by: William C. Crawford
An offering of flash-fiction where a return visit to a cherished location unearths a metaphysical fear lurking deep within…
I first visited this swank, distaff clothier just off Union Square in a cold November rain in 1968. I was wandering the streets aimlessly using any pretext to avoid reporting to the Oakland Army Terminal. I was deploying to Nam where I faced a certain, untimely jungle death, or so I reckoned.
Now, fifty years later, I find myself standing at the same well appointed display window in a cool March shower. A photography trip brought me and my intrepid lens buddy, Jimmy Pro, to the City By The Bay. Suddenly, I was flashing back, feeling that same fatalistic dread that mostly paralyzed me on my first trip here as young infantry soldier.
Back then, I slumped with drooping shoulders outside this very window. I could barely focus on the chic women’s mannequins on the other side of the glazing. A man with a low slung fedora and a trench coat with a turned up collar appeared out of nowhere. He beckoned me in with a subtle wave of his arm.
Once inside, I encountered a demure, primly dressed sales woman. She wore a stylish outfit right out of the display window. More notably, she was a beautiful San Francisco nymph who rated a twelve on the regular ten point scale.
She offered no sales pitch. It started out more like a counseling session. She asked me why I was transfixed outside staring at the display window. I explained my presence in the city, and I finally mumbled a bit about my trepidation regarding my impending fate in the jungle. Her sharp, beautiful features seemed to magically accentuate before me with an almost ethereal, bodily empathy.
Suddenly, a tear trickled down her right cheek. “All the soldiers don’t make it back,” she softly intoned. “But I know that you will.” Then she moved gently into me, planting a powerful wet kiss squarely on my unready lips. All I could think about was my long unbrushed teeth. My consuming depression had definitely fostered some personal apathy.
I was overcome with emotion and maybe a little embarrassed. I spun awkwardly to head for the door to the street. My glancing gaze caught the profile of the stranger in the trench coat hurrying away just outside the display window. For the first time, I felt a tinge of recognition, but he was gone before I could further ponder his identity.
Months later, I was mercifully still alive and serving as a fledgling combat photojournalist on sun swept Landing Zone West in the Central Highlands. As I waited on the helicopter pad, I thumbed through a well read copy of Stars & Stripes. A closely cropped photo jolted my eye. It was of Rod Serling, the creator of the the hit television series The Twilight Zone. It was also the unmistakable image of the San Francisco stranger in the trench coat.
Serling, from 1959 to 1964, introduced millions of American viewers to riveting science fiction peppered with powerful moral messages. His plots often seemed to be set in an alternative, surreal universe. His brilliant writing was augmented by the skilled work of Ray Bradbury and Earl Hamner, Jr. One pundit, writing years later, called it “the best thirty minutes ever in dramatic television!”
Even now, staring at this contemporary waif of a mannequin, I wonder what really happened on this very spot in 1968? Did I wander on to an active television set? Or, for a fleeting few moments, was I really in The Twilight Zone with Rod Serling, basking in his profound kindness toward a terrified young soldier?