Irma and Scott, A Love Story
My wife’s grandmother just turned 77. Irma bears some of the requisite wrinkles and has to sleep with oxygen, but her presence is one of youth and awe.
She stays over at our house a few nights each month to help out with our son, Elias, and join us for a bottle or two of Gewürztraminer before bed. Our days and nights with Irma always have a subdued and regenerative feel, partly because she comes from an era when people took more time with things and were thankful for what they had, which was generally not much. She can find the core beauty in just about everything—deeply discounted grocery store meat, for instance (“They have the most beautiful roasts you’ve ever seen at my Safeways, and they’re only $2 right now!”).
She was born in Latvia but was evacuated to Germany as a teenager to escape the invading Russian armies at the end of WWII. (History proves complex: Elias wouldn’t be alive were it not for the Nazis.) Irma lived in Germany for about five years after the war before taking a small boat over to America. She eventually ended up in Colorado and met my wife’s grandfather, Monte, a county-western singer/songwriter a few years her junior who rarely leaves their home on top of a mountain in Evergreen.
In the winter, his daily routine consists of plowing the treacherous driveway up to their ramshackle house behind the wheel of a gigantic army truck and then drinking a few red beers while practicing his arsenal of original songs on a giant synthesizer in the basement. Irma spends much of her time knitting, crocheting, and watching a handful of television shows she loves. One of her favorites is Quantum Leap.
Growing up, it was one of my favorites as well. The premise of a character caught in a science experiment gone awry, crisscrossing the jumbled strings of time, had loads of flexibility and despite some gaps in logic—what happened to the consciousnesses of the people he leaped into while he was there? (the FAQ link at the following site has some woe begotten answers to such inquiries: finifter.com/quantum-leap)—the show occasionally managed to be philosophical about the notions of self, history and some sort of inner-afterlife. I flinch at calling it profound, but I can recall getting pretty worked up as a preteen over the episode “The Leap Home,” in which Dr. Sam Beckett (clearly a nod to the novelist and playwright) leaps into his teenage self. The chance to save his father from heart disease, his brother from dying in Vietnam, and his sister from marrying an abusive alcoholic threatens his commitment to putting right what once went wrong by winning a high school championship basketball game.
The last time Irma came for a visit, we fired up the episode on Netfilx, dimmed the lights and poured some wine.
“Oh, my,” Irma said as soon as Sam appeared on screen in a letter jacket and baseball cap. “Isn’t he beautiful?”
“Who, Scott Bakula?” I asked.
“Oh yes, durling, look at him. He’s just gorgeous.”
The way Irma’s eyes glimmered as she watched him hug his big brother on basketball court made the case. “He can keep his shoes under my bed any time, runseit.” (Latvian for “cat,” she uses this term affectionately for most of the males she knows.)
I wondered if her affinity for the show has anything to do with the richness of her personal history—a life lived on two continents and in close proximity to a world war—and the way Dr. Beckett travels through the thickets of time hoping to take away pain and anguish wherever he can. Or maybe she just thinks his ass looks good in jeans.
While her family was living as refugees in Germany, she and her sisters were nearly killed by Allied bombs. They were playing in an allotment garden on a spring day when a squadron of planes passed overhead. Irma, 14 at the time, was carrying her baby sister and trying to get Lucy, to keep up. Their father had made them wooden shoes to wear that were impossible to run in, so they carried them hurrying barefoot through the garden back to their apartment to change the baby’s diaper. While Irma cleaned up the baby, Lucy stood near the window, watching for the planes. She saw them coming back and they ran back through the garden toward a bunker dug into the side of a grassy hill. Lucy wanted to hide by the creek, but something didn’t feel right to Irma. Immediately after they got into the bunker a bomb landed where they had been standing, trying to decide what to do.
Maybe in an alternate reality molested by the tentacles of television tomfoolery, Dr. Beckett was there, guiding Irma and Lucy to safety in the consciousness of a hobbled bread-maker who yelled out to them from the bunker: “Move!” In the realm of Quantum Leap, small children, animals, the “mentally absent” and those near death can see the real Sam instead of the leapee. Maybe in the fleeting nanoseconds before the bomb dropped, Irma, very near the void, saw the chiseled visage of Scott Bakula waving her on from inside the bunker.
Her family stayed in Germany until December 1949, and Irma left for the states the day after Christmas on a small boat. Perhaps Sam was aboard as a well-traveled deckhand who convinced her to head west to Colorado. He may have even been involved in a lover’s skirmish around the time Monte and Irma met—the climax of an un-aired episode called “Dream Leaper.
The scene: A side street next to a honky tonk. It’s well after midnight and Monte is standing under a tree, and Sam twenty feet away under a streetlamp. Irma is seated on a curb.
A blindfold presses tight against Sam’s eyes and a cigarette dangles from his lips, the smoke twisting upwards into his nostrils. He spits it out and it taps the asphalt.
“Now what’d you go and do that for?” Comes a man’s voice some twenty feet away.
“This is so stupid!” he recognizes the woman’s voice.
“Shut up! And you, put that cigarette back in his mouth!” the man shouts.
“No Monte, this is the stupidest idea you’ve ever had,” she barks, “and there have been a lot of them.”
Suddenly, the air near Sam’s head snaps like a dead tree branch.
He pulls the mask away. It’s dusk, and Irma, now in her thirties, is sitting on the curb near an unopened bottle of beer. She has the same aura as that 14-year-old girl in a German bunker, but robs his breath with her porcelain skin and ruby lips. Monte lurks under the shadow of a tree coiling a bullwhip in his hands.
