David’s job, for the next few hours at least, was to order and staple the piles of paper lying in front of him. He had made things difficult by trying to print double-sided. He had stopped the printer as soon as he realized what was happening, but that had left about sixty copies with the odd sides printed upside-down. After deliberating over what to do for a few minutes (taking a bathroom break had helped), he had decided that the orientation error on the packet would just make things too difficult for everyone—who included, as Alan had been saying at weekly meetings for the last month, not only the upper echelons of the GPRL but also, if all the scheduling stuff got worked out, possibly even Jimmy Chen himself. Most importantly, it would reflect badly on Alan and everyone else that had worked so hard to put together the 1995 TBC Developers’ Conference.
Now, noticing the scent of toner coming off the warm piles in front of him, David knew that the only solution was to print out the odd pages separately, single-sided, and to finish printing out the remaining pages single-sided because double-sided was just too much of a hassle with that printer. It wasn’t just toner: smells of grass and maybe tar from the window were mixed in. But hence the four piles:
1) Cover pages.
2) Even pages with the back side upside down.
3) Odd pages, one-sided.
4) Concluding thankyou page that wasn’t a part of the main 32-page document.
Across the street, the construction workers were taking lunch, sitting aroung the picnic tables with their plastic lunchboxes. David lined up the first complete packet in the stapler, wondering what it would be like to work outside for a living—to go home from work each day not just satisfied with a good day’s work (a day of stapling and filing and report-writing, for instance), but physically exhausted—then he pushed down and felt a twinge of satisfaction as the staple ran through each sheet in turn and curled slightly underneath.
“I’m just trying to figure out why you left,” said Alan from across the table, before taking a sip of coffee.
“We have great benefits,” he said. “And of course, as your superior before you quit the company—as a manager—I would say that. But it’s true—you know it’s true, I know it’s true. You won’t find retirement like that anywhere, and that’s a fact.”
David smiled. “That wasn’t really it,” he said.
“Not retirement. So it was more healthcare or vacation-related?”
“It wasn’t any of that. I think it’s something that’s been coming out—building—since I was little. It’s actually tunneling, is what I’d call it.” David stated to worry that Alan wasn’t going to get the point, and he reddened. “Do you know what a culvert is?” he said.
“Is that like a short street?” said Alan.
“Sort of. Well, no. It’s actually a tunnel that a stream or body of water goes into—they use them for drainage as well.” David didn’t know if this was the technical definition, but he thought: best to march on.
“There was one in my neighborhood we always used to take the family dog to every day, my Dad and I. Well, every evening. I used to always wonder what was down there—I imagined all these tunnels connecting underground, and it was sort of this magical thing in my imagination, down there.”
Alan was very hungry, and he started to cut into his food. David worried that this might have been some kind of semi-conscious signal for him to get on with his story.
“So,” he continued, “one day I went there without my parents. I snuck out and stood outside the culvert. But it was dark, you know, and I could hear this, almost this puking noise. It was coming from inside the culvert, periodically. Do you know what I mean?”
“About the pouring? Or, the puking?”
“Well, more about the periods. Periodically.”
“The periods were periodic?”
“No. I was just saying that the puking noise came off and on.”
Alan looked confused. “Didn’t you say the periods periodically?”
“Did I?” said David. “I didn’t mean that.”
“Right, sorry. Carry on.”
“Sorry; where was I?”
“You heard the puking.”
“Right. I remember standing there with my hands on the bars and listening to it. And like I said, I used to imagine it was sort of magical down there.”
“Sorry—how do you mean magical?”
David considered his words. He had just run into Alan on the street; he didn’t have to tell him anything. Magical—the used to imagine a world underneath his neighborhood with castles and palaces, with everything up on high hills. Kind of this kingdom underground, waiting for him.
“Just magical,” he said.
“But I was standing with my hands on the bars”—Alan nodded encouragingly—”and just listening. And it was all kind of grainy, because of the darkness, but I imagined—” he wondered if he was giving too much detail, because he really didn’t have to tell Alan anything. “I imagined going in there, just to see what it was actually like, but then as soon as I went in these hands would grab me, sort of grainy like the darkness, and they would sort of hold me down—” he stopped. Definitely too much. “Sorry, this isn’t really the point,” he said.
