I was a high school sophomore. I watched a flying discus strike Principal Wible and slice a quarter of his ear. A doctor stitched that purple piece back together. The rest of his ear remained pink. Wible sued the parents for thousands of dollars. He permanently wore a bandage over his left ear to hide it.
But I digress.
Ray Fleming and I had stayed friends for thirteen years. He went through a rough divorce. It was caused by his love affair with XXX pornstar Kitty Pumpkins. His wife set his MacBook on fire. Kitty danced at a club called Rubber and Chains, a weekend bondage club.
Ray had left Hollywood behind and moved to Texas. He taught business at Baylor University. We would meet twice a year. One night we met at Rubber and Chains. I walked there, a mile from my apartment. A group of hipsters whizzed by me on Segways, those silly motorized scooters.
A line of vampires stretched from Selma to Hollywood Boulevard. They waited to pass a doorman with a few tattoos on his face—just a few. Kitty had reserved my name on her list. It was a sweet gesture. I cut my way to the front of the line.
The doorman let me in. Freaks in black leather lit clove cigarettes. Kitty danced for her birthday party that night on a back patio. Her nipples were covered with black electrical tape. The rest of her breasts were exposed. Ray stood in the back of the bar behind the murky crowd. No one gave space to anyone.
We hugged and said we missed each other. Afterward, he ordered Guinnesses and Jameson shots for us to make the gothic crowd more tolerable. We both had shown up for Kitty since we wanted her body like every other man.
The lights dimmed. Kitty met us at the bar. Her breasts were in the wild. The sweat from her neck made her skin shine. She held hands with Day, her boyfriend, a Satanic surfer. After buying us a round, Day invited us to the Hollywood Cemetery. They were screening a movie from the nineties about a lonely pirate. It came out when I was in high school, which was over twenty years ago. My God, how time flies.
“Am I the only one who thinks it’s strange that they’re screening that movie?” I asked.
“They do it every year,” Ray said.
Ray, Day, and Kitty went to snort coke in the bondage room upstairs. I felt detached at the club. The pills, the weed, and the alcohol had finally caught up. I floated up up and away over those goth people. Yet I still leaned against a brick wall, somewhere at eye level with them. The number seven flashed in my mind and caught on fire. It stuck me in a nightmare. But the thought of Kitty made the detachment go away.
I woke up that Saturday morning facedown in the alley. The hangover hurt too much. I could barely squint my eyes. A pigeon looked down on me as I lay on the side street. I swatted it away. It flew off. Nothing else except a Segway took up the alley. I stepped on that embarrassment at thirty-eight years old. One move of my body made the aching worse. I leaned forward on that thing. It took me with it. The scooter was dumb yet fun. I caught up with a power walker heading toward the end. When we got close, he stopped, but I kept going. A wall of white light blinded me. But the closer I approached it, the less pain I felt. A centrifugal force sucked me in.
The heat increased across the border. It felt about fifteen degrees hotter. When I passed the white light, it didn’t look like Hollywood Boulevard: no tourists, homeless people, or stars on the sidewalk. I’d vanished from Hollywood to a strange familiar town. It was like entering a room and forgetting the reason. Beyond a few buildings was my high school football stadium with a painting of Buster the Bull, the mascot. He was all red and yellow with his manly fist up. One of those gothic people must’ve mickeyed my Guinness.
When I turned around on the Segway, the white light had left for a brick wall. I pounded it and yelled for help. I pulled my phone from my pocket. It had died. I could’ve used a phone booth. But the last time I saw one was during the Bill Clinton presidency.
Chester Avenue was full of cars. It dropped beneath a railroad underpass. Where were the Teslas, the Scions, the Priuses? Only Fords, Hondas, Acuras, and Mercedes took up the avenue. And they were the ugly models from the nineties.
A man in the underpass leaned against a torn knapsack with a rusty thermos clipped to it. He held a cardboard sign:
PLEASE HELP. PROUD VET. JUST NEED FOOD.
He stared frighteningly at the Segway.
“Where am I?” I asked.
“You’re in Bakersfield.”
“Bakersfield? How did I end up there?”
He pulled his knees to his chest. “I don’t need no weird shit. Do you have food? I just puked in the dumpster. If you don’t got no food, you won’t do me much help.”
“Where’s a phone?” I asked.
“There’s a Circle K up the road, or you can try the high school.”
I gave him a dollar. “Sorry to bother you.”
“But I said I needed food.”
“There’s nothing on me,” I said. “That dollar can buy you something at Circle K.”
