m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

December 1994


Somebody Up There Likes Me

Some people say that when a woman moves 1,500 miles from her mate to get a Ph.D. in women's studies, it's the beginning of the end.

by Ralph Lombreglia

I LOGGED on and got a Network fortune cookie, followed by E-mail from my distant wife.

Afternoon favorable for romance. Try a single person for a change.

Date: Mon, 12 Apr 99 14:27 GMT
From: Snookie Lee Ludlow <snooks@women.tex.edu>
To: Dante Allegro Annunziata <dante@media.sjcm.edu>
Subject: RE: For your delectation

Dante,

Your last missive was so cold, I thought somebody sent me an Alaskan sockeye salmon. Then I saw on TV where the sockeye's extinct, so now I don't know what your problem is.

Stop hurting people, you monster.

Snooks

I was on the old mainframe terminal in my office at school, surrounded by cinder-block walls and shelves stuffed chaotically with tapes and disks. I hadn't seen a friendly face in a week. Sometimes when I was down, the random-sentence generator cheered me up, so I knocked off a few new ones.

The president's unlikely urchin is tripping.
The awful dogs are howling.
Couldn't robots dine on jurisprudence?
And why shouldn't buildings puzzle over people?

You could feed the generator your own personal glossary of terms.

Vengeful Snookie bubbles San Antone into flames while academic watchmen practice celestial sloth in bed.

In my last mail to Snookie Lee, I had sent some morsels like these -- affectionately, to make her smile -- and she'd taken them all wrong: the whole story of Snooks and me. She was in San Antonio and I was in San Jose, and some people say that when a woman moves 1,500 miles from her mate to get a Ph.D. in women's studies, it's the beginning of the end, if not the end of the end, and refuting those prophets of woe is not easy. Yes, we had taken some bad falls, Snookie Lee and I. We were edging into the Humpty Dumpty zone. But I thought we could put it together again, and I was doing my best to convince Snookie of that.

<flame on>
*MY* letter was cold! Ha! You've been like ice! Maybe *my* feelings are hurt! I'm the loyal and true one! I'm the one who acts like he cares! You're the one who's trying to dump the whole thing down the sewer!
<flame off>

I made my computer do anagrams of your sweet name, Snooks -- about 100,000 before I pulled the plug. Then I spent a whole day picking my favorites when I was supposed to be grading papers. Do men do this if they're not in love?

Like, elude solo now. Loud, sleek loin woe. Look, we use old line. Woo skill elude one. I use lone lewd look. Look, Lee, we sin loud. Oil noose well, Duke. Look, Lee, widen soul. Would Snook Lee lie? Look, slow Lee due in.

Do lie low, keen soul,

Dante

Besides Snookie's letter I had four from Mary Beth -- three from last week, which I had not read, and a new one posted early this morning, all bearing the subject line "Your position here" -- and I could have gone on to read them now, but I wasn't in the mood. Mary Beth was the chair of language and media studies at San Jose College of the Mind, where I was a junior professor. She was also out to get me. Indeed, Mary Beth's machinations were part of the reason that Snookie was gone. Snooks had wanted to teach too, to chisel those young minds, and she deserved her chance. Not only did she have sufficient credentials, but she had more heart than the whole College of the Mind put together. But Mary Beth wouldn't give her even a section of Mastering Capitalistic Prose. I volunteered to give her a section of mine, and Mary Beth said no. When they offered me the position, they said I'd come up for tenure in three or four years; after Snooks applied to teach, Mary Beth took me off the tenure track.


I MET Snooks at a poetry slam in 1995, when I was finishing my graduate media degree at MIT. She was up from Alabama to show them a thing or two at Harvard, where she had made it all the way to her senior year. Somehow we never crossed paths in Cambridge, though she was all over town and hard to miss. We slammed, finally, in the bowels of Boston, in a basement bookstore on Newbury Street, where Snookie Lee declaimed verses of outrage and indignation while shaking her spiky hair and waving Simone Weil at the audience. They loved her. I had to follow her on with my sheaf of technological rhapsodies. They hated me. But the opinion I cared about was Snookie Lee's. I sidled up to her after the gig and asked what she thought of my stuff. She hated it, but she loved my name. On the strength of that, I asked her out. "I've got a date with Dante!" she said, laughing, to one of her girlfriends.

She was all bluff and flying feathers, and then she was my everything. We graduated and I got the offer from College of the Mind, and since my fellow Ph.D.s seemed ready to slit my throat for the job, I took it. Snookie said she would follow me if I promised it was nice. My best childhood friend, Boyce Hoodington, had lived twenty miles north, in Palo Alto, for years, and he loved it out there. He was a project leader for a company trying to simulate human consciousness with a computer. Many California outfits were trying to do that, without much luck, but Boyce's firm had achieved a few small, sexy triumphs that kept the investors turned on. The firm's computer now recognized specific people when they walked into the room, greeted them, and commented on the clothes they were wearing. It could do other things, Boyce had told me -- things he wasn't allowed to talk about.

So I promised Snookie she'd like California, and we lived there for three incredibly crummy years -- crummy for me, the indentured professor in the house, thermonuclear for Snooks. Our problems went beyond Mary Beth. We experienced other disillusionments, too, such as the discovery that certain faculty couples masquerading as our friends were doing us dirty behind the scenes. Looking back on it, trying to fix the damage by getting married was not the best idea. Snookie said so at the time. I won't say that in those dark days when she didn't get out of bed till 4:00 P.M., and never took off her robe, and College of the Mind was leaking its acid into my brain, I was Jovian about it. But I still think that in the disappointing run of men I'm a prize.

I told all this to Snookie Lee as we stood on the dead lawn of our rented bungalow, her ancient, eggplant-colored Le Car parked halfway up on the sidewalk, stuffed full of her things. She was going to San Antonio to get her own Ph.D. In the last year of our three Snooks ended up as a night-shift checkout girl at a discount drug superstore, and the worst thing was, she liked it. She stopped blaming me for ruining her life. She now said that I'd inadvertently brought about her rebirth. She'd made a lot of new girlfriends at the store, muscular young women who weren't ever going to College of the Mind or college of the anything, and Snooks would go aerobic dancing and skating with them. She decided that the best thing in life was sisterhood. I hardly ever saw her anymore. On our separation day her friends spun over on their blades to bid Snookie Lee good-bye. They stood wobbling on the brown grass in their colorful tights and kneepads, saying supportive things to Snooks and giving bad looks to me.

I said, "Sisterhood means a lot to me, too, you know." The women had a good guffaw over that. I told Snooks she was breaking my heart.

She said, "You know those plastic ant-farm things? How you buy one, and then later decide you don't really want ants after all, and you empty the whole thing out on the ground? That's heartbreak, Dante. For the ants, I mean. You're not heartbroken. You don't even look sad."

"I'm very Goddamn heartbroken," I said. "Don't tell me how heartbroken I am." The girlfriends rolled closer to Snookie Lee. I was heartbroken, but Snookie and I had beaten each other down so badly that our parting scene was playing like dinner theater. "And that analogy's no good," I told her. "Those ant-farm ants are an exotic breed that can't live in the wild. Otherwise they wouldn't be heartbroken. They'd be happy. They'd be free."

"You're free," Snookie Lee said.

"I never asked to be free! I'm exotic!" I exclaimed, but I got nowhere. Snookie Lee drove away.


I was about to log off when my terminal chirped and said, in its silly voice, "You have new mail." I hoped the message was from her. If she was online, maybe I could ping her for a real-time chat. But the letter turned out to be from Boyce. I punched it up.

Date: Mon, 12 Apr 99 20:53 GMT
From: Boyce P. Hoodington <boyce@softbrain.com>
To: Dante Allegro Annunziata <dante@media.sjcm.edu>
Subject: Death and pasta

Would have got back to you sooner, but I died. Have not logged on in days, and now speak to you from the beyond. My #*^!%!* computer went down like the Hindenburg -- cellular port hosed, motherboard toasted. I'm on the dusty laptop now, shades of Orville Wright. It periodically stalls out and drops through the clouds of our thrilling but turbulent present-day network. If I suddenly disappear, that's why.

I must have a new box, Dante! Let's shop for it together! Tonight, after partaking of a momentous baked ziti. Mounds of baby peas, asparagus, and musky salad greens from the garden have turned our kitchen into a Tuscan stone cottage. I may videodisk it, it's so beautiful. But Janet regards me strangely when I videodisk food. And wait till you taste this fresh-faced fume with overtones of apple and pear. Spanking beverage. Bought a case. Snatched a spicy zinfandel, too. Come on up! -- BPH

P.S. I'll tell my sad corporate story. Slithering beast of commerce, it's a snakepit out here. Be thankful you chose the cloistered life.

P.P.S. We must talk about Snookie. You don't sound good, my brother. Janet has thoughts for you. Never mind free enterprise, Dante; women are the great challenge of our lives, the parabolic arena where we Rollerblade like angels at the speed of light, and where, I fear, we are destined to wipe out grotesquely. Yet we skate on blindly into the night. Why? Because of love, that hot transistor smoking within us.

My office hours at College of the Mind had another hour to run, but not a single student had come to see me so far. True, my door was closed and locked, and I was being very quiet. My lights were off. If I left now, I could go home and take a shower, change into my jeans (Mary Beth forbade teaching in jeans), and still make it to Boyce's for happy hour. I blowgunned my answer into the bitstream --

I Brake for Baked Ziti

-- and was yet again on the cusp of logging off when I remembered the text-dissociation software they had on the server. It could sometimes ease the misery inflicted upon people by words. I gave it Snookie's letter to eat.

St. Dante,

I, thou monster. I saw on Sockeye TV where the salmon is cold. Cold, cold, cold. I thought somebody sent me an Alaskan Salmonster, but now I don't know what your last missive was. Your problem's extinct, you hurting salmon.

You, monstero, the Sockeye Salmolast.

Salmonstop,

Snooksego

It didn't kill much pain, but I sent it to her anyway.


I DROVE my Fuji Chroma up 280 from San Jose to Palo Alto amid contorted oaks on hilltops, like bonsai trees in amber waves of grain, except the waves weren't grain, they were dead meadow grass, two or three feet high and browned-out from drought, emblem of our republic. Also a fire hazard that should have been mowed down. A red-tailed hawk sailed from a knobby tree, plunged to the undulating grass, and flapped back to its branch with mythic pumps of the wings, taking a field mouse on a commuter hop to God.

The foothills reminded me of hobbit-land, furry cafe-au-lait knolls where Frodo, Gandalf, et al., would have felt at home. Zipping up the artery in my tiny car, I succumbed to a conviction that hobbits were living there now, in burrows beneath the gnomish topography. The old Tolkien books -- the interactive laser-disk versions -- had lately made a great comeback with students, and I'd been using them in my classes at College of the Mind. For doing that and certain other groovy things, I was considered a cool professor, and my sections never failed to fill up. I got glowing reviews in the campus electronic magazine, to the profound irritation of Mary Beth, whose classes the students routinely panned. And yet educating endless waves of the young had begun to unnerve me. The act of teaching unnerved everyone eventually, but usually because your students were always nineteen while you withered into your grave before their eyes. My problem was different -- I remained the same while they mutated into a different species. My students implanted digital watches in the skin of their wrists, tattooed and barbered themselves so as not to appear human, took personalized drugs made from their own DNA, and danced epileptically to industrial noise. I fantasized about taking them on a field trip to the foothills for the semester-wrap picnic and then, in the thick of the hobbit hunt, vanishing -- never to be seen again. Perhaps they'd start a religion based on the mystery of my disappearance. Perhaps spirituality would flower on earth once more.

When I pulled up to Boyce's, his front lawn was preternaturally thick and green, like a gigantic flattop haircut for St. Patrick's Day. He and Janet loved landscaping and were always ministering to their lawn. I wished I had a nice house and yard like theirs. Actually, I wished I had anything. It hit me that I should enter the private sector, like Boyce, where your bosses didn't punish you for doing your job. I found him in his modern, shiny kitchen at the back of the house, assembling a fine baked ziti in a big casserole dish. He was a North Carolina Methodist, supposedly, but some Mediterranean blood had got in there somehow. The man could cook. "Romano!" he said in greeting, pointing to a quarter wheel of the stuff.

"I got E-mail from Snookie today," I said, grating the cheese.

"Excellent!" Boyce said. "You're talking! What did she say?"

"That I was a monster."

"All women say that about men, Dante. It's a figure of speech."

"What does it mean?"

"It means we're monsters."

We built the ziti and slid it into the oven. Boyce poured us big goblets of fumé. "To a new life for us all."

We clinked and sipped. "What do you want a new life for?" I asked.

"I meant the new one we're all getting, want it or not."

"What happened?"

"Tell you outside. Where nature can absorb the toxins."

We took our glasses to the verdant back yard. Boyce and Janet had a triple-depth lot -- 150 feet of Palo Alto crust in which Boyce had laid drip-irrigation lines, so that now it looked like the Garden of Eden back there. Lemons and limes and oranges hung over our heads at the round terrace table. Zippy the hummingbird was doing his air-and-space show, flashing in from nowhere to sip at his feeder, and then buzzing our heads before zinging back to the treetop where he lived. The little nugget of his beelike body stood in relief against the sky, microscopic stud on a eucalyptus branch.

"You can't see the knife?" Boyce said, twisting to show me his back.

I looked around him. "You've got it hidden pretty well."

"I'm out."

"Of what?"

"SoftBrain Technologies."

"What? You were in charge of the whole project. It was your division."

"The division they lopped off in the corporate downsizing."

"They lop off whole divisions?"

"That was the normal part. The stinky part was tricking me into lopping it for them."

And then Boyce told his tale. Nearly a year before, without telling him, his bosses had cut a deal to sell the consciousness-emulation division. The buyers thought they were paying too much and wanted something extra thrown in, something big and sweet. Boyce was assigned a strange and urgent top-secret task, on which he worked his heart out until just the week before -- working, though he didn't know it, for his own extinction. I demanded that he tell me this top-secret thing.

"Oh, it was so typical. So depressingly superficial. Nothing. They wanted to see the computer hold a credible conversation."

"But it's been doing that for years."

"Not with its lips."

"Lips! It has lips? I didn't know it had lips!"

"I just violated my nondisclosure agreement. Don't spread that around."

"Lips!"

Monday of the previous week, at 9:00 A.M., Boyce had demoed the lips for the company brass and some invited guests with English accents. The lips were gorgeous. Everybody loved the lips. The brass congratulated Boyce in a way that implied a promotion and a load of stock. He returned to his office to pop corks with the team, though it was only coffee-break time. He felt the burgeoning glory of his division, soon to be the company jewel. At 3:00 P.M. he got the call to close it down. The British guests were the buyers. They were taking the sucker to England, lips and all.

It took me a minute to absorb this slimy information. "But they liked you," I said at last.

"Oh, they still do," Boyce said. "They love me. I'm a great guy."

In the week since his severance he'd been home in seclusion, drinking boutique wine and having his spine realigned by a private masseuse. Only this morning had Boyce awakened with a craving to re-enter the world.

"How's Janet taking it?"

"Overjoyed. She thinks I've been miraculously spared from my own worst tendencies. She thinks I was going corporate -- me, of all people."

"Were you?"

"Of course I wasn't! I thought the lips were stupid. Here we were on the trail of consciousness itself, and all the managers cared about was lips."

"Humanity's signal-to-noise ratio isn't so hot, is it?"

"Worst in the animal kingdom. By a mile."

"But we've put out some pretty clean signal, too," I said reflectively. "Over the years. Down through the centuries. It adds up."

Boyce slapped my arm. "That's what I woke up this morning thinking!" he exclaimed. "That's what I've learned from all this!"

"What?"

"That everything we've done with computers until now is totally trivial and wrong! Why have we not yet created a fantastic, free, self-reflective knowledge base of every good thing humanity has ever thought or dreamed? Not just consciousness, Dante. Cosmic consciousness! That's what I want to build now. The computerized mind of the world!"

"And you say Janet's not worried about you?"

"She doesn't know yet. She'll love it when I explain it. I kind of got the idea from her, in fact. But since you mention it, it's you she's worried about."

