One Way Street

a look at Jerome Bixby's original short story
a precursor to "Mirror, Mirror"

report & analysis by Dave Eversole

Warning: This review contains SPOILERS.

 

Pete Innes, a man pushing forty, a bored lawyer in a boring marriage, driving to Manhattan from his home in Greenhill, Long Island, blacks out for a second and side-swipes a tree. His car rolls several times before landing upright. Pete crawls from the wreckage, and several passersby come to his aid, including a woman with first aid training who determines he has several broken ribs. An ambulance is called and Pete passes out from the pain as he is transported to a hospital.

When he awakens the telephone is all wrong!

A nurse mentions that his address was wrong on his drivers license -- the house number was a few digits off -- and asks what is it with that screwy telephone number written in code! The hospital had to look his name up in Information in order to get the correct phone number to call his wife. Pete assures her that Highview 6-4509J is his correct exchange. But when he looks at the telephone by the desk the numbers are arranged: A-123, B-234, C-345, D-456, E-567, and so on to J-000.

Before he can worry too much over the strange phone, his wife Mary bursts in and hugs him passionately, even nibbles at his ear, neither of which she has done in years. She apologizes profusely for the argument they had the night before, and worries that perhaps Pete was subconsciously trying to kill himself in a car wreck.

What argument? Pete wants to know. She laughs, assuming that he is pretending to forget. Soon she realizes he doesn’t know what she is talking about. Mary tells him that he accused her of having an affair with their neighbor Phil Tarrant.

Phil Tarrant? Do you mean Phil Terrance? Pete asks. No, Phil Tarrant, she tells him, their burly, bald, single neighbor. Pete is puzzled. Their neighbor is actually Phil Terrance, he says, and he is burly, but he has a full head of hair, and is happily married. Phil is the type of jovial man that Mary has always found sexually unattractive, Pete says. Why would I even think the two of you were having an affair?

Pete tries to wing it, but when Mary apologizes for throwing the picture at him and chipping the piano they recently bought, Pete Innes has had enough. They have no piano, he tells her. Yes, they had been planning to buy one for eleven-year-old Pete, Jr., but they haven’t yet. He tells her to get out. Pete’s doctor intervenes and tells him he plans to send him to see one of the hospital’s staff psychologists.

When the doctor tells him he will be all right, Pete retorts that he is all right.

And the whole world’s wrong.

For two months Pete is held at the hospital as his psychologist attempts to convince him that he has a certain type of amnesia, one in which he only forgets certain events. Finally he is allowed to go home, but cannot return to work.

Pete remembers their dog Prince. Mary assures him their dog is named Pippy. Pete has been a lawyer all his life. In this world he held three different jobs before deciding to go to law school. In this world, Mary is his second wife. He was married before to June Massey.

Not so, Pete protests. I was once engaged to a girl named Jane Mason, but we never married.

His doctors try to convince him that the Korean Conflict ended two months after it began, that television has not been commercially perfected, that Shakespeare didn’t write a play that Pete keeps insisting that he wrote -- one about a character named Hamlet. When Pete quotes from the play, everyone is amazed -- "My God, you should write!" they say.

There is no poet named Shelley, they say. Pete quotes some verses of Shelley’s. No, that’s actually Keats, they assure him. Pete quotes some verses of Keats. "My God, you should write!" they say.

Over the next few days, they slowly convince Pete that his "dream world" is just that. This is reality, they pound into him. Slowly Pete begins to believe them. And once his ribs are healed, Mary is a passionate lover unlike the Mary he remembers. Mary tells him that he used to be cold and passionless, and she appreciates his change, whatever caused it.

Over the next six months Pete reads voraciously, and comes to accept and even love his new world. But details of his case leak out, and soon he is a celebrity as stories of his "dream world" are printed in newspapers across the country.

One day, this world’s leading atomic researcher (the same famous researcher that Pete remembers from his world, except here he has a goatee) and two colleagues visit Pete. The lead scientist explains that an atom they fired from a machine into a theoretical alternate universe must have struck the real Pete Innes--this world’s Pete Innes--and switched them. The scientist explains the concept of parallel dimensions, worlds existing side-by-side, but in different, though somewhat similar, realities. Pete does recall that he blacked out for just a split second before crashing his car.