“Right,” said Alan—”who was puking?”
“Nothing. I don’t know. No one was puking.”
Alan definitely looked confused. “The point is,” said David, “I’m a tunneler. That’s where it all started. I have to go down and find things underneath. Underneath—structures and systems. If there’s anything better I have to find it, even if I have to dig. Do you know what I mean?”
Alan put down his coffee and, after trying to think for a moment, said:
“I’m sorry—where what started?”
On his second day after he quit the company, on the way out to California, David pulled off the highway and stopped at a bar for lunch. The curtains were pulled shut inside, tinting the room red and darkening its wood-paneled walls to black. The sliver of white light through the gap in the curtains illuminated the coils of smoke rising above the men seated at the bar. Those coils, he thought, are never the same shape. They will always be unique.
He sat down in a booth across from the bar. The men there were all distracted by a band tuning up at the front of the room. The waitress came to take his order and said, “We don’t get bands in here often,” with a twang in her voice. He smiled in a way he hoped didn’t come off as condescending.
“Interesting,” he said. “I’ll have the french dip sandwich?”
“Sure thing. Fries or taters?”
“Ta-um, potatoes, please.”
“Sure thing, I’ll be right back.”
He settled back into the leather of his seat. There was a general haze of tobacco smoke, but in the sliver of light from the window he could see still see the individual swirls rising. He thought about walking over to play one of the old arcade games in the corner, but there was a nice warm feeling in his legs after being in the car for so long. The twang was charming, really; he would have to leave a good tip.
The band started to play. A guitarist and a bassist strutted around at the front of the room in tight fitted shirts, low-cut and revealing pale, hairless chests. He looked back to the bar. Most of the men there had white tufts of hair poking out of the collars of their shirts, but they seemed to be enjoying the music. It was a blues standard—they were singing about the sea, losing someone in the sea. David had never been to the sea.
His sandwich came, with a cup of sauce and a yellow toothpick sticking up from the top. It was hot; more swirls rose from the top. But not the same as the ones up at the bar, up above the cigarettes.
He noticed a change in the music and looked up. The singer had stopped singing and was walking around the stage, nervously David thought, while the guitarist played a strange-sounding solo. Maybe he wasn’t playing the notes in the scale. Or the key—David wasn’t sure what the difference was. Either way, the tufty-chested men didn’t seem to be enjoying it too much. Everyone in the band looked serious and concentrated.
He took a few more bites of his sandwich, each dipped in sauce. The blues is very structured, he thought. The same pattern repeats. He remembered a phrase he had heard, “chord changes.” The chords change—change and repeat, in and out like the sea. But the real thing, he thought, must be to dive underneath. He was starting to enjoy the music now, but the men at the bar definitely seemed upset. The guitar solo was still going, seemed to have been going on too long. The singer had resumed singing, but there wasn’t a melody any more—he was just chanting lines into the microphone with the same serious expression, about someone lost in the sea.
The tufty men were turning rowdy. All of them glared under thick eyebrows; one stood up and yelled at the stage, “Play some music!” The band seemed unfazed; in fact, the music was becoming looser and louder. David started to sway along, a smile breaking on his lips. He thought of his roommate in college and a punk song that fell apart at the end, only this lasted—was all falling apart. His eyes darted to the bar and back to the stage. The guitarist had abandoned his pick and was pounding on the guitar with his hands; the drummer kept a beat but the bassist struck one note rhythmlessly. He didn’t think they were playing the blues any more—new shapes were forming. Now all the men were yelling for the band to stop playing. David stood up and began to search for the money to pay, seeing one man take slow steps towards the stage. He was digging through his pockets–he knew he had the right change—when one of the men threw a bottle at the stage and he ran out in a fast question mark around the empty tables in the center of the room.
The office of the company that David worked for was on the second floor of a larger office building. On the day before he left for good, the little boy and his mother came in through the glass double doors at ten o’clock—later than she had planned. She settled in at her desk on the first floor, and the boy began to spread out his toys on the carpet in his spot under the desk. The little boy loved elevators, and his mother wasn’t always very good at keeping track of him when she was working; soon the toys were abandoned and the boy was making his way into the hall. He called the elevator and, when it came, ran his fingers over the two buttons that he could reach. They were blue and rounded, and they seemed to go back forever into the elevator, like a tunnel somewhere; the boy wanted to find out where it went.
