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By ROG PHILLIPS
_Aunt Matilda needed him
desperately, but when he
arrived she did not want
him and neither did anyone
else in his home town._
I was in the midst of the fourth draft of my doctorate thesis when Aunt
Matilda's telegram came. It could not have come at a worse time. The
deadline for my thesis was four days away and there was a minimum of
five days of hard work to do on it yet. I was working around the clock.
If it had been a telegram informing me of her death I could not have
taken time out to attend the funeral. If it had been a telegram saying
she was at death's door I'm very much afraid I would have had to call
the hospital and order them to keep her alive a few days longer.
Instead, it was a tersely worded appeal. ARTHUR STOP COME AT ONCE STOP
AM IN TERRIBLE TROUBLE STOP DO NOT PHONE STOP AUNT MATILDA.
So there was nothing else for me to do. I laid the telegram aside and
kept on working on my thesis. That is not as heartless as it might seem.
I simply could not imagine Aunt Matilda in terrible trouble. The end of
the world I could imagine, but not Aunt Matilda in trouble.
[Illustration: Wherever he went Arthur felt the power behind the lens.]
She was the classic flat-chested ageless spinster living alone in the
midst of her dustless bric-a-brac and Spode in a frame house of the same
vintage as herself at the edge of the classic small town of Sumac, near
the southwest corner of Wisconsin. I had visited her for two days over a
year ago, and she had looked exactly the same as she had when I stayed
with her when I was six all summer, and there was no question but what
she would some day attend my funeral when I died of old age, and she
would still look the same as always.
* * * * *
There was no conceivable trouble of terrestrial origin that could touch
her - or would want to. And, as it turned out, I was right in that
I was right in another respect too. By finishing my thesis I became a
Ph.D. on schedule, and if I had abandoned all that and rushed to Sumac
the moment I received the telegram it could not have materially altered
the outcome of things. And Aunt Matilda, hanging on the wall of my
study, knitting things for the Red Cross, will attest to that.
You, of course, might argue about her being there. You might even insist
that I am hanging on her wall instead. And I would have to agree with
you, since it all depends on the point of view and as I sit here typing
I can look up and see myself hanging on her wall.
But perhaps I had better begin at the beginning when, with my thesis
behind me, I arrived on the 4:15 milk run, as they call the train that
stops on its way past Sumac.
I was in a very disturbed state of mind, as anyone who has ever turned
in a doctorate thesis can well imagine. For the life of me I couldn't be
sure whether I had used _symbol_ or _token_ on line 7, sheet 23, of my
thesis, and it was a bad habit of mine to unconsciously interchange them
unpredictably, and I knew that Dr. Walters could very well vote against
acceptance of my thesis on that ground alone. Also, I had thought of a
much better opening sentence to my thesis, and was having to use will
power to keep from rushing back to the university to ask permission to
I had practically no sleep during the fourteen-hour run, and what sleep
I did have had been interrupted by violent starts of awaking with a
conviction that this or that error in the initial draft of my thesis had
not been corrected by the final draft. And then, of course, I would have
to think the thing through and recall when I had made the correction,
before I could go back to sleep.
So I was a wreck, mentally, if not physically, when I stepped off the
train onto the wooden depot platform that had certainly been built in
the Pleistocene Era, with my oxblood two-suiter firmly clutched in my
With snorts of steam and the loud clanking of loose drives, the train
got under way again, its whistle wailing mournfully as the last empty
coach car sped past me and retreated into the distance.
As I stood there, my brain tingling with weariness, and listened to the
absolute silence of the town triumph over the last distant wail of the
train whistle, I became aware that something about Sumac was different.
What it was, I didn't know. I stood where I was a moment longer, trying
to analyze it. In some indefinable way everything looked unreal. That
was as close as I could come to it, and of course having pinned it down
that far I at once dismissed it as a trick of the mind produced by
I began walking. The planks of the platform were certainly real enough.
I circled the depot without going in, and started walking in the
direction of Aunt Matilda's, which was only a short eight blocks from
the depot, as I had known since I was six.
