By HARRY WARNER, JR.
Illustrated by FINLAY
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction December 1956.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
What better way to use a time machine than
to handle department store complaints? But
pleasing a customer should have its limits!
The Christmas party at the Boston branch of Hartshorne-Logan was threatening to become more legendary than usual this Christmas.
The farm machinery manager had already collapsed. When he slid under the table containing the drinks, Miss Pringle, who sold millinery, had screamed: "He'll drown!"
One out of every three dirty stories started by party attendees had remained unfinished, because each had reminded someone else of another story.
The recently developed liquors which affected the bloodstream three times faster had driven away twinges of conscience about untrimmed trees and midnight church services.
The star salesman for mankies and the gentleman who was in charge of the janitors were putting on a display of Burmese foot-wrestling in one corner of the general office. The janitor foreman weighed fifty pounds less than the Burma gentleman, who was the salesman's customary opponent. So the climax of one tactic did not simply overturn the foreman. He glided through the air, crashing with a very loud thump against the wall.
He wasn't hurt. But the impact knocked the hallowed portrait of H. H. Hartshorne, co-founder, from its nail. It tinkled imposingly as its glass splintered against the floor.
The noise caused a temporary lull in the gaiety. Several employes even felt a passing suspicion that things might be getting out of hand.
"It's all in the spirit of good, clean fun!" cried Mr. Hawkins, the assistant general manager. Since he was the highest executive present, worries vanished. Everyone felt fine. There was a scurry to shove the broken glass out of sight and to turn more attention to another type of glasses.
Mr. Hawkins himself, acting by reflex, attempted to return the portrait to its place until new glass could be obtained. But the fall had sprung the frame at one corner and it wouldn't hang straight.
"We'd better put old H. H. away for safekeeping until after the holiday," he told a small, blonde salesclerk who was beneath his attention on any working day.
With the proper mixture of respect and bonhommie, he lifted the heavy picture out of its frame. A yellowed envelope slipped to the floor as the picture came free. Hawkins rolled the picture like a scroll and put it into a desk drawer, for later attention. Then he looked around for a drink that would make him feel even better.
A sorting clerk in the mail order department wasn't used to liquor. She picked up the envelope and looked around vaguely for the mail-opening machine.
"Hell, Milly, you aren't working!" someone shouted at her. "Have another!"
Milly snapped out of it. She giggled, suppressed a ladylike belch and returned to reality. Looking at the envelope, she said: "Oh, I see. They must have stuck it in to tighten the frame. Gee, it's old."
Mr. Hawkins had refreshed himself. He decided that he liked Milly's voice. To hear more of it, he said to her: "I'll bet that's been in there ever since the picture was framed. There's a company legend that that picture was put up the day this branch opened, eighty years ago."
"I didn't know the company ever used buff envelopes like this." Milly turned it over in her hands. The ancient glue crackled as she did so. The flap popped open and an old-fashioned order blank fell out.
Mr. Hawkins' eyes widened. He bent, reached painfully over his potbelly and picked up the order form.
"This thing has never been processed!" Raising his voice, he shouted jovially, "Hey, people! You're all fired! Here's an order that Hartshorne-Logan never filled! We can't have such carelessness. This poor woman has waited eighty years for her merchandise!"
Milly was reading aloud the scrawled words on the order form:
"Best electric doorbell. Junior detective kit. Disposable sacks for vacuum cleaner. Dress for three-year-old girl." She turned to the assistant general manager, struck with an idea for the first time in her young life. "Let's fill this order right now!"
"The poor woman must be dead by now," he objected, secretly angry that he hadn't thought of such a fine party stunt himself. Then he brightened. "Unless—" he said it loud enough for the employes to scent a great proposal and the room grew quiet—"unless we broke the rules just once and used the time warp on a big mission!"
There was a silence. Finally, from an anonymous voice in one corner: "Would the warp work over eighty years? We were always told that it must be used only for complaints within three days."
"Then let's find out!" Mr. Hawkins downed the rest of his drink and pulled a batch of keys from his pocket. "Someone scoot down to the warehouse. Tell the watchman that it's on my authority. Hunt up the stuff that's on the order. Get the best of everything. Ignore the catalogue numbers—they've changed a hundred times in all these years."
Milly was still deciphering the form. Now she let out a little squeal of excitement.
"Look, Mr. Hawkins! The name on this order—it's my great-grandmother! Isn't that wonderful? I was just a little girl when she died. I can barely remember her as a real old woman. But I remember that my grandmother never bought anything from Hartshorne-Logan because of some trouble her mother had once with the firm. My mother didn't want me to come to work here because of that."
Mr. Hawkins put his arm around Milly in a way that he intended to look fatherly. It didn't. "Well, now. Since it's your relative, let's thrill the old girl. We wouldn't have vacuum sacks any more. So we'll substitute a manky!"
Ann Hartley was returning from mailing the letter when she found the large parcel on her doorstep. She put her hands on her hips and stared pugnaciously at the bundle.
"The minute I write a letter to complain about you, you turn up!" she told the parcel. She nudged her toe peevishly against the brown paper wrappings that were tied with a half-transparent twine she had never seen before.
The label was addressed in a wandering scrawl, a sharp contrast to the impersonal typing on the customary Hartshorne-Logan bundles. But the familiar RATTLE OK sticker was pasted onto the box, indicating to the delivery man that the contents would make a rattling sound and therefore hadn't been broken in shipment.
Ann sighed and picked up her bundle. With a last look at the lovely spring afternoon and the quiet suburban landscape, she went into the house.
Two-year-old Sally heard the box rattling. She waddled up on chubby legs and grabbed her mother's skirt. "Want!" she said decisively.
"Your dress ought to be here," Ann said. She found scissors in her sewing box, tossed a cushion onto the floor, sat on it, and began to open the parcel.
"Now I'll have to write another letter to explain that they should throw away my letter of complaint," she told her daughter. "And by the time they get my second letter, they'll have answered my first letter. Then they'll write again." Out of consideration for Sally, she omitted the expletives that she wanted to add.
The translucent cord was too tough for the scissors. Ann was about to hunt for a razor blade when Sally clutched at an intersection of the cord and yanked. The twine sprang away from the carton as if it were alive. The paper wrappings flapped open.
"There!" Sally said.
Ann repressed an irrational urge to slap her daughter. Instead, she tossed the wrappings aside and removed the lid from the carton. A slightly crushed thin cardboard box lay on top. Ann pulled out the dress and shook it into a freely hanging position. Then she groaned.
It was green and she had ordered blue. It didn't remotely resemble the dress she had admired from the Hartshorne-Logan catalogue illustration. Moreover, the shoulders were lumpier than any small girl's dress should be.
But Sally was delighted. "Mine!" she shrilled, grabbing for the dress.
"It's probably the wrong size, too," Ann said, pulling off Sally's dress to try it on. "Let's find as many things to complain about as we can."
The dress fitted precisely, except for the absurd shoulder bumps. Sally was radiant for a moment. Then her small face sobered and she started to look vacantly at the distant wall.
"We'll have to send it back," Ann said, "and get the one we ordered."
She tried to take it off, but the child squawked violently. Ann grabbed her daughter's arms, held them above her head and pulled at the dress. It seemed to be stuck somewhere. When Ann released the child's arms to loosen the dress, Sally squirmed away. She took one step forward, then began to float three inches above the ground. She landed just before she collided with the far wall.