Fiction,  Issue 6

The Happy Idiot by Robert Pope

In 1952, my father invented a functional time machine, but in order to fund completion he had been embezzling from his employer for several years. He worked for a Professor Stark at the university who had brought in a sizeable National Science Foundation grant for experiments unrelated to time travel. Stark had little in the way of fiscal intelligence, but when he discovered Dad had stolen away with a quarter of his grant, never to be recovered, he promptly called in the police. Long story short, Dad spent the next few years of his life in prison lamenting to me or any prisoner who would listen of the loss to the scientific community of its grandest invention since the atom bomb.

I had none of his scientific leanings at ten years old, but I listened with as much attention as I could possibly extend until his death in 1955, at which time he perished at the skilled hands of the schizophrenic murderer who mistook his rantings for the insults and threats of his personal demon. At thirteen, I had already begun to go my own way, knowing I would never comprehend the unusual booth-capsule contraption he had hidden in a large compartment behind the clothes closet in his bedroom, though I visited it frequently, keeping it well-oiled and dust-free as per his instructions. 

My extravagant mother paid little attention to his or my comings and goings, or to the expensive contraption behind Daddy’s closet. She had made quite a name for herself as a painter of seashores, nudes, and other fancies, occasionally teaching art classes at the university that had played such an important part in the history of our family. She did take me to visit Dad regularly before his death, after which she left me alone for long periods of time to find settings for her art in the company of a neurotic but freewheeling sculptor whose name has become legend. Rather than attend the college my ancestors had founded, I fell under the influence of a well-known if peculiar science fiction writer living on the edge of the college community. 

Directing my own experiments with hallucinogens, Philip also engendered in me a strong desire to write science fiction novels of my own. At this period, I began to revisit the mysterious (to me) machine left to rot in father’s bedroom closet. Mother wrote me fond letters from various locations around the globe, encouraging me to sell the damn house and join them on their artistic journeys, a prospect which held no interest for my psychedelically altered brain.

When I told Philip about the machine behind the closet, he encouraged me to crank it up and voyage to the past to write novels making accurate prediction of the future in which we now lived, or voyage to the future to return with the like predictions. Thus, my name in science fiction would be made, he proclaimed, if only I could get the contraption fired up and shuttling back and forth from past to future. Alas, I had not the wherewithal to accomplish the task until that fateful day in 1993 that changed my life forever.

I have not mentioned the fact that I had married and now lived with an erstwhile hippy who spent her days arguing philosophy and politics with the local comrades. Having lost interest in me, as I in her, we nevertheless brought into the world a man-child who took up residence in my father’s old bedroom, reading through his copious journals and developing his grandfather’s interest in the world of science in general and time travel in particular. I lost track of him as my career as a novelist took over. Philip had died of insomnia in a mental institution by this time, so I was on my own.

I had not kept up with my son George, but I heard from someone he had taken Professor Stark’s chair at the university, coming and going through the family home as he pleased and in which he had managed to grow up, also as he pleased. My science fiction series had been called archaic, dated, and fusty more than once, but I persisted with the same zeal with which my father had pursued his interests. In fact, I moved into the attic study completely by this time, coming out only to bring in food or mail manuscripts. I believe my mother died in Italy, of consumption, of all things archaic. I literally had no idea where George had gotten to until one day, in my sixtieth year, I heard a rattling commotion from what had been my father’s bedroom. When I poked my head in, there was George, just then stepping out of my father’s closet. 

“Hello, Dad,” he said. “I’ve been off visiting the future.”

“Is that so?” I remarked. 

At the time, George was a young man in his early thirties, I should guess, and he told me that he had refined and developed Dad’s time machine, had gotten it whirring again, to visit the past and future, which he promised held many surprises. At this point, I had a memory of my old friend and mentor’s hopes for me, that I would one day travel back and forth in time, writing the novels that predicted the future to those in the past, and thus preparing mankind for what was yet to come. He always counseled me this would be my making. At present, I had absolutely no idea what shape my name had taken in the world, but curiosity had been piqued by my son, George.

So, while George was off teaching classes at the university, I wandered into Dad’s room and found my way to the compartment behind the closet, where I found that the contraption now looked like nothing so much as an old phone booth. I stepped in, drew the accordion doors, and set the dial for June of 1952, two months before Dad’s arrest. In no time, I found myself looking into my father’s eyes. I should add much startled eyes, for the time machine had altered before them and an older gentleman in glasses stood peering from inside, calling him Dad.