David sat at his desk on the second floor, flipping between work and the office’s messaging program on his computer. He took a break for a moment to look around the room. Alice turned over piles of paper on her desk, her face distraught, searching for something. At the front of the room, Andrew asked Alan something while Alan, sitting, nodded patiently. Evan watched Alice intently, smiling and twirling a blue pen.
David looked back at his screen, where he had minimized all the windows. The background was a computer-generated picture of a lake. It looked very realistic; he had even wanted to visit it for a while. He brought back all the windows, put his head down, and tried to get to work again, but when he looked up the boy was standing a few feet from his desk, holding a little handheld game system. David looked around again: no one had moved except for Evan, who by Alice’s desk, saying, “I was holding the pen up the whole time you were looking for it! Isn’t that funny?” Alice’s face was serious for a moment and then she laughed unconvincingly.
David didn’t know exactly what to say to the boy, but he was going to say something, when Evan noticed him too and came over to help.
David turned his face back to his computer intensely—let Evan be sanctimonious, let him act the good guy in front of Alice. David had emails; he didn’t have time to help with anything like this; he had emails to check.
“Hey, can I get some help?” he heard Evan say. He was trying to pick up the boy. “Will you carry take this upstairs if I get the kid?”
He handed David the little videogame box that the boy had been holding. It had a gray cartridge plugged in at the back that David didn’t recognize.
“Thanks,” said Evan. “His mom or whoever must be up on the third floor. There are more offices up there, right?”
David shrugged and followed Evan to the elevator with the game in one hand, and with the other he pressed the deep blue elevator button that was his favorite feature of the office. He pushed the deep blue elevator button that was his favorite feature of the office and felt a familiar tug of acceleration as the elevator pulled him up to the third floor.
“First of all, just let me make it clear to you that we’re not hiring you back,” said Alan before taking a sip of coffee. “We just can’t—I think I could still persuade them even with the property damage but after that report that Alice wrote there’s just no way—corporate would never. But if you don’t mind me asking—Alice kept mentioning something about a game?”
“I used to play it when I was little—it was on a little gray cartridge with the label scratched off. It was something my Dad got from a garage sale, I think. We weren’t—you know, we weren’t exactly throwing down money on any yachts back then, so my dad had to get creative with what he bought for me to play with. It was strange. I had this idea that it was—I don’t want to say enchanted, but…”
Alan left a pause and then said: “Okay.” He had mostly played business-simulation-type games when he was little. He was imagining David’s game as one where you run an amusement park that successfully shifts business models to suit the times while retaining its core of family friendliness and fun and safety. “What kind of game was it?”
“Oh, I guess it was an adventure game. You just did normal adventure game stuff, you know, go from island to island and fight monsters and solve problems.” This information seemed harmless to share. “And once you finished every island there would be this little ceremony in your honor, with dancing and a little pig rotating on a fire.” He paused, remembering.
“But the strangest thing was that there were these vines that sort of encroached on you throughout the game. Like, they started as these harmless things that you just had to cut through, but as you went on they became more and more intrusive and they eventually started to fill up the screen and you could barely even play it anymore.” He wondered if he was explaining this adequately. “And, apart from that, it never seemed to end. There seemed to be an endless number of islands.”
Alan didn’t say anything. He had never liked games like that.
“Actually,” said David, still looking down. “That was kind of the reason I went out to California. …That’s where I ended up going, when I left.”
He really hadn’t intended to tell Alan any of this—he had just run into him on the street—so what was he doing now? But now he had started his thought and it would be strange just to leave it there incomplete, and so he said,
“I had had to find the man that made that game.”
He later came to an island that seemed to lack any particular features or tasks to complete. Wondering why it had been put there, he started to explore. He eventually came upon a tiny house just into the woods that covered the island. He went inside and found an old man sitting on the floor. The man didn’t seem surprised when David entered; in fact, he addressed him right away.
“There are twenty-seven thousand, seven hundred and forty villages in the world,” he said. “That’s three hundred and sixty-five times seventy-six. In order to finish the game, you have to visit every single one of them.”
