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Time in a Bottle

by Ricky Ginsburg

It wasn’t the death threats, the late night callers, or the haggard businessmen banging on his windows that turned Walter Dingwhittle’s life into a carnival sideshow. No, it was the jagged lightning bolt of fame that pierced his simple world and shoved the aged researcher into the glare of its light.

From years of tireless investigation, days that began and ended in the dark and then, finally, success, the gold ring on the merry-go-round was his to take. Yet it was his discovery of time-capture that tarnished the ring and pushed his marriage to the edge of the bottomless crevasse.

From his first appearance on the front page of the International Tattler to his last interview, just hours ago on Larry Queen Live — the cross-dressing successor to CNN’s late-night host — Walter never thought the drizzle of publicity would become such a torrential downpour.

Laying out what little of the basics of his process he could with a government lawyer at his side, Walter held a beer-bottle shaped container of time in his hand and used it as a pointer during the interview, twice slamming it on the host’s desk to emphasize his disdain.

“Women, barely old enough to be my granddaughters, throwin’ themselves at my feet just now as I got out of the damn limousine.”

“Don’t you just love it?” Larry rushed a hand to cover his mouth as he sighed, “Isn’t that every man’s dream?”

Walter pounded the purple bottle, ten minute’s worth of captured time, into the palm of his hand, shaking his head. His normally soft Southern drawl was now punctuated with thunderous shouts. “If I was single, hell, yes. But I’m married thirty-seven years. Got three grown children, seven grandchildren, and peace of mind.” He turned and nodded toward the lawyer. “You know what a divorce costs these days. Am I right or am I right?”

“But, sweetie, I just don’t get the connection here.” Larry reached over and touched Walter’s hand. “Why you? I mean, the women, what do they see in you?”

Pushing back from the pink marble desk, Walter shrugged. “It ain’t me, it’s the damn time.” He put the bottle in his lap, the top facing down toward his crotch, and then quickly turned it upright. “What female wouldn’t want an extra few minutes for lovemaking? Or how about an extra hour to shop?”

Walter looked past the camera to Spanky, his wife, and winked. “And then there’s the dumb ones that think this stuff will turn back time.” He shook his head slowly back and forth once. “This ain’t no H. G. goddamn Wells time machine. This is ten minutes of spare time. I open this up and I can make this go on ten minutes longer... if I was so inclined.”

Leaning in close to the host, Walter smiled. “Women tell me they open a five-minute bottle just at the moment of supreme pleasure and it can make an afternoon of lovin’ seem like it was the whole weekend.” Another wink toward Spanky, who was now blushing as bright as he was.

“Can you really? I mean, is that really time in the bottle or just Viagra as a gas?” Larry’s mouth and eyes opened wide. “Ooh, now there’s an invention that someone should patent.”

Throughout the thirty-minute interview, the new Queen of late night television had alternated between probing into Walter and Spanky’s sex life and trying to pry the secret of time-capture from the balding scientist. Each question led to either a blushing, “Aw shucks” or a whispered conference between Walter and the short arm of Uncle Sam.

Riding in the limo on the way home from the television station with Spanky, Walter declared that he was amazed at how many different ways he could say, “Ah, I cain’t tell you that, Larry.”

Spanky, who ducked and covered every time a camera swung in her direction, only made one comment on live television. When Larry asked what she would do with all the time in the world, Spanky snorted and said, “Give it away for free so all these whores will leave us alone.”

The bulk of what Walter could reveal in the interview consisted of the story of his massive holdings, which placed him fifth on the list of wealthiest people in the world. Bill Gates, who formerly held that rank, but whose only link to life had been an extension cord running his respirator, expired several days before the interview, pushing Walter up another notch. However, it was not before he bought a one-month bottle of time at a price rumored to be in excess of ten million dollars.

Even with the government’s fifty-percent share of the profits, Walter found himself in need of a fourth Swiss bank account to cover his take. However, the in-depth secrets of time capture, now co-owned by the Government of the United States and an overweight scientist with a passion for old cars, stayed locked in Walter’s head. As he explained it, just before they went to the final commercial break, “You can buy anything in this world if you have enough money. You jist have to find the time to figure out how much. Am I right or am I right?”

