The guy sitting next to me
was blinking on and off like a faulty neon sign. He made a buzzing noise and
faded in and out like a television with a loose connection.
“You all right, buddy?” I asked and slapped him on his back as if he were
“I’ll be fine, it’ll pass. Would you hold my seat for me, I’ll be right back?
Excuse me.” He got up and hurried off to the men’s room where presumably he
could blink on and off undisturbed. I was sitting at Jake’s, my favorite
speakeasy, having an after work drink. Something I’ve been doing for as long as
I’ve been a partner at the law firm of Minsky, Sheldon & Muskgrove, patent
attorneys. Jake’s was filling up with the usual assortment of single
secretaries and bored salary men taking advantage of the cheap booze during
The blinking, buzzing guy came back a few minutes later and reclaimed his bar
stool. “Thanks,” he said, “I appreciate it.”
“Don’t mention it; I only had to fight off a half a dozen zombies and turn down
my one chance at true love for you.” I was exaggerating of course. One lonely
file clerk asked if the seat was taken but that was all.
“Well, I appreciate it. How about I buy you a drink for your trouble?” He gave
Jake the two shot sign and turned back to me. He looked like a junior executive
from one of the many small firms that had their offices in the ArnoldBuilding
across the street. There was nothing weird or strange about him and if it
wasn’t for his curious habit of occasionally blinking on and off, I wouldn’t
have given him a second glance.
Never one to turn down a free drink, I allowed him to buy me a shot of Jake’s
nearly undrinkable scotch. We clicked glasses and downed the vile stuff in one
gulp. I shook all over and could swear I almost blinked myself. The second shot
didn’t taste nearly as bad. I knew that one or two more and I’d be telling this
complete stranger my life story. I was just about to launch into my this
country’s going to hell in a hand basket spiel when the guy started blinking
again. It looked like every few seconds he’d blink out of existence and back in
again like that faulty hologram of Obi-Wan in the first Star Wars movie. I
tried a little experiment and put my hand on him the split second he wasn’t
there. I wasn’t absolutely positive, but I could swear he really wasn’t there.
People were beginning to notice the odd behavior but it’s part of our urban
mentality to avoid involvement in other people’s business. Besides, nothing was
going to get in the way of the after work mating ritual. Even Jake, the
bartender, didn’t seem to care. It was almost as if he’d seen it before.
When the blinking episode passed and the guy was solid again, I had to ask him,
“What’s with the blinking?”
He looked at me long and hard before answering. “You mean the zitzing? It’s
nothing. It’ll pass, and don’t worry, it’s not contagious.”
“But what is it? Why does it happen this, what did you call it, this zitzing?”
“I don’t want to get into it with you. For one you wouldn’t believe me and for
another you wouldn’t understand.”
“How do you know what I’d believe and what I’d understand? You don’t even know
me. I’m Darwin Muskgrove, patent attorney.” I held out my hand and he shook it.
“Darrell, Darrell Halter, pleased to meet you.”
“So now that we’re old friends, why don’t you tell me about this strange
affliction of yours?”
“Maybe after another drink of that rotgut whisky I’ll try to explain, but I
warn you, you’ll think I’m full of it.”
By the time old Darrell was ready to talk, the crowd at Jake’s had thinned out
considerably. We had the bar pretty much to ourselves and we were both feeling
no pain. Darrell had had at least two more attacks of the zitzes. One of them
lasting far longer than the others. After that sustained episode, he looked
worried. He drank a big glass of cold water and, fixing me with his eyes, told
me his story.
“I’m not from here, your time I mean. I don’t belong here you see. My presence
here violates half of the laws of physics, several of Newton’s laws of motion and at least two laws
of thermodynamics. I guess you could say I’m an outlaw.” We both chuckled at
I stared at him like he was going to crack a smile and deliver the punch line
to the joke he was telling me but, of course, he didn’t. He continued in the
same vein, if anything, more serious than before.
