Gordon Stall’s father demanded patriotic perfection. From birth, Gordon was drilled to say “please and thank you,” open doors for ladies, wake up before sunrise to help his old man at the hardware store, and never complain about his chores. Long division and multiplication arrived to ruin Gordon’s perfect track record and he just couldn’t believe it when Miss Jacobson handed him the report card. With shaky hands, staring at the damned B, he vowed to be as close to perfect as a boy could get.
Stall Hardware’s fresh red paint smelt like sunshine. The family hardware store had been on the corner of Main and 4th since 1951. Reggie Stall cut the ribbon with his baby boy in one arm and his beautiful wife in the other. He fought in the war that was said to end all wars, came home decorated with medals and money from Uncle Sam. The mayor came down to take a picture with Reggie on the grand opening under the American flag above the front doors. The black and white photo hung proudly on the wall behind the register for every resident of Birchwood, Alabama to see.
“That,” Reggie said. “Was without a doubt, the best day of my life.”
All twelve years of Gordon’s rail-thin body leaned on a broomstick. He stared up at the photo. When he was older, he’d look back on that statement and wonder how his birth or the old man’s wedding to his mother stacked up to the glorious grand opening of Stall Hardware. He hoped they had at least run a close second to the best day of his father’s life.
“I felt like a true hero after the war,” his father had said. “We fought the Nazis and protected what was ours. Sometimes that’s all a man needs out of life, something to protect from evil men.”
The Stall family tree consisted of upright military men who fought in every major war dating back to the American Revolution. They each had straight teeth and wore pristine clothes to church on Sundays.
Gordon’s job was to sweep the floors and stock the shelves. If he did a good job, he’d get an ice cream cone and his father would play catch with him in the yard for a few minutes before dinner. His mitt was getting softer and his knuckleball was getting mean.
As he swung around the aisles of the hardware store toting his broom, he’d imagine Nazis creeping in the dark corner. He’d swing the broom handle like a rifle and in a volley of hellfire, he’d gun Hitler’s SS down over and over again. Gordon knew all the Nazis were gone. His Dad wiped them out so they could have this wonderful store and watch the Cardinals play on the television, but Gordon knew there would be more bad guys. And when he was old enough, he’d get his own rifle, jump out of an airplane and protect what was his.
“How much are these, son?” The customer’s voice gave him a jolt, snapping him back to reality.
The man was thin. He was wearing a brown tweed suit and a fedora. His freckled face smiled down on Gordon’s golden head as he set his briefcase down on the linoleum floor and crouched, so they were eye to eye. Gordon peered into the man’s deep blue eyes and felt a cold chill roll over his body.
The man jiggled a bag of nails. “How much for the nails?”
“97 cents,” Gordon said.
“That includes the tax? The government needs its share.”
“Good, cause that’s all I can afford right now. The rest of the change in my pocket has to pay for the bus to get me home.” The man looked over his shoulder to see if there was anyone around listening. They were alone in the aisle. “Do you know who I am?”
“You can call me Grasshopper.”
“Grasshopper?” Gordon furrowed his nose. “That’s a funny name.”
“Yeah, I hated it at first, but it grew on me. Now listen here.” Again, Grasshopper looked around to make sure they were alone. “You’re Gordon Stall, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” Gordon wasn’t wearing a name tag. “How’d you know?”
Grasshopper checked his watch. “Time for me to go. You’ll be seeing me around. Before I go, here’s a tip. This Saturday when you play the Padres, in the bottom of the ninth, the runner on second will try to steal third.”
Grasshopper paid for his bag of nails and left the store.
The sun peaked at three. Gordon kicked the pitcher’s mound with the front of his cleat and plums of dusted clouded around him. Sweat beaded under the brim of his cap. His parents were in the bleachers with what felt like the entire population of Birchwood, Alabama. Gordon’s team was up over the Padres by a single run. Two outs and a runner on second, Gordon rubbed the red lace of the ball in his mitt. The catcher signaled for a fastball. Jackson Dillon was up to bat. He was the biggest nine-year-old Birchwood had ever seen and he could wallop any pitch over the fences. Gordon leaned over and prepared to pitch.
Grasshopper’s words buzzed in his head...the runner on second will try to steal third.
Gordon wound up, faking the pitch. He heard the sputter of cleats and people calling from the crowd. He spun around and flung the ball over to the third. The runner slid. The ball smacked inside the pocket of the third baseman’s mitt. The Umpire pumped a clenched fist in the air. Game over, there goes the old ball game.
The next time Gordon saw Grasshopper, he was in the eleventh grade. Gordon had just gotten out of Algebra and his father would be expecting him at the hardware store. He made his way across the parking lot to his rusted Dodge pick-up. A man rested in the flatbed.
“Can I help you?” Gordon asked.
“That’s not how you greet an old friend.”
Gordon looked the man over. There was something familiar about the brown suit and fedora resting on the man’s head. A briefcase was nestled between his feet.
“Look, I’m gonna be late to work. Will you get out of my truck?”
The man leaped down and stepped towards him. “Look me in the eye and tell me you don’t remember me.” The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag of nails. He handed them to Gordon. “Ten years ago, these only cost 97 cents. Wonder what they cost now?”
Gordon’s mouth swung open like a loose door hinge.
“I have a message. Linda Andrews keeps a diary. On page 4 of this diary, she writes about a dirty blonde ballplayer who works at the hardware store. You walk by her locker every day while she talks to her girlfriends. You want to ask her out, but your nerves get the best of you, so you never do. You graduate hating yourself for being such a coward and the next year when you get an invitation to her wedding you ball your eyes out, get drunk and crash this old red truck into a tree.”
