There was nothing to see out the window of Frank’s Bar but Ed stared anyway. It was five thirty and already dark. Rain drops on the windowpane reflected light from the neon sign as it flashed on and off. A car drove by, it’s tires hissing on the wet pavement.
The regulars were shooting pool, sending stripes and solids across stained felt. There was drinking, talking, laughter. Ed sat alone. He was a regular too but tonight he needed to think.
The boss had given him a second warning at work today, his ex-wife’s lawyer wanted a meeting that he had already skipped once and the IRS had sent a notice looking for back taxes. Bad luck comes in threes and this was a trifecta day. He sipped his gin.
A face appeared at the glass outside, pale in the darkness. It hung behind the rain streaked glass for a moment, eyes searching, then disappeared. The door opened and a man stepped in. He wore a long coat and a Fedora and he made his way to the bar, looking glad to be out of the rain.
“Hell of a night, ain’t it?” said the stranger, placing his hat on the bar. He shook off his coat and draped it over a bar stool and took the seat next to Ed. “Scotch – neat,” he told the bartender. The man wore a suit that looked decades out of date, nineteen fifties maybe.
“Better in than out,” Ed said.
“What’d ya say there?”
“Better to be inside where it’s dry than outside in the rain tonight, you know?”
The man nodded. “Oh, yeah – for sure.”
The bartender placed a glass of ice in front of the stranger and topped it off with Old Crow. When it was full, the man took a swallow.
“Oh that’s good,” he said, his voice rough. “It’s been too long.”
“Sounds like someone’s falling off the wagon tonight,” Ed said.
“Off the . . . no. It’s just that you can’t get this stuff where I’m from.”
“No Old Crow?”
“Nothin’ at all.”
Ed looked the man over. He was past middle aged and heading into old; a good fifteen years older than himself. He had some grey hair and a standout nose.
“You just got out of the big house, didn’t you?” Ed asked. “Paid your debt to society?”
The man chuckled. “We all got debts to pay.”
Ed held out his glass in a toast. “Welcome back to the free world,” Ed said with a grin.
The stranger clinked Ed’s glass with his own. “It’s crazy world, ain’t it Ed?”
Ed stopped, his glass half way to his mouth. “You know my name?”
The stranger took another swallow. “Yes I do. By the way, don’t miss that meeting with the lawyer tomorrow or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Ed hesitated. “So – you work for my ex-wife’s lawyer then?”
“No – no, not that. I’m from Universal Maintenance.”
Ed gave him a long look. “You’re here for the fryolator or what – the Keeno machine?”
“Bigger problem. Your universe is seriously screwed up.”
Ed laughed. “Don’t I know it.” He took a sip of his gin. “But really, how the hell do you know my name?”
“A little research back at the office. All the alarms went off so we pulled the file. Ran some diagnostics and found you right at the middle. This ain’t a bad universe for a backwater but damn, you are screwed.”
“Your universe is off the rails, slow motion train wreck. Boom – twisted metal, broken bodies. Time and space; gone. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – poof. Your name is right in the middle of the whole thing. You gotta help me fix it.”
“You are one weird son of a gun.”
“I don’t have time for all this bullshit . . .” The man reached out a hand and touched Ed’s head near his temple, slid his finger across it. Ed had a sudden rushing feeling as though a roller coaster had just taken off and a string of images whooshed through his mind. Images of his life reeled backwards, events he had experienced scrolled by at high speed. He tried to grab onto something to steady himself but he had no sense of his body. The only sense was some mounting pain within, rising to an alarming point as though something was going to burst. Then, all at once, he was back on his bar stool, clutching the bar with both hands. Air burst from his lungs and Ed realized what the pain had been; he had forgotten to breathe.
“You – swiped me,” Ed said, catching his breath. He slid his finger across his own temple.
“Damn right,” said the stranger, “and we’re gonna do a lot more of that if you’re gonna find the problem. Are you with me?”
“What?” Ed asked. “Don’t – I mean . . . you’re from where?”
“Listen, I’m sorry to lay this on you so fast but we really don’t have much time. You must have noticed things wrong here – crazy things, huge things in the news as though the world’s gone insane.”
