Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When I Was Young

By Jason Offutt

“You do realize what you’re asking, don’t you?” Mr. Halloran asked. Halloran, of course, was not his real name. But as David sat in the man’s office, a bank of security cameras lining one wall, he really didn’t want to know.

Why David was here, in this office harmlessly tucked between a CPA and a Baskin Robbins, was, according to official government reports, crazy. “People go to jail for this,” his friend Frank had said one afternoon drinking beer in David’s living room. “Forever.” But David made an appointment through a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy, and walked into the storefront, its window sign “Daylight Donuts Opening Soon” lying to the world. Yeah, David knew what he was getting into.

“Of course I know what I’m asking,” David said, looking at his hands tightly grasped each other in his lap to keep from shaking. He knew it was dangerous, he knew it was expensive, and, most importantly, he knew it was illegal. Highly illegal. “I know the consequences.”

Mr. Halloran smiled and took a small sheaf of paper from a drawer of his spacious desk. He pulled a gold-tipped pen from his jacket and set it atop the contract.

“Good,” he said, pushing the pen and paper across the desk toward David. “Then, Mr. Donallen, it seems we have an agreement.”

David pulled his hands apart, waiting for them to shake, but they didn’t. He’d never done anything like this before and was he … afraid? Maybe. David picked up the pen, twisting it in his fingers, then he picked up the contract. “Why the risk?” Frank had asked after the game, holding his car keys and a handful of chips for the road. “If it’s because of Karen, don’t throw your life away for a girl. Have you ever seen ‘Carrie’? It doesn’t end well.” Karen? David wondered as he watched Frank walk out to his car, occasionally popping a chip into his mouth. I dated Karen in high school.

“I, of course, expect you to read the contract through,” Mr. Halloran said, leaning forward on the heavy wooden desk. “But it’s pretty straightforward. You pay me $100,000 and I send you into the past to do whatever you want for two days as long as you don’t kill or impregnate anyone. And you can bring anything back with you as long as it’s not living or irreplaceable. But, most importantly …” He paused, staring at David in the way David suspected pythons looked at rats before devouring them whole. “… you’ve never seen me before. You’ve never heard of me and you’ll never request my services again.”

David nodded and signed the contract without reading a word.

“I understand.”

Mr. Halloran smiled again, his teeth shining with a whiteness not achieved through nature.

“Then you will meet me at these coordinates at 5 a.m. tomorrow,” he said, handing David an envelope. “Wear Levis jeans, a white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirt and white Converse tennis shoes.”

“Converse? Why?”

“Because where you’re going, they don’t make Nikes – yet.”


The desert was cold as David drove his 4-cylindar Saturn along the desolate road. He followed the road to the “coordinates” Mr. Halloran provided. Normal people called them directions, not coordinates. This guy was government, David thought, wondering what branch he’d worked for before dabbling in back-alley time travel.

Something large ran across the road. David mashed his right foot into the brake pedal, his aluminum and plastic car sliding to a stop in the sand as the animal disappeared into the darkness. He was a nervous driver. And why not? he thought. It’s not like any car today can withstand a collision. David once had a car that could have plowed over that mystery animal without even leaving a smear on the grill. But that was 25 years ago. “You didn’t kill it, did you?” a teenage, sweater-wearing Karen had asked years ago at a thump (Damn Frank for bringing her up), her voice rising to a level only heard by dolphins. The raccoon had shot out of the darkness and David didn’t swerve – he couldn’t; it happened too fast. But he’d scraped the bloody mess into a grocery bag and buried it in the sand because Karen was crying. Karen had screamed when he hit the raccoon. His car hadn’t noticed.

David started back down the dark, desolate road. Four miles later he found Mr. Halloran standing near a black Ford Excursion, looking at the stars through a long, white telescope, an open can of Budweiser in his right hand. Nice cover, David thought, if anyone was watching. He pulled his car to a stop and stepped out wearing Levis jeans, a white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirt and white Converse tennis shoes. It was 4:58 a.m.

“Nice and punctual,” Mr. Halloran said. “Good work.”

“Of course,” David responded, walking toward the man. His stomach hurt. This is stupid, he thought. I can’t go through with it. Damn the $100,000. Damn the consequence. Damn this man with the white teeth. But … what if I didn’t do it? David frowned. This had nothing to do with a girl he hadn’t thought of for 25 years … well, yeah, it did – sort of.

“We’re getting married after high school, right, David?” Karen asked the April before graduation. David smiled at her … she was wearing a great sweater. “Sure, baby,” he said, wondering when he’d get to the base that let him do more than look at that sweater. Then he frowned. “Can we be married in college?” he asked. Karen nodded slowly as she leaned in to kiss David, and he forgot where he was. A month later, they graduated. Two months later, she convinced him to sell his hotrod for something with more doors, to hold all the babies they were going to have. Three months later she dumped him for a guy named Kurt. Kurt had a Camaro. Yeah, David realized, this had to do with fixing something that never should have happened.

Mr. Halloran reached into a cooler in the front seat and pulled out a can of beer.

“Drink it,” he said, handing the beer to David.

“Why?” David asked, feeling the cold, sweaty can shoved into his hand. “It’s 5 o’clock in the morning.”

“Because you need to relax. You look terrible.”

David cracked open the beer and took a drink. Sure, I look terrible, he thought, I might wind up in prison – one of those federal prisons I’ve seen on the late, late movie. David’s host rummaged in the Excursion and pulled out a briefcase and opened it, the spring-loaded latches cracking loudly in the cool morning air. Inside was a stack of money.

“Here’s $5,000 in period cash,” he said, handing it to David. David started to speak, but Mr. Halloran held up a hand. “I don’t want to know what you’re going to do with it.”

David pushed the cash into the pockets of his jeans and untucked his shirt to cover it.

“May I ask you a question?” David asked.

Mr. Halloran nodded and finished his beer.

“How do you know how to do this? Send people back in time? It’s not like building a bomb, the technology’s top secret.”

Mr. Halloran grabbed another beer from the cooler.

“I was one of the physicists who developed this technique before the government stepped in and took it from us and made time travel a felony,” he said, taking a swig of beer. “The money’s nice, but I really do this to give the government the finger.” He stopped and looked at David with tight, suspicious eyes. “Just remember to be back here at exactly 5 a.m. in two days. Now, please close your eyes. I don’t want you to see a thing.”


Then David was in 1976. No bright flash of light. No tunnel to spin him through time. No DeLorean. Nineteen seventy-six was just there when he opened his eyes. At least he assumed it was 1976. He stood in the desert night. Mr. Halloran was gone. His telescope was gone. His Ford Excursion was gone. There were old tire tracks in the dirt, but nothing the size of tires on that Ford behemoth. David’s Saturn was gone. But there were a couple of beer cans in the dust. David bent and picked up a discarded Budweiser can. It had a pull-off tab.

He smiled. Yes, it was 1976.

David screamed and hooted into the night. It was going to happen. It was actually going to happen. The only thing he’d ever regretted losing was here. But he had two days. Two days to relive a dream he’d had at least twice a year for the past 25 years. He was going to town to buy a car.

“You’re breaking up with me?” David asked Karen, his eyes pulled tight, like Dirty Harry’s. “Yes, David,” Karen said. Her hair was different today – it was less like Jan Brady’s and more like Farrah Fawcett’s. “I’ve found a real man. He’s got a job and a tattoo and a Camaro. He treats me like a lady.” David looked at Kurt standing by his deep green Chevy. A cigarette hung out of the corner of Kurt’s mouth, a mouth framed by a dirty blonde thing that wanted to be a mustache. “Hurry up. The races start in an hour,” Kurt said slowly, the cigarette bobbing with each syllable. Karen grinned and ran to Kurt. He slapped her butt and she giggled as she slid into the passenger seat through the window. Yeah, Kurt had welded the Camaro’s doors shut; he was a real racing fan. “But,” David whispered, knowing Karen wouldn’t have cared if she’d heard him. “You made me sell my car.”

The lights of the city shown over the desert hills like a false dawn. David’s drive from the city had been brief, just enough to get him out of the way of prying eyes. But it was 1976 now. The city wasn’t as big as it would be. David figured he had at least 15 miles to walk before he reached the city limits. He hoped to find a telephone before then and call a taxi. Heck, he figured, he had $5,000, he could afford it.


