updated precisely as often as the gods demand, and not more
[So here's this thing I've been working on, the most developed fragment of The Novel. The protagonist, Rich, is a 15-year-old hacker wannabe from Fairfield, California. He isn't me. In the past couple of weeks I've actually realized how many problems there are with this piece as it stands, but more than that, I've realized how much I need to update Tales. So, here goes. Please send me your thoughts.]
Sam and I sat in Sam's room eating rice out of a cold pot from Sam's refrigerator while yellow-white light filtered in through the window. The gauzy curtains looked like a parental intrusion; they had nothing to do with Sam's strewn clothes and stucco-textured walls and the old Lego spaceship sitting on the shelf like a childhood trophy. We turned on the cleaner light from the bare ceiling bulbs that were missing their glass cover, even though it was a bright afternoon. Sam sat at his desk, in front of the computer, which wasn't on. The computer's faintly brownish, dusty body took up so much room on the desk that Sam had to put his plate on his lap and his magazine over the keyboard. I was sitting on the floor leaning against the bed, reading a xeroxed article about trains, that I found on the dresser. Sam's magazine was open to one page that was almost totally black and another that was almost all red, so I assumed it was one of the video game magazines. Sam and I were waiting for it to be 4:45 so we could leave for Chuck E. Cheese, where we were going to meet our friend Steve for the first time, at five.
"Is he in town? Did he... drive up yesterday?"
"I dunno. I think they drove up today, they moved the stuff into the house yesterday." Sam had some of these answers because he could talk with Steve on the computer more often than I could.
"When would they drive up, though."
"I dunno. They probably had the whole day free."
"Yeah, I guess."
"And it's like, half an hour's drive or so?"
"Yeah." And we would be quiet for a while again. We knew how to be quiet with each other; we read books or magazines in the same room and we didn't get nervous about it. Sometimes Sam would look at his radio binder, but our BBS hobby was rapidly displacing his old hobby of researching and collecting promotional materials from radio stations in distant cities. I never really understood why he was into that, but I listened to him talk about it from time to time. The idea of mapping out the landscape of the other side of the free world, where everything starts with W instead of the West Coast's K, was mildly interesting, but the way he talked about it, you felt the presence of something deeper under his skin. "I almost have Missouri all filled out," he said as he paged through his glossy red-and-white plastic binder. "WMTR is adult contemporary, this other one is top 40, and I'm still waiting to hear on that last one... cool." Even by the time the radio binder mostly sat underneath loose schoolwork on the floor next to his dresser, he had to have the radio on while we messed with the computer. We had a regular station that we played on the pocket radio hung from Sam's bedpost - not a great station, but the least annoying of everything that came in clear from Sacramento. They were running this contest where they called a random pay phone in town, and if someone answered and said "KLRK Plays The Most Music!" they won a thousand dollars.
Normally we would both have been sitting in front of the computer, staring importantly like the intrepid technicians in movies, hoping that Sam's modem would successfully dial up and connect to our friend Steve's bulletin board system down in Vallejo, an hour away on the freeway. If it did, we could exchange live typed messages with Steve, who was many times cooler than we were. He seemed to enjoy our virtual company anyway, or maybe he just liked the idea of a couple of kids from Fairfield hanging on his every haltingly typed word. Today, though, Steve's BBS was down, and Steve and his mother were driving up the freeway to their new home in our town. Steve had told us all about it, in an email on his board, and he said he'd be going to our high school for the next year.
I spent almost every afternoon that summer at Sam's house, the two of us leaning over the computer in our T-shirts and jeans, experimenting with different phone numbers we'd gathered from computer store flyers or newspaper ads, or copied down on paper scraps. A typical modem call tied up the phone line for an hour, but his dad wasn't home and his mom didn't complain. We could see his mom through the window, clipping laundry to the low parallel lines that crisscrossed the backyard below us, while the bulletin boards we called popped up in green text on the screen, each promising this is the place!, like the huge wooden signs out in front of summer camps you see in movies, or like the fronts of temples. It was already August, too late to really enjoy anything about summer, but we had settled into Steve's board quite comfortably. It was bigger than the old clubhouse that neither of us had ever had; you could trade any software you wanted and bitch about anything; it was the best board we'd found, but it was down for the day.
Chuck E. Cheese was two blocks from Sam's house, then through the pedestrian tunnel and down two long, house-free blocks to a big parking lot. I discovered walking that summer. Before then, I either got a ride from Dad or I didn't go; a couple years after, I got my license. But that summer I walked everywhere. Afternoons had me walking down Miller Ave. past all the condos and under the freeway to where Sam lived, a big field of houses all painted in the same three or four light color schemes; or through the old downtown where Mom worked, over the big overpass to the mall; or with Sam along bare streets that had trees and a freeway on one side. "Where did you get that Tron poster, man?" I said, barely pronouncing the "man," a quick embarrassed mumble, like punctuation.
"At the comic store."
"Well I never saw it there."
"I'll buy it off you."
