A collection of nine previously published short stories by Rick Wilber, selected by the author to reflect his interest in characters who struggle to overcome adversity and move forward in their lives. Features the Sidewise Award-winning "Something Real" and the recent "Today is Today," a selection for The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year 2019 (Prime Books)
"Wilber's voice (has) a kind of authority and compassion that have helped him carve out a niche identifiably his own."– Locus Magazine
"A major collection from what it's high past time to admit is one of our major writers. Wilber writes with literate flair, compassion, and a deep understanding of human psychology. Highly recommended!"– Robert J. Sawyer, Hugo Award-winning author of The Oppenheimer
Today Is Today
"You can think of our entire universe, our reality, as one bubble surrounded by an infinite number of other bubbles, each with its own reality. Do those bubbles touch? Can you cross from one to another? That's an entertaining possibility."
—Janine Marie Larsen, PhD, Physics, University of Loyola at St. Louis
In one tiny part of one of the new bubbles emerging from the bubble that is our particular universe, there is a place and time where you might exist and I might exist and I have a daughter named Janine.
Perhaps, in that tiny bubble, I was lucky with sports and found some success. A quarterback in high school, I'll have converted to a tight end in college at the University of Minnesota, where I'll bang heads and block like a demon and catch most of the passes they throw my way. I'll be All-Big Twelve, then a second-round draft choice, then I'll make the team in St. Louis for the Brewers and get my chance to start when Rasheed Campbell blows out his left knee. Then I'll never look back. Seven years later I'll wind down my career as a backup on the Falcons, but that will be their Super Bowl year, so I'll get my ring, mostly, by sitting on my butt.
It will be a nice way to spend my twenties. I'll stay single and have a blast, though my body will take a beating. When I lose a couple of steps and the good times come to an end I'll try to move to broadcasting, but that's a lot harder than you'd think. I won't be able to think that fast on my feet, so it won't work out.
Still, I'll feel like I have plenty of money for life as a grown-up, and you'd think I'd be happy; but it's hard to be a has-been, no matter how much money you've saved. I'll never marry, never have any kids, never grow up, really, and I'll know it. Later in life I'll be lonely and bored and broke. And thanks to all that head-banging work on the offensive line in my football career, I'll literally be losing my mind. Eventually I'll run out of money and run into trouble and only then will I have any regrets.
In another tiny part of another emerging bubble where you might exist, I'll break my collarbone in the second game of my senior year of high school and by the time I'm back the season will be over and my football career along with it. But my left-handed pitching skills will be unfazed by my fractured right clavicle and I'll pitch us to the state championship where we'll lose by one unearned run. My fastball in the high eighties and my nice, straight change will earn me a free ride to Loyola University, where I'll have four good years as a Billiken and five more in the minors before I'll hang them up and get on with real life in the business world.
I'll meet a woman who loves me and I, her. We'll marry and have two sweet kids. I'll have a good life and some nice minor-league memories from Tampa and Atlanta and Durham and Spokane. You'd think I'd be happy.
In another tiny part of another of my emerging bubbles where you might exist, the Golden Gophers will keep me at quarterback and I'll do fine as the starter, though I'll never be a star, and I won't make the NFL. I'll knock around a bit in arena football and then swim up to the surface as the quarterback of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Once, in my nine years there, I'll lead the Ticats to victory in the Grey Cup. In the CFL there's room to pass, and room to run, and I'll do both, often.
I'll meet a woman named Alene in my second season when we'll beat the Alouettes with a lucky rouge. We'll be celebrating at Yancy's on Hanover Street and there she'll be, dark hair and blue eyes, stunning and smart and ambitious. I'll have had a good day on the ground, gaining ninety yards before taking a stinger and coming out of the game. She'll have been there, rooting for the Alouettes, and seen that hit I took. She'll wonder how I am feeling. Just fine, I'll say, though I'll have a worrisome headache.
She'll be an actor; a smart and successful French Canadian who speaks four languages. I'll feel lucky. By my third season we'll be married. By my fifth season we'll have a child, Janine. We'll call her Jannie.
Janine Marie Larsen will be born two weeks early on July 21st, a Saturday, at four in the morning. Alene will have a rough time of it with a fifteen-hour delivery and then it will only get worse: Jannie's feet, hands, and the epicanthal folds at the eyes. Her muscles will all have a certain flaccidity, even for a newborn.
Trisomy 21, the doctor will say.
Alene will have been through ultrasound and blood tests and everything will have looked fine. But here will be Jannie, and that will be that. There's a lot these kids can do, the doctor will say as Alene and I both cry. Really, they can accomplish a lot.
Really, the doctor will emphasize.
We'll have a game that night at home, in old Ivor Wynne Stadium against the Alouettes, and Alene will insist I play. So I'll go and do that, earning my paycheck with a couple of touchdown passes and a good enough night of football. I won't remember much of the game. All I'll be able to think about is: Down syndrome.
I'll go right back to the hospital after the game and Alene will be weak but smiling and more beautiful than ever. There will be a picture the next day in the Hamilton Spectator of her with the baby—the whole city will be behind us. I'll hold that baby and kiss her cheek as the cameras whir and click.
