If I were a character out of my parent’s era, I would reach for a pack of smokes in the morning to quell my anxieties. I’d deftly tap out a perfect white and tan cylinder packed with redolent tobacco, place it between lips parched by sleep, flip open some flimsy book of cardboard matches, wrench out one of the tiny strips, scrape it’s bulbous head against the sandpapery striker strip, and swipe hard enough to make it explode into a sulfurous flare emitting a sharp and satisfying piquancy instantly tasted on the tongue.
Then I’d light that Cold War cigarette and inhale, savoring the ruinous gray smoke as if it were an illicit affair, one known only to everything in the room: sheets, lampshades, hanging clothes in the open closet, pillowcases and pillows themselves, absorbing the pleasure, transforming it into the sour, stale odor of regret.
But, I’m a different character, of the generation-spanning two eras, and the pack has become a smartphone. Barely awake, I tap four numbers onto the small screen and, like bubbles rising to the surface, up pop images on a light blue background, each one a portal. Some are tools, others entertainments. A few are as soothing and addictive as nicotine, a respite from the dark corners of my room.
Just looking at the screen, I’m transported to an abstract, Euclidean world of two dimensions, sharp virtual lines, icons square and round. This morning I thumb a woven wreath of rainbow colors, launching a computer programming tutorial. Up comes a list of names: Python, Java, Ruby, Swift, C++, and more. Each is a nation, as different from the next as France from Singapore. Each is a refuge.
I’m sitting in the dimly lit dining room staring at an empty bowl on the table in front of me. My back is to my wife when she walks in.
Now I wonder if it’s more than just metaphor. Even in the brightest light, Claude can’t see me. Not really. To her, I’m just a collection of nerve impulses sparked by photons hitting irregular surfaces. And memory, of course. I’m largely, maybe wholly, memory attached to a few simple operations.
I should fill the empty bowl–perhaps with Cheerios, frozen blueberries, even oatmeal–as it waits with infinite patience on this old pine table, replete with cuts and scratches and mars of all sorts. The table was once, decades ago, in a rural Florida high school, carved up by bored kids in an age when carrying pocket knives was not viewed as a prelude to terror.
I consider telling her it didn’t come. Maybe out of spite, or just to defy her expectations, to not be such a predictable object with known properties.
“No, I’ll get it,” I say.
I’m at my standing computer desk. My belly hangs over my worn, brown leather belt, the one in which two eyelets are badly stretched. There’s the eyelet I used when I had a forty-inch waist, and when I lived in denial about having expanded to 41 inches. And there’s the eyelet I use now that I have a 42-inch waist well on its way to 43.
As I hear Claude approaching in her clacky wooden sandals, I pull at the end of my t-shirt. I’m a tall man, you see, but the t-shirt isn’t. I want to be sure it covers my belly and, in case it is showing in the back, my ass crack.
She sighs, scowls, and turns away.
Claude is not gone long before I go back to my bedroom, grab a blanket, and carry it out to the living room. I pull closed the curtains that Claude opened not more than an hour ago. Then I lie down on the sofa, select the MIT Open Courseware streaming channel, choose one of the lectures from Intro to Computer Programming, and scrunch up the blue sofa pillow for my head.
I prefer sleeping on the sofa these days, my bedroom being haunted by an imagined malevolence in the corner between the bureau and the wall. There’s nothing there, of course, except a small, cloth hamper behind which I’ve leaned a dented baseball bat. I know there’s nothing there, that this is just some weird, new phobia. At night, I try to fend off that darkness with my phone, like a child with a night light.
In the living room, there’s a full-screen digital TV, a much larger lighted portal.
Secreting myself in the embrace of the mud-colored sofa, I’m often lulled asleep by droning professors. The one I like best is a portly, balding, bearded fellow in a slightly rumpled white dress shirt and black pants from which hang wires attached to a transmitter hooked to a black belt.
He carries a thick piece of chalk that rains down dust as he writes on a series of tremendous MIT blackboards. He swings his arms, gesticulating with the fat chalk as if he could thereby imprint his ideas and awful puns on the tabula rasa of his achingly young students.
I know there are many more sophisticated MOOCs teaching the same materials online, some even hosted by a more dapper, better scripted, and chalk-free version of this same MIT professor. But it is the awkward charm of this particular course that pacifies me, allowing me to nod off into a blissful oblivion.
My desk is parked in the hallway of the office building. I don’t understand why. Trapped between desk and wall, I have a hard time wedging myself out of my chair.
I go through a heavy door into the office, but my colleagues seem embarrassed by my presence. When I see my boss, a short man with a dark beard, I suddenly remember I no longer work there. It’s hard. I think my boss will hire me back. I was a good employee, right? Legendary. Indispensable for years. But no, he will not, cannot.
Then I’m hiding in the closet where the water heater is. It’s dark but I can see through the space between folding doors as my former colleagues go about their day.
Back at the computer, I catch myself running my fingers through my hair again. With every pass, my locks stand up straighter. Sometimes when Claude gets home, she laughs just looking at me.
The project came my way via some friend of a friend of Claude. It’s a semi-slimy little tract on workers’ legal rights, one designed to gin up his practice. And he was only willing to pay about half the going rate for my work. I told him the book would take a while because I needed to accept other jobs “to keep the lights on,” implying his chintziness came at a cost.