"Fuck you." Saying "fuck you" always made Sam smile. He didn't really mean it. I never saw him say it to someone he actually meant it to.
Chuck E. Cheese had a tall white sign you could see from the freeway, and a big square red awning with the logo over the door. Steve said he'd wait for us by the pay phone, the only real feature of the building's front that we could think of. We saw him there from across the long lot, leaning against the brown stucco wall between the phone and the door, under the awning. He had a green, almost military jacket, and jeans and short hair so blond it looked from a distance like a second forehead. It was still too bright out to see into the short hallway beyond the flat glass double doors, until we approached the curb and stepped almost into the awning's vertical shadow. Steve recognized us and stepped away from the wall with a soft grin. The three of us slowed down and formed a loose triangle on the white-striped asphalt of the drop-off zone, regarding each other.
"You Steve?" Sam said right after, which relieved me; I was thinking about how Steve could know that we were the people who were coming to meet him, his online friends Sam and Rich, alias Master Control and BrainDancer, even though we hadn't told him about our clothes or faces.
"Yeah, what's up." We were all laughing a little bit now. Listening to each other laugh took up the next few seconds.
"So, you wanna go inside, or what?" I said.
"Yeah, I thought we could, uh, I just wanna sort of have a look around. We can play a little too, I'm kind of in the mood for that."
"You wanna get a whole pizza or..."
"Nah, we can just look around."
Going in there was like going into a cave, through that little opening in the long high wall. First you passed the order counter where, if you were a family with kids, you picked up your free video game tokens, then the parents headed left to your table. As an eight-year-old kid you would then run through to the wider spaces of the arcade rooms, which got bigger as you went back until the largest room was square and had the play-pen thing for the toddlers to climb around in. When I was younger the best things were the narrow tunnels and miniature halls that joined them together, leading to dining rooms with stages where robots jerked around in sync to recorded sketches, their fur-covered electronic joints clicking, and the darkened cul-de-sacs with gadgets in them, in-between places. But that summer Chuck E. Cheese was too small for us big kids. I kept having to duck under low-hanging decorations and signs. Steve had said in his email message that he wanted to meet there so he could compare it to the one he used to go to down in Pinole before it closed. We went in and ordered slices, then drifted apart to different games - Sam kept checking up on me, calling me "dude" and letting me know what time it was even though nobody had to go home at any one time; and I was nervous and out of place among the shorter kids. I worried about the way I could cut to the front of the line for one of the newer, cooler games without any of them complaining, just by slipping my token up onto the console and saying, "I play next," in the deepest voice I could muster and still sound natural. I spent a lot of time looking around to make sure I wasn't the only one of us left inside.
By the time we sorted ourselves back out front to the pay phone, which hid like a shellfish in its steel nook with the sides shaped into the international Phone symbol, the shadows were gone and the sky was turning steel blue. "Shit, the air's even different here," he said to us as he looked out across the parking lot to the freeway overpass. "It's too hot or... something. Too much grass." He leaned down to laugh at his own joke. "Scratch that. Not enough grass. Not nearly enough." Sam and I laughed. If Sam was uncomfortable, I couldn't tell. I wasn't sure it was a pot joke; Steve didn't look like the pot smokers at school, none of whom I had ever actually spotted in the act of smoking anything. Sam looked the same way he always looked. His round face, round glasses and loose coat denied everything straight and angular about his Chinese features. We all had our hands in our pockets. The sun was setting, over and behind our heads, so if we leaned backward against the building and looked up we could see the long front wall silhouetted in orange. We chatted about video games.
"They still have Asteroids in there," I said.
"They do that everywhere. They just keep the old games around, in the back of the arcade. All the time."
"That's so funny."
"Well as long as people keep putting quarters in them, why shouldn't they? Free money," said Steve. I couldn't decide if there was something fundamentally older-than-us about him, or if I was just imagining that since I knew he was older.
"Makes me wanna set up my old Atari again, man."
Sam laughed. "Yeah, really. I've still got my Commodore 64 down in the garage. It's still all plugged in but no one's used it in years."
Steve's face turned more serious. "Dude, those things have some good parts. I know some guys who could make cool shit out of one of those." A family came out the front doors and passed us, the kids hanging off Mom and asking desperate-sounding questions, while their dad trailed behind, his big arms fishing in a fanny-pack for keys. They didn't look at us, and left our scene to cross the dark parking lot. Steve stopped talking and watched them, wide-eyed, scratching his nose. I laughed again. He continued.
"I know this guy who can get free phone calls to anywhere. He knows so much shit about phones that he can talk like he's some guy working up on a pole, throw around some technical terms and get a free line."
"Cool." Sam and I looked at each other. He was grinning, and I probably was too.
"Yeah. He's got friends who can get... like... unlisted phone numbers of anyone they want. All kinds of stuff." We had some ideas of this already. There were files on Steve's BBS describing how to build electronic devices that made pay phones work for free. They were written with diagrams built out of slashes and hyphens and codes we didn't understand. There was a file all about a phone number you could call from any pay phone, that wouldn't even ring, but would pick up immediately and give you a mess of tones that scattered themselves into a faraway electronic chord. You called this number and hung up, and in two minutes the phone you dialed from would suddenly start ringing. You'd answer and the same chord would burble back to you until you put it down again. It was a neat trick. I had the number memorized.
Steve pointed at the phone behind me. "Yo Rich, pick up the pay phone and call 588-9899." That was it, the number for the automatic call-back machine.
"Oh yeah." I treated it like it was nothing too, and dialed smiling, waiting for the payoff. The chord came and I hung up. "Nobody there," I said, and raised my hands. I stepped away from the phone, trying not to look like I was waiting. Steve looked like he was holding back laughter, while Sam still seemed to be sizing things up, as casually as he could.
The phone started to ring, which made our whole little restaurant-door scene seem strange. I was expecting the pay phone to ring, of course, but the actual reality of a ringing pay phone tends to make people nervous. We all waited for about seven rings, seeing if one of the others would do something. I started to look around nervously, trying to act like a spy or, I don't know, a drug dealer or something. Sam laughed, so I thought I'd ham it up more. As my jittery character, I got my nerve up and made a last, decisive, sneaky look around, then I lunged at the phone to answer it, shouting "KLRK Plays The Most Music!" into the deaf and dumb cloud of diddling notes.
I was expecting Steve to laugh, but not as hard as he did. His laugh was high-pitched and sounded like something he had no control over, like it was just something his body did without his thoughts being carried with it. He leaned over, wheezing with laughter and stomping from foot to foot, backwards and forwards, then inhaling with a loud whoop. It almost seemed like he was trying to throw up. "I can't believe you fell for that shit!" he said loudly. I had hung up the phone and was watching Steve calmly. He said it again through laughs, looking away like he was saying it to himself. Sam just looked confused, but still grinning. He held his palms forward, looking back and forth between Steve and me. "What? What happened?" he said.
Steve waved a can't-talk-now-I'm-laughing gesture to him and finally straightened up, brushed his hair back. "Oh my god, that is so fucking cool."
A restaurant employee stepped out to look at Steve disapprovingly. I saw the two of them framed in the upper pane of the opened glass door. The employee had a red uniform shirt with a yellow collar and looked about Steve's age. "I'm sorry, guys, you're going to have to leave if you keep making all this noise."
"Okay, we're on our way out," Sam said, and took a step backwards off the curb. Steve followed him with a couple of quick, loping steps. I lagged a couple yards behind. We all headed the same way Sam and I came, back across the parking lot, towards the tunnel under the freeway and the dark trees.
"See, that phone number I had him call automatically calls back and makes the phone ring," Steve explained to Sam, "but there's no one on the other line." The whole time I felt like I had heartburn and I knew there was no way I could explain what I had actually done. All the cars were on the other side of the lot and we crossed freely over white lines of parking spaces. I walked a little bit behind them. Then Steve turned around to face me. "Dude, I would have thought you'd know that number from the files on the board." I caught up with them and Steve put a hand on my shoulder for less than a second, then practically yanking it away, like I was a hot iron. "It's okay dude, I wasn't trying to laugh at you. You're cool." I nodded and smiled at them, then I looked down at the ground. My smile turned into a pinched squint as we kept walking. Sam and Steve talked some more, while I looked at the ground, not really listening to them. I went on smiling, thinking, Fine. That's it. Everything's fine. But even though my heart was still jumping around inside me, I started to like that angry-smile feeling more and more. It seemed to make sense. I suddenly felt like I really had gotten away with something, perpetrated a hoax and escaped unnoticed, like the happy villain in a spy movie who gets away. I may even have had the thought: I am not who they think I am.
|IN OTHER NEWS...|
Is anybody out there? If you're reading this, you've survived my latest URL change as well as the above textual marathon. Glad to see you! Things have been slow here until recently, I admit. I had a 5-week contract job all the way down in Foster City (it is possible to commute there from Berkeley on public transport). I was working at a videogame company, so it was kind of fun to rejoin that world for a while, and read all those scads of trade magazines. Lid stickers and Lara Croft, hoo boy.
The building that the office was in, down in Foster City, was surfaced with that one material, it's kind of... in between sandstone and stucco? And every time it rains it goes from looking all majestic and expensive to looking all gross and stained. These big dark patches that take forever to dry out. Embarrassing. Every time I see a building like that I wonder what the architect was thinking. I want to tell them, "It really does rain here, you know."
I'm finding it sort of hard to put down new roots here. I mean, I'm having a great time being back in Berkeley, but I have about one friend with whom I can actually, reliably hang out, in the flesh... it's not awful - I don't sit around feeling sorry for myself all the time - but it can be frustrating. Particularly because I still don't have a license. I had a drivers test last Tuesday and on that subject I will speak no further.
Nothing momentous here. GAZEBO #2 goes to press as soon as I get paid. Check out the GAZEBO page if you haven't already.
Tales from the Dork Side are copyright 1997 Mike Sugarbaker. Email for permission to redistribute.