Of course, with the money came the beggars, the financial consultants, the fortune-tellers, and... the women.

Several days after the official White House announcement of Walter’s discovery and its verification by scientific teams at MIT, Harvard, and Annabelle’s soup kitchen around the corner from the seat of government, the sixty-eight year old researcher began receiving love letters. Spanky had opened several of the rose-tinted envelopes, especially the ones that smelled like a department store perfume counter, and read things she refused to listen to or watch in a movie theater.

One woman, from Illinois, described a series of sex acts that Walter swore were physically impossible, unless done in the zero gravity of outer space. Another offered to be his personal sex slave and promised her twin sister would handle Spanky. Most of the letters went into the recycle bin, but some of the funnier ones Walter posted on the corkboard outside his office.

A month after the revelation became public, Walter found himself in the drive-thru lane at Cookie’s, a local dessert shack that featured 101 variations on the ice-cream sandwich. He’d just placed his order for a chocolate-mocha-mint-pineapple surprise between graham cracker layers when the girl on the other end of the line realized who he was from a talk-radio interview. By the time Walter had reached the pickup window, the girl had removed her t-shirt and bra, and had written “Make Time For Me” in low-fat chocolate syrup across her breasts.

Then they starting showing up at his laboratory, claiming to be research assistants sent by a nearby community college. Four of them managed to get past a State Police officer and were naked by the time they reached Walter’s office. Unfortunately for them, one of the real scientists opened a five-minute bottle, slowing the girls down long enough for Security to handcuff, dress, and escort them out of the building.

Once the federal government took over protection for Walter and his underlings, the barrage of female suitors, gold-diggers, and high-priced hookers seemed to be under control. Of course, that lasted until the commando raids on the Dingwhittle homestead ensued.

The first parachute attack gave the President the excuse he was waiting for to put the National Guard in place. Both families on either side of Walter received payment for their homes at triple the highest comparable sales of the last year; one house was then taken over by the FBI and the other by the CIA. The Kaumans, to their left, had never been friendly in the few years they’d lived there, but the Crabblys had not only been close with Walter and Spanky but had attended all of the Dingwhittle children’s weddings and grandchildren’s christenings. Spanky cried herself to sleep for a week before coming to terms with the loss of their best friends.

Walter’s drive to work turned into a four-wheeled skirmish between him and those who wanted more time but couldn’t pay the price. The vintage Cadillac he’d repainted in his garage and polished until the candy-apple red finish gleamed in the dark, now had scrapes, dents, and scratches on every surface including the roof. He’d been cut off, rammed, jammed, and squeezed until the option of a government limousine with a driver and an armed guard was the only one still open for his daily commute.

However, Spanky, who loved to shop and stroll around the shopping mall with friends, was now a virtual prisoner in her own house. She’d made a trip to the craft store in need of yarn and a fresh set of clothing dyes. Hilda Crabbly had come into town for the weekend to see her old friend and had accompanied Spanky to the shop. Together they’d fended off several annoyances and were about to be seated in an Italian restaurant when a huge, muscular man resembling a TV wrestler walked up to them.

He hesitated for a moment, looking left and right as much as his lack of neck would allow, and throwing a menacing glare at anyone who caught his eye. Then, grabbing his t-shirt mid-chest with both hands, he ripped it open in one flawless motion. Both of his nipples had silver rings larger than a half-dollar through them.

Spanky gagged, but it wasn’t the rings that got her, in fact, one of her daughters had done the same thing, albeit on a much smaller scale. His abdomen, which could have been a cobblestone pathway if he had been lying on his back, had the words, “me want some time hunny” carved one on top of the other with a small pool of blood, a period for his sentence, dripping from his navel. Spanky ran for her car, leaving behind the yarn, clothing dye, and Hilda Crabbly.

With the lights of downtown Atlanta sparkling in the distance, the limousine slipped into traffic on the interstate. Walter turned and watched the city fade away from them. “Never liked that town.”

Spanky put a hand on his knee. “So that was the last one?”

“Maybe.” He shrugged. “Government thinks I should be more available for stuff like that. They say it helps sales.”

“Five hundred dollars a minute,” she whistled softly, “Gotta make it more affordable than that.”

“Free for you and me, though.”

