20040516

A Bad Investment


Johnny stared hard at the quarter in his hand.

“Um…”

“Johnny! Hey, check this out! Dude, man, whenever you die, your body explodes! Check it out…blood and infected pink zombie pus like, flies out at the screen and the whole console shakes. I think the white bits are bone and gristle. Do people make gristle? Maybe only when they are zombies.”

Johnny turned the coin over and looked at the other side. United States of America. E Pluribus Unum. Quarter Dollar. A snide eagle in profile with a feather bandolier and gripping an ICBM in its talons. Maybe it was arrows. No, definitely a missile. This was America, a country that had always known the bombastic caress of industrial ballistics. He compared the back with a different quarter and satisfied himself they were exactly the same. Missile or not, it was a consistent image. If they were supposed to be arrows, the first mint had perpetrated a remarkable bit of illuminated clairvoyance.

“Are you looking? You missed it! Man, I just wasted a token. I’m not doing it again. This game is lame, anyway. Hey, isn’t that girl over there in our history class?”

“Which one?” asked Johnny, yanked from his bemusement by the only thing in the world that mattered. He stuffed the quarter into his left pocket with his house key. He had almost changed it out, and he wanted to keep it safe and separate from the rest of his cash. He laconically scooped the rest of the tokens from the machine’s tray and stowed them as well.

His right pocket now held three dollars worth of arcade tokens, two dollars in loose change, a black plastic comb, and the ancient chartreuse condom he originally found in Lyle’s dad’s gun drawer. His back pockets bulged with his wallet and his latest report card: with straight A’s you got a free chicken sandwich in the Food Court. He thought about how unwieldy this must all look. Abruptly suspicious of his mother’s suggested fashion protocol, he un-tucked his Izod T-shirt from his khakis.

“Which one, man?”

“The one with the short hair playing air hockey. Man, that’s pretty cool if she plays video games.”

“Oh. Yeah.” He definitely knew who she was. She sat near the door and mostly slept. She was a Jennifer, one of thousands, but she had a nice frown.

Suddenly he grabbed his stomach. Suddenly his intestines felt like ropes of sweaty, frozen steel, and his heart felt like a ruptured smelting plant: thwarted by the inevitable awkward rejection he now cynically envisioned and so betraying him by pumping barrows of pyretic blood into his face instead of usefully thawing his rigid underbelly. Suddenly he needed to take a crap.

“What was so goddamn interesting about that quarter, anyway?”

“Um…you know. Really old,” he lied.

“I’m gonna go say hello. Maybe she’s here by herself.”

Watching Lyle agonize his way through strained, hormone-fueled conjugal negotiation was about the most depressing thing there was. Lyle was a good guy, but Johnny could smell women smelling Lyle’s incompetent and pathetic need. Johnny put his hands in his pockets and slunk into the men’s room.

The bathroom was empty, sterile, and housed three tiny, open stalls and a single urinal. In here, the music and sound effects of a hundred standing video game machines was hushed to a dull, pulsating mumble.

Johnny locked himself in the farthest shit cube away from the swinging entrance door. He gave himself thirty seconds to suck down and deal with his own failed amatory courage (and to irreparably stain some public porcelain), and then he pulled out the quarter to get a better look at it.

Fucking amazing. He rubbed at the date underneath Washington with his thumb. It didn’t wipe away. And it didn’t even look new.

Where the quarter was supposed to say 1988, or 1963, or even 2004 - it said 2092.

It was otherwise perfectly normal.

Somebody came in after him, and Johnny put the quarter away. The stall in which he found himself was remarkably clean of graffiti. He noticed, for lack of anything better to look at, that the toilet paper dispenser had been tagged by somebody named U-4-E-UH. A gamer name. Johnny figured this bathroom was not used very much, on account of it being only well-known to veteran arcade aficionados. Nevertheless, he heard someone shuffle in, run the tap, and then spit something foul into the basin – and then once again he was alone.

Johnny could think of at least four possibilities for where the coin came from, and while all of them were interesting, none were particularly convincing.

His first explanation was that the coin was a vision from God.

“Ye, this is your burning bush, Johnny, my son. Lo, these United States will flourish long into the next century as I have shown ye with my sign. It is my gift to ye, to help ye with your holy ambition of service to your countrymen and kin, and to give you faith in your homeland’s concrete value. Show no one – and let no one take it from ye. He who contributes prematurely to the fall of the American Empire will know the full force of my tectonic wroth.”