I close the book file and reopen the code editor. Lately, I’ve been trying to master a loop module in Python. Loops are, you see, the secret to getting computers to do the repetitive things that humans disdain, or profess to disdain: add a thousand names to a database, correct hundreds of misspelled words, scan dates on a million milk cartons.
But why do I care? I have nothing of consequence to loop. On the contrary, I’m trying to break the loops in my mind. There’s the near-constant loop that is one variation or another of, “You’re a fat fucking asshole loser who’s badly screwed up his life from the start to his pathetic present. Wish you were dead.”
But that’s just the trope-ridden background music. It’s interspersed with looping snippets from a long-time job that was my life: a colleague’s snide comment that was prelude to betrayal, a mishandled customer complaint, a refusal to bow mildly to an executive’s ignorance, the layoffs of friends that I, as their manager, oversaw with red hands. Seas incarnadine.
And then there are revenge fantasies that run like diseased, insomnia-induced infomercials at 1 or 2 or 3 in the morning. Scissors in necks, bullets in brains, flaming buildings, a purple flourish of final words.
But the coding forestalls this. The puzzles consume me. I wake with sudden insights into how to solve a vexing problem via a new approach, a different line of code, an extra function, a better iterator.
The computer is perfection, with no agenda or bias. If my code is wrong, I get an error message or nonsense answer. Anger, despair, pleading, wheedling: it cares nothing for these. It is pure and patient, awaiting–forever, if need be–for me to finally get it right. And once I do, there are no doubts or jealousies or subjective judgements. It is simply, gloriously correct.
Seeking solutions to a new coding quandary, I wend my way down an Internet rabbit hole and, after dead-ending in a thicket of impenetrable documentation, I emerge into one of the countless subterranean caverns known as programming tutorials where I can happily while away hours watching video clips and answering corresponding questions.
That door leads out to our tangled, fenced-off backyard. I live in Florida, and there are thorny vines encircling the door frame outside, vines that Claude has asked me to pull down because sometimes their tendrils find their way under the door and into my office. But I haven’t, of course, maybe because I want that avenue of entry and egress sealed and forgotten.
I cautiously peer out a side window to see if I can get a look at my visitor, but it’s not a great vantage point. The only thing I can see is our battered wooden fence five feet away and tall, thick tufts of Bahama grass growing along the bottom. The word “dilapidation” comes to mind
For a second there, I thought I must have imagined the first knock, that it was just a stick falling onto the roof
But no. This last one was most certainly a knock. Three knocks, in fact. The kind with significant pauses between them, just long enough to indicate impatience or, maybe, irritation. Something, anyway, brimming with meaning.
It occurs to me they might be thieves checking to make sure no one is home before breaking in. If so, then I should make noise. I could get the vacuum out. Or just bang on the walls like an evil spirit. They’ll think I’m working and can’t hear them, or that I can’t be bothered because I’m working. A working man.
Disgusted with myself, I get the baseball bat out of my bedroom and go to the kitchen door, which leads out into the back yard.
It’s been a couple of minutes since the last knock. In bare feet, I step off the brick patio and into the yard, vaguely worried about deadly Florida snakes in long, lush summer grass. Maybe I should go back and slip on my topsiders.
I move carefully toward the west side of our beige-colored, cinder-block house. Bending my head around the corner to view the narrow space between the fence and exterior of the office wall, I spy no one. So I move a little further out so I can see the office door itself. Still, no one.
Breathing easier, I walk along the side of the house to the tall gate, which remains properly latched. As Claude keeps complaining, it’s actually hard to latch and unlatch this sticky gate, which is the only way into the backyard from outside the house.
It reminds me of the forest I visited last year. Closely growing trees quietly squeaked as they rubbed one another’s bark. Even while kneeling on the ground and tasting the oily barrel of the shotgun I’d brought that day, I was aware of the eeriness of the trees. Were they alive in any meaningful way, true witnesses or just mindless things? The question seemed important in that moment.
I sit down cross-legged in the yard amid the itchy grass, the bat resting on my thighs. The wind picks up and the plants swirl and shudder and rock-like professors gone mad, wildly waving a thousand thick pieces of dead, white chalk.
A trillion permutations, all inevitably distilling to T or F, 1 or 0, on or off. A visitor was here, or wasn’t. I died in that forest, or didn’t. I recite my logical operators:
True and True is True
True and False is False
Not True is False
Not False is True
But I can’t go on. The wind gusts, then slows at unpredictable intervals. The bamboo thicket creaks and screeches like a gang of thieves prying open long, wooden boxes. I can’t stand the terrible shifting, the moaning chaos.
Between my shoulder blades there is an ancient dam that won’t break. I lift the bat over my head and begin tapping the barrel between my scapulae. I hit that stubborn space between my boney wings even harder, then harder yet, hoping something but nothing finally, finally breaks.
Tears dissipate quickly in a Florida blow, never once wetting the tall grass. For today, at least, I can choose not to choose who I am, what I am, if I am, resting as comfortably on a knife’s edge as Gautama under the Bo Tree. Being and not, a superposition of 1 and 0. Life as qubit.
Whatever did and did not occur, by 4:45, I’ve made headway on the lawyer’s book and am reworking the Table of Contents. I hear the front door open and the jingle of car keys placed in the wooden bowl where we keep them. By and by, Claude comes into the office.
“No vines!” she says.
Mark R. Vickers is a business writer living in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of the literary fantasy novel The Tollkeeper. He has also published short fiction, poetry, and essays at thetollkeeper.com, he blogs about how ancient myths continue to shape our modern lives.