He looked at the dollar bill, front and back. He held it up like a suspicious cashier as if it was a counterfeit. But not much light shined in the underpass. “What is this?” he asked.
“It’s a dollar bill.”
“Is it real?”
“I hope it is.”
“Why’s Washington’s head so damn big?”
“You mean you’ve never seen the new dollar bill?”
“It looks fake.”
“I used to think the same thing, but I’ve grown used to it. I mean, shit, our president is a game show host. You have to get used to change, right?”
He pointed at the Segway. “And what is that thing?”
“You’ve never seen a Segway before?”
He shook his head nervously.
I spun on it. “What the hell is going on?” I asked.
He pulled himself in closer. I’d sounded angry.
“How did I end up in Bakersfield?” I asked.
“Please,” he said. “Please leave me alone.”
“You’re the scared one? I’m the one who was in Hollywood a second ago. Now I’m here.”
“Go away, please.”
I respected his boundary.
My high school waited for me on the other side of the underpass. At least they would have a phone in the principal’s office. I wanted to call my mother to tell her what had happened.
The kids sat in the grove at lunchtime. The rich, popular kids sat on blankets with grapes and well-put-together sandwiches under elm trees. The poor, average kids sat next to flies in the dumpsters near the gymnasium. Nothing had changed. But the students shared a common resemblance with my past.
Then it struck me.
A Mercedes roared into the senior parking lot. Grunge music blared from it. Chad Iguana stepped out with the same white t-shirt, same blue jeans, and same workman’s boots since senior year. He was the richest kid at my school. Judge Iguana had bought him that car.
The kids in the grove caught onto me. I was a thirty-eight-year-old man on a motorized scooter with horizontal wheels. The scooter began to sputter. It lost its power. But somehow it had lasted twenty years into the past.
It lost total power at the benches near the dumpsters. How could I mistake Will Rappaport with his nerfy orange hair or Martin Chnng with his Beatles haircut. They both wore sideburns like every other boy around us. Most students wore flannel. I had on the same clothes since last night. It was a black V-neck shirt, black Vans, and black skinny jeans. Everything had to be black to fit the dress code at Rubber and Chains. Those grungy teenagers began to circle me.
Martin pointed at my Segway. “What is that?”
“Where’s Joel Barrington?” I asked him and Will.
“Not here today,” Will said.
“Don’t know,” Will said.
“Nobody knows,” Martin said. “He didn’t show up. You his uncle or something?”
His uncle? How insulting. “What if I told you he’s here?”
Will and Martin looked at each other with a wary countenance. They started moving elsewhere.
“Your favorite team is the Bruins,” I told Will.
“How did you know that?” he asked me.
“And Martin, you play the violin two hours a day when you get home. If you don’t do that, your mom will make you sleep in the backyard.”
“What’s your point, sir?”
“Yeah. How do you know about us?”
I pulled out my wallet and showed them my California license.
“What’s going on?” Martin asked.
“Come on, Martin. You studied engineering at Harvard.”
“I did?” he asked.
“I mean, you will. I’ve come from the future. It’s really Joel. And Will, your dog’s name is Buster, like the school mascot.”
Martin grabbed his backpack. He was about to hightail away from me.
“Martin, you live across the street from Will. Harvard accepted you after you scored after a 1600 SAT. You’ll work for NASA and want nothing to do with me. And you’ll move to Norway. And Will, you’ll go to Sacramento State to study history. But you’ll become an offensive line coach at this high school.”
“You’re really scaring us,” Will said.
“I don’t mean to,” I said. “I’m just trying to prove it’s me. Where’s Paul Talisman?”
“What the fuck is this?” someone asked.
Chad Iguana and his followers approached me. Ben Michaels stood with him, the class president. I used to daydream about Teressa Monaco in high school. Now she stood next to me.
“I’m not here to scare anyone,” I told the kids from the grove. “A famous person once said that telling lies takes more work. Or something like that.”
“What is this thing?” Chad asked.
“It’s a Segway.”
“And what does it do?”
“You ride on it.”
“Where did you get it?”
“Some alley in Hollywood.”
“I’m calling bullshit.”
Their questions and comments flew from everywhere.
“I’ve never seen that shit in my life,” Chad said. “Can I ride it?”
“It’s dead as a doornail,” I said. “But you can ride it in about fifteen years.”
“And what’s with the clothes?” Teresa asked.
More comments flew:
“Why are they so tight?”