“Well, yeah but – that’s the world. That’s the way it is.”
“Not supposed to be. Something happened that derailed the thing, some event in the past knocked your universe off its tracks and you saw it. It might have been recent or it might have been a while back but it happened in your lifetime. You witnessed the event so you can find it. You’re the primary witness.”
“Witness? I saw . . .? How could something I saw break the universe?”
“That’s what you’re going to find out. I can’t do it alone, I need you. Are you on board? If you’re not, let me know because I’d be happy to get the hell out of here. I’ve seen what happens to repairmen who get caught in the crash and it ain’t happening to this guy.”
“Hey, if you aren’t going to try, why should I?”
“To find the event – look for it, do the scan. You’re the only one who can recognize it. You’ll recognize it when you see it, that’s why I’ve got your name. Don’t focus on anything too small – look at the big picture. And don’t forget to breathe. I saw you gasping for air there. You think you can do that?”
“I – maybe but – I still don’t understand how you got my name?
“The system.” He held up what looked like a cell phone. The man had placed it on the bar when he sat down and Ed hadn’t given it a thought. He noticed now it wasn’t a cell phone at all. The letters beat with an inner light, some kind of pulsing energy and they were in a foreign script. The only thing he recognized was his name on the screen.
“I don’t pick the names, I just get ‘em and do my thing. I need you to do yours. Are you with me?”
“You’re going to swipe my head again?”
“Yeah, you okay with it?”
“I – I guess so. What do I do when I find this – event?”
“You find it, I’ll let you know. One step at a time. Ready?”
“Wait, who are you?”
The man blinked as if taken by surprise. “I’m Jimmy. You can call me Jimmy.”
“Yeah. You ready, Ed?”
“Wait . . . I have some more questions.”
“I’m sure you do but we don’t have much time. Can you hold em till we get back? We waste time now and there won’t be anything to ask about. Know what I mean?”
“I -Yeah . . .”
“Good luck, kid. You can do this.”
The stranger touched Ed’s head. The effect was immediate, images of Ed’s life reeled backwards starting with his walk to the bar tonight. His mind skipped off them like a stone skipping over a pond. He felt the rain that had fallen on him, felt the dampness on his skin. Skip. He was sailing over scenes in his life, seeing them scroll by like images on a cell phone. Skip. A dull morning at work; endless keyboard entry. Skip. And another dull day. The images scrolled by, one useless work day before another until . . . Skip. The day of his divorce; his wife scowling, smiling, leaning close to her lawyer in a whisper; you freed me from that fool. Skip. Further back, endless fighting, arguing, anger. You quit your job? Him The boss and I didn’t see eye to eye. Her How is that possible? You were there one day!
Skip. Best man at his brother’s wedding, the toast, the crowd, the eyes. His mounting fear, passing the job off to his father at the last moment. Drinking gin, puking in the bushes. Skip. College, his freshmen year, partying his way to straight Fs. Skip. Passing his driver’s test. Borrowing his Dad’s car and totaling it.
Skip. Farther back still. Accepting money to mow Mrs. Erskin’s lawn, letting it grow to hip height. Just one more failure.
This was a tour of his own mediocrity. Skip. an A+ on a test, his mother proud, failing the next test and the next. Finishing the course with a C- average. Skip. Entering the math bee in grade school, sleeping through the meet.
Ed had forgotten how much failure he had waded through. The guy who tries the most fails the most. But he knew he hadn’t tried much. Not really. And he hadn’t lived much, either, never did anything big, never had a reason. There was only one moment in his life when he had brushed close to an event big enough to be what he was looking for and Jimmy was wrong about it; anyone could recognize it. Anyone in the world. What they might not recognize was how his life was tied to it and that was the key. That’s why Jimmy was here.
It was the woman that tied him to the event, the woman before his wife. The first one. She bound him to it with pangs of shame and regret that had made him wonder ‘what if?’ at every new downturn of his life.
Ed had murdered her. He had murdered her with failure and he knew his marriage to the woman who came after was a penance, one well deserved. But he could fix that now. He could fix that and so much more.
Ed changed direction. It was only a matter of will, a thought and the events of his life slowed, stopped and began scrolling forward instead. There was more failure to see. Failing to show up at his Godson’s baptism; too hung over. Skip. Forgetting Mother’s Day, his mother passing away two days later. Skip. A bar, a beer, a pleasant buzz. A woman leaning close – the wrong woman, her breath on his face, her leg against his. This was it. This was the moment it had all began to fall apart. This was the time to STOP. Something shifted in his mind and he found himself in a bed.
The sheets were warm. Soft skin pressed against his back; a woman’s breasts. She moved in her sleep and her unshaven tuft brushed his ass. Ed leaped out of bed in a panic, heart pounding. It was her, the woman from the bar – what was her name? Some kind of stripper name – Tawny. He stood, naked and sticky. He had missed. He had overshot his mark by a whole night and he swore. How had this happened? He ran the sequence through his mind.
He was supposed to drive Scarlett to the airport after work. She was going to catch an evening flight but he had gotten a text from Tawny. Meet me for a drink. No. Yes. Just one drink. It was on the way and it was harmless, only one drink; a moment to sit near the flame of that smoking hot body. But one drink had turned into two and there were texts. Running late, be there soon. Lies to the woman who loved him, the perfect one, the one he was meant for. He was a fool, just like his ex-wife had whispered. He had never shown up to drive her to the airport and she had missed her flight, booked one the next morning; the one headed for the north tower.
He snatched his cell phone off the floor where it was lying next to Tawny’s bra, a padded bra, he noticed. So much for honesty in advertising. The clock on the screen said six forty and his heart pounded harder. Scarlett was already at the airport. Her plane would crash at – his mind searched. He couldn’t remember. Was it nine o’clock? He could still stop this, stop the dominoes from falling. He could save Scarlett, save the people on those planes and if Jimmy was right, maybe the whole universe too. Of course Jimmy was right. He was from universal maintenance.
Ed blinked as a simple idea hit him; go back – one night was all he needed. Go back one night and he could do this over – get it right. Go BACK. Nothing happened. BACK. No change. Back. No scroll. Something was wrong and he knew what; he was inside the event. He couldn’t control the scroll from here anymore than he could diffuse a bomb from inside an explosion. There was one choice left, though; go forward.
Ed dialed 911.
“Please state the nature of your emergency.”
He had a moment wondering if this was too big for 911. Time was short; they would have to handle it.
“A hijacking. It’s happening right now. You need to hurry.”
Hijacking – a plane? A plane being hijacked?”
“Three planes.” The Pentagon. “Four – they’re leaving from Logan and Newark and . . . where?”
Tawny stepped out of the bedroom, naked, her breasts small and pretty.
“Hi Eddy,” she said, “How about another pony ride?”
“. . . and Dulles airport.”
The world twisted in front of his eyes; outlines stretched, contracted, reformed. His equilibrium shifted and he braced himself from falling. It was unnecessary, he was sitting in a chair now and the world had reformed to a room with a concrete floor. Sound echoed. His phone had changed, too. It was no longer a cell phone but a corded handset running to a wall phone.
Tawny was gone. He was looking through a window at Jimmy. Jimmy appeared to be on the other end of the handset, talking to him.
“Easy there Ed,” his voice came tinny over the speaker. “You’re back.”
“What the hell – where . . . ?” The wave of dizziness passed.
“Get a grip.”
Ed tried to take Jimmy’s advice. He glanced around the room, wondering where he was. There were other men on similar phones wearing orange jumpsuits. He was wearing one himself and there were guards in the room. Ed had a sinking feeling. “Did I stop it Jimmy? Did it work?”
“You got a partial, Ed. You got a partial on nine eleven.”
“What does that mean?”
“There wasn’t much time. They stopped one plane from taking off but the others got into the air. One of them hit the trade center. The other three – the Feds realized what they were up against and they shot them down.”
“Oh my God . . .”