“I know what you’re thinking. That I must have a screw loose, perhaps several,
but I assure you I’m serious, deadly serious. You see, I built a successful
time machine. I’m pretty proud of that as you might imagine. If circumstances
were different I’d be accepting the Nobel Prize right now instead of sitting
here drinking turpentine. My picture would be all over the papers and I’d be
richer than Croesus. Hell, you’d be studying about me in school.”
“Excuse me for interrupting,” I said “but you’re telling me you built a working
“On your own?”
“Yes, in my garage.”
“I can’t believe it,” I said. Already the patent implications were exploding in
“I told you you wouldn’t.”
“Well,” I said brightening, “if you’re from the future, why don’t you give me
some good stock tips. I have some money. We can split the profits.”
“I didn’t say I was from the future. I’m actually in the future. My future.”
“Hold on a second. You’re from the past?”
“Yes...er, no. It’s your present, my future. My present is 25 years in your
past. Does that make any sense?”
“When? When did you build this machine?”
“About 25 years ago,” he said. The statement hung in the air for a few seconds
until the implications hit me.
“You invented a time machine 25 years ago? So why hasn’t the world heard of
you? Why aren’t you rich and famous?”
“Ah, that, my friend, is where this story takes a depressing turn. You see I’m
on my first trip right now. This is my future— you, this place, this
conversation, this is all taking place 25 years in my future.”
“Well, how do you like it so far?”
“I guess it’s all right. I haven’t had a chance to do much exploring. You may
have noticed I’m having a problem.”
We sat and drank and gradually I understood what was going on with him. He was
caught in a nightmare and there was nothing he could do about it. “I was a
physics professor at a small girl’s school. I had always been interested in
time travel ever since I was a kid. I had an idea that time might be ever so
slightly magnetic and built my machine on that premise. I spent years
scrounging up parts from government surplus, Radio Shack, even the city dump.
The contraption that came together in my garage was truly one of a kind— a wild
assemblage of coils and magnets. I amplified time’s tiny magnetic field into a
powerful beam of energy. That ‘chrono-magnetic radiation’ is what catapulted me
here. My connection with that beam is what’s keeping me here.”
“You’re still connected to the machine?” I asked.
“Some sort of wormhole in time connection. It’s too technical to explain but
yes, I’m still connected. If everything went as planned, I would have returned
to my present. You’d be reading about this little jaunt of mine in the history
books. The fact that I’m not in the history books is telling don’t you think?
“The problem is, I can’t get back. The god damn machine won’t turn off. It
keeps re-setting itself. When I left, I set the timer for three days. That’s
how long I expected to be gone. That was almost a month ago. I’ve been wracking
my brains trying to puzzle out what the heck is going on with the machine— and
I think I figured it out.” Darrell shook his head and puckered his face. He
looked like a man who faced utter failure.
“It’s Ed, my neighbor’s teenage son, Edward Greeley. Ed and his lousy jump
shot. He sees I’m not around so he shoots hoops; lots of hoops. When he gets
home from school and on weekends is mostly when I zitz. Are you following me?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“When Ed misses a shot, his basketball hits the garage with a thump.” Thump!
Thump! Darrell banged his fist on the bar for emphasis.
When I failed to understand he added, “The vibration, the thump jiggles
something in my rat’s nest of a machine and the stupid thing re-sets itself for
another 3 days. Every zitz is the machine recalibrating. I’m going to be here
for years unless something burns out.
“My only hope is that Ed stops missing so much. Unlikely, as he isn’t very
“Maybe the timer will burn out,” I offered hopefully.
Darrell shrugged, “I don’t know what’s going to happen if something
That was it. That was Darrell’s story. As preposterous a tale as any I’d ever
heard. Imagine inventing a machine so incredible, so world shattering and
having it screwed up because of the neighbor’s kid. You think you’ve covered
every angle but you never do. We sat for hours discussing his sorry plight.
“My old house and garage are gone. Knocked down ten years ago; there’s a
Wal-Mart there now. I went looking for my wife and kids but they’re long gone.
