Of Ping Pong Ball Interdimensional Diplomacy

It seems it sort of started innocently enough, I guess – I don’t know.

All it took was two ingredients:  Hank and that old tree in his back yard.  How the old tree entered in what happened, you could understand, considering all the weird stories that have been told through the years about it. 

But Hank –  I don't think you could really call it "innocent"considering Hank.  Now, don't get me wrong -- Hank's probably an all right guy . . . if you don't have him for your next-door neighbor or best friend. 

You ask what's his problem?  I'll try to explain.

If you want to see someone with an ego as big as all outdoors, but for no good reason -- or someone who tries to railroad everything by everybody -- or someone who doesn't see past the tip of his nose -- if you want to see someone who, when he walks toward you, you have an urge to turn around right away and run the other way, but you know it's no use -- that's Hank.

Well, it's one of those first warm, sunny days in early  Spring, a really fine morning, and I'm getting out the bucket and soap and rags and hose and brushes and wax to do the car up good. I'm turning around after hooking the hose up and there's Hank behind me and I have no place to run to.

Hey Fred!" he yells, right in my ear, "I got the table set up in the basement!  You wanna go a few rounds?  I feel like a winner today!"

Well, I know he's talking about the ping-pong table -- he’s a nut about that game, mainly because he thinks he's good at it-- he watched the matches against China when Nixon was President and played against a pro in a demonstration match at a high school assembly (lost of course) then he got a few pointers in a class that his folks reluctantly paid for, then he had his folks buy a table then he invited all his "friends" over and beat them and they stopped going over after a few times (He lost once to one of the members of the women's basketball team and never invited her over again). Heck, he got so hung up over ping pong -- and that’s just the way Hank is; he goes overboard on everything -- and he does it to this day -- he even ordered special order ping pong balls directly from the manufacturer –  with his name on them on one side, and a number on the other side showing the order they were in -- starting at the number 1, then 2 and so on, one after another. And when he married Louise, he took the table with him (actually, his folks told him to get the table the hell out of their house).  It doesn't take much to figure that Louise got pretty tired of ping pong in a pretty short time.  And when their kids got old enough to walk and grab things?  They were ping pong burnouts before they entered Kindergarten.

"C'mon, Fred!" he says,  "What else you gotta do?  Nothin’ better, I'm sure."  He looks at the bucket and the wax and the rags and brush, then he looks at me and the car and says, "The car can wait -- it'll be dirty next weekend, too."

He doesn't give me time to answer.  "Wait a minute!" he says, "Louise's got wash to do an' don't want us in the way an’ she wants us to take down the table."

Well, I'm partly relieved.  At least I won't have to play. But, I wonder, is he hinting to me to help him?

"What do you  mean, 'us'?" I ask.

"Of course, 'us'", he replies, "You an' me.  I know, I know," he says, as I open my mouth to speak, "ya didn't help me put it up -- that's what ya were gonna say ain't it?"

I open my mouth again, but he continues, "But ya c'n help me take it down, can't ya?"  Just get away from that car long enough to help me Fred, ok?"

It looks like a setup, I think to myself.  I stand there, trying to figure out whether or not I should help him' but I know I’ll end up doing it even if I don't want to -- even if it's just to shut him up.  It's been that way ever since I've known him. In grade school and high school and now, when we're neighbors. All through school, he'd come to me whenever he'd worn out his welcome with everyone else.  He'd ignore me all those times when he was trying to get close to new people and greet me like his best friend once they started ignoring him.  When I got married and got a job and saved enough money for a house and chose the one I'm living in now, Hank said he'd never live in a neighborhood like this -- he had a better neighborhood in mind --not that I didn't live in a fine, upstanding, middle class suburban neighborhood, with brick, ranch style homes and everything; but Hank wanted to move into an upper crust, exclusive neighborhood, with big, expensive houses.  He was trying to get on the good side of his boss at the time and probably would have gotten in the neighborhood of his dreams except that one of the members of the neighborhood council had known him in school.

So Hank bought the house next to mine -- it sold cheap and nobody really said why but the word around the neighborhood was that it had something to do with that old tree -- although here we were living right next door and nothing ever bothered us.  Hank’s wife, Louise, later told my wife, Sally, that she was glad they were turned down for the other neighborhood because they probably couldn’t keep up with six months payments on that house, let alone the full mortgage -- and she was so glad they got the house next to ours at such a low price because she didn’t have faith that Hank could even keep up the payments on a regular priced house.

Now, as I say, I'm about the only person in the neighborhood or anywhere else for that matter who'll put up with him -- I’ve gotten accustomed to him, I guess.

With me, he won't take no for an answer.  And somehow, I can't say no, no matter how many times and how hard I try.  Besides, at least we're not playing, I think.  So I say yes and as he opens the sliding glass doors to his basement, he says,

"Tell you what, Fred, since we're takin' it down anyway, why don’t we set it up on the patio an' I c'n practice a little while you’re washin' yer car."

"Now, wait a minute," I say, "You say you're going to practice.  But you need someone to practice with – now, I . . ."

"Don't worry, Fred," he says,  "I'll find somebody to practice with."

"That's what I'm afraid of," I say, knowing who he has in mind as a "practice" partner.

"That's what you're afraid of???   Hahahahaha -- that's a good one, Fred!"

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I know what's going to happen.

So we're picking up the table to take it out to the patio and I'm thinking the patio's so cluttered it'll take us an hour at least to clean it off -- and that's work -- and work?  – that's not really in Hank's vocabulary.  Because of this, I'm thinking we'll have to fold up the table and not play after all and I'm feeling pretty good about that.

"Now where we gonna put it?" Hank says,  "I forgot the patio was so cluttered with the kids' bikes an' stuff."

Here we are holding that heavy ping-pong table -- you know how heavy ping-pong tables are?  -- not the flimsy, fly by night, discount store type -- but the professional type, with slate and lead and all sorts of things in it seems -- anyway, there we are and I know Hank's getting tired because I'm getting tired.  He’s beginning to let the table down little by little and I know he's about to give up.  Then . . .  I can tell the worst has happened because he's got that "idea" look on his face  .  .  .  and when he gets that "idea" look on his face  .  .  .

He points out into the yard.  "There!" he says, "down there, by that big ol tree!"

The big old tree -- yes, it certainly is big -- the biggest in the neighborhood -- and the oldest.  When they leveled and graded for the houses, they left that tree.  No one would say why, but I get the feeling it's connected to the legends that have popped up around it.  Everybody said strange things happened around that Tree.  When this was all woods, we'd play around here as kids and we'd tell the stories everybody told about the Tree--and add a few of our own -- and as kids we'd believe all the old stories -- then as we grew up -- we  got to thinking that everybody else's old stories were just as made up as our own.

Talk about strange things happening -- the strangest thing of all is happening right now, I think, as we lug that table across the bikes and trikes and dolls and skates and skateboards and in-line skates and across the lawn with the bare spots and the tufts of grass and holes and rocks and toys hidden in the grass to set it down there, right underneath the overhanging limbs of that Tree, reaching out there, twenty feet above us, like a sheltering roof -- or maybe -- and a chill comes over me thinking about all those old legends -- but that's just the kid in me I think and I shrug it off.

We run all over the yard finding pieces of wood and books and comic books to put under the legs of the table to level it up and Hank says, "Thanks, Fred -- now it's set up.  It looks level 'n' ok."

And I turn away and start back to my car and Hank says,  "We oughta test it."

And I stop and turn back around (my biggest mistake of the day) and I ask, "What do you mean, . . .  we?"

"You an' me, Fred.  You see anybody else out here?  Louise don’t count 'cause she don't play much."

"I can understand why."  I blurt out.  I should think before I speak, I say to myself."

"Whatta you mean by that remark, Fred?"  Then he throws a ping-pong ball and a paddle at me.  "Here, catch,” he says.

Now, if you know the situation well enough by now, you know that we got into a regular game of ping pong, with games and sets and everything --  I never paid a whole lot of attention to how ping pong was scored and set up and so forth --  I just went ahead  and played good loser to Hank --  he needed that.

Hank talks a lot, as if you didn't already know that.  All  the time we're playing, he's talking about work and his boss and  people he knows at the bar he hangs out at and how this one's an S.O.B. and that one's an S.O.B. and he hasn't any use for any of them, but he knows he's got it over on them because he has ideas that'll make him a million bucks.  And he brags about how he beat this guy or that guy at ping pong and how he's a real hustler and  he's won hundreds of dollars in bars.  "Right!" I think, because I know how much he exaggerates.  And he tells me how I ought to do this and ought to do that and he's my "mentor" and I'm surprised that he's using such a "big" word --  it's big for Hank.  And of course, he's winning.  Well --  I mean --  that is --  he wins some --  and I win some, just to give him the feeling of competition –  but he's winning the whole ball of wax so far.  My first rule of thumb with Hank is to let him win --  give him a close game, but let him win.  I'd caught on by now to the tricks he learned at that high school assembly and I could win if I want to –  I beat Hank once.  He didn't speak to me for six months.  For certain, I was relieved --  but there he was, six months later, coming back to me after another new acquaintance had enough of him --  and there I was, his friend --  accepting him back.  I've let him win every game since that one --  he could never stand to lose. Hank yells in to his wife, Louise, to bring out a cooler full of beer --  and I hear Louise talking to my wife, Sally, on the phone, and I hear Sally yell hi to Hank as she goes over to the back door and I hear the door close and a little later, I hear it opening again and closing again and there they are, right by the middle of the table, setting down the cooler filled with beer and ice and Hank grabs one at the first break. Sally comes up to me.

"What happened to washing the car?" she asks, the look on her face and the sound of her voice are ominous.

"Hey Sally!" Hank yells, "Let him have a little fun."

"Oh, I forgot," she says, looking at Hank.

I look at her and I see she understands.  I hope.

"Yeah, you're right, Hank," she tells him, "we all need a little relief."

I wonder what she means by that I think --  I wish she could have found some major lie to tell Hank so I could get out of this, but she looks at me as if to say, "I'm not going to get you out of this one --  you'll have to take care of this all by yourself."  And I look at my watch and it's ten in the morning and I groan softly because I figure this is going to be an all day thing.  And Sally and Louise go on over to our house and I can hear them laughing in the kitchen.

So we're playing and he's drinking beer --  he drinks like a fish, especially on weekends.  And the day wears on and it's somewhere into the afternoon --  I'd taken off my watch early in the game to keep it from breaking, so I don't know exactly what time it is --  and he's huffing and puffing and drinking beer and grabbing a cigarette from time to time and lighting it and putting it in his mouth and holding it between his teeth while he smashes another volley across to me.

"Ya cn really work up a sweat, can't ya?" he says,  "Amazin' how a little game of ping-pong can do that to ya, huh?"

I figure it's the beer that's making him sweat because here I am, hardly sweating at all.

Now, I'm really feeling like quitting because we've been doing this for hours or so it seems – we're almost finished with the set and he's winning by a large margin and there's not much of a chance I can win --  so I hope I can use that as an excuse to quit.

So I say, "Why don't we call it a game after you win this one?  We can call you the winner.  I mean, we haven't done anything all day but play ping pong."

"So? . . . " he says.  "Oh, don't be such a stuffed shirt --  all work 'n' no play --  ya know?"

Well, he's making me mad, so, just to show him, I turn the heat on and win every game from then on, and I'm just about to even things up --  but he's got mad right back and he's giving me one of the best matches ever, and he's talking a blue streak now.

So he opens a new pack of ping pong balls, takes the first one out, and looks at the number on it.

"Number eight oh two one oh, here," he says, "just the same as that kids' show about all those teeny boppers --  you know?  This is MY lucky ball."

Only the TV show's number is NINE oh two one oh.  But I don't tell Hank.  We've been out here too long already --  no use getting into some stupid argument that'll last another half hour.

"Rubber series, here," he's saying, "an' decidin' game . . . Fred's down two points an' needs this win t'stay in the game . . . here comes the serve . . . Hank returns with a smashin' blow to Fred's court . . . Fred goes back . . . the ball hits the edge . . . puff . puff  . . . Fred barely makes contact . . . an' it's a high looper . . . (now I KNOW I lost) . . . Hank's got this game in the bag . . . waitin' for the ball . . . it's goin' . . . up . . up . . up . . . loopin' . . . beginnin' t' fall . . .”

Now, I'm getting pretty perturbed at all his talk.  The ball's really up there in the air.  I've hit it really high and it looks like it might get lodged in the branches of the tree, it's so high.  I'm standing there, my paddle on my hand, hanging straight, my other hand on my hip, a wry, sarcastic look on my face so I must look like that "Blue Boy" painting, waiting for Hank to hit the ball and finish this tirade.

"Here it comes, folks," Hank continues, " . . . the suspense builds . . . will the ball even land on the table . . . maybe the wind'll blow it away . . . heck, it might even land in the next county!  . . . even if it does land on the table, Hank'll put it in the next county! . . . but Hank might not stay awake until the ball comes down . . . and that's Fred's only chance!

“Ok!" he says, "here it comes!"

Then the ball disappears.

There’s a pause as we both stand there, befuddled.

"Here it don't come!"

That’s what Hank says, and the stupidest look comes over his face.  And if the look on my face is anything like Hank's, I must look pretty stupid too.  Both our mouths must be hanging open and if I'm puzzled by this, think of what Hank must be thinking.

Hank stands there, looking around, up in the tree, on the table, under the table -- all around the grass.

"It couldn'da disappeared," he says.

"Well, it did," I reply.

"C'mon, Fred, where is it?  It was right there, jist a minute ago.  I saw it.  That's not fair, Fred.  Where'd you get that ball -- from some joke shop?"

"It's your ball," I said, "just a plain old ping pong ball, just like all the rest."

"Don't give me that line, Fred, you jist don't wanna play, I know.  You're razzin' me."

"Look, Hank, you saw it disappear, just like I did.  It was there one second and gone the next."

"It couldn’da just disappeared!  Here, I'll throw another one up -- same place -- an' IT won't disappear!   .  .  .

Where'd it go?"

The ball had disappeared.

So we threw more balls up.  Some disappeared and some didn't.  There seemed to be a "zone" of some sort outside of which the balls acted normally and "stayed with us", as Hank put it.  Pretty soon the wives came out to see what strange new game their men were playing now -- they approached slowly, looking at us with sidelong glances and wondering looks.

"Look here, Louise!"  Hank yelled as he threw another ball up and it disappeared in mid-air, "Ya ever seen anything like this?"

For sure they hadn't.  They stood there, with their mouths gaping wide open, not saying a word.

Susie and Tommie, Hank's kids, came running out of the house-- Tommie was the ten year old and Susie, the six year old -- now you could tell they didn't know anything about this invisible thing that was gobbling up ping pong balls.  Tommie came out first, hands folded together at his stomach like he was holding something.  We could hear Susie running through the house, screaming at Tommie, "Give it back!" she was saying, "Give it back!"  Tommie stopped right in the middle of this group of adults, thinking it would be a safe place from his sister's wrath.

"Hey, Tommie . . .," Hank said, holding up a ping pong ball.

I could see the look on Tommie's face and knew he was thinking he'd rather face his sister's wrath than play another game of ping pong with his dad -- until of course Hank threw the ball up in the air and it disappeared -- then Tommie's mouth hung wide open and he went "Ooooooooh!".

It was something of a magical moment there for just a few seconds, then Susie came rushing up, "Give it back!".  Tommie looked at his sister, then looked up there where the ping pong ball had disappeared, then rared back and with all his might hurled something right at that spot -- it looked brown and furry and we thought it might be one of Susie's small stuffed animals except we heard some sort of chittering from it -- then it disappeared.

Susie looked up at where whatever it was that was hers had disappeared, then looked at Tommie and that was the most hateful look I had seen for a long time.  "Where'd it go?" she yelled,"What'd you do with Fluffie?"

"He's up there," Tommie said with a look of mock bereavement on his face.

"I want my Fluffie back!" Susie screamed at the top of her voice, "I want my gerbil back!"

Then Tommie took off across our yard and Susie ran after him.  Lucky for Tommie that the ten foot chain link fence runs between our yard and the city park, and he could climb it and she couldn’t, or else I think Susie would have murdered him

After things had settled down a little – actually we were expecting Susie to ambush Tommie at some time – so “settled down” really was a relative thing – Hank left, then came back with a couple of boxes of ping pong balls that he had bought at the toy store in the mall.  He dragged a couple of lawn chairs out by the table and motioned for me to join him.

“Here!”, he said, as he threw me a couple of packs of balls.  Lets have some fun.  He started tossing the ping pong balls up in the air.  At first, they all came down.  I tossed too - -what the heck.  We threw them up farther and farther until some began disappearing like the first several.  Tommie came up.

“Can I throw some?” he asked.

“Sure!” Hank answered, “See where we’ve been throwing ours?”  And he threw one up to that “disappearing spot, as he began to call it.

So Tommie started throwing.  More and more of his disappeared as he got more accurate.  Oh to be a child again, with all that energy and ability I thought.

So Monday came around and I came home from work.  Grabbed a beer from the fridge and set up the TV on the back patio, ready to watch a little baseball.  There, in Hank’s back yard, was a bunch of kids.

“That’s a lot of hooey!” I heard one say.

“You’re puttin’ us on!”

“No!  It’s true!” I heard Tommie say.

I watched as ping pong balls arched up from the crowd and fall back to earth.  I breathed a sigh of relief.  No more disappearing I thought.

“See!” the one said, “I told you so!”

A chorus of groans and catcalls and such went up from the crowd.  Then a ball arched up higher than the others and in that certain spot and didn’t fall back to earth.

Oooohs and aaaaahs came up from the crowd.

“See?  I told you!!!!”

“Let’s see that again!!!”

“You gotta pay first!!!”

“How much?”

There was a pause, then.

“I’ll make you a special introductory offer – a dollar apiece for today only – until I run out of ping-pong balls.”

After a while, Hank came home and drove all the kids away, to the usual kid complaining, then came over to my patio and sat down, lit a cigarette, opened up my cooler and grabbed a beer.

“Ya ain’t got much beer in here?”

“A six pack is fine – usually don’t drink all of it anyway.”

“I remember – ya just can’t hold your liquor.”

“Hey!” he said, “What do ya think that is?  – That place over where things disappear?”

“I have no idea.”

“It’s really eerie, ain’t it?”

“You know,” I said, “it really is strange – some unexplained phenomenon.”

“They say that old tree is haunted.  You think maybe I should have it cut down?”

“Don’t know.”

“Don’t know about what?  The tree being haunted or whether I should have it cut down.”

“Don’t know either one.”

“Well – I’m a gonna cut it down!!!   I don’t care what it costs!!”

Actually, he did care what it cost – later that week a tree service estimator came by and gave him a figure and Hank just about flipped out.  But what really persuaded Hank to keep the tree was that after school, Tommie was charging kids to come into the yard and throw ping-pong balls up there – now Tommie was pretty shrewd – he sold the ping balls individually – 50 cents apiece of three for a dollar, and the kids would heave them up there and more came down than disappeared – so they’d buy more.  Hank saw Tommie making all that money from the kids – not just neighborhood kids either – a lot of kids we’ve never seen before –  kids on bicycles running through the driveways and throwing their bikes against my car as they ran to the back and climbing on the tree and throwing sticks and stuff where the ball disappeared -- the small things disappeared but the bigger things dropped right through as if nothing were there -- they'd disappear, then they’d reappear again and drop to the ground like nothing had happened. The kids would pick them up and look at them and I expected maybe they’d get a burnt hand or something like that -- but nothing like that ever happened and the kids would take the sticks and stuff home and tell their moms and the other kids where they got them and you'd see more kids riding their bikes through our driveways and throwing their bikes all over.

So Hank told Tommie that he had to fork over a percentage since it was Hank’s house, after all, and Tommie wasn’t paying the mortgage or anything – Hank was barely paying the mortgage.

Then the parents came over.  Really mad, too.  “What is this – your kid taking our kids’ money for some foolishness!!!”  Then Hank took them in the back yard and threw ping-pong balls up to where they’d disappear.

And there were the other people.  Hank would come out and put on a show for them by throwing ping pong balls up there and when they disappeared, the people would oooh and aaah and look wide-eyed at what had happened.

So Hank started charging those people for the “privilege” of watching ping-pong balls disappear.

So one day after work, Hank came over, said, “I need your help.  Get in the car.”

Of course I went with him.  No use saying no.

"Where are we going?"  I asked, gripping the door handle and dashboard for dear life against the swervings of the car around the corners.

"Sit back and relax, Fred," he said (right, I thought),"We're just going to invest in scientific research."

Where's he come off using all these big words I wondered.

Hank pulled into the mall and we got out of the car and I followed Hank up to the sporting goods store.

At the counter, he said, "Gimme all your ping pong balls!"

The high schooler who was the clerk took Hank back to the ping pong ball shelf.

"This is it,"  he said.

"That's all?"  Hank asked, a little agitated, "Don't ya have any more?"

"That's all we have."

"Why don't ya look back in your storeroom and see if ya got any more at all."

