The Anthropologist on the Edge of Forever
The big sentry palm in front of the balcony
doors desperately needed to be repotted. Roots were squeezing out over
the sides and working their way through the drainage holes at the bottom,
and it was getting to the point Jim suspected if he concentrated, he might
be able to hear the clay pot groaning under the pressure of that inexorable
It was not a sound he was particularly
eager to hear, though he didn't put it quite that way to Sandburg. What
he did tell Blair was he was going to stop at Home Depot and pick up a
new planter -- would Blair have an afternoon free sometime this week to
help Jim wrestle a fragile, awkward, heavy pot from the truck to the elevator?
Of course, having mentioned the project
to Blair, it immediately became more complicated.
"Home Depot? Aw, no way, man, you
don't want to go there. I hate the way those huge chains are putting all
the smaller places out of business. Besides, I know an old friend of Naomi's
who can help us out here."
"Sandburg, your mother is a wonderful
woman, but I don't think I need to have my consciousness raised just to
repot a houseplant."
Blair waved him silent, laughing.
"Hear me out. Maxfield's got a little garden shop about a half an hour
this side of the state park, and he stocks a great selection of Italian
terra-cotta. Way nicer than you could find at Home Depot. C'mon, Jim, you
ought to at least check it out."
Well, all right, maybe Sandburg had
a point. The truth was, Jim wasn't crazy about huge chain hardware stores
either. It might be worth driving a little farther and spending a little
more money to find something really nice. Whether it would be worth suffering
through yet another introduction to one of Naomi's crackpot friends was
another matter, but Blair was beaming at him now as though the two of them
were well on their way to single-handedly rescuing every mom-and-pop business
on the western seaboard. He was even able to clear time this afternoon
to ride out there with Jim, which was unexpected. Jim had been fully prepared
to have to wait until after he'd turned in his grades next week.
"Nah, I can use the break," Sandburg
assured him. "If I have to read one more undergraduate essay butchering
Levi-Strauss's "The Sacred and The Profane," I'm gonna end up profaning
something myself, I am totally serious, man." He was already gathering
up the bluebooks scattered all over the coffee table. "Let's do it."
Jim hadn't realized he was grinning
at Blair, but he must have been, because when Sandburg looked up, he caught
his smile and reflected it back at him, dazzlingly. "What?" Blair asked,
grinning. "What is it? You meant now, didn't you? If we wait any later
we'll probably hit rush hour traffic getting back."
"Now's fine, Chief."
Blair cocked his head at him. "What
are you so happy about?"
"Just wondering how you managed to
turn what should have been a little half-hour errand into an afternoon-long
drive into the mountains."
The afternoon was cool and bright,
the sky scrubbed clean after a week of rain. Blair stopped on the sidewalk
just outside the street door. "Everything OK, Chief?" Jim asked. "You do
have time for this, don't you?"
Blair turned to look up at him. His
smile was gentler now, and his eyes reflected the sky. "I've got time.
Just thinking it's a nice day for a drive, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it is," Jim agreed, meaning
The same breeze that had blown the
rain away blew a lock of hair into Blair's face. Blair tucked the stray
curls back behind his ear, and for no good reason at all, Jim reached out
and tousled his hair again. "Thanks a lot," Blair grumbled, stepping backwards
out of range and trying to look indignant through a sheepdog fringe.
"Careful." Jim put a hand on Blair's
shoulder to stop him as he came dangerously close to falling backwards
off the curb. Blair swatted the hand away, but he stopped backing up.
"You're a menace, Jim, you know that?"
He pushed his hair out of his face again and lifted the grocery bag full
of undergraduate exams with the other hand. "Just let me throw these in
the trunk so I don't forget them in the morning." He turned and loped across
to the center parking aisle where his Volvo crouched almost out of sight
between two minivans. Jim shook his head and strolled up the block towards
his truck. He had one eye on Blair the whole time, not quite consciously
watching him wrestle with the key as he tried to get the trunk open one-handed.
It had been sticking for a while now. He thought Blair had given up on
using the trunk. He ought to give up on using the whole car.
Reaching the truck, Jim unlocked door
on the driver's side and got in, leaning across to unlock Blair's door.
When he sat up again he looked back over his shoulder for Blair.
It had all started with a garbage
truck, he thought with the blank, stupid horror of utter helplessness,
and now it was all about to end with one.
Either Blair had finally gotten the
trunk open or he had just given up on it and thrown the blue books in the
back seat, because he was sauntering back across the street now. His eyes
were fixed on Jim, and he was smiling, his hands up, completely oblivious
to the city truck barreling down on him. His expression was as calm as
Joan Collins' had been in that old Star Trek episode, just before Kirk
let her die to save his own future.
"Sandburg!" Jim was already out of
the truck and running hard, but there was no way he could be there in time.
Blair's eyes widened, but he was looking
at Jim, not at his own approaching death. "Blair!" Jim screamed, just as
the driver of the truck belatedly blew on the horn and hit the brakes.
Only then did Blair turn his head
and see. Jim heard the sound he made, not a scream, less than a gasp. Just
a soft sort of 'click,' his throat closing up like a shut door.
And then Blair was moving, one, two
long steps, bounding out of the way like he had wings on his ankles and
whirling around as the garbage truck rumbled past with the horn still blasting.
"Oh, MAN," he exclaimed, shaking from head to foot and making frantic gestures
with his hands, "Oh MAN was that stupid."
Reaching him then, far too late to
have done any good, Jim grabbed his arm and pulled him the rest of the
way out of the street, not being particularly gentle about it either. "Dammit,
Sandburg --" He saw Blair wince and released him fast. "I'm sorry. Are
you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine," Blair said, still
breathing hard. "It's OK. I'm fine."
OK? Jim wondered. OK? No, I don't
think so, Chief, not by a long shot. But he clamped down hard on the angry
words, not letting them out, turned and stalked back to his truck. It took
Blair a few long strides to catch up. Jim heard him, but he didn't slow
down and he didn't stop until he felt Blair's hand fall on his shoulder.
"Hold up, man," Blair said gently.
Jim whirled around. "You still want
to go buy a planter this afternoon or not?"
"Hey, Jim. I'm really sorry, but I'm
OK, and I promise I'll be more careful."
The wind was still blowing clean and
cold. Blair reached one hand up and pushed his hair out of his face again,
never taking his earnest gaze from Jim. "Are you all right?"
"Fine," Jim snapped, looking over
Blair put his hands on Jim's shoulders
to stop him from turning away again and stood up on tiptoe, trying to make
Jim look at him. "Don't give me that," he said gently. "Listen, Jim, I'm
sorry I scared you, but getting all pissed off now doesn't do any good."
Jim closed his eyes. He'd loved that
old Star Trek episode when he was a kid. Captain Kirk's terrible choice
of duty over love had been such a revelation to him. An escape from the
pain of love, to tell the truth. Duty first, no matter how much it hurt,
no matter what the cost. Because duty was clear, and you knew where you
stood. It was something bigger than the vagaries of individual human beings,
who could be stupid, or cruel, or careless. Who could stop loving you.
Or who could simply walk away whether they loved you or not.
What a time to discover that good
old Captain Kirk had been absolutely one hundred percent wrong, because
the future didn't matter. Duty didn't matter. The whole rest of the damned
universe didn't matter. Blair Sandburg, right here, alive and OK, was all
that mattered. Everything else was dreams and shadows, the sort of interesting
concepts Blair could play clever semantic games with, but which had nothing
at all to do with the important things in Jim Ellison's life.
Jim pushed Sandburg's hands away and
wrapped his fists in the shoulders of Blair's coat, holding him as though
he might suddenly bolt. Blair was looking up at him with eyes that were
wide and startled now. "You ever pull a stunt like that again," Jim told
him calmly, "and I'll skin you alive. You hear me, Chief?"