The big box of a taxi picked David up at a Kerr-McGee station he’d found at the end of the dirt road. The station wouldn’t be there 25 years from now, David thought. Not even a shell of a building will be left sitting at the roadside. Maybe he should tell somebody? No, he decided, sitting in the back of the cab. He drank a Coca-Cola from a glass bottle he’d bought at the station. The cola tasted different than David remembered. Better. Not as sweet.

“Where am I taking you?” the cabbie asked.

David burped a soda burp in the back seat, manic giggles taking hold. I’m from the future, he thought. Oh, yeah, I’m here in 1976, too, but I’m in third grade! Where am I taking you? Ha!

“A hotel,” he said, choking back a laugh. “Any hotel, as long as it’s near a Ford dealership.”

“Ford dealership?”

David laughed out loud.


The Howard Johnsons, its orange roof strangely comforting, stood three blocks from Williams Motors, the Ford logo within view of David’s room. He’d requested it – a room with a view of Williams Motors. He knew the desk clerk was watching him as he walked up the stairs toward Room 214, thinking he was nuts and hoping he wasn’t dangerous. By then David couldn’t be sure he wasn’t both.

Room 214 was cold and smelled of cigarettes, but David didn’t care. In 1976, David realized, everywhere was a smoking area. There was a radio in the room and a television, but no HBO, no ESPN, no cable TV to speak of.

David lay on the bed. He’d called in a wake-up ring for noon, then he was going to find a McDonalds to see if the burgers tasted the same. Then he was going to go to a movie theater to see “Carrie.” Then he was going to go to a bar and get drunk on 10 bucks. That was his plan for 1976. That, and the car.

The car.

David’s life had changed in 1981. Summer jobs filled his pockets with money he couldn’t spend on movies, pizza, dates or beer. He saved his money for his 16th birthday and the car. The car was beautiful. Dark, forest green, two-door, with dual exhaust that made the engine sound like an Army caravan driving to the front. But the stereo could drown out that noise, the memory of how “Highway to Hell” and a joint could make life outside the cab go far, far away.

Then came Karen. Then it was gone. It was my own fault, David thought lying on the bed at the Howard Johnsons, the hum of an inefficient air conditioner coaxing him into sleep. I’ve never been in charge … until now.


“Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid,” David asked the graying bartender at the Desert Crossing after he’d eaten his fill at McDonalds for a dollar and seen a movie that he’d seen before for the first time. The bartender looked like he probably didn’t want to have this conversation. “That you thought it was real?”

“It’s called lucid dreaming,” the bartender said, putting another squat, brown bottle of Budweiser amongst the wall of empty ones in front of David.

David stopped in mid-thought. “What?”

“A dream that’s so vivid you think it’s real is lucid dreaming,” the bartender said. “That’s what it’s called.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve got a Ph.D. in psychology.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

The bartender shrugged. “Better tips.”

David knocked over an empty bottle as he reached for the full one. He wasn’t just getting drunk anymore, he was fine tuning his logic circuits.

“But that’s not what I mean. I mean a hope, a goal of such proportions it’d be a Bible story if any of those guys were still alive to write it. And you made it real.”

The bartender shrugged, looking around the bar. The joint was empty except old Lonnie at the corner table who was afraid to go home to his wife. He’d bought a bucket of beer a half-hour ago, so he was set for a while.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”

“And say,” David went on. “That in order to make that dream come true, you had to do something that sounds impossible. No, no, more than that. Crazy. It sounds crazy.”

The bartender picked up an ashtray and shook the cigarette butts into the trash. He wiped it methodically with a bar towel like he had no intention of actually cleaning it.

“Such as?” he asked.

“Well, say you could only accomplish this goal if you traveled backward in time.”

The bartender stopped wiping the ashtray.

“Backward … in time?”

“Yes,” David said, taking another drink from the short, brown bottle. “Because all you longed for, all that was with you during the years of your life when you were actually happy, doesn’t exist the way you remember it. You can only find it in the past.”

“Like an old girlfriend?” the bartender asked. “Or the way Ike ran the country?”

“Yeah, something like that,” David said.