"I know we don't.  This is it."

The manager came out from the back at the ruckus.

"What's the matter?"  he asked the clerk.

"Is something wrong?"  he asked Hank.

"I need more ping pong balls."  Hank said.

"This is all we have,"  the manager replied.

"That's what I told him,"  the clerk said, "but he insisted . .. "

"This is a sports store!"  Hank said, "You're s'posed ta have plenty a everything."

"Yer sure ya ain't got any more in the back room?" he asked.

The manager was silent for a minute, thinking, I'm sure. Then he want back into the back.   When he came back out, he was rolling a two-wheeler loaded with boxes.  They were covered with dust like they'd been back there for years.  Looking through the clear plastic windows, you could see multi-colored ping pong balls.

"We have these,"  the manager said.

 Hank whipped out his charge card without saying a word. Well, he did say something as he left.

"We got ghosts by th' old haunted tree that're eatin' up our ping pong balls!  If ya don't believe me, C'mon out 'n see!"

Now, everyone in this end of town knows about that tree. The legends that go with it are -- well -- legendary.  Once Hank had mentioned the tree, the manager and the boy were ushering people out and everyone in sight was talking about "that old haunted tree".  The crowd following in our wake as we left the mall was like a bunch of groupies after a rock star.

“Now we’re really gonna rake in the dough,” he said, as we pulled out of the parking lot.

So, as we, and who knows how many other carloads of people got back to Hank's house, there we saw, in front, police cars.

"Ohmigod!" Hank said, "Louise's had a heart attack -- those ping pong balls were too much for her!"

Around back, with the crowd following, we saw Louise and Sally having coffee with about a half dozen police men and women, and several other people were there.

“What happened?” Hank asked, “Somebody get hurt?  Did that tree do something to somebody?”

One of the police officers replied, “Several parents of the kids that have been coming over called us, complaining about what they perceived as a fraudulent taking of their children’s money. So we came to investigate.”

“You told em that the whole thing’s legit, didn’t you Sally?”

“I even showed them how the balls disappeared,” Sally replied.

“Then, what’s the trouble, officer?”

“You are running a business without a license, and you aren’t zoned to operate a carnival show in this neighborhood.  So you will either have to dismantle the tree or move it to a proper zone.”

Hank was thinking.

How come you have all these people here?" Louise asked, indicating, of course, the crowd that was now trampling allover the lawns -- Hank's and mine.

"I couldn't stop them!" Hank replied.

Of course he couldn't, especially when it meant money, but much more than that:  notoriety and maybe new "friends" he could show off to.

So here he was and of course he started showing off.

"Get back!" he yelled at those who nearest the tree, "No tellin' what cn happen!"

Three of the police started moving the crowd back.

A couple of the others, who had been down there before Hank came back with his crowd, and had been lobbing Hank’s precious ping pong balls up to that spot, were still doing it.

Hank noticed that he wasn't the center of attention, now that the police who were throwing the balls were, and the spot near the tree where they had disappeared.  I looked at him and knew jealousy was setting in and he was about to say something stupid.

"Look," he said to the police officers who were throwing the balls, "you ain't doin' it right -- you've got to do this scientifically."

"Well, hotshot," a female officer replied, "we're going to do just that.  We've called the FBI and the CIA and they’re coming out to investigate.  You have to leave the tree as it is until they come.

Wait a minute, I thought – one says either move it or dismantle it – and the other says leave it alone – which is it?

"Well, ya don't hafta make a federal case out of it." Hank said.  Now, I knew Hank was joking, but I could tell the lady cop wasn’t amused.  Hank's big mouth was getting him in trouble again, I thought.  But then Sally took the lady cop around the front of the house and a few minutes later they both came back, laughing and smiling.

Then, early one Saturday morning -- I ask myself how come all this happens on a Saturday morning when I want to sleep late?-- I woke up to what felt like an earthquake and looked out our bedroom window (which faced Hank's house across our two driveways) to see coveralled men lugging big wooden black boxes out to Hank's yard and setting them in a circle around where the ping pong balls had disappeared, several men and women in white coats standing around and a few of them directing the coveralled men in where to put the black boxes.  Then the coveralled men took crowbars and hammers and started taking apart the black boxes, with the people in the white coats yelling at them and putting out their hands to stop them from hitting the boxes or when it seemed they were probably being too rough in what they were doing for the white coats' sensibilities.

Directly across, in Hank's bedroom window, appeared Hank’s face, smiling.  He waved his hand and nodded his head in a gesture motioning me to meet him in the back yard.  I backed away from the window and there Sally was, right next to me.

"You aren't going out there, are you?"  she asked me.

"Well, Hank wants me to."

"When are you going to stop doing everything Hank wants you to?"

I put my shirt and pants on.

"I guess when he stops being Hank."

"We all know when that'll be, don't we?"

As I walked out the back door, I heard her shouting, "Then I guess you'll go ice skating with him and the Devil down there, won’t you?  --- NO!  You'll be too busy playing ping pong!"

I could tell she was mad.  I started over to Hank's.  He met me there right between our two driveways.

"I wonder what'll happen if you lose to the Devil, as you always do with Hank!"   Sally yelled out the back door,  "I know! I know what Hell is now!  --- It's you and Hank playing ping pong forever!  It's Hell for all of us!!!"

I thought about that last statement -- it was too awful to contemplate.

"What's she sayin' Fred?"  Hank asked.

"She burnt the toast,"  I replied.  "I see you have company,"  I said, pointing at the commotion in Hank's back yard-- hoping to change the subject] 

"What're they doin', Fred?"  Hank asked.

"Darned if I know,"  I replied.

Hank then walked right up to the man who looked like he was in charge and started talking. Then he came back right away.

"They're scientists 'n' they say they've been sent here ta find out what that thing is up there.  Not very cordial, though -- that guy," he said, pointing at a tall, bulky bodied man with thick black, curly hair and a really thick mustache, " -- the head honcho – I guess he's the big cheese -- all he told me was they came in to find out what's goin' on -- then he told me to bug off – to stay outta th' way while they get that stuff setup."

On the sidewalk a crowd was gathering -- older folks who had gotten out of their cars and the kids on their bicycles -- they were too scared of those big black boxes and wires to ride between our houses now.

We watched from there between our two houses as the sides of the boxes came off to reveal big black metal boxes of some sort, and the white coats took screwdrivers and took panels off and other men with grey uniforms climbed on the electric poles in back and attached big wires to the boxes there and brought them to around the black metal boxes and the panels were all off of the boxes now and you could see video screens and dials and needles and they plugged the boxes into the wires and the screens lit up and the dials and needles moved and digital numbers lit up and the coveralled men brushed by us with metal adjustable stools with cushioned tops and left and all that was left were the white coats sitting on their stools looking at the screens and dials and needles and digital numbers and starting printers up that clacked away and typing at keyboards that must have connected with computers.

Then the grey uniformed people came by us, with big wires and plugged them into the black boxes and we looked out toward the street and saw that the wires all ran into this big truck trailer.

"What's that?"  Hank, pointing at the trailer, asked one of the grey uniformed people who was leaving the back yard.

"Main computer,"  she told us.

"Who are you?"  Hank asked her.

"Electrician,"  she answered, then walked quickly out to the van where the other electricians were waiting.

"You think we should go see what they're doin'?"  Hank asked as we turned back toward the scientists in the back yard.

"We don't know anything about whatever it is they're doing?" I answered, hoping to deter Hank -- but I knew not knowing about something has never deterred Hank from doing it in the past, so why should it stop him now.

"We can just watch."  He said, and started back.

Just then, a brisk form jostled past us and headed right up toward the man Hank had described as the "big cheese".  You could see them talking under their breath, in very excited tones and one or the other of them shaking his head just as excitedly atone time or another.  Then the man who had pushed past us came up.  He was dressed in a really good looking suit -- tie and vest and everything -- and his hair was slicked back -- not a thread on his suit or a hair on his head out of place -- dark eyes that really looked like they meant business]  "I'm Hugh,"  he said, "and I'm in charge of this project --to see that it accomplishes everything set out for it -- and I don't want any civilians hanging around, messing things up.  You understand?"

"Hugh who?"  Hank asked, then started laughing.

Hugh didn't look impressed.

"Is that supposed to be funny?" he said.

"Hugh who!"  Hank said, "You know!  -- Hugh who? Like yoo hoo?  You know -- . . . "

Hugh didn't look amused.  He just stood there.

"There are millions of dollars involved here.  Any little snafu can throw the whole thing into a cocked hat.  I don't want that.  My job is to save the taxpayers money," he said.

Boy, if he didn't sound and look just like Jack Webb as Joe Friday.  That was the scary thing -- to me at least -- Hank --well, he was standing there, holding back a smile -- you know, the way people do when they just can't keep a straight face, with the lips puffing out and the eyes glazing over and all sorts of trembling going on.

"I"m serious,"  Hugh said, "and you're not."

Hank bent over laughing.  I thought to myself -- this is going to be a long time of it.  Hank began choking and I slapped his back to help him and tried to straighten him up and look him in the eyes and talk to him.

"Come on,"  I said, "Hugh's right.  We've got to stay out of their way."

"You're right, Hugh,"  Hank said -- then "Where's Hugh?"

I looked around.  Hugh was gone.

Apparently, the scientists had brought the latest in radar and sonar and all other types of equipment and experimental things.  Those needles were flopping and those dials were moving back and forth and the digital numbers were lighting up like crazy and the printers were throwing out miles of paper.

"Jist like the govament,"  Hank said, "Using up taxpayers’ money on stupid stuff like this."

"What's stupid about it?"  I asked, "That's something we can’t explain and they want to explain it."

"Heck, I coulda told those FBI people what it was 'n' saved’ em a whole lotta trouble!"  Hank said confidently.

"Well, what is it?" I asked him.  I hoped I'd corner him on this one.  But just then, one of the scientists came up to us. We were at the border of our yards, talking.

"If nobody's told you before,"  he said, "You're going to have to move your cars out of your driveways."

"What the heck for?"  Hank asked.

"Well, it seems that you're messing up our wires and disconnecting them,"  the white coat explained, "We only have two weeks to find something here.  If you keep disconnecting our wires, we won't begin to find anything."

"Now, wait!"  Hank said, "this is our property!  You mean you govament men can jist go roughhouse all over people's private property without . . . "

"You're getting paid, aren't you?"  the scientist said.

"Well, yeah,"  Hank replied, "but . . . "

"Well, that settles it."  And the white coat walked away.

I turned to Hank.

"I didn't know you were getting paid for this,"  I said.

"Well, not exactly -- you know the govament -- they . . . "

"Maybe I ought to let them in my back yard -- and I'll get paid, too."

"Well, the thing ain't in your back yard, big shot!"  Hank said, then went into his house.

I went into my kitchen, wondering how much Hank was getting paid for all those scientists being in his backyard and saw Sally there at the table, sorting out the mail.

"Did you know," I began, "that Hank's getting paid . . . "

"Look!" she said, "We got a check from the government for them stretching their wires down our driveway!"

I grabbed it out of her hand and opened the envelope and looked at the amount on the check.  I immediately went outside and pulled the car out of the driveway and parked it in front. If they were going to pay us that much money, I figured, the least I could do was cooperate.  I still wondered how much Hank was getting.  Hank was moving his car too.  I looked at the crowd lining the sidewalk and all the kids with their bikes.  I thought of all the dings and chips my car would get -- and I thought of the check from the government -- what the heck!  I thought and I parked the car.

A couple of the FBI men who looked and talked just like Hugh stood in the driveways, telling people they couldn't come back there -- people backed away and stayed on the sidewalk.  I mean, if you came up against somebody who looked and talked just like Hugh, wouldn't you do the same?  Kids went white and stayed on the other side of the street.

The next Saturday morning, while Sally and our children and I were having our breakfast together, the head scientist appeared at the back sliding door, knocking at the glass.

"Hi," I said as I slid open the door.

"I need to use your phone," he said, "The government will compensate you."

"That's no problem,"  I said, "as long as it's not long-distance."

Sally looked at me and I caught myself.

"Oh, that's all right," I said, but the man had already dialed and was talking to whoever he was calling.

After a few minutes he hung up the phone.

Turning to me and holding out his hand, he said, "My name’s George.  I'm sorry for all the inconvenience, but, you see, we’re sort of behind the eight ball here, trying to find out what that occurrence is in your neighbor's back yard and the top men breathing down our necks and Hugh looking over our shoulders."

"Hugh's a scary person,"  I said.

"You're telling me!"  George said, "He just stands around, waiting -- like some vulture just waiting for us to fail!"

"He looks like a vulture anyway,"  I said.

"Breakfast?"  It was Sally, with a clean plate in her hand.

George took one good sniff of the eggs and bacon and toast.

"What the hell!"  he said.

I could tell the smells were getting the best of him.  He sat down and when Sally sat the plate in front of him, he shoveled down that food like he was starving.

"I get tired of all that healthy stuff!"  he said,"Sometimes you just have to settle for good tasting food that somehow feels substantial going down!"

In a little while some of the rest of the scientists were peering in our back door.  George turned red.

"Mind if they come in?"  he asked.

"Of course not!"  Sally said, "I can . . . "

"Wait a minute!"  I said, " - - if you think you're going to. . . "

"Just being neighborly,"  she said.

"I'll help,"  I told her.

As they came in, George introduced them.

"This is Herbert,"  he said, as a light sandy haired, rather sturdy looking man sat down, "and Herman,"  as an older man, although not too old, with brown, thinning hair and an egg-shaped face and wire rimmed glasses sat down, "and Barbara," as a short, younger, woman with dark, wavy hair down past her shoulders sat down, "these are my chief assistants."

So Sally and I rustled up scrambled eggs, bacon and toast for the crew and they all wolfed it all down like they were starving.

"Thanks,"  George said after everybody else had left, "I'll make certain you're compensated for your hospitality.

"Oh, it's all right,"  Sally said, "It's a pleasure having such good company."

Once George was back in Hank's yard, she turned to me and said, "Boy, they sure are unsociable -- they hardly said a word to us – or even to each other all the time they were in my kitchen."

But, once we had "got acquainted" this way, I was welcome anytime I wandered over to where the scientists were working. Hank, on the other hand -- well, I think that first meeting must have done it -- whatever he said -- it must have really turned George off, because whenever Hank came around, George acted pretty cold toward him.

It was the next Saturday that Hugh came back, with five men all dressed exactly like him, with the same hair style and the same Jack Webb as Joe Friday Matter of Fact style of speaking. They talked to George; then Herman, then Herbert and Barbara came up and the three of them joined in talking with Hugh and the other five just like him.  When it was over, Hugh and the other men in suits left and, once the car they were in pulled away from the curb, George and the others gave high fives all around.  Then all the scientists took off their white coats and worked in leisure clothes.

George then approached me.

"Mind if I use your phone?" he asked.

"Sure -- go right ahead,"  I said.

"I have great news to give to Howard -- Howard's the head of operations in D. C."

We were walking together toward my back door.

"We had one heck of a discussion there,"  he said, "with Hugh and the other FBI guys -- Hugh wanted to close us down this weekend -- but the others were still scared enough of that thing to let us keep working on it."

"How long are you going to stay?" I asked.

"Another two weeks."

"That's all?"

"We have two weeks to find something or else we're closed down -- and you can be sure Hugh'll be around to make sure one-way or the other."

"Well, haven't you found anything?"  I asked HRt]  "Nothing at all."  George said, and he was pessimistically definite about that.

"What's with all these instruments then?"  I asked.

"Well, for one thing,"  George told me, "These are instruments that have never been used."

"Not at all?"  I asked.

"Not at all -- we've been itching to use them, but could find reason to -- until now.  We were hoping that they might give us some clue about what that thing is."

So they started in.  First, they had a six foot chain link fence put up around the front of Hank's yard and across the driveways and down between our houses and along the property line to keep people out.  Kids just came in through the gate in the fence at the city park and lined the fence the scientists had put up, looking at all the goings on.  And every day for two weeks, the kids had a show put on for them.  The scientists tried everything they could think of, from all angles -- up, down, sideways and all over.  They shot sonic waves, light waves, laser waves and every sort of waves except water at that spot -- and came up with nothing.  Nothing showed on their instruments.  The invisible thing that had swallowed up so many ping pong balls was invisible to all their fancy equipment too. 

It was the middle of the second week and they hadn't found anything.  Not a blip on their scanners or any odd pattern on their printouts – and they had filled a truck with the paper that was used.

I came home that Wednesday afternoon and there was Hugh, standing in between Hank and my driveways, watching with those cold, expressionless reptile eyes of his all the doings of the scientists.

"Saturday."  was all he said, as the scientists looked at him and as I walked past, just about to say hello.  Then he turned and left.

Well, Saturday morning came and Hugh came.  It was dark when he came.  I heard neighbor dogs barking and barking.I didn’t hear anything else, but I had this sudden urge to look out the bedroom window.  It was sort of frightening.  There Hugh was, just standing there, on the strip of grass between Hank’s driveway and mine, just standing there.  Then I realized he had something in his hand.  I couldn't tell what it was at first, but when he unfolded it and sat it down and sat in it, I knew what it was -- a lawn chair.  He just sat there, in his suit and his hair combed just so and he sat straight and still, almost like a statue.  I couldn't sleep any more that morning and every once in a while I'd look out the window and there was Hugh, sitting just like he'd sat when he first sat down in that lawn chair -- like he hadn't moved all morning.

The day got light and Hugh was still sitting there.  The scientists came to start up their equipment, walking briskly from the curb and talking excitedly -- until they saw Hugh with his back to them; then they went back to the car and put on their white coats, then walked quietly around him and began turning on their machines.

Once they had settled down and were concentrating on their instruments, Hugh spoke.

"You haven't found anything, have you?"

"We just got here,"  George said.

"You haven't found anything, have you.", he said, quietly emphatic.

"We have until six."  George said, "There's no use sitting around watching us like that.  Why don't you come back at six?"

"You haven't found anything, have you."

"We have till six!"  George shouted.

"Come on," Hugh said,  "Admit it.  You haven't found anything.  You don't even know if that thing's there or not.  For all you know, it could have just disappeared or moved off somewhere else.  Personally, I think the whole thing's some sort of a hoax -- these guys have got you all fooled -- they just found out a really inventive way to get government money."

Hank and I were at our back doors, looking at the proceedings.  We looked at each other.  What's with this guy?  I thought.

"I'll wait right here,"  Hugh said,  "And if you haven’t found anything by six o'clock this evening, then I'll call the movers to move you out."  He had his cell phone in his hand

George and the rest of the scientists looked pretty glum.  For all their instruments banging back and forth at that thing, they couldn't tell a darn thing about it -- Hugh was right --they didn't even know if it was there or not.

Then Hank did it.  I don't really think I need to tell you -- if you can't guess by now what happened, then you don't know Hank --and I've told you everything you need to know about Hank.

Well, I guess I'd better tell you -- you wouldn't understand what happened next.  It was about Noon and we were all waiting around and Sally and Louise were bored and tired of all these scientists and the hubbub and were looking forward gladly to when the scientists left, and, oddly enough, I was bored and tired of all this pandemonium and I was looking forward to when they'd leave -- after all, they hadn't found anything.  And, finally, Hank was bored . . .  and that was dangerous.

He had slugged down a couple of beers, and was sort of milling around restlessly, and had that look on his face when he was searching for an idea -- I watched him as he looked around for something to do -- I should have known -- I should have figured that as soon as he came out from his regular appointment with the porcelain throne it was coming -- he hadn't had his injection of triumph at -- you know what it is -- for a couple of weeks, now – then when I saw his gaze settle on the ping pong table there under the tree (it hadn't been moved all the time the scientists had been there with their equipment -- Louise wouldn’t let it back in the basement and Hank wasn't about to lift a finger to clear off the patio for it, and I guess it wasn't in the scientists' way), I knew.  He had that "idea" look on his face -- the one I looked out for -- when he was going to come up with something that all the rest of us usually regret.  I started to go inside the house, watching uneasily over my shoulder, but I saw him walk toward the scientists and I "sat easy in the saddle"-- I wasn't his target.

They were seriously bent over their instruments and keyboards and there was Hank, coming right at them with his beer cooler in his hand, obviously full of cold brews.  Then he passed them up and walked over to the ping pong table and set the cooler at the base of the tree and took out of his pocket -- how'd you guess? -- a ping pong ball.  He bounced it on the table a couple of times and then picked up the paddle from the table and bounced the ball between the paddle and the table a couple of times.

The scientists, obviously perturbed by the constant clacking of the ball, looked up at Hank.  George motioned for them all to gather around him, then they talked in low tones in a huddle fora few minutes; then they broke from the huddle and it was Herman who walked over to Hank.

"You play ping pong?"  Herman asked.

That's like asking a fish if it swims.

"I just dabble a little,"  Hank replied

Yeah, right -- I've been Hank's "dabbling" partner constantly for years -- maybe he's found a new partner now.

"Well, I've played a little myself,"  Herman said, "You look like you're anxious to play a few rounds."