The scientists tell him that likely this world’s Pete Innes found himself in the other world, and is just as lost as Pete currently is. They think they may be able to switch them back by recreating the accidental beam that struck him.

Pete throws them out. He loves this passionate, supportive Mary, he doesn’t want to go back to the cold woman he was married to. He won’t trade her for anything! Neither will Mary trade. She loves this passionate, supportive Pete, she doesn’t want to go back to the cold man she was married to. She won’t trade him for anything!

Both rationalize that maybe in the other world, the other Pete and Mary have found something comparable to their bond.

But this Universe seems to be rejecting Pete Innes. Over the next few weeks he becomes aware of a growing tension in his body. He feels out of place, his very body being in this reality feels wrong. This Universe hates him.

"There was no way out. Or rather, the only way was out."

Pete decides that he will remain here one more week, then he will go to the research institute and allow himself to be bombarded in the scientist’s machine in order to switch him and his doppelganger. Mary is saddened, but agrees. Pete theorizes that on his old world the other Pete Innes has made the same decision and will step into the machine at the same exact moment he does.

It is a bittersweet week. Pete and Mary fall in love all over again, knowing that it will soon end. But she agrees that he must do what is right. The scientists assure Pete that his presence here is slowly destroying the fabric of this universe. Oh, it will take millions of years, but his being here only for his short lifespan, will eventually destroy everything.

At the research institute, the scientists allow Mary to accompany Pete to the machine. They hug one final time. She cries as he steps into the machine. A split second before the switch is thrown, she screams "Pete!" in anguish. . .

And jumps into his arms!

Pete and Mary black out for an instant, then reality reforms around them. Pete happily notes that the lead scientist doesn’t have a goatee.

Pete is glad that Mary did what she did. He couldn’t ask her to do it, but wanted her to. Mary reasons that the other Mary probably thought of the same thing at the same instant. Pete tells her that his Pete, Jr. will love her, and the other Mary will be a good mother to her Pete, Jr.

They promise to cooperate and answer all the questions the scientists have. The scientists begin to dismantle the atom shooting machine. They will take no more chances with it.

The lead scientist escorts them to the elevator. The elevator doors open, and Pete is shocked to see nothing but a solid sheen of blue light where the floor should be. But he does not let Mary see his shock, and lies to her, tells her that elevators are different on his world.

He is not back in his world, there are more parallel universes than just two.

From the short story:

They floated on blue light toward the ground floor.

Pete thought: The only thing to do when you’re going down a one-way street to nowhere is pull over to the side: I’ll pull over here, I guess: I won’t tell Mary: I’ll keep quiet, and the others will too.

His eyes opened wide: How many others?

Down.

The ground floor.

We’ll just have to see if it’s millions of years or tomorrow. Maybe this world won’t have me.

It wasn’t tomorrow. And it didn’t.

 

Okay, I have to admit that the way Bixby phrased the final lines threw me for a moment. When I first read it, I thought he was saying that this world "wouldn’t have Pete," as in it wouldn’t tolerate him. No, dummy me, a second later I grasped that he was saying that this new world "never had a Pete Innes in it," thus he and Mary are safe here (I guess there wasn’t a Mary here either) in a far-more-advanced world.

This story is surprisingly frank in depicting the sexual relations between the two leads, considering that it was published in 1953. Parallel worlds were not new even then, but this is a fine treatment of the basic premise, and one can see how Bixby, as he stated in an interview in Starlog #164 (March, 1991), used this basic idea to springboard into what became "Mirror, Mirror." It’s certainly not the full basis of the episode, but is an initial inspiration.

Two major premises from this short story did survive into Bixby’s early "Mirror, Mirror" story outline. The idea of the universe rejecting Pete Innes, making him physically sick, was initially the same as what happened to Captain Kirk when he was the sole transportee into the parallel dimension, and Pete finding a loving wife also happened when Kirk discovered he was married in the alternate reality. Of course, there's also the visual element of the goatee that was used in the final version of episode.

The idea that people from both universes would operate the atom machine/transporter at the same instant to transpose the switched individuals survived to the final episode.

My only complaint about this story, and it is minor, is this: The moment the scientists allowed Mary to accompany Pete to the machine was the moment everyone reading the story realizes that she’s gonna go with him. Come on, how many wives or girlfriends did Einstein and Oppenheimer even allow near "Project Manhattan?"


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