He stepped aside to reveal a trapdoor, which he pulled up. There were steps leading beneath the house.
“But perhaps there are other ways,” he said.
David,11 at the time, looked at the stairs on the screen. He was eleven now. He thought of the culvert, of standing outside it and hearing that noise repeat and repeat. He pressed the button on the controller to talk to the old man again, but he was silent.
David left the island and, though he visited it again, he could not ever again provoke the old man to talk to him. He stopped playing the game soon after.
The elevator rose and bumped into its dusty seating on the third floor. The doors opened and David, Evan and the boy stepped out into a dusty nowhere: concrete floors, chairs and desks stacked up, fiberglass walls, light through plastic sheets. The music from the boy’s game echoed around tinnily.
“I was under the impression there was another office up here,” said David. He looked back: Evan was backing up into the still-open elevator doors, mumbling something about getting work done. So he dropped the act when Alice wasn’t there. David started to make a noise of protest, but there was no point really; he let him go.
He looked around. Sheets of ragged paper fluttered around his feet. Past the stacked chairs, the way was blocked by a row of large filing cabinets, forming a kind of wall. He couldn’t tell if it was all randomly placed or if there was some kind of system.
He wandered around for a while, talking to the boy, who was mute and receptive. He noticed that some of the walls, the concrete ones and the ones made by the bookshelves, had been painted. Many of them were painted solid colors. Some had kind of symbols spray painted on them, David thought maybe Chinese symbols; some had quite painstakingly detailed faces or scenes painted on them. And some of the bookshelves and chairs and desks were arranged so as to form what could be interpreted as sculptures.
For David, exploring this wasteland with the boy was oddly comforting, like imagining someone else’s life or seeing it in a dream. He asked the boy what he would like to be when he grew up, wondering what he would have said at that age. It was strange, he kept thinking, that all this was upstairs and he had never known about it.
They found an unstacked desk to sit down on and David took out his lunch to share with the boy. He noticed that the pattern on its plastic surface was the same as the one on his desk. They were like that for a while, David and the boy, both sitting on the desk and eating. Though neither of them talked, the noise of their crunching filled up the silence and it was alright, really, the two of them there together.
“Yeah, I always thought he was weird,” said Alice to Alan. He had called her there the day after David left in order to get the full story for the incident report. “Just, I dunno, he was always checking his email, and I remember thinking, who checks their email that much, you know? And he was really quiet, he didn’t really talk to anyone, but when he did talk it was like it was too much—it was just like, ‘alright, I get it!’, you know? Anyway, I wasn’t really all that surprised when it happened.”
The morning after David left, Alice had pulled into the parking lot at 7:00 a.m. This was an hour earlier than she, or anyone really, normally came into the office, but she had been woken up by the construction that had been going on for weeks outside her house and she figured she might as well get some work done early so she could have an easy afternoon, comparatively.
As she pulled into the parking lot, she remembered immediately that they were still changing the locking system and no one but Alan had the new card needed to get into the building. Shit, she thought. “Shit,” she said. And who was blasting music at 7:00 in the morning?
Because there was no point in going all the way home now, and because it was cold, Alice sat in the car with the heat on and fumed for a while. The sun was just beginning to rise. She thought she could see a light flickering in the second floor window of the office, but it might have just been reflections from the cars passing by or something. She gave in and started to eat the pasta she had packed for lunch, beginning to enjoy the novelty of being up so early.
At 7:28, the office’s cleaning lady pulled into the parking lot across from Alice and went into the building without noticing her sitting there. Alice put the lid back on her pasta and approached the glass door the cleaning lady had just entered through, wondering if the lady would be offended if she tried to speak to her in Spanish.
“So when I finally got upstairs, David was just sitting there in the middle of the floor,” said Alice to David. “He’d moved some of the desks out of the middle of the room to make room. And—I put a pretty detailed description of this in the report, but. There was music playing really loud, and now I could hear it was like videogame music, and he’d hooked up the big projector to his game. The shades were closed and he had it projected onto the back wall, so all the colors reflected off it and sort of filled up the room. It was such an old game, the screen looked like just a pattern made out of colored squares more than anything real. You know how those games look?
“And I know this is the first time he’s done anything like this, other wise one of the cleaners or something would have found out and told somebody.
