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       The Bible Repairman and Other Stories, p.1

           Tim Powers
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The Bible Repairman and Other Stories


  OTHER BOOKS BY TIM POWERS

  The Skies Discrowned (1976)

  Epitaph in Rust (1976)

  The Drawing of the Dark (1979)

  The Anubis Gates (1983)

  Expiration Date (1985)

  Dinner at Deviant’s Palace (1986)

  On Stranger Tides (1987)

  The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

  Last Call (1992)

  Earthquake Weather (1997)

  Declare (2000)

  Night Moves and Other Stories (2001)

  The Devils in the Details (2003)

  Strange Itineraries (2005)

  Three Days to Never (2006)

  PRAISE FOR TIM POWERS

  “These smart, always-engaging stories, so open to mystery and speculation, demonstrate once again that Tim Powers rocks, rules, and prevails. He is one of the best, most significant writers in this country, and ‘A Time to Cast Away Stones’ is one of his masterpieces.”

  –Peter Straub,

  author of Ghost Story and A Dark Matter

  “One of the most original and innovative writers … the quality of Powers’ prose never falters…. His writing defies characterization and he never repeats himself.”

  –Washington Post Book World

  “Whether writing about zombie pirates of the Caribbean (On Stranger Tides), female vampires preying on Romantic poets (The Stress of Her Regard), or the escapades of a time traveler in 19th-century England (The Anubis Gates), Powers always goes the distance, never taking easy shortcuts that tempt authors with lesser imaginations.”

  –San Francisco Chronicle

  “Tim Powers is a brilliant writer.”

  –William Gibson,

  author of Neuromancer and Spook Country

  “Powers orchestrates reality and fantasy so artfully that the reader is not allowed a moment’s doubt.”

  –The New Yorker

  “The reigning king of adult historical fantasy …”

  –Kirkus

  “Powers plots like a demon.”

  –Village Voice

  “… a reigning master of adult contemporary fantasy.”

  –Booklist

  “Philip K. Dick felt that one day Tim Powers would be one of our greatest fantasy writers. Phil was right.”

  –Roger Zelazny,

  author of Nine Princes in Amber and Lord of Light

  “Powers has already proved that he is a master of what he terms ‘doing card tricks in the dark,’ referring to the incredible amount of historical, biographical, and practical research that goes into his works.”

  –Harvard Review

  “The best fantasy writer to appear in decades.”

  –Manchester Guardian

  “Tim Powers is a genius.”

  –Algis Budrys

  “… one of fantasy’s major stylists …”

  –SF Site

  The Bible Repairman and Other Stories

  © 2011 by Tim Powers

  This is a collected work of fiction. All events portrayed in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form without the express permission of the publisher.

  Cover design by Josh Beatman

  Interior design by Jacob McMurray

  TACHYON PUBLICATIONS

  1459 18th Street #139

  San Francisco, CA 94107

  (415) 285-5615

  tachyon@tachyonpublications.com

  SMART SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY

  www.tachyonpublications.com

  Series Editor: Jacob Weisman

  Project Editor: Jill Roberts

  ISBN 13: 978-1-61696-047-6

  ISBN 10: 1-61696-047-7

  First Edition: 2011

  Printed in the United States of America by Worzalla

  9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

  “The Bible Repairman ” © 2006 by Tim Powers. First published as The Bible Repairman (Subterranean Press: Burton, Michigan).

  “A Soul in a Bottle” © 2006 by Tim Powers. First published as A Soul in a Bottle (Subterranean Press: Burton, Michigan).

  “The Hour of Babel” © 2008 by Tim Powers. First appeared in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, edited by William Schaefer (Subterranean Press: Burton, Michigan).

  “Parallel Lines” © 2010 by Tim Powers. First appeared in Stories, edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio (HarperCollins: New York).

  “A Journey of Only Two Paces” © 2011 by Tim Powers. First publication. A shorter version of this story first appeared in 2009 in “LX Eastercon: The Souvenir Book” edited by Steve Cooper. (Bradford, United Kingdom).

  “A Time To Cast Away Stones” © 2008 by Tim Powers. First published as an original signed limited edition by Charnel House (Catskill, New York). Visit them on the web at www.charnelhouse.com.

  TABLE OF CONTENTS

  Introduction

  The Bible Repairman

  A Soul in a Bottle

  The Hour of Babel

  Parallel Lines

  A Journey of Only Two Paces

  A Time to Cast Away Stones

  To Karen Purvis,

  for advice and friendship

  INTRODUCTION

  When people ask me what it was that I was trying to say, in this-or-that story, I like to answer with a line from an old Dave Barry article: “Nobody wins when you play games with traffic safety.” Or, “Floss your teeth for better dental hygiene.”

  The thing is – as far as I can recall – I’ve never tried to make a point in any of my stories, never “had something to say.” Writers like C. S. Lewis or George Orwell can do that and somehow make a compelling story too, but if I tried it I’m sure I’d wind up with a tiresome quasi-allegory.

  Of course some “theme” or other is present in just about any story, even when the theme isn’t inserted deliberately. (In fact deliberate themes can turn out to be in conflict with the themes the subconscious sneaks in, which makes for a jarring story!) I’ve sometimes reread an old book of mine and found at least rudimentary themes working – one of my books seemed to have “something to say” about the value of children, for example, though at least consciously I’m indifferent to children. And I’ve noticed a lot of fathers-and-sons conflicts in my books, though in fact I always got along fine with my own father.

  But I’m happy to leave my fictional themes, such as they may be, to sort themselves out.

  And there are plot elements, too, that seem to show up repeatedly of their own accord. One time somebody pointed out to me that most of my books ended with the protagonist going away in a boat; I checked it out, and sure enough, he was right. I was mildly pleased with this insistent element from my subconscious, but at the same time I realized that I would now have to stop it – if I were to do it again in the next book, it would at that point be just a forced gesture, an arbitrary consistency. So I made a resolution – no more boats at the end!

  Later it occurred to me to go back and see what I had done instead; and I found that the next book I had written ended with a woman beckoning to my protagonist from the far side of a pond … and then, instead of walking around the shoreline, he walks straight across to her, wading right through the pond.

  Interesting! But of course after noticing that, I couldn’t end a book with any sort of travel-across-water at all.

  I hope nobody points out to me any more accidentally recurrent elements in my books!

  But there are things I do deliberately.

  One day in late ‘81 or early ‘82, I drove Philip K. Dick to his doctor because Phil had decided that he had a hernia. I read a book in the waiting room while the doct
or looked him over, and eventually Phil came out.

  He was looking crestfallen, and as we left he explained that – it turned out – he didn’t have a hernia after all. He brooded about it on the drive home.

  “You know, Powers,” he said eventually, “I’m always going to the doctor with a diagnosis all figured out, but I’ve always got it wrong. The doctor must think I’m nuts. When I walk in, he always just … sighs, and asks me what it is now that I think I’ve got.” Phil shook his head. “And then I’m lucky if there’s anything wrong with me at all.”

  And one day when I was a teenager watching television, our Saint Bernard came blundering into the living room, having noticed, apparently for the first time, the TV’s voices and moving images. The dog sniffed at the screen, hurried around to the back of the set and sniffed there, pondered it all for a few seconds, and finally nodded and walked away.

  Phil, and probably the dog too, were wrong in the conclusions they came to, but they both believed they had figured something out. Phil learned better – as he so often did – but the dog probably believed for the rest of his life that he had figured out the television.

  In my stories I try to have plots – I try to set up apparently disconnected events and then make sense of them. Figure them out! I want my readers to be satisfied, like the St. Bernard, and not be left with an anticlimax, as Phil was.

  Of course we can safely assume that the St. Bernard was wrong in whatever conclusion he came to, and of course Phil was fortunate that his conclusion was a mistake. Still, certainty is reassuring.

  In the stories I most like to read, things eventually prove to make sense. The events might be outlandish, and the resolution might be as objectively impossible as a dog’s explanation of television, but it’s all presented sincerely, not ironically, not tongue-in-cheek. Loose ends are tied up. The writer has taken the characters and their concerns seriously, so I can too, and has shown how all the conflicts and oxymorons are reconciled.

  Real life, of course, doesn’t provide this. Edward John Trelawny, whom I used as a character in my story “A Time to Cast Away Stones,” was a real historical person who compensated for the pointless shabbiness of his actual life by inventing a glamorous biography for himself, and eventually he even came to believe that well-plotted fiction himself.

  I sympathize. Real life is generally very haphazard in its plotting, and I think a lot of people lament that, and turn to fiction to briefly experience, albeit vicariously, a more satisfying sort of reality. We want to see sense – not necessarily happy endings, but effectual actions and significant outcomes. (Postmodern fiction and metafiction, I gather, aim to call attention to the falsity of these things, which is like selling liquor that perversely makes you more sober.)

  Our inclination to look for sense in the world doesn’t, of course, prove that there’s any out there to be found. Being hungry doesn’t prove we have bread, as Matthew Arnold is supposed to have written.

  But, as C. S. Lewis points out, being hungry does imply the existence of bread.

  So I’m on the side of Phil Dick and the dog.

  THE BIBLE REPAIRMAN

  “It’ll do to kiss the book on still, won’t it?” growled Dick, who was evidently uneasy at the curse he had brought on himself.

  “A Bible with a bit cut out!” returned Silver derisively. “Not it. It don’t bind no more’n a ballad-book.”

  “Don’t it, though?” cried Dick, with a sort of joy. “Well I reckon that’s worth having, too.”

  – Treasure Island,

  Robert Louis Stevenson

  Across the highway was old Humberto, a dark spot against the tan field between the railroad tracks and the freeway fence, pushing a stripped-down shopping cart along the cracked sidewalk. His shadow still stretched halfway to the center-divider line in the early morning sunlight, but he was apparently already very drunk, and he was using the shopping cart as a walker, bracing his weight on it as he shuffled along. Probably he never slept at all, not that he was ever really awake either.

  Humberto had done a lot of work in his time, and the people he talked and gestured to were, at best, long gone and probably existed now only in his cannibalized memory – but this morning as Torrez watched him the old man clearly looked across the street straight at Torrez and waved. He was just a silhouette against the bright eastern daylight – his camouflage pants, white beard and Daniel Boone coonskin cap were all one raggedly backlit outline – but he might have been smiling too.

  After a moment’s hesitation Torrez waved and nodded. Torrez was not drunk in the morning, nor unable to walk without leaning on something, nor surrounded by imaginary acquaintances, and he meant to sustain those differences between them – but he supposed that he and Humberto were brothers in the trades, and he should show some respect to a player who simply had not known when to retire.

  Torrez pocketed his Camels and his change and turned his back on the old man, and trudged across the parking lot toward the path that led across a weedy field to home.

  He was retired, at least from the big-stakes dives. Nowadays he just waded a little ways out – he worked on cars and Bibles and secondhand eyeglasses and clothes people bought at thrift stores, and half of that work was just convincing the customers that work had been done. He always had to use holy water – real holy water, from gallon jugs he filled from the silver urn at St. Anne’s – but though it impressed the customers, all he could see that it actually did was get stuff wet. Still, it was better to err on the side of thoroughness.

  His garage door was open, and several goats stood up with their hoofs on the fence rail of the lot next door. Torrez paused to pull up some of the tall, furry, sage-like weeds that sprang up in every stretch of unattended dirt in the county, and he held them out and let the goats chew them up. Sometimes when customers arrived at times like this, Torrez would whisper to the goats and then pause and nod.