My kids are all grown up by now. They most likely have kids of their own. Even
if I knew where they were, I wouldn’t feel right barging in on them. What would
I say? It wouldn’t be right.
“I’ve been here for a month now, I’m broke, homeless and living on the street.
I didn’t plan on an extended stay. My money’s gone. Thank God old Jake here
remembered me; he lets me run a bar tab. I don’t see how I’ll ever be able to
pay it. So that’s it. That’s my story. Amazing, isn’t it? The invention of the
century and I’m a bum?”
I hadn’t noticed before how scruffy he looked until he mentioned his
impoverished condition. What a pickle the man was in. I vowed to do what ever I
could to help him.
“Do you think you could build another machine?” I asked in all earnestness. “If
you had a place to work and the money, I mean?”
“It’s doubtful,” Darrell said. “It took me almost ten years to build the first
one and those surplus parts I mentioned, they’re not likely to be duplicated.
And then there are my notebooks. I have no idea what happened to them.”
I invited Darrell home with me that night. I offered him a place on my couch
and promised him I’d do everything in my power to help him build another
machine. I have to confess that my motives weren’t purely humanitarian, after
all, the patent possibilities made my brain salivate.
The next day was a Saturday and we both slept late having talked the night
away. When I finally got myself moving, I shuffled into the kitchen. Darrell
was on the couch zitzing badly. Somewhere in the past a kid was shooting hoops.
I made coffee and waited for the zitzing attack to pass. It was disconcerting
to see it happen. I never asked him what it felt like? Did it hurt?
After a while, Ed must have quit practicing his free throws because Darrell
settled down. I made us a good breakfast and he devoured every bite. I had a
chance to question him about what he thought of my marvelous present, his
future—the politics, the foreign affairs, and the technology.
“As far as I can tell, not that much has changed, same stupid politics, same
stupid foreign adventures. The proliferation of cell phones and the Internet are
big changes but I really haven’t had all that much time to think about it. 25
years ago Reagan was president, the Soviet Union
hadn’t dissolved, there was no Euro, no terrorists to worry about. Some things
have changed for sure but then again much is the same.”
“Your machine would have changed things,” I said.
“I suppose,” he replied. Then a fit of intense and rapid zitzing came over him.
I could almost picture his neighbor, Ed, and a half a dozen teammates having a
Saturday morning pick up game. Each kid with his own ball practicing his jump
shot and battering the old garage with repeated misses. Poor Darrell, he was
zitzing so much it was scary. There was a crackling sound and the smell of
ozone in the air. I held my hand out to him and he reached out to me but there
was nothing to be done. There was a muffled pop and he was gone.
I’ve thought about Darrell Halter a million times since. I even tracked down
his son, Lester Halter, who, it turned out, lived in a nearby town. He was a
teacher like his dad. I told him I was an old friend of his father’s which, in
a sense, was true. He was happy to talk to me. I asked him what happened to his
“Dad died when I was very young. I was five when he died.”
“How did he die,” I asked.
“Electrocuted,” Lester said. “At least that’s what I was always told. He was
found in his workshop twenty-five years ago this month. He’d been tinkering. He
was a great tinkerer. Were you friends long?”
“Not long,” I said. “He was a good man and smart, very smart. You should be
proud of him.”
“I guess,” he said. I could feel his shrug over the phone.
“No really, he was a great man, a genius.”
“Well he couldn’t have been that smart if he managed to kill himself and left
his kids to grow up without him.”
He was right, of course. What could anyone say to that? At least he managed to
get home, I thought, and that was something.
2012-06-09 11:14:56 ccubed98 - love the fact that this cme from a patent lawyer - nice twist
2012-05-21 08:47:57 Good story!Poor genius...
2012-03-18 19:14:04 tobiash -
2012-03-06 10:02:52 micheledutcher - When I read this for the first time I was bowled over. The way such a complecated sci-fi theme is handled in such an everyday way is genius. That's (more in forum)...
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