"Jim, c'mon, for the last time, it
was an accident. I don't WANT to get run down on the street, you know?"
Jim pulled him around and pushed him
up against the side of the truck. "I don't know if that's good enough,"
he said helplessly, knowing he was being unreasonable. But right now he
couldn't see how he could ever stand to let Sandburg go again. Not for
five minutes. Not even for the thirty seconds it would take Blair to walk
around and get in the other side of the truck. Jim had been unforgivably
careless with a gift of incalculable value and fragility for so long, and
he felt a superstitious terror that now he would have to pay for his carelessness.
Worse, that Blair would have to pay.
His head dropped, his heart black
in his chest. He had seen Blair shot, kidnapped, beaten, drugged -- and
still, somehow he had been able to accept the risks Blair was taking, because
Blair was helping Jim to Do His Job, and duty came first. A close call
with the city garbage truck, and suddenly nothing made sense any more.
Jesus. What was he going to do? "Blair," he said, and the sound of his
own voice lost and uncertain as a child's shut him up again.
It was silent then, save for traffic
noises behind them, and Blair, still breathing hard.
"Hey, Jim." Blair's voice, when he
finally did speak, was so gentle that Jim started to shake. "Hey, easy."
He raised his hand and touched Jim's cheek with the back of his fingers.
"C'mon, now. What's going on with you?"
Jim only closed his eyes and shook
"No," Blair said softly. "That's not
gonna work here." He raised his other hand so he could frame Jim's face,
palms over Jim's cheeks and jaws, fingers curved gently at his temples.
"Look at me."
Jim blinked and then, just like always,
he did what Blair wanted him to. He looked into Blair's face. His hands
still held Blair, his strength and height and size keeping Blair's shoulders
pinned to the side of the truck, but Jim was the one who couldn't stop
"What can I do?" Blair asked. "How
can I make it right?"
Nothing. There was nothing in the
world that could make this right. Jim had spent a lifetime constructing
a philosophy that accepted the inevitability of loss, and suddenly it was
gone. The solace of duty was a carcass now, nothing but dry bones bleached
white by sand and salt. He could almost hear them rattling as the high
desert wind of human mortality blew through his soul.
Then Sandburg stood up on tiptoe and
kissed his face.
The brief warmth of Blair's lips at
the corner of his mouth broke across Jim's heart like the cloudburst after
a drought, and he staggered under the impact. Everything was swept away
in the foaming, white-capped flood. Every corpse of every arid philosophy
Jim had ever used as a shield against his life washed away to the sea.
Blair threw his arms around him and
held on tight, bracing himself to support Jim's weight, and when he was
certain Jim wasn't going to fall, he laid his head on Jim's chest. It sounded
like he was trying to tell Jim something, only he was laughing too hard
to get the words out.
Or maybe it wasn't laughter. Jim felt
tears soaking the front of his shirt. "Oh man, Jim, " Blair gasped out
at last. "Why do you DO that? Can you tell me why the hell you do that?"
"Chief --" Jim said helplessly. He
held Blair carefully now, hands spread wide against his back as Blair wept
in his arms. "I don't know what you mean." He tried to sound indignant.
"You're the one who doesn't have enough sense to look both ways before
"Oh no," Blair announced. He pulled
back and looked up at Jim, eyes shining as unshed tears reflected the bright
blue sky. "No way, man." He wiped his nose hastily, sniffling. "It's just,
everything's not about the end of all time, all right? Sometimes it's just
little accidents, little mistakes, and they don't mean anything, got it?"
"No," he told Blair truthfully. "It's
the little accidents that change the whole world. Didn't Naomi let you
watch Star Trek when you were a kid?" He bent his head and placed a careful
kiss above Blair's left eyebrow, and when he straightened up, he had the
pleasure of seeing a rare look of complete bewilderment spreading across
"Get in the truck, Sandburg. We've
got a long drive ahead of us."