Back | Next


THE CONCENTRIC CIRCLES filled the white wall, very fine black lines so tightly crowded that the wall would appear plain gray if viewed from more than five feet away; illusory colors seemed to flicker and spread in the dense curves, and after a few moments they abruptly sprang into full daylight, with a wide wedge of blue sky above clusters of foreshortened black and white rectangles that were expanding and moving to left and right away from the center.

Aware now of having a body, he shifted on the plastic chair, squinting. He could feel the alertness of being alive returning to him—he hoped he would see the cement truck here, and his right foot tapped the linoleum floor, impatient to feel the slant of a gas pedal instead. Do this right, he told himself tensely, and you’ll add fourteen years to your life.

“I’m nearly in,” he said quietly, his voice flat and unechoing in the big studio. “Still a bit blurry.”

He concentrated, and then was able to see the field in depth. He was viewing low, crowded-together buildings through the windshield of a moving car. There seemed to be a lot of billboards above the buildings, and a line of telephone poles was swinging past to his right, and he could see the revolving yellow-and-red sign of a Shell station; that was good, there was supposed to be a Shell station, but was this the right one? He’d done a lot of driving in alcoholic blackouts. And then he saw, closer at hand, the vertical blue sign of Angel’s Corner Liquor.

He exhaled, and he could hear it in the tense silence of the unseen studio.

“I’m on Sunset all right,” he said, with relief. The red, yellow and blue colors of the nearby signs were invigorating.

The lumpy pale shapes on the arc of the steering wheel resolved into his hands. They appeared to be steady.

“I’m stepping in.”

Breuer relaxed into it; his posture changed, and the air was abruptly warmer and smelled of Popov vodka and old Camel cigarettes, and his hands could feel the curved plastic hardness of the steering wheel as the surface he was sitting on became upholstered padding. That British rock and roll song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,”was playing on the radio.

For nearly a minute he didn’t speak, just concentrated on breathing evenly as he watched his hands move the wheel to stay in his lane. The big white cement truck was there in the lane ahead of him, and of course he was tailgating, as he always had, but no overriding exertion was called for yet. The stacked capitals of the LARGO sign loomed to the right now—he could remember when the burlesque club had been the Westside Market. And just past it was the Villa Nova, where he had once seen Marilyn Monroe dining with Joe DiMaggio.

Breuer had lived in Los Angeles for years, and even without having partially re-experienced this few minutes several times here in the last couple of days, he knew this stretch of Sunset well. He passed Doheny Drive, and noted the familiar curved red LIQUOR sign over Turner’s liquor store, and he grinned nervously to realize that, as always, he had noticed it sooner than the much larger Coca Cola sign.

Sunset Boulevard had a hallucinatory vividness to him now, like a dream in a fever, and he wondered how he would fit into his life in the days that would follow this one.

He was breathing more rapidly, and bracing himself. Only another couple of blocks to where it happened, he thought—and this time it’ll happen differently. He flexed his hands on the wheel.

The cement truck was pulling ahead, speeding up to make the light where Sunset curved south at Cory Avenue, and Breuer’s heart was thudding in his chest. Beyond the truck he could see the black and white sign of the Cock ‘n Bull restaurant ahead on the left, and closer on the right was the Frascati Grill. The man in the sweatshirt and baseball cap was standing on the sidewalk out in front of it, as he had been in each of these flashbacks, watching him drive past. This time Breuer effortfully lifted a hand from the wheel to wave, and the man waved back.

“Concentrate,” said Harris, who was standing behind his chair in the studio.

“Shut up!—and let me drive here.”

But, whether because he had waved at the man or because Harris had spoken, the view of Sunset Boulevard flickered; Breuer tried to focus on the cement-caked discharge hopper of the receding truck, but it all folded away, and he was staring at the tight circular lines on the wall four feet away and sitting on the hard surface of the plastic chair again, and the smells of vodka and cigarettes were gone, faintly replaced, once again, by his personal default smell of gasoline.

He still felt his old body clearly enough to brace his hands on his knees as he stood up.

“Hey!” said Harris.

“I fell out again, this time just before the Cock ‘n Bull.”

“Cement truck still in the lane ahead of you?”

Breuer nodded tiredly. “Right place, right minute. Next time don’t talk to me while I’m in it.”

His alertness was fading, and the accidental rhyme of minute with in it stuttered in his consciousness, shaking his frail thoughts to fragments.

Harris pressed his lips together under his gray moustache, but nodded. “We’re trying to save your life here.”