The feeling of the unreality of my surroundings persisted, and with it
came another feeling, of an invisible pressure against me. Almost a
resentment. Not only from the people, but from the houses and even the
* * * * *
Slowly I began to realize that it couldn't be entirely my imagination.
Most of the dozen or so people I passed knew me, and I remembered
suddenly that every other time I had come to Aunt Matilda's they had
stopped to talk with me and I had had to make some excuse to escape
them. Now they were behaving differently. They would look at me absently
as they might at any stranger walking from the direction of the depot,
then their eyes would light up with recognition and they would open
their lips to greet me with hearty welcome.
Then, as though they just thought of something, they would change, and
just say, "Hello, Arthur," and continue on past me.
It didn't take me long to conclude that this strange behavior was
probably caused by something in connection with Aunt Matilda. Had she
perhaps been named as corespondent in the divorce of the local minister?
Had she, of all people, had a child out of wedlock?
Things in a small town can be deadly serious, so by the time her
familiar frame house came into view down the street I was ready to keep
a straight face, no matter what, and reserve my chuckles for the privacy
of her guest room. It would be a new experience, to find Aunt Matilda
guilty of any human frailty. It was slightly impossible, but I had
prepared myself for it.
And that first day her behavior convinced me I was right in my
She appeared in the doorway as I came up the front walk. She was
breathing hard, as though she had been running, and there was a dust
streak on the side of her thin face.
"Hello, Arthur," she said when I came up on the porch. She shook my hand
as limply as always, and gave me a reluctant duty peck on the cheek,
then backed into the house to give me room to enter.
I glanced around the familiar surroundings, waiting for her to blurt out
the cause of her telegram, and feeling a little guilty about not having
come at once.
I felt the loneliness inside her more than I ever had before. There was
a terror way back in her eyes.
"You look tired, Arthur," she said.
"Yes," I said, glad of the opportunity she had given me to explain. "I
had to finish my thesis and get it in by last night. Two solid years of
hard work and it had to be done or the whole thing was for nothing.
That's why I couldn't come four days ago. And you seemed quite insistent
that I shouldn't call." I smiled to let her know that I remembered about
party lines in a small town.
"It's just as well," she said. And while I was trying to decide what the
antecedent of her remark was she said, "You can go back on the morning
"You mean the trouble is over?" I said, relieved.
"Yes," she said. But she had hesitated.
It was the first time I had ever seen her tell a lie.
"You must be hungry," she rushed on. "Put your suitcase in the room and
wash up." She turned her back to me and hurried into the kitchen.
I was hungry. The memory of her homey cooking did it. I glanced around
the front room. Nothing had changed, I thought. Then I noticed the
framed portrait of my father and his three brothers was hanging where
the large print of a basket of fruit used to hang. The basket of fruit
picture was where the portrait should have been, and it was entirely too
big a picture for that spot. I would never have thought Aunt Matilda
could tolerate anything out of proportion. And the darker area of
wallpaper where the fruit picture had prevented fading stood out like a
I looked around the room for other changes. The boat picture that had
hung to the right of the front door was not there. On the floor under
where it should have been I caught the flash of light from a shard of
glass. Next to it, the drape framing the window was not hanging right.
On impulse I went over and peeked behind the drape. There, leaning
against the wall, was the boat picture with fragments of splintered
glass still in it.
* * * * *
From the evidence it appeared that Aunt Matilda had either been trying
to hang the picture where it belonged, or taking it down, and it had
slipped out of her hands and fallen, and she had hidden it behind the
drape and hastily swept up the broken glass.
But why? Even granting that Aunt Matilda might behave in such an erratic
fashion (which was obvious from the evidence), I couldn't imagine a
It occurred to me, facetiously, that she might have gone in for pictures
of musclemen, and, seeing me coming up the street, she had rushed them
into hiding and brought out the old pictures.
That could account for the evidence - except for one thing. I hadn't
dallied. She could not possibly have seen me earlier than sixty seconds
before I came up the front walk.
