Timely Meeting: An Homage to Bill Forrester and Helen Loomis from Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.”
At ninety-two, Bill Forrester weighed the same, was as trim as, he was at thirty-one. As Helen had told him sixty years before, though, he knew enough of his body to know that it was winding down. Still, he walked two miles every day, except Sunday, and even worked out on the weight machines at the retirement home that had once been The Chronicle building, where he had cut his teeth as a newspaperman. That had been his one joy in coming home to Greentown, living where he once worked. And, he was ready to leave Chicago and The Sun Times, for the chance to move back to a place where his name might be remembered. So, in 1888, he left his valuable apartment near The Loop and moved his few things back to Greentown. Besides, the idiots in Washington and Moscow had finally managed to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear (INF) Treaty which they should have done in his last article about it six years before, and even bigger idiots had installed lights at Wrigley Field. Anybody with any sense knew that INFs, like their longer range companions, were ludicrous and that baseball needed to be played in the sun—on grass.
But folks in Greentown liked astroturf and night games, too, so his daily walk to what had been Singer’s Ice Cream Store that had gotten new life as a coffee shop after standing empty for twenty years was an exercise in accepting change as much as one for his crooking legs and wheezing lungs. Until, that is, he saw her again.
First he heard her voice as she gave her order, “a mocha, mocha, frappa-something nonfat, something-chino,” and he caught his breath: a soft voice, like gossamer wings, though it had more volume than the last time he’d heard it in a garden, over tea, six decades before. He knew the voice of Helen Loomis. Even in her loose denim jacket and black parachute pants, she looked as lithe as Helen, who danced in his dreams since that long ago. Looking closer, he saw that her jacket sported patches from London, Paris, and Budapest, and he stood so fast that he had to make a grab for his own mug of black coffee, which spun off the table he rocked. Fumbling for it as only an old man could, his hands too halting to answer his call, he watched it land with a thud on the industrial carpet and dribble out the sip or two that was left, like the life in his body.
His breathing came fast in the ten steps he took to the door, so his shout of “Helen, wait!” came rough from his throat. But it stopped her, and she turned a curious smile back to him and replied,
“No. It’s Ellen,” she said reaching up to still the pork-pie hat atop her black, wavy hair. Though the autumnal winds were beginning to blow, Bill saw that her top beneath the denim jacket was cropped. It showed more skin than he’d even seen on Helen Loomis. Taut, dancers’ muscle, moved beneath her skin,tanned and sleek, and it set even his old mind racing, for a second, with thoughts of the intimacy long denied him with the woman he loved. Nonetheless, he smiled back at her, glad merely to have his own teeth, still.
Wanting to run to meet her, Bill curbed his impulses, remembering that Helen had been dead since 1928 and that in 1988, it was his turn to be far, far too old to reach for this beautiful woman, though his heart longed to. He hated to think about being called an old pervert. This wasn’t, he knew, their imagined reunion in another life that they had shared as he said goodbye to Helen Loomis. Still, this Ellen, not Helen but more her than he thought possible, walked up to him and took his hand., her smile wavering and eyes narrowing as she studied his face.
“Wait, I know you,” she said. “You’re William Forrester, right? You won the Pulitzer in, what—?”
“Nineteen and forty six,” Bill said, flattered in any time period that someone remembered his work.
“—on that serial killer, right? Here, wasn’t it? In Greentown? He got killed here, I read about it in Journalism school,” she said, squeezing his hand in sudden enthusiasm.
“Yes, ‘the Lonely One,’ they called him, done in by his intended victim,” Bill replied, his face aching with smile that came from joys he thought long dead and buried. “I’m impressed you remember your ancient history,” he finished, trying hard to anchor himself in the present. “You’re a journalist, too, now? I mean, you’re a journalist yourself, like me, I meant.”