“You’re stuck in the eighties, dog.”
“The eighties will come back,” I said. “Sad to say.”
“What’s with the hair?” Ben asked.
“And sideburns won’t be cool anymore,” I said.
“They what?” Ben asked. “You look like a sellout.”
“How am I a sellout. I don’t look like you.”
Ben and Chad looked at each other like baffled tribesmen.
“Believe me. I’m the furthest thing from a sellout. I’m almost forty and never voted. Can’t work a corporate job because of misconduct, and hate being a team player. Still like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden. And Biggie Smalls is the illest.”
“I think you’re posing,” Michaels said.
“I wouldn’t be caught dead in those shoes,” Chad said.
“Yeah,” someone else said.
“Dead on, Chad,” someone else said.
My best friends stepped back from defending me. Chad started cracking his knuckles. He wanted to fight an adult from the future. Whenever I got nervous, I would pull my phone from my pocket without thinking. And I did that out of habit.
“Look. He’s got a walkie-talkie,” Ben said to his clan.
They began to laugh and tighten around me for a look. Teresa got closest.
“Is that like a TV?” she asked.
“It’s called a smartphone.”
“I’ve never seen one before.”
“You can call people with it, write people, too. You can even listen to music and play video games with it. I predict you’ll be addicted to it.”
Teresa flipped her hair and grazed my arm. “Are you rich or something?”
“Not as rich as your parents.”
“What?” she said.
“That’s lame,” Chad said. “Only a tool would have one of those.”
That was hard to argue against.
“Can I give you my number?” Teresa asked.
“Sorry, but you’re too young.”
The narcs showed up, the hall monitors. They split the crowd.
“Who are you?” one of them asked.
“We see that,” the other one said. “You got a slip to be here? This campus is for students and faculty only. What is that?”
“I need to use a phone. Mine is dead.”
He pointed at the Segway. “No. What’s that?”
“It’s a dickmobile,” Ben said.
The rest of his clan laughed.
“I’m tired of explaining it,” I said. “It’s basically a scooter for lazy people.”
“Then roll your butt out of here,” the first narc said.
They had fat for muscle. They looked like fall guys in pro wrestling, with visceral fat.
I could use the phone in Principal Wible’s office. We passed his secretary first. She looked too drained to worry about a Segway. The date was May 15, 1995. It showed on her calendar.
They took me to Wible’s office. “What’s going on here?” he said. “I have an assembly in thirty minutes.”
“He needs to use the phone,” a narc said.
“But why? Who are you?”
“I can tell you in private.”
“You can tell me now,” he said. “Make it quick.”
I lay the Segway against his wall. I placed my dead phone carefully on his desk. “You graduated me this year.”
“What’re you talking about?”
I pulled my driver’s license from my wallet. I placed it gently on his desk. He picked it up and looked at it.
The narcs examined the Segway like two cavemen.
“Joel Barrington, 1769 El Cerrito Place in Los Angeles,” Wible said. “Your license expires in twenty-five years. That’s one heck of a deal. You have this ridiculous thing on wheels. And what’s this thing on my desk?”
“It’s a phone, sir.”
“A phone. Sure doesn’t look like a phone.”
“Well, it died on me. Might as well not be. So I need yours.”
“So you got this phone, as you call it. And you’ve worked something out with the DMV. Or this license is fake like a unicorn. Now, what do you plan to do before I call the police?”
“I plan to use your phone.”
“To call who?”
“Fine. Tell her you’ll be home in time for dinner.”
It didn’t matter how far into the past I’d gone. Wible’s bitter sarcasm had never left. I had to use his phone with big keys for the numbers. Wible watched me dial it. The narcs watched, too. No one helped the situation. And how could they? My mother’s phone number was stored in my memory in 1995. But I couldn’t memorize her cell phone number. It came to me in that desperate moment.
We’re sorry, but the number has been disconnected or is no longer in service.
Of course. Why would Mom have a cell phone in 1995? And I forgot her number when we lived there.
“You have one more turn before I ask you to leave,” Wible said.
The narcs came back into Wible’s office after going outside. “No one is in class,” a narc said. They were interchangeable. “They’re all crowded around because of him.”
“They’re laughing, sir.”
“You hear that? They’re laughing at you,” Wible said.
“You distract them.”
“They’re calling him a tool, sir.”
“See? They’re calling you a tool.”
“Where I come from, a tool is acceptable.”
“I see,” Wible said. “And what planet are you from?”
“From the year twenty seventeen.”
