Ring of FireEric Flint



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Biting TimeVirginia DeMarce 1Jeff Higgins climbed the stepstool and eyed the diminishing number of boxes stashed between the top level of the trailer's kitchen cabinets and the ceiling. It was odd, he thought, the things that brought memories from before the Ring of Fire back to him. He and his father used to tease his mother unmercifully for her tendency to buy foods by the case every time there was a special at the grocery warehouse in Fairmont. In the two months since he had married Gretchen, though, it sure had come in handy.Grandma Richter was really the problem—the rest of them could and would eat almost anything that Gretchen defined as food. Even Wilhelm was doing pretty well on solids, if you considered canned yams to be a solid food. Grandma had fewer teeth than Wilhelm. Grandma had no teeth at all.It wasn't that Grandma didn't eat with enthusiasm—she ate instant oatmeal with cinnamon apples, instant mashed potatoes with gravy, cups full of instant ramen noodles with flavoring (add boiling water). After two months of eating twenty-first-century America's versions of dehydrated and reconstituted goo, in addition to the ever-present pease porridge and boiled cabbage, she was, according to Gretchen, just about back to her normal size (wiry but no longer withered) and strength (Jeff's best estimate was, "tough as an old gourd").Above and beyond all other forms of sustenance, she had taken to StoveTop brand. By his count, there were only three more cases, with six double boxes per case, which figured out as thirty-six more meals. There's no doubt about it, Jeff thought. Grandma needs to get false teeth. She needs to get them right now, before Dr. Sims runs out of supplies. * * *"Grandma, we need to talk about your teeth." Jeff had prudently waited until the household was fifteen minutes into supper to bring the matter up—the first quarter hour of every meal, as soon as the blessing had been completed, was devoted to serious eating. He opened his mouth, pointed, said, "Zaehne," and pointed at her mouth. "You need to go to the dentist—to Dr. Sims—to get teeth, so you can eat regular food, not just soft food.""What teeth? I lost my last tooth a dozen years ago. They say that you lose a tooth for every child. Wahnsinn. What did I have? Ten pregnancies, all my teeth gone, and not one living child to show for it: four miscarriages, two born too early to live, four that made it to the font but died before they were six years old." Grandma paused. "Not, mind you, that Annalise and Hans and Gretchen aren't as dear to me as if their father had been my own son."Jeff eyed Gretchen rather warily as this spate of words descended upon him. His German had improved rapidly since being immersed in Gretchen's extended family, but Grandma's Oberpfalz accent resembled spoken Thuringian German only vaguely. After considerable participation by everybody around the table, he managed to determine three things. The first was that Grandma had been the stepmother of Gretchen's father, being too young by several years to be her actual grandmother. The second was that all seventeenth-century Germans defined the function of a dentist as pulling teeth, not repairing, much less creating, them. The third thing that he determined was that Grandma thought he was making fun of her, which was not a good state of affairs—not good at all.* * *By the end of August, everyone in Grantville had learned to be wary of the high school library's collection of German-English dictionaries. The original Langenscheidt by means of which Jeff had proposed to Gretchen had been augmented by a ragtag collection of paperbacks formerly in the possession of private owners and a sizable number of travelers' phrasebooks, not to overlook the invaluable little picture book, See It and Say It in German, which had already been reprinted, the cartoons by way of woodcuts, and widely distributed, along with the companion volume created by substituting new subtitles Sieht das und sprecht das auf Englisch. The problems tended to lie in the way the language had changed during more than three hundred and fifty years.The dictionary said that the term for dentures was "kuenstliches Gebiss." Cautiously checking further, he discovered that Grandma Richter, however, would hear "Gebiss" as a reference to the bit one attached to a bridle and placed in the mouth of a horse. That wasn't going to improve domestic relations if he said it to her . . .Bridge? Well, the German word was "Bruecke," but in the seventeenth century, in both languages, the structure went across streams rather than between teeth. "Kuenstliche Zaehne" would be understandable enough as applying to individual teeth, but would