Anxious? -- Anxious? -- Hank was about to burst!  Anyone could see he was just itching to take anyone on -- even if it meant -- no -- Hank would never even contemplate taking a chance on losing – maybe that's why he chose the scientists -- he must have figured they'd be ping pong pushovers.

It started out all right -- Hank slammed a few balls by Herman.  But then Herman seemed to be getting the rhythm of the game and coming back.  Hank paused, reached in the cooler and brought out a couple cans and held them toward Herman.

"Want one?"  he asked.

Herman seemed to be thinking a minute; then he turned toward George and the rest, who were standing in a line, watching. George shrugged his shoulders and held his hands out.  One of the younger men nodded as if to say "Go ahead!" 

Herman said, "Don't mind if I do!" and slogged down the beer as if he hadn't had a drink in his life.  I looked over at Hugh, sitting there in that lawn chair on the grass between our driveway, just like he hadn't moved since he sat down, and he had a very self satisfied look on his face -- sort of like that mysterious expression of the Mona Lisa  . . . ?

Hank and Herman went back at it again.  George left the scientist audience and came over to me.

"I think I'll need your phone again,"  he said, "to tell the chief that it's over -- kaput!"

"Can't find anything?"  I asked.

"Nothing at all -- like ol' Friday there said, we don't even know if it's there -- or if it's gone somewhere else -- whatever it is.

"We're pretty disappointed -- and this looked so promising, too."

A shout from the scientists brought our attention back to the ping pong game.  It looked like this was beginning to be an exciting game, and Herman seemed to be holding his own against Hank.

"I'm just a little rusty,"  Hank said, huffing and puffing,"You'll get yours."

It looked like Hank was losing.

"It's just as well,"  George was saying, "This way they can let off steam.  Might as well -- they're hit pretty hard by the disappointment -- this might just be the respite they need."

I could tell George was disappointed too.  But, as much as I felt for them, I was still really relieved that this was just about over with.

"Got you now!"  Hank shouted as he blasted one over to Herman -- but Herman backed off and caught up with it.  But when he finally made contact, he was so off balance that he hit a high looper that went right up toward the tree branches just like the one I hit that disappeared did.  All eyes were on it.  Mine in particular -- I hoped for all it was worth that this ball wouldn’t disappear like mine did.

Well, it did.

George went running back over there and the other scientists just stared up into the tree and Hugh -- well old eagle eye Hugh Friday rose up out of his chair and then and there I knew that he knew that the scientists knew that it wasn't over yet and, although I hate to think I think like Hugh, I felt just as disappointed as it looked like he looked that that ping pong ball had disappeared.

Sally was right by my side at the time and as soon as that happened, went right back to the house.

"Oh, no!"  she said, and muttered something else.

Louise, on their patio, had the weirdest look on her face.

"Let's play!"  Hank said, "Don't pay any attention to that!"

Right -- like telling your cat not to pay any attention to your goldfish.

Hank served to Herman again, but, instead of hitting the ball back to Hank, Herman caught it and threw it up toward the"hole" and it disappeared.  Then all the scientists collectively got that "idea" look on their faces.

Anyway, the scientists used up all of the ping pong balls Hank had there, watching them disappear and ooohing and aaahing

  George came back over to me and asked to use our phone.  I said yes and Sally looked at me like she would never forgive me for this.  I looked at her and shrugged, trying to say by my motions, "What're you blaming ME for?"

Then the rest of the scientists rushed down to the mall to pick up more ping pong balls at the toy store.  Now, Mack, the toy store manager, had a storeroom full of them.  You see, he was expecting Hank to come back at any minute for more.  But after waiting for so long and nobody as much as sneezing at his ping-pong balls, he was beginning to regret having ordered so many. He had been able to make a deal with other stores to buy his balls at a discount price just to get rid of useless inventory and trucks were outside the loading dock to pick them up when the scientists came in -- they paid Mack three times the regular price for the balls and grabbed them right off the trucks -- and then had to pay the truck drivers five times the price. 

Now it took some doing to get those ping pong balls up there to that "hole" -- it was pretty high and those scientists' arms were not really trained for a sort of thing like throwing a ping-pong ball that high -- except for Herbert, and pretty soon, they had him doing all the throwing  -- and after a while, even he got tired.  That's understandable, because they finally figured out about high off the ground it was.  They were figuring it to be about 13 feet off the ground.

They were rubbing their arms and standing around looking at that place where the ping pong balls had disappeared and looked at the wall of boxes they had around them and I could tell they were wondering how in the world they were ever going to get all those ping pong balls up there -- after all, they'd just spent a whole lot of the government's money on them.

Then Tommie came out with his ping pong ball shooting gun and lobbed a few up there at the hole with hardly any effort at all.  The scientists all got that "idea" look again.

They rushed down to the toy store at the mall again, just as Mack had locked up and was heading out the main door and the mall guards were locking all the doors behind them.  They persuaded(government money is a big persuader) the guards to reopen the doors and bought out the Mack's supply of ping pong ball shooting guns.

With their new artillery, they were shooting ping pong balls at that "hole" like mad and aiming all their instruments at it and writing things down and printing things out.  Hugh had left.

Finally, the next day, they had called the media out to make what appeared to be a serious pronouncement.

"It is, as far as we can determine," George said, sort of triumphantly, "a perfect sphere.  Perfect spheres are not found in nature.  Therefore, we conclude that this is not natural."

 Heck, I could have told them that.  There wasn't anything natural about it from the start.

 They also announced that they determined this sphere to be twenty five centimeters in diameter and that it stood perfectly still and that it was exactly four point three five meters above the ground.  Now, how they could tell all this with a bunch of ping pong balls I don't know, but they talked like they knew what they were doing.

With this new information, the scientists got a one month extension to their project.  When Hugh came back, he had just about the most disappointed look on his face I'd seen in anybody.  Now, he'd have to hang around as long as the Government gave the scientists the money to check out what was happening here, and it was for sure that this was not what he wanted.

Well, all the toy stores in the area bought tons of ping-pong balls – and that's a lot, when you consider that these little suckers don't weigh all that much -- and enough ping pong ball shooters to equip an army.  They were expecting to make a mint off of what everybody now called "The Sphere".

What the toy store managers hadn't figured on, of course, was the U.S. Government, which can pay ten times more wholesale for such a thing as a ping pong ball than anyone in their right mind reasonably would pay retail.  Once the scientists had phoned in the report of their findings, money started pouring in for "Project Perfect Sphere", as they called it.  And someone upstairs, probably influenced by some senators whose districts included ping pong ball manufacturers, sent down the directive to"requisition all ping pong balls through 'proper channels'".  So the scientists had to fill out all these pages of forms, right there on Louise's patio table, in triplicate, and send them by express Mail (working for the Government, they were obliged to use the U. S. Postal Service) to Washington D. C.

Of course, these weren't regular ping pong balls – plastics company designers used computers to design a perfect sphere, of the perfect size and weight for the purpose of throwing them into The Sphere; then plastics companies had to develop the perfect plastic, taking they said thousands of man-hours to develop it and test it; then oil companies had to test all their wells for the perfect oil for the perfect plastic and even had to drill brand new wells in places that expert geologists took long hours poring charts and graphs choosing and some of the drill bits broke and they had to start over again and finally, in some wells in remote Argentina they found the perfect oil; and whole new machines had to be tooled to form the ping-pong balls perfectly; and drying and cooling racks had to be designed perfectly so the balls would come out perfect -- and quality control engineers had to carefully inspect each one to assure that it was, in actuality perfect -- and special containers had to be designed for the balls and trucks had to outfitted specially so that the "timbre" of the balls (that’s what they called it) would not be marred.-- or so the scientists were told.

The first six truckloads of these specially made ping pong balls arrived at Hank's door the day after they were ordered.  The Two-Hundred Dollar Ping Pong Ball was in the news for months.

And the toy stores were loaded down with ping pong balls and ping pong ball shooters that they couldn't sell.  But that didn’t last for long though, because one of the toy store owners(not Mack -- that was his problem -- not inventive enough) finally came up with the brilliant idea of calling the guns "Sphere Shooters", and the ping pong balls, "Sphere Bullets" and putting a fancy design on them.  Some big toy company eventually bought the idea from the "inventor" and made him a rich man and he sold-out his store and retired to New Mexico somewhere.

Now that the money had started rolling in for their project, the scientists ordered stuff like crazy.

Bigger black boxes, sonar, radar, oscilloscopes, other scopes, TV screens and computers -- all shapes and sizes of computers -- dozens of computers -- computers that talked, computers that saw, computers that fried eggs -- really!  Another big truck trailer -- bigger than the first one -- this one took up Hank's front yard and half of mine -- was parked in front of Hank's house and it was one big computer -- nothing but.  The scientists hooked up to the outside where they had outlets with their keyboards and monitors and typed furiously -- more and more scientists came and a lot of them spent their time huddled over the computers furiously typing away at the keyboards.

 Well, here I was, just flabbergasted with all this equipment-- then there was Hank.  You should know Hank by now.  He, of course, knew everything there was to know about computers.  One day, while I was looking over the shoulder of one of the scientists at the big computer at our curb, amazed at all that was happening here, Hank came up, right at my elbow. and started talking.

"Do you know, Fred," -- now Hank was talking in that, academic type of voice he uses sometimes when trying to impress someone he knows is really smart -- in this case, the scientist at the keyboard -- "that the components (now wait a minute I say-- he's really making an effort here -- he's never used a big word like that before!) of that piece of equipment are made under the most strict conditions and that it takes twenty times more time to make each one than it would its comparable counterpart. ("What's this with these big words?"  I asked myself, "Hank doesn’t know big words like that") on a less expensive computer."

Who was he trying to impress, anyway?

"See that little spring right there?" he went on, "That was my idea.  I took it to the head guy of the Govament's computer department right here in town and showed it to him.  He told me it wasn't no good.  Later on I found my drawin's for it were stolen.  So that's where it went to!  I'd sue these guys 'cept ya can't sue the Govament."

I looked at the spring.  It looked just like the one I had picked up at the hardware store just the other day.

But Hank wasn't finished yet.  He went on and on.  "I coulda saved 'em a lot of money by cuttin' corners an' gittin' rid a' the waste.  A' course that's not the way the Government does things -- they like to waste us taxpayers money.  These guys don’t care a' course 'cause they don't haf ta pay the bills."

Hank was talking pretty loud here and I could see the expressions on the faces of the scientists.  I could tell Hank was wearing out his welcome with them pretty fast here.

The scientists had the truck put right in our driveways inside the chain-link fence and this time the fence went clear around the front and guards were around the whole thing to keep people out.  For awhile they seemed content to let both Hank and me watch what they were doing; but Hank kept hanging over their shoulders all the time and telling them how they could do things better, like he was an expert of some kind.  People can only stand so much of that kind of stuff -- and when you know that the other guy doesn't know diddley about what you spent all your life learning about -- well . . .

  Crowds kept hanging around and reporters and such and they decided to tear down the six foot fence and put up a ten footer because some people, mostly kids at night, would climb over the old fence.So here I was with this ten foot chain link fence with barbed wire at the top right next to our house and running all the way down our yard line to the fence at the town park --it looked awful!  I just hoped they'd get finished and get out of here and take the fence with them really soon -- just in case I’d have to sell my house sometime in the future -- this wouldn't Be a good selling point.

A few days after they put up the ten foot fence all around Hank's yard, I came home from work and had just closed the door to my car when there was Hank, right in my face as I turned around.

"You know what they did?" he was saying, "They jist about ruined my yard!"

"What do you mean,"  I asked.  I knew it would have taken a lot to ruin HANK'S yard.To my mind, anything would be an improvement.

"They put up a fence in the yard."

"Well you already have a fence around it -- so what's the deal -- did they replace the chain link with cedar rail or something -- that would be picturesque -- a rail fence all around your yard -- it'd hide a lot of junk that you have."

"No -- it's not around the yard -- it's in it! Come and look."

I followed Hank back and sure as shooting, he was right. While Hank and I both had been at work, they had put up a fifteen foot high fence, with five strands of barbed wire at the top and a very heavy frame gate with a lock like you see in prison movies, right around all their equipment.

"You think we got any rights at all?"  he was asking me.

I looked over at how happy the scientists looked and how much work they were getting done and I understood what was happening.

"I guess if the price is right . . . "  I replied, knowing full well that Hank had to be getting paid for this latest addition to his yard.

"Hey!  I ain't gittin' . . . "

"Hank!"  Louise shouted from their back door, "You have to sign this check so we can deposit it into our bank account."

The fence didn't discourage Hank much, though.  He'd still hang on it every chance he got and give them his "expert" advice.

Now, some hotshot high up in the Government decided that it'd be a great idea to just grab The Sphere and take it to some isolated hangar for observation, so the Army was brought in. Some high-toned second lieutenant, right out of some podunk college ROTC program, was put in charge.  They weren't spending their own money, so they brought in everything they could to try to get it with.

They moved out all the scientific equipment and brought in boxes of their own, all in army drab and with stenciled letters and numbers – lots of numbers -- on them.  Out of some of these boxes they pulled grappling hooks and out of others, they pulled ropes.  They tied the ropes onto the hooks and tossed these  at The Sphere, hoping to hook it, I guess.It was strange, watching the hooks and ropes, whatever was moving through The Sphere at the time, disappear for the short time that they’d fall through The Sphere -- then come out whole falling through the other side.

One day, they threw hooks at it all day, trying to grab it -- there must be something there to grab on to, they said.  Then they threw a hook up and it just fell  -- I mean it wasn't like the rest, where you'd see a nice, clean, neat arc of the rope following the hook -- the hook went up at first, and the rope after it, just like normal -- then suddenly while the rope had disappeared in the middle of The Sphere, it dropped one way and the hook went off all by itself, and landed in the corner of the yard.  The rope was cut, as clean as you please, right in two. They still had the whole length of rope -- it was just cut -- and the cut was as smooth as can be.  Then they had to wait while the looey requisitioned chains to attach the hooks to; then they tossed the hooks up again until some of the chains came up cut just like the rope, cleanly in two --  and where they were cut the two pieces fitted right together as perfect as you please.

Then the next weekend I was woke up by a lot of noise.  A big diesel cab was pulling the trailer out from between the houses and workers were piling the wires up out of the way.  Then they drove two huge cranes through Hank's back yard.  they yanked that fifteen foot thigh fence out of the ground as quick as you please.  Then they took a big iron mesh net and attached it between the cranes and dragged it through The Sphere, and it passed right through The Sphere like everything else did -- it disappeared while it was in The Sphere, but it came through whole.  It was really interesting watching the middle just --well, disappear into thin air -- then reappear again -- it looked sort of like one of those eclipses, where the moon or the sun begin disappearing and you see less and less of it -- then it comes back out.  They did this again and again, passing the net through very slowly until -- you guessed it -- the net came out cut.

They took the net off the cranes and measured it -- it was exactly the size of The Sphere, as far as they could tell.  They passed more nets through The Sphere and those came out cut, too, exactly like the first one.  Then the next few days they tried thicker and stronger nets and each one came out cut just like the first ones.

Then they waited again while the looey requisitioned something else.  When it was delivered, we watched as a big box was wheeled into Hank's back yard and set down.  They didn't open this one though -- they just attached it to the cranes by the hook holds on the sides and lifted it up.

  "If that titanium box doesn't get it, nothing will!"  yelled the looey, very pleased about his decision.

One side of the box was open and some soldiers came in on  a cherry picker and they had a square of metal with them. They put the box around where everybody said The Sphere was and then welded the remaining side on.  It took all day just to do the welding -- this was the strongest welding job possible, the looey said.

"When it's finished, not even an A-Bomb can break it apart,"he said,  "That box will be so airtight, not even an atom could get out of it."

Then they moved the cranes and sat the box down on the ground and looked at it.

"Ha!" said the second looey, "That'll get you!"

"How do we know the thing's in there?" asked a corporal.

"It can't get out!"  the looey said.  It has to be in there!"

Herbert took a ping pong gun and shot a ball at where The Sphere had been all along.  The ball disappeared.

The looey looked at that spot, then looked at the box, then ordered the soldiers to cut the side off it again that had been welded on.  Of course the soldiers protested, saying it could never be done -- but the looey threatened them with court-martial and a few other things and they went right to work.  They worked a week on the box -- and still couldn't get it open.  Then the looey called up and ordered a laser torch to cut the metal with. That finally did it.

It took another three days to open up the box -- and all this time, the scientists were just standing around, watching the activities, with nothing else to do.  They sat at Louise's table on the patio and drank lemonade and sodas and Hank brought them out beers and they drank those and a few of them got in drinking contests and Hank came up and challenged them to a drinking contest and all the men said no because they had already had too much to drink and Hank would have the advantage and then he challenged Barbara – the only woman in the group -- she hadn’t had a drop -- Hank had downed a few -- and she accepted and before you knew it, Hank was stretched out on the back lawn and barbara was dancing around him, like she was doing some Scottish jig or something.

Well, the Army finally had the box ready, and this time, they were all around it and watching it and they did the same as before and placed it around The Sphere and welded the other side on -- like before, so that an A-Bomb couldn't blow it off and totally airtight – or so the looey said.  But the soldiers on the one side away from the direction the box was being moved reported that they saw a hole in the side -- it had disappeared, just like with the nets -- the side just moved cleanly through The Sphere and disappeared just like an eclipse and then reappeared again.

"Impossible!"  the looey shouted, and then he called D.C. again and ordered thicker boxes.  But the same thing happened.

During this time, Hugh came around, ready to close down the thing, because the time was up -- but the looey said this was the Army's business now and they were going to get this thing if it took till doomsday and the looey and Hugh got into a long discussion -- one that you could hear pretty well on the other side of town -- taking in the nature of both Hugh and the looey, that was to be expected.  Hugh stormed off and the looey looked very much like he had just taken San Juan Hill or something like that.  George and the rest of the scientists hung out off to the other side of my house where they laughed the most I'd heard them since they'd been here.

The boxes went up and passed through The Sphere and neat, clean, perfectly smooth holes were cut in the boxes just the same size as the holes in the nets.

Then one day the looey sent his men back to the motel where they were staying and he stayed there and looked at The Sphere – or where the scientists said it was -- nobody could see a thing. He stood and looked at it -- he moved around and looked at it --he squatted and looked at it -- he moved around and squatted and looked at it -- he walked a complete circle around it, looking at it all the time -- looking at the nothing where The Sphere was --he came up close -- ordered a couple of the scientists to move the ping pong table away -- yes the table was still there --hadn't been moved the whole time.  They did -- and it was very hard for them to do it.The second looey squatted right underneath The Sphere and looked at it.  We expected something to come out of The Sphere at any time and blow him away, but it didn’t.  Then he left.

The next morning, he came back with his men and ordered them to get up on those cranes and try to grab The Sphere with their bare hands and take it away like that.  Now, suppose you were one of those men and you'd seen what happens to ropes and chains and thick wire nets and even thick, heavy titanium boxes that it would take an A-Bomb to blow apart that have gone through The Sphere and you are told you have to put your hands on it.  It was one big lallapalooza of an argument and those men wouldn't lift a finger to touch The Sphere.  The second looey left saying he was going to bring court martial charges against the whole lot of them.

Finally, the Army left, having done all it could do and having been all it could be with The Sphere, and the scientists were left to continue their research in peace.Except of course for Hank, who came back to bother them and they put up the fence again.  At least he could give them his advice at a distance.

Then the celebs started coming by.  Carl Sagan had come around by surprise one day to see The Sphere.  He thought it might be a "station" for intergalactic travel, like in his book, Contact .  He stayed around for awhile but nothing happened so he left after a few days.  Excited people expecting that very thing to happen stayed for weeks afterward, hanging on the outer fence, especially in my yard where I had never put up a fence and where the Government felt it wasn't needed.  Of course, this irked Hank, who thought he had the "rights" to hanging around the fence, and he called the police on them a few times, but the police knew Hank and basically ignored his demands that they run all these people off.  But eventually, since these sort of people aren’t very patient, they did leave finally, not that their patience would have been rewarded, because no trains ever came through like Sagan and the believers in his book expected.

One day Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and came by -- you know -- those TV evangelists, the  700 Club  and all that -- they were amazed by it and told the scientists to keep up the good work.  Then, later, on their TV shows, they told people it was the work of the Devil and The President of the United States ought to bring in all the forces he can muster and aim missiles at it, get everybody out of the area and "just plain 'nuke' it", as they put it.

Of course, they were part of a larger crowd of onlookers, curiosity seekers, reporters, TV crews and what not that constantly ringed Hank's yard for most of the summer.  Hank really liked all the attention, though, in spite of having to share "his fence" as he was now beginning to call it, with all these "foreigners" as he called all these people; and he tried to get right in front of the cameras or right up in the reporters’ faces whenever he could and start bragging about how he had"discovered" The Sphere.  The Sphere -- The Sphere -- it was in all the headlines and for a while the first thing on TV and radio news.  And Hank's face and voice and quotes were everywhere too. It was not that the reporters didn't go around and interview the scientists and the neighbors and other people, but eventually everybody else got tired of it all and told the reporters where to get off.  Hank, though, never got tired of being in the limelight and pestered the reporters long after the neighbors and scientists were fed up with them.