“Here? What?”

“Damn it, I said We’re trying to save your life.”

“Oh. Yes. Save my life.” Breuer was forcing himself to pay attention. “As a side-effect, anyway.”

“An effect, nevertheless.”

“I still die, though—before you were even born.”

“Well what do you want? You’d be what, a hundred something today?”

“It’s 2014 now?” Breuer’s ectoplasmic form shivered. “I’d be . . . a hundred and seven.”

“And if you can just get past the crash in this blackout, you’ll live to 1978. You’ll have lived to seventy-one. That’s plenty for anybody, especially . . .” He waved it away and turned to lean over the microphone. “Derailed again,” he said. “We’ll try it again in five.”

Breuer mentally supplied the end of Harris’ unfinished sentence: Especially an alcoholic who didn’t have sense enough to wear a seatbelt and never should have got a driver’s license in the first place.

“Side effect,” he muttered, recalling that it had seemed to be a relevant remark recently.

Harris sighed. “Go get your refreshments.”

Breuer nodded vaguely and moved toward the open door of the break room in the south wall, consciously swinging his insubstantial legs back and forth beneath him.

Unless he concentrated on having a pair of eyes, his view was in all directions, and as he looked ahead at the treats laid out on the desk in the break room he was also aware of the plexiglas cube in the far corner, in which the scorched and broken steering wheel of his 1962 Dodge Dart hung on some special kind of wires in a nitrogen atmosphere under a strobing black light. It was his anchor, Harris said, the object that had killed him.

Good thing I wasn’t propelled through the windshield, Breuer thought; they’d have had to get at least the back end of that cement truck in here.

But outside of the flashbacks his dispersed vision was almost totally black-and-white. Only in the moire patterns of the tight circles on the north wall was he still capable of seeing colors, and those were an optical illusion.

He paused in the doorway, staring at the broken Hershey bars and the cigarettes on the desk, all at once completely unaware of where he was. The old drunk’s reflexes came back to him—act like you know what’s going on, give vague and cheerful answers to any questions, and watch for clues to why you’re here and what day it is. His clothes would be a clue—suit and tie, jeans and a sweatshirt?—but when he looked down at himself he saw the carelessly imagined and hardly separate trousers and shirt that didn’t hide his insubstantial body, and recent memories fitfully resurfaced, like images on a film negative in a pan of metol and hydroquinone.

That’s right, I died, he thought; I’m a, a ghost, and these people—Harris and . . . others, have conjured me up from my wrecked Dodge. They want me to go back and drive it again. Actions I took in alcoholic blackouts are dice still tumbling, according to Harris—fields of uncollapsed probability!—and so he wants me to go back to that blank interval in 1964 and do something besides die when I died.

He focused his sight on the far wall of the studio, the million concentric circles blurred to a uselessly gray disk from this distance, and for a moment he started to drift toward it, impelled to sink through the moire flickers into a flashback and experience colors and textures and continuity of thought once more; but he could also see the chocolate and the cigarettes. And they were closer.

The studio was a big room, three of its walls panelled with bumpy tinfoil and with only a few chairs and trestle tables on the wide cement floor, and bright lights were hung from the high ceiling; the break room was smaller, and clearly meant to be more hospitable—a couch, a cork bulletin board on one wall, an old oak desk, several padded chairs. Probably it was warmer too, but Breuer wasn’t able to tell.

His attention was focused on the desk. The chocolate pieces had all been bitten by somebody already, and the cigarettes had all been lit and then stubbed out—in his present state Breuer needed somebody to visibly have started such things for him.

The cigarettes and the chocolate fragments were light enough for his virtual fingers to lift, if he kept his mind wholly on the task. It involved forgetting his situation again, but he experienced a minimal sort of contentment masticating the toothmarked chocolate and imagining that he could puff visible smoke from one of the cigarettes.

After a minute, though, they fell through his hands, and he was emptily looking at the break room in all directions. On one wall various bits of paper had been tacked to the bulletin board, and several of them snagged his memory and drew his cloudy attention.

There was a red and gold matchbook from Chasen’s, and he remembered chili con carne and Ballantine’s scotch whisky, and the red leather booth in which he had asked Margaret to marry him, in . . . 1958. To some extent he could remember Margaret too—dark hair, red lipstick . . . nobody else in the memory, they had never had any children. That guy, Harris, had called this collection of stuff a clarification aid. And here was a picture of himself—from a driver’s license, passport, employee of the month poster?—light-colored hair, a lean face, faint self-deprecating grin. Amiable but not forceful.