“Well,” the bartender said, putting the still dirty ashtray back on the bar. “I’d go back for my eighth grade history teacher, Miss Desmona. She was young, funny, and the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Too bad I was 14. How about you?”

David grinned from behind the lip of the bottle.

“A Gran Torino.”

The bartender stared at David like he’d told him he didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.

“A Gran Torino?”

David nodded. “Yes.”

“A car?” the bartender asked. “The Gran Tornio model’s only four years old. Why couldn’t you just buy one used and wash it?”

David shook his head. Frank had suggested the same thing, although 25 years in the future, Frank had used “restore” instead of “wash,” then he’d called David a dumb ass. “You’re risking everything for a car,” Frank said from the rolled down driver’s window of his Lexus, still chewing the last chip. “Don’t do it. It won’t turn out well.” David nodded. If Frank didn’t understand, no one would. It wasn’t about the car; it was about David before life crept up and smothered him. It was about the last time David really smiled – he was inside that car.

“But that’s not what I want,” David said to the bartender. “I want a new one. A brand new one. One with paper dealer floor mats to keep mechanic’s oily feet off the real floor mats. One without any preset radio stations. One with that new car smell. One that’s mine, and has only been mine,” David paused, taking a deep breath. “I’m talking about a first love.”

The bartender pressed his elbows into the bar and frowned.

“So, what you’re saying is if you were able to travel back in time, you wouldn’t tell your younger self to avoid doing some of the stupid things you’ve done in your life?”


“You wouldn’t buy stock in a company you know will make you millions or bet on the World Series even though you already know who wins?”


“You wouldn’t kill Hitler somewhere around 1936?”

David frowned. “Well, I hadn’t thought about that …”

“You’re telling me instead of all these things, you’d buy a car?”

David took a long pull from his beer. “Well,” he said, putting the bottle down on the bar hard enough to shoot foam out the top. “Yeah.”

The bartender handed David his tab and took his beer.

“Then you’d better settle up,” he said. “I think you’ve had plenty.”


David awoke with a headache. Not that he cared. It would be gone soon enough. Besides, nothing was going to get in the way of today – nothing. He got out of bed, showered, and dressed in the brand new bellbottom jeans and Gilligan shirt he’d bought at J.C. Penney’s the day before. Pulling back the curtains and looking down at Williams Motors, David wished he had a friend here to share in this. Frank had been his friend since high school. Frank had ridden in David’s Gran Torino, he’d driven David’s Gran Torino, and he’d barfed in the passenger floorboard after a night of tequila shooters their senior year of high school. “You’re actually going through with this,” Frank said, drinking coffee in David’s kitchen the Saturday morning David drove to Daylight Donuts Opening Soon. “Is there any way I can talk you out of it?” David shook his head. “Well,” Frank said, pushing away from the table. “Don’t expect me to chip in for your lawyer. The government investigates friends, too.”

David scanned the Williams Motors lot. A bright red, two-door 1976 Gran Torino sat in front. He’d walked by it yesterday, its smooth curves prettier than a Playboy Bunny’s, its long hood hiding a 351-cubic inch engine that roared like a beast the ancients would have written into mythology. A salesman had asked David if he needed help. David nodded. “Tomorrow,” he said.

The bedside clock – with a face and hands, no angry red digital numbers here – read 8:52 a.m. It was time.

Williams Motors was quiet when David walked onto the lot. He figured he was the first one there. How many people buy cars at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday? He stood in front of the Gran Torino, the same model Starsky and Hutch screamed around corners in as they chased TV criminal stereotypes through town. But Starsky and Hutch didn’t belong in this car – David did. The car was exactly like David’s high school beast – almost. David’s was green, but he didn’t care about the color. He pictured his young self behind the wheel, his long hair parted in the middle blown back by the wind rushing in the open window, an AC/DC tape in the 8-track player, and a can filched from Dad’s beer fridge wedged between his legs. Was it his car? No, but it was close enough.

“May I help you find something?” a salesman asked. David stood numb, like a man in line at the DMV. A tear ran down his face.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” David said. “I want to buy this car.”

“Great,” the salesman said. “This model has a 351 cu…”

“I know everything about the car,” David interrupted. “I don’t want to haggle.” He pulled from his pocket the wad of bills Mr. Halloran had supplied him. The salesman didn’t flinch. In this era it wasn’t weird to pay for things with cash. “I just want to drive. I’ll pay the sticker price. I just want to do it now.”


The 1976 Gran Tornio came equipped with air conditioning. It was warm enough to ask the heavy Freon to whisk away the heat, but David wasn’t having it. He wanted the wind to whip his hair, he wanted the roar of air to battle the music from the stereo, he wanted to be open to the world. His first stop was a record store down the street. His new car – his brand new car driven 4.1 miles – came to a rest smoothly by the curb outside Penny Lane Music. David was dizzy when he went in, and the incense in the store didn’t help. He bought AC/DC’s TNT, Led Zeppelin III, and as much Uriah Heep as he could find – just like high school.

And David drove, and drove, and drove. At 59 cents for a gallon of gasoline, David pushed the V-8 engine like it ran on air. He laughed as the lyrics of “old” songs blared from the stereo. When the round dash speedometer hit 70, David didn’t realize it, the car ran so smoothly. He felt 18 again – like he should have always felt. He pulled into a gas station on the highway and bought a case of beer for the price of a gallon of milk back home.


He was supposed to be back in the desert by 5 a.m. It was 12:30 a.m. David pulled out of the gas station’s gravel parking lot, thumping the dash with his thumbs to AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” and drove like a teenager.

David didn’t want to go home, but he …

He pointed his red beauty toward the desert and drove like a demon.


“Mr. Donallen?”

The voice came at him from a tunnel. David cracked open an eye. It was still dark. He felt around him. He was sitting in a car – the car.

“Where am I?”

“You’re home.”

Mr. Halloran stood by the window of David’s Gran Torino. He was dressed as he was when David left.

“You’ve been gone … our time … about five minutes,” Mr. Halloran said. “I see you’ve been successful, so our contract is fulfilled. It’s been nice working with you.”

“Oh …” David started, but his host had already slipped into the driver’s seat of the Ford Excursion. The ridiculously huge vehicle pulled away from David, its black hulk blending in with the desert night.

I did it, David thought, rubbing his hands over the Torino’s seats, drinking in the 1976 new car smell like spiked Homecoming punch. I did it.

The car. The wonderful car. The car where he’d first kissed a girl … Karen. The car was his. His youth, his music, his world of Donkey Kong, baseball games and Judas Priest was his again. David looked into the rearview mirror. Was his hair thicker? He hooted and grabbed a pull-tab beer from the back seat. The engine roared with the turn of a key. David fired the Gran Torino’s headlights, clicked the floorboard bright-beam switch with his foot and slipped the transmission into drive. He drove past the spot where a Kerr-McGee once stood. He drove into the city. He drove to his neighborhood, and the drive was as good as a first kiss. No. It was better. His cubicle-and-computer job, his 134 bowling league average and his blood pressure pills were never allowed in here. Here David was content. He smiled.

David pulled the brand new 30-year-old car onto his street. He pictured pulling his beauty into the driveway, turning the key and the Gran Torino’s engine dying in Mel Torme tones. Then he’d walk into his house, fall into bed and forget everything that happened until morning when he could relive it all over again.

But he couldn’t.

Black SUVs, almost like Mr. Halloran’s dotted the neighborhood. But these trucks weren’t driven by anyone friendly. They were sinister. “Is there any way I could talk you out of it?” Frank had asked. “Nothing’s worth throwing your freedom away, man.” Damn it, Frank, they got to you. You turned me in, David realized. Sweat began rolling down his back as he sat at the stop sign to his street. His fingers bit into the hard plastic steering wheel. Right to go home, ran through his head as he glanced down to the arm that would activate the turn signal. Right to go home. Good God, I’m going to prison.

“Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump …” slowly grew through his speakers as AC/DC’s “TNT” flooded the cab of the car and David smiled. He casually flipped on his left turn signal, turned onto a side street and kept driving. David thumped the steering wheel with his thumbs as he drove, burning the 59-cent a gallon gas, leaving the black trucks in his driveway, leaving his house, and his grown-up memories.

The penalty for time travel was life in prison. Young David wasn’t ready for that. He drove to the highway, then kept going. The world would probably catch up to him, he figured, but not today.