“…But, anyway, I remember that on the screen was a picture of a room with a little old-man-looking thing standing in the corner. And David made the other little man, the one he was controlling, go down this staircase in the corner. He hadn’t seen me at this point, he just had his eyes locked on the screen and he looked… terrified, or really excited, I don’t know. But anyway, the man on the screen went down the staircase, and it was like the game broke.
“The credits started coming down from the top of the screen over the old man still standing there, but the music went all strange, it was got really loud and started making all these high- and low-pitched noises. It was terrible. And all the squares in the screen just started turning random colors, it seemed like, and so everything in the room was changing colors really fast. And then there was this other really loud noise, sort of a humming noise, and I thought it was coming from the game at first but it wasn’t, it was coming from the projector, and I know that projector is really expensive so I ran over to turn it off as soon as I realized what was humming, but I guess it was all already broken. Anyway, David finally noticed I was there then, and at first he just game me this look like… ‘What are you doing, I have to stop now?’ And then he seemed to sort of snap out of it and see that I was there. And he said something like—I put all this in the report, but—something like, ‘Alice, I’ve always thought you were alright, you shouldn’t let Evan treat you like that.’ And I was like: creep…” Alice was blushing, but Alan nodded her along still.
“And then he looked at me and he said, ‘Alice, I’ve decided something. I’m leaving.'”
Alan looked at her expectantly.
“And then he left.”
“I have to ask—what actually happened in California?” said Alan. “You seem more—confident, or well-balanced or something.” Though it really would have been difficult to rehire David, both of these qualities were listed under “highly desirable” in the GPRL’s Elements of Leadership handbook.
“I told you,” said David. “I went to find the programmer that made the game.”
“Yes, yes, but what did you actually do?”
David as silent. He would not be quantified. He had never meant to tell Alan anything. What is the thing called where you know what goes in and what comes out but not what’s happening inside?
At the table across from them, two women were arguing about someone’s romance. A child sat across the table in silence, drawing something with a crayon. The output isn’t all that’s important, though. The inner workings matter too! —The cogs and shafts and pullies.
A black box is what it’s called.
“I talked to him. Just once. And I spent some time on the beach,” he said by way of a reply. “That was it, really. I watched movies in the hotel room.”
The programmer’s name was Gregor Cisneros. He was forty-seven years old, but he had only been living in the United States for thirty-six. He had a sister back there who he didn’t talk too much any more. They weren’t on bad terms; it was just like that.
He worked in an electronics store inside of a little mall in San Diego where everything else seemed to be either boarded up or closed for the day when David got there. The only other person he saw sat behind the desk in a used bookstore, with his feet up, watching him through the glass.
David had found out that Gregor lived in San Diego from an issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly dated July 5th, 1990, purchased in a large cardboard box from an online seller. After a search through the issues in the box that lasted two days, David had found a review of the game “Super Baseball Tournament,” published by a San Diego-based company called “Technlovision, Ltd,” the company that appeared in the credits at the end of the game. The reviewer described the game as “broken and ultimately […] unamusing.”
When David arrived at the address that he eventually found, noticed a smell immediately upon opening the store. It clearly was a body odor, and so he knew that it should be off-putting, but it was not entirely unpleasant in a kind of coffee-like way. When the service bell rang, he was aware of a flurry of movement somewhere in the vicinity of the front counter. As he walked up to the counter, he had time to take in the contents of the shelves that lined the store: radios and televisions and toasters in various states of repair; devices that appeared to be Frankenstein’s-monster-like combinations of those three appliances and perhaps more; miscellaneous other experimental-looking works made of tinfoil and different-colored liquids and sometimes elaborately constructed wooden frames. Behind the counter hung a pair of old-looking and off-white curtains through which, as they were displaced by a gray and stubbled and wiry man, David could just make out a hammock swinging back and forth softly.
Since emigrating to America, Gregor was often described by teachers as “bright” or “pretty bright” but never outstanding or excellent.
The epicenter of the smell seemed to be Gregor’s feet.