Fumé went up my nose and fizzed my sinuses. "Me?"

"She wants me to watch you very closely. She thinks you may do some harm to yourself."

One is rarely prepared to meet the shabby figure one actually cuts in the world, even if one already has a pretty clear mental image of the wretch. "You don't think that, do you, Boyce?"

"Would it make you feel better or worse if I did?"

"Worse. Definitely worse."

"Then I don't."

My harming myself was a silly idea, but it was nice to have friends who considered me a walking pipe bomb and yet continued to care. True, that was practically Janet's job: she was a Jungian therapist, not to mention a splendid woman at whose sagacious feet I should probably throw myself for guidance. She was certainly the best thing that ever happened to Boyce, and her wonderfulness made me wish that I had a wife too. Then I remembered -- I did.

"Can I use your Chokecherry to check my mail?" I asked Boyce.

"Be my guest, but it might not even get you on. I had a hell of a time with it today. A few keys are falling off, too."

"I'll nurse it along."

"Try slapping it."

I ducked the pendulous oranges and crossed the back yard beneath fantastical shapes in the California clouds, smiling at the idea of Boyce's still using the old Chokecherry 100. The kitchen was like a lung filled with baked ziti's life-affirming breath. I walked through it and on into the darkened living and dining rooms, where the recently restuccoed walls were already cracked again from tremors. In Boyce's study the big computer lay dead on its table, the little Chokecherry sleeping beside it and waking up reluctantly when I touched its wobbly keys. Once, people had thrilled to own this little appliance of the brain. True to its name, it choked when I logged on, but I lashed it forward with repeated jabs of the Escape key. It tried to read me the fortune cookie that appeared on the screen, but the loudspeaker was broken and the latest assessment of my destiny sounded like a faltering Bronx cheer.

It may be that your whole purpose in life is simply to serve as a warning to others.

And then my one new letter flashed onto the gray wafer of screen. It was from Snookie Lee.

Date: Mon, 12 Apr 99 21:09 GMT
From: Snookie Lee Ludlow <snooks@women.tex.edu>
To: Dante Allegro Annunziata <dante@media.sjcm.edu>
Subject: RE: Dissociated Love

Dante,

I'm going nuts and you're helping me do it. You're helping quite nicely.

What was that stuff you sent? "Salmonstop" and all that. "Snooksego." What was that supposed to be? I don't understand your problem anymore. I used to think I did. I'm not studying to be a shrink. I'm studying to be a scholar, which I now realize means I need a shrink myself. Maybe yours would take me on; she's used to people with bullet holes in their feet AND their heads.

Would Snook Lee lie? No, she wouldn't. I'm taking my orals an hour from now. You'll claim you didn't know, though I've told you numerous times. You don't listen when I talk. I'm not nervous. Nerves are not why I feel like barfing. I feel like Polly, the girl who wanted a cracker. They've stuffed me full of their theories, and now they want me to spit them back. But I don't even believe in half that stuff. More than half. My professors aren't bad people, they just turn their students into apes. No, they don't do it, this system does it! This rotten system! I hate it!

But why am I telling you this? You're an ape yourself!

This is what I've been living with. I would've told you before, but I, for one, don't believe in throwing up on people. I gotta go.

Snooks

P.S. Get help.

From the time-stamp on Snookie's letter, I figured her orals were over by now. I clacked out my answer on Boyce's broken keys.

I'm up at Boyce's for dinner. I'm sorry you're not getting this before your exams. I would have wished you luck. You never told me they were today! You didn't! This is something you're always doing, telling me you told me things when you didn't tell me.

You were having pre-exam hysteria, Snooks -- all that stuff about spitting back theories and whatnot. Classic symptoms. Just calm down and be yourself and you'll do fine. God, what saccharine advice. Fortunately, you didn't get it. If you're reading this, it's all over, and you did just fine, didn't you? Academia does this to people, Snooks. I, for one, am getting out.

When you have your Ph.D., I'll work in the drugstore and you can teach college! I can't wait!

I am not an ape and you know it.

Love, love, love,

Dante

P.S. Remember Boyce's incredible baked ziti? It's in the oven right now. And then we're going computer shopping for him. I'm gonna call you later.

I shot my letter into the colossal web of the Net. When I looked up, Janet was standing in the door. "Fixing Boyce's computer?" she said.

"Hi. No, I was just saying something to Snookie Lee."

Janet looked around. "Snookie's here?"

"I meant I was E-mailing her."

"Oh, E-mail. Not talking on the videophone?" We giggled over that for a second. Janet famously loathed all technology after the fountain pen. "Boyce thought the little computer was broken too," she said.

"It is, Janet. Just because you can answer your mail doesn't mean a computer works. See?" I picked up the Chokecherry and turned it upside down. Five or six keys fell off and a guitar pick dropped out. "He needs a new computer."

"I've heard. Well, you're communicating, at least."

"Of course we're communicating," I said, skeptical that Janet really considered Boyce's layoff a great development. "I'm here, aren't I? But it would be a hell of a lot easier with a better computer."

"Oh, I'm sure a better computer would help immensely. When was the last time you told her you loved her?"

"I thought we were talking about Boyce."

"We were clearly talking about Snookie Lee."

"We were talking about Boyce and computers! You shrinks always do that."

"What?"

"That! Ambush people."

"Have you told Snookie you loved her any time in the past two years?"

"Of course I have."

"She says you haven't."

"Goddamn gossip!" I cried, and threw the Chokecherry onto Boyce's desk. It broke in two pieces. "When did she tell you that? You two have been talking? What else did she say?"

"Plenty."


IN Boyce's ziti the asparagus had given itself to the pasta like a submissive lover. The food was so ambrosial that we didn't even need the spicy zin, though we drank it anyway. My own baked ziti never came out nearly this good, and I was the Italian one. In my present frame of mind I could take a thing like that hard, as a comment on my general integrity.

"Did you know that Janet has serious misgivings about us, Dante?" Boyce asked. "About our relentless fascination with technological goods, the way machines work, what's the latest thing." We were having dinner outside, at the round redwood table, where I sat between Boyce and Janet, opposite the empty fourth chair. "Something about it is fishy, she thinks."

"I didn't know that," I said.

"Yes, I may start studying you two," Janet said. "I may write a book on this phenomenon."

Janet had her own private practice full of wealthy clients. She wasn't jumping through flaming tenure hoops under the stony gaze of some Mary Beth, and yet she still had thoughts of writing books. What pluck!

"Why do you know so much about computers?" she asked me. "Him I can understand. But you're supposed to be a humanities guy."

"Fear of death," I said. "Sexual terror."

"Nice try."

"Because he knew I'd need a new one someday," Boyce said, "and he wanted to help me pick it out."

"Good, Boyce," I said. "Right. But follow through. What kind of computer would you like? You haven't told us."

"A Revelation 2000."

This magical product name buzzed past my ear with such an unreal twang that I looked around to see if little Zippy had just gone by again. The Revelation 2000 was the first microcomputer with a holographic screen, 1,000-bit audio/ video, three billion instructions per second, and direct wireless uplink to geosynchronous satellites. It was the sexiest hardware you could put on a desk. And though I personally subscribed to the old chestnut about buying computers -- get the most iron they'll let you charge on your card, and if you can't use all that power, you're doing something wrong -- I couldn't believe Boyce was talking about a Rev 2K. "Revelations cost a fortune," I said.

"I've got one lined up for three thousand bucks."

"Bull, Boyce! They're twenty times that."

"My man has one for three."

"What man?"

"This guy Mickey. I've never met him. He's a friend of Brubaker's."

"Oh, no, Boyce. No."

"Honey," Janet said, "I don't think 'Brubaker' was the correct magic word."

"You said you were never dealing with Brubaker again."

"It's a friend of his, Dante. Plus, I'm a big boy now."

"He's saying I'm being too protective," I said to Janet.

"That seems to be it," she said.

Brubaker was an avatar of free enterprise who'd been in bed at one time or another with almost every breathing being doing business in the Valley. Like countless others, Boyce had worked for the mythical Bru. Unlike most, he remained on friendly terms with Brubaker after the experience, but then, Boyce was friends with everybody. Brubaker had seen the high times, and now he was researching the lows. He'd been charged with various white-collar crimes in recent years, wriggling off every time except the last, when they popped him for soliciting capital investment without a prospectus. He got a hefty fine and sixty days of community service -- which he discharged by teaching street youths to set up their own "S" corporations.

"Stolen goods," I said to Boyce. "Hijacked tractor-trailer."

"You know I wouldn't do that."

"How does Brubaker meet these people?"

"I don't ask."

"That's the understanding you have?"

"No, I don't ask because he'd tell me."

"Since when is three thousand dollars cheap?" Janet said.

"Last computer I'll ever buy, honey," Boyce told her. "Cross my heart."

"Are you going to use it to change the world?"

"You're reading my mind."

"All right, then, you can have it," she said, sipping her zinfandel and staring into the reddening California sky. "I think I'll call my book Modern Man in Search of a Dumpster for His Soul."

Boyce turned to me. "And you were upset about being called a monster."


I WAS halfway to the street when I realized that Boyce wasn't behind me. He was standing on his Crayola-green lawn, under the lady's-slipper-colored dome of California sky, staring at my cerulean vehicle parked at the curb in the striated shadow of a mimosa tree. "Do I look like I can ride in a Chroma?" he said. I was forgetting that Boyce, six foot four, couldn't even get into the freeway bubble I drove. I joined him on the lawn leading to his car. The sprinklers popped up and sprayed our legs like mechanical cats. "The downside of homeownership," Boyce called out, as we dashed off his effervescing grass.

"You finally get a pot to pee in, and it pees on you." We made it back to the sidewalk and shook our ankles. "Still, I wouldn't mind. A little pot to pee in with Snookie Lee. But I guess SoftBrain Technologies won't have a gig for me now."

"I guess not, cowboy. You wanted one?"

"I was thinking maybe technical writer."

"Impeccable sense of timing, Dante."

His silver Kodak Image hulked in the transcendental evening light. The automobile was so large it seemed designed to lure Japan into the quicksand with us once and for all -- the two rivals going down in a cruise-controlled death embrace. When we approached it, the driver's door slid open, but not mine. "Look at that," I said. "It didn't do my side. A snoutful of microchips and it can't even open the door."

"You have to stand where it can see you, dude."

I walked to the passenger side, and the door retracted with an overdesigned hermetic suck. "My Chroma sees me no matter where I am," I said. When we were gliding through the peaceful streets, pastel homes clicking by like Necco wafers, I said, "So. Mickey."

"Brubaker says the overall impression is of an alienated vet. But in fact Mickey is not a vet. Not of any actual war."

"He's in a private militia?"

"No, just the opposite. Mickey wouldn't join any organized anything. He's a loner. He's this guy who came out the other side of the Valley dream."