Two years will go by when I won't play much: some knee surgery, a discectomy for a herniated disc, a couple more concussions. The docs will say it's time to hang them up and so I will. That's about the time that Alene will get the movie role she's always wanted, filming in Vancouver. Our parting will be amicable. I'll get Jannie and Alene will get visitation rights and there she'll go, heading west.
I'll have no reason whatsoever to be happy, but, holding Jannie, I will be.
There is another tiny part of a different bubble where Alene and I will stay together and things will go differently for Jannie. She'll be normal and fussy and hungry at birth and she won't stop being any of those things right through high school and college. She'll get her brains from her mother and her athleticism from me, and get a full ride to play soccer at Rice, where she'll major in physics. Then she'll choose brawn over brains and turn pro for the Washington Whippets before joining the national team in the Global Cup. She'll be a star and a household name after they beat the French on her hat trick to win it all.
By that time, I'll be coaching football at Buffalo State and happy enough with how I've reconciled myself to the paycheck and the fall from fame. But Hamilton will treat me well with a big ovation when I go there to see Jannie play a friendly against the Italians and she'll have a great day, scoring a brace. We'll have dinner afterward and she'll be polite, but distant, and we'll smile for the cameras and then I'll go my way and she'll go hers.
In a more important tiny bubble, Alene and I will do our best to raise Jannie to be everything she can be, Down syndrome be damned. After I hang them up, Alene's career will prosper and we'll do fine. We'll move to Vancouver, where most of her work is, and I'll spend a lot of time with Jannie. She'll be a sweet kid, but there are heart problems and a leg that needs straightening will create an uncertain future for her and me both, as my football past and all those helmet hits come back to haunt me: foggy mornings will turn into long, dark days, and I'll worry about just how long I'll still be me.
I'll be in the dumps a lot, but I'll need something to do, someone to be, so I'll take care of Jannie, one day at a time. Today is today. There'll be speech therapy sessions and school and all the rest. There'll be some joy in this, some deep satisfaction. She'll be my girl, my always girl.
In this bubble, even as I lose some recent memories, I'll still remember certain moments from my past that were so perfect, where I was so tuned in—so fully one with the moment—that I captured them completely in my mind in slow-motion detail. I'll remember them vividly, even when I can't find my car keys. I still feel the perfection of the pass to Elijah Depps deep in the corner of the end zone against the Argos. And I'll still watch in awe that time I swear I guided the ball in flight to bend it around Ryan Crisps's outstretched hands as he tried to intercept for the Blue Bombers, and instead the ball found Jason Wissen with no time left and we won.
And I'll feel that joy, too, when Jannie, on her twenty-second birthday, in one of her many Special Olympics soccer games, steals the ball off the player she's defending and sprints down the field with it, dribbling like mad. She'll weave her way past three defenders, come in on the goalie, fake left and shoot right, an outside of the shoe push into the upper ninety for a goal. It'll be a great goal, and everybody on both teams will come over to hug her and celebrate, because that's how it's done in Special O's. I'll beam. That's my girl.
There's another tiny bubble, one I imagine every now and then, where after my divorce I'll spend a lot of time with a woman named Emily. She won't be bothered by Jannie, she'll just want me to be me and Jannie to be Jannie and Emily to be Emily. In that bubble we'll make it work, and there'll be a new drug on the market for trisomy 21 and the sun will shine every day and the Yankees will never, ever win the pennant but the Ticats will be the powerhouse team of the CFL and my knees won't hurt and my mind will be clear and my memories all there as Jannie goes off to college and the sun will shine every day in Hamilton, Ontario.
In one particular spot in one particular tiny bubble, Alene will be a grad student when we meet, and an associate professor by the time she leaves for a post in Quebec. She can't turn it down, and the stress and strain of raising Jannie is, she'll say in distancing French, is complètement impossible. I'll have seen it coming for years, but we'll still do the divorce through lawyers.
As time goes by, she'll call Jannie often enough, and send her cards and cash on her birthday and Christmas. She'll even bring Jannie up for a week or two visit in the summer.
Jannie will do fine. By her sixteenth birthday she'll be doing third grade arithmetic and fourth grade reading and tearing things up in Special Olympics soccer. This will be better than the school-district psychologist thought Jannie would ever do. It will be so good, in fact, that after her birthday party, after the neighbor kids and her special pals are gone, after the cake is eaten, she'll be sitting on her bed kicking a plastic toy soccer ball off the opposite wall: shoot it, trap it with her foot, shoot it again, trap it, shoot it, trap it.
I'll come in to stop the racket and she'll look at me: that wide face, those eyes. Her language skills aren't all that great, but from the look on her face I'll be able to see something's up. "My father," she'll say, "I sixteen now."
I'll sit down next to her. "Yeah, young lady; you're growing up fast," I'll say, but what I'll be thinking about is all the things Jannie and I have learned together, often the hard way. Boyfriends, how to handle her periods, what clothes to wear and when to wear them, how to tie her hair in a ponytail and put in a different bow every day, how to ignore some people and pay attention to others, how to be so different and still be so happy. Tricky business, all of that.
