The Hill Valley Project: Backstory to the Future

Collected Oral Histories from “A Nice Place to Live”

Adam Ruben
Jun 7, 2014 · 9 min read

You have to understand Cousin Marvin. He means well, but no matter how little he’s actually accomplished, he always thinks he’s solved your problem for you.

Take last Thursday. I’m sitting at home, messing around with a few bars of “Ida Red,” when the phone rings.

“Hello?” I say.

“Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin!”

Freaking great.

Then he mistakes my reluctant silence for confusion and decides to clarify: “Your cousin, Marvin Berry.

Yes, Marvin. I know who you are. How many Marvins do you think I know? It’s 1955, for crying out loud. I probably know fewer than a hundred people, and you’re the only Marvin—not to mention the only person, period, who’d call me at home this early on a Thursday morning.

“You know those new shoes you’re lookin’ for?” belts Marvin gleefully. “Well, wait ‘til you see these!”

Shoot. I’d told him—big mistake—that I needed new shoes. It was just something to say, a way to fill the silence in our conversation at the last family picnic. I could just as easily have said, “It’s getting cold out,” or “How do you like Mayor Red Thomas’s chances in November?” But no, I had to say I needed new shoes.

And what was he going to do, show me the shoes over the phone? I know how to find shoes, Marvin. It’s called a shoe store. I appreciate that you’re thinking of me, but Marvin, sometimes you need to worry about Marvin.

I mean, it’s flattering, I’ll say that much. I know the guy idolizes me. Don’t tell him this, but I suspect that’s why he went into music—wanted to be a guitarist like his cousin Chuck.

Honestly, though, he’s not great. And I’m not just saying that because I’m working the Cosmopolitan Club in St. Louis while he’s headlining the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance in Hill Valley. It seems that every gig, just before the show starts, he finds some excuse—a broken guitar string, some little hand injury—to put down the guitar and sing instead. Frankly, I’ve never seen proof he can even do both at the same time.

His band mates—the Starlighters—humor him, which is great. They’re all friends, and they drive to gigs together, and they hot box his Chevy during breaks. They even forgive his rampant forgetfulness—like the time he left his car keys in his trunk. In his trunk! Who does that?

So it’s a Saturday night. Gig night. I’m playing the Cosmopolitan, trying out a new song called “Maybellene,” when my manager Teddy interrupts me on stage.

“Chuck!” he says, looking annoyed. “Phone for you!”

Instantly I start wondering what’s wrong. Who would track me down on a Saturday night and call in the middle of a gig? Did someone die? Was it Uncle Harry?

“Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin!”

Oh Jesus.

“Your cousin, Marvin Berry!”

“Hi Marvin,” I say, trying to hide my annoyance.

“You know that new sound you’re lookin’ for?”

“Marvin, it’s not a good time—”

“Well, listen to this!”

At this point, I think Marvin is pointing the phone toward his band, because I recognize the baritone sax. Great, Marvin. You wanted me to hear your band.

I’ll admit I had told him I was looking for a new sound. But I’d meant, you know, a sound. Like a hundred ping-pong balls dropping in a bathtub, or a duck’s quack played backwards. Not a whole song. What am I going to do, plagiarize it?

This time, though, there’s something different. Marvin has clearly found an excuse not to play the guitar again, because the guitarist sounds nothing like Marvin. In fact, he sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before. I can’t quite hear the lyrics—Marvin must just be holding up the phone backstage—but it’s something about a country boy named Jimmy or Jerry.

It’s interesting. It’s new. It’s fresh.

But you have to understand what would happen if I let Marvin know I’m impressed. He’d be calling all the time—“Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin! Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that stick of gum you’re lookin’ for?” I couldn’t take it.

So I decide I’ll keep this song in the back of my mind, maybe fiddle with it for two or three years, and if no one else releases it as a single, I’ll take a chance and call it mine. For now, though, I just need to get Marvin off my back.

“Marvin, it’s Chuck,” I say. “Your cousin, Chuck Berry. Listen, man, you need to stop calling me. I know you’re excited about having a white guitarist, but this isn’t a new sound. It’s just the blues riff in B.”

—Chuck Berry, singer/songwriter/guitarist

I’m not a spiritual person. Hell, I’m not a person.

But I’ve always firmly believed that every minute is precious. Every minute brings with it the dreams of possibility, the wonders of the world around us, the awe and beauty and glory of living.

Which is why I’m not thrilled about skipping over one minute in time.

Don’t get me wrong. I like Doc Brown. But—how should I put this—I’m not exactly his top priority.

Take the automatic dog feeder. A nice idea, sure, but if you think about it, what’s its purpose? Less interaction, that’s what. Less Einstein-Doc Brown time. Less bonding over bowls of Kal Kan, more time he can spend tinkering with mind-reading devices and huge guitar amps.

Something smells like hamsters. I will be back.

I am back.

I’ll admit I was foolishly eager when Doc Brown woke me up that night. (Then again, “foolishly eager” is a dog’s mental state 80% of the time. What dog isn’t excited when his owner asks if he wants to run around a mall parking lot at 1:00 AM?)

For Doc Brown’s sake, let’s be precise. It wasn’t 1:00 AM. It was 1:20 AM, a time I’ll never experience because I freaking skipped it.

“Let’s go to the mall, Einstein!” Sure. “Put this stopwatch around your neck, Einstein.” Gladly. “Get in the DeLorean, Einstein!” Okay, neat. Wait—no pet carrier? I can sit in the driver’s seat? I can wear a seat belt? Which I need because…


Then the door shuts, the car accelerates, I can’t even stick my head out the window—which is torture right there—and something starts, for lack of a better word, fluxing. I experience a cold I can only describe as “air cold.” And the next thing I know, Doc Brown is saying that I skipped over 1:20 AM to arrive at 1:21 AM.

Gone. A full minute, gone. Negligence has reached pathological levels: Doc Brown can now reduce my lifespan by carefully measured amounts. Every minute is precious, and now I have one fewer minute in mine. Someday, maybe in an alternate universe, I’ll see that man in jail.

One minute in dog time is seven human minutes. Just thought I’d point that out.

This is what I mean about Doc Brown’s priorities: Before me, he had a dog named Copernicus. You know how some people have a dog for fifteen years, and the dog dies, and they’re devastated, so they buy a new dog that looks exactly the same? That’s not healthy. The new dog has to live up to an unreasonable standard—doubly so if that dog is named Einstein. Setting the bar a little high, aren’t we, Doc?

Hmm. I guess, technically, I didn’t lose any time. I traveled ahead in time, so even though I never saw 1:20 AM, I’ve really just moved forward in time, not compressed time. Is that right?

Bah. I don’t know. I’ve always had problems thinking fourth-dimensionally. Then again, I can’t even see color.

—Einstein C. Brown, Polish Lowland Sheepdog/Briard Mix

It’s simple economics. Supply and demand. What I don’t have is a bomb. What I do have is plutonium.

Oy, do I have plutonium. Plutonium coming out the ears. Plutonium this, plutonium that. You know what I’m saying? I’m saying I have a lot of plutonium.

I won’t even begin to think about where it all came from. You know what it reminds me of? One of those girls who can’t find a husband, so she buys a cat, and everyone is all like, “That’s right, you don’t need a man! You’re fierce and independent like the cat!” And then one day she’s 45, and the cat has become two dozen cats, and even she can’t tell you where they all came from, and every sweatshirt is covered in fur, and no one wants to visit her apartment.

I’m that way with plutonium.

After a while, I stopped keeping track of who brought it. Maybe dinner party guests? “Ahmed,” they’d say, “what a lovely home! Here, I brought plutonium.” And what am I going to say—no thanks, I already have more than I need? That’s just impolite.

Or it would arrive gift-wrapped in cellophane, alongside a box of almond fudge and a tin of spreadable cheese from Hickory Farms. “Congratulations on your recent promotion!” I’d read aloud from the little card to my wife. “Please enjoy this basket of—” and then she’d say, “Let me guess.” We’d roll our eyes and intone in unison, “plutonium.”

Sometimes I feel like plutonium must be available in every corner drugstore.

One day, I’m staring off into Clayton Ravine, wondering what to do about my plutonium problem, which at this point has become critical. (In fact, supercritical.) Suddenly it occurs to me that I’ve been looking at this all wrong. The plutonium isn’t a curse—it’s a blessing! I may not have a use for it, but I’ll bet someone else does. In fact, some people would kill to have this much plutonium!

Supply and demand.

What happens next can only be described as kismet. I’m at a pool party, and my buddy Dave from work says, “Hey, Ahmed, I’d like to you meet Emmett. Emmett is a scientist.”

I don’t believe him at first, because Emmett can’t tell me what kind of scientist he is. (A “student of all sciences”? Come on, Emmett. That’s not a thing.) But soon he starts to loosen up, and he’s telling me his troubles. Actually, one trouble in particular. And you won’t believe what it is: Emmett needs plutonium.

Oh yeah, there’s one other thing I should mention. I’m a huge fan of Libyan nationalism. Huge. Like, my favorite Senussi leader is Omar Mukhtar. And the Aouzou Strip? Forget about it. It’s kind of my thing that I’m into. Some guys play mini golf on the weekends, some build model clipper ships from plastic spoons. Me, I’m a Libyan nationalist.

The rest is, as I said, simple economics. Emmett gets his plutonium, and I get my half my garage back. Oh, and a bomb. That was part of the deal. I’ve always wanted a bomb, because bombs can accomplish a lot for Libyan nationalism, like blowing things up that get in the way of Libyan nationalism.

Hoping to impress my friends, I bring the bomb to the Hill Valley Libyan Nationalists’ Pancake Supper.

“Open it! Open it!” they all cry, faces lighting up like they’ve just won an irredentist war with Chad. So I open it.

And what’s inside? Not an implosion assembly. Not even a fissile sparkplug. Stunned, I read the strange markings aloud.

“Captive Hole When Flashing? Bank Completed Scores Special? Bonus Multiplier 5X?”

Well, son of a bitch. Instead of a nuclear weapon, Emmett gave me an empty bomb casing filled with used pinball machine parts.

That, in economic terms, is what’s called bait-and-switch. And unfortunately for Emmett, my friends feel strongly about consumer protection.

I suggested lodging a complaint with the Better Business Bureau, but in the end, we decided to shoot Emmett repeatedly and exclusively in the chest with an automatic firearm. It wasn’t my first choice of action, but you know, with some of these schiesters, you need to be forceful. It’s the same way I got a refund when they left the pickles off my sandwich at Arby’s.

The rest of the story is fairly unremarkable. We chase a DeLorean in our Volkswagen, I pull out a rocket launcher, the DeLorean disappears, and we crash into a Fox Photo booth. At this point, Emmett and his companion—oh yeah, Emmett survived—assume we’re dead and share a lovely moment of friendship, there on the pavement under the iridescent parking lot lights.

I suppose I could have registered my displeasure right then. Just walked out of the wreckage and told Emmett, “Hey, man, not cool. Not cool.” Swapped my phony bomb for the plutonium and called it a night. But you know what? I have plenty of damn plutonium.

I decided to let them have their moment. Besides, some of those used pinball machine parts weren’t so bad. I used them to rebuild a 1981 Gottlieb Black Hole, and I even got multiball a couple of times.

—Ahmed Al-Zemeckis, Libyan nationalist

    Adam Ruben

    Written by

    Writer, comedian, storyteller, and molecular biologist.