Before the summer was over, though, and nothing happened around The Sphere, most of the reporters took off.  The Sphere just wasn't The News any more -- the latest flood or hurricane or earthquake or war or scandal or something like that became the big story.  Well, there were a few reporters left around long after the mainstream reporters had gone.  For weeks after the bulk of the reporters had left and nobody else talked about The Sphere, headlines were plastered all over the supermarket tabloids -- and Hank's quotes were all over them too.  Now, all it takes is a little imagination -- figure out what Hank probably said and what the supermarket rags can think of to write about, and you've created the perfect tabloid headline.  I mean, I passed by them and saw headlines and read stories saying Hank was doing things I didn't think any human being could do.  Finally, all that was left was one lone reporter, a guy named Bradford Mankiewicz from the World Galaxie, a rag you'd find on the lowest shelf at the checkout line, and a photographer named Luke; and every day, at various times, Hank would give Brad the day's "news", if you can call it that, and Brad would send stories back to his rag using Hank's phone and Louise would come out and talk to Sally about the huge phone bills -- but this way Hank’s exploits were always in the "news".

What was happening with the scientists all this time, you ask.  Well, they kept shooting those ping pong balls into The Sphere and trying to find out what was happening with it.  I mean, it was still invisible, so nobody could see it.  They tried bigger things, Nerf® balls and such, but nothing bigger than a ping pong ball would disappear into The Sphere.  Their measurements weren't all that exact, they said, so they got the Government to have someone invent a different type of ping pong ball shooter.  They wanted a bunch of ping pong balls shot from one spot so they could get a better idea of how large The Sphere was.  When it finally came, they were jumping up and down they were so happy.  It was a bunch of ping pong ball shooter barrels all put together -- about twenty barrels by twenty -- and they read over all the instructions written just for this thing and they loaded a ping pong ball into each barrel and they aimed it at The Sphere and shot it off -- and sure enough, a cloud of ping-pong balls went flying off right at The Sphere; and sure enough, a bunch of them disappeared right into it.  Then they started measuring, using the radar scopes and the sonar scopes and oscilloscopes and the other scopes and the black boxes and the computers.  They shot this barrage of ping pong balls at The Sphere for a week, twenty times at least a day, and they got those instruments going!  The next week they got in another twenty of the ping pong ball shooters and for the next week, shot all twenty one of them, with four hundred ping pong balls apiece, at least twenty times a day, right into The Sphere.  They watched as some disappeared and some didn't, and measured with all their instruments where the ping pong balls disappeared, and at the end of the week they made an announcement.

To my family and Hank's family and a few of the neighborhood children and Bradford Mankiewicz of the World Galaxie, they read a written statement.

"We cannot measure The Sphere accurately with the equipment we have at hand."

 Old Brad asked a bunch of questions about if any of the ping pong balls had been thrown back out of the sphere and if the scientists suspect extraterrestrial aliens (they'd heard this all before and if The Sphere is getting smaller or bigger and that might account for it and the scientists said it's staying about the same as far as they could tell -- only that no two measurements were the same -- and there was no ascertainable pattern to the changes.  They concluded that the method of measuring The Sphere was faulty.  That's what I thought, I said to myself.  I knew you couldn't be exact with a bunch of ping-pong balls.

Then Barbara held up a piece of the netting left over from the Army's attempts at capturing The Sphere.  "There it is, a perfect circle," she said.

"This," she said, "is the exact size of The Sphere."

Then all the rest of the scientists got that "idea look" on their faces, sort of combined with a "Why didn't WE think of this before?" look.

So they ordered the best, toughest, finest mesh netting they could, exactly calibrated so that each mesh square was exactly one millimeter.  Then they fastened the four corners of the mesh to a frame held by two cranes (they had to get their own -- the Army took theirs with them), one on each side, and passed it through The Sphere (they had to set the cranes outside of their fence, so it was sort of awkward, and approach The Sphere from away from the Tree) and their instruments were humming away there and finally one of them shouted "Eureka!" (yes, scientists get excited too and shout dumb things just like the rest of us) and they passed the mesh through a couple of more times and you could see it disappear where The Sphere was and you could see the rest of the mesh outside The Sphere, and they came out with another announcement, read from a paper.   

"We can say with surety now that The Sphere measures exactly twenty-four point nine eight six centimeters in diameter and is exactly four point eight five meters above the ground at its nearest point, which is exactly vertically beneath it."

So now they knew exactly.  Then Mankiewicz asked a question, and a sensible one, at that.

"Can you get anything other than ping pong balls into The Sphere?  And aren't you afraid you're going to fill The Sphere up with ping pong balls eventually?"

So he had two questions.

"No," the scientist said, "And, to your second question, I don't know."

"We've tried throwing all sorts of items into it, even the smallest Nerf® balls, but nothing goes in but ping pong balls."

It was clear that the scientists were wishing that the other news media would show an interest in The Sphere, because, as I understood it, their higher ups in Government were getting pretty tired of shoveling so darn much money into a project that wasn’t really getting any results -- they were saying what's the use of throwing ping pong balls at a thing that keeps swallowing them up?

 "Now, if The Sphere begins to swallow up everything else around it, then maybe the Government would pay attention," George told the assembled crowd.

 Now, I was getting in on a lot that the scientists were doing because they never kept me out when I wanted to come inside the fifteen foot fence and see what they were doing.  I think it was mainly because I acted like I didn't know anything about what they were doing, which I didn't, and I just stood there, watching in awe.  Now they weren't a bad sort -- just like you and me, making mistakes and all that until they came close to getting it right.  Heck, they even invited me  to have a few beers with them.

 Of course, this was all getting Hank jealous and all that, because they kept him out of their work area in his own backyard, yet they invited me in all the time.  Hank didn't know about me having beers with them or else he'd have really blown his top.

The headline on front page of the World Galaxie read, "The Sphere GROWS!", taking up half the front page all by itself --then there was some photo underneath it that had to have been made up – with the head of an alien sticking out of what was supposed to be The Sphere -- you know, one of those things with the head like a light bulb and big scary eyes and everything --and a smaller headline right underneath it reading, "Alien Intelligence Discovered Inside!"  It was the photo and the subhead that kept most people from believing the headline -- and kept the other news media away -- they were sure, now, that it was just another weird concoction of another of those supermarket rags.  So the only ones who knew about The Sphere growing were the scientists and Hank's family and my family and Mankiewicz (it was his story the headline was for).

For Hank, this sort of made up for the fact that he'd been kept out of the inner fence because his face was as big as you please on the front page and Mankiewicz used Hank's rantings in about half the article.

The growth of The Sphere kept the money rolling in, though, and old Hugh had to stay on, just waiting for his opportunity to report that the whole thing ought to be shelved.

How they found out that The Sphere was growing was that one day they were shooting their ping pong balls into The Sphere, like they usually do (don't ask why they did this when they really didn't need to anymore -- they just did [maybe it was because the Government had to purchase about twenty years worth of ping pong balls and some TV snoop show was prying into the government waste thing and they didn't want the balls lying around in storage doing nothing for decades {that's what I understood from what the scientists said}]), and those balls were disappearing like they usually do -- only this time when they counted the ping pong balls that missed The Sphere and fell on the ground, they found a lot fewer left over.  They tried again and came up with the same results.  They fired only one shooter’s worth of ping pong balls (400 if you remember), and counted the left overs – only about four.  There were usually about a dozen left over from any single shooting like this before.

But they had to be sure.  They got the wire mesh and passed it through The Sphere and had their instruments whirling and humming and beeping and everything and photos and everything and looked at the photos and measured and measured the hole left in the mesh and sure enough they said,

"The Sphere has grown."

"It is exactly five centimeters larger in diameter than it was this morning."

Well, the next morning, The Sphere had grown to a meter in diameter, and the Scientists decided to throw a Nerf® Ball at it. So far, the only thing that went into The Sphere was ping pong balls, except for leaves and insects and such -- and, of course, Susie's gerbil.

Now, the scientists had a pretty complicated explanation for the fact that nothing larger than a ping pong ball could be thrown into the sphere -- yet the nets and hooks and ropes and chains and stuff went right through it the first few times.  They figured that because these things were so heavy, and were forced through The Sphere, they naturally went through -- other things were lighter and were just bounced off like light things usually are.No one, though, could explain how come things came to be cut, the ropes and chains and stainless steel nets and titanium and stuff, exactly as big around as The Sphere.

 So now they were going to throw a Nerf® Ball at it -- not a big one -- but one just about the size of a baseball.There we all were, standing around and watching, my family and Hank’s family and Mankiewicz.  Then Herbert took a good stance and rared back and hauled off and threw that ball as hard as he could.  It fell back to earth.  The scientists looked pretty grim.

"Wait a minute!"  George, the head scientist, said, "you overthrew it!"

Then Herbert picked up the ball and tried again.  And again. George said he kept missing.  He pointed out where the strong scientist should throw the ball each time, and pointed out a different place where he should stand and traced an arc in the air where the ball should go.  There we all were, standing around watching, nobody else but George and Herbert, not even the rest of the scientists, doing anything but standing there and watching.  George said it was the wind -- or position or something -- and they tried and tried until the strong scientist's arm gave out.

The woman who delivered the mail came by about that time and said,  "Why don't you just drop it from the cherry picker?"  So they pushed one of the apprentice scientists onto the basket on the cherry picker and gave him the Nerf®  Ball and lifted him up and positioned him right close to The Sphere and he was getting paler and paler all the time.  He really didn't want to do this. He stood there for a while, shivering.

 "Just drop it, for God's sake!" George shouted at him.  So he did, and we all watched to see if it would disappear and it did.  The young scientist looked like he would have jumped right down from that basket any minute except for the height and all the equipment down there right underneath him.  The other scientists jumped up and down and hugged and shook hands and smiled and laughed and we were all oooooohing and aaaaaahing and Mankiewicz was writing furiously and rushing for Hank's telephone and the young scientist was yelling over the din of everything,"Let me down, dammit!  Get me down out of here!"

George, though, stopped laughing.  The others looked at him then looked at where The Sphere was and then they stopped laughing too.

"Suddenly they don't look too happy about it," Hank remarked, " – sorta like how Louise's been lookin' ever since this whole thing started."

For the next couple of weeks, The Sphere kept growing.  The scientists argued among themselves about what was going on.  Some said they were throwing too many ping pong balls at it, but Some said  "How could these puny ping pong balls do that -- anyway, it's nothing, that's what The Sphere is -- and how can you make nothing grow?" and some said it was a black hole -- but some said that a black hole that size would have already swallowed up the entire earth and everything in it by now -- and some said they thought we were already in a black hole and don't know it and some even brought up the idea that this is some sort of station like Sagan described in  Contact , but they didn't want to let him know yet or else he would have gone on about the "billions and billions" of stations that could be out there in the Universe.

 They began keeping a respectable distance from The Sphere -- they didn't know what might happen, so nobody even got near it, not even to drag wire mesh through it or anything.  So they just kept to their instruments and computers and stuff and watched it that way.

A crew from  Unsolved Mysteries  came out and wanted to film some sort of action up by The Sphere, so the scientists put white coats on some of the  Mysteries ' crew and gave them the wire mesh and sat them on the baskets on the cranes and let them drag the mesh through The Sphere.  They made several takes of this process, and wanted a large piece of mesh so it could be seen easily, so the scientists gave them the eight foot square one that they cut the smaller ones out of.  So there were those two men in white coats, fake scientists, standing and holding that mesh right in the middle of The Sphere, waiting like nothing was happening, posing for the TV cameras.

The scientists stared a minute at this -- then stared some more.  It looked like something got their attention -- then they all went white in the face.  The hole in the mesh took up nearly the whole square of mesh.  Then they immediately went to their instruments and, while they were furiously trying to figure these things out, one of the men in the white coats on the crane asked,

"Does it always get a hole in it when it goes through The Sphere?"

There it was, that mesh, a perfect circle cut cleanly out of it.

"Throw it down!" George said.

The scientists ushered all the TV crew right out of the area.  Then they went feverishly to work.  They revved up their instruments and got a ruler out to measure the hole in the mesh and finally came out with a new pronouncement.

"The Sphere is now two meters in diameter," George said,  ". . .  and we're not sure . . . we have to take a few more measurements . . . " he hesitated " . . . we'll have to take a few more measurements, then we might have another announcement."

George was really quiet then.  You knew there was something he knew but hadn't told us.

"Is something wrong?" I asked.

"No, nothing," George replied.

"What is it?  Is The Sphere doing something?"

"Nothing," George said.

Any fool could tell George was lying.

Susie, who had come out every day to look at where The Sphere was because she was worried about her gerbil, and every time she came out, stared intently at that spot for at least half an hour, was staring at it now.

"There it is!" she said.

"There what is," Louise asked her.

"The Sphere!" Susie replied excitedly, "I can see it!"

We all turned toward and stared and sure enough, there it was -- The Sphere.  It was quite a moment.  We all stood there, dumbfounded, seeing The Sphere for the first time.  It was barely visible though, just a light lavenderish haze that you could see right through there just beneath the lowest limb of the tree. The tree's lowest branches and leaves were dipping into The Sphere as it moved with the wind and disappearing and coming backout again, untouched it looked like.

 "It's gonna gobble up the whole world!" Susie hollered, very scared, "It's already gobbled up my Fluffie!"

"Who's Fluffie?" George asked.

"That's her mangy gerbil," Tommie piped up, "And I'm glad he's gone."

Susie started hitting on Tommie again and Tommie took off out the front gate, Susie right behind him, screaming all sorts of little kids' bad names at him.

"A gerbil disappeared into The Sphere?" George asked us.

 "Sure did," Hank replied.  Here was Hank, the center of attraction again, playing it up for all it was worth. "Disappeared clean as a whistle!"

Well, George was pretty preoccupied with the new way The Sphere was acting now, and he and the other scientists went back inside the fifteen foot fence to take more measurements, ignoring Hank's continuing story about how he'd figured out how to get a living gerbil into The Sphere.  You don't want to hear the story, either.  I followed, walking right past the guard (Hank tried to follow too, but the guard gently blocked him from doing so and it sounded like the guard was some sort of Nazi SS the way Hank carried on.  There was Hank though, hanging on the fence, gabbing away, and the only one really listening to him was Mankiewicz, who was recording the whole thing.  Even though I didn't want to hear the story, and even went into my house so as not to listen to it, I couldn't escape it because there it was, in the next week's World Galaxie, a photo of Hank holding a gerbil and everything, even though Hank didn't like gerbils at all.

The next Saturday morning, before Hank got up, I decided to see what was happening inside the fence.  The uniformed guard at the gate let me in right away.  George had told him I could come in.  I walked right up to George, who was hunched over a keyboard, typing away and bringing up all sorts of strange looking figures.  It was a while before he noticed me and looked up.

 "Oh, hi, Fred," George said.

 "Looks bad, huh?" I asked.

 "There!" one of the scientists, bent over a scope of some sort, said.

 "What is it?" George said.

  "The Sphere has definitely grown another centimeter in the past thirty-five minutes!"

  "That's fast?" I asked

  "That's fast." George stated.

  George and Herman and Herbert and Barbara talked together then.  They all wondered why The Sphere hadn't eaten up even the smallest pieces of the tree limbs like it had the balls and the wire mesh and the titanium and such.  Since the tree limbs were always dipping in it and coming back out, it seemed they should have been eaten up too.  Several young scientists, just out of college, came that morning to join the group, all dressed in white coats and spiffy looking and everything, and George had them (no one else would do it without an argument) get up in the basket on the cherry picker and cut the tips of the branches that kept dipping into The Sphere so they could look at them, check them over thoroughly -- and they did.  A truck was parked in front of Hank's house with a whole lab in it with microscopes and electron microscopes and everything -- the other new scientists that came in the truck checked out every atom of the branches and twigs and leaves  -- and found nothing --

 "Not an atom has been displaced from what is considered normal for those leaves," the scientists said.

 This certainly left them perplexed.  They scrapped the "Black Hole" theory -- Black Holes gobble up everything, and since The Sphere didn't bother the leaves on the tree in the slightest, it couldn't be a Black Hole, they said.

Now they felt a whole lot better about shooting ping pong balls at it -- at least they weren't feeding a Black Hole, they concluded -- then they decided to try different things since the Nerf®  ball did go in.  They started with smaller Nerf® balls and tried gradually larger things until they could get basketballs to disappear in it.  They had sort of a routine where they would start with a couple of good volleys of ping pong balls in the morning from all their shooters; then they would throw the smaller Nerf® balls into it; then larger and larger balls until they got to the basketballs.  Since it was summer and vacation time and all that, the neighborhood kids (and kids from all over) would hang on my side of Hank's ten foot fence and watch.  You could hear the oooohs and aaaaahs and "awesome's" and other sounds of wonder that'd be raised every time something would disappear into The Sphere, especially when the basketballs did.

Some shoe company wanted Michael Jordan to slam dunk a basketball into it, but he rightfully begged off. Shaquille O'Neill almost did, even came out to look at it -- when he saw what it was doing to basketballs, he turned around and went back to tearing up backboards.  A few kids went away very happy though, because, to get them away for a time, the scientists took some of their surplus basketballs (you know the government always buys surplus)  and let Michael and "The Shack"autograph them and give them to the kids -- you should've seen those kids take off -- they ran and rode their bikes back home as fast as they could.  There was some guy named Caleco Buie who came around and made a few shots – but not that many kids were excited about him.

The Sphere even became a tourist attraction where people from all over the world would come to watch as the scientists lobbed things into it and the things would disappear.  It was a shoulder to shoulder circle along that fence, with people falling all over each other --- and even peanut and souvenir and other vendors walking up and down behind them in my yard.

I and my family decided to get clear out of there after George made his announcement to me that The sphere was growing a millimeter a half hour.  We weren't foolish.  Hank, on the other hand, stayed right there in his house -- Louise fumed and stomped and threatened, but Hank was already committed to having the whole world see his face and take photos and keeping Mankiewicz supplied with "news".  So Louise took their kids and went to live with her mom.  Hank lived like a king, or so he said -- you knowhow men live without a woman to clean up after them and cook for them.  The empty fast food sacks were piling up so much that when Louise did come by to see how Hank was doing she was almost tempted to throw them all into The Sphere -- she even hinted to the scientists that it just might be Nature's way of telling us where to put our trash from now on -- but they didn't buy that --so far The Sphere was benign, they said -- they didn't want to do anything to set it off, like throw Hank's trash into it.

They said "benign" -- that means "good" -- well, they didn’t act like it was "benign".  They kept their distance and got the cranes out of the way and just kept to their instruments and throwing things into it from a distance.

Well, the summer was almost over and the crowds of tourists stopped coming – only a few people came now, and I got to look at my back yard for the first time and I wondered who was going to pay for all that mess.  I was feeling pretty secure now that I could get things back together and I was ready to put up a fence around my own yard so people wouldn't get into it and on a bright, Sunday morning and I was looking at all the damage when the scientists came to start their daily routine with the ping-pong balls.  There they were, loading up their shooters and having big moving men lug their instruments out of the big van where they were stored at night and in bad weather and warming up the radar scopes and sonar scopes and oscilloscopes.  Then they fired the first volley of ping pong balls.  I watched as the clouds of ping pong balls from the twenty one shooters arched toward that central spot -- but something was different -- I couldn't see that lavender haze that had been there for so many weeks -- then the balls all collided into each other, bouncing off and falling to earth.  Not a one had disappeared.  Everyone looked at each other in amazement.  The scientists were clearly disappointed.  I felt totally relieved -- it was gone!  I wouldn’t have to worry about this any more!

Old Hugh looked on this as something of an ending to it all-- he immediately went to his car phone and started calling his higher ups to have them start stopping the money.

The scientists were milling about, wondering about this latest, unexpected development when Hank came out.  They told him it was gone and he got the biggest look of disappointment on his face.  What was he going to do now that he wasn't going to be the center of attention?  What was he going to tell Mankiewicz?

 Louise had dropped by to see what was going on -- when she found out that The Sphere was gone, she was overjoyed, but Susie had the sourest look on her face.

"How am I going to get Fluffie back?" she asked George.

"I'm sorry, little girl," he said, "but I'll tell you what, we’ll get you another hamster."

"It’s a gerbil!" she shouted.

She stared at that space where The Sphere had been.  She stared and stared.  It seemed she was going to stare that old tree right out of existence.  Then she looked around.  It was obvious she trying to see if The Sphere was anywhere else around.

"It's gone, Susie," I said.  I felt really good about The Sphere being gone, but I felt I had to make Susie feel good and was about to say something stupid like, "It'll come back someday" or "All things have to end and we have to be grown up and accept them." when she perked up like she'd seen Santa Claus and said,

"No it's not!  It's right there!"

And she was pointing to my back yard.