Below it were a couple of photographs of buildings, and he had the idea that he had been the photographer.

And there were copies, and even some originals, of grade-school report cards; he seemed to have been a Bs and Cs sort of student. And there was a library card from 1918; he looked at his eleven-year-old self’s signature, and wondered if his mature signature had differed much.

Behind him he saw Harris striding toward the break room, and so Breuer had turned to face him by the time the man stepped through the door.

Harris looked at the chocolate bits and the cigarette on the floor. “Are you . . . restored? Ready to try it again?”

Breuer had no idea who the man was or what he was talking about. “Oh, sure!” he said. “Bright eyed and horny toad.”


“What?” echoed Breuer.

Harris made an impatient sound with his teeth and absently picked up one of the cigarettes from the desk. “If you can’t do it, you know, we drop you. We’ll take your steering wheel out of that case and throw it in the trash, and you’ll just wink out of existence here. We can’t maintain this facility indefinitely, and if she never became a senator we can still work with the situation we’ve got.” He stared at Breuer. “And you can go ahead and die at fifty-seven instead of seventy-one.” Harris looked around, but there were no matches or lighters in the room, and he threw the cigarette back onto the desk.

That’s right, thought Breuer, I died, but I could have more years to live—whatever the difference is between fifty-seven and seventy-one; a lot, probably.

And they want me to . . . not rear-end the cement truck this time, to drive up onto the sidewalk and run over a mailbox instead. Not die. Yes, Harris already told me this—some woman who was going to run for the Senate met a guy while they were watching me burn up in my car in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, and they went and had drinks afterward to stop the shakes, and they wound up engaged and she withdrew from the race. Somebody had fixed the election, but I screwed it up by giving her and this guy a spectacle to go away and talk about together. But if I drive up onto the sidewalk, Harris says, I’ll block them from even seeing each other. They’ll walk away separately.

“We really are willing to just snuff you right now,” Harris went on. “We did it to another guy, in this project—another damn drunk that was walking along Sunset in a blackout on that morning. He was too dumb to do what we asked, so we threw away his anchor, and his—briefly reawakened—ghost disappeared from 2014.”

“Did he die on that day too? In 1964?”

Harris blinked at him, evidently surprised that he was paying attention. “No. This was before we were able to locate your car, the remains of it, in a closed-down wrecking yard in Long Beach. Before we found you, our best hope was this guy Nelson. We gave him a couple of horserace winners for the following month and told him to write them down after he made sure the man and woman didn’t meet—you remember me telling you about them?”

“Sure,” said Breuer airily. “She was supposed to win a rigged election for the Senate, but she went and had drinks with a guy instead.”

Harris managed to smile. “There’s hope for you yet. But Nelson didn’t manage to stop them from meeting and going away together. He was hospitalized later that day, is how we knew about his blackout. I don’t know if he placed the bets or not. He did die of cirrhosis only a few years later, though, dead broke. We told him to write that down, too, but if he did, it didn’t change anything.” Harris ran his hands through his close-cropped gray hair. “You dead guys are frustrating.”

“I’m sure you’ll be the same way,” said Breuer.

Harris frowned and started to say something, then just shook his head. “I’m not going to leave any anchors,” he said.

Breuer waved toward the bulletin board. “Maybe nobody will want to call you back anyway.”

“Is it such a treat?” Harris seemed unreasonably angry. “You get to gum the candy bars, suck on the cigarettes?”

“I’m here.” Breuer shrugged.

Harris shook his head. “Fine. And as long as you’re here, do you want to try it one more time?”

Whoever this guy is and whatever he’s talking about, thought Breuer, agree. “Sure,” he said.

“Sunset Boulevard,” said Harris as Breuer sat down again in the chair in front of the wall with all the tight circles on it. “You’re in your old Dodge Dart—not that old, in fact, it’s a 1962 model. You start at Horn Avenue, and you’re moving west, toward the Cock ‘n’ Bull restaurant. You remember the way, right?”

“I remember.” Breuer was staring at the center point of the universe of circles, and vivid blue and purple moire patterns flickered in his peripheral vision. “I die right out in front of the place.”

“No,” came Harris’ anxious voice from behind him, “you swerve and go up the northside curb, hit the mailbox instead of the truck.”

“Right, right. Swerve. Mailbox. Senator. Now shut up.”