“Remember it, I’ll say. There’s many who say that your piece on that fellow was the first case of criminal profiling, that your insights into his character made possible the work that the FBI have been doing for the last dozen years or so.” Her eyes glinted so that he remembered the time he’d seen the young woman who lived still inside a ninety-odd year old Helen Loomis. Here they were, the same eyes, very much alive, young and glowing, staring into his, ranging to take in his face, too. And suddenly, she leaned back a little, her smile turning into a mischievous grin.
“What is it, Ellen?” Bill asked, seeing the change. She did not let go of his hands.
“It’s funny,” she whispered, as though she felt safe with, trusted him. “I, uh, I used to have dreams about you.” A wave of dizziness passed over him. And feeling him waver, she pulled him to sit on a bench that had stood in front of the shop since the time it was Singer’s.
“Mr. Forrester? Are you okay?”she asked, and placed her hand on his face. It was warm and strong, and her eyes sought the truth in his expression. Bill, though, smiled, and said,
“Oh, nothing’s wrong, except our timing, as per usual.”
“I don’t understand. Timing?”
“Meeting, let’s say,” Bill replied, not wanting her smile to stop or her to leave, though she—one of them—must and soon. “You’ve just made an old man happy, is all. Can you tell me of your dreams? Will you?”
It was Ellen’s turn to look away, and Bill stared at her profile. “Oh, they were just silly fantasies, nothing more. But they came again and again, especially in my travels.”
“Yes. You are a rolling stone, aren’t you?”
The smile she turned back to him was comfortable, and since she held his hand, still, she hugged it to her. “Yes. I guess the patches on my jacket give me away. Can’t seem to stay still, me. I start an assignment in Germany next month and then, maybe home for Christmas. I don’t know.”
Glancing at her left hand, he stated, “You’ve not married, yet.”
“No,” she said. “Most men are afraid of me. Can’t control me, I guess, and I couldn’t bear it anyway,” she replied, studying his eyes.
“No, you never could—will, I mean.”
“I don’t know why, but I feel like you knew all this, anyway, like you always did in my dreams,” Ellen said.
“Yes, I do,” he whispered. In response, she sighed and leaned toward him and hugged him, so that she lay her forehead against his old cheek. His grizzled cheek lay atop her lilac scented hair for a moment, and he said, “Maybe next time around, huh?”
Ellen sat back from him and shook her head, as though she grew ashamed of sharing so much with Bill, whio she struggled to think a stranger. Yet when she looked back at his patient face, she smiled again, for she saw there the joy of this chance meeting, and knew that Bill Forrester, somehow, maybe by career paths, maybe by Greentown, connected them, though she was only here to call upon some relative of her mother’s, before she finished her drive to Chicago.
“Next time around?”she asked. Then she nodded and added, “If I get back for Christmas, maybe I’ll look you up, huh?” She let go of his hand and rose to go, unable or unwilling to look away from him, though some part of her said that this was an unimportant, chance encounter with a sweet old man who was an icon of her past.
“I’ll repeat a promise I once heard:if there’s anyway I can do it, I’ll see you again, and I’ll do whatever is in my power to do for you.”
In the months that followed, Bill spent much more time with doctors as Ellen busied herself with her assignment in Germany. Bill often wished that they had exchanged contact information of some kind, but common sense told him that he was being inappropriate in his wish to see her again, with her being a young, busy dynamo and him a watch winding down to its last ticks. And wind down he did.
On December the twenty-first, 1988, Bill Forrester passed into a coma just as Ellen boarded a plane in Frankfurt, Germany, bound for Detroit. She looked forward to the return to America, for there was much anti-american sentiment around in Germany at that time, and it made her long for home. Bill’s heart beat it’s last when no one was looking, but it was timed in such a way that he died just before the terrorist bomb exploded in PanAm Flight 103 over Lockebie Scotland. The plane disintegrated in the air, and the passengers were alive as they fell. And there, catching her in his arms that would never be weak again, Bill caught Ellen, and though she died, neither of them ever touched the ground.