I looked, and Hank looked, and Louise looked, and the scientists looked.  And sure enough, there it was, bright and shimmering lavender in the sunlight, hovering high in the air over my back yard.  It didn't have a tree to get in its way, I thought to myself, I don't have a tree one in my back yard --just plain grass from my patio to the fence at the town park.

My heart sank, Louise got that look on her face like "Oh no, here we go again!", the scientists scrambled to move their equipment and surround The Sphere again -- and Hank got the biggest look of triumph on his face -- and ran into his house to call Mankiewicz at his motel room and have him come right over to see this newest development.

When Hugh came back and knew that The Sphere had moved and saw it there in midair in my back yard, and the scientists feverishly moving all the equipment around it, he knew that he would have to hang around some more.  You could see he didn’t like it.He went back to his car and I could see him on the phone talking for half an hour or more.

"Can't you get my gerbil?" Susie asked George.

George looked into those big, brown eyes, and it seemed he wilted -- it was interesting seeing a scientist respond to a little girl's pleas like that.

"I promise you, Susie," he said, "that we'll do all we can to get your gerbil back."

They thought maybe they could make Susie happy by giving her something, so they gave her and Tommie both some of the original ping pong ball guns they had first shot ping pong balls into The Sphere with.  Tommie was overjoyed and went around shooting ping-pong balls at everything he saw for days.  Susie wasn't happy at all -- she just left her gun on the ground there near that big old tree, a couple of orange ping pong balls around it that the scientists had ordered just for her, with her name on them. Eventually, George and the other scientists had to promise her every day that they would work on getting her Fluffie back right away.

George later told me that all they could do was go through the motions of making it seem like they were trying to get Susie's gerbil back.

Before they could go through those motions, though, they had to put up a ten foot fence around my yard and a fifteen footer around their equipment around The Sphere.  I felt pretty good, then -- at least nobody was going to go traipsing around my yard that I didn't know -- anyway, the Government was paying rent for using our back yards.

Well, since The Sphere was so big and the scientists were able to put so many things in it by now, they decided to do something to keep Susie happy, even though they said they didn’t think they could ever get her gerbil back.  First, they bought anew gerbil for her, but she was obviously not happy -- she wanted her Fluffie.  Then they went to plan "B".  This would kill two birds with one stone, they thought -- it would satisfy Susie for awhile -- and it would get Hank out of their hair.They asked Hank if he'd go over to the mall to buy a few model gliders at the toy store.  Now, Mack had been burned by the ping pong balls that had filled up his storeroom for so long -- you see, the only way he ever got rid of them was to throw away the packages and leave the balls loose in the store -- then he spread a rumor that all the ping pong balls that had disappeared into The Sphere had turned up in his store -- then he sold them at a dollar apiece. So he decided not to rush to buy any gliders just because Hank came in to buy a few.

According to George though, the Government had received complaints from some toy store owners -- in this case, the big companies that had made a load of money for a while selling The Sphere merchandise.  When sales started petering out, and they got wind that the Government had left out the toy stores and went straight to the manufacturer of ping pong balls to buy them for ten times retail, then they slipped a few advance campaign donations the way of the local politicians, and wheels started turning in DC and the word came down to buy from toy store owners from then on.  But, of course, the smaller toy store owners, like Mack, hadn't got wind of this.

Anyway, they got the toy planes and George told Susie that they were going to start sending them in there to see if they would go, and maybe her gerbil would see one of them and get on and take a ride back out.  Susie sort of believed him for awhile; then when the gliders didn't come back out, she sort of started to thinking that this wasn't the way Fluffie was going to be rescued.The scientists flew a hundred gliders into The Sphere and bought five hundred more.  Once Mack had run out of them, they got them from the bigger toy store in the mall across town. It was a sight, watching them throw those airplanes -- some of them made a loop de loop and crashed into the ground -- some got blown by the wind and crashed into houses and stuff -- some took off way over the houses and landed in the street in front and kids would pick them up and take them home.  And some of them even entered The Sphere -- and they disappeared, just like everything else, and never came back out -- and the scientists would have kept this up, hoping that Susie would expect this to work -- except that Tommie then came up with the bright idea of sending in "real airplanes", as he called them.

"Real airplanes?" George asked.

"Yeah -- the REAL ones," Tommie said, with obvious excitement.

"Well, The Sphere isn't big enough for . . . " but George was interrupted.

"No, you dodo!" Tommie shot back, "I mean the small ones that you get from the toy store -- with the engines on them 'n'stuff!"

"I don't think it would work . . . ," George started to say, but Susie tugged on his sleeve and looked up at him and said,

"Please!"

Now it may have seemed like Tommie was doing this for his little sister, like he loved her or something.  Actually, he was only doing it just to add a little more excitement to things; but Susie thought he was doing it for her, and, to Tommie’s displeasure, Susie was looking at him friendly like for the first time since they were brother and sister.

So the scientists ran down to Mack's toy store and bought a bunch of airplanes with engines on them and came back and flew them into The Sphere.  Like the gliders, none of them came backout of The Sphere, and several that missed The Sphere altogether went on long trips out of the yard to be picked up by local kids. Now of course, Mack, the toy store owner, burned by not having enough gliders, right away ordered five hundred airplanes with motors just like the ones the scientists bought -- paid extra to have them sent out special delivery so he'd get them the next day.

"They aren't coming out!" Susie cajoled.

"You need radio controlled airplanes, doofus!" Tommie told George

So, next day, the scientists went back down to the toy store.  Mack was happy when they walked in the door, but ended up disappointed when they bought radio-controlled airplanes instead of the ones he had just filled his storeroom with.  He took a loss sending all those now useless airplanes back, but figured he'd make up for it with the storeroom full of radio controlled airplanes that he ordered.

There went the scientists, sending those radio controlled airplanes into The Sphere, making it look for all the world like they were really trying to operate them when they really didn’t think they could and so they really were just playing around. There they were, all together, pretending to watch their radar scopes and oscilloscopes as the radio controlled airplanes entered The Sphere and disappeared off their screens after awhile.

Then as they were sending about the dozenth one in and you could tell Susie was catching on.

"Bring it back out!"  she ordered.

So they pretended to steer the plane just to keep Susie thinking they were trying to do something -- they just knew in their hearts that this airplane would disappear out of existence just like all the rest did.  But this one didn't -- it came rushing back out!  They handled the controls and the plane turned and everything just like they wanted it to and it landed just like they wanted it to.  Then they got a sort of collective "idea look" on their faces.

"Radio waves apparently are not shut off from transmitting inside The Sphere," George said, "and things do come back out --so . . . "

"You're going to get Fluffie back out?" Susie asked.

"We're making progress toward that point," George said.

"What does that mean?" Susie asked Tommie.

"It means they're getting there." he told her.

"Oh!" Susie said, in a way that showed she knew what we meant.

The scientists sent out a news bulletin, saying that they were about to "go where no man had gone before", and send radio-controlled airplanes into The Sphere and bring them back out, hoping that more media people would show up for the big event. It was scheduled for Sunday morning, when the TV news would be sure to put it on the air.  But nobody showed up except Mankiewicz.  They had radio controlled airplanes ready, with transmitters and everything so they could hopefully track them. To them, this was just like exploring another planet -- and it was, really – but all the other news media, were involved in covering a scandal in England or something big like the elections in Mexico, and, to them all this with the airplanes flying into and out of The Sphere was just another chapter in a fantastic tale that could only play in the supermarket tabloids.  Even then, only Mankiewicz from the Galaxie showed up -- Richard Chamberlain was the big story for most of them -- even The Daily World News was preoccupied with some movie star’s adopted alien baby -- it was speaking for the first time -- in twenty languages at once.

Well, they had it all set up and they went ahead with it. They sent the first airplane in and tracked it perfectly with the transmitter.  They turned it around after it had gone a few yards and brought it back out.  After they had landed it and inspected it, they declared it to be in perfect condition -- just like it went in, except for the gasoline it had used.  So they sent more planes in, each one for a longer trip than the one before, and there on the tracking screen, you could see the blip as the plane zoomed around – you could see it traveling all over -- one time it would be flying through my back yard, and another time it was in Hank's, and another time it was sailing right through my house like it wasn't there,  -- and the planes always came back.  Well, almost always – sometimes you'd see the blip and it would beheading in a straight line and then it would just disappear.  The scientists discovered that the blips would disappear at several spots -- very definite spots.  One spot where the planes disappeared was right between Hank and my houses -- another was right in the middle of our back yard -- another was right at Hank's patio (eech!) – about three or four of the planes would disappear off the screens right at each these spots.  The scientists decided that the planes were crashing into something. So they made a map that showed where the planes were crashing, and began flying the planes around those spots -- and pretty soon they had sketched in something of a landscape and were flying the planes in and around and all through whatever it was -- it sure wasn’t like the real world -- the planes crashed there where we didn’t have a single durn thing, only straight back yards, and flew like gangbusters where we had houses and trees and other solid things like that.

They decided to try and land the planes after a while, and see if there was solid ground there within The Sphere's world. After a few tries, they succeeded, using a tracker that showed the plane's position up and down.  Then they would land the planes and take them off again and fly them back out.  Then one day, one of the airplanes that landed disappeared.  They could see by its blip that it was moving somehow without them controlling it and eventually it went off the screen -- right into one of those spots that airplanes had been crashing into. They looked at each other -- what was going on here they asked.

They sent more planes in, and some of those that landed, but not all of them, disappeared just like the first one -- but the ones that kept flying came back out just like the scientists wanted them to.

After a week or so of this, Susie was at the fifteen foot fence with the gerbil they had given her.

"Fluffie wants company!" she said.

She wanted the scientists to send the gerbil they had given her in to keep her gerbil company.  They debated the subject a bit and look at Susie and talked it over and looked at Susie and then decided.

"You're right, Susie," George told her, "But you can keep your new gerbil.  We're going to send in some other gerbils."

They were just humoring her, of course -- what harm could a few gerbils do, they said, as long as it would keep the kid off their backs.

But first, they had to get the right planes for the purpose. Now, Mack had stocked his store to the rafters with radio-controlled airplanes and the scientists did buy some of those from him, keeping with the Government's directive.  But now, they said they needed a special airplane for the purpose.  They wanted a bigger one that would hold a gerbil safely.  They wanted the Government to get them a particular type from, saying that this wasn’t a toy like all the rest, but it was a scientific instrument, for measuring the effect of The Sphere's atmosphere on gerbils.  That sold the project.  When it has to do with doing things with living things, particularly gerbils that keep filling experimental cages and filling them and filling them, the Government goes right to it.  So Mack was left with a store with almost nothing in it but the radio controlled airplanes, while the Government ordered these special planes from a manufacturer. Now, just like the ping pong balls, these were special airplanes with hours and hours of research and development having to go into them to suit the special purpose of carrying gerbils into an unknown environment, and made of just the right materials to withstand the rigors of the experiment, and designed just so, so that they "possessed the optimum design for efficient operation,"according to what George told me the government order clerk told him the maker of them told him -- at ten times the price you’d find them in the stores, of course -- and, just like the ping-pong balls, two truckloads were delivered the next day.

It wasn't a total loss for Mack, though.  Local kids hanging around the fence around the town park that was just next to my back yard saw the airplanes disappearing into The Sphere and coming out again and you could hear them yelling "neat" and"awesome" and stuff like that and then they went and got money from their dads and moms and bought radio controlled airplanes and Mack called them "Sphere" planes and sold them for ten times their actual price and made a pretty penny off of them.  And then the big toy company came along and told him he couldn't use"Sphere" for a name since they had used it on their ping pong balls and ping pong ball shooters and had the rights to the name, meaning Mack's first really bright idea got squashed.  It worked out all right, though, because somewhere along the line the matter got settled to everybody's satisfaction and the company paid Mack big bucks and he finally retired to somewhere in Florida.

The scientists were wondering what they'd do with all those big gerbil-carrying airplanes -- after all, all they wanted to do was to send a few of the little creatures in just to keep Susie happy.  But the government had other ideas, and sent out a request for gerbils for their new project to the various laboratories across the country and pretty soon, the government had received hundreds of "donations" of gerbils from these laboratories that had been filled to the brim with overpopulating gerbils and pretty soon big trucks rolled up with hundreds of cages full of thousands of gerbils.  So now the street out front was now filled with big semi trailers from one end to the other, with oodles and scads of gerbils all ready to be taken on the trip of their lives.  That was enough for the people in the neighborhood.  They all moved into a motel somewhere or in with relatives.  The Government, to hold down hard feelings, paid their rent since so many people had complained to their local politicians -- on top of that, if there was one thing newspapers and TV picked up on, it was Government pushing people around.  So it was all over the papers and the local TV how the Government was disrupting everybody's lives and such over such a nonsensical thing as throwing ping pong balls into The Sphere -- then when they started sending airplanes into it with all the noise, the complaints picked up again and the TV news was right there with microphones and everything so that the airplanes could be shown to everybody within a hundred miles along with all their noise and, of course, all those smelly cages full of gerbils.  But nobody said a thing about The Sphere growing or anything else that was happening with it.  Everybody was complaining about government waste on such a useless project.

Of course this was great for Hugh, who was right there in the middle of the crowd -- I guess you could say right in the middle -- he was there, but nobody approached as much as five feet from him -- when they saw him -- if he was coming toward him, they moved away quickly -- or if they were walking toward him, the made a wide circle around him.  Hugh's eagle eye --maybe you should call it a vulture's eye -- was taking in all the people's every movement and action and writing all their comments.  And he was right there by the fence, watching everything the scientists were doing, ready to close them down at a moment's notice.  I mean, every morning, there he was, right by my back door on my patio, waiting for the scientists to come and start their work.  You never got used to him -- as long as he was there, whenever we would come by the house, the kids would stay in the living room and Sally would stay in the car.

With the TV and all that coming around, of course, old Hugh got himself on the tube more times than he really wanted to --more times than the TV stations wanted, too.  Usually, all it took was one time -- I could tell why -- the first time we saw his face on TV -- there was something cold and creepy about that face -- sort of like a snake's face I guess -- the kids yelled and went down the motel hallway screaming, Sally was coming out of the shower and virtually blew a fuse and locked herself back in the bathroom for a good hour -- me? -- I just thought about how lucky I was not to be looking at Hugh in person.

Anyway, the stations got so many calls any time Hugh's face came on TV that they carefully edited anything coming from our neighborhood so they could make sure and take Hugh's face out of the picture.  Even MTV had to cut him out -- their viewers, who’ve been used to Beavis and Butthead and all sorts of gross things like that, were totally grossed out by Hugh on TV.  Horror film people considered using his face, but when a sample audience preferred to watch ten hours of Freddie Krueger rather than one minute of Hugh, they knew they had gone too far.

As far as The Sphere was concerned -- to us who saw it everyday, it wasn't useless for the scientists to be there, with all the equipment and stuff -- we were afraid it would keep growing and take over the neighborhood and maybe even the world.  But the scientists still didn't know what it was -- after all this time. It was mid August now, and they had been there for five months and still didn't know much more about The Sphere with all the airplanes going in and out of it and everything than they did when it all started.

So they sent the gerbils in on the airplanes, and brought them back out.  Nothing seemed to happen.  And on every trip out, Susie wanted to inspect each and every airplane to see if her Fluffie had come out with the gerbil in the plane.  I Mean, she knew every hair on her Fluffie's back -- she might have forgotten that she left her dirty socks in the middle of the living room just seconds ago, but she knew the color of every spot on that darned gerbil.  Fluffie hadn't come out, of course, and you could see Susie's face droop more and more as it seemed like the dumb thing might never come out.  So she asked if they couldn't let the airplanes land so Fluffie might be able to get on board. They did, and pretty soon they saw the blips on the screen disappear again after moving around on their own, just like before.

When Susie saw that the other gerbils were disappearing, never to come back, she cried and screamed and said, "Now they’ve taken the other gerbils too!  You've got to stop them!" and tugged on George's trousers as hard as she could.

"You mean you think somebody's there?" Herman, who was the second head scientist, asked her.

"Impossible!" George shot back.

"How else could all those airplanes and gerbils just disappear like that?"  Susie persisted.

"We can find out,"  Barbara said, "a little more if we put transmitter collars on the gerbils."

George and Herman and Herbert just stared at her.

"Yeah!"  Susie said, "That's it -- sorta like the elephanks they put things on in Africa -- that way you'll know exakly where the gerbils are -- and you might even find my Fluffie!"

George and Herbert and Herman and Barbara got together in a huddle and whispered things together and once in a while one of them would look at Susie.  Then Hugh appeared by the corner of my house and they got all silent for awhile.  Then George said in aloud voice so everybody could hear him, "That's it!"

"For certain, we'll put collars on the gerbils!"  he continued, "If we are going to find out for certain what's there, then we've got to put transmitters on the gerbils so we can track their movements."

Now, if there's one Hugh is, it's poker faced -- I guess --his face looks the same no matter what circumstances come up --you can't tell if he's angry or happy or anything, but you could sort of tell this time that he was exasperated -- just one more thing to wait on before he closed the operation down.

So the scientists ordered the transmitter from D. C. -- the type that's custom made for this particular operation and costs ten times what it should cost and it takes so much to develop and make huge semi load arrived the next day.

Well, it didn't take long for the scientists to be mystified.  They put the transmitters on the little, squirming creatures and put them in the airplanes and sent the airplanes in and landed them and pretty soon, on their screens they saw the blips of the gerbils going one way and the blips of the airplanes going the other and pretty soon both disappeared.  They did this for a week and the same thing happened each time.  They had all those hundreds of cages left full of thousands of gerbils, though, and they were perplexed as to what to do with them.

Hugh was there.

"Well," he said, "I guess you win for now.  It seems D.C. thinks that your "Sphere" or whatever the heck it is, it’s the finest way to dispose of all these unwanted gerbils, so it seems that's what they perceive this operation as being -- a surplus animal disposal.  They've even considered putting bigger animals-- maybe even atomic waste and toxic chemicals -- in there if the thing grows any bigger.

"Anyway, I've got orders to leave you alone,"  and he left.

I got the creeps thinking about our neighborhood being the end point for all the used up animals in the country -- and atomic waste? – and toxic waste? -- I can see all the news media and protesters and hubbub now -- eech!

"If he finds out that I've got them to stop any more shipments of Gerbils -- then what?"  George said.

"You did?"  Herman asked.

"Yep -- I've gotten calls from the EPA about the hazardous environment we've been causing by having all these gerbils and their waste here -- and the ASPCA's been criticizing their living conditions -- and, if you haven't noticed, we've got a few extra protestors out there picketing for gerbils' rights -- so I talked to the chief in D.C. and he talked around and finally the shipments of those little varmints got stopped."

"But What're we going to do with what we've got?"  Herbert asked.

George nodded in the direction of The sphere.

"Multiple gerbil airplanes,"  he said.

"Say," I asked, "How come old Hugh didn't know about all this EPA and ASPCA and animal's rights people?"

"You're kidding me," George said, "This is government you’re talking about.  We're can just count ourselves lucky that it happened and hope we can get to the bottom of this before Hugh gets it all unraveled -- and believe me -- he will -- he's one of the few people in government who can think straight --unfortunately for us."

Well, anyway, the scientists got the next phase of their project going – just to get rid of all those gerbils that were in the cages in the semi trailers on the street in front of our -‘- and everybody on the block's -- houses.  They ordered thousands more of those airplanes and revved up a dozen at a time and put a half dozen gerbils in each one and flew those planes in there and landed them and watched all the planes go one way and all the gerbils go another and disappear off the screens.  One curious thing -- the planes all went to the same place and the gerbils all went to the same place.

"Somebody's taking the gerbils!"  Susie shouted.

"Impossible!"  George said back.

"There's only one way to find out."  Herman said, "and that's to send them a message."

"Yea!" said Susie, "We're going to talk with those people who’ve taken my Fluffie!"

George looked exasperated, then looked around for something to send them to talk to them with.

Susie held up her reading book from when she was three years old.

"You want to use this?" she asked.

George took the book from her -- you could tell he didn’t want to do it and didn't think anything would come of it -- and put it in one of the airplanes instead of a gerbil and they sent the airplane into The Sphere and landed it.  This time, the blip on the plane stayed right there where it had landed for a longtime.

"See, nothing's happening," George said.

Now, the blip had landed somewhere in the middle of my house.  Suddenly it moved, closer to The Sphere; then it stayed still again for a long time.  The scientists looked at each other.  Then the blip moved again, closer to The Sphere.  It stayed there for a long time again.  Then it started moving, just like it was flying.

"Fly it, dammit!" Herman hollered.

Barbara, who had been controlling the plane, took over right away and it flew right like she wanted it to.  She guided it toward The Sphere and sure enough, that plane flew as pretty as you please right back into our world.  She landed it and all the scientists rushed up to it and opened it up and took something out of it that looked like a book.

"See," said George, "it's just the same book that we sent in there!"  And he handed it back to Susie, who immediately opened and said.

"No it ain't!"

George grabbed it from her and he looked at it.  His lower jaw dropped.

"Look here!"  he said to Herbert and Herman and Barbara.

The others' mouths went wide open as they looked at the book.