Insane, though. God would never hang out with someone who gleefully thought about deflowering nuns as much as he did. Plus, this was autumn, and there were too many exciting little leaves falling from trees to expect the deity to care much about Johnny.

A second possibility was that the quarter was stolen from the United States treasury. Maybe the government was arrogantly printing money in advance, and somebody had hijacked an armored car and then flooded the market with the stolen, hilarious result. But why would a government do such a thing? What possible purpose could such coinage have? Maybe the United States had a self-confidence problem. Maybe its leaders needed to constantly remind themselves of the immutability and granite-veined industrial permanence of glacier-busting American ideology. E Pluribus Unum, 2092. Seemed plausible – such a big country, and then such a tiny little Florida wiggling out in the Atlantic for the entire world to see and mock. It didn’t take a bald, bearded Ph.D with a ballpoint to diagnose an inferiority complex.

But the coin could also be a counterfeit novelty, ran a third line of argument. If so, it was a damn good one. So good it took an obsessive date-checker like Johnny to peg it as bunk. Who knew how long it had been circulating? What mad genius would go to the trouble to counterfeit quarters instead of twenties when they obviously had it in their printing power to make legitimate billions? And then to furthermore make them intentionally risky as legal tender by giving them impossible dates? There was only one explanation. Art must have been responsible. It was art sticking its bejeweled thumb up the desiccated ass of sanity. And when the Thumb of Art wiggles, the limits of accepted convention stretch, distend, and are forced to accept more disturbing input. But did such mischievous artists even exist? And what was he or she trying to say?

As he cogitated, Johnny was having himself quite a sit. His butt began to push further through the hole and to squeak around the edges, sealing it, and the bones in his ass began to shiver and creak with tremulous nervous exhaustion. His pants, coiled around his ankles, began to look like an attractive winter resort for the bathroom’s frisky colony of indestructible silverfish. His small intestine was now so empty it was actually starting to create a vacuum and cause small ripples in the toilet water under him. But his logic train had not yet blown through all of its whistlestops.

Finally, he could no longer avoid the inevitable. There was the potential that this was a coin from a hundred years in the future. Somehow it had been transported to the past through advanced, futuristic technology and ended up inside the cash register at Kroger, where he had made change on a box of glazed donuts eaten in Lyle’s Honda. Maybe terrorists had seized control of the hypothetical time traveling device and used it to hold the continuum temporarily hostage until they had been vanquished by the mighty power of the State, and this quarter was effluvium from their epic Manichean battle that spanned space and history. This was the least likely hypothesis – what kind of advanced, prospective society would still traffic in material wealth? Surely the future was a time of advanced banking and electronic debit deductions. And surely by then inflation would have fully eradicated the quarter dollar as a viable payment option – like the mill penny, or the peso. But a time-traveling coin was compelling nonetheless. And it did fit all of the variables.

“Hey, are you in here, man?”

It was Lyle. Johnny quickly pulled up his pants and flushed, trying to figure out what he should say. Why was he so hesitant to let Lyle in on his secret?

“Are you sick or something?”

“No…I’m okay. I was just having myself a wicked movement. I must have looped the bowl twice with that one,” said Johnny, opening the stall door and stepping over to the sink to wash his hands.

“Dignified,” said Lyle, “Hey, look…Jennifer and I are going to get something to eat. I was wondering if maybe you could like…walk home? She doesn’t know you are here, and I told her I was alone. You know, so she wouldn’t feel awkward about it.”

“Sure thing, man. Do what you gotta do,” said Johnny, heading for the bathroom door.

Lyle stepped in front of him. “What are you doing? Wait a few minutes, and then leave. Otherwise you’ll make me a liar. Like I said: I told her you weren’t here.”

“Did she ask about me?” asked Johnny.

“Yeah. Look, be cool about this, okay? I’d do the same for you.”

“Right on, man,” said Johnny, heading back into the last stall, “I’ll see you later.”

“Seeya,” said Lyle.

After Lyle was gone, Johnny simply sat on the closed toilet feeling silly. He was aiding and abetting someone else’s action. Like a chump. Still, he gave Lyle five minutes, and then he got up and went back inside the arcade.

Johnny looked at the machines, but found himself quietly bored and disgusted by all of them. Video games were never his passion. The accumulated smells of a hundred-thousand sweaty teenaged palms gave them a palpable aura of misplaced need and surrogate sexual gratification. They were 25 cent prostitutes who always left you unsatisfied.

