Erik Gundel (@EPGundel) investigates the life of "Old" Biff Tannen on a fall day in 2015.
Editor's Note: Erik Gundel did me a huge favor by tapping into our shared love of the the Back to the Future franchise and writing this piece, which he read at the Puddles of Myself Reading on September 7th, 2012. Erik wrote this piece in his spare time when he wasn't recording and releasing his latest single or playing and promoting his most recent album, the EP "A Home to Keep You." I encourage you to listen to both and try to see where themes from Back to The Future surface in his intricate music.
Biff Tannen hit the rehydrate button on his personal pizza and waited. His rehydrator was an older model, and it would take an eternal 12 seconds for his meal to be ready to eat. Biff acknowledged the passing of the second second, noting it as the time in which most modern rehydrators can prepare a pizza. By the third second, he was completely lost in thought; now, at the age of 78, his daydreams took hold of him frequently, swiftly and deeply. They awaited him like bandits, lurking in the dark corners of empty moments (of which there were many); they would find him as he watched TV, his screen engulfing him with the cacophony of six channels broadcasting simultaneously in a grid display. Sometimes he would just display one channel in an attempt at focus, but no matter what it was- the home shopping network, an important Hill Valley Spacers game, the atrocity channel-nothing ever provided mental solace.
Even in the middle of conversation, his mind would falter, only for a moment, and his face would go a grey shade of blank. Of course, his most frequent conversation partner was himself, his mutterings on sports and automobiles shrugged off by onlookers as just the outpourings of another senile old man. Fortunately, there was still a tenuous membrane separating his inner monologue from what he said out loud. For in the third second of his pizza being rehydrated, with a slight glance at the still-shriveled sausages on the microdisk of cheese and sauce, he was taken by one of his most frequent reverie tormentors: shit.
It was usually a wafting scent that triggered it- a refuse-cleaning robot floating by perhaps- and then he was lost in a fecal afterglow some sixty years old. He could still taste the manure that forced itself into his mouth when his car—his beautiful, precious 1946 Ford Super De Luxe—slammed into that manure truck. The funny thing was that before that moment, Biff had always associated manure with the happier times in his life. When his parents had been around, they had taken Sunday drives down the open stretches of farming roads in Hill Valley and its outskirts. He would see the farmers spreading the stinky brown dirt down the never-ending furrows, and though he would hold his nose and plead for his dad to roll up the window, eventually he accepted it as part of the day, as part of being outside with his family. He had held onto those memories tightly through the dark days that followed, and when he finally turned 18 and came into his inheritance money, he couldn’t think of anything he’d rather own than a Ford Super De Luxe. To say nothing of its fantastic motor and aesthetic beauty, it was the car he and his dad had coveted together. They shared a nod and a smile whenever they passed by the Ford dealership in town, whose black Super De Luxe was the shiniest thing Biff or his dad had ever seen. It beamed its heavenly reflections on all lesser vehicles lucky enough to drive by, bathing them in the light of something almost frighteningly perfect. And then it had been Biff’s. His grandmother’s protestations fell on deaf ears, and she had no legal right to tell him otherwise anyhow. He had bought it two days after his eighteenth birthday, and he drove it straight out of town, out onto the farming roads. It was March, and the fields were being tilled and fertilized for the upcoming growing season. Biff let the smell infiltrate his nostrils, then his entire being. He accelerated past 60, past 70, up to 85 miles per hour. Rolling the windows up was pointless, he was in a convertible—his own convertible—and the wind was drying up his tears as soon as they left their tiny origins in his eyes. He was crying tears of joy, and that earthy sweet stench of manure was a key ingredient to what would be the greatest day of his entire life.
The good days continued (as did his goodwill towards cow excrement) for a full eight months. He had three of the best friends any guy could hope for, and they slotted perfectly into his car for late night cruising sessions. He had an object of affection, Lorraine Baines, who he was sure would return his sentiments if given proper convincing; they came from different backgrounds, moved in different circles, and Biff was having a hard time speaking to her in a way that would make her understand that same thing any young man struggles to express for the first time- he was in love. All he needed was a little more time, maybe to the end of senior year, and he was sure Lorraine would willingly settle into the shotgun seat of his convertible so that they could drive away from Hill Valley together, for good. That was when Biff’s life became layered with pile after pile of shit, and Calvin Klein was the one who had shoveled it.