  Torrez’s Toyota stood at the curb because a white Dodge Dart was parked in the driveway. Torrez had already installed a “pain button” on the Dodge’s dashboard, so that when the car wouldn’t start, the owner could give the car a couple of jabs – Oh yeah? How do you like this, eh? On the other side of the firewall the button was connected to a wire that was screwed to the carburetor housing; nonsense, but the stuff had to look convincing.

  Torrez had also used a can of Staples compressed air and a couple of magnets to try to draw a babbling ghost out of the car’s stereo system, and this had not been nonsense – if he had properly opposed the magnets to the magnets in the speakers, and got the Bernoulli effect with the compressed air sprayed over the speaker diaphragm, then at speeds over forty there would no longer be a droning imbecile monologue faintly going on behind whatever music was playing. Torrez would take the Dodge out onto the freeway today, assuming the old car would get up to freeway speeds, and try it out driving north, east, south and west. Two hundred dollars if the voice was gone, and a hundred in any case for the pain button.

  And he had a couple of Bibles in need of customized repair, and those were an easy fifty dollars apiece – just brace the page against a piece of plywood in a frame and scorch out the verses the customers found intolerable, with a wood-burning stylus; a plain old razor wouldn’t have the authority that hot iron did. And then of course drench the defaced book in holy water to validate the edited text. Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-12 were bits he was often asked to burn out, since they condemned re-marriage after divorce, but he also got a lot of requests to lose Matthew 25:41 through 46, with Jesus’s promise of Hell to stingy people. And he offered a special deal to eradicate all thirty or so mentions of adultery. Some of these customized Bibles ended up after a few years with hardly any weight besides the binding.

  He pushed open the front door of the house – he never locked it – and made his way to the kitchen to get a beer out of the cold spot in the sink. The light was blinking on the telephone answering machine, and when he had popped the can of Budweiser he pushed the play button.
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  “Give Mr. Torrez this message,” said a recorded voice. “Write down the number I give you! It is important, make sure he gets it!” The voice recited a number then, and Torrez wrote it down. His answering machine had come with a pre-recorded message on it in a woman’s voice – No one is available to take your call right now – and many callers assumed the voice was that of a woman he was living with. Apparently she sounded unreliable, for they often insisted several times that she convey their messages to him.

  He punched in the number, and a few moments later a man at the other end of the line was saying to him, “Mr. Torrez? We need your help, like you helped out the Fotas four years ago. Our daughter was stolen, and now we’ve got a ransom note – she was in a coffee pot with roses tied around it –”

  “I don’t do that work anymore,” Torrez interrupted, “I’m sorry. Mr. Seaweed in Corona still does – he’s younger – I could give you his number.”

  “I called him already a week ago, but then I heard you were back in business. You’re better than Seaweed –”

  Poor old Humberto had kept on doing deep dives. Torrez had done them longer than he should have, and nowadays couldn’t understand a lot of the books he had loved when he’d been younger.

  “I’m not back in that business,” he said. “I’m very sorry.” He hung up the phone.

  He had not even done the ransom negotiations when it had been his own daughter that had been stolen, three years ago – and his wife had left him over it, not understanding that she would probably have had to be changing her mentally retarded husband’s diapers forever afterward if he had done it.

  Torrez’s daughter Amelia had died at the age of eight, of a fever. Her grave was in the dirt lot behind the Catholic cemetery, and on most Sundays Torrez and his wife had visited the grave and made sure there were lots of little stuffed animals and silver foil pinwheels arranged on the dirt, and for a marker they had set into the ground a black plastic box with a clear top, with her death-certificate displayed in it to show that she had died in a hospital. And her soul had surely gone to Heaven, but they had caught her ghost to keep it from wandering in the noisy, cold half-world, and Torrez had bound it into one of Amelia’s cloth dolls. Every Sunday night they had put candy and cigarettes and a shot-glass of rum in front of the doll – hardly appropriate fare for a little girl, but ghosts were somehow all the same age. Torrez had always lit the cigarettes and stubbed them out before laying them in front of the doll, and bitten the candies: ghosts needed somebody to have started such things for them.

 
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