"My father," she'll say, "I not be like you or Mom-mom."
I'll be the lunkhead I am in every one of these bubbles, no question, but I'll be able to see where this is going: my Jannie, my hard-working girl, is doing so well that she knows how well she isn't doing. She's been expecting to grow up, to leave Neverland. But in this bubble it doesn't work like that.
"Jannie, Jannie," I'll say, lying to her and not for the first time, struggling with how to handle this. "Look," I'll say. "We're all different, Janster, we all have different things we're good at or bad at."
She'll look at me. She'll trust me. I'll say, "I wanted to be an astronomer, Jannie; you know, look at the stars and figure out what it all means. I wanted that, Jannie, in the worst way. But I couldn't do the math."
"Bet Mom-mom could," Jannie will say, smiling, getting into it.
"Yeah, Jannie, your mom sure could. She's one smart lady," I'll say, though I'll be thinking some other, less generous, thoughts about Jannie's mother just then. To be kind, she'll have missed out on a lot of good things.
"Sure, my father. I get it," Jannie will say. And then she'll stand up to give me a hug, and I'll hug her back and then I'll leave the room. Later, out in the driveway, we'll shoot hoops and she'll seem fine. I'll join her in a game of one-on-one, make it-take it, and she'll clobber me. I'll blame it on my bad knees.
In my least favorite bubble I'll die at age fifty-two of an aneurysm. Alene won't be around and I'll have no living relatives. I won't leave much money behind. Jannie will be stranded. Alone. Unhappy. And there'll be twenty more years of her own decline into senescence before there's peace.
In another bubble Jannie will be an intellectual powerhouse. In high school she'll think calculus is fun and physics is entertaining. She'll have a perfect score on the science portion of the PSAT. Caltech will come calling, and MIT, and Yale and Stanford and Loyola and Case Western and Harvey Mudd and Duke and the University of Chicago. Astronomy in college? Physics? Biology? She'll find it hard to decide.
She'll be patient with me in this bubble. She'll be understanding that her father is a decent guy but not the sharpest tool in the shed. When she walks across the stage for that college degree, and then the next one, and then the next one, I'll there in the audience, proud as I can be.
In one particular bubble, the one that you and I share, Jannie and I will be at the Brock Theatre in Hamilton, where we both live; me in a two-bedroom condo, Jannie in a group home that she's recently moved into after years of living in her own apartment. Down syndrome people slide into early-onset Alzheimer's, almost all of them. It's unfair, but there it is.
Jannie will be thirty years old and I'll be fifty-seven. We'll be laughing and joking about old age on that January day as we walk through the parking lot's snow, go into the sudden warmth of the theater, buy our tickets and take our seats. Then we'll watch a movie, something about memory keepers and cute Down syndrome kids and the sweet and soapy ills of the world. I'll be squirming in my seat; Jannie will be quiet.
When we walk out of the place people will be staring at Jannie. She'll not be cute, and she'll be shuffling some because of some knee trouble that I probably caused her, encouraging all that Special O's soccer and getting her out on the basketball court with me for all those years. We won't have played in a while.
It will be snowing lightly as we walk away from the theater and get in the car, a beat-up little Toyota that I'm determined to keep running. You don't get rich in the CFL, and there are better uses for my retirement money than buying shiny new metal and plastic. As I start the car and get the heater going Jannie will look at me. I'll see it in her eyes. That movie was a bad idea.
"My father," she'll say. "I. Am. Me." And she'll punch herself in the chest with her right fist, hard.
"You are that, Jannie, you certainly are," I'll say, kicking myself.
"Thank you," she'll say, and sit back and relax.
There are all those different bubbles, but right then and right there, this will be the only one that matters. This is it. Reality. We are who we are, and we are where we are. We're in this bubble, the one we share, the one where we do the best we can with what we have.
We won't talk about the movie as we drive off and head for some ice cream and then, later, the group home. Instead, we'll talk hockey, father and daughter, something about the Sabres and how maybe they'll move to Hamilton and wouldn't that be great? Or we'll talk about Jannie's bowling team, where she's holding down that ninety-six average and I couldn't possibly be more proud of her. Or we'll talk about the Ticats and how much fun we had going to the games last year and soon enough the season will be back and this year, for sure, the Ticats will make their way back to the Grey Cup.
We won't talk about the path I've started walking down. Jannie wouldn't understand. But the reason she's in that group home is that they don't trust me to have her anymore. Mood swings. Anger. All those hits in all those practices and all those games. CTE my doc calls it, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and the league agrees. I have good days and bad ones, and she's safer in that home.
I'm not happy about that.
I was counting on holding Jannie's hand as she crossed that street into the confusion and then the darkness she faces, and now it's her who'll be holding mine.
But that won't come up. We won't say much about anything. We won't need to. We'll just eat our ice cream and hang out together and enjoy this little bit of a bubble as best we can. This is our bubble, right here and right now. Today is today.