His arrival had been as quick as his departure, yet the effect this stranger had on his life was devastating. Biff could never be certain why he had stood out as a target for Calvin, but for whatever reason, his animosity towards Biff instigated a shift of attitude amongst his peers. The accident with the truck had robbed Biff of his dignity, and he couldn’t go anywhere in Hill Valley for years without hearing manure jokes, or catching people miming olfactory agony behind his back. The physical violence Calvin dealt in, which Biff first experienced when being sucker-punched in Lou’s diner, spread to Biff’s former study partner, George McFly, whom he had considered a friend. Biff couldn’t just be paranoid; he was certain that Calvin had turned Lorraine and George against him, which had left him semi-concussed and broken-hearted. These acts of unprovoked aggression caused Biff to become skittish towards strangers, and he lost confidence in himself. He no longer had a desire to explore the world; his only option was to stay in Hill Valley and work on fixing up cars, the only things left in his life that couldn’t torment him.
For all the years that followed, Calvin Klein’s name echoed around Biff’s mind, ringing in his ears like a high note at piercing decibels. He could scarcely believe such a person had existed; he had no luck seeking him out in the neighboring high schools, and none of the Kleins listed in the phone book knew of anyone named Calvin. Biff suspected that he might have been European, based on his knowledge of obscure music, sports, and dress, but he had no way of finding that out for sure. After a few years, Biff gave up finding him and sunk further into defeat. His car detailing business was afloat, but it was bobbing on the surface, waiting to be sucked under by an economic downturn. Had he not desperately needed the business, he may have found a way out of working on George McFly’s multiple cars. They had patched things up, and both men would call the other his friend, but Biff never got over Lorraine. Seeing her in domestic bliss with three healthy kids of her own was like a corrosive agent on Biff’s already-rusted interior. He couldn’t help but like those kids though, especially the youngest, Marty; there was something about him that reminded Biff of his own youth. Perhaps it was that Marty had the charisma and take-charge attitude that Biff used to see in himself, and he liked being around it again.
His search for Calvin Klein was rekindled some years later, when one of the advertising inserts in the Sunday paper fell to his feet. It seemed Calvin Klein had ended up in the clothing business, and he was selling jeans. It made sense to Biff that someone so manipulative and aggressive would become successful. Too successful, it turned out, to be reached directly; his third letter requesting the three hundred dollars he was owed for the car repairs was met with a cease and desist order, and Biff was legally prohibited from contacting Mr. Klein. Biff started to second-guess his memory of the name, or considered that maybe Calvin had changed it. This resulted in his own personal boycott of the movies of Kevin Kline, which proved especially difficult for the release of A Fish Called Wanda; Biff liked a good comedy, and by all accounts, that was a good one. That had been so long ago now; perhaps if it slipped onto one of the TV grid’s six stations by accident, Biff would call an end to his strike- for the sake of entertainment.
The rehydrator dinged its twelfth second, snapping Biff out of his daze. The pizza was as big as a frisbee now, the chunks of sausage succulent and juicy. He slid the plate out and set it on the kitchen counter. He added some extra parmesan cheese and poured himself a glass of lemonade. As he picked up his meal to bring to the small table in front of the TV, he heard a shuffling at the front door, freezing him where he stood: Griff was home. No grandfather is truly unhappy to see his grandson, but for Biff this usually only meant more abuse and ridicule. Griff was too young and bullheaded to see the similarities between himself and his grandfather: two damaged men raised by a single grandparent in the absence of any other option. Their connection was strictly familial, and Griff’s resentment towards Biff verged closer to hatred, a pained emotional flailing too profound to be read as teen angst. Biff heard Griff removing his leather gloves, freeing his thumb to open the front door with the thumbplate. In lieu of a ruined dinner, Biff turned tail to his bedroom, where his door closed just as Griff was entering into the living room. He ate the pizza on a small desk adjacent to his bed where he normally tended to paperwork and bills, most stemming from the foreclosure of his car detailing business. He could hear Griff howling with laughter at some nonsense on the TV. Regardless, Biff couldn’t remember the last time he had had a meal so free of any distractions. He was thankful that the rehydrator had done its job well this time, and the pizza tasted good to him. As he washed down the last bite with some lemonade, he gazed over at a framed picture on his desk. It was of Biff leaning on the front-left fender of his black Ford Super De Luxe, aged about thirty or so. His hair was still sandy-blond, his skin tanned from weeks of outdoor work, and he wore a smirking expression on his mouth. Biff had to smile; his mind drifted again, to the times he spent with his car. He felt the wind whipping around the windshield when the top was down. He could hear the roar of the horses moving in unison, pushing the engine up to that sweet spot around 70 mph. Surely enough, the smell of shit returned to Biff Tannen, but this time, for the first time in many years, the shit smelled sweet.