Paying It Backwards
by Phil Temples
Joey throws the rock and nails the glass bottle dead-on. The bottle explodes into zillions of pieces. The smashing sound is very satisfying for both of us. He beams at me, and I give him an approving nod and a high-five.
Me and Joey are breaking things under the Jefferson Street Bridge again. We hang out here almost every afternoon. There’s not a hell of a lot else to do in the summer. Most days, Mom is drunk in her bedroom. She stays inside all day and eventually wakes up around suppertime. Then she heats up some beans or left-over pizza for us before returning to the bar on the corner of Fourth and Kennard. It’s up to me to look after Joey; he’s my younger brother. He’s nine years old, five years younger than me. He can be a real pain in the ass, but I love him, and I’d never let anybody hurt him.
I walk over to a pile of newly dumped trash that has tumbled down the hillside from the highway above. Clumped together are assorted TV dinner containers, pizza boxes, soda cans and beer bottles, along with a ratty old copy of the Yellow Pages and soiled newspapers. Tangled up with the trash is a baby stroller, and a bag of dirty diapers. The smell from the bag is awful. I carefully avoid it as I fetch two of the beer bottles to serve as new targets.
I turn around to see what Joey is hollering about. That’s when I see it, too.
There’s an odd, shimmering blob near the entrance of the underpass, about ten feet from us. It starts out silvery, then it turns orange. After a few seconds, the shimmer begins to take the shape of a person. I’ve never seen anything like it. I look at Joey. He’s staring at it with fascination; his mouth is agape. I suppose mine is, too.
I’m not sure how much time passes. Probably less than a minute. The shimmering has stopped, and in its place stands a tall, slender man. I reckon he’s in his twenties. He’s wearing some sort of shiny fabric one-piece uniform. He carefully flexes his hands and fingers and then he runs one hand through his close-cropped blonde hair like he’s afraid it isn’t there no more. After that, he takes in his surroundings. He sees me. “¿Habla español?”
I know he’s sayin’ something in Spanish, but I’m too startled to speak. The man gives up on me. He turns to Joey and asks, “Do you speak English?”
“Good! Would one of you be so kind as to tell me our location, and today’s date on the Julian calendar?”
“What is the year, month, and day number, please?”
Joey’s not sure, so I tell the stranger. He looks startled. “Really? 2018? Are you sure?
It’s my turn to ask some questions. “Hey... who are you, anyway? How did you do that trick? It’s like you popped up here out of nowhere.”
The man smiles. “I can assure you, I do come from somewhere. Actually, some time would be more accurate.” He pauses and then says, “Excuse me for not introducing myself. My name is Harkoscoptious. And who might you be?”
“I’m Gus. And this here’s my brother, Joey.”
“Nice to meet you, Gus and Joey.” He looks at us intently for a moment. I feel he’s sizing us up.
“Say, you two look like intelligent, enterprising young men. How would you like to — I think the phrase might be — make a buck?”
Joey and I trade looks.
“Sure. If it ain’t illegal or nothin’,” I reply.
“I can assure you, it’s all legitimate and aboveboard.”
Harkoscoptious explains he’s from 2293, two hundred and seventy-five years in the future. He’s a concierge. He says the word like he’s trying real hard to impress us. I guess he figures we don’t know what it means, but I know. I’ve been inside the fancy hotels downtown, and I’ve watched the concierges do concierging. He says he’s a “tour guide” of sorts for rich folks who want to come back and visit the past for a few days. Joey mispronounces his name, and the man says we can just call him “Hark.”
“You see, I was expecting to come back only one hundred and fifty years. Some sort of glitch, I suppose. At any rate, I’m sure there are all sorts of interesting things to see and do around here... say, this is Boston, United States, right?”
“This here’s Pawtucket,” beams Joey.
Hark looks at Joey quizzically.
“Providence, Rhode Island,” I say. He wouldn’t know; he’s a dumb out-of-towner.
Hark nods. “Okay. So, what’s fun and exciting to do around here in... Pawtucket?”
“You tell us. You’re the concierge.”
I can tell Hark doesn’t appreciate my sarcasm. I say, “Not much. We break glass bottles mostly. But, you got the Paw Sox playin’ down the road most days in McCoy Stadium. That’s about a mile away.”
“You know... baseball.”
Hark’s face lights up with recognition. “Ah, yes! America’s pastime.” He pulls out a transparent, plastic card and taps on it a few times. It rapidly displays pictures and text before it goes blank again.