Still, the telegrapher at the depot could have called her and told her I
was here when he saw me get off the train.
I shrugged the matter off and went to the guest room. It too was the
same as always, except for one thing. A picture.
It was a color photograph of the church, taken from the street. The
picture was in a frame, but without glass over it, and was about
eighteen inches wide and thirty high.
It was a very good picture. Very lifelike. There was a car parked at the
curb in front of the church, and someone inside the car smoking a
cigarette, and it was so real I would have sworn I could see the
streamer of smoke rising from the cigarette moving.
The odor of good food came from the kitchen, reminding me to get busy. I
opened my two-suiter and took out my toilet kit and went to the
I shaved, brushed my teeth, and combed my hair. Afterward I popped into
my room just for a second to put my toilet kit on the dresser, and
hurried to the dining room.
Something nagged at the back of my mind all the time I was eating. After
dinner Aunt Matilda suggested I'd better get some sleep. I couldn't
argue. I was already asleep on my feet. Her fried chicken and creamed
gravy and mashed potatoes had been an opiate.
I didn't even bother to hang up my clothes. I slipped into the heaven of
comfort of the bed and closed my eyes. And the next minute it was
Getting out of bed, I stopped in mid motion. The picture of the church
was no longer on the wall. And as I stared at the blank spot where it
had been, the thing that had nagged me during dinner last night finally
leaped into consciousness.
When I had dashed into the room and out again last night on the way to
the dining room I had glanced briefly at the picture and something had
been different about it. Now I knew what had been different.
The car had no longer been in front of the church.
* * * * *
I lit a cigarette and sat on the edge of the bed. I thought about that
picture, and simply could not bring myself to believe the accuracy of
that fleeting impression.
Aunt Matilda had slipped into my room and removed the picture while I
slept. That was obvious. Why had she done that? The fleeting impression
that I couldn't be positive about would give her a sensible reason.
I studied my memory of that picture as I had closely studied it. It had
been a remarkable picture. The more I recalled its details the more
remarkable it became. I couldn't remember any surface gloss or graining
to it, but of course I had not been looking for such things. Only an
expert photographer would notice or recognize such technical details.
My thoughts turned in the direction of Aunt Matilda - and her telegram.
Her source of income, I knew, was her part of the estate of my
grandfather, and amounted to something like thirty thousand dollars. I
knew that she was terrified of touching one cent of the capital, and
lived well within the income from good sound stocks.
* * * * *
I took her telegram out of the pocket of my coat which was hanging over
the back of a chair. COME AT ONCE STOP AM IN TERRIBLE TROUBLE ... The
only kind of terrible trouble Matilda could be in was if some swindler
talked her out of some of her capital! And that definitely would not be
easy to do. I grinned to myself at the recollection of her worrying
herself sick once over what would happen to her if there was a
revolution and the new government refused to honor the old government
Things began to make sense. Her telegram, then those pictures moved
around in the front room, and the one she had forgotten to hide, in the
guest room. If the other pictures were anything like it, I could see how
Aunt Matilda might cash in on part of her securities to invest in what
she thought was a sure thing.
But sure things are only as good as the people in control of them. Many
a sure thing has been lost to the original investors by stupid decisions
leading to bankruptcy, and many a seemingly sure thing has fleeced a lot
of innocent victims.
Slowly, as I thought it out, I became sure that that was what had
Then why Aunt Matilda's about-face, hiding the pictures and telling me
to go back to Chicago? Had she threatened whoever was behind this, and
gotten her money back? Or had she again become convinced that her
financial venture was sound?
In either case, why was she trying to keep me from knowing about the
I made up my mind. Whether Aunt Matilda liked it or not, I was going to
stay until I got to the bottom of things. What Aunt Matilda evidently
didn't realize was that no inventor who really had something would waste
time trying to find backing in a place like Sumac.
Getting dressed, I decided that first on the agenda would be to find
where Matilda had hidden those pictures, and get a good look at them.