give someone who had never seen false teeth no idea how they might be set together on the plates to make dentures.See It and Say It in German gave him an idea. See it . . . he thought. Now, who . . . ? * * *Henry Dreeson's bachelor Uncle Jim had come back from the army hospital after World War I with a glass eye. Jim had entertained the younger Dreeson relatives (including Henry) at family reunions and all-day-meetings at the church by popping it out and tossing it from hand to hand. He had frightened the more impressionable younger Dreeson relatives (not including Henry) by telling them that the eye could follow them around and report all of their misdeeds to their parents. On the theory that he wouldn't need it on the other side, one way or the other (if the preacher's conviction of a glorious bodily resurrection was right, it would be superfluous; if the argument of Robert Ingersoll and the other freethinkers that there was no afterlife was right, it would be unnecessary), Jim had directed that the eye be removed before his burial and given to his favorite nephew. Henry Dreeson carried it in his pocket as a good luck piece, often tossing it from hand to hand while he was thinking.The more Jeff considered the matter, the stronger his conviction became that old Jim Dreeson's nephew was not a man who would mind taking out his dentures in public, mayor of Grantville or not. That took care of "who." "What" and "why" were already very clear in his mind, leaving only "when, where, and how" to be tackled. "When" was clearly ASAP, but would have to be pinned down. "Where" would have to be "not at home," because if he unexpectedly brought the mayor home for dinner, Gretchen and Grandma would skin him. As for "how," the most effective approach was bound to be the most direct approach. He set out for City Hall.2"Monday will be Labor Day—let's take the whole bunch to the Thuringen Gardens before it gets too chilly to have the kids out at night.""What is Labor Day?""It will cost too much.""Aw, c'mon, Mrs. Richter," protested Jeff's friend Eddie Cantrell, who, along with Larry Wild and Jimmy Andersen, lived in the trailer complex with Jeff and the Richter family. "All of us guys will chip in. You and Gretchen can feed the kids before we go, so they won't really be hungry—we'll just buy 'em a big bowl of pork rinds that they can snack on while they run around."Jeff took care of the easy part. "Gretchen, Labor Day is an American holiday that celebrates the dignity of work and workers.""It will cost much too much. This household should not spend money on such things until Jeff is properly of age and is a master in his trade.""I am of age, Grandma. I've been of age for over a year. I just had my nineteenth birthday.""Nineteen is not of age—twenty-five is of age.""Listen, Mrs. Richter!""Eddie, you also are not of age. I cannot imagine what this place can be thinking of, allowing youth to be treated as if they were adults. You should properly still be under guardianship, all four of you."Gretchen's younger brother Hans weighed in. "If they were subject to guardians, Grandma, you and Annalise, and Gretchen, and the kids, would be sitting over by the power plant in the refugee camp rather than comfortably around our dinner table.""Hans, sprich mich nicht so frech an."Gretchen brought it to a close, to Jeff's relief. "Genug, that's enough. Labor Day would appear to be a worthwhile holiday. We shall go. Then no more extra spending until Christmas.""Er, Gretchen . . . I don't think we've told you about Thanksgiving yet.""Are we skipping Columbus Day this year?" asked Larry."Columbus Day doesn't count. We usually never even got off school.""Are we doing Halloween?""That's Allerheiligen—the eve of All Saints' Day. It's a lot different here.""We never got off school for Halloween, either. It's not even a federal holiday.""We ought to have a Halloween party for the kids, at least. Andy Partlow has a pumpkin patch.""Worueber sprechen Sie, Hans?""Amerikanische Feiertagen.""Look, guys. Let's get through Labor Day first."Before the Ring of Fire, the principle of taking life one day at a time, or at least one holiday at a time, had, somehow, never seemed so wise.* * *"Okay, Eddie, what's the plan?""Hans and Annalise say that once you get a couple of pints into Mrs. Richter, she really mellows a lot.""So?""So Mayor Dreeson doesn't bring out the false teeth until she gets to that stage.""But we need to have him take them out before it gets too dark for her to get a really good look. They haven't wired lights for the outside seating, and the kids make too much noise for us to sit inside.""We can leave here earlier—get the first pint into her on an empty stomach, before Mayor Dreeson gets off work. Then we eat. Then it's bring on the dentures. Julie's bringing her dad. They're going to come in behind us and sit two tables away. As soon as Gretchen's grandma looks impressed enough, he pounces and goes off with her signature in his appointment book. He's bringing it with him. Just to make it official, he's bringing a stamp to plop down next to her signature. I've noticed that Germans would rather do almost anything than go back on something that's been officially stamped. Of course, it's a play stamp out of one of Julie's old toy boxes and has Tinker Bell on it—that's all we could find, but at least the appointment will be 'gestempelt.' If she does ask what it is, I'll tell her it's a heraldic bumblebee with a lot of symbolic significance.""Eddie—I dunno. You're getting awfully devious these days.""She'll just say that they cost too much, anyway," added Jimmy.Jeff shook his head. "Anything that will keep Gretchen from having to put every bite that Grandma Richter eats for the next twenty-five years through the hand grinder is cheap, guys. I know that it's going to stretch things to the limit, but we'll manage to pay, on installments if we have to."* * *It took a certain political adroitness to get oneself elected mayor, even in Grantville. Henry Dreeson came into the Thuringen Gardens bearing a basket with two dozen freshly picked apples from the cherished Winesap tree in his backyard. After he had disposed of his share of the wurst and kraut, he distributed them, after which he made a point of mentioning his age, opening his mouth wide enough to show an unnaturally perfect set of teeth, and ceremoniously biting into one. (This was showing off, of course: ordinarily the course of prudence would have caused him to quarter and core it first. Luckily, the Fixodent held.) Then he paused and bent across the table solicitously."Would you like me to slice yours very thinly for you, Mrs. Richter? Thecla could take the slices inside and boil them for a few minutes to soften them down." He busied himself with arranging this, as the odor of fresh apple, with each thin slice, wafted from his pocket knife to Gretchen's grandma's nose. As her mouth watered, he pounced, "You really ought to see Doc Sims about getting a set of teeth, you know.""How do you 'get' teeth?""Doc Sims makes 'em to fit your mouth—here, like this." Mayor Dreeson pulled out his teeth and handed them across the table. "See, uppers here, lowers here. They fit in like this." He took them back, demonstrated the insertion, and handed them across the table again.Grandma Richter promptly popped them into her mouth.The adolescent diners winced, flinched, or surreptitiously gagged, as best suited the temperament of each. The younger kids watched with genuine fascination.Mayor Dreeson leaned across and said, "You won't have a proper fit with these, you know. They're made to fit my mouth and not yours. Here, wiggle those lowers a little." He stuck his finger into her mouth to reposition them a bit as he looked over his shoulder and called, "Hey, Doc."As Julie giggled helplessly, her father, armed with the Tinker Bell stamp, advanced to clinch the deal. Mayor Dreeson retrieved his teeth and put them back in."That's really weird," Eddie said to Julie. "Isn't there a proverb or something about getting married to someone you wouldn't mind sharing a toothbrush with? What does it mean when you run into someone you wouldn't mind sharing your teeth with?"Thecla emerged from the kitchen with a small bowl of boiled apple slices. Mug in one hand and spoon in the other, Grandma Richter settled down to consume mushy apples and beer. Mayor Dreeson was saying, "Your name's Veronica, is it? Mine's Henry. I used to be a big fan of Veronica Lake in my day."3"Really, Annalise. I mean, yeeecchhh. Ugghhh. Phewewww!" In spite of her status as a dentist's daughter and ad hoc dental receptionist, Julie was still thoroughly grossed out by her memory of the Thuringen Gardens episode."It worked. She's here." Annalise might have spent the last two years as a camp follower in Tilly's army, but, like Gretchen, she had absorbed the pragmatism that enabled people to survive in the small spot on the German map called the Upper Palatinate. She leaned forward, her chin on her hand, contemplating the rack full of back issues of National Geographic, Rod and Gun, and Parenting that adorned Dr. Sims's reception room. "Can I take a couple of these back for Grandma to look at while they're waiting for the mold to harden?""Sure. Can your grandma read English at all yet?"Annalise grinned. "Better than she could a week ago. Mayor Dreeson climbed up into his attic and came down with a couple dozen Archie and Veronica comic books that his daughter Margie left behind when she married and moved to Ohio. We're making translations of the words for her. She reads them because the cover has her name on it.""Well, I'm not surprised he had 'em. If anything was there when Mrs. Dreeson died, it's probably still there. I doubt that Mr. Dreeson ever does much cleaning in that old rattletrap of a place. He's always either down at City Hall or at the barber shop—or any place except his house. He keeps the yard and garden up nice, but inside . . ."Attracted by the pictures of cute children, Annalise opted to supply Grandma with Parenting. "Some things are hard, though. What does it mean to 'enhance your child's self-esteem'?""In German? I dunno. I don't even know exactly what it means in English."The outer door slammed. Julie looked up and shuddered. "But whatever it is, Maxine Pilcher has done it. Those kids of hers are the worst brats in town and here they come now. Two simple checkups, but we'll get tantrums."Howls of fury echoed throughout the clinic as a thin, harrassed-looking woman forcibly dragged a five-year-old and a seven-year-old through the inner door. Julie added hurriedly, "She's the kindergarten teacher, too, of all things for her to be!"Almost all the German women who came into Grantville had immediately seized upon the canvas-tote-bag-with-two-handles as a wondrous advance of modern civilization compared to the shallow-basket-precariously-perched-on-one-hip- and-likely-to-tip. Since this was an item that multiplied in American closets at a rate second only to wire coat hangers, the local housewives had been more than happy to supply the perceived need. Annalise dropped a couple of issues of Parenting into hers (which commemorated the eleventh annual conference of community-based Black Lung clinics) and backed down the hall toward Room B where Grandma was sitting.Joshua and Megan Pilcher shrieked, sometimes in unison and sometimes alternately. Maxine Pilcher wanted to know why her dental coverage wasn't still in effect. Julie outlined the difficulty of submitting bills to an insurance company in Cleveland when the dental clinic was in Thuringia and displaced four centuries in time. Mrs. Pilcher protested that she had paid her premium for six months in advance just in June. If the company wasn't going to pay, she wanted a refund. With commendable restraint, Julie wished her luck in getting it.Megan and Joshua continued to wail, but Julie foresaw from bitter experience that although their mouths might be open now, the minute she got either one of them into the examining chair, the lips and teeth would be clamped shut.The door of Room B opened. Veronica Richter advanced into Dr. Sims's waiting room.* * *"That was awesome, Mrs. Richter." Julie's voice resonated with sincerity. Megan and Joshua, under the close supervision of an ogre who lived in the supply cabinet in Room A and two trolls whose preferred mode of transportation from the bridge over the river into Dr. Sims's office was the water pick, had submitted to having their teeth cleaned with really surprising docility."She is a fool." There could be no doubt that "she" was Maxine Pilcher. "Gretchen is busy, immer, always. Jeff and the other boys are busy, always. Hans is busy, always. Annalise must go to school, always, always, always. All of Gretchen's orphans go to school. Even little Johann has started school. All the parents work; they must. So what do I have? I have all the tiny ones in the trailer court who are not old enough for school. I have Wilhelm, but also I have Frans and Peter. I have Sofia, I have Hedwig, I have Carolina. Six children I have, all day, every day. Do I have noise? Yes. Such is the way of nature. Do I have that much noise? No.""Ummm." Julie wasn't quite sure how to ask this. "Do you really think that there's an ogre in the supply cabinet in Room A?"Grandma Richter snorted. "Of course not. I am not an ignorant woman. I am not a stupid, superstitious peasant from some remote village. I am a townswoman, the widow of a printer. My husband was a Stadtburger, a Druecker. But some things I know, and one of them is that if a child believes that there is an ogre in my cabinet, he will not open it and get sick by eating the soap. If he believes that there is a troll under a bridge that has no railing, he will not run onto the bridge and fall off the side. If he believes that there is a snake-monster in the carp pond, he will not wade too deep and drown. The world has dangers for small children, many dangers. By the time they are old enough to realize for themselves that there are no ogres or trolls or monsters, they are old enough not to eat soap or fall in the water."Somehow, this seemed to make perfect sense to Julie (who had, of course, heard the stories about the alleged disciplinary powers of Jim Dreeson's glass eye all her life). She