Spanky shook her head. “No. That first time was enough to scare the hairs off my eyebrows. I don’t want no part of free time unless I find it sitting on a chair waiting for me.”

“Well, that don’t make a busload of sense.” Walter stretched his feet out and turned the air conditioning vent by his head closer to his neck. “I got all the free time in the world and you don’t want any part of it? Dang, there’s a thousand people livin’ within five miles of us that would drop their drawers in the middle of the highway for this little rascal.” Flipping the bottle up in the air in front of him, he missed the catch and five-thousand dollars of free time hit the carpeted floor and rolled under the seat.

The unmistakable hiss of its vacuum-sealed top popping open brought two words from Spanky’s lips that Walter hadn’t heard together from her mouth in thirty-seven years. “You shithead!”

Time-capture is a complex process that only Walter knew in detail. His notes, stored in an encrypted format on one hundred different computers that took at least four of six different passwords to access, start out by saying, “Free time is a commodity that can ONLY be used by a single person or at most three in a highly confined area.”

The proliferation of “time cabinets” — lush padded chambers large enough for a reclining lounge chair and a computer table — bore witness to serious “free-timers” at play. Isolation chambers, long rusted and caked with the dried salt solution used to float a person in pseudo non-gravity, resurfaced in private homes, posh country clubs, and a nail salon in Burbank, California that offered a free pedicure along with its ten-minute free time special.

Thus the backseat of a limousine, with the bulletproof partition between driver and passengers sealed, becomes an excellent chamber for two people to share a bottle of free time. Or, as in Spanky’s case, it turns into a small chamber of horror.

“You did that on purpose.”

“I missed. Geez, I’m sorry.”

Spanky shook as though a cold breeze had just chilled every bone in her body. “I hate this feeling. I think I’m gonna get sick.”

“It’ll be over in a few seconds. Relax and close your eyes.”

“Oh, you bastard. You know I don’t like this.”

Walter tried to put his arm around her shoulder, but Spanky pushed him away. “Just close your eyes for a few more seconds.”

“Walter, I think I’m gonna puke.” She choked, coughing up a small lump of something she didn’t want to swallow again and spit it out on the floor.

Outside their little sealed environment, everything had slowed to a stop, or at least that’s what appeared to have happened from Walter’s perspective. In reality, time had only stopped for Walter and Spanky; beyond the reach of the open bottle, all was moving along just fine without them.

“Open the window!” she shouted, tears filling her eyes.

“I can’t!” he shouted back at her, “they’re locked from up front.”

“Buzz them, Walter, God dammit!”

“They’ll hear it ten minutes from now, sweetheart.” He grabbed her hands and rubbed them between his. “It was an accident. I’m sorry.”

Spanky pulled away from him and scrunched herself into the corner of the seat. Breaths coming hard between each word, “No... no... no!”

“We’re in, Spanky, it’s free time.” He rolled up his sleeve and checked his watch. “Just don’t look out the windows and you’ll be fine.”

“There’s windows everywhere, you dolt!” Slapping her palm against the side window, Spanky kicked her feet up and down. “We’re moving and yet I can’t see us moving and I’m getting more and more nauseous and...”

“Stop it!” he shouted, “Just stop it, now!”

“You stop it! Or start it. Or, oh God, what are you doing to me?” With an anguished sob, as though something was crushing her soul, Spanky lurched from the seat and starting hitting Walter with her fists. “I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t, Walter!”

He let her pound away at him, until even her soft blows began to hurt, and then, as she tired and slumped over on the seat, the man who could bottle time realized that his had run out. When you put your most prized possession on the scale with all the free time anyone could ever ask for, the time became weightless and worthless. The fame that his discovery had brought him had come with a price too high for Walter to pay. He had everything and more, as long as he had Spanky. Without her, time was meaningless.

He’d call Annabelle at the soup kitchen when they got home and tell her to tell the President he was resigning from the program. They’d start packing tomorrow, give the house to the government, and move to Switzerland so he could be closer to his money, or to Mexico, where free time could be put to pleasant use. Walter put his glasses on and peered out the window at a billboard for Cookie’s Dessert Shack. He wondered if there was enough time to try all 101 flavors before they left.

Copyright © 2012 by Ricky Ginsburg

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