That was simpler than I expected it to be. When I came out of my room I
stuck my head in the kitchen doorway and said good morning to her, and
she leaped to her feet to get some breakfast ready for me. It was
obvious that she was anxious to get me fed and out of the house.
Then I simply took the two steps past the bathroom door to the door to
her bedroom and went in. The pictures were stacked against the side of
her dresser. The one of the church was the first one. It was on its
With a silent whistle of amazement I bent down to watch it. The car was
not parked at the curb in it, but there were several children walking
along, obviously on their way to school. And they were walking. Moving.
* * * * *
I picked up the picture. It was as heavy as it should be, but not more.
A faint whisper of sound seemed to come from it. I put my ear closer and
heard children's voices. I explored with my ear close to the surface,
and found that the voices were loudest when my ear was closest to the
one talking, as though the voices came out of the picture directly from
All it needed to be perfect was a volume control somewhere. I searched,
and found it behind the upper right corner of the picture. I twisted it
very slowly, and the voices became louder. I turned it back to the
position it had been in.
The next picture was of the railroad depot. The telegrapher and baggage
clerk were going around the side of the depot towards the tracks. A
freight train was rushing through the picture.
Even as I watched it in the picture, I heard the wail of a train whistle
in the distance, and it was coming from outside, across town. That
freight train was going through town _right now_.
I put the pictures back the way they had been, and stole softly from
Aunt Matilda's bedroom to the bathroom, and closed the door.
"No wonder Aunt Matilda invested in this thing!" I said to my image in
the mirror as I shaved.
Picture TV would make all other TV receivers obsolete! Full color TV at
that! And with some new principle in stereophonic sound!
What about the fact that neither picture had been plugged into an
outlet? Probably run by batteries.
What about the lack of weight? Obviously a new TV principle was
involved. Maybe it required fewer circuits and less power.
What about the broadcasting end, the cameras? Permanently set up? What
about the broadcast channels?
There had been ten or twelve pictures. I'd only looked at two. Was each
a different scene? Twelve different broadcasting stations in Sumac?
It had me dizzy. Probably the new TV principle was so simple that all
that could be taken care of without millions of dollars worth of
A new respect for Aunt Matilda grew in me. She had latched on to a money
maker! It didn't hurt to know that I was her favorite nephew, either.
With my Ph.D. in physics, and my aunt as one of the stockholders, I
could probably land a good job with the company. What a deal!
By the time I finished shaving I was whistling. I was still whistling
when I went into the kitchen for breakfast.
"You'll have to hurry, Arthur," Aunt Matilda said. "Your train leaves in
"I'm not leaving," I said cheerfully.
I went over to the bright breakfast nook and sat down, and took a
cautious sip of coffee. I grunted my approval of it and looked around
toward Aunt Matilda, smiling.
She was staring at me with wide eyes. She looked as haggard as though
she had just heard she had a week to live.
"But you must go!" she croaked as though my not going were unthinkable.
"Nonsense, you old fox," I said. "I know a good thing as well as you do.
I want to get a job with that outfit."
She came toward me with a wild expression on her face.
"Get out!" she screamed. "Get out of my house! I won't have it! You
catch that train and get out of town. Do you hear?"
"But, Aunt Matilda!" I protested.
* * * * *
In the end I had to get out or she would have had a stroke. She was
shaking like a leaf, her skin mottled and her eyes wild, as I went down
the front steps with my bag.
"You get that train, do you hear?" was the last thing she screamed at me
as I hurried toward Main Street.
However, I had no intention of leaving town with Aunt Matilda upset that
way. I'd let her have time to cool off, then come back. Meanwhile I'd
try to get to the bottom of things. A thing as big as wall TV in full
color and stereophonic sound must be the talk of the town. I'd find out
where they had their office and go talk with them. A career with
something like that would be the best thing I could ever hope to find.
And getting in on the ground floor!
It surprised me that Aunt Matilda could be so insanely greedy. I shook
my head in wonder. It didn't figure.