A patch of dazzling blue sprang out of the tight rings, above the center; and then he saw, opening out on either side of the pavement moving past under his car, the sunlit sidewalks and shops, the parking meters and palm trees and striped awnings, of Sunset Boulevard. He watched it all hungrily, with the perspective of a man brought back from the dead. His hands gripped the steering wheel as he inhaled the vivid smells of vodka and cigarettes, and his right shoe pressed the gas pedal and he hummed along with the rock and roll song.

As on his previous re-experiences of this time-segment, he noticed a heavy inertia to his motions—if he relaxed, he wasn’t aware of it and his body moved smoothly and with no sensation of impediment, but if he tried, for instance, to take his hand from the wheel and reach into his pocket, there was resistance, as if he were moving under water. He had concluded that the actions requiring particular effort were ones he had not done in that original blackout, and so he made a point now of twisting his head around as he drove, and flexing his hands on the wheel, so that he’d be ready to overcome the inertia and pull the wheel sharply to the right when the moment came.

He was sweating. It was particularly difficult to keep his right foot from pressing hard on the gas pedal; no wonder I rear-ended the cement truck on my original pass through this time, he thought. Damn fool.

On his first re-enactment he had decided to simply avoid the site of the alleged accident altogether, and turn right on Doheny, two blocks short of it; but as he had clicked the turn indicator and begun to make the right-angle turn, the sensation of moving under water had quickly become more like straining against hard rubber, and the Dodge had swerved only a few degrees before righting itself in the lane. Apparently there was some sort of law of conservation of reality at work. He was going to have to throw all his weight into missing the cement truck.

I suppose I’ll be arrested for drunk driving again, he thought as he watched the high windows of the Scandia restaurant pass on the left—and for wrecking a mail box—and maybe I’ll spend some time in jail for it and Margaret will be furious with me and maybe not pay my bail this time. But I’ll live fourteen more years.

And now he was crossing Doheny Drive, with Turner’s well-remembered liquor store on the corner. The next big street would be the leftward slant at Cory Avenue, but he wasn’t going to make it that far.

Ahead of him he could see the black and white sign for the Cock ‘n Bull, and he felt his heart begin to pound in his chest as his foot pushed on the accelerator to foolishly try to catch up with the truck; he glanced to his right, and there was the man in the sweatshirt and baseball cap out in front of the Frascati Grill, and Breuer started to raise his hand against the inertial resistance to wave to him again—but this time he met the man’s gaze.

And as the man’s eyes seemed to bore into him, Breuer saw the familiar flicker as his view of the street began to fold away and the song on the radio faded to silence, and he waited for the studio wall to replace it. The smells were gone, replaced by the usual faint aroma of gasoline.

“I fell out again,” he said unhappily; but he didn’t see the studio wall—and then his chest went cold and his pulse was thudding in his temples.

What he saw was twisted shapes in a red illumination; and a moment later he realized that it was a warped view of Sunset Boulevard. The nine-story City Bank building on the far side of Cory Avenue was bent out over the boulevard, and the telephone poles on this side curved across as if to meet it in the dark sky. The cars he could see were motionless, and looked like boats with upswept bows and sterns.

For several seconds he just stared, and in his mind was nothing but a wail of horror—I waited to long! I hit the truck, I’m dead!

But the silence was broken by a tapping from his right; and when he swung his head that way—against no resistance now—he saw the man in the sweatshirt standing beside the passenger door. When he caught Breuer’s eye, he smiled and opened the door.

“You’re obviously Breuer, re-doing your blackout,” he said, his voice sounding closely constricted in the stilled air. “Mind if I join you?” He was already sliding into the passenger seat.

Breuer opened his mouth, but couldn’t say anything. His heart was still racing.

“You’re the guy,” the stranger went on, “who’s supposed to crash your car; I mean, avoid crashing your car, this time. Jump the damn sidewalk! I was supposed to distract the guy from meeting the woman too, though less dramatically. I even had a plan—I was going to just punch him in the nose by surprise. They told me they’d try to get you up and running if I didn’t do it.”

He looked more closely at Breuer. “Hey, don’t look so scared! Did you think this,” he said, waving at the distorted buildings and cars in the red glow, “was death or something? It’s just the view half folded—it’s stuck ‘cause I intruded on you just now. I’m in the way, like I got my arm keeping an elevator door from closing all the way. When I step out of your picture, you’ll either be right back where you were—my guess is that you were headed straight for the back end of that cement mixer—or else you’ll be back in their damn studio. That’s what happens when you fall out of a session, you’re right back in that chair, ghost-stupid again, looking at all those circles on the wall.”