“Now we had an agreement, here,” he says. “How am I supposed to hit the cigarette if you keep spitting it out?”
“A-a-a-al,” Sam mutters from the corner of his mouth.
“Pick up the damn cigarette,” Monte yells.
“Alright,” Sam says, bending over and pinching it off of the ground. “Can we go over the, uh, agreement one more time?” he asks, realizing that he’s never leaped into an inebriated body before.
“Alright, fine. For the last time. We’re taking turns here. I won the coin toss so I’m going first, and whichever one of us whips a cigarette out of the others’ mouth first wins.”
“Wins what?” Sam asks.
“Man, how drunk are you? The winner gets Irma’s hand.”
“He’s right Sam,” Al says, popping out of the ether at last. “According to Ziggy, there’s a 98-percent chance that whichever one of you whips the cigarette out of the other man’s mouth ends up marrying Irma.”
“And who am I?” Sam whispers, rubbing his forehead.
“Your name is Lenny Reed. You’re the drummer in his band,” Al says, motioning to Monte.
“And he is?”
“A guitar player and songwriter named Monte—”
“HEY! Are we going to do this or not?” Monte yells.
“Fine,” Sam puts the cigarette in his mouth and pulls the blindfold down. “Go!”
Sam takes a deep breath, holds it and waits. He hears the whip uncoil and stretch the distance between them and feels it snap a foot in front of his face.
“Damn!” Monte spits.
Sam yanks off the blindfold and walks toward Monte, glancing at Irma who smiles at him, shakes her head and shrugs.
“I’m alright,” he says.
Monte approaches and finishes curling the whip in his hands. He thrusts it into Sam’s chest and sneers.
“Al, what does Ziggy say? Am I supposed to win?”
“I don’t know Sam, Ziggy still hasn’t figured out what you’re supposed to do.”
“I can whip the cigarette out of this guy’s mouth, no problem. I used to whip leaves off of tree branches all the time growing up on the farm.”
“I know, Sam. But you’d better miss until Ziggy figures out what you’re supposed to do.”
“But what if I’m supposed to marry Irma? What if this is what I’m supposed to do?”
“Sam, I think you’d better miss.”
Monte takes Sam’s place, blindfolds, lips a cigarette and brings up a lighter.
“Let’s move!” he shouts from the corner of his mouth. Sam studies the heft of the whip in his hands, looks at Al and lets the tail unfurl around his feet. He works the end of the whip, swinging his arm lightly back and forth, then rears it back and sends the end cracking. A shower of sparks explode off of the end of Monte’s cigarette but it stays in his mouth.
Monte lifts the blindfold. “Close, but no cigarette!” he cackles. “My turn. Irma, hand me that beer.”
“Sam, that was smart,” Al says, working the glowing buttons on his communicator. “According to Ziggy there’s a 75 percent chance that if Irma marries you, you’ll both die within the year.”
“What? How do we die?”
“Ziggy doesn’t know yet, but I think you’d better let him hit that cigarette.”
Monte takes the whip and storms back to his spot under the tree. After a long pull of beer, he sets the bottle on the ground and starts swirling the whip around. “I got you this time, Lenny!”
Sam stands back in his spot and lights a cigarette. He sets it in his mouth and stares at Irma. She smiles at him, but the look on her face suggests Lenny is nobody special to her. He pulls the blindfold down and waits.
“C’mon, now,” Monte mutters before sending the whip lashing down the street where it slices into Sam’s lip and punches the cigarette out. Sam wails and blood drips form his face splattering the ground.
“Oh god, look what you’ve done,” Irma says. “I’m leaving.” She picks up her purse and walks away beneath the glow form a streetlight.
“Well, what?” Monte yells after her. “Minnie Pearl didn’t make me her song and whip man for nothing. And I’ve never hit anyone’s face before. He must have moved!” He coils the whip up hastily, picks up his beer and starts running after Irma. “You moved, Lenny,” Monte mutters as he passes Sam.
Sam swallows some blood and, feeling the heat of a leap coming on, closes his eyes, wondering if he’ll ever see her again.
Irma has been retired for years now, but the last job she had was as a cashier at Furr’s, a chain of drab buffet-style restaurants that seem to specialize in leathered meats and overcooked vegetables. Furr’s felt purgatorial to me growing up but, true to character, she enjoyed working there.
“I got to talk to all sorts of people and they let us have all the free food we wanted. Oh, and they had some delicious things there, runseit. They had the green beans with the bacon and, oh my gosh was it ever good.”
I also remembered her telling me about a man who would come in once or twice a week to eat and ask her for dates on his way out. Dr. Becket, I presume. Trapped in a leap gone awry, hoping to reconnect with Irma, who he never stopped thinking about. He’d come in once a week, against Al’s warnings, just to see her and flirt a little.
As the episode we were watching drew to an end, Sam leapt away form the basketball court after winning the big game and found himself as a foot soldier in his brother’s platoon in Vietnam—back in the line of fire as humanity’s perennial fly in the ointment. What did he see, glancing up at us from the screen? An infinite onslaught of unknowns brightened by the chance to save his brother’s life or Irma beaming like a teenager?
“Oh, my. That was really just wonderful. Thank you kids so much for that,” she cooed as we made our way out of the family room. “I think he’ll be in my dreams tonight.”
“Maybe you’ll be in his,” I suggested.
Irma laughed. “Oh, wouldn’t that be something, runsiet? That sure would be something.”
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