"He went in the front?"

"Wrote system code in the glory days, burned out on that, went independent, specialized in lockout software. He's into hardware now."

"Designing it?"

"Testing it, more like."

Offices and malls and taco stands swept by on El Camino. We arrived at the outskirts of Palo Alto, where start-ups roiled in every dingy industrial park, in the bedrooms of brick apartment buildings, at the whittled wooden tables of the old hamburger bars. Nothing could kill the entrepreneurial spirit, not even the nineties in California. Everybody had an angle, everybody had a scheme. It was endless, and now Boyce was one of them. He parked in front of a run-down hacienda with silver Quonset huts on either side. Night had nearly fallen. The air was acrid with the resins of burning electronics.

"You guys seen Mickey?" somebody asked when we got out of the car. A tall black man in rags had stepped out of the bushes.

"No, we haven't," Boyce said.

The guy took a step back into the light, and I saw that his clothes weren't rags. They were expensive designer things with all kinds of shapes and flaps cut into them.

"We just got here," Boyce said. "Where is he?"

"Didn't I clearly imply that I do not know where Mickey is?" the guy said, and went back into the shadows.

Then a white guy dressed in rags approached us from the opposite direction. "You guys seen Mickey?" he said.

"Would you mind stepping into the light?" I said, leading him underneath the lamp at the curb. This guy was really in rags, actual rags.

Boyce said, "What's with all you cats asking if we've seen Mickey?"

"All us cats?" the guy said. "Do I know you guys? Have I ever, like, seen you guys?"

"I just told the other dude. No, we have not seen Mickey."

"What other dude?"

I pointed at the bushes. "Over there somewhere. Wearing real fancy clothes. He's looking for Mickey too."

"He didn't actually say he was looking for Mickey," Boyce said. "He wanted to know if we'd seen Mickey. Just like you."

"That's true," I said. "Maybe you guys don't want to see Mickey at all."

"I see Mickey all the time," the guy said, and walked off into the darkness.

A small Filipino woman answered the door when we rang the bell. She seemed surprised to see us. "Isn't Mickey expecting us?" Boyce said.

"You're different," the woman said, and led us into her dwelling, where furniture and clothing and plastic media trash tumbled together indistinguishably in every room. We wound up in a wood- paneled den where two children played on shag carpeting in the blue glow of a sexual-hygiene program on the big TV. They looked a lot like their mother -- for that was who she had to be. The kids were no more interested in us than in the blurry sex on the tube. I thought of my students, aliens whose human parents paid my bills, and I understood them better now. This was where they'd grown up. The house was from the sixties, when people put wet bars in their recreation rooms. On the dusty surface of a side table lay two handguns and a rifle -- not toys, not dusty.

Mrs. Mickey walked us along a breezeway to one of the Quonset huts we'd seen from the street. At the entrance, midway along the metal pod's fuselage, she left us staring inside from the threshold. The shape and corrugation made it feel like an aircraft hangar -- one in which had taken place, for some reason, the Battle of Silicon Valley. Mutilated corpses of computers from the past ten years lay in heaps around the cylindrical room, most horribly crushed or burned or melted. At a workbench in the midst of this wreckage, surrounded by banks of test equipment, a large bearded man in sleeveless fatigues was blowing a heat gun at a computer in a plain black box and laughing. Text and a picture were bending like taffy on the screen. A high-pitched squeal was emerging from the thing. An oscilloscope portrayed the computer's demise in ghostly green wiggles -- lots of waves, lines with some waves, nothing but lines. Finally the screen crackled violently and then went blank. Blue-black smoke twirled from the computer's vents into an exhaust hood above the bench.

"He's an abuse tester," I whispered to Boyce. "You didn't tell me that. He kills computers for a living."

"Don't say 'kills,'" Boyce said. "Stresses."

"Piece of crap!" the man barked at the melting computer, and then he looked up and saw us standing there. He stood very still, staring at us, breathing deeply, with the heat gun still in his hand.

"Mickey?" Boyce said. "Are you Mickey? Hi, I'm Boyce. You were expecting us, right? Brubaker said we were coming?"

The man said nothing. Boyce looked worried, and worry was not a Boycean trait. It made me worried myself. But then, staring into this situation, I realized something about Mickey. He had just completed a kill and he wouldn't want to fight. He'd feel unthreatened and kingly. Unless overtly attacked, he'd be docile. He might even let smaller creatures pick at the edges of his prey. I pointed to the smoking prototype on his bench. "Did you drop it on the floor yet? I hear that's the first thing you're supposed to do. Drop it on the floor."

These words revived his inner animal. "You hear that 'cause that's what I do! I developed the protocol! Me!" He slapped himself on the chest. "Damn right I dropped it on the floor. I dropped it on the floor several times!" And then he laughed uproariously.

We were all right. He was verbalizing. Brubaker had told Boyce to expect a bearlike creature who communicated mainly by snuffling in his sinus passages, scratching himself, and emitting inexplicable giggles or guffaws.

Suddenly Mickey stopped laughing. "Brubaker told me one guy."

"That's me. Boyce. I just brought my friend along. Dante."

"Dante?" Mickey said, his face clouding over as he pronounced my name. He stared across the hut at old Fillmore West posters taped to the rippling metal walls. "The tomato family? Don't tell me this is the ketchup heir, the little tomato-paste trust-fund boy."

"Not Del Monte," Boyce said. "Dante. He's not from ketchup money."

"They're all related," Mickey said.

"The Del Montes maybe, but he's not a Del Monte."