The quarter in his own pocket felt like a forty pound cannonball – weighing down his heart and intellect with its baffling immensity. He needed to be outside in order to carry it properly. He gave the arcade owner a flip of his head as a goodbye, and then he started the long walk back to his house, exiting out of the rear of the arcade and not through its opening to the mall proper.

It was a balmy Sunday evening. The most depressing point in the week’s grand cycle. Sunday evenings always made him feel queasy. The empty Sunday light on his neck felt like an eternity of loveless, joyless church. There would be school tomorrow morning - and noise - but Sunday evenings filled him with the cold, suffocating silence and gauzy-cheeked mellow impotence that only came in one foul flavor. Death. Nobody smiled on Sunday evenings; their minds were busy ticking along on the week ahead and behind. Nobody dressed how they wanted to on Sunday evenings; they stuffed themselves into sadistic wires and impregnable starch. And nobody spoke at any decibel where they could be heard by avenging angels on Sunday evenings; they muttered and sputtered and shifted and grifted. Sunday evenings were for television movies and suicides, and Johnny easily allowed himself to pretend it was a Wednesday as soon as the sun went down and he found himself alone aside the highway that led back to his neighborhood.

He took out the quarter and squeezed it.

Now he could do some serious thinking. He adjusted his pace and reached a jaunty clip that synched satisfactorily with the flexing, turning, and squeaking of his mental springs and cogs.

Let us assume, he began, that this quarter is incontrovertible proof that time travel is a virtual inevitability. What follows?

He paused.

If it were true that time travel was possible, than it was highly conceivable that an agency would be deputized to eliminate accidental anachronisms like the one he was holding. Additionally, they would have an infinity to correct them and so were fully guaranteed of success. Like trash collectors, they would get around to it when it suited them, and if the trash only took up space theoretically, so much the better. Therefore, if the coin were from the future, someone meant him to have it, unless he was occupying a track of time that was soon to be eliminated from reality by adjustments, in the past, that had yet to be.

He looked down at the quarter. Still there.

Was it possible that time travel could come about in his lifetime? Would he live until 2092? If so, maybe it was he himself who left the coin, in order to stimulate the exciting thoughts he was currently harboring. There was no telling why or for what reason, maybe simply because it had been so, and it was therefore his future duty to make sure he got the coin as a youth to keep the continuum from busting at the seams like lawn furniture underneath a four-hundred pound fast food queen.

He pondered this impossible loop until it gnawed clean through the center of his acceptability matrix. No way. If he were someday forced to travel back through time to deliver a quarter from the future merely because it was What Had Been, he would refuse. Just to see how the universe would preserve itself. In the name of science.

Besides, if that were so…he ought to be able to do anything to himself. His whole life was forfeit to the grand, irresponsible whimsy of his unaccountable future foil. And it didn’t even have to be him pulling the nylon strings that cinched up the tarp that comprised the hermetic fabric of his life. Perhaps it was a future version of one of his enemies, or even a future anonymous libertine bent on breaking the minds of promising youngsters for the sheer insidious joy of it. Maybe fucking with the sleeping hordes was the new sport of kings in the distant future, replacing war as the noble joke perpetrated on the unwashed masses by the posh and cynical.

There was one sure way to prove this once and for all. He would make a deal with himself. If time travel did eventually happen in his lifetime, this quarter being its proof, he must come back from the future to this particular time and place, seek himself out, and then do something significant to prove it.

But he must be more specific. What would he do to himself that would be unbounded by chance? This was tricky. He must try to avoid paradoxes and threats to the superstructure of the fourth dimension. The universe was robust, but he must still be trig.

Of course there was still the possibility the coin was just a practical joke. But that must be discounted: the coin must be viewed as an object whose only purpose was to stimulate his imagination and open his mind to the possibility of future experimentation. A primer. Alice’s rabbit.

By the time he entered his subdivision, he had concocted the rough outlines of a plan. It seemed rock solid. Indeed, it was even lucrative and elegant. He caught himself walking faster as his mind spun out the scenario, and as he passed the wooden sign that declaimed his home, the LAKEMOOR WOODS ESTATES, he kicked a pine cone at it in resplendent glee. Angling through it once more, he felt his plan was more than elegant: it was nothing less than a triumph of simplicity and of a rigorous deductive method.

He would write himself a letter so he wouldn’t forget, and so his Future Self would then have the plan in its entirety. It went like this:

A) Future Self (FS) would travel into the remote past and find something immensely valuable whose worth would only increase over time.
B) FS would then bury this package in a remote location that Present Self (PS) would pick out now.
C) PS would travel to that location – dig up the goods – and then, in an even more stirring turn, he would use the dividends from his newfound riches to finance time travel research. Now that was an impossible loop he could get behind.

As soon as he got to his house, he ran straight to his room and wrote himself the letter. He put it in his miniature safe with his really good baseball cards and his Hustlers.

The place he picked out was both convenient and untouched: the giant pecan tree right in his own backyard. His parents had built their house around that tree, back when all the surrounding land was arid prairie.

He could see it now; a massive imminent domain trial and his big fat smiling picture in tomorrow’s paper. Local High School Freshman Becomes Overnight Billionaire. No, that was spite talking. Perhaps he should hide his loot until he was an emancipated adult. Then he wouldn’t have to share with his greedy rents, and could move somewhere overseas. Somewhere without the crippling hammer of luxury taxation.

His letter written, he got out a shovel from his garage and proceeded to his backyard in the night’s cool darkness.

As he stood there in the moonlight about to make his first incision - in the soft area between two knobbly, visible roots – a thought struck him. Surely this wasn’t an original idea. What made his FS special? How could he ensure his own personal victory, when it seemed like any sucker with two dendrites to rub together ought to be winning each and every lottery?

He leaned on the shovel and scratched at his chin. Maybe his FS wouldn’t be the one to bury the ancient, priceless Egyptian antiquities after all. Maybe he would have to will the burden to his grandchildren, who would live in a time when time travel was a socially acceptable, possible phenomenon. Surely given an infinite universe, somebody would be able to forge his destiny. Somebody would have gratitude for their famous, disgustingly wealthy progenitor and demand to share in the credit for the family fortune. He just had to will it so strongly that it made an indelible imprint on his genetic heritage. To will it so completely that time and space folded in three like a legal letter and the gods themselves were at his beckoned, vengeful command. To forge a lifelong passion that he would never abandon, and to will that passion to his willful children. Even if he struck gold, he must not become complacent.

He closed his eyes and concentrated. When he felt as if his faith could get no stronger, he opened them and hunkered down.

He began to dig. As he chipped away dirt, he began to grow more and more certain there was something down there. It was almost as if he remembered burying something long ago, in some distant way. Something deep within told him he had done this before. This was enough to fuel him beyond his median athletic limits. He jooked. He jived. He sung to himself. By the time he hit steel in the dirt, he had almost collapsed from nervous exhaustion.

“Ha!” he screamed at the world, “This means I can’t even die until I tell someone! I am immortal with my secret will! MY will for me alone!”

The lights went on inside his house. He had awakened his parents. It didn’t matter.

He scrambled at the dirt, almost tangibly feeling his life slip into a permanent, inalienable groove. He was master of his mind, and yet completely bound to a course of events from which he could now never deviate – he was both puppet and player, slave and overseer. He pulled out the stainless steel box he had unearthed by one of its side handles, laughing and hugging it to his chest like an unhinged ape discovering its own massacred infant.

He glimpsed his parents behind him – concerned and in their bathrobes. He did not turn. Instead, he pried open the dirty, rusted box with his fingernails and held up what was inside for them to choke on.

The rotten, broken skeleton of his first dog Flipper…

“Son? Are you okay?” asked his father, patiently.

“Um…doing fine, Dad.”

“Have you been drinking?” asked his mom.

“Yeah, I’m pretty drunk,” he said.

“Why don’t you put your dog back in his little coffin and then go to your room?”

Johnny dropped the dog and box. He let the shovel fall from his fingers and it clanked on the steel box lid with a noise that made all of them jump.

He slowly started shambling toward the back door, his chin resting against his chest. Suddenly, his eyes grew deep and wild and he made another break for the shovel and pecan tree.

“Deeper! It’s buried deeper! It must be!”

His father wrestled him to the ground. He put Johnny in a hammerlock, and took him bodily into his room. Johnny screamed the whole way, but the quarter had fallen out of his pocket, and he had no other proof.

“Please! It’s there! Underneath the pecan tree! We just need to dig for it!”

“What’s underneath the pecan tree?”

“Ancient Egyptian antiquities! I put them there! In the past! I mean, my future self did! Please! If you believe me, we can all be rich!”

It was to no avail.

In the morning, Johnny and his mom started doctor shopping. The next week, the pecan tree was completely gone and in its place was a brand new swimming pool. His new shrink eventually pronounced him curiously sane, but every time his parents left to go do something without him, he searched their room for the quarter. It was never found.












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