"It's got the same pictures," Herman said, "But did you ever see writing like that!"

Since the scientists had always let me in to see what they were doing, I was able to look over their shoulders to see what they were talking about.  Sure enough, the pictures in the book were the same as those in Susie's book -- but the writing was something I had never seen before -- odd triangles and rectangles and circles and lines that didn't mean anything to me.

Everybody was stone silent.  They all knew what this meant. There was somebody there beyond The Sphere and we had just communicated with them and they were communicating right back at us.

"Mankiewicz!"  George shouted, "Have I got a scoop for you!"

They let the reporter through the fence, leaving Hank hanging on it, looking in, then told him all that had transpired. When he had gone back out to phone the story in, Hank got right up next to him.

"What'd they say?"  he asked, "what?"

"There's somebody in there."  Mankiewicz replied.

Hank froze and turned stone cold silent for the longest time; then he proceeded telling Mankiewicz about how he was the one that started it, with his ping pong balls with his numbers on them; and the two of them walked side by side into Hank's house where I could hear Hank handing old Mankie every line in the book.

For a long time, the scientists sent in basic reading books like Sesame Street and Dr Seuss and other stuff like that and the books came right back out with that strange writing on them.  It wasn’t like anything anybody had ever seen -- where the books went in with words like "boy" or "dog" or something like that they came out with something big and long and the scientists copied the words exactly like they came out and found out that sometimes whoever it was that was there beyond The Sphere would put the same "word" under different things.

"Maybe they're trying to say they don't know what it is or they don't have a word for it," Herman said at a conference once.

"Nonsense," George snapped right back, "Everybody knows what a dog is."

"Maybe they don't have dogs!" Herman snapped right back.

"What makes you say that?" George asked.

Then George thought about it a minute and figured it out. Then they all had more conferences to figure out what to do next. They finally decided to have bigger airplanes built and order video recorders and cameras and they would send in all sorts of films and stuff showing whoever it was beyond The Sphere what life was like here.

"I know!" Herman said, "Let's send them that disc that NASA sent with Voyager -- you know, the one with the drawings of a man and a woman and children and all the music."

George agreed.  "Yeah, it worked with NASA," he said.

"On the other hand, nobody's ever responded to the Voyager One yet," Herman reminded him.

"Well, that's because nobody's probably seen it yet,"Barbara said.

"Somebody's going to respond to this, aren't they?" George said, like he was thinking out loud.

So they sent the Voyager disk in and brought it back out. But nothing else came back with it.

They sent in a video player with some odd tape in it, along with a small TV, with pictures showing how to operate it. Nothing.

They made videos of everything around The Sphere and sent that in.  Nothing.

"Maybe they don't have any way to communicate back, like they did with the books," Herman suggested.

So they sent in a video camera, with instructions on how to operate it.  This time it came back and the scientists played the tape.  It showed nothing but gerbils.  As far as you could see, gerbils.

"I bet my Fluffie's there somewhere," Susie said from beyond the fifteen foot fence.

The scientists were excited because it was communication. Only thing was, they had to wait until they saw the airplane’s blip move on the screen and then try to guide the plane.  Lots of times, they didn't get control of it in time and saw it "crash",or so they supposed, and it never came back.

"Why don't we send in instructions on how to start and control the plane?" Herman suggested.

They did -- and they still had trouble.

"We forgot to send a controller," George said.

So they sent in a controller and the planes started coming back all by themselves.  It was interesting to watch, the scientists trying to control the planes while something or somebody beyond The Sphere was trying to do the same thing. There were several crashes.  Sometimes the plane's blips on the screen would go all over there in the World Beyond The Sphere all by themselves – Whoever It Was Beyond The Sphere was controlling the planes and flying them around out there.

The scientists were pretty glad about communicating with whoever it was that was there.  They would send in all sorts of videos about the outside world and then newspapers and all sorts of things with news about The Sphere.  One of the scientists had the bright idea of sending in supermarket rags about The Sphere, since those were the only papers that followed the story after awhile -- especially Mankiewicz's stories in The World Galaxie, with Hank's daring exploits plastered all over them.  All that came out, however, was videos of gerbils -- nothing but gerbils -- gerbils as thick as could be and as far as you could see.

Old Hugh was back, under orders to check out this new development; and he was sending messages back to his headquarters that these scientists were doing some dangerous stuff sending the airplanes in and showing those "things" there how to operate them-- who knows, he told his higher ups, those "things" might fly the airplanes right back out and attack us.  The higher ups told Hugh that if these guys, whoever they were, really wanted to attack us, they probably would have by now -- and if they can’t do anything more than fly an airplane back to us that we made in the first place, the higher ups said, then they didn't think we really had any worries.

The Sphere was five meters across by now, the scientists said.  It floated there, just above the eaves of my house, right near it, a purple haze that caused things on the other side of it to look larger than they really were, like a telescope of sorts. The scientists said this was usual because it acted sort of like a clear marble did -- if you looked through the marble you could see things bigger, you know?  Yeah, you could still see right through The Sphere, but you knew it was there.  It's eerie, you know, seeing a thing like that floating up in thin air right above your yard, staying right there for days and weeks. Mankiewicz wrote a bunch of the biggest stories of his life. Since nobody else was around to write about it, he got the scoop on everybody – and to boot, he was nominated for about as many writing prizes as there were to give away.

The Sphere became big news.  It wasn't Mankiewicz's stories-- you read about these things in the papers all the time -- it was the Government sending in the National Guard.  I mean, here was somebody of some sort -- sort of on the other side of a thing that was way over everybody's head -- somebody that we wrote to and that wrote right back to us.  "Somebody's out there!"somebody with the Government who was scared of anything strange said, and the Government decided to encircle the neighborhood with troops just in case that somebody was trying to get to us. They tried to keep it quiet, but it got out -- and it was somebody in Government that the news people knew and trusted that told them.  Again, it was pandemonium in the neighborhood -- only this time, it was a larger area -- the guard made a five block ring and on the outside of that ring, all the news media had their reporters set up their cameras and stuff -- some found the right spot to get a picture of The Sphere and its picture was again plastered all over the world.  Right down at the park, Mankiewicz got himself a choice spot, just at the fifteen foot high park fence that bordered my yard, and Hank was down there most every day, talking to him and feeding him the usual line about how he had all the ideas and he was telling the scientists how to do all this and they were grateful to him and all that --and of course Mankiewicz was feeding on it all and it was plastered all over the pages of The World Galaxie; then the other supermarket rags began interviewing Hank again -- none of the responsible news media did because they knew Hank too well -- and Hank was famous again.

 But in two weeks The Sphere became old news again -- a war in Africa and another one in Asia and somebody in Europe found guilty of embezzlement or something and the President going to China for the first time -- and the regular media was off the case again.  The other tabloids found something else to cover too.  Only Mankiewicz stayed around.

Old Hugh was strutting around, sort of like a vulture waiting for the last death throes of the body.  He was just waiting for everybody to lose so much interest in The Sphere that nobody wanted to support it.  But George had other ideas and was fed up with Hugh and his obsession for closing down the Sphere Project.  He called up his chief in D. C., who in turn called around and pretty soon Hugh had to leave to check out the illegal tea trade in Timbuktu.

The night Hugh was called to leave, George broke out his best brandy and the whole crew celebrated in the motel.

It was the fifth or sixth video that came back that really wowed the scientists.  It had a voice on it.  Someone there was speaking -- and the language sounded as foreign as can be --strange sounds -- but the scientists were sure these were spoken words -- the camera would go close up on a gerbil and the same words would be spoken -- then the scene would get larger and you could see lots of gerbils -- and the words would be repeated. But nobody could figure out what they were saying.  George had brought in all sorts of language experts to try to figure out the writing and the speech, but nobody could figure it out.

They'd send in more planes with more tapes, and they'd comeback with the same pictures and whosever voice it was that was speaking was becoming more and more frantic with each video.

"Let's try to entertain them," Herman said.  "We'll see what kind of stuff they like."

So they sent in all sorts of movies and stuff.  Old stuff, new stuff, space stuff -- "they might like space stuff," George said.  George was a space nut.

Eventually one of the videos was sent back.  This was a Star Trek episode –  The Trouble With Tribbles .

"I wonder if they're trying to tell us something." George said.

The Sphere kept growing -- about twenty one meters now, and it was becoming darker purple, with marbling like where some was lighter.

"Let's send in music!" Barbara suggested.  She had been silent until now.  The men had controlled almost everything.

"They won't understand music!" George told her.

"Music's the 'universal language', George," Herman said.

"You think so?" George asked.  And he sent off for all the music videos he could get.

Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Patti Paige -- all the old ones went in.  Not much response came back from these, though.  Only scads and scads of gerbils and  The Trouble With Tribbles  again. The scientists tried fifties rock and roll.  Elvis'  Teddy Bear came back.

"I guess they're saying that's what they like," George said; then he got that "idea" look on his face.

"Maybe that's because these things -- gerbils, Tribbles, teddy bears -- maybe it's because that's what they look like."

"Why don't they just send back videos of themselves?"Barbara asked.  She was getting bolder, now that the rest of the scientists were paying attention to her ideas.

"That's a good question." Herman said.

"I don't know why they don't." George said, "Maybe we haven’t sent them enough pictures of ourselves."

"Well, gerbils don't have hands,"  Herbert said, "Maybe whoever it is that's there can't hold the camera."

"They already do, dummy!"  Herman responded.

"Maybe they're embarrassed to take videos of themselves," Barbara said.

So the scientists made videos of themselves operating the equipment and, to make sure whoever it was that was there beyond the Sphere knew who was sending the airplanes in there, they made videos of themselves loading up an airplane with a book and sending it into The Sphere; then they sent the video in next. What came out next was a video of more gerbils.  Whoever it was that was taking the video was walking through thousands of gerbils and he/she/it walked a long way and you could see sort of hills and sort of trees and landscape of some sort -- nothing like what we have here though -- and it was all filled with gerbils.

"They're showing us what their countryside looks like,"George said, "Why don't we do the same."

So they taped themselves walking around the neighborhood and down to the fence between my yard and the park and through the gate in it and into the park and up to the amphitheater and stage that had the domed top to it sort of like the Hollywood Bowl --you know, like a quarter grapefruit; then they sent that in. What came back was more gerbils.

"Maybe they want more gerbils!" George said.

"We still have plenty,"Herman added.

They doubled the number of airplanes that went at once and the number of gerbils in each airplane.  Another video came back, with a voice that seemed to be at the height of excitement and, as far as you could see, gerbils -- all over the place -- what looked like buildings, covered with gerbils.  There were hills of gerbils -- mountains of gerbils -- gerbils all over.

"See, they like them." George said.

"Let's send them some more music," Barbara said, and Herman agreed with her.

They sent in seventies and eighties and nineties music. What came back was a sort of a combination -- a screen full of gerbils, then Tribbles falling all over Captain Kirk, then a screen full of gerbils again.

I had an idea.  I was watching a video of Aretha Franklin at the Hollywood Bowl in our motel room.  I like Aretha -- she's one of the best, to my mind.  I figured, if they hadn't sent anything like this in yet, they might like to.  So I left and went over there to my house and my back yard to see if they'd send it in. And of course, Hank had to get his two cents in.  He'd been trying to get inside that fifteen foot fence for some time.  I guess he thought this might be his chance.

"Whatcha got there, Fred?" he asked, as he approached me there between the houses, right about where this all began while I was washing my car that fine spring Sunday morning.

"It's a tape," I replied, "I thought maybe," I pointed toward the scientists, "they'd think about sending it into The Sphere."

"It's not that ol' Aretha tape, is it?" and, before I could answer, "They'll never go for that Fred."

"Why not?" I asked.

"She ain't up to date.  Ya gotta give 'em somethin' that’s up to date, like Hank Williams, Jr."

I had an answer to that -- but I decided to keep it to myself.

"Just because you got the hots for Aretha don't mean somebody else's gonna be int'rested.  Now, you let me . . . "

But he was cut off.  We had just come up to the guard at the gate, who let me pass, but held a restraining hand on Hank's chest.

"Hey!  Wait just a durn minute there!" Hank said, "I've got rights too!  Look, I'm the one who discovered that durn thing! You let me in!"

The guard just stood there, holding Hank back.

"C'mon, man, What're ya doin'?  I'm his friend!" Hank said, pointing to me, "I'm with him!"

"I've got orders." the guard said.

"Hey, you know me . . . " Hank started.

"All too well." the guard replied.

"Whattaya mean by that remark?" Hank said, and it was clear he was getting more and more agitated.  He was really jealous that I could go in and he couldn't.

Hank stepped back a little and stood there a minute.

"Jist because you have a badge 'n' uniform 'n' stuff, you think yer tough, don't ya?" he said, standing his ground.

The guard just stood there, arms folded.

"Well, I'm a United States citizen, and I know my rights."I thought for a minute there that he'd try something dumb like try to push his way past the guard, but he didn't.  He just turned around and went back to his patio, stopping once and shouting back at the guard.

"I'm a United States citizen, and I know my rights!  I’m going to have my lawyer take care of this!"

Hank had already talked to every lawyer in town about getting inside the fence.  To a man, they turned him down.

I felt sorry for Hank -- there he was, stewing away down there on the patio, sitting in the chair and guzzling beer and fiddling with papers of some sort on his table.  But it was his own fault -- it was his way of acting around other people that made everybody avoid him like the plague.  To this day, I don’t know why I put up with him.  I hope it's not because I'm like him in some way.

Well, I took the idea up with George, and he thought they’d sent in too much music already.  Herman and Barbara, however, thought that just one more couldn't hurt -- besides look at how patient I was in putting up with them in my back yard.  They also reminded him that it was free -- the other tapes cost ten times more than you could buy them at a video store, and higher ups were thinking twice about all this spending of money on something so far out -- it had been debated in congress and taxpayers groups were pushing to have funds cut off -- cut the deficit, you know -- and besides, they were on my property -- "Come on, George," they said, "just one more."

"All right," George said, "We'll send it in in the morning."

The next morning was a Saturday morning, and usually I sleep late, even with The Sphere in my back yard; but this was different -- it was my tape that was going in -- my Aretha tape. So I got there about seven -- and the first thing I did -- I had to do it -- I had to show Hank a thing or two -- I knocked on Hank's door and woke him up.

"They're sending in my Aretha Franklin at the Hollywood Bowl," I told him.

It took about fifteen minutes of Hank struggling to wake up for him to finally reply.

"Well, I think they're about as dumb as you are!" he snapped, "Sendin' in that Aretha tape -- One of 'em's prob'ly got the hots for Aretha just like you.

"Education don't squelch what ya got, ya know."

Then he launched into the tirade he probably had building up in him for months.

"You think you're such a big shot, talkin' and jokin' with all them scientists and comin' an' goin' as you please -- just rubbin' shoulders with all them so called smart guys.

"Well, I could too, if I wanted to, ya know -- I could prob’ly be right up there in front, just showin' 'em everything 'n' they'd be chummier with me than they ever was with you --but I don't want to.  I don't wanna go around struttin' my stuff 'n' actin' the big shot.  I jist rather sit back be and be plain ordinary me.

"You got a lot to learn, ya know.  Friends 're a heckuva lot more important than be in' such a big shot."

"Well, Hank," I said, "what are you doing talking so much to Mankiewicz and getting your name in his rag all the time?"

He slammed the door in my face and went back to sleep.

I went through the gate to the ten foot fence around my yard-- then through the gate to the fifteen foot fence around where they had their equipment around The Sphere, and there they were, putting a video recorder in a radio controlled airplane.

"Here's your tape back," Barbara said, holding it out for me to take, "We made a copy of it and that's what we're sending in."

"Hey man," Herman said, slapping me on the back, "you might be making history with this!"

And everybody laughed.I think we were all sure that this was just another tape -- they were doing it just because they liked me and they were sure nothing would become of this more than with any other tape they'd sent in.  I mean it was just a few tapes that whoever it was beyond The Sphere sent back -- and Aretha's songs didn't have anything to do with what whoever it was beyond The Sphere was sending back -- gerbils and Tribbles and Teddy Bear and all that.  Some young guy started the plane and Barbara was there, at the controls ready to sent the plane in.  It ran along the smooth grass in my back yard and took off as pretty as you please and Barbara circled it and guided it over my house and turned it around and headed it right for The Sphere. Then it disappeared into the purple marbled thing.  It was my tape -- my tape -- that was going into The Sphere.  Someone beyond The Sphere was going to see my tape.  I felt pretty good about it.

Half an hour later, the same airplane came back out.  Herman opened it up and there was another tape in it.  He put it in the VCR and there they were again -- gerbils, nothing but gerbils --the scene from  The Trouble with Tribbles  where they were falling all over Captain Kirk -- Elvis singing Teddy Bear -- then, at the end -- it was Aretha singing "Think" at the Hollywood Bowl.  I was wowed.  Part of my tape was being used to talk back at the scientists.

"I'm impressed," Barbara said.

"They like your stuff," Herman said.

"They're trying to tell us something," George said, "We’ve just got to find out what."

Hank was there by the fence, like he always was, hanging on it and making comments, like he always did.

"Maybe they're tryin' to tell ya they got too many gerbils!"he yelled, sarcastically.

The scientists ignored him.

"Well, I don't think you're going to find out jack about anything," a familiar voice behind us said.

We turned around to look, and it was old Hugh, and he had a paper in his hand -- actually, it was a bunch of papers, and he was waving them like mad.  And it looked like the scientists couldn’t ignore Hugh, as much as they'd like to.

"You're shut down," he said, and he sure was pretty glad at being able to tell George the news.

"You've got 'til Monday to pack up and get out of here. Congress has cut off all your money."

He handed the papers to George and left.

Everybody looked on in disbelief as George read the papers.

"It's true," he said, dejectedly, "it's an order from the Chief."

"The president?" Herman asked.

"No, you dumbbell, the head of the Science Agency.  The President doesn't know what's going on below the Cabinet level."

"What do we do?" Barbara asked.

"Go home -- I'll make a few calls."

The next morning, when I came around to my back yard, the Guard had surrounded it and kept everybody out. They said they would handle things from now on.  They had called in a whole regiment to pack away all the equipment and block off the area --They said this was a restricted area from now on for as long as The Sphere stayed there.  The scientists all looked longingly and dejectedly at The Sphere and their equipment and figured it was all over -- they hung their heads and milled about in little groups talking and mumbling and waiting for George to come, hoping that he would have better news.  George came, and he didn't.  Everybody he'd called turned him down -- the pressure was on to save money and The Sphere was just too fantastic a thing to be believed, let alone spend money on.

Barbara had brought a video camera.

"I want a record of these last moments," was all she said.

We all just stood there, looking at The Sphere.  Except for Hank.  He was down in my back yard at the fence to the City Park, talking with Mankiewicz and Luke -- they both had become pretty important at The World Galaxie by now.  I knew Hank was feeding Mankie some line like he always did.  I thought I would go down and make amends with Hank and talk to Mankiewicz -- after all, the guy stayed around all this time with all that happened with The Sphere -- I thought I would tell him everything I knew about what was happening.

As I was walking down to talk with them, I heard a commotion behind me.  Hank's eyes got as wide as dinner plates and Mankiewicz and Luke looked pretty excited.  They were staring right up there at where The Sphere was.  I turned around -- The Sphere had suddenly grown twice as large as it had been when I started walking down there -- and it was a deep purple, with cloud like things swirling all over it -- and it was pushing over all the scientific equipment.  Scientists were scrambling to get out of the way and the Guard was running in all directions, calling out on their radios frantically and grabbing their guns and pointing them at The Sphere

Then The Sphere moved.  At first it rose straight up, at least a hundred feet.  Then it headed straight to where we were down here by the fence, coming down to ground level.  I couldn't do anything but flop flat on my face and hope it didn't touch me; but I felt I had to look up and see how Hank and Mankiewicz and the photographer were doing.  The photographer found the gate and ran right through it -- he was all right.  Mankiewicz, on the other hand, ran right into the fence, and when he turned around to face The Sphere headed right for him, his pants were soaked. He stayed there, flat against the fence, pale as a sheet, eyes closed tight shut.  Hank climbed the fence -- now this is a twelve foot fence, so that's quite a feat for Hank.  He tore his pants from stem to stern and landed on the other side.  He kept on running, and didn't stop until he was way inside the park.

The Sphere passed right over my head.  I saw it halfway between me and the fence, headed right for Mankiewicz.  Then it rose and flew right over the fence and into the park, finally resting just a little above the ground in the middle of one of the ballparks, leaving Mankiewicz a shuddering mass of jelly and he finally slumped down on the ground in a lifeless heap.  I thought he was dead.

Next thing I know, the scientists are running all around me, headed right down there through the gate and to the ballpark where The Sphere is.  One of them stops and checks on Mankiewicz, who is finally coming to.  I then decide to get up and walk down there to check on him myself.

"I'm all right," he says, "Where's The Sphere?"

The scientist points toward the ballpark.

