The Project Gutenberg EBook of Rundown, by Robert Lory

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Title: Rundown

Author: Robert Lory

Release Date: February 12, 2020 [EBook #61387]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ASCII


Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online
Distributed Proofreading Team at



All panhandlers ask for dimes—but
this one had a very special purpose!

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Worlds of If Science Fiction, May 1963.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

The subway train announced its arrival with a screech of grating steel. The man was shoved from the car onto the platform by the eight p.m. crowd. The noise and the abrupt handling of his body brought him to awareness.

Not that he had been asleep or unconscious. Although he might have been. He didn't know for sure.

He found it hard to concentrate, but soon a sign over the platform came into focus:


It meant nothing to him. The second thing he became aware of did.

Another train had replaced his, and directly in front of him was an army of people, dispassionate towards everything but its one objective—to get on.

They came at him all at once, forming a pushing, elbowing, cursing, jarring mass of humanity. He glanced off one to collide with another. He escaped the punishment by a lunge to one side which ended with a crash to the cold cement floor.

He regained some semblance of steadiness on his feet and looked at the sign. It was still Westboro. It still meant nothing to him.

He was lost.

What was worse, he couldn't remember where he was lost from.

He turned to walk, he didn't know exactly where, when he smashed into a little boy eating an apple.

The boy reacted in a strange manner.

"Leave me alone, you dirty man, you," the boy said. He dropped his apple and ran off. Scared.

The man flushed with embarrassment, but the boy's remark made him look down at himself.

He saw a dirty man. Filthy. His white shirt—it had been white once—was torn at the elbow and was covered with grime, his shoes at the toes were white where the black polish had worn completely off, his pants reflected no evidence of ever having been pressed and the right leg was ripped from the knee down.

Two girls in their teens passed and giggled.

He was aware that others had noticed him.

"Hey, lookit the bum," a fat jolly-rover called out to his three on-the-towning cronies.

"Bum," the man thought, and reached to his back pocket.

No wallet. But not long ago he had one, he was sure, because the feel of its absence was there. Somebody must have taken it, or he might have lost it. In that crowd or on the subway or before.... He couldn't remember where he had been before.

The feeling of not remembering seemed familiar, and he tried hard to think. But there was nothing static in his mind that he could hold on to. His mind wasn't blank anymore, it was a jumble. He somehow recalled he had been looking for his money. He fumbled through his other pockets.

He found a dirty handkerchief and two cents.

The feel of the coins brought everything back.

Quickly he felt his pulse. It was slower than he had ever known it to be. Sure, there were times before when ... but then the doctor always had been nearby. And this time, the most serious time of all—he looked up at the Westboro sign—he was lost. Perhaps, up on the streets, he would recognize something.

He began to take the stairs at a run, but his breath came too hard, and he walked the rest of the way to the turnstile. The arm caught tight as he started to go through and a sharp pain want through his groin.

"That's the way you go in, pal," somebody offered, and the man winced at the few laughs he had drawn. He saw the exit sign and walked quickly toward it.

The night lights were just ahead as he collided with a woman loaded with bundles. They spilled. "Sorry," he said, leaving her to her indignation, and at a faster pace he walked outside into the cool night air.

He had stopped walking and was leaning against the door of the Inn of Six Horses, which proudly displayed its name and namesakes in blue and white neon.

He had recognized nothing.

He had tried getting to the doctor's by cab, but no driver would listen to him without first seeing the fare, even though he assured them all that he could get it from the doctor.

A policeman had told him to move along or suffer the consequences of a thick nightstick.

A drugstore proprietor had answered his request to use the phone by threatening to call the policeman with the thick nightstick.

A dime. One dime!

He remembered his Shakespeare.

My kingdom for a ... horse? Six horses. Maybe, just maybe, at the Inn of Six Horses....

A short man at the bar, composing one half of the clientele, was calling the bartender's attention to the fact that the six horses outside outnumbered the customers.

"Go to blazes," the bartender commented on the short man's observation.

"I should," said the short one. "Then George here would be Uncas, the last of the Mohicans, riding your six old white stallions."

"How do you know they're stallions?" George said. He was lean, mean and weary, looking as if he had just returned from a hard day of peddling vacuum cleaners.

The door banged shut and three pairs of eyes focused on a dirty man.

"Here comes a touch," said Pete.

"Please," said the man, his voice shaky and weak.

"Before you go into your act, pal," Pete said, "understand this: Nobody gets nothing free here, this ain't no mission or nothing. This is a business like any place else."

"A real thriving business," mocked Shorty.

"Please, a dime, I need a dime, that's all I—"

"A dime?" George laughed. "For what, a cup of coffee? This is a high-class place. Beer costs fifteen cents here."

Shorty joined in with a snort. "Maybe he wants to call his girl."

"I need the dime," the man said, leaning on the bar for support.

"A matter of real life and death, huh?" George said.

"Yes. Look ... here, I have two cents, you take them."

Pete looked suspiciously at the two coins. "We don't sell nothing that costs two cents."

"You take the two cents, but give me a dime. Please."

"Sharp businessman," noted George.

"This is rich," said Pete. "Do you really expect to buy a dime for two cents?"

Shorty said, "He just noticed how well you're doing. He figures you can afford the loss."

"Boy, it burns me up," said Pete. "These professional bums make more in a week than I see in a month."

"You keep talking that way, and this clown will want to buy your business for the two cents," Shorty said. "Ain't worth it," George said and banged his glass down. "Fill it," he directed Pete.

As Pete turned, the man made a lunge for George's change on the bar.

"Watch him," warned Shorty.

George needed no warning. He had seen the man eying his money, and he had hoped for just such a move. With a right fist to the side of the man's head, George took revenge for a bad day's work.

The man lay very still on the floor.

"What a paste," said Shorty, admiringly. "You could have killed him like that."

"He sure ain't doing much moving," said Pete, coming around the end of the bar. "I'd better take a look."

"Man, I didn't hit him that hard."

"Well, man, he sure asked for it," said Shorty. "And me and Pete will be right here to tell the cops that the guy was a crook and tried to rob your money. Right, Pete?"

"George, this guy's got no pulse," Pete said.

"Watcha gonna do, George?" Shorty said.

"Just shut up and wait a minute," Pete said. "I think he's trying to say something."

The man's eyes pleaded with each of the three. His lips quietly formed their message:


"Wow, talk about persistence," said Shorty.

George looked at his change on the bar.

He picked up a dime.

"Hey," said Shorty, "what are you doing?"

"Shut up," said Pete. "George's money is George's money. What he does with it is his business."

"Look," George said, "I didn't mean to hit you so hard. I mean, I hit you so hard my whole hand hurts. So here, you can have the dime, I won't miss it."

He pressed the dime into the man's hand.

"Holy cow," said Shorty. It was the first sound any of the three had made after the man had left, fifteen minutes before.

George stared into the mirror behind the bar, seeking some mighty truth in his own reflection. "He says ... he says Unbutton my shirt, and then...."

George fondled some coins in his hand. "Then he takes that crazy dime, a plain old, regular, crazy dime...."

Pete poured himself a Scotch. "What kind of guy is it, anyway," he said, "who walks around with a slot in the middle of his chest that he puts dimes into?"

"Yeah," said George, "and who ticks, yet?"

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