David introduced himself. After he waited for Gregor to grab something unnamed from a back room, they left for a coffeeshop where they could talk. It was a new place called Sahasrara. A sign by the door explained that the sahasrara, in Hinduism, was the highest Chakra on the body and was supposed to represent pure consciousness or the death if the body. However, looking around, one could easily conclude from the average skin tone everyone at the café that this probably was not the deepest or most well-studied interpretation of the term. By the counter stood a bookshelf filled with hundreds of magazines and newspapers and miscellaneous publications, which the owners of the cafe intended to cover all genres and political leanings and intellectual levels. For instance: TIME. Climbing in Nebraska. Three Toothbrushes: an Experimental Literary Journal. Development of Beta-6 Keratins in Hypoglycemic Mice. USA Today.
They found a table by the window. Although David did manage to start a conversation about the game, with Gregor helping him along, and not stray back to topics like the food and the weather, it initially focused on technical details like the the music and the artwork. David vigorously complimented, Gregor vigorously deflected.
David had mostly lost contact with his friends from high school. He still looked back on his memories of them fondly, but strangely, although their relationships were founded on and developed mostly around a shared love for videogames, he had very few memories of actually playing games with them.
The questions that were the most important to David, the ones that he visualized himself asking Gregor, would have dissolved under much thought, much less verbalization.
The conversation turned to the fate of Technlovision, Ltd. When Gregor revealed that he had stopped making games because his publisher stopped backing him for financial reasons, David said:
“So it was the system! You didn’t want to join the supersystem.”
“What?” Gregor had said with his unplaceable accent.
“You didn’t want to be a subsystem. Because your game didn’t fit into what they thought they could convert into a number and sell.”
“Well, I suppose, sort of. I didn’t particularly mind being part of a system, or if I did I didn’t notice. I just wanted people to play my game.”
David thought this must have been a joke.
“But really, I don’t think it was much a system,” Gregor continued. “Just people.”
And he had argued, saying something like how he could not feel like a subsystem when those around him only tried to make him fit into a whole number or one with a certain number of decimal places when he was the space in between numbers, the endlessly unpatterned ones, and to define him in words when… and how could he live when he was constantly forced into units of time and mass that matched the decay of a cesium-125 atom or a bar of cubic zirconium in Sweden?
And Gregor had said:
“It’s just not like that. You have to find something without—beyond saying. A bird does not say. There is a bird in the sky that is always changing colors, and you only see it now and then, sometimes you don’t see it all the time.”
And David had looked out the window, half expecting to actually see something, but there was only a patch of blue moving through the clouds.
David left to go to the bathroom. He didn’t need to go that badly, he just wanted to kind of get a breath of fresh air. He sat down in the stall so that no one would see his head sticking up out of the top and think that was weird.
Scrawled in sharpie on the walls, among other things, was:
“School gets in the way of my passion.”
David let his head fall onto the plastic wall. He didn’t know. Did he have a passion? He thought about his school days. A presentation he gave on “Coral of the Sea”. Mrs. Marlson’s whole class had to give a presentation and that’s what he had chosen. He had come down late to dinner every night for weeks to research it, he had had dreams about reefs, viewed from above just a dark spot in the sea, but then he would be swimming in the dream through branches and caves, and further in he could see the texture and the individual polyps. Then when he gave the presentation he didn’t know what to say, he wanted a good grade so he tried to think about what Mrs. Marlson might want him to say; then he saw Julie Ackerman at the back, the one who never lent him her colored pencils, and he tried to talk about what she would want to hear, but then Todd and Steven and Jared were at the back too and none of this seemed to overlap that he could see so he just started listing everything he knew, everything he had learned about coral. He had gone until the bell rang and past it even; he could see everyone groaning and squirming in their seats. Never mind the fact that it would later be called an “attention seeking episode.” What about Julie and Todd and Steven and Jared—did they know what they wanted? Would they have done better? Because it was really the same thing problem now as it was back then, he thought.
When he came out of the bathroom there was a little stack of gray cartridges on the table with a note:
Sorry I could not stay—meeting I remembered with a customer. Call me
and I hope we can meet up again.
Your new friend?
David eventually played through all of the games that Gregor left him in turn. None of them was as long as the one he had played as a child—the longest one took him only an hour or so—and nor were they similar in content, but each one reminded him strongly of that first game somehow.
In one, you crash land on the moon and you can hear