Sherlin L. Barakis, Inventor

by

H. Turnip Smith

 

So Millie and I were driving through Riverbend Park past this new, hotshot, aluminum statue of a bicyclist with a head the size of a potato.

"Isn't it lovely, Charlie?" Millie gushes.

"Sure. Dubuque paid 50 gees to muck up the park with that piece of modernistic junk?" I said.

Millie goes, "Charlie, you think like an engineer. You've got the heart of a Phillistine."

"Look, Millie," I said, "If you're saying I'm from Philadelphia no problem, and if you're saying I'm an engineer I take that as a compliment."

I told her that because if nothing else, I'm a man of fact. A fact is a thing you can grab onto like the back of a turtle, not like some damn opinion that's nothing but a black sound moving down a vacuum tube. As far as I'm concerned the editorial page of the newspaper is a good piece of backup toilet paper, talk shows on television, a lot of rapidly-moving hot air propelled by loud mouths minus brains, and 6,000 professors at a symposium giving their opinion on the future? Waste of good food.

"Well facts can go only go so far, Charlie," Millie screeched because she knew she was losing the argument.

"Is that so?" I said. "Hell, if I was going to build a new city, I'd take twenty auto mechanics and a half-dozen plumbers long before I'd take the first writer or painter or 6,500 English professors."

"Blind to beauty!" Millie moaned.

"Well," says I, "which is more beautiful--a restored, 1939 Ford with its engine gleaming aluminum and its black paint glossy as the day it left the show room, or some of that so-called art that these government-subsidized subversives build in their basement out of scrap metal and label the Second Coming?"

At which point Millie began to cry which is how she and I wound up in Minneapolis to la dee da "enjoy the art scene."

Soon as we got there, I told Millie I wanted to go to the Metrodome and see the Vikings play. Of course, she was about as enthused about a trip to see a football game as you and I would be to get a root canal, so to pacify her I had to let her work up this itinerary of her own for our four day vacation.

So we saw all the usual dreck that women think of as artistic and important, including a couple of huge, over-priced department stores and a lead-headed bore called the American Swedish Institute, and then on Saturday morning, she had us penciled in to visit the Normandale Japanese Gardens.

"Now I' m just a stupid steam engineer without a degree, Millie," I said, "but what the hell good is wasting a morning wandering through some phony, serene waterfalls commemorating the folks who gave us World War II?"

"I figured you couldn't get over World War II, Charlie," she said. "In that case we ought to go to the Barakis House."

"The Barakis House," I said, "it better be some sort of breakfast buffet."

"Charlie," she says like she's talking to our third-grade grandson, "it's the number one tourist attraction in St. Paul and the greatest achievement of Sherlin L. Barakis."

"Well who flung doo," I said. "You think I'm going across the river to that second-rate joke of a town again? And just who the bass fiddle player is this Sherlin L. Barakis? Not that guy who invented toilet paper, is he?"

"Well if you weren't so closed to art, Charlie," she said, "you'd know he was America's greatest 19th Century architect and inventor."

"Is that right?" I said, kind of laying on the sarcasm. "And I always thought Thomas Edison was the man."

"Thomas Edison was a pragmatist, a product-oriented pragmatist," Millie shot back at me, letting me know, in case I forgot, she did have a degree in art history from Dubuque Community College. "And it's true we owe him a lot, but Sherlin Barakis was far more visionary."

"OK," I said, drawing out the syllables for four seconds so she'd know I thought she was nuts. "And just how come I've never heard of this Sherlin L. Barakis?"

"Well," she said. "First of all he wasn't Anglo-Saxon, and his age had a hard time recognizing a man of his ethnic background."

"Now don't start in on another racism lecture, Millie," I said. "This is my vacation."

"But there's more to it than that, Charlie. You see Barakis went insane at about the same time he finished the Barakis house, and then there was something else?"

"Yeah?"

"Several people who visited the house either died shortly thereafter or, like Barakis, had to be hospitalized with mental illness."