Mickey cackled again, but he put his heat gun down, and though he didn't explicitly invite us in, he didn't not invite us either, so we picked our way through the technological waste. "The Revelation brothers," Mickey said.

"That's us," Boyce said.

A color TV in Mickey's lair was tuned to a news story about the thousands of people living at Moffett Air Field now that NASA's demise had left the old base free to become a homeless shelter. It was an election year, and a local politician came on to gas a few bites about the looting of taxpayer coffers.

"Bring out the old rockets," Mickey said. "Ship 'em to Mars!"

"What are you saying that for?" I said. "You have homeless friends yourself. We saw a homeless guy right here in front of your house."

Mickey peeped out a small window. "Where?"

"Right out front, man. He was asking for you too. 'You guys seen Mickey?' he said."

"That's no homeless guy!"

"He looked homeless," Boyce said.

"They just dress up like that."

Our deal seemed on the verge of going bad, so I said, "Hey, let's see this great computer."

"Hey, let's see this great computer," Mickey said.

"Well, if you don't mind."

He opened a door in an unpainted plasterboard wall and rolled the Revelation in on a cart. It wasn't burned or smashed or even dented. It maybe had a few scratches on it. He plugged it into the wall and flipped the switch. "Come on, sport," he said to me. "Let's see you do your stuff."


I'D never actually seen a 2000 in person before. Holographic software objects floated in the space between the computer and me, one of them announcing the machine's readiness for telephony in any form. I sat down and logged onto my account, bracing myself for power and speed. Even so I wasn't ready. The thing whomped me onto the Network like a jujitsu flip.

Hanlon's Razor:
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

You have new mail.

from: marybeth@media.sjcm.edu
"Your position here"

from: marybeth@media.sjcm.edu
Re(1) "Your position here"

from: marybeth@media.sjcm.edu
Re(2) "Your position here"

from: marybeth@media.sjcm.edu
Re(3) "Your position here"

from: marybeth@media.sjcm.edu
Re(4) "Your position here"

"You got mail, dude," Mickey said.

"I see that, Mickey."

"Who's marybeth?"

"My boss."

"How come she's writing you so much? You two into something? You got something going with the boss lady, Don?"

"Dante, Mickey. Don Tay." The thought of having something going with Mary Beth was so ludicrous I forgot what I was doing. I sat there like an idiot who didn't know what a computer was for.

"Don't know how to read mail?" Mickey said. "No problem on a Revelation. Just tell it what you want it to do."

"I don't want to read that mail right now. I'll read it some other time."

"But then how are you gonna know how blazing the Revelation is at your daily tasks? Read the mail," he barked at the box.

My first letter from Mary Beth joined us in the room as though we were reading the woman's mind. You couldn't describe the 2000 as "fast" -- reality and the Revelation were basically indistinguishable. Everything just was, and in 3-D it all seemed almost edible besides. It was an amazing hardware experience. The message content was kind of a downer, though.

Date: Mon, 5 Apr 99 20:23 GMT
From: Mary Beth Hinckley <marybeth@media.sjcm.edu>
To: Dante Allegro Annunziata <dante@media.sjcm.edu>
Subject: Your position here

My dear Dante,

I assume some awareness on your part, however dim, of your contract's impending expiration, and of your ongoing evaluation for renewal in this department.

"What's this 'my dear' crap?" Mickey said.

"Scorn."

"Is she like this in person?" Boyce asked.

"No, she's more relaxed in the mail."

I -- all of us, actually -- have been reading your student evaluations. They make a most striking collection of documents. Indeed, we've never seen anything quite like it. The students are deliriously uncritical of you, Dante. It seems you can do no wrong. Are you, perhaps, being uncritical of them? There is no learning without criticism, mon cher. We're not here to have the children like us. We're here to teach, to mold, to impart.

More than being peculiar -- nay, unprecedented -- I'm afraid such student reaction to a professor raises serious questions. We must talk.

MBH

"You poor bastard," Boyce said. "Why didn't you share it with us? You didn't have to bear it alone."

"I've always told you I hated the place."

"That's true, you have."

"You put some major mojo on this chick," Mickey said. "She wants you, Don. She wants you bad."

"I don't think so, Mickey. For one thing, she's not a chick."

"Listen to me, dude. I know. Next," he said, and Mary Beth's next letter materialized in our midst, followed by the others in succession as Mickey said "Next" again and again, each letter more aggrieved than its predecessor, until finally her last message bodied forth from the screen, dated this afternoon.

Signor Annunziata:

Your silence is rude and mystifying, but I'll say no more about it here. Indeed, I'll say no more here at all, since this is the last mail you'll receive from me.

The formal hearing into your future will be held tomorrow, Tuesday, 13 April, at 9 AM, in the Provost's office. Feel free to join us, in the flesh or via video, though the proceedings will be conducted in absentia in any event. If you're feeling pressed for time, I expect a very brief session.

What happened, Dante? You seemed so promising at first. And with that lovely name. I hoped you'd join our little family. But not as the Prodigal Son.

MBH

"I like how they're doing it in absentia whether you're there or not," Boyce said.

"That captures it, doesn't it? But I'll hack on your Revelation till dawn, shave and shower, drag myself in there, plead for my job. It's all I have. I'll say I've been sick. I'll get some students to claim they don't like me."

"Reply," Mickey said, causing an empty text-window to appear, at which he recited an incantation that scrolled obediently up the screen as he spoke. Mickey was one of those holdovers from the early days of computers, people who type everything with Caps Lock on, and he must have trained the Revelation to do the same whenever it heard his voice.

