Gene Wolfe is producing the most significant body of short fiction of any living writer in the SF genre. It has been ten years since the last major Wolfe collection, soStrange Travelers contains a whole decade of achievement. Some of these stories were award nominees, some were controversial, but each is unique and beautifully written. At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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January 15, 2000
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Excerpt from Strange Travelers by Gene Wolfe
Sitting on the hood and thrumming the strings of his chevycap, Aldo watched the sun rise over the black semi in the slow lane. The question, Aldo told himself, wasn't when Mar' would come back. The question was, was there any particular weather that would be better for looking for a new song? Winter would be good. Folks sang more then. They'd feel sorry, too, and let you set in their cars to hear you, like they maybe wouldn't now. Rain would be good, too. Rain made you feel blue, and it was feeling blue that brought the best songs.
It wasn't that he made his songs up, not really. That was what people figured, and was why he could when they couldn't. Thinking made the songchopper go off and leave you to work out whatever was troubling you, like anybody would. What you did (this was the best) was scooch up on the hood and lean back with your back up against the windshield so the songchopper, the little sun-color chopper that nobody ever saw, could see you weren't doing nothing and fly up behind and throw down a song to your ear. A new song.
This way, Aldo thought, scooching up on flaking steel still cold with night. He leaned back, eyes half closed.
"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller sun, yeller sun, bring her back,
Make her to lie in my Cadillac."
He spaced out the final notes of the refrain, trying to make them sound as lost and lonely as he had felt since Ma'am pined, but only half succeeding. It was a good song, but not a new song; he had done it almost a year ago, when Mar' had been gone only half a day.
The airman was coming down the lane with his little putt-putting motor and his tire gauge. "How do," Aldo called. The airman and the other choppermen wouldn't hardly ever tell you their names.
"Howdy, Aldo," the airman answered. "How's your tires?" This airman always said that.
"Might have a look at the left front," Aldo replied; today he added, "I'd 'predate it. Goin' to be gone a li'l."
Stooping to check the left rear of the Ryder in front of Aldo's Caddy, the airman glanced up in some surprise. "You takin' off, Aldo?"
He shook his head. "Just walkin' on down a ways, airman. Maybe you and me could walk along together awhile?"
The airman straightened up. "I go slow. Got to, to check the ones that look soft."
Aldo nodded, and his fingers found the strings of his chevycap.
"Airman, airman, stop at every wheel,
Slow down, airman, let me get my meal,
Chowchopper's hummin', chopper wind's a-blowin',
Got to grab my supper, 'fore you get a-goin'.
"Yeller sun risin', climbin' up the sky,
Sure to be a hot one, me-oh-my!
Yeller sun, yeller sun, bring Mar' back,
Make her a bed in my Cadillac."
"You certainly can play that thing," the airman said, and Aldo grinned.
"Fast-lane gals, come kick at the moon,
Rattle your spoons, dance to my tunes!
Fast-lane gals are the best for a fling,
Don't want no ring, don't mind a thing!"
His fingers tap-tappity-tapped the chevycap, as well as strumming the strings, so that it seemed for a moment he had three arms at least.
"I can't wait for you to go," the airman said, smiling, "but maybe you could catch up to me." He stooped to put his gauge on Aldo's right front.
"I'll go now," Aldo told him. "Soon's you do." He had not known that, not certain sure, until he said it; but it was true: he was ready.
"She is a mite soft." The airman put his hose on the valve, and the putt-putting of his little motor slowed and deepened.
"You think that gasman might come any time soon?"
The airman shook his head.
"I wouldn't want to miss if he did, that's all."
The airman straightened up again. "If you freewayers didn't run your engines so you could listen to your radios, you'd always have plenty of gas."
"I don't," Aldo said truthfully.
"Well, a lot do. Sometimes I can hear them switchin' off as I go down the lane."
"Sure. But we got to run--" He had said we. He counted the days since Ma'am had driven out of the jam. Thirty-three. Maybe thirty-four.
"Come along if you're comin'," the airman told him.
It was slow work, and there was no way Aldo could make it go faster, nothing he could do beyond cheering the way with a song. Sometimes he sang without playing; more often he played without singing, listening to the silver notes lose themselves in the hot morning sunlight. These were good strings, these new ones he had untwisted from the hood-release cable of the empty Toyota.
"How far you been this way, Aldo?" the airman wanted to know.
"Down to the Junction." It was a lie. He had been to within sight of the Junction, that was all.
The slatternly woman whose tires the airman was checking said, "I been past the Junction, just about to the Spaghetti Bowl."
Aldo stopped strumming. "I never heard tell. What's that?"
"I won't tell you," the woman said. "What do I need for you to call me a liar? You born in the jam?"
Aldo shook his head.
"Yes, you was!"
"I was three," Aldo explained. "I was ridin' with Ma'am."
Aldo looked up-lane in the direction of his Caddy. There were cars, trucks, and station wagons as far as he could see, but not one he recognized. He and the airman had come farther than he thought--that was easy to do. "Ma'am's my ma," he said. "Everybody 'round where we live, they called herMa'am. She drove out 'bout this time last month. Little more, now."
"I'm sorry to hear," the slatternly woman said.
The airman straightened up, hooking the nozzle of his air hose to the side of the handcart that held the air tank and the putt-putting motor. "You get a body bag for her, Aldo?"
"Yes, sir, Airman," Aldo said truthfully.
"Give her to the deathchopper for sanitary disposal?"
"Yes, sir," Aldo lied; he had put her in the trunk, which was what most people did--laid them in the trunk, or in the back of the black semi in the slow lane. The black semi had been empty once; it was nearly a quarter full of body bags now, and there were two or three who weren't in bags and lent the black semi a scent putrid yet almost sweet, a smell that became an overpowering stench when the big doors in back opened for somebody else.
Rapidly, as if she sensed the need for a change of topic, the slatternly woman said, "My son, he's born right here in our Tornado, an' he's 'bout as tall as you."
"There's lots taller than me," Aldo conceded. He pointed to a crack in the concrete. "You see that? That's grass, that green stuff there."
"Sure, I know."
Aldo nodded. "You would, course. Well, so would I, an' I do. I remember a whole lane that was all over grass, an' soft. I remember runnin' on it with some kind of a animal that was white an' brown."
"A dog?" the slatternly woman hazarded.
"I don't know. Might of been."
The woman nodded to herself. "What you doin' down this way? Takin' off?"
Aldo shook his head.
"They don't like it if you do. That airman, he'll tell."
The airman, who had moved beyond the slatternly woman's Tornado by this time, looked back at them. "That's what you think. I don't give a shit, Aldo. You're a nice boy, an' if you want to risk it, you do it. I won't tell anybody."
"I'm not," Aldo repeated.
"Usually," the woman said, "when somebody like you comes by, they're lookin' for somebody."
Aldo shook his head.
"Lookin' for a gal, most often." When Aldo said nothing, the slatternly woman added, "Don't people I don't know come by often, but when they do an' it's somebody 'bout your age, Aldo, they're lookin' for a gal."
"I'm not," he told her, "but I'll take one if you got one. Where she be?"
The slatternly woman laughed. "Not so long back I'd of said me, Aldo. What is it? What you lookin' for?"
Aldo hesitated. He was by nature candid, yet he hated to expose himself to mockery. "You goin' to laugh?"
"Not if it's not no joke."
"I'm lookin' for a song."
"Uh-huh." The slatternly woman chewed her lip. "You lose one? How you lose a song?"
"Forget, I guess. But I didn't." Also leaned against the side of her gray Tornado and ran his fingers over the strings of his chevycap. "I can remember every song that ever I heard. Ma'am used to say some's good at one thing an' some at another. Only I've seen some that wasn't good for nothin'."
The slatternly woman nodded her agreement.
"Me, I got somethin' I'm good at." The chevycap trilled happy laughter. "I'm good at this. I want a new song, though. I'm tired of the old ones."
"You the one that the chopper's lookin' for?"
Aldo froze. "Don't think so. The chowchopper?"
The slatternly woman laughed again. "Chowchopper don't look for nobody. We look for it."
"Used to look for Ma'am," Aldo declared, "'cause she'd help. Tell who was sick, an' not to give to them that'd lined up twice. But don't look for me, now Ma'am's drove out."
"This was 'nother," the slatternly woman explained. "I never hardly seen it before. Not to talk to, anyhow. Yeller, it was, got Number Three an' TV on the side, all blue."
Aldo opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He had imagined a small chopper, so tiny that nobody could see it, but yellow as the sun. Songs had to come from somewhere, and it seemed to him that his own came from a place outside himself, brought to him by this songchopper. Then too, Mar'd gone off lookin' for a chopper that was-
"They was lookin' for somebody," the slatternly woman repeated. "Can you play that thing? Let's hear you."
Aldo nodded. "What kind you like?"
The slatternly woman hesitated, and something sly crept into her expression. "You're not lookin' for a gal, you said."
"For a song. A new one. I told you."
"But you know lots?"
"You'll play whatever kind I want?"
Aldo considered. "If you'll tell me 'bout the songchopper after."
Her eyes widened. "How you know they want to know 'bout songs an' stuff? I guess you been talkin' to folks."
"I mean the yeller chopper with the blue on. Song just sort of slipped out. What kind you want?"
"One 'bout a boy lookin' for a gal that he loves, a quiet one so we don't wake folks up. There's lots of those. You got to know one."
He nodded slowly. "Twenty, maybe. Maybe more. You'll tell me 'bout this yeller chopper after?"
She nodded, too.
"All you know?"
She raised her right hand. "As I hope out."
"All right, then," Aldo said, and woke his chevycap.
"When I was a young man, 'bout seventeen,
I loved a li'l gal that they called Mary Dean.
Her hair was the brightest for six lanes 'round,
Her mouth was the sweetest a man ever found,
When late at night on the roof we'd lie,
Watchin' the dark clouds hurryin' by."
The slatternly woman nodded. "I know this one."
"I didn't say it was no new song," Aldo told her, "only I was the first to sing it."
"I loved her more than a man ought to love,
But she's gone up to the clouds above.
Now late at night when the clouds roll by,
I hear Mary callin', up there in the sky.
"We'd lie on the roof an' we'd look at the stars.
She called them the headlights of all God's cars,
Jammed up in Heaven where the dark clouds fly,
An' those was God's choppers, hurryin' by.
Someday, she'd say, the Blood of the Lamb
In them Heavenly tanks goin' to bust this jam.
"I loved her more than a man ought to love,
But she's gone up to the clouds above,
Now late at night when the clouds roll by,
I hear Mary callin', up there in the sky."
The slatternly woman said, "I think there's more."
"Sure." Wishing he could wipe his eyes, Aldo plucked the last, plaintive note. "Only I doubt you want to hear it all."
"Besides," the woman continued argumentatively, "it's not 'bout no boy lookin' for his gal. Mary's dead."
Aldo shook his head.
"You're not lookin' for a gal. That's what you say."
"For a song, a new song. You were goin' to tell me 'bout that chopper an' the Spaghetti Bowl, too, only you never did."
Not to be gainsaid, the slatternly woman insisted, "You're lookin' for some gal. What's her name?"
"She's not dead?"
"No," Aldo said. "Least I hope not. She gone's all. Up that other way. That's why I'm walkin' this way, downjam."
"I don't figure I ought mess in this," the woman decided after a moment's thought. "I don't figure I can help none, an' I might hurt."
Relieved, Aldo nodded.
"That yeller chopper's mixed in, too. I could tell from how you looked. It come down lookin' for people, an' maybe it found some. That's all I know for sure anyhow."
She looked at Aldo as if she expected him to be angry, and he said, "All right."
"You must of rid through the Spaghetti Bowl when you was little. You don't remember nothin'?"
"Don't know, 'cause I don't know what 'tis. Maybe if I was to see it, I'd remember."
"Jam up on top of jam, heaped over jam." The woman made gestures, one hand flat above the other.
"You mean up in the sky where the choppers are?" Aldo was incredulous.