“Yeah, like chewing your leg off to get out of the trap. They traced your call and they picked you up. You can imagine the questions they had, about how you knew the things you did. Only you didn’t have answers they liked, so they filled in the blanks themselves. The official story is that you’re a collaborator – you and Scarlett. You’re the most hated people in America – Americans helping terrorists attack their own country.”
“They have Scarlett too?”
Jimmy pressed his lips together. “North tower, Ed. She didn’t make it. Her pictures were all over the news – yours and hers. They wove her into the story. You were supposed to give her a ride to the airport the night before, weren’t you?”
“Why weren’t you there, Ed? Why didn’t you give her that ride?”
“Because I was . . . there was a delay.”
“Because you were banging Tawny. You gave her a ride that night. You had a good woman, Ed, you had Scarlett. Why did you screw it up?”
“Because – that’s what I do.”
“Because I’m a screw up. When the pressure is on, I screw up. I’ve screwed things up all my life; I even screwed up saving the universe. Look, you know what the event is now, you don’t need me anymore. Fix it yourself. Why don’t you fix it, Jimmy? You’re the guy from Universal Repair, fix it.”
“I can’t. It’s not the event.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nine eleven wasn’t the cause of the problem, it’s a symptom and so is your dead girlfriend. It isn’t even the same day of the event. I don’t know what the event is so I can’t fix it. Only you can spot it. I need you to go back in.”
“You’ve got your magic computer there,” Ed said, pointing at Jimmy’s ‘cell phone’. Google it up or whatever you do and figure it out.”
“This isn’t a computer, it’s a reflector. It reflects what we need to see.” Jimmy pressed the screen up against the glass. “What do you see?”
Ed looked and frowned. “The screen is blank.”
“No kidding? That’s a funny thing because when I look at it, I see information about you because I need you to find it. When you look at it, you see nothing because you need nothing to find it. You are capable of finding this on your own.”
“I don’t want to look anymore.”
“Why is that, Ed? You mind telling me?”
“Is it because you don’t like looking at all that failure? You don’t like rehashing everything you screwed up? Yeah, I was watching too. There’s no privacy clause in this deal.”
Ed shifted in his seat uncomfortably. “I’m done,” he said. “I’m in prison and I get three squares a day and if the universe implodes we’ll all go together. Screw it. The universe never did anything for me.”
Jimmy made a gripping, pulling gesture and Ed’s face slammed up against the glass. A guard moved toward them but Jimmy waved his hand and the guard seemed to forget his purpose. The man walked back to his corner and settled in, confused.
Ed, on the other hand, paid close attention and he found he could hear Jimmy fine right through the glass barrier, even without the phone. He could hear him in his mind.
“We have fourteen minutes before it all implodes,” Jimmy said. “You’ve done nothing but fail all your life. You have fourteen minutes to prove that’s not who you are. I don’t think that’s who you are, I think there’s a better man in there. You can prove me right by going back in and fixing this or you can prove me wrong by sitting on your ass until it all goes ‘boom’. Which way is it going to be?”
Ed’s eye twitched behind the glass and a vague sound came from his mouth.
Jimmy shoved him back. “What is it? Are you on board or should I clear out and save my own hide?”
“What’s my reward?”
“I’m saving the universe. What do I get?”
Jimmy studied him through the glass. “Guess I made a mistake,” he said, standing up. “Sorry I wasted your time.”
“Wait,” Ed said, suddenly. “I just – I have questions, you know? All I want is some answers in return.”
“We’ve got thirteen minutes.”
“You’re avoiding my questions.”
“Ask your questions and lean in.”
Ed leaned close to the glass as he asked. “Just tell me why – why does God make it suck this way?”
“When you’re in there,” Jimmy said, “make sure you look at the big picture.
“Why can’t a guy get ahead?”
“Big picture. Got it?”
“Why? Answer me. Why?”
“Why are you looking for someone else to blame? You don’t even ask the right questions, Ed. You’ve got to learn the right questions.” Jimmy swiped the glass. Ed was catapulted back into his own mind, his life scrolling backwards once again. This time it began with his call to nine-one-one. The first time through he had been too pumped on adrenaline to take much notice of the feelings but this time he was better in tune. The experiences weren’t just visual – he felt everything else too, just as he had lived it. There was laughter but there was also hope and pain and sadness that cut deep. The changes in direction rocked his mind, threatening to throw him off his mental feet. It was like standing on the deck of a ship in a storm.