STUCK UP BITCH

DON'T MESS WITH DONNY

HE COULD OF BEEN YOURS

BUT YOU WERE HOTTY

NOW SUFFER

"Hotty?" Boyce said.

"Yeah. Stuck up. Superior. Hotty."

"Oh. I see."

"That's great, Mickey," I said. "Thank you for coming to my defense. I'm touched, really I am. Now erase it, please."

"Send," he said, and his voodoo poem-curse to Mary Beth vanished from the screen, sucked away by the Network's solar wind.

Sometimes you don't know how close you are to flaming out till it happens, and this was the case with me. I sat down on a deformed plastic chair in this computer criminal's Quonset hut, and I began to cry. Not big out-and-out boohooing, but there's crying and there's not crying, and I was crying.

"What's he doing?" Mickey asked Boyce, backing away from me.

"He seems to be crying," Boyce said. "You okay, pal?"

"Well, make him stop," Mickey said.

"How am I gonna do that? You just got him fired from his job, man."

"She was messing with his mind. What does he wanna work there for anyway?"

"What does anybody want to work anywhere for, Mickey? Plus, things aren't going real well with his wife right now."

"What's the problem?"

"She left."

My weeping did become out-and-out boohooing at this point.

"He's a total loss, isn't he?" Mickey said, gazing down at me. "But he likes computers, right? Computers make him happy, it seems like."

"They always do seem to cheer him up," Boyce said.

Mickey went into his secret room and wheeled out another cart.

"What's that?" I said, sniffling. "That looks like another Revelation."

"I was gonna keep it for parts, but you seem so sad, dude. I don't like people feeling sad. It makes me feel weird. You want it?"

"How much?"

"Same as for him."

"Three thousand bucks? Where are you getting these?"

"Don't ask questions like that, Don. You want it, I take cash. You don't want it, you never saw it."

I had thirty-five hundred bucks in my savings account, and after that it was the graveyard shift at Drugs 'n' Such. "I'll take it." I turned to Boyce. "Get me to a bank machine."

Mickey put his huge, heavy arm on my shoulder. "Then you're feelin' better about things?"

"Yeah, I am, Mickey, thanks. Can I ask you a question, though? I'm just curious. What's in the other Quonset hut? The one on the other side of the house?"

"What's in it? My in-laws. You want one of them, too? We could work something out. Can't do better than a nice Filipino girl."


WE drove out onto the strip to look for an ATM. As the owner of a Revelation 2000, I could network with Boyce's machine and be part of his new venture, the construction of humanity's electronic mind. He offered me a job. I accepted. Then he revealed the identity of his major investor. I worked for Brubaker now.

Alongside a taco stand we found a riotously bright bank machine, its colored panels burning like gas in the California night. It sucked my card and started beeping at me.

Greetings, valued customer Dante Allegro Annunziata!

You have new Network mail! Read it now at your Mitsubishi ATM!

(Small service charge applies.)

(Reminder: your credit account is past due.)

I pushed the button and they dropped me right into my mail, no list of letters received, no fortune cookie, no nothing. They literally didn't give me the time of day. What did I expect? It was a bank. I had only one new letter anyway, from Snookie Lee.

Date: Tue, 13 Apr 99 02:03 GMT
From: Snookie Lee Ludlow <snooks@women.tex.edu>
To: Dante Allegro Annunziata <dante@media.sjcm.edu>
Subject: I did a wild thing

Dante,

I went kind of crazy. I did a wild thing.

They asked me their parrot questions, like I knew they would. No big surprise. But when I actually heard it happen, something inside me plopped. I refused to answer. I refused to say anything at all. I just sat there doing a Bartleby in my oral exams. It was so weird. I couldn't believe it. They couldn't believe it either. Surely you're going to say something, they said. I'd prefer not to, I said. This can't be happening, said my adviser. It's happening, I said. I can't believe you're not finishing this degree, she said. I'd prefer not to, I said.

There's a blank place after that. Somebody drove me home. I called Janet. She's picking me up at the airport in San Jose. I'm flying in at 10 PM. I sold my Le Car about a month ago. I guess I never told you that. Got five hundred bucks for it. We have to talk. This does not mean I'm staying. I'm on my way home to Alabama. Well, the long way. If I did stay, it would be because I had seen a Goddamn miracle walking around in your pants, I'll tell you that.

Oil noose well, you said. Oil well indeed. I slipped out. But how did you know that? You are one spooky cat.

Snooks

P.S. Lie low, keen soul, you said. Slow Lee due in. How did you *know* that? I've been having some bourbon. It reminds me of my lost home in the South. Been looking at your pictures too. You were always so cute, you Italian thing.

P.P.S. That doesn't necessarily mean anything.

"This is incredible," Boyce said. He'd been reading over my shoulder. "She wouldn't speak in her oral exams? She sat there in silence?"

"Yes, and what a woman she is!" I exclaimed, dropping into savings for my three thousand bucks, full of hope and dreams beyond reckoning, even by a Revelation 2000. A gigantic flashing jet was crossing the sky, coming in for a landing at San Jose. I checked my watch. It was tomorrow morning, Greenwich Mean Time. "Snookie's on that plane!" I cried, and with my life's liquid assets wadded up in my hand, I dashed for Boyce's Kodak Image and the golden future of knowledge and love.


Copyright © 1993 by Ralph Lombreglia. All rights reserved.
Originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly, December 1994.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture