By a throw of the dice we may have a stroke, meet the love of our life, or be hit by a car whose driver had a heart attack. A particular throw may save a man with a bullet wound from death, a man who will go on to become a dictator and be responsible for murdering millions, and killing millions more in the wars he wages. Or another throw may just have a doctor present at the right moment to save a boy from a lifethreatening disease, and more lucky throws may allow the boy to grow up into a man of sublime peace who, in the right place at the right time, creates a country and an influential philosophy of nonviolence. Of course, when history is written, its course seems so inevitable, so fixed, that the supreme role of chance is disguised.
This is not to say that we have no role to play in our lives. We do. In the choices we make, we open or close our future to new lines of chance. Just moving to a new neighborhood, deciding to change jobs, or going to college is like going into one casino instead of another, or choosing a slot machine over the poker tables-a new world of chance is before us, and others are left behind. But when by chance a golden door of opportunity opens, by disposition, interest, education, and experience, we have to know the door is there. Of course, we may just be lucky and take advantage of the opportunity without knowing what we are doing.
Maybe once in a thousand years, maybe once in a hundred thousand, maybe for the first time in all of human history, a particular opportunity may open to some person who just happens to be at the right time and place. And thus God's throw of the dice favored Cyril Clement, one out of all the billions of human beings, with a power beyond our understanding.
He was a nothing then, a poor kid, really a street urchin. His parents were divorced and he lived at his dad's place-to Cyril, it was always his dad's place, never home-a small, two-room apartment. His father was an off-and-on laborer who spent most of his earnings in saloons. What this boy would have become, had he not been made supremely special by chance, is impossible to know. He surely would have quit school as soon as he could. Which he did. He likely would have remained uneducated, poor, and possibly frustrated and unhappy for the rest of his life. He might have turned to crime. But maybe not. He might have lucked out in a stupid business venture, or turned out to be a well-adjusted, happy person. But in any case, as far as humanity is concerned, he would only have been a statistic, one more person added to the world's and the American population.
A throw of the dice opened to him the greatest of all opportunities, but he had to have a special disposition to grab it, or this one and possibly only chance might never appear again for anyone. He had to enjoy reading, so much so that he collected cast-off magazines and books. If he'd been illiterate, if he disliked reading, or if he read only by happenstance, humanity would have lost the absolutely profound, the absolutely incredible chance that the young boy could be a bridge from one universe-one dripping with the blood of hundreds of millions murdered, or killed in aggressive wars, one in which thug-regimes enslaved billions-to a parallel universe of peace and freedom.
Cyril sat on his bunk staring his father, asleep on the other side of the narrow bedroom. The room reeked of alcohol. Hunger had awakened him. He yawned, stretched, and looked at the alarm clock on one of the bookshelves next to his bunk. Past ten a.m.-he'd missed school again. He remembered hitting the alarm when it went off at seven a.m., but he had stayed up late last night reading all of one of his latest finds, a June 1938 Reader's Digest, and he'd been too sleepy to heed the alarm.
His hunger demanded attention. He had not eaten since lunch the previous day, and then only a cheap, half-plate of spaghetti from the restaurant below them. "I'm hungry," Cyril yelled as loud as he could.
His father lay twisted in the covers of the single bed beneath the room's only window, snoring. It was a workday, but not for his drunken dad. He stirred and opened one bloodshot eye, then the other. He stared back at Cyril and mumbled something. "I haven't eaten anything today, Dad. I'm hungry." Amidst a series of wheezes and coughs, his father gasped, "Dammit, boy . . . go get a job . . . what'ya . . . want from me?" He turned his back on Cyril.
Cyril crawled to the foot of his bunk, swung his feet to the floor, and put on his pants. He had worn them for months, and the fabric on the knees bowed out when he stood. His dad's did the same, from constantly sitting in them. The overstretched fabric made him look like he had a knee deformity. He had worn his shirt to bed and didn't change it. He wandered into what they called the living room, the only other room in his dad's place. There was no kitchen, and they shared the bathroom at the end of the hall with the other occupants of the building's second floor. He stood uncertainly by the door, his fingers unconsciously searching his pants pockets for crumbs from the bread he usually stored there to eat later-when he had it.
A knock at the door made him jump. When he opened it, the school truant officer stood on the threshold, one hand on her hip, shaking her head at him. She was a big, stout woman dressed in black, with a heavy looking brown fabric bag slung over her shoulder, and her hair bundled on top of her head.
"You missed school again, Cyril," she said in a loud, harsh voice, but compassion softened her eyes. She shook her finger at him. "I've got to take you in to the principal. If you miss many more classes, Cyril, you are going to be held back in the sixth grade." She stepped to one side of the door, obviously waiting for him to join her.
He didn't know what to say. He stood by the door, looking down at the worn edge of the room's nondescript rug. Finally he muttered, "I got to go fishing. Catch some fish. Sell them. I'm hungry."
"When did you eat, Cyril?"
"Yesterday. My dad gave me thirty cents and I ate lunch downstairs."
"You don't have any money now?"
She took a step into the room. There was no door between the living room and the bedroom, only a wide archway, so she could see Cyril's dad lying twisted in the covers, now with one hairy leg hanging out. She sniffed, twitched her nose, and shook her head. Then she tilted it to look sadly at Cyril. He still wouldn't look at her. She reached into the large brown shoulder bag and pulled out her change purse. She held fifty cents out to him.
Cyril looked up at the money from under his brows. "What's this for?"
"Get yourself something to eat, Cyril. Go fishing, and I hope you catch something. But don't you miss school tomorrow. Okay?"
Cyril took the money, and finally looked up directly into her soft brown eyes. "Okay."
She nodded, then turned quickly and walked down the hall to the stairs.
Cyril left the door open. He pocketed the fifty cent piece, and picked up his long bamboo fishing pole from the floor behind the tattered sofa. A length of fishing twine was already wrapped around it, with a hook at the end. A faint odor wafted from his tin bait can when he picked it up, so he cracked the lid and checked his collection of worms-night crawlers.
He had punched small holes in the lid so that they would have air, as an old Chinese fisherman had taught him. Some of the worms were moving over the grass and leaves he'd placed inside, so he wouldn't have to scrounge this time in the garbage cans behind the restaurant downstairs for something to use as bait.
Pole and can in hand, he left his dad's place. He would eat at Jimmy's Delicatessen. Jimmy sometimes gave him something extra to eat. Then he would head for the Bay piers. If he was lucky, he would catch a few striped sea perch or rubberlip perch. If God was happy with him, he might even pull up a dozen or so crabs. But he'd settle for the poison-finned cabezon if he had to; he could sell even that in one of the saloons and bars along the edge of Chinatown or the Barbary Coast. Fishing was good, and by late afternoon Cyril had earned $1.63 selling what he caught. He dropped off his fishing pole and his worm can at his dad's place-his dad was gone, no note saying where-and headed for the Used Books Mart on Merchant Street. It was a long walk from Steiner Street, but it was worth it.
The door tipped an overhead bell when he opened it, and he looked around for the owner as he entered. The store was dusty and stuffy and crammed with books and magazines from ceiling to floor. A young woman emerged from between two stacks of books and greeted him cheerily. "Hi, Cyril. I've got a new Astounding Stories and a year-old Startling Stories. I hid them for you."
He always bought any science fiction that came in, if he had the extra money. Cyril gave her a little smile and said, "Thank you." He never knew what to say to her, so he just said "thank you" to whatever she said or did for him. That seemed to work okay.
When she handed him the magazines, he paid her the thirty cents and left with his new treasures. He would be up late again tonight. But he had one more thing to do, once he had his hands free.
As he walked to his dad's place with his purchase, he passed boxes of magazines and piles of newspapers stacked on the curb in front of some homes and businesses. He knew it was wartime; in school he liked drawing pictures of airplanes shooting at each other, with some falling from the sky, trailing smoke. A teacher had told him that it was his family's patriotic duty to put out old newspapers, books, and magazines to be picked up by trucks. He didn't understand how, but the discarded publications would help fight the war.
The paper pickup was tomorrow morning, he'd learned. For Cyril, it was like having a gold mine next door. And he was going to search the mine again.
After dropping off his new magazines, he began walking up and down the neighboring streets, rummaging through boxes along the curb. He picked up a few Reader's Digest, Life, National Geographic, and The Saturday Evening Post, and had to return to his dad's place to unload them. He hoped these would fill in the dates that were missing from his collection.
There was hardly enough room in his dad's place for all the magazines and the few books he'd collected, but he stole hollow tiles and old planks from a construction site and made himself a bookcase next to his bunk. He could only get into the bunk by crawling from the foot of the bed, but he had everything lined up by his head, so in the evening he could easily choose something to look at or read.
He felt good and he had a full stomach, so he decided to go out again for one more search before dark. He tried several different streets, finding mostly newspapers and a lot of uninteresting magazines with food, cars and ships, or clothes on the cover. So he headed where he had not gone before-down Fillmore Street. He stopped in front of an imposing building bearing a sign that read Headquarters: Fire Commissioners and Chief Engineer.
On the curb there waited a large collection of boxes and food cartons filled with old magazines, and strange bundles of papers, all either bound or clipped, with words like "Government," "Official," "Memos," "Engine Houses," and "Reports" on their covers. He shoved them aside, looking for interesting magazines and books.
At the bottom of one box he found a thick, beat-up, bulging folder that looked like an accordion. It contained several sheaves of clippedtogether papers, what appeared to be a bound book, and several thick stacks of paper, tied with twine. The bound book looked similar to the Sears Roebuck Catalogue, six of which Cyril had picked up already, for different years. Deciding to take the interesting folder home with him, he set it aside and looked for more treasures, but there was nothing except what he thought was a book; he discarded it when he saw its title: The Official Manual on Fighting Fires. Over the days that followed, Cyril occasionally pulled the accordion folder from the milk carton full of other treasures that he kept under the end of his bunk, and looked through its contents. Clipped to the front of the folder was a form of some sort; he understood little of it, although he could read the title-"Official Investigative Report" -and the date-December 1938-and that there had been an apartment house fire. Its third page was typed and easy to read, if not completely understand:
I conclude that the fire was caused by rats eating off the insulation of wires behind a kitchen wall in a first floor apartment, causing a sparking short circuit which set ablaze the sawdust and wood shavings there. A fuse should have blown before the short circuit sparked, but someone had replaced it in the fuse box with a copper penny.
Science fiction had improved Cyril's vocabulary, but "insulation," "fuse," "fuse box," and "short circuit" were yet beyond him.
There was a space on the report for a description of the contents of the folder. There, someone had typed: Partly burned papers titled "Remembrance" found by body; other documents found in safe when forced open. Crackpot. The last word had been circled twice. Cyril read it, shrugged, and went on to other papers in the file. Among three longer documents he found one headed "The Plan," which he did not understand when he scanned it, and another titled "Chronology" with dates and events listed in small type underneath. This held no interest for him, but he kept it simply as part of the folder.
He had yet to read carefully or even scan much of the three bound documents. He flipped through a few pages of one and then put it back in the file. A glance at their titles didn't excite him. One, the partly burned, four-inch pile of paper, was titled "Remembrance." Another, printed and bound with a hard cover, bore the title "Democracy, War, and Democide in the Twentieth Century," under which was printed "Ph.D. Dissertation, May 2001, Yale University History Department."
The third pile of papers had been bound with twine, and had on its cardboard cover the same title as the dissertation, with a handwritten note scribbled above: Manuscript: dissertation academese translated into American English. Written as an alternative past and future history. Completed 1928.
None of it made any sense to him. Most of the words were strange; they were not the words he'd picked up from reading science fiction, such as "spaceship," "solar system," "planet," "ray gun," "alien," and "robot." Something so ancient-from way back in 1928-couldn't possibly contain anything interesting. And he didn't recognize the name "John Banks" on each of the bound documents, either. Rather than waste his time reading such stuff, he preferred to reread his special treasures, such as the articles in Reader's Digest on the Japanese Rape of Nanking, or how the German guards in concentration camps selected their sexual plaything for the night from a room full of naked women. He didn't know what it all meant, but the thought of seeing a naked woman excited him far more than anything in the accordion folder.
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