I don't know why -- I decide to follow the scientists and go with them.  What crazy thing's making them go down there where The Sphere is, I don't know, and I sure as heck don't think anybody in his right mind should be down there -- but I go down anyway, right along with them.  I hear the Guard as they scramble in their jeeps and  Hum Vee 's and I hear them barking orders and somewhere up near my house I hear the tramp of boots.  As I go through the gate, Mankiewicz is still standing there, looking like he's wondering what to do and hasn't decided yet and the scientist is heading toward the gate, not waiting for Mankiewicz to make up his mind.  Finally a "what the heck" look comes over Mankiewicz's face and he comes through the gate right after the scientist.  He starts to go back through the gate, but is stopped by one of the Guard.  They are all in a line all along the fence, facing the park, and they aren't letting anybody out.  So here we are, stuck in the city park with The Sphere.

The scientists ring The Sphere there in the ballpark, fascinated by it.  It's huge, looking meaner than ever, with purple running through it like waves, moving all over it, deep purple, red purple, blue purple, whitish purple -- it's scary to see.  The Luke's taking pictures like mad and Mankiewicz and Hank are down in the seats by the stage, talking.  I can see they're both nervous and upset and not really wanting to be there.  I hear orders barked all around and see the Guard all around the park, weapons in their hand, crouched behind their Jeeps and Hum Vees, watching nervously.

What do I do? I ask myself.  There's the Guard, at the fence, not letting anybody in or out.  There's Hank, over at the stage, looking like he's ready to duck between the benches at anytime, watching carefully for what The Sphere might do next.  There's The Sphere, sitting like some big bomb, right in the middle of the park, ready to blow.  Here I am -- right out in the open.  Maybe I ought to join Hank -- at least we'll go together -- some awful thought I think to myself -- but he's the best I've got -- Sally's up there somewhere on the other side of the Guard so I can't get to her.  Ok, so I'll join Hank, I tell myself, and I start walking toward him there in the amphitheater -- but before I go ten feet, I realize -- and it's tough not to realize it -- that The Sphere is hanging there in mid-air, right smack in the way, taking up almost all that baseball field.  I'll go slowly, I tell myself, carefully, watching The Sphere's every move, hoping it's not watching my every move.

Here I go, passing around the ballfield, with The Sphere out there, big as two houses, purple swirling all over it.  The scientists are just standing there, all around it, staring at it, not saying a word.  It's sort of like that scene near the end of Close Encounters , where all the scientists just walk slowly toward the spaceship, gawking at it, almost frozen in their tracks.  The purple is stopping its swirling now, and is sort settling into lines running around it, left to right -- or right to left, whatever.  Here and there, there's a swirl or two --what's that?  -- that's a great big swirl, big and round -- sort of egg shaped -- coming around from the left -- looks almost like an eye -- maybe it is looking at me -- I guess maybe it's looking at all of us

George and Herman and Barbara are on the near side of it.

"Look at that!" George is saying, "What the heck is it?"

"Beats me!"  Herman says.

"Well, I'm just an amateur astronomer," Barbara is saying,"But it sure the heck looks like the planet Jupiter."

"Sure does," Herman says.

"Well, I'll be," George says, "I wonder . . . "

"Maybe they're from Jupiter?" Herman asks.

"Well, we gave them videos and books and magazines with all the planets' pictures in them," Barbara reminds them.

Well, I'm still walking -- I'm about halfway around the ballpark and The Sphere.  They might be fascinated by this thing; but I want to get the heck away from it -- as far away as I can.

"Why didn't they do something like Saturn, with the rings around it?" George wonders.

"Where do you think the rings would extend to?" Barbara reminds him, "Clear the hell out of the park -- that's where --and think of where we would be -- right in the middle -- not a very pretty thought, really."

"Why Jupiter?" Herman asks.

"Why not?"  Barbara answers.

"So that's 'The Great Red Spot'," George says, "Do you think it's accurate?"

"What the hell are you doing musing about whether or not that image of 'The Great Red Spot' is accurate?"  Barbara says,"Look at that thing!  We don't know what its going to do now!  It could explode and destroy half the world!  And there you go wondering if their model of Jupiter is accurate!"

That spot seems to be following me -- moving right around as I walk toward the amphitheater.  I watch it over my shoulder as I walk across the park road.  Good!  It's keeping on turning.  I take a gander at it as I walk down the center aisle -- it's turned back!  It's "looking" right down here!  It is following me!  What am I going to do now!  -- Maybe I ought to duck down between the seats.  There are George and Herbert and Herman and Barbara, right there almost in front of the spot, looking right at it -- that's dumb I think to myself.

"Look there!" says Barbara, "The spot's gone and it looks like you can see right into the middle of it."

"I can see a landscape" says George, "-- looks like hills and maybe some trees of some sort -- "

"And Gerbils," says Herman.  "I can see gerbils!"

"Is it 'The Revolt of The Gerbils'?" George asks.

"I think you've lost it, George."  Barbara says.

"You can see for miles!"  George says, "It's a huge world in there!"

"It's like they've opened a window on their world,"  Barbara says.

"Well,"  Herman says, "The 'window' is getting bigger."

I look around again.  All the scientists are gathering there around the hole -- and, sure enough, that hole IS getting bigger-- lots bigger.  Those scientists must sure be interested in that thing -- they sure the heck aren't afraid of it -- I'd be afraid as all get out if I were them -- heck, I'm as afraid as all get out now, and I'm a good two hundred feet away -- and Luke, the photographer -- why, he's almost right up there IN the hole.

Somewhere out there on the edge of the park I can hear somebody shouting orders to "move in on The Sphere" and I can hear a lot of people shouting back, "Like hell we will!"

I'm down by Hank and Mankiewicz by now, walking over to where they are.  Some of the Guard are coming in now, getting closer to The Sphere.  What the hell do they think they can do? I ask myself.

Hank is giving Mankiewicz an earful.

"I revealed this to the world," he is saying, "I warned 'em all 'n' they wouldn't listen.  I stood alone tellin' people it was dangerous."

I can tell he's really waxing eloquent.  Mankiewicz is holding his recorder, the most sarcastic look on his face -- but I guess he's thinking that he's sold this stuff plenty of times before, so he might as put up with it.

"Look out!" shouts George from up at the ballfield, and I hear a big commotion up there.  Hank looks that way, and Mankiewicz looks that way and their eyes turn big again and Mankiewicz wets his pants again -- then he's bounding over the benches toward the stage.  Hank starts running too, shouting,"They're comin' to get us!  -- Run! -- We're done for!  -- and he's bounding over the seats, almost catching up with Mankiewicz, who's heading for the shelter of the wings in back of the stage, when he trips -- he's never been athletic -- he's as clumsy as a dumb pup -- and falls right between two rows of benches.  I lookup toward the ballfield to see what The Sphere is doing -- and it's not there!  I see the scientists looking up in the air, so I look up -- The Sphere is almost right above me!  I freeze right there where I am.  It floats for awhile right there, as if it's looking for something; then it comes down almost to the ground, right in the middle of the seats, just a few feet from where I stand.  I look around for Hank -- there he is, trying to get up -- and he can't.  I bound over the seats to where he is and try to help him get up -- his pants are caught on one of the bolts.  I get him loose and, when he gets up and looks at The Sphere -- he grabs me -- holding me in a tight bear hug, and hides his face in my shirt.

I turn to look at The Sphere the best I can, with Hank holding on to me, and that hole is getting bigger -- in fact, The Sphere looks like a bowl now and suddenly something small and white and round pops out of it and sails in the air and falls down right toward where we are standing.

"Look out!" I yell to Hank, and pull away from him.  He then holds his hands together, cupped like and looks up, like he's praying, only to have the thing bop him right on the forehead. It then drops right in his hands.  He looks at it and I look at it.

"It's a ping pong ball," I say.

"It's my ping pong ball," he says, "It's that one that first disappeared in that darn Sphere."

"How can you tell?" I ask him.

"Remember?  I have my name printed on all of them -- and I have each numbered special," he answers.

"See?" he says, showing it to me.

And, sure enough, there it is -- number eight oh two one oh.

We look over at The Sphere, then it really breaks loose --it looks like popcorn popping out of it -- hundreds -- thousands of these white things -- and they're all over the place --popping like crazy out of The Sphere and high into the air and it looks like a huge cloud of these things.  The Guard are shooting in the air at them.  They fall to the ground -- and they're ping-pong balls -- Hank stoops and finds one or two with his name and numbers on them -- and there are some of those crazy colored ones that came from the toy store at the mall.  The ground is covered with them for as far as we can see -- and they're still falling. The Guard is standing around, stupefied --  with a "what's the use" look on their faces.  Finally the ping pong balls stop falling after they've become about a foot deep on the ground. Then The Sphere moves again -- it turns upside down, and other things start coming out -- small, furry things -- again the Guard shoot at them -- but it doesn't seem to be doing any good. Whatever it is, they’re running like mad under the ping pong balls and we can hear the ping pong balls rattling as these things move under them -- and they're getting closer.  It's hard telling what they are until Hank gives a look of surprise.

"It's runnin' up my pants!" he says, "It's after me -- it's gonna take out my brain!"

What brain, I ask myself.

"Help me for Gods sake!" he shouts, scared as heck, "Get it out!  Get it out!"

"Take down your pants," I tell him.

He gets the widest eyed look in his eyes -- like taking off his pants is going to ruin him or something.

"It's either that," I say, "or you let that thing go up to your brain."

So he unbuckles and unbuttons and unzips, closing his eyes, afraid to look at the "thing" that's out to get him.

"It's clawin; me!" he says, "Get it off me, quick!"

There it is, scrambling in Hank's pants.  It's a gerbil. It's hard to do, but I grab it and hold it up.

"I've got it," I tell Hank.

"Kill it!" he shouts, his eyes still closed.

"It's too cute to kill," I tell him.

He opens his eyes and sees the gerbil . . the dumbest look comes over his face.

I can hear the scrambling of the gerbils as they go farther and farther away -- and I hear the Guard shouting orders and some shots being fired as, I guess, the gerbils reach where they are. The confusion is plain from the way they're speaking.  Now, who's going to shoot a gerbil?

"Look at it now!" Hank shouts, pointing to The Sphere.

 I look and The Sphere, which is now a bowl, has turned on its side.  Then it sort of folds back some more and something's coming out of it.

"It's the end of the world!"  Hank yells, and starts running down the aisle between the seats, but he trips over his pants, which he hasn't pulled back up yet, and falls flat on his face.

Now, I look back at The Sphere, and there it is, coming out of it and I can't believe my eyes.  Out of it is floating, as big as you please, a real life Starship Enterprise.  Everybody freezes!  What's happening here?  Nobody moves.  Not even the Guard that's around The Sphere (which isn't a sphere any more now).  The same questions are on everybody's lips:  Is this something the Government's done?  Have they been pulling our strings all along?  Nobody makes a move toward it, afraid they'll make some higher up mad.

The "Enterprise" floats to above the middle of the stage and stops and we're all confused beyond belief to see that out of the Enterprise a rope ladder drops, and down the rope clamber eight little men with black hair and beards.  One has a microphone in his hand and the rest have guitars and drums and one even has a piano and they set up there on the stage.  This is totally unreal! I think -- like how'd they get that piano down out of that little trapdoor and down that flimsy rope -- like how coulda little guy like that carry it anyway -- and Hank comes up beside me.

"This is totally unreal!" he shouts.

There's something familiar about this, I think -- I mean, the way the band and the singer are set up -- I've seen that somewhere before.

Well, I'm still trying to figure out how that little guy got the piano out of that little trapdoor and down that flimsy rope ladder when the group dives right into their rendition of"Think!", just like Aretha Franklin did it.  Heck, the guy with  the microphone who's singing's got the moves down and everything. I get to thinking they've imitated the act even down to flashbulbs going off when I realize that Luke's right down therein front, taking pictures like crazy.  And old Mankiewicz himself is peeking around the backstage divider there.

Hank beside me says, "Ah no! -- now you've warped them good, Fred!"

The Sphere has disappeared for all we can see and we've all gotten ourselves a seat as close as possible to the action --Hank and me and the scientists and the Guard -- these little guys have got themselves a pretty good audience, I think to myself.

It's a pretty good show and we applaud like crazy when they're finished with the piece -- they put a lot into it, we can tell.  But who are they?  We're waiting for them to pick up again with some more music when they all get down from the stage, choose George and Herman and Herbert and Barbara and Hank and me-- and a couple of other people -- then they start singing"Think" again -- only this time the melody's there, but we can't understand a word they say -- it sort of sounds like what we heard over the tapes they sent out of The Sphere to us.

They'll put their hands on themselves and say whatever word they're saying -- to the first "Think" on Aretha's song -- then they'll put their hands on us and say the same word again, to the second "Think".  Then they go up to the trees and do the same thing.

"What are they doing?" I ask Hank.

"Beats the heck out of me." he replies.

"What do you think they're doing?" George asks Herman.

"Beats the heck out of me." Herman replies.

Then it's Barbara who catches on to what's going on.  She starts singing to the tune of "Think!"

"Woman," she sings, putting her hands on her chest.

"Woman," she sings, then hesitates a bit, realizing what she's saying, but puts her hands on the little guy's chest just the same.

"Wait a minute," she tells him, "I've got a better idea."

"They don't know what you're saying," George tells her.

She goes over to a tree and the little guy follows -- he looks like he knows what she's doing -- at least it seems he has a pretty good idea.

"Tree!" she says, putting her hands on the tree.  Then she stops and looks at the little man and holds her hands out to show him that she wants him to do the same.

The little man doesn't hesitate.

"Gugheksldk!" he says, putting both hands on the tree.

"Googthorskelduch!" Barbara says, not getting what he said exactly right (heck, who could?) and the little man laughs.

Then he puts both hands out like Barbara did.

She says "Googlthortch" or whatever it is and puts both hands on the tree.  The little man stops her and puts both his hands on the tree and says, "Tree!"

"See!" Barbara turns to us and says, "They're trying to communicate."

"I thought that was what they were doing all along!"  George replies.

"Of course -- that's what they were trying to do all along,"he says, his hand slapping his forehead, "but we didn't understand!"

One of the little men brings out the books we sent in and books just like the ones they sent back out with their writing in them and the scientists and the little men sit down on the benches and stick their noses in those books, saying the words --the English words, like "Run Spot Run!" and stuff like that and the little men look around as if they're looking for something.

One of them sees a dog in the park and says, "Spot!"

George looks at the little fellow.  "I think we have a hard time ahead of us here,"  he says.

While we've been paying attention to these eight little guys, a bunch more has come out of the "Starship" and most of them have gathered around Hank and me.  They're looking at Hank.

"What do they want?" Hank asks.

"When we can understand each other well enough we'll ask them,"  Herman turns around and replies,  "In the meantime, don't move -- don't do anything."

Hank looks like he wouldn't dare budge.  The little men look at him and point at him, jabbering away in their language, and one of them yells up in the "Enterprise" and more little men come out with copies of supermarket tabloids in their hands -- they have more of the World Galaxie than any other kind.  Mankiewicz sees this and gets Luke by his side and gestures to the little men to hold up their copies of the rag and they do and Luke takes a bunch of photographs and the flash goes off and the little men stand there, blinking, and Mankiewicz is as happy as he can be.

Then the little men all gather around Hank, jabbering and pointing at the World Galaxies and his picture on the front page and looking at him excited like and Hank's just standing there, stiff as a board, scared stiff.  I guess he's afraid of what they're going to do next.

Barbara's operating that video camera she brought.  I guess she never let go of it in all that commotion.  She's having the little men go through their routine again, singing "Think" in their own language, and patting George's chest and then their own, but George is a bit put out by this whole routine because he's trying to learn to speak with them.

Herman's sitting on a bench with one of the little men and they're going over the reading books we sent in.  The little man looks like he's really into this, and Herman looks like he's pretty impressed with the little man.

"Hey Barbara!" he yells, "Come dig this!"

"What is it," Barbara asks as she approaches the pair, camera humming.

"This little devil's learning this stuff right fast!" Herman replies, "He's even learning to write!  Wish our kids could learn like that -- they'd be geniuses."

Mankiewicz pushes his way through the crowd of little men to get to Hank.

"What do ya think of all this?" he asks him, "Look, they’ve all got copies of the Galaxie."

Hank wasn't exactly into the excitement of the occasion.  He says flatly, "Yeah -- fine -- but what about me?  Whadda they want with me?"

"Can't you see?" Mankiewicz tell him, "They've all got the Galaxies with your pictures in them."

 Hank looks at the rags they have in their hands.

“Hey!  Sure enough," he says, "That's my face is plastered all over 'em!"

"Wow!" he says, "Ya mean . . . ?"

"Yeah, man," Mankiewicz says, "You're a celebrity!"

Hank perks up -- he's never been a celebrity in his whole live -- not like this.

"We've got an issue of the Galaxie coming up," Mankiewicz says, "And it's being to be the biggest one yet, what with these guys coming out in that spaceship and stuff -- and Hank, you can be the star -- you, with all these little guys all around you --imagine --you're probably the reason they're here.

"So give me an interview, Hank."

Hank takes one of the little men in his arms, pulls up to his full height and starts talking, posing for Luke, who's just clicking away with that camera of his.

The little man's had this look on his face, like he’s probably thinking,  "Me, a grown man -- being held like some kid."

"Well, let me tell you all about it," Hank says, "You see, the ball grew horrendously huge an' began rollin' over everybody an' everybody started gettin' outta the way -- 'cept me, of course cause I knew someone had to save Mankind -- at least at the time -- I'm a brave dude by nature, y'know -- anyway I followed it right down there on that stage an' I was prepared to jump right into that ball to keep it from harmin' people even if it meant dyin'.

"These guys was followin' at a distance, see, an' they was scared outta their pants an' hollerin' at me --  'Get back!  Get back!' they was sayin' -- but I was gonna stand up to it whatever it was.

"An' it sits itself right down there on that stage an' there they was lookin' at it.  I mean, there I was lookin' at it.  Them scientists an' everybody else was as far away from it as they could get.  Then I get hit in the head, see?  An' I look up an' there's this thing fallin' to the ground an' I look at it -- I see my name on it!

"By George!, I say, it's my ping pong ball! -- that firestone that I ever threw up there!  Then I see another one an’ another one an' more a them balls comes outta that big ball an' more an' more an' it starts lookin' like a big buncha popcorn poppin' all over the place comin' outta that ball -- I mean that ball's gotta be twenty or thirty feet big by now, y'know?  Or even bigger -- I don't know.  An' those ping-pong balls're comin' outta there thick 's flies an' they're all over the place an' we begin thinkin' we're gonna be buried in 'em.

"Then all of a sudden the ball -- The Sphere, ya know --starts turnin' all sortsa colors an' gets these bulges in it an' all sortsa things -- it looked horrendous!  The scientists an' them backed off, scared as all get-out, hollerin' at me to run! run! -- but I knew what I had to do."

"What did you have to do, Hank?"  Mankiewicz asks.  You can see just the slightest hint of amusement on the reporter's face as he looks toward Luke and they look at each other like they know.

"What did I have to do?"  Hank replies,  "Whatever I could to save Mankind.  Then this humongous thing comes rushin' outta the ball an' nearly runs them over an' I'm standin' there watchin' an' it's too late too run."

"What do you mean, 'run'?" Mankiewicz says, sort of sarcastically, since he witnessed the whole thing -- Mankiewicz was scared of course, but he wasn't the one bragging that he wasn’t.  "Where were you trying to run to?"

"What're ya tryin' to get at there?" Hank says, and you could see he was sort of offended by the question.  "That I would run AWAY from it?  You know I was running toward it -- I was ready ta stand right up to whoever was comin' outta that thing --I mean it was the world's life that was at stake as far as I knew."

"But it seemed like you were trying to run away," Mankiewicz says, "Why, the scientists were talking among themselves, saying. . . "

"Well, they don't know what they're talkin' about!" Hank comes back, really mad, "I stood right up to them."

"And it looks like Star Trek,"  he goes on, " -- Captain Kirk's rocket -- y'know?  An' it comes outta that ball an' those ping pong balls fly all over the place an' they get blown clear outta the area.  An' it just plops itself down right there almost on top of me an' I can't run nowhere."

"Where were you running to?"  Mankiewicz asks.  It look like he wants to stay with this one question. "You weren’t running away were you?"

"Of course I wasn't runnin away!  I told you I stood there facin' it!  I can see little men in it -- they have dark hair an 'beards an're jumpin' up 'n down in that contraption  and it just sits itself down there an' they all come rushin' out an' I just stand there cause I don't know what to do."

"Scared stiff?"  Mankiewicz asks.

"Whattaya mean by that remark?"  You can tell Hank's really getting flustered now,  "I didn't know what to do because they looked alright, y'know -- it didn't look like they meant to hurt anybody -- not little fellas like them."

"Then they all run outta that thing like gangbusters an' I can't run nowhere."

"Why do you keep talking about running?" Mankiewicz asks,"You ran here and you ran there -- are you sure you weren’t trying to run away from the thing?  You can be honest with me --even the bravest men are afraid and run from something sometimes."

Hank is really perturbed now.

"I wish you'd get off that broken record!" he says, "It's because when they come out, they was so cute and so friendly lookin' I didn't know which ONE of 'em ta run TO!  And here I thought you was my friend."And the Hank's really shoveling it to Mankiewicz, now, and I'm right next to him so I have to hear it all. 

"I gave ‘em the idea," he says, " y'know, like to show ‘em a space ship so's they could use it to get here 'n' Aretha's song so's they could talk to us."

Here, I roll my eyes up in my head -- after all, it was my idea -- Hank thought it was stupid.

"What about the feature in 'U.S. News and World Report',"Mankiewicz asks, "The credit for almost all these ideas is given to the scientists and your friend, Fred, there -- he was given a full page write up and his photo was right there, for the idea of sending in the Aretha Franklin tape?"

"Don't you believe a word they say,"  Hank replies rather quick like,  "It was all my idea."

I can't believe what I'm hearing -- but coming from Hank, that's another story.  With Hank, anything's possible.

I don't know how they got through the National Guard lines, unless the Guard sort of got confused by all the gerbils running around and their lines broke up trying to shoot them, but reporters from the local TV station are all over the place now ,with cameras and all that and talking to the scientists and even some of the little men.  Wait a minute, I tell myself, those little men didn't know our language when they came out of the"Enterprise".

One of the TV reporters comes up to us.

"The scientists say those little men are trying to teach us their language and that one there (he points at Barbara) is beginning to talk to one of them."  he says.

"Big deal," Hank says, "I talked to this little guy in my arms by readin' his mind."

"Well what did the little guy say?" asks the reporter.

"He told me not to say," Hank replies.

The reporter turns away.  He remembers Hank, now, and he's got more realistic people he wants to talk to.

Mankiewicz then turns back to Hank.

"What DID the little guy say?"  he asks, "Isn't it important to the future of Mankind?"

"I told you, he told me not so say," Hank says.

"You're sure of that."  Mankiewicz looks doubtful.

"You don't believe it, do ya?" Hank looks really mad, now --more so than I can remember all the time I've known him, "Why, I bet if this little guy could talk our language, he'd tell ya!"

Then George comes up.  The TV news and Mankiewicz run right over to him and Luke's changing his film and taking more pictures.

"I'm Henry Murphy, of KUKY News." the news reporter says, " This is being piped in live and you guys are the center of attention right now."  Barbara and Herbert and Herman are by George's side now, with about a half a dozen of the little fellows.

"All America,"  Murphy says, " -- to heck with America --all the WORLD -- has questions."

"Shoot,"  George says.

"That's what I'd like to do," Hank mumbles right in my ear.

"We've been following these developments in the pages of the-- " and here Murphy almost chokes -- "World Galaxie for months now and I think we're all curious about how these little fellas were able to duplicate our technology -- the science fiction aspect of it that is -- that's fantastic!, a replica of the Starship Enterprise floating there, right above the ground with no apparent means of support!"

Mankiewicz looks pretty proud of himself -- after all, it's HIS stories they're referring to.

Then the little guy who Barbara first talked to steps forward, looking at George and Barbara who nod and he looks at that big mike stuck in his face and back to George and Barbara who nod again; then he says, in perfect English,  "I am Jsilkitwqts, the leader of this brave band of men who have ventured to go where no man has gone before . . . "

And I think to myself they've been watching too many Star Trek episodes.

He goes on, "You, my dear friends, have taught us.  We are proud to say that these fantabulous people . . . "  Here he sweeps his hand to take in George and Barbara and Herman and Herbert " . . . have provided us with sufficient material to learn to read your writing, although we could not have possibly mastered its escribation without first here coming and observing the musculature involved in its technical application."

Oh brother, I think to myself -- the guy's going to talk our heads off.

"You see,"  Jisseyloqua – whatever --  continues, "we knew the technical aspects involved in our own escribation of words; however, when it came to similar escriba . . . "

"Mr Jesselloquarts," the TV newsman's saying, "what we really want to know is how you built the "Enterprise", there."

"That is Jsilkitwqts,"  the little guy says, "and I would be more than happy to answer your questions concerning our acquisition of the means and ability to duplicate the technology as demonstrated in the unique communication of yours that we viewed which has the nomenclature, 'Star Trek'."

It's going to be a long afternoon, I think to myself.

"Would you please?"

"Would I please what?"  Jaskowhatsit says back to him.

"How did you build the Enterprise?"  Murphy asks.

I can tell Murphy's exasperated, but he keeps his calm and acts very polite to Jaskowhatsit.  After all, this IS the biggest story of – I guess all time.  I'm thinking Murphy and Mankiewicz and old Luke there -- and of course George and Barbara and Herbert and Herman -- are all going to receive big prizes and stuff -- Nobel and like that -- then I look at Hank -- him?  a Nobel Prize?

"Can you imagine,"  Hank says to me, "I might get a Notable prize for this."

I can't imagine -- and even if I could, it'd be pretty painful.

Jaskowhatsits goes on, "Why yes, most kind sir, I would be more than happy to explain how we built our starship.  We call it the  Krzynzopltz, though, rather than the Enterprise.  It is evident, if not obvious, that the Name, 'Enterprise' is held in high regard by the people of your world; thus, we felt it would-be a breach of etiquette to appropriate the name; thus, we decided upon the name, Krzynzopltz.  That means, "high tree" incur language."

He continued, and I was getting antsy.  "We perused all the volumes of literature dealing with space travel and physics and discovered several very specific maxims in regard to your physical laws that enabled us to duplicate, as far as we could tell, the antigravity and propulsion systems of your starship.

"We would very much like," he concluded, "to travel on the enterprise and meet with Captain Kirk and Mister Spock and Bones and the rest of the Enterprise crew."

Boy, does he have some surprise coming, I'm thinking.

Then here comes out of their starship some blond headed little guy who walks right up to Jaskowhatsits and whispers in his ear.

Jaskowhatsits then turns to us and says, "I'm sorry -- very sorry, for I was so looking forward to meeting with Captain James Kirk and exchanging information with him;  however, mission control has relayed us a message that we need to return to our dimension in order to deal with several more Tribbles that remain hidden among our flora and fauna.

"However, we have spoken to George, your commander, and have arranged for an exchange of sorts."

"Oh, yeah -- that's right,"  George says, "They want some of us to go back with them." And he puts his arm around Hank's shoulders and stares right at him and smiles.

Hank looks at George. 

"Well that's good," he says, "I glad for all of you.  It's a pretty big thing to be goin' in there and I really wish I was goin', too.  Who all's goin'?"

"I am for one -- and Herman and Herbert over there, and Barbara -- and guess what?"

A silence falls over our little group because we all -- even  Hank -- suspect who the fifth person is.

"Well, who is it?" I ask.

Hank's looking daggers at me, looking jealous – he must be thinking it’s me they’re talking about.

“I wish it were me,” he says.

“Well, Hank, it is!”  George says.

Hank just stands there, blank-faced, face turning pale.  It’s obvious he doesn’t like this turn of events.

George is hugging him and posing for the cameras and Luke's clicking away and Mankiewicz is writing notes like mad and the TV camera's aimed right on the two of them and I know what the headlines in pictures will be in the morning-- for once Hank'll make the news big and he probably won't see a bit of it.

Now Hank can't say a word and that's a first.  He looks over at me as if to say "Thanks a lot!"

He stutters a little and says, as he drops the little guy, "Why me?"

Then everything's quiet.

Finally the quiet is broken by Jaskowhatsits, who says, "Hank Hopkins, the great one who's been trying to help us all this time, it is a pleasure to meet you.  I am Jsilkitwqts, the leader of this brave band of men."  Then he holds out his hand to shake Hank's.

Hank's white as a sheet now and he just stands there, looking at Jaskowhatsits like he's a ghost of some sort and at his hand like it's some finger of death pointed at him.

"Come on, Hank," George says, "lighten up! "We talked --Jrilsoquits and me -- damn! I still can't get his name right! --and we agreed that a couple of us would go back to their world with them.  The way they talk, that seems to be a parallel universe on the other side of The Sphere -- and the spot where the Sphere first appeared seems to be the point where the universes meet."

"Yes!" says Jaskowhatsits, "This is a momentous occasion!  We have had this phenomenon in our world for a long time -- many years -- it has appeared and disappeared and reappeared sporadically -- and no one ever really knew what it was --everyone was afraid of it.  Little things from your world would pop in – bugs and birds and things like that -- and we would wonder."

"Anyway," George says, "it was your ping pong ball that did it, Hank, old man.  It seems they had never seen anything like it-- they thought it was a little planet or something and they looked at it from all angles, but couldn't figure it out.  Then another came into their world, then more and more -- and then the other things started coming in  -- then the airplanes.  Then the gerbils -- and the videos and they finally understood that someone was trying to talk with them."

"What's that gotta do with anything?" Hank snaps back.

"Well, they want us to go back with them because they’re overrun with 'Tribbles' as they call the Gerbils."

"That bunch that they threw back into our world," George continued,  "is a small percentage of what's in their world. It seems they thrive there much better than here -- whatever it is that they eat there makes them lots healthier -- and they don’t have any natural enemies.  Herman and I immediately volunteered to go to help however we could -- and they asked for you, Hank! They asked for you by name."

"Why me?" Hank is getting whiter all the time. "I don't know anything about gerbils!"

"Well, they think you do," George says.

"Yes," Jaskowhatsits -- forget it, I'll call him Joe, says,"The Great Hank Hopkins.  We have read all about all your great exploits.  We have read all the newspapers sent here that relate how knowledgeably you are and of what great ability and the many things you have done and can do, and, quite frankly, we’re impressed."

"Hank!"  George says, "It's the chance of a lifetime!"

I've never seen George so happy since he began this project. The other scientists have such a look of glee on their faces, too, and I'm sort of beginning to feel sorry for Hank.  Like, how's he going to pull this off?

"But I can't go," Hank's pleading now, " -- don't they know those rags print nothing but lies?"

Mankiewicz looks up and gets the funniest look on his face. He starts writing something else and I get the idea that his next story about Hank isn't going to be very flattering

"We tried to tell them that, but they have this thing about the written word -- their newspapers never print lies, they say. They are so impressed with you that you know so much about everything from gerbils to quantum physics that they just have to have you visit them.

"They're desperate and they say you're the only one who can help them.  They just naturally want you to tour their universe as a VIP."

 

"Hank Hopkins, The Great Hero!" Joe says, and you can tell he's really excited and happy about Hank going to their world.

"But I don't want to go!"  Hank is agitated, now.  Joe, there, is confused.

"Great Hank Hopkins," Joe says, "Why don't you want to visit our world?"

"You're not afraid to go, are you?" George asks.

"Me??? -- scared to go? -- me??? -- Of course not! -- I'm ready! -- but what'll happen to my family if I'm away? -- I'm the breadwinner and they'll have a tough time makin' it without me."

"Oh, that's all right," George tells him, "we got in touch with Washington and they'll provide for your family while you’re gone."

"Knowin' them," Hank replies, "they won't give my family Nothin' much – not near as much as I make."

George then whispers something in Hank's ear and Hank's face noticeably droops.  Now, here I'm wondering whether Hank's reaction is from something bad like the money being too little or something like good, like it being so much that Hank doesn't have a prayer -- when Louise and Hank's kids come up with big smiles on their faces and then I know.

"It's up to my family, you know," Hank says.  He really hasn’t noticed the overjoyed looks on their faces.  "They'd prob'ly be afraid for me to go 'n' I wouldn't wanna worry 'em --Ya know, I'll have to do a lotta talkin' ta get 'em t' let me go."

Then he turns to Louise and the kids.  

"Louise!, my dear wife -- Susie! -- Tommie, my dear little kids  . . . "

Then his face droops a little more.

"What're you kids so excited about?" he says.

"We heard the news!" Tommy shouts, "You're goin' off with 'em!"

"Yes," Hank says, "Daddy's goin' to brave the dangers of goin' off into an unknown world where who know what's gonna happen to him -- an' you might never see him again 'n' you’d worry yourself to death, I know, so, if you  really want me to, I won't go, I . . . "

"It sounds like a whole lotta fun!"  Susie pipes up.

"What!!? -- ya think it's gonna be fun!!? -- Louise! -- tell these kids what might happen!"

"It's a great adventure, dear," Louise says calmly, "It’s for the good of humanity."

"Yeah, Dad," Tommie shouts again, "it's awesome!"

"Whattayamean -- awesome!!?  . . . Fun??!!  . . .  Great adventure??!! -- Tommie? . . Susie? . .  Louise?"  He's pleading at them now.  "I might never come back!"

"That's all right, honey," Louise answers, "We're more than willing to make that sacrifice."  And she flashes the biggest grin I have ever seen on her face.

"We're pleased and proud that my  husband and these kids' daddy is a pioneer in contacting a new world," she continues, We wouldn’t even HEAR of you NOT taking this giant step forward --you know -- 'one giant step for Mankind' -- only a coward wouldn’t go ahead and do such a great service for Mankind."

"Well, I can only take baby steps," Hank pleads, "I'm just not fit out for such awesome responsibilities."

Louise turns to Sally and says out of the corner of her mouth, "He's not fit for too many responsibilities around here, either, so what's the difference."

"Oh great Hank Hopkins,"  Joe's saying, "Your quarters are prepared for you in our world.  You will have the finest of everything -- we have attempted to provide you with all the amenities that you have here, in your world.

"Even a ping pong table."

Now, I'm really certain that'll do it for Hank -- that’ll bring him over the edge -- I know Hank can't resist a whole new world to beat at ping pong.  God knows he's run out of possibilities here.

But he still looks adverse to the idea as Joe stands there beside him, looking up at him so hopefully.  Finally George bends over and whispers something to Joe and George takes Hank backstage (I mean, we're all here at the front row of seats as this is happening) and a few minutes later the two of them comeback out and Hank has the sourest look on his face.

"Okay, I'll go," he says, but he doesn't look very enthusiastic about it, and Joe and the Band -- that's what we call the other guys that came out and played Aretha's "Think" --The Band -- are jumping up and down as happy as they can be and they all grab onto Hank's hands and trousers and shake him up and down and they're high fiveing and slapping hands and shaking hands with Hank . . .

The little men are going back into the Krazynoplace, or whatever they call it, and now the only ones left are Joe and the Band, holding tight to Hank's hands.

Barbara and Herman and Herbert have joined our little group now and George the TV news people are gathered around in front and all the other scientists are gathered behind the group, so Hank really has no way out, scientists behind him, Joe and the Band holding on to him, and all the TV crews and Mankiewicz and Luke right in front of him.

George makes the first statement.

"We have been invited," he says, "to another dimension."

This brings ooooh's and aaaaah's from the crowd. 

George continues, "The people you see here, next to me, Herman, Herbert, Barbara and good old Hank, there (certain knowing looks come over certain people's faces at the mention of Hank's name), will make up the first expeditionary crew."

The reporters start to ask the usual question, but Joe bends George down and whispers in his ear.

"We'd like to answer your questions,"  George tells the reporters, "But Mr. Jasperovich here (he still can't get his name right -- why doesn't he just call him Joe, like I do) says that they have to leave quite quickly and that we don't have time for now."

Joe whispers in George's ear again.

"He says that we will communicate again with you at some future date."

 The whole crew -- George and Barbara and Herbert and Herman-- are just glowing with excitement at this new adventure.  Hank, though, just stands there, forlorn and dejected, not saying a word -- and I can tell he's looking as hard as he can for some chance to just take off running as fast as he can

Mankiewicz, though, wants to ask Hank one final question.

"Mr. Hopkins," he says, "you haven't said anything throughout the news conference, and yet YOU are really the central figure in all this."  And we know he says this sarcastically.

"Don't YOU have anything to say to the millions of people out there who will be viewing your going away?"

Those last two words make Hank shiver.  Everybody's quiet, waiting for Hank to say something.

"He's probably going to scream 'Help!' in front of all those cameras," Sally whispers in my ear.

"Do you have anything to say to our viewing audience?"  the TV reporter says.

"Ohboy . . " Hank mumbles.

"What was that you said, Mr. Hopkins?" the TV reporter asks.

"Nothin'," Hank says mumbling not much more loudly than he just did, " -- I didn't say Nothin'.  I said too much already."

"Well, the show's over, folks," Barbara says, -- and you can tell she sort of feels sorry for Hank, "We've got to go."

"Yes, great journalist people," Joe adds, "It is time for your world to meet our world."  Turning to Hank, he says, "Are you ready, oh, Great Hank Hopkins?"

"Yes, he's ready," George assures the little guy.

"Ready as rain," Louise says.

"Our dad's a hero!" Susie yells.

"The Great Hank Hopkins!"  Tommie mouths, sarcastically,"We're glad you're goin', Dad!  Yer gonna do us proud!"

Hank looks at me.

"You've got quite a reputation to live up to." I tell him."

Hank knows that was his last chance.  He shrugs his shoulders and lets the little men lead him toward the Krazynopsor whatever they call their spaceship.

Hank and Joe and the Band and George and Herman and Herbert and Barbara all gather under the starship and they all look up at that little trap door and that frail ladder that look for all the world like they're much too small for any regular person to use and Hank has a smug, closed-mouthed grin on his face as though he's thinking there's no way they're going to be able to get anybody up there and George and Herman and Herbert and Barbara look puzzled and disappointed.

"Not to worry," Joe says.

They all look at him quizzically.

Then Joe takes a little box-like thing out of his pocket, opens a lid on it, presses a button, and speaks into it.

"Beam me up, Scotty!" he orders.

Boy, what a look comes over Hank's face as they disappear!

Slowly, the starship turns to face the back of the amphitheater, like some fancy ship on the sea. I hear a commotion coming from the back seats and look and there's The Sphere, which you couldn't see at all until now, and it's taking shape again --it's a bowl shape turned on its edge again and the starship slowly glides toward it.  At the windows, the little men are all waving at us here, on the ground.  I see Joe and the band, at the bridge, as it passes, looking at us and waving; and there are George and Herman and Herbert and Barbara, smiling and waving.  And I see Hank at one of the windows with a blank, glum sort of look on his face.  He waves slowly.

I see Louise and Tommie and Susie waving back at him. Louise throws him a kiss, and I see a tear in her eyes.  I guess she loves him after all, in spite of all the stuff he does.

The starship glides right into The Sphere, just the opposite of how it came out and The Sphere rotates until it's like a bowl just sitting there like a bowl should in the regular way and it starts closing up, sort of like a clam, from both sides and finally it closes up entirely.  All this time, the TV cameras are rolling and Mankiewicz is talking into his recorder and Luke's taking pictures like crazy.  Mankiewicz lets out a big sigh.  He probably misses Hank, too -- like what can you say about a guy that's helped you keep your job all these months?

I have to admit I'm a bit sad about all this myself --funny, I'll miss that Hank.  In spite of all his stuff, he's still my friend.  I hope he gets along all right in that other dimension.

Now The Sphere's moving.  It goes back to the ballfield. The TV crew and everybody's following it and cameras are rolling and flashes are going off like crazy.  I'm sure the world is wowed by all this.  Now it's going on toward my yard and crossing the fence and we all follow it and sort of scramble over each other getting through the gate.  The Sphere's getting smaller now, and there it is, behind my house, right where it was this morning.

It's still shrinking,  and it's going right back to where it started out, beneath that old tree in Hank's yard.

We're all here, me and Sally and my kids, and Louise and Susie and Tommie, and all the rest of the scientists and some of the Guard and the TV crew and Mankiewicz and Luke.

Susie tugs at my sleeve.  I look down at her.

"They never got my Fluffie back!" she says sadly.

"I'm sorry," I tell her, "I don't know what to say.  I don’t know what to do."

We look at The Sphere.  It's losing its purpleness now, and shrinking back to its original size.  Susie's sobbing quietly.

"Give me my Fluffie back!" she shouts at The Sphere, as if one last useless tantrum would bring him back.

She then grabs her ping pong ball gun there on the ground beneath the tree and shoots an orange ball into it.

"Take that!" she tells The Sphere, and the ping pong ball disappears, just like all the other ping pong balls have always done.

But, right away, the orange ball pops right back out of The Sphere, with a paper tied around it with a rubber band, and it's headed right toward Susie, who reaches out and catches it.  Then something else drops out, some little brown, furry thing, and it drops right into Susie's outstretched hands too.

"It's my gerbil!" she says excitedly, "It's my Fluffie!"

Susie then unwraps the ping pong ball and looks at the paper.

"What does it mean?" she asks, showing it to me.

I look at it.

There, in block printing, is the final message coming out from the little guys from The Sphere.

"Next time, no Tribbles!”

I'm Pretty Sure...

...that I read a shorter and (IMO) more effective version of this somewhere else.

You seemed to lose track of the 1985 date somewhere along the line, with references to Shaquille O'Neal and Hillary Clinton. (And MJ was an Olympic hero and had been Rookie of the Year for the rebuilding Chicago Bulls, but his MVPs, league titles and icon status were still ahead of him.)

Eric

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Powered by Pressflow, an open source content management system