It occurred to him that he still had no special instruction on how to spot what he was looking for other than ‘you’ll know it when you see it’. At this speed it was hard to see anything and it was all still speeding up, moving faster by the moment. There were only a handful of minutes left and he wondered how this could possibly work, how he was supposed to review the rest of his life in the short time left. Then it occurred to him that maybe that wasn’t the plan at all. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to ‘find’ anything. Maybe this was supposed to be a coming-to-terms, an acceptance of a verdict.
It all made sense that way, it all fit together; the high-speed review of his failed life, Jimmy’s vague instructions, his failure to find any real ‘event’ – he was supposed to come to the understanding on his own; the problem was him. The problem was Ed Strickland. His life had never filled the space in the world it was meant to fill, the space in the universe. Ed could see now the hole it had left; a void that tripped up other lives on their way to take their own place, sometimes swallowing them whole as with Scarlett. It stopped them from taking their own place and they in turn stopped others. His life was an aberration that created chinks and gaps in a domino effect that radiated outward to the horizon. This was the big picture he was supposed to see; his life as a blot on the face of the universe.
He was hurtling at high speed toward the largest event in his life; his own birth and it was his birth that had tipped it all toward failure. His very existence disrupted the texture of the universe.
And then he was there; his own birth. All of the light and noise turned to silence. There was warmth. There was rhythm. His mother’s heart offered peace and comfort with every beat and Eddy realized this was what he had been looking for his whole life. He had found it at last. Ed knew he had a choice to make. He could be born into a world where he would never fit, a world of struggle and failure or he could drift here in love. Eddy’s mind pulled a metaphorical plug and he drifted, forever in warmth.
The doctor was as comforting as he could be, in an efficient and institutional way. He stood by the bed holding the body of the child.
“I’m sorry Mrs. Strickland, your child was stillborn. He passed just before birth. Some of them aren’t able to make it in this world.”
Eva Strickland fought back tears. “Let me hold him. Please – just – let me hold him.”
The doctor handed Ed to his mother. Mrs. Strickland held her dead child and cried.
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all
Carry on, carry on
Jimmy pulled down the next sheet from his IN box and leaned back in his chair to read. It was a form; some old Request for Variance had come through and it was stamped APPROVED. It took him a moment but he remembered, it was for that mediocre universe with the good scotch, the one where the kid had nipped his own bud. Jimmy sighed.
Some places he repaired and they shined up like new, others he strung together with baling wire and roofing tar and they limped along, a ghost of what they could be. He had checked in on this one a while back. It was getting along but it would never shine, not with that missing piece. What was his name – Ed?
Jimmy got up and put on his overcoat and hat. The kid would do better a second time through. He had learned a bit already. Some of them took hundreds of trips through to figure it all out but this kid might do it quicker. There would be no returning as a Brahman Bull or an Asian Hooker, just another go-round as Ed Strickland, each time the same old life, hopefully with less mistakes and a little more happiness. Eventually this universe would get all its soles in place and begin to hum. Jimmy wondered what the scotch would be like then. He opened the door to our world and stepped through.
About Mister Fixit
Outside of fiction, there is no second chance at life. There is no opportunity to go through it all again and make new choices. That notion is nonsense. And there is certainly no representative of a higher power that puts us back in the game if we don’t get it right the first time (or the second or the third) so that we can find our true place in the cosmic scheme of things. Don’t be fooled. If that kind of thing were going on, news of it would leak through from the other side in all kinds of small ways, wouldn’t you think?
A note from the author
Thanks for reading Mister Fixit. If you liked the story, you might try leaving a review where you downloaded it. Positive reviews help independent authors enormously. If you didn’t like the story, feel free to email me at [email protected] and let me know where I went wrong. It’s always good to get feedback. Thanks for being a reader.
Ed Strickland's life is on the skids until he meets 'Jimmy' from Universal Repair. Together, they embark on an effort to repair more than Ed ever thought possible.