“Ah, Paw Sox, a ‘feeder team’ for the Boston Red Sox. Minor leagues. Too bad. Still, no one’s actually seen a baseball game for over a hundred years.” Hark is lost in thought.
“What about... the New England Patriots?” he asks. “They played that competitive sport called football that resembled rugby, right? Where men attacked one another over possession of an oval ball made of faux pigskin. In... Foxboro, Massachusetts?”
“The Pats are playing pre-season games in Florida right now. The real season doesn’t start until September.”
Hark sighs. “Too bad. Well, I should probably secure a large, motorized vehicle to transport my arriving customers to Boston. This place is clearly ‘nowheresville.’” Hark seems pleased with his use of a local idiom. “Now, this is where you gentlemen come in...”
* * *
Hark explains he needs us to stand watch over the “portal” as he calls it. He says people will be popping out at various hours of the day and night. While Hark is arranging for their leisure, food, and other activities, he wants us to be the official greeters. Also, he says, we’re to keep ’em from wandering off.
“Some folks will insist on exploring, while others might appear a bit disoriented upon their arrival. You just talk to them and keep them company while I’m gone. Here, take these for your retainers.”
He hands Joey and me each a small, credit card-sized sliver of metal. They’re flexible and very shiny.
“This is pure platinum. Do you know what that is? It’s a precious metal. It’s what we use for currency. You won’t actually be able to spend it like your paper money but it’s good for trade or barter, and far more valuable. Say, any ideas how I might acquire some of your paper money to bankroll this endeavor?”
I tell Joey to stay with Hark, while I run home. I know that Mom will still be passed out in her bedroom. I have no problem going into her purse to “borrow” some of her drinking money for our new enterprise. Sure enough, I hit paydirt: she cashed her alimony check only yesterday. So far, she’s spent very little of it. Between her dough and my piggybank, I pocket $110. I leave her around $40 so she’ll have some drinking money this evening. Then I hightail it back to the bridge and hand the money to Hark.
“Excellent. This should be enough to buy some building materials with which to construct a rudimentary shelter from the elements.”
Later that evening, Hark returns in an old pickup truck. He unloads boards, nails, a handsaw, and hammers. I didn’t ask him where he got the truck. The work is slow going, but eventually we finish construction of a crude lean-to.
“This will be your front office, gentlemen.” He wanders over to two trash cans and grabs them. Then he upends the cans and sets them up in the lean-to. “These will have to serve as chairs until I can acquire more suitable furniture. Now then: will you be able to work in shifts?”
Joey smiles. He holds out his hand to Hark, signaling more payment will be required. I follow his lead.
“Yes, yes, of course. You catch on quickly! Here. You’ve earned your pay today.”
* * *
The following day, the first of Hark’s paying customers shows up. At around ten in the morning, a man pops into existence. He’s older, perhaps in his sixties, a bit chubby, with bright orange hair and a lip full of piercings like an aging punk star. He rubs his shoulders with his arms and looks about.
“Welcome to the twenty-first, Mister... ah, Beoxilgormy, right?”
“Yes. Thank you. Wha-what do you mean, the twenty-first? This was supposed to be the twenty-second! And what is this” — he makes a sweeping gesture with his hand — “shithole?!”
Hark soon gets the man calmed down and tells him to disregard his current surroundings. He explains the destination and the year of arrival aren’t exact sciences. He tells him the twenty-first will be far more interesting. I gotta hand it to Hark, he’s a real salesman! By the time he’s done with ol’ Beoxil-boy, the man is ready to fork over even more platinum for the privilege of experiencing a vacation further in the past, with fewer amenities than originally promised.
“Pay attention to Hark,” I whisper to Joey. “We can learn a thing or two from his sales technique.”
Hark loads Beoxil into the beat-up pickup truck to take him to the fancy rental van waiting in a nearby lot. He’s driving Beoxil up to Boston. He tells us to be ready for another customer, possibly two more, over the next several hours. Sure enough, about an hour later, another person arrives. The woman seems like a spritely old grandmother, with long, silver hair that she wears spiked with little curls sticking up on the ends.
“Hello, boys! Are you the official welcoming party?”
“Yes, m’am.” I introduce myself and Joey to her. I tell her Mr. Hark is currently unavailable, but he’ll return soon. I also tell her where and when she is. If she’s surprised by the year, she doesn’t show it.
