With a loving wife and son, a successful job as chief copy-editor, and a schedule all his own, Walter Hunsicker is happy with his existence.
But into each life some rain must fall.
Taking shelter from a heavy storm with a stranger, Walter confesses there are small things he wouldn’t mind changing about himself. He’d like more money, a little less monotony, and maybe a new name. Something like Jack Kellog.
The stranger, possessing a power unfathomable to Walter, eagerly makes his wish a reality. Walter doesn’t walk back into the rain, but into another life. As rich, womanizing, slumlord Jack Kellog, he shocks himself so much that he tracks the stranger down and asks for his life back before the day’s through. But once the stranger agrees to end his experiment, Hunsicker returns home to devastating news. His son has AIDS, and is beyond treatment.
Desperate to spare his family and himself this cruel fate, Walter leaps into new lives. Comedian, writer, radio psychologist: Are any of the new Jack Kellogs enough to escape Walter Hunsicker’s grief?
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About the Author
Thomas Berger (1924–2014) was the bestselling author of novels, short stories, and plays, including the Old West classic Little Big Man (1964) and the Pulitzer Prize–nominated novel The Feud (1983). Berger was born in Cincinnati and served with a medical unit in World War II, an experience that provided the inspiration for his first novel, Crazy in Berlin (1958). Berger found widespread success with his third novel, Little Big Man, and maintained a steady output of critically acclaimed work since then. Several of his novels have been adapted into film, including a celebrated version of Little Big Man. His short fiction has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Esquire, and Playboy. Berger lived in New York.
Read an Excerpt
"Not even God can change the past," Walter Hunsicker had once read somewhere, and after living almost six decades in which virtually every other supposedly unassailable truth had been successfully challenged (how soon would the techniques of cloning make death obsolete?; tax evaders were legion; often it was better not to have loved ... etc.), he assumed this adage was sound as ever and would surely persist in being so unto infinity.
Or anyway such was his assumption before meeting the man with whom he shared a doorway during a heavy city rainstorm. This fellow came only to Hunsicker's shoulder, and wore a battered felt hat and a shabby two-piece suit the cut of which was not enhanced by the water it had lately absorbed. His shirt collar was frayed at the points; his necktie had been knotted too often with unclean fingers. Hunsicker assessed him as belonging to a category somewhat above the derelict's — he did not stink, he asked for no money — but considerably below Hunsicker's own situation.
A careful viewer of television weather reports, Hunsicker had been prepared for the downpour. He now sought refuge only by reason of the failure of his equipment. The second gust of violent wind had instantly decommissioned his umbrella; his raincoat felt as though it were constructed of cheesecloth. Ordinarily he would not have spoken to even a well-dressed stranger, but at the moment he was in a state of indignation conditioned by discomfort, and the man was small and looked innocuous.
Hunsicker plucked at a wet lapel. "This is a brand-new coat, supposed to shed rain. Look at it."
The other shrugged inside his wilted jacket. "Then don't put up with it." His voice was dry and lacked depth, the kind that might easily become rasping.
"I've owned it too long now to take it back. Anyway, all it claimed to be was water-repellent: that would certainly be the store's argument. And this is, or was, a cloudburst." At the moment the rain was catching its breath for the next assault. Almost no water was falling, but standing in the air one felt as though immersed in liquidity.
"Could I interest you in a deal?" asked the other, eyes glittering under the brim of the felt hat.
Hunsicker groaned. "You're not about to offer me a genuine diamond ring for a bargain price? Or a luxury wrist-watch at one-fifth what they're asking in the shop around the corner?"
The little man smirked now. "Look here, I'll give you a free sample."
"No thanks." Hunsicker was about to step out onto the sidewalk when it was as if the ceiling of heaven fell in great slabs of solid water, which pulverized when they struck the pavement near the doorway. He recoiled to the far limits of the niche.
"Oh, come on," said the little man, relentlessly indifferent to the weather. "You really can't lose. Examine that coat of yours now."
Hunsicker was very late in returning from lunch, and while he was in effect his own boss, he took some pains in not enjoying conspicuous privileges over the persons under him. Irrespective of the climate, he had to get going. Therefore he did deal with his coat, though not in response to the urging of the tiresome little man.
He examined the garment, to determine just how much water had penetrated to the lining, useless as such an inquiry might be, for it was obvious that he could not enter the deluge dressed only in his suit ... What he saw was another coat than that which he had lately removed from his shoulders. Not only was this one thoroughly dry as to its inside surface, but it had no lining. Rubber would seem foremost amongst the materials from which it had been fashioned, and a dark, rubbery cement was evident at all inside seams. He recognized the garment as what the English call a "riding mac," a raincoat designed primarily for persons on horseback, with an appropriate cut, lengthy vent, leg-straps, etc., but sometimes worn by those pedestrians determined to keep as dry as one could when not under a roof. It would be perfect for the weather at hand, though impractical if applied to any of the other functions of the vanished all-purpose trench coat.
But the fact was that he had entered the doorway wearing the latter, whereas he had never his life long owned a riding mac. This truth was so simple as to defy any effort to explain it simply.
"I don't know what's happening to me," he confessed to the shabby little man. "I may need an ambulance in a moment. Please call one. And take my wallet and phone my wife at the number on the identification card. Keep all of the money in the wallet, but, if you will, return all the papers, credit cards, et cetera, to her. God bless you." He was preparing to fall to the dirty concrete floor of the doorway.
"Stop this farce," said the little man. "You're not dying. You're in excellent health for a man of your age. Your blood pressure is actually a bit lower than normal. You're not overweight. You haven't smoked for twenty years, and you hardly drink at all."
Hunsicker shook his head. "I certainly don't feel well at the moment."
"It's just that you have had reason to look at things in a new way," said the stranger. "You've never before experienced the changing of the past."
Hunsicker tried to summon up some indignation, so as to resist the panic that continued to threaten him. "That can't be done!"
"Remember buying the raincoat last week. The salesman pressed you to purchase the trench coat, but you —"
Hunsicker eagerly broke in. "I've had such coats in the past: they never really shed water, no matter what the claims, and furthermore I have no need for the zip-in wool lining. I own a perfectly good topcoat that does the job. Therefore I insisted on the riding mac despite the salesman's opposition, which was odd since this coat, imported as it is, was priced higher, but then perhaps he got a higher commission on the other."
"Indeed," said the little man. "In any event, your memory is clear on this affair."
"And your wisdom has been confirmed by this rain: not a drop touched your body, and of course the cap has kept your head dry."
"Cap?" Hunsicker felt his scalp. Yes, what seemed to be a cap was there. Until this moment he had assumed he was bareheaded and his hair was wet from the water that had struck him between the discarding of the ruined umbrella and plunging into the doorway, but in the next instant of course he remembered the cap, which was made of a salt-and-pepper wool-like weave that despite its porous appearance was as resistant to falling water as a tin roof; perhaps it was treated with a wonder-chemical not available to those who made routine raincoats. In any event, with the cap and the riding mac, no umbrella was needed to keep dry in this gusty city.
"Is that acceptable proof?" asked his small companion in the doorway.
Hunsicker felt a warm sense of security, armored as he was against the weather, and in such a mood he was inclined towards generosity. He unsnapped one of the grommets of the coat and reached for his wallet.
"In fact, it worked so well," said the little man, "that you can't even remember what happened." He waved a scrawny finger. "Put your money away: I don't want it. Just attend to what I'm saying. A moment ago you were bareheaded and wearing a water-soaked outer garment, which you regretted having purchased. Can you remember that?"
Hunsicker lost his smile. "I'm trying not to think of that confusing moment. It can't have happened. It doesn't make any sense."
The little man groaned. "Ah, Walter, what a prisoner you are of a few simpleminded principles. Since when has 'making sense' had any serious reference to what happens in reality? Things rarely make sense except in the banalities of art. Reason is usually beside the point in anything but a product of the imagination."
"How do you know my first name?" Asking the question was therapeutic, distracting him from the little man's paradoxes, which though nonsense were nevertheless terrifying.
"Call me a private detective if it will make you feel better — and then I should assure you immediately I haven't been hired by your wife or your place of employment."
"You'll get no blackmail money from me. I've nothing to hide."
Now the little man smiled broadly. "Even the IRS would agree: you must be one of the few who ever emerged clean from a random audit. Fifteen years ago, you were sexually importuned by your wife's second cousin, at a wedding party at which she, like so many of the guests, excluding you, got drunk. You went so far as to let her kiss you and feel your behind before pushing her genially away and pretending it was a joke. Stranded because of bad weather at an airport hotel one night in Kansas City many years ago, you conversed at length with an unaccompanied young woman at the bar and for a few moments anyway considered the commercial proposal she put to you — she was your favorite type for erotic daydreams, with flaming red hair and very white skin — but naturally you returned to your room alone. You've never even brought home much loot from the office, save the odd pencil left forgotten in your pocket. You've never got a ticket for speeding, and only two for parking: once because of a faulty meter and another time when vandals defaced the sign and, late for a dental appointment of some consequence, you decided to take a chance."
Hearing the list reassured Hunsicker. Obviously this was still the world he knew, and it was only reasonable to expect that the unusual events of the last few minutes would soon be shown to make perfect sense when examined from a new perspective the existence of which, like that of an extra room in a house in a dream, he had not previously suspected might be available to him. He nonetheless was irritated by the report of the little man's surveillance, which seemed to go well beyond the kind of thing a private detective could be expected to discover, and though the accumulation of inconsequential data served to exonerate him from almost any kind of charge, he was not better off for the intrusion into his private life.
"Perhaps you'll be so good," he said frostily, "as to tell me for whom you made this investigation, and for what purpose?"
"You really should consider the power accessible to you if you so choose. Look at your new raincoat and cap. The past has been changed. This is not some sleight-of-hand: your credit-card receipts, which I know you keep carefully on file forever, will support the evidence of your eyes, as will your wife and office colleagues. Your purchase of the riding mac and cap is now a solid part of history."
Hunsicker did not want to ponder on this matter. "I'm sure you're right. Now, if you'll pardon me, I really must get back to work. I'm head of the department, you see, and though the people under me are mostly well intentioned, it goes without saying that they simply do not work as diligently when I'm not there."
"If you're concerned, then why not change the clock?" the little man asked, shrugging. "Return it to an acceptable time. You can always turn it back, but you cannot design what's to come." He grinned. "It would be futile to try that. But the past is infinitely malleable." He squinted at Hunsicker. "You still don't believe me."
"You'll have to admit that everything you say is awfully implausible," Hunsicker said. "I meet you by chance in a door way during a cloudburst, and you know all about me and furthermore offer me, for no reason at all, the power to do something that is utterly impossible. Who in the world are you? And if you have this extraordinary power to give away to a stranger, why aren't you wearing a raincoat of your own? You're soaked."
"My style of dress helps me to maintain the inconspicuousness I favor. As to being a bit damp, I find it refreshing on a warmish day. Now, all you have to do in the case of the 'utterly impossible' is simply to try it. The time, as is, is two twenty-five. What would be more convenient?"
Hunsicker could not have said why he responded to this preposterous question, but he did. "An hour earlier. One-thirty should do it."
"Right you are," said the little man, pointing at Hunsicker's wrist. "Take a look."
The dial of the watch showed the time as precisely 1:30. Hunsicker began to tremble.
The little man was amused. "You might as well get used to it." He raised his thin eyebrows. "Unless you genuinely want no part of this. Opting out is usually the simplest thing to do in all human experiences, until of course the last one — at which time you however might well regret a long history of saying no in those situations in which you had a choice ... That's right: dying cannot be changed. You see why — it's never in the past. It's inevitably a thing of the future, is it not?"
Hunsicker sought refuge in banalities. For the first time he noticed the show windows of the shop whose doorway gave them shelter. Medical equipment was on display therein: bedpans, leg braces, trusses, all flyblown and dusty, the rubber tube of the enema gear looking brittle, the bulb half- deflated. The interior of the shop was unlighted and appeared deserted.
"Look," he forced himself to say at last, "I'm certain there is an explanation for what I hope is your sleight-of-hand and not some nervous ailment or even worse on my part. But what I'll have to get used to, if so, will be stark realism and not some supernatural nonsense. If I'm sick I'll have to get treatment. Now I must go. I won't ask again how you know my first name. I'm not even going to inquire into your own identity. I don't want to get in any deeper!" He stepped to the junction of doorway and sidewalk.
"All right, then," the little man said behind him. "I'll put things back where they were."
The garment which Hunsicker wore was once again the wet trench coat.
The little man was smiling at him. "It's your business, surely, but I don't see why you couldn't try it for a while. You can always go back, as I have just demonstrated — incidentally, it's two twenty-five again. You're just as late as you ever were, as well as being just as damp. Do you really think that's preferable?"
"What I would prefer," Hunsicker said in shaky resentment, "is being let alone. The normal sort of arrangement of things has always been good enough for me. I'm not the right sort of person to approach with an idea of this kind. You should get someone who lives an unsatisfactory life. This city must be full of them. Come to the office with me and choose almost anyone you see. But I can't do you much good. I've been happily married for almost thirty years to a woman who after discharging her responsibilities as a mother started her own business as a real-estate agent. I have a wonderful son. After a brilliant record at law school, he's now with a renowned firm of attorneys."
"I'm aware of those facts," said the little man. "They're not that remarkable nowadays, when almost everybody in your socioeconomic stratum could pretty well come up with the equivalent. Most middle-aged suburban wives sell real estate, don't they? And having intelligent and vigorous offspring is not unusual. Decadence is not as prevalent among the young as the journalists would have you think. Anyway, the other members of your family are not you. They have their own lives to deal with. As to yours, could it not stand some improvement? For example, what about your name? Is it really the one you'd want if you had your choice?"
As it happened, Walter Hunsicker had never much liked either of those names, and the middle, Grover, was no improvement. But he said now, defiantly, "It's a good name, a good strong solid three syllables, and it was my dad's, and I loved him."
"Very touching," said the little man, "but confess that if you could have changed it, no questions asked and no hard feelings, would you not have done so? What I'm talking about would be no betrayal of your forebears. Remember, it would be changing the past. Whatever new name you elected to take would thereupon not be new, but rather the one used by your family for generations. Now, what sounds good?"
It could do no harm to play this game, but, as he saw by his wristwatch, the time was now halfway to three. "Really, I must go."
"Remember that it could be changed back again," the little man said. "You've nothing to lose. Try some new names on for size!"
Hunsicker was shy. "I wouldn't know where to start. This is silly."
"That's why you can't get hurt."
"All right: Kellog. Channing Kellog the Third. No, that's pretentious. John Kellog, known except on formal documents as Jack."
The little man nodded soberly. "So be it. You may need a whole new past to go with the name. Jack Kellog's not the name of someone your age who is chief copy-editor at a book-publishing firm, father of a son who has already gone beyond him in professional prestige."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Changing the Past"
Copyright © 1988 Thomas Berger.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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