear.

"It must have been a lot fun making this," I said, knowing I sounded like an idiot.

"It was, Brian, and that's the point, too, I guess. That you can make something like this in your life simply because it's fun, because it's beautiful, even if others end up using it in ways you wouldn't. That what we do as people in life is one thing, and that what others do with our lives is another. Sometimes we forget this and think they're the same. They aren't.

"You could drop this thing into Alaska and with it listen to the caribou herds pass by, use what it hears to understand the caribou better than we've ever understood them, and help them survive even with all the pipelines and highways changing their world." Stu paused, sounding a little tired. "And that's just one of many things you could do with it that aren't what's being done with it."

I was thinking of the paintings our mom liked to paint—seascapes and landscapes in watercolor, which dried fast, so you had to work quickly—and wondering how someone could use them. Psychological tests in a clinic maybe, or advertising for a beach city ("Come to San Diego—it looks like this!"). I was thinking, too, of the stories I wrote—I wanted to be a writer and write for a living some day—and wondering the same thing. It wouldn't be my short stories, though; it would be my writing skills that would be used if I chose to have them used that way. For war. For peace. For my country. For any causes of conscience. That's what Stu meant, I was sure.

I'd given the thing back to Stu, and he was standing it up in the corner of the living room, on a piece of newspaper Marjorie had handed him. We were, I assumed, going to go back to the dining room for ice cream, but as I turned to follow him, Stu said:

"Do you know what an atom bomb is, Brian?"

"I … I'm not sure what you mean."

"Do you know what an atom bomb really is?"

"Only that it uses the energy of atoms to do the damage it does."

I waited. Stu was still smiling, but there was something else in his look now. I'd never heard him say so much, and I realized that all along—every time we'd visited him—he could have said this much and maybe wanted to but hadn't because I'd been too young to understand or care.

"All an atom bomb is, Brian, is the heart of a star—the gorgeous, miraculous heart of a star—that we just happen to step a little too close to …"

· · · · · 

As we left that night, Stu teased me, saying, "Now don't tell anyone about the plant. If you do, they won't believe you, and that would feel a lot worse than keeping it a secret, wouldn't it?"

I nodded and promised I wouldn't, though I doubt he really cared.

· · · · · 

The next time I saw him I'd gotten a graduate degree in writing, was married, and went up to see him on my own because my dad and mom said he'd started asking about me. I hadn't seen him in years—I don't know why, except that when you're young you go on your way and sometimes forget—and I could tell from the look in their eyes that they were worried about him. Was he sick? "We're not sure," my dad said, "but we think maybe so."

He was retired, just like my dad, though the Navy still somehow owned any invention he came up with after retirement. He was living in a nice house in Santa Barbara now, one that overlooked the sea.

"I've been thinking of writing a memoir," he said as soon as I got there, as we both looked down at the ocean, the watercolor-perfect view of it. "You're a writer. You've published quite a few things, your dad tells me. What do you think—should I write a memoir or not?"

Everyone wants to write a memoir, and that's a good thing. As the saying goes, "Everyone's got one book in him," and that book is of course the author's life. But Stu was asking something else, I thought.

"You're asking me whether everything that's important in our lives has to be written down—has to be made public—to be worth anything …"

"Yes, I am. What do you think?"

"I'm a writer. I've always been, Stu, now that I look back on it, so it's hard for me not to think that writing, that putting things down on paper, is important. I write stories that are true and stories that aren't and some that are both, and I write about the human heart and dreams and fears and victory and failure. I do this because I think they're important. What we feel in life we feel alone, but through writing—and through the people who read it—maybe we're less alone. That's how I view it anyway, at this point in my life."

"Sounds right to me."

"But I haven't really answered your question."

"No, you haven't."

"Well, I don't think a life has to be written down to have meaning. I think the wonderful things we make and do and speak last even longer than words on a page."

"I was hoping you'd say that."

"But you'd still like to write a memoir anyway—for the fun of it, right?"

He grinned, but instead of answering said, "I want show you something." Why wasn't I surprised? He went to his shed in the backyard and came out with this wire, this thing that looked like a big slinky with a hand-held generator attached to it. Then we drove down to the pier—the main pier in Santa Barbara—and with the wind blowing through our hair, billowing our jackets, making it hard to hear, he said:

"Remember how the government wanted to turn the entire American continent into a big antenna?"

I thought for a moment. "You mean by putting all those wires underground?"

"Not underground. On the ground. But, yes, that project."