"Now what in the name of Dolly Parton are you talking about, Millie? This guy invent shock treatment or the speakeasy or something?"

Millie laughed. "Charlie, it's not something that you can easily explain with words. You've got to experience it for yourself."

"OK," I said, "I don't believe it for a minute. Let's get in the car and go see this joint."

So we cross the river and go down this Play-Dough Boulevard to what they call Highland Park. A few minutes later, we pull up in front of this pile of gray Victorian stone situated in a neighborhood of turning-to-snot houses not that far from the river. You could see that at one time this had been a pretty classy part of town, but those days were gone forever. A wino was nodding on the stone steps across the street, and there wasn't anything to mark this so-called great architectural marvel, but a small, rusty plaque on the front steps that said--The Sherlin L. Barakis Resurrection House.

"You sure this dump is the place?" I laughed as I locked up the Fairlane in front of this nondescript pile of bricks that didn't look like it had seen a tourist in fifty years.

"You can't judge a book by the cover, Charlie. You have to experience it. This is not just a visual thing," Millie said, puffing out her 40-inch chest as we headed up the steps.

There was a sign on the big, glass door--Bell Doesn't Work. Please Just Come Inside.

"What kind of talk is that?" I said, staring at the sign.

"Let's just go in, Charlie. It's free," Millie said. You can't beat free, so in we strolled. I was expecting a little, white-haired lady sitting at a desk doing needlepoint of a flour mill and all overjoyed to take our five bucks and conduct the first tour of the year, but there was nobody inside. It was just a little shabby vestibule with a gilt-framed mirror and a sorry looking couch that had seen better days.

Figuring a guide would be coming by to trap us in a second, Millie and I started to settle onto the couch because our feet were sore from yesterday's trek out to the Mall of America. However, as we settled back on the unyielding surface, we were both suddenly jacked into the air and swept up on what I can only describe as invisible wraparound chairs of exceptional comfort.

"What's this?" I shouted, but Millie was whirled off before she could answer.

When I say whirled that's the way it felt, not a bit unpleasant or uncomfortable though, just a sensation of being tilted through space at high speed, but oddly totally within the confines of the house.

It felt so dog-gone refreshing and fun I wasn't even worried about losing my dentures. Hell, it was like being a kid in an amusement park all over again as this, whatever invisible thing, I was riding kept looping up and around and right through the, what now seemed to be porous, walls and furniture of the old mansion.

The more and faster I rode the more hilarious the experience seemed, not a bit scary.

"Hey, Millie," I cried, "where are you? This is cool!"

Then to my amazement I went whirling upwards right through the roof past this spectacular palm tree, at least a hundred feet high, that couldn't possibly survive a Minnesota winter it looked so delicate, but there it was growing right off the roof.

"Hot doggies this is fun," I chortled to myself as I suddenly plummeted five or six stories like a high-speed roller coaster, and there in the corner of an office sat a mockup of Teddy Roosevelt himself, bending over his desk as I whipped right into the room beside him.

"Glad you could drop in," Teddy boomed in that manly voice that made me think he was about the most clever robot I'd ever seen.

"I'm sorry to interrupt you, sir," I said.

"Nonsense," he said, patting my back with a big, thick hand. "I'm just trying to straighten out corruption back in Manhattan."

"Wait a minute, you're dead, sir," I said.

"Do I look like I'm dead, Charlie. You see the Spanish-American War won't be starting for another few years yet, so I'm in the prime of life. When I get to be president, you'll see whether I'm dead or not."

"Sir," I said, getting up my nerve, but kind of confused about the time element. "I got to tell you how I really admired your life, like the way you set aside national park land for conservation purposes."

He laughed out loud and clapped me on the back again. "Charlie, don't get ahead of yourself. That's far off in the future," he said, "long after I get to be president. Anything I can do for you right now?"

"Do for me?" I was totally amazed.

"Certainly. Any visitor to Sherlin Barakis' place is a friend of mine. How about that hemorrhoid surgery you've got coming up? I could do that right now."

"No, I couldn't do that, Mr. President," I said, feeling about as shy as I'd felt in the last ten years.

"Don't be a fool, Charlie. Let me take care of it for you. There's not much I can't do."

Now it was my turn to bust out laughing. "What thee hell?" I said. "Why not?"

However, before the President could hear me turn down his offer of hemorrhoid surgery in favor of him putting a new Lincoln in my garage, I was suddenly ejected from his office. Absolutely pain free.

Next thing I knew I was hurtling through the building again, wondering what ever happened to Central Standard Time and where in the hell Millie was.

All of a sudden my chair whipped around a corner and did a 360 and there I was rocking back and forth like a baby in a cradle. A warm blue light surrounded me, and I felt the strangest serenity I'd ever experienced.

Oddly my body struck me as both transparent and weightless, but my senses were acutely sharp, and I thought I smelled the delightful odor of fresh, warm bread. Then right through the solid wall of what appeared to be the study of the Barakis mansion, a figure slowly emerged.

He was an overweight, rumpled sort of fellow of about sixty, somewhat balding with a fruity little mustache. And he was wearing red silk spats and a too-small pinchback suit of the type favored a century ago plus a gray, silk vest with a couple of gravy spots. Anyway, we just stared at each other for a moment. Then he extended his chubby hand and said, "Welcome, I'm Sherlin L. Barakis."

I shook his hand that was as warm and living as O Riley's goat, and I asked him anyhow. "Now wait a minute. How can I be meeting all you guys that are dead?"

"Has to do with the fact that you're dead too, Charlie. At least temporarily so. The time element in our lives is totally arbitrary and relative. With the right sort of electrical energy, all these barriers between past and future can be brought right down. So don't let being dead disturb you. As you can see, it is a very pleasant state to be in."

"Hold on here," I said. "Twenty minutes ago I was as healthy as a horse, and now you're saying I'm dead?"

"Well in a technical sense, yes. You've at least reached level one cessation of breathing, time travel capabilities in the range of 150 years. However, there's a great deal more to be learned and experienced before you're ready for anything really big like the future. You'll have to qualify yourself for that first."

"You mean I could check out 3002?"

"If you were qualified," Barakis said, "there's all that business of communicable diseases and heat-related disasters you'd have to deal with, so I couldn't just shoot you there on a whim."

"Jeez, I see what you mean, Mr. Barakis," I said.

"The good thing though, Charlie, is you've had just enough experience here to be reassured that death is nothing to fear."

"Well, I never really feared it," I said, which was only a little bit of a big lie.

"Oh my, my, my," Barakis said, shaking his finger at me playfully. "None of that now. That kind of fib was perfectly all right when you were alive, but we're beyond that here; and if you're going to move to any of the next levels, you'll have to get out of the habit."

"Now wait a minute, Mr. Barakis," I said. "I'm not ready yet for any additional levels,"

"That's more like it, Charlie. Total truth is currency here," Barakis said, patting me on the back. "Just remember, today is just a preview of what's coming. When you leave the mansion, you'll still have 31 years and 17 days until heart failure will make this state permanent."

"3l years and 17 days," I said. "What about my wife? What about Millie? What's she going to do without me?"

Barakis laughed. "She'll be fine. You know that old fogey McDonald you make fun of because he jogs? She'll marry him after you pass on."

"Well I'll be shit if she will," I said.

Barakis laughed again. "Maybe you'd better talk to her, Charlie. She's over in the next room. No need to worry about her. She's with General Washington, and I'll assure you that he's a man of extreme probity. Actually, though, she'll follow you to death in several years, so you'll have a chance to get everything ready for her before she arrives."

"Well I'm not getting anything ready for that two-timer," I said as Barakis stood by the fireplace and poured himself a drink from a decanter of sherry.

"Charlie, Charlie, you don't understand. Millie is just the reverse side of your personality. It's all like flipping over a card."

"Huh?" I growled, "I don't get it."

"Let me explain without getting too technical," Barakis said. "What I did was first experiment with high speed movement, the kind of thing you experienced when you sat on the couch. I has to do with photons and which path they elect to take, part of the quantum theory, which I guess you're pretty familiar with already, you being a man of fact and all."

"Yeah, kind of," I said, clearing my throat.

"Well then I added hypnosis, which enabled me to take the brain even further, and then with an application of electricity to Broca's area I soon made crossing the barrier to death a reality. And that's when I discovered every one of our personalities has a flip side embodied in the person we love the most."

"Well I used to love Millie a good bit," I said.

"Charlie," Barakis said. "You still do. You're just too stubborn to admit it."

Suddenly I sat right down on the floor. "Mr. Barakis," I said. "You must be some sort of a genius. Tell me why in heaven's name hasn't the world heard of you?"

"Oh you've heard the thing about a man ahead of his time. The church didn't look fondly on my work since there was no obvious connection with their teachings. As a result they did the best they could to discredit me, and so my findings never really saw daylight beyond a few obscure journals read only by my fellow physicists."

"You mean some bastards sabotaged you?"

"Well, not with any malice. But then shortly after my discovery, I had the-uh- accident. I pushed on some of the new stuff a little too hard. My son-in-law, who worked for the parks department, found me in my laboratory in the basement gibbering to myself. I'm afraid they won't let you go down there."

"Why's that?"

"Because after I was released from the hospital, I repeated the experiment. I suppose I used too much current. I believe they call it electrocution. Bottom line is it was adjudged a suicide. And you see this place is now run by my heirs."

"So?"

"Well you see, my great grandson, being an accountant and all, is a little squeamish about such things, so he's decided to keep everything low key and local. He's somewhat shy, and all the publicity surrounding something like this would disturb him greatly. He's very happy to just let the mansion be a shrine open to a few initiates, which is all well and good with me. Fame was never my major motive."

Suddenly Barakis glanced at his watch and sprang up. "Sorry to leave you, old chum, but I've got a chess game with Einstein up on level three, and he blows a fuse any time I'm late. You know how those geniuses are. Arrivederci."

And so I was left sitting there, waving feebly, the blue light slowly draining from the room as I felt my body drifting back into its normal condition with hunger pains gnawing my belly and a bad itch behind my right shoulder blade and someplace else I can't talk about.

A minute later, there was Millie, suddenly sitting on the couch next to me, going through her purse looking for something the same as always.

"Charlie," she said, "do you know what happened to those half price coupons I had for the Chinese restaurant? I'm just starved."

"Wait a minute, Millie" I said. "Where in the hell have you been?"

"Upstairs chatting with General Washington. He's quite a gentleman you know."

"Oh I bet he is," I said, thinking about that jogging bastard McDonald.

"Charlie, I believe you're jealous," Millie said, giving me that smile that had knocked me dead on my ass for the past forty years.

So I said, "Maybe I am a little, Millie, but I'll tell you one thing, I could eat my way through a mess of lemon chicken myself."

That's when Millie leaned over and gave me one of those dry, little, married-for-forty years kisses.

"Didn't I tell you, Charlie, that the museum would be wonderful?" She smiled at me. "Now if I can find those coupons we'll talk all about it over lunch, confining ourselves to the facts of the matter, of course."

"Of course, hon," I said, "just the facts of the matter." Then I winked at her conspiratorially, thinking, "Charlie Wupperman, you're a damn fool! If you hadn't talked so damn much up there on level B, Teddy Roosevelt would have cured your hemorrhoids and had you tooling around in a Lincoln for the next thirty years."

END

 
 
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Dwelling in a used 1959 Renault CV parked at the foot of his mother's garden, H. Turnip Smith monitors suspicious movements of worms and scratches glyphs in the soil with gnarled, yellow fingernails.
 
 
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