Gordon stepped around the man. “You’re crazy.”
Grasshopper blocked him and grabbed his arms. “The story doesn’t have to be sad. Ask her out and she’ll say ‘yes.’ Sometimes life kicks you in the stomach and sometimes it lowers an olive branch. Be smart enough to tell the difference. Linda’s in the cafeteria chatting it up with her friends. She’ll be coming out into the parking lot in 1 minute. I’m handing you a happier life on a silver platter. Now, go take it.”
The man checked his watch. “Gotta go. Good luck, Gordon.”
“Wait, is your name really Grasshopper?”
“It wasn’t always, but it’s what the boys called me before I died.”
“Who are you?”
There was laughter behind him. Gordon turned around and saw Linda walking with her friends.
“Wait, I don’t under-” Gordon flipped back around, but Grasshopper was gone. In his place, on the dusty road was a bag of nails.
Linda’s auburn hair bounced in the Alabama sun. She blushed when she saw him trodding over. Her foot snagged on a rock and she fell forward. Her books went skidding across the floor.
A worn notebook fell open before Gordon’s feet. He knelt down and read the first line.
I’m in love with Gordon Stall.
Linda snatched the notebook from his arms and brushed the hair out of her eyes. All the color flushed from her face.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine and that is private.”
“Can I take you out to dinner?”
Six months later, Gordon dropped to a knee in a grassy field as fireflies shot up into the sky. He asked and she said yes.
In November of 1955, Gordon stood in the living room holding his new wife as Lyndon Johnson spoke on the TV. The United States of America had been attacked by the North Vietnamese. War was about to start. Linda buried her face in her husband’s chest and cried. They both knew what he was going to do.
The next morning, Gordon’s father picked him up and drove him to enlist.
Gordon stepped out of the car and thumbed his gold wedding band. The callouses from his baseball days were still thick and he wondered if he could have played in the majors if he’d stuck with it.
“I’m damned proud of you son,” Gordon’s father said from behind the wheel. “I’ll be here when you come out.”
Gordon walked up the steps and entered the building. When he reached for the door, a hand snaked out in front him and grabbed the knob.
“Let me get that for you,” the man said, pushing the door open. Gordon saw the fedora and the briefcase dangling from the man’s free hand. A panic coiled around his windpipe. This timeless figure had been following him all his life. Grasshopper hadn’t aged a day, but Gordon had first seen him eleven years ago in an empty aisle of the hardware store.
Grasshopper disappeared into the building. Gordon followed him.
Inside, young men stood in line, waiting to speak to the military recruiter. Grasshopper leaning against the wall in the corner with his arms crossed. His trusty briefcase between his legs on the floor.
Gordon stormed over to him.
“Just who the hell are you? You’ve been following me around since I was kid. Are you some sort of stalker?”
“Now don’t make a scene,” Grasshopper said. “I don’t think that would go over very well in a military facility.”
“What do you want with me? How did you know about that ball game and Linda’s diary?”
“Because I’m from the future and I’m here to ask you not to enlist.”
“I have to.”
“No, you don’t. Just cause your old man did, doesn’t mean you have to.”
Gordon squeezed his eyes. “I’m losing my goddamn mind! You probably aren’t even real.”
The doors opened and a young man entered to enlist. Grasshopper called out to him.
“Hey, your shoe’s untied.”
The man stopped and looked down at two perfectly snug and tied shoes. “What are you talking about?”
“Sorry about that,” Grasshopper said. “My mistake.”
The man continued on.
“If I wasn’t real, no one else would be able to see me. You aren’t crazy. Now, listen to me carefully, Gordon. The future needs you. I helped steer your destiny a little bit because I thought your life could use some happiness before the dark days ahead. I also needed you to believe me when this moment came. If you enlist, you’ll die. You’ll die a hero, saving many men as you go out in a blaze of glory. They’ll give you the purple heart and your old man will hang it up in the hardware store. Everyone in Birchwood, Alabama will talk about how big of a hero you were. Linda will mourn and in three years’ time, she’ll remarry and have a couple of babies. She’ll be happy, but every once in a while she’ll cry herself to sleep thinking about the life she could have had with you.
“But, there is another world. Another future where you don’t enlist. It’s a future I can’t tell you anything about other than it desperately needs you. Bad things are going to happen and you have the power to stop them. You trusted me before. I’m asking you to trust me again. It’s a leap of faith.”
Gordon’s mind whirred. When he was a boy, he brushed Grasshopper off as a figment of a young imagination. But after seeing the written words hidden away in Linda’s diary he couldn’t deny the impossible...that Grasshopper was real. He spent the next two years happy, falling deeply in love with Linda every minute. How did this man know so much about him?
“Prove it,” Gordon said.
Grasshopper reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a set of dog tags. Gordon snatched them and read the lettering that was hammered into the metal: Gordon Stall.
Someone tapped Gordon on the shoulder and his heart bounced into his throat. He squirmed forward and shrieked.
A freckled man, the same age as Gordon, stood before him and laughed.
“Man, you jump like a grasshopper. Maybe that’s what we’ll call you over there in Nam. I hear all the grunts have nicknames. My name’s Joshua. What’s yours?”
Gordon turned back around. Grasshopper was gone. Only this time, he’d left his briefcase behind and there was a note taped to it.
Stay in Alabama. Hide the briefcase. On your 83rd birthday, spin the locks on to 129 and 587. All sorts of magic will happen after that. Don’t put that combo in a day before then. I haven’t been wrong yet...but the choice has to be yours.
“Sorry, Joshua. I’m not enlisting.”
“Maybe, but sometimes you just have to listen to yourself.”