"I remember reading something. An antenna to listen to outer space—something like that?"

"No, just the opposite. It was for listening to the sea and what might be hiding there."

"Oh," I said. I had no idea what he was talking about. I felt like a kid again. Did he mean submarines? Something else entirely?

"Well," he said. "Watch this. He had the big slinky in his hands, and he dropped it off the pier into the water. The slinky uncoiled gracefully until it was almost straight, and the little generator—or receiver or whatever it was—sat there quietly in Stu's hands for a while without either of us saying a thing.

Finally he took an earpiece that was hanging from the receiver and gave it to me. "Listen …"

I did. I heard transmission static and more static, and assumed it was coming from the sea. The wire was down in the water, and unless there was a radio station or a police dispatcher hiding under the pier, where else would it be coming from? I felt stupid, sure, but this was Stu—which meant that something miraculous was probably going to happen and that feeling stupid for a couple of minutes was worth it.

Then I heard a voice. An actual voice. It shocked the hell out of me. It was a man's and it sounded military. Alpha ralpha romeo, words like that. It was hard to hear in all the static, but it was a voice.

"I know," he was saying. "Awfully obvious, isn't it. It's coming from a secret undersea station—one belonging to the Navy—six thousand miles from here. You're not supposed to be able to hear it this easily, but with the right wave and the right conductivity you can hear practically anything, Brian. I keep telling the Navy that, but …"

It wasn't, I knew, good news that it had been so easy. It was good news for Stu because he'd invented the thing—if you could call a long, looping wire with a little box on it an invention—and how wonderful it was, being able to hear that far away and with just a wire, and a secret undersea station no less.

But not good news for the Navy.

"So you told the Navy about it," I prompted.

"Yes, I did, Brian. At first they didn't believe me, and then, when they did, they were mad about it. A state-of-the-art, hush-hush station and with a little wire like this anyone could find it?"

"I can imagine they'd be unhappy," I said.

"Unhappy isn't the word. What we create in this life, Brian, can make us happy, but it can make others very unhappy. Happiness is freedom, and too much freedom can scare entire governments. Have you ever thought of that?"

I laughed. "No."

He laughed too. "But you have now, right?"


"That's not the end of the story," he said.

"It's not?"

"Of course not. No story ever really ends. We just stop it when we run out of breath. It's easier that way. More manageable—less frightening. Stories that never end can scare governments, too, you know."

Wire in his hand, earpiece still in his ear, he was quiet for a moment, as if listening to something else now—the love songs of humpback whales safe under storm-tossed seas, or the distress calls of porpoises stranded in an inlet far away.

"I'm retired now, as you know, but when I heard that the government wanted to turn the continent into a great underground antenna—not for outer space but for submarine communications—I contacted them and told them about my wire, what I'd done with it, what anyone could do with a wire like that. It took them a year to answer—can you believe that—a year. I'd sent a message through ONI to NAVDOR and NAVDUW. They knew who I was, they knew I wasn't senile, and they found out pretty quick that I was right. But a year? They didn't want to give up their antenna. To them it was a beautiful thing and they just didn't want to give it up even if it was a silly idea no one had really thought through. In the end they dropped the project, of course. They've got some little antennae now doing what needs to be done, I guess, but the big one was always just plain silly."

"I don't understand, Stu," I said. I had no idea why Stu's wire would be enough to stop the plan for the continent-sized antenna.

"Doesn't matter. Just know that this little wire—the simplest thing in the world—stopped a very big and very silly project. Sometimes that's what it takes—a little wire that someone actually drops off a pier on a sunny day in July while dozens of men sit around long tables talking for a year about a plan they should never have gotten excited about. Did you know, Brian, that the Navy's got people studying the mathematical chaos of the universe just to see if it can help them talk to its nuclear submarines? They should be using it to talk to the universe instead, don't you think—to the stars, not to a bunch of guys on submarines?"

"Are they mad at you about this too?"

"Yes—and you've lived long enough, Brian, to know why, I bet."

"The emperor's clothes?"

He laughed. "Exactly! The emperor's clothes. He's not wearing any, but no one—especially a clothing designer—is supposed to mention it." He laughed again. "You also know why I'm telling you this, don't you."

"Yes, I do. The same reason you've told me all the other stories since I was a kid."

"Which is?"

"So that I'll do what I need to do in life to make miracles even if it scares others—even if it drives them crazy."

"Thank you."

· · · · · 

For old time's sake we had hamburgers and hot dogs on his back porch—just the two of us—and he didn't mention his memoir again, and he didn't say anything about being sick. He didn't look sick. Maybe older, but not sick. I didn't know whether I should ask—and I didn't really know how—so I didn't.

But I wasn't surprised when I got a call from him only a month later—an actual phone call from Stu—and this time he did sound different. Not just older and tired, but weak, the smile on the other end of the phone working harder than it should have to.

"Can you come up?" he asked.

"Sure, Stu. When?"

"Soon as you can?"

I could hear it even more clearly now—the illness, whatever it was. I heard no sadness in the voice, though, just a body getting ready to leave, and a soul nodding its consent. He was seventy-nine years old, after all; he'd lived a good life; his daughter was grown and married and happy; and he didn't want to outlive his wife.

When I got there, it was evening, and he looked a hundred years old. His hair was gone and his eyes watered constantly, but he wasn't going to stop grinning. He'd hold onto that up to the last, I knew.

"I want to show you one last thing," he said.

I didn't like that. He was just being practical, I knew, but still …

He led me to his little shed in the backyard, unlocked the door and waved me in. The overhead light flicked on automatically, and I could see his workbench and the two identical objects on it. They looked like aluminum Frisbees, but were thicker, each on its own square metal box. With an unsteady step to the workbench, he flipped a switch and light shot from a hole in the top of each Frisbee. The two blue beams, no bigger around than fishing rods, looked thick enough to touch. The ceiling stopped them, but you could tell that if they'd been outside in the night the light would have kept going and going.

"The light's not really the main thing," he was saying, his voice tired and pretty serious. "It's a vehicle—a quantum shuttle, you might say. It helps carry the real signal."

I didn't know what to say. I thought I knew what they might be for, but the idea was totally crazy.

"Do you want to take them outside?" I asked.

"No," he said. "The Navy doesn't want me to operate them outside."

I waited. The beams bored into the wooden roof of the shed, and for a moment I thought they might, like lasers in a science fiction movie, burn through it. Were they my inventions, I'd certainly want them to. I'd be angry enough—at the Navy, the Pentagon—to want them to burn through, even cause a ruckus with jets or satellites, though of course I wouldn't want anyone hurt. But that was just the sixties kid in me, the one still mad at the government.

"Okay," I said, "but what would happen if we did move them outside, Stu?"

"I think you know."

"Maybe I do, Stu," I said, "but I'd still like to hear." This was Stu, so it had to be big. I was also remembering something he'd said about using the "mathematics of chaos" to listen to the universe: Why listen to submarines when you could listen to the stars?

Sounding even more tired suddenly, he said, "The first time I tried them—actually, it was just one—that's all I had then—it took a year. That was four years ago. I looked up at the sky and thought to myself, 'What would it take to get them really interested—to make them really curious about us, the way kids would be?' That Pioneer 10 message was so preachy, so self-centered. I thought maybe a transponder with nanopulse microwave and a streaming double helix of ELF and EHF—simply because the wave profile would be so beautiful—would do it. And it did."

I was pretty sure I knew who "them" were, but I didn't say a word.

"I don't know how far away they were that first time, but a year felt right. Actually, I'd figured they'd get here a little quicker. I'd seen too many strange and wonderful things in my life—heard them in the air waves, in the sea, from space—not to know they were out there. Maybe they were closer and just needed to think about it for a while. Maybe they needed to check back with their own Navy and air force first. I have no idea, but the next time I took these things into the backyard—I had three of them by this time because I wanted to use them in a harmonic configuration, which would be prettier—it took them only two months to come. Either they were closer or they'd been that close all along. I'll never know and I don't need to."

He was looking at the ceiling and was, I could tell, having a hard time thinking. It was a long story for someone his age, sick as he was.

"The first time they came," he began again, "the air force—you know how they hate being one-upped by the Navy—caught them on radar at Vandenberg but the Navy caught them at Point Magu. Civilians saw it as far away as Ventura. You may have seen it on TV. The usual government disclaimer of 'experimental aircraft' and the 'oof-ologists' claiming it was the real thing. This time they were right, but that's not the point. The air force didn't know who'd called them down, didn't in fact know anyone had, so I had to tell them—same way I did with the wire. You know that joke about the hardworking donkey? The one you have to hit in the face with a two-by-four to get his attention first, before he'll work? That's what it's been like my whole life, but who am I to complain? Like your dad, I've gotten to do what I've loved. I've gotten to see more miracles than most people ever do, just as I hope you will too in your life."

"When I told them I'd been the one—I contacted the Navy through NAVR this time—I've still got a friend there—and they contacted the air force, no one believed it. So I said, 'Come and I'll show you.' They didn't want to. It wasn't that they didn't believe it; it was that they didn't want to. That's how people are when human organizations get too big and have a life of their own. They're thinking, 'Stu is old and probably senile, so we don't have to believe him, do we? Tell us we don't.'

"So I mailed one of these things to them. The DOD-EOD guys got it, thinking it was a bomb—though my name was on the package—but when they took it apart, it became clear to the NAVR guys what it was and what it wasn't, and the air force nearly had a heart attack."

"What did they do then?"

"They said, 'Don't do it again, Dr. Lundberg.' That's all. I phoned my NAVR friend and wrote letters to NAV-this and NAV-that—which you're not supposed to do about classified matters, which it was now—but they still just said, 'Don't do it again. It'll blind our pilots." Something silly like that. They knew the signals had reached those six little ships out there and that's why the ships had come, but it's still all they said. 'It'll blind our pilots'—something you'd say to a kid with a toy. I told them they could have the damn things. You know what they said?"

I knew.

"They said, 'We don't want them. You keep them. Just don't use them. If you do, we'll have to charge you with treason or felony endangerment of the population of California or something like that.' I thought they were kidding—that someone had a sense of humor. I thought they'd come to the house at some point and take them away citing national security and patent-ownership and whatever else, but they haven't. There's a word for it these days, Marjorie tells me: 'Denial.'"

I wasn't smiling, but Stu was. His grin was back somehow, though it looked like it hurt a lot to make it.

"I'm sorry to hear that, Stu."

"Don't be." He picked up one of the Frisbees and held it out. "Would you like one? I certainly don't need both. Hundred ten volts, Brian. That's all you need. Just watch where you aim it."

I had no idea what to say.

· · · · · 

When we were back in the house, sitting on his sofa, both of us silent, Stu finally said it:

"So, Brian, should I write my memoir?"

"No," I said quickly. I was ready this time. "Let me write it for you. It's not that I don't already know the stories, right? Isn't that why you've told them to me? So I'd know?"

The grin softened.

"Yes, it is."

· · · · · 

So Stu got his memoir. We worked on it together—which is what he'd wanted, too. He got sicker, of course, and we had to take more and more breaks; but we got the taping done in two weeks and I got the writing done in another three; and when I was finished, he was still with us, just as I'd figured he'd be.

"Do you want me to try to find a publisher for it?" I asked. I didn't say "after you're gone." I didn't need to.

"No," he answered. If he'd looked a hundred before, he looked two hundred now—head bald, eyes gray, not blue, and face a mess of wrinkles, but softer right now in the shade of the big mimosa in his backyard, where he liked to rest up on his favorite chaise lounge when we talked. "The Navy and air force probably wouldn't like that. No one would believe any of it anyway, and what a shame that would be …"

"Would you like to publish it yourself? For family and friends." We could probably get that done in a week or so. He could last that long, couldn't he?

"No," he said. "It's done and the doing was the point. You and I got to write it together, and that was the point, too, wasn't it?"

I nodded. It was.

He was having a hard time breathing, but he finally caught his breath and said:

"Would you like to have it?"

"Have what, Stu?"

"The memoir."

"Won't Marjorie want it?"

It was weak, but it was a laugh. "She's heard all the stories before"—he took another breath—"and I'm not sure even she believes them."

"Yes, I would," I said quickly.

Two weeks after that, one evening, lying on that same chaise lounge, Majorie in the kitchen noticing (she said later) strange lights over the patio, Stu left this world. Nothing loud, nothing messy. He simply went to sleep. As his doctor told my dad at the funeral, "His X-rays looked like a landing field at night, Jim. There wasn't a bone that didn't have cancer. He should've been in terrible pain, but for reasons I'll never understand he wasn't …" My mom cried at the funeral, of course, and I could see my dad wanted to—he was losing more than a friend—but there was no way I was going to.

I still have his memoir, of course—the only copy of it—though I haven't looked at it since we finished it. I don't need to. I know it by heart. He made sure of that.

· · · · · 

I've also still got that Frisbee from his workbench—one of the two no one wanted—and I just know Stu is up there somewhere waiting for me to use it.

The End

© 2005 by Bruce McAllister and SCIFI.COM