filed the news away in the mental storage compartment known as, "stuff I may need to try some day.""Now," continued Grandma Richter, "How much does this 'set of teeth' cost? Too much, probably, but I have signed a contract. Jeff talked about installments. I do not want installments if they charge interest. I will be no party to the practice of usury."For just such occasions, Dr. Abrabanel had written, and supplied to all of Grantville's professional offices and businesses, a nice prepared statement, in German, which explained in detail that the charges for installment payments were not to be regarded as interest on the money involved, but as compensation for any inconvenience caused by the delay.Julie read it out loud.Grandma Richter didn't buy it for a minute."I wish," she insisted, "to pay when I get my teeth. Also, I do not wish to be dependent upon Jeff. I brought a proper dowry into my marriage. I have a life estate in my late husband's property. Now that the king of Sweden has pushed out the Austrians, I have written to a lawyer to find out if anything is left. But I have no money now.""Well," said Julie. "You're babysitting six kids already, just to be neighborly. Could you manage a few more? When both parents are working, they're happy to find reliable child care. They pay you; you pay Dad; everyone's happy."* * *On September 17, 1631, Grandma got her teeth. Although Grantville did not yet know that Gustav II Adolf had defeated Tilly at the Battle of Breitenfeld on that momentous day, Dr. Sims's decision to stay late at the office the night before in order to finish up the dentures probably had great allegorical significance. Veronica Richter would have considered the day to be one of momentous victory in any case. By combining her earnings from a week of completed sitting for eight additional paying children with a week of advance payments for eleven and the contributions from Jeff, Hans, Eddie, Jimmy, and Larry, she had paid for the teeth—without usury.She had still to pay the Jungen back, of course—without usury. But that was household. That was what family was for.* * *She took on an assistant, but the three trailers, even when everyone else in the household was at school or at work, had room for only twenty paying children: no more. By early November, she had a waiting list as long as the list of those she had accepted."Think about it, Ronnie," Henry Dreeson said. "When you babysit kids out at the trailer park, all the parents have to go over there to take them and pick them up. You and Gretchen have a lot of mess to clean up before you can get supper and put your own kids to bed. If you take care of them downtown here, it will be a lot handier—Mom or Dad can just drop them off on the way to work, and there will be space for a lot more. You'll probably double your weekly income in no time. This old building isn't suitable for a store, because there's no street frontage—just a door. That's why it isn't rented. Can't imagine why anyone ever built it that way."Larry Wild raised his eyebrow at Jimmy Andersen. It not only would never have occurred to him to address Gretchen's grandma as Ronnie—it would never have occurred to him that anyone might address her as Ronnie. Jimmy just shrugged.The mayor pulled out his key ring. The building was one of those 1920s oddities that occur in towns without strict zoning codes. The street door opened into a corridor no more than three feet wide and a good twenty-five feet long, no stairway, no side doors opening into the neighboring buildings, no windows; just one bare lightbulb and another door at the back. That one, unlocked, opened into a single large room, about thirty feet by fifty feet, with a row of windows facing on the creek. Henry Dreeson stared at the contents with a broad smile. "Gawd, I'm glad I brought you guys down. I'd plumb forgotten that I had all that lumber I bought at George Trimble's auction sitting in here. I bet there's enough to frame a duplex."At either end of the far side, there were doors opening out onto a landing and wooden steps leading down to a grassy area between the building and the creek. "It's flood plain down there—not buildable," said Dreeson. "Don't usually flood more'n about ten days out of the year, though. You can use it for a playground when it's dry enough."You won't have to pay rent if we go partners—no upfront capital involved. Set it up this way: I provide the premises and you provide the labor and do the bookkeeping. Get these fine, strong, young men here"—he slapped Larry on the back—"to clean it up for free. Divide the profits, fifty-fifty.""No rent?" Grandma Richter pulled a spiral-bound tablet out of her tote bag and started to make calculations.
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