“Fascinating! So, you two are ‘native’ to this time? Well, I can’t say much for the rendezvous point, but they did warn me it might be a bit... uncontrolled.”
Her name is Gagliofulor... something. She tells us to call her “Gaggie” for short. I don’t know why all of these future people have such weird names, but I like her. She asks what we do for fun. Joey and I line up some bottles for her, and she takes aim. Pretty soon, she’s hitting as many as we do. She’s got a great throwing arm for an old lady.
“How much is Hark paying you to help out?” Gaggie asks.
We show her the platinum chips. She scrunches up her face in a disapproving fashion. “Is that all? You should demand at least twenty credits each! He’s cheating you. Let’s see...” She pulls out her computer thingy and types something in. It does a quick currency translation.
“Yes, just as I thought: you’re grossly underpaid. You’re receiving a total of only... two thousand, four hundred U.S. dollars.”
Joey looks at me. I look at Joey. I’m not sure which of us is more shocked. But I do know I’ve never seen Joey’s eyes bug out that big!
“Um, yes. It does sound like we’ve... left some money on the table. Hey, can I see that?” I point to her computer.
“Sure, I don’t see why not. You were kind to introduce me to this fun game of rock-throwing.”
She hands over her computer and shows me how to work it. “Will this show the results of stock trades?” On a whim, I ask the thing to show me the closing prices of the top twenty traded stocks on the American Stock Exchange for September 22, 2023. Right near the top is something called “Biocurious” that’s trading for over $600 per share. I memorize the name, along with a dozen other companies whose names I’ve never heard of.
“You naughty boys!” She laughs. “Of course, I’m prohibited from using information about the past for financial gain, but... say, would you like to know the winning lottery ticket for tomorrow?”
“Yes, please,” Joey pipes up.
“Somebody is going to win it,” she replies. “And you’re such polite boys it might as well be you.”
* * *
Over the course of the next few days, Joey and I meet all sorts of interesting people. We even meet someone who doesn’t look exactly human. Turns out, he’s not. Mister Zzeevrogg — well, “Mister Z” — tells us he’s actually from another star system. He’s been masquerading as a citizen of the Western Confederation for the past hundred years. As he puts it, he’s an illegal immigrant.
“I don’t know why I’m telling you this, but you seem like two nice, young humans and besides, we’re in another time. What is said in the twenty-first stays in the twenty-first, right? Please, though, don’t tell Mister Harkoscoptious.”
Joey and I promise on scout’s honor we won’t rat on Mister Z. He seems impressed by our sincerity. He hands us a very large chunk of platinum. He says it’s a 400-credit note. From working Gaggie’s computer two days earlier, I know that’s a tonload of money.
* * *
I manage to trade in one of the small platinum chips for a thousand dollars at one of the jewelers downtown. Mom was ready to kick my ass when she sobered up and realized the money was missing, but the look on her face when I hand over six crisp one-hundred dollar bills was priceless. I told her we found it in a billfold under the bridge. At first, she’s skeptical; she thinks we’ve stolen it but, after a moment, she stops caring how it came into our possession.
Hark’s tourist time-travel concierge enterprise eventually finishes. It’s been a lot of fun; more fun than spending our days throwing rocks, and a lot more profitable, too. Hark returns the truck back from where he “borrowed” it and says his final goodbyes.
“Well, boys, it’s been nice doing business with you. See you around.” Hark shakes our hands and pushes a button on his computer. Seconds later, he’s transformed into a glowing, orange-and-silver blob. Then he disappears.
I turn to Joey and say, “Well, that was a pretty good return on a week’s work, wouldn’t you say?”
I’ve thought this through carefully. At home, under the floorboards, is our winning lottery ticket worth $12 million. Joey and I will keep the ticket safely stashed away until it almost expires, at which time we’ll hire an attorney who will ensure that the funds are placed in a trust in both our names so they can’t be siphoned off by Mom or our deadbeat dad. Next, I need to work on getting a better return-on-the-dollar for the platinum. By my estimate, we’re sitting on almost a quarter-million dollars of metal.
“You and me, buddy. You and me!” I give my brother a hug.
“Ew!” He makes a fuss over my sudden showing of emotion.
“When I turn eighteen, we’re goin’ all-in with these startups on the AMEX. I didn’t tell you this before, Joey. But when I was on Gaggie’s computer, I snuck a peek at our future. You’re not gonna believe what we’re worth twenty years from now.”
Copyright © 2018 by Phil Temples