I had breakfast at the hotel cafe and made a point of telling the
waitress, who knew me, that it was my second breakfast, and that I had
intended to catch the morning train back to Chicago, but maybe I
After I finished eating I asked if it would be okay to leave my suitcase
behind the counter while I looked around a bit. She showed me where to
put it so it would be out of the way.
When I paid for my breakfast I half turned away, then turned back
"Oh, by the way," I said. "Where's this wall TV place?"
"This what?" she said.
"You know," I said. "Color TV like a picture you hang on a wall."
All the color faded from her face. Her eyes went past me, staring. I
turned in the direction she was staring, and on the wall above the
plateglass front of the cafe was a picture.
That is, there was a picture frame and a pair of dark glasses that took
up most of the picture, with the lower part of a forehead and the upper
part of a nose. I had noticed it once while I was eating and had assumed
it was a display ad for sun glasses. Now I looked at it more closely,
but could detect no movement in it. It still looked like an ad for sun
"I don't know what you're talking about," I heard the waitress say, her
voice edged with fear.
"Huh?" I said, turning my head back to look at her. "Oh. Well, never
I left the cafe with every outward appearance of casual innocence; but
inside I was beginning to realize for the first time the possibilities
and the danger that could lie in the use of this new TV development.
That had been a Big-Brother-is-Watching-you setup back there in the
cafe, except that it had been a girl instead of a man, judging from the
style of sun glasses and the smoothness of the nose and forehead.
I had wondered about the broadcasting end of things. Now I knew. That
had been the TV "eye," and somewhere there was a framed picture hanging
on the wall, bringing in everything that took place in the cafe,
including everything that was said. Everything _I_ had said, too. It was
an ominous feeling.
Aunt Matilda had almost had a stroke trying to get me out of town. Now I
knew why. She was caught in this thing and wanted to save me. Four days
ago she had probably not fully realized the potentiality for evil of the
invention, but by the time I showed up she knew it.
Well, she was right. This was not something for me to tackle. I would
keep up my appearance of not suspecting anything, and catch that train
Aunt Matilda wanted me to catch.
* * * * *
From way out in the country came the whistle of the approaching milk
run, the train that would take me back to Chicago. In Chicago I would go
to the F.B.I, and tell them the whole thing. They wouldn't believe me,
of course, but they would investigate. If the thing hadn't spread any
farther than Sumac it would be a simple matter to stop it.
I'd hurry back to the cafe and get my suitcase and tell the waitress
I'd decided to catch the train after all.
I turned around.
Only I didn't turn around.
That's as nearly as I can describe it. I did turn around. I know I did.
But the town turned around with me, and the sun and the clouds and the
countryside. So maybe I only thought I turned around.
When I tried to stop walking it was different. I simply could not stop
walking. Nothing was in control of my mind. It was more like stepping on
the brakes and the brakes not responding.
I gave up trying, more curious about what was happening than alarmed. I
walked two blocks along Main Street. Ahead of me I saw a sign. It was
the only new sign I had seen in Sumac. In ornate Neon script it said,
"PORTRAITS by Lana."
* * * * *
I don't know whether my feet took me inside independently of my mind or
not, because I was sure that this was the place and I wanted to go in
Not much had been done to modernize the interior of the shop. I
remembered that the last time I had been here it had been a stamp
collector headquarters run by Mr. Mason and his wife. The counter was
still there, but instead of stamp displays it held a variety of standard
portraits such as you can see in any portrait studio. None of the TV
portraits were on display here.
The same bell that used to tinkle when I came into the stamp store
tinkled in back of the partition when I came in. A moment later the
curtain in the doorway of the partition parted, and a girl came out.
How can I describe her? In appearance she was anyone of a thousand
smartly dressed brunettes that wait on you in quality photograph
studios, and yet she wasn't. She was as much above that in cut as the
average smartly dressed girl is above a female alcoholic after a ten-day
drunk. She was perfect. Too perfect. She was the type of girl a man
would dream of meeting some day, but if he ever did he would run like