“Dad,” I said to this young man of forty-two, “it’s me, Larry, from 1993. I have some rather good news and some rather bad news.” 

Dad kept staring at me until at last he said, “1993?”

“Even so,” I told him. 

“What is the good news, then?”

“Your time machine has been refined and updated by your grandson George.”

“My grandson, George?””

“Whom you have never met,” I added.

He took this in for several minutes, asking pointed questions until he ascertained that I was, indeed, his aging son Larry. “And what is your bad news?” he finally asked. “Is there any future to which we might look forward?”

“That’s for you to discover, I suppose.” I stroked my beard a moment, thinking how to phrase what I had to tell him. “Dad, this may be a bit to take in all at once, but I know that you have been embezzling from Professor Stark, something he will discover in the next month or so, at which time you will be arrested and sent to jail where you will be murdered by an inmate who believes you to be the devil.”

Clearly, his head was spinning. He held it with both hands to keep himself erect. His face now glowed a fiery crimson, and I feared he might suffer some catastrophic health crisis if I did not find a way to ease his mind as swiftly as possible. 

“Dad,” I said, “there is a great hope in all of this.”

“A great hope?”

“If you step into the booth and set the dial for 1993, you will meet your thirty-three-year old grandson George, with whom you share many interests, not least among them methods and purposes of time travel. At the same time, you will escape the fate that awaits you here in 1952.”

“Will you come with me?” he asked, and here he gripped my arms firmly.

“There is only room for one in the capsule. I shall remain here, living in this house, writing the only accurate predictions of the future before us as we approach the new century.”

“Your mother will be pleased to see you again,” he said. He shook my hand and hurried into the capsule, which shuddered for a moment before it disappeared into the future from which I had so recently come. As soon as I saw him off, I ran to inspect my own childhood bedroom to find a lad of ten sitting on the floor at play with a toy train on a complicated track that, more or less, ran back on itself once it passed through a station house on the other side of my bedroom. 

The boy looked up with the blankest of expressions for perhaps a full minute before his forehead clouded. “Who ae you?”  he demanded. “And what are you doing here?”

I thought a moment, licking my lips, before I confessed that his father had been called away on urgent business, and I, his grandfather, had been asked to watch over and care for him in the meantime. Bright boy that he was, he protested he had been told I was killed in the first world war.  “Not so,” I insisted. “I was gravely wounded, and until this past March had no idea who I was. Once memory returned, of course, I contacted your father to let him know I would return. As soon as I arrived, he was called away, and here I am, such as I am.”

“All right, then,” he said, “I just bought this train with my own allowance, and I wonder if you can help me get it running properly.”

“I certainly can,” I told him. “I have a train exactly like this one stashed in a trunk in that other country which we shall henceforth know as France.”

I kneeled beside him, but even as we began to play, I knew that I had no memory of this moment of my childhood. I had made a royal mess of things, if I guessed right, for had I been raised by my deceased grandfather, I could not have been the boy who visited my forlorn father in prison. But, what choice did I have except to make the best of things as I found them? 

The police arrived on schedule the following month, and I feigned senescence, claiming to be my own grandfather, something to which my grandson Larry could attest. Our mother was off at some resort or other, I explained, painting another pretty picture to keep us all in sausages. I reported that I had no idea to what exotic land my delinquent son had absconded—perhaps the land where the future is the past and the past the future, for all I knew. 

One or another policeman or detective hung about the place a few weeks until they lost interest, at which time I contacted my former mentor, Philip, now a young man, and began to instruct him in medicines and meditations that would invite benevolent sleep, though nothing cheered him half so well as the news that young writers of the future look back on his work as seminal, a wellspring of their creative fountain, though he surpassed them in every conceivable way. He did not mind that many would think him insane, so long as they read his work.

For my part, I delighted in spending my latter years among fellow writers in the heyday of science fiction, the decades of the 1950s and early sixties. Though I experience some troubled moments when I worry that my own son and father might have ceased to exist, I am thought of as the happy idiot, after my moderately successful novel of that title, now in its second printing. The book will no doubt take on a much larger significance once it is discovered I have accurately predicted many of the eventualities that will have come to pass before I died.  


Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack’s Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International, and anthologies, including Pushcart Prize and Dark Lane Anthology.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *