(A Demeter’s Bar Story)
By Jeff Baker
The man who looked like he’d slept with his tie under his pillow looked up from the bar and ordered another drink.
“Sure,” Zack said. “You calling a cab?”
“Yeah,” the man said. “Next week I may not be able to pay for one. I just lost my job.”
“Sorry,” Zack said, pouring the glass. “I know how it goes.”
“Of course, it wasn’t my fault,” the man said, swallowing the drink in a couple of gulps. “But it’s what I get for saving the world. Just maybe not this world.”
He ordered another drink and went on.
I work, worked for an electronics lab whose name I won’t mention (the man said.) I was part of R & D. I worked in digital. I was trying to develop a new kind of digital camera. I know that sounds almost useless in our era of cameras in every mobile device, but we were certain we were on the cutting edge of a breakthrough in digital photography.
When the prototype was ready, I took it with me and started taking pictures around town. When I looked at what I’d taken, I was certain I either hadn’t aimed the camera right or there was something wrong with the device. Nothing was out of focus, but there was just a shot of cloudy sky when I’d taken a picture of the top of a lamppost, I took a shot of someone walking their dog in the park and when I checked the viewer, there were kids playing baseball. Likewise, the picture I took of my car turned into a picture of a new pickup truck. And then I decided to take a selfie. I’m not a damn teenager so it took me a few tries especially with the new camera, which was kind of awkward, but I got a picture.
It was sort of me. Me but not me. I looked the same but younger somehow. My hair wasn’t styled; it looked like I’d brushed it almost as an afterthought. And the color seemed lighter somehow. Almost as if I’d done a half-assed bleach job. And there was a smile on my face, kind of a cocksure grin. I don’t usually smile for pictures and not like that.
I was staring at this picture when I suddenly remembered my Mother telling me how close she’d come to marrying somebody other than my Father. That got me thinking: what if the camera was somehow taking pictures of a parallel world somehow? You can laugh but scientists are starting to believe that alternate worlds might actually be possible. For openers, it would put the camera way out of the average consumer’s price range.
So I did some more experimenting, taking some pictures downtown. The results were extraordinary. A big stone-and-glass building where the old concert hall is. A huge turbine windmill at the edge of town. A monorail humming through the city. This was when I started to worry about what my company would do with this knowledge. So, I went to my bosses and told them I’d broken the camera deliberately after realizing it didn’t work. They accused me of trying to pull some con job and that’s when they fired me, but I managed to get the rights to the camera design in my settlement. It cost me my severance pay but I think it was worth it.
The man held up a lumpy steel octagon the size of his fist. It had a lens sticking out of one side.
“So I still have this,” he said. “I’m not sure I should try to market it and I don’t really trust anybody else to take it over.”
“What about the government?” Zack asked.
“Especially not the government,” the man said. “So I think I should keep this to myself for a while. Hey, how about a picture?” The man raised the strange camera.
“No, not me!” Zack said with a grin. “How about another drink and I call you a cab?”
“Deal,” the man said.
Zack poured the drink, keeping a wary eye on the camera which the man had set on the bar.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Wasn’t going to do another bar story this week, but it fit the picture. So, mix in a splash of Jack Finney and a title borrowed from Basil Copper.