His fingers sought for the strings of his chevycap again. "Only a man can't go up there, can he? That jam's up there on top of this one, ain't it? A man couldn't get up to it."
"Sure you could. It leads on 'round."
He was not certain that he understood her, but he felt his resolution strengthen in a way that surprised him. "I'm goin' there." He ceased to lean on her car and took the first two steps of many, calling over his shoulder politely, "Thanks for tellin' me."
"Wait up!" The slatternly woman hurried after him. "I can tell you somethin' more that's worth knowin'."
"You look over yonder in number two lane. See that orangy truck?"
"Behind the big camper?"
"That's the one. Don't pay any mind to that. Keep your eyes goin' on past," the woman pointed, "till you see--get up on our Tornado. Go 'head. You can't see it from here."
Aldo pulled off his shoes, laid his chevycap on the filthy concrete beside them, and vaulted up, helped by an easy toehold on the sill of the rear window.
"Now look on past that one you seen before. Way past, near to the h'rizon. Way on past's another orangy truck, real high. Higher than anythin' 'round there."
"I got it," Aldo called down.
"Well, you get up on that, an' you can see the Spaghetti Bowl for yourself. Look real careful then, an' don't get to thinkin' your eyes is playin' tricks."
* * *
Aldo quizzed the airman when he caught up to him. "You know 'bout the Spaghetti Bowl, airman? That lady was tellin' me 'bout it."
"I used to have that route." The airman fingered his gauge, eyeing a tire that appeared a little soft.
"You did? Where's there's jam up in the air?"
The airman chuckled. "They go over the edge up there. Know what I mean, Aldo? Over the side, an' it falls down on the ones underneath a lot. Lots of fightin' there."
"You don't go there no more, though? Go with your air, I mean."
The airman shook his head, and Aldo hurried on.
The sun was four fingers above the slow lane now, and the jam was awakening, roused by its brightening light. Small and soiled children emerged from doors, windows, and even sunroofs, shooed like so many sparrows by mothers determined to dust and tidy while the good weather lasted. Small dogs who had crept under their owners' cars to take refuge from the heat emerged to yawn, stretch, and attend to various strategically located tires in a way markedly different from the airman's, and to bark at Aldo. Sleepy men turned out with the children frowned, fingering knives ground from the leaf springs, and reached back into their cars for tire irons they thrust into their belts or slapped against their palms.
"I don't want your women," Aldo sang, "I don't want your chow. For I am but a stranger, passin' your car now. Smile at a stranger, let him walk past you. Then there'll be no danger when you go walkin', too."
A few of the men actually did smile.
"I be from the center--Aldo is my name.
Never walked for hatin', never walked for shame.
Walkin' now for learnin', walkin' for a song,
playin' to the people, as I walk along."
It was not a new song, but it was a new verse; Aldo was seized by a premonition that he would find his new song in the Spaghetti Bowl. A splendid new song, and perhaps something else, something still more splendid, too. What was it the slatternly woman had said about the yellow-and-blue chopper? That it was looking for somebody? It sounded like it might be the one Mar' had gone looking for; and although she had gone the other way and he would be double danged if he'd go looking for her, she might turn around and come back if she heard that the chopper was in back of her.
"I don't want your women, I don't want your chow.
For I am but a stranger, passin' your car now.
Smile at a stranger, let him go past you,
Then there'll be no danger when you go walkin', too.
"Once I seen a stranger, let him pass on through.
Once I seen a stranger. Maybe that was you?
Once I seen a stranger, give him my best smile,
Son he says, I'm weary. I've walked many a mile.
I don't want your women, I don't want your chow..."
Aldo stopped playing to shade his eyes against the sun, wondering if he could see the high orange truck from the ground here. A man said, "Chowchopper ain't stopped for us in two days." It was a conventional lie.
"Comin' now," Aldo told him, and pointed. Looking for the distant truck, he had caught sight of the Chowchopper, a minute speck of white and red, gleaming in the level sunshine.
"Got to see where it goes." The man clutched Aldo's arm. "Don't see why they don't always go to the same place." He shaded his eyes too. "Then we'd know, be all ready."
"They used to,Ma'am said, only there was some that killed for the cars close to there."
The man was gone, dashing down the lane. Another, running too, pushed Aldo aside.
Aldo shook his head. When the chowchoppers had always come at the same time to the same place,Ma'am had explained, everyone gathered there in advance. There had been frantic fights, not between a few men but between hundreds; and in the end the strong had eaten twice, and the weak had not eaten at all.
Aldo had been too young to remember. Now, as he strolled along, keeping well to one side to give the runners room, he wondered whether it had really been worse than this. Wouldn't it be better to have chowmen with carts of chow walk down the lanes as the airmen and the gasmen did? They could leave, say, three chows at each car.
The runners were mostly women and children now, boys and young gals sprinting faster than most men, and women carrying babies and clutching the hands of toddlers, too wise to run.
"Down by that bus with the dog on it," a woman told him.
Aldo nodded, smiling. "That where it come last time?"
"Three times ago. Bus's due again." She picked up her child and hurried on.
The chowmen with carts would be mobbed and robbed, Aldo decided. Perhaps that had been tried already; if it had been, a day or two had probably been enough to show it didn't work. This way was the best after all.
He stood on the high fender of a tow truck to look ahead. Most of the runners were converging on two identical dark green delivery trucks in the slow lane. That was where the chopper had come last, most likely. Women and children, with a few gals and elderly men, were assembling at the bus with the dog picture.
As he watched, the chowchopper flew past the green trucks, the men who had waited there running behind and waving. Soon it had passed the dog bus too, so low it seemed like it had to stop any minute. Chopper wind whipped his long hair like a gale as the chopper appeared to settle--not quite landing, because there wasn't room for that--between a red Horizon and a LeBaron convertible with the top gone.
Aldo stood back, watching the chows handed out, each in its own crispy crackerbox. His mouth watered.
"Ain't you goin' to get in line?" a gal nearly as pretty as Mar' inquired.
"I'm not from 'round here," he explained. "I'll go the last."
She winked at him, then ran up the line to a tall young man with bumper-wide shoulders; there was a rumble of protest as the tall young man made room for her, a rumble he silenced with a glance.
Aldo got in line too, standing at the end behind a girl child who did not quite come up to his waist. "We won't get nothin' back here," the girl child informed him. "Hardly ever do."
He grinned at her. "I'm not real hungry. You get one, maybe you could give me your box?"
"No," she said firmly; and then, "Prob'ly I won't neither. I hardly ever. Ma gives me some of hers, sometimes."
A policeman came down the line, his chow tucked under his arm and a water bottle in his hand. He wore slopchopper clothes like everyone else's, but the badge on his shirt and the gun at his waist marked him.
He stopped beside Aldo. "Not from 'round here, are you?"
"Yes, sir. I'll be gone 'fore the next one comes."
When the policeman seemed not quite satisfied, Aldo added, "I went past your car real early. I figured it'd be better not to waken you."
"Next time you wake me up," the policeman said.
"An' don't you give no trouble here."
"You be gone next time I see you."
The girl child tittered, but Aldo said politely, "Yes, sir. I sure will be."
When the policeman himself was gone, the girl child said, "He don't have no more bullets."
"I figured." Aldo called to mind what Ma'am had always said. "He tries, though." For a few seconds he debated the best way to explain that order was better, and that those who tried to keep order deserved respect and cooperation even if they had no bullets, or had never had any.
He crouched and held out his chevycap so the girl child could see it, then ran his hand across the strings. "That's music. Hear?"
"It's pretty," she said.
"See here?" He displayed his callused fingers. "These right here tells each string what to play. If they was to get cut off, the strings'd still be there," he sounded one with his thumb, "an' they could talk, but they couldn't play no music."
"You could with that one." Interested, she touched his thumb.
"It'd be a long time till it learned the work. See now--"
There was a disturbance in the line ahead of them, angry yells and an unmistakable sound.
"I got to go," Aldo said, and stood up; he was running before the final word. Not once but twice he had clumsily, foolishly, dropped his chevycap. The sound it had made when it struck the concrete was engraved in his memory, and through the tumult coming from the front of the line he had heard that sound.