“I know,” Breuer managed to croak. “This isn’t my first attempt. I keep falling out.” He took a deep breath. “You’re . . . Nelson,” he added in a more normal tone.

“They told you about me, hey? Yeah, I decided not to do it, and I’m not even gonna bet on their alleged horseraces. The whole thing stinks. Why should I keep the girl from being born, just to make those yucks rich? Harder choice for you, though, I can see that.”

Breuer shook his head, looking out at the warped buildings and cars. “Girl from being born?”

“Maybe you’re supposed to run over the guy, or the woman,” said Nelson. “Is the rest of your life worth murder?”

“No, I’m just supposed to run over a mailbox! I’m not going to kill anybody! I’m just going to stop them meeting, so she doesn’t run for Congress.”

“Run for Congress? Nobody runs for Congress, at least not in the story they gave me. What I heard was that these two,” he said, waving at the curled sidewalk ahead, “meet and have a daughter, and the daughter patents some kind of router when she grows up, and Harris’ gang came up with the same gadget but a bit too late, didn’t get the patent. It’s worth a fortune, see. So—eliminate the daughter from the picture and there’s no contest, Harris gets the patent.”

“A . . . router.”

“Lots of stopped-up drains in L.A. in the future, I guess. No, that’s rooter—I guess they want to cut a lot of grooves in wood?” He shook his head. “They told you somebody was going to run for Congress, hey?”

Breuer nodded toward the twisted wall of Frascati’s. “The woman. That’s what Harris said.” The half-melted red-lit buildings looked ready to fall down. Harris changed the story for me, he thought. The couple will have a daughter, who will grow up, meet people, go places, do things. Or not. Or not.

“I guess,” Breuer said slowly, “after you didn’t do it, he decided it was too much to ask somebody—even a ghost!—to prevent a person from being born. From being conceived at all.”

He found that he was trying to picture the girl, but could imagine nothing but an empty patch of cork on Harris’ bulletin board.

“It’s pretty bad,” Nelson agreed. “Worse than murder, if you think about it. At least somebody you murder had a life.”

“But—but I’ll get fourteen more years of my life,” said Breuer, sounding petulant even to himself, “if I miss the truck and go up the curb.”

“Well I can’t really shed any tears for somebody that never existed,” said Nelson; “but I wouldn’t want to be the one to make ’em not exist, either.” He looked out the windshield at the molten view. “Awful sight, ain’t it? Can’t blame you for thinking it was death.” He swung one leg out of the car. “Nice meeting a fellow blackout drunk—but I’m apparently due to pass out on the sidewalk and get taken to a hospital. Can’t keep ’em waiting. If you do happen to go through with the original event, I’ll find ’em one day and tell ’em they owe you.”

Nelson got out of the car and slammed the door, then strode back over the bent pavement to the sidewalk, turned, and waved.

And as he waved, sunlight flared in the blue sky and in glare on gleaming symmetical car bodies and vertical white walls of buildings, and Breuer was slammed back against the seat by sudden acceleration. The traffic light at Cory Avenue switched to yellow, but the cement truck was apparently aiming to catch the tail end of the yellow light, and the inertial heaviness in Breuer’s right foot indicated the intention to follow it.

He could still yank the wheel to the side—he could now even see the blue-and-red mailbox on the sidewalk to the right.

The bright clarity of the shop windows and the green leaves on the curbside trees, the tactile reality of the very steering wheel and the dusty dashboard in front of him, were alien to his new perspective, and made him suddenly ashamed. I don’t belong here any longer, he thought—I’m a ghost, whether I die today or in 1978—and how can I take those fourteen useless years now, at the expense of a baby being conceived and born, of somebody’s real life . . .

He let his foot stay heavy on the gas pedal, even when the truck driver apparently changed his mind and hit the brakes, the truck screeching to a halt just short of the Cory Avenue intersection.

Breuer remembered Nelson saying, If you do happen to go through with the original event, I’ll tell ’em they owe you.

Tell her, was Breuer’s last thought, and then there was just the stunning crash and the always-waiting smell of gasoline.


This is another story deriving from my wish that the past was accessible to us! Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” You sure can’t get there from here, though. I wish I could walk down Sunset Boulevard in 1964, or ‘44 or ‘34. I can see them in movies, they obviously exist!

And alcoholic blackouts are a mysterious state. Who’s minding the store, where are you? And are you really firmly locked into sequential time? (This is fictional speculation only, don’t try it for real!)

Back | Next