“Uh-huh.” Wible signaled the narcs to get close to me from behind. “So what brings you to our world, Mr. Barrington?”
“It was an honest mistake,” I said. “Like the time that discus sliced your ear.”
Wible covered his insecurity with his hand. “How did you know that?”
“Elaine Parker,” I told him. “She hit you with a discus at track and field practice. I watched it happen. You sued her parents. Look me up in your directory. I’m a student. Or was a student.”
“I’ll look you up all right.”
I waited impatiently for him. He licked his finger and opened a filing cabinet beside his desk. “And what’s your explanation for being here?”
“I drank too much and did too many drugs at a goth bar last night. And I woke up in an alley with the Segway.”
Wible pulled out my file and examined it. “I see your name here. And I remember you now. And you’re saying you’re from what year?”
“Two thousand seventeen.”
“Two thousand seventeen,” Wible said. “I see.”
After he’d said the year, the narcs began to giggle. Even Wible sat back in his chair and grinned.
“And this Segway is your time machine?”
“Not exactly. It’s a millennial transportation device.”
“An MTD for short.”
“Then where’s your time machine? I would like to see it.”
“It’s hard to explain without you laughing at me.”
He tried to hold his laughter in. “Why would I laugh?”
But he couldn’t hold it in any longer. Neither could the narcs. Everyone began to laugh. Wible even slapped his knee.
“It’s OK,” I said. “You can blame the millennials.”
“Millenials?” Wible asked. “Are they your people?”
“I’m a Gen X-er. You know that. Millennial is the label for the new generation. The whole concept is a blur.”
“I have no time to explain.”
“So what can I do for you?” he asked.
“Fuck my life.”
“Hey,” Wible said seriously, “watch the language.”
“Sorry. Acronyms will take over. I’m just mad I went back in time. I used to think time travel would be cool.”
“On a serious note, who told you about me?” Wible asked.
“You punished me for bringing a Playboy to school.”
“Have you sought a counselor?” Wible asked.
“Has it helped?”
“No, they’re not very good.”
“Are you seeing a counselor now?”
“Back in the old world, the future world, before my insurance coverage changed.”
Wible signaled the narcs. They closed in. They were about to grab me if I said something outrageous.
“Mr. Barrington, I’ll have to remove you now. As I told you, there’s an assembly I have to tend to. We’re calling the authorities.”
The narcs grabbed me from behind. I tried to fight them off but couldn’t.
They brought me out to the May heat in Bakersfield. I felt famous outside of the administration building. Students waited out there. A school reporter tried to interview me. The narcs pushed me through the crowd. The students attacked me with their questions and statements:
“Where are you from?”
“Can I see that phone?”
“Let me ride that scooter.”
“Why do you dress like a pussy?”
A police car waited at the curb. One officer opened the backseat door for me to climb into. One of them took the Segway. The other one cuffed me. The cuffs bit my wrists. The officers must’ve figured I was mentally ill. I was. But that was irrelevant to the case.
Eventually, I ended up with Robert in the underpass. I told him what had happened.
Judge Iguana had committed me to an inpatient clinic on Truxton. A psychiatrist evaluated me. He asked me the same questions Principal Wible had asked. I gave him immediate answers. He would’ve medicated and hospitalized me if I had insurance coverage.
They took the Segway and my phone away. I was just another delusional to them. The government wanted to use those things for testing and research.
I’d searched for the time machine but found only brick and mortar.
“You said you came from Hollywood?” Robert asked.
“I always wanted to move there. I played jazz trumpet in the seventies in St. Louis, right after the war.”
“Would you move there if you could?”
“Not no more.”
“It might be too late for me,” I said.
“What else can you tell me?” he asked.
I described the high school, the unrest I caused, those familiar faces. He wanted to know more about them.
“I so happened to go to my twenty-year reunion,” I said. “The school president I told you about is married. He had a few kids. And he became another real estate drone. He lives in Colorado because he likes to ski. Teresa Monaco got fat and married. She had eleven kids because she was a Mormon. And Chad Iguana ended up murdering his dad, Judge Iguana. But I missed him at the reunion. You would guess he wouldn’t be there. I already told you about my friends.”
“What about them things you had?” he asked.
“Those will be invented in about ten years. Ironically, the inventors will die by their own inventions.”
“God damn,” he said. “Anything good come out of this?”
“Sort of. Teresa wanted my phone number. I’d always wanted her up until now. It’s too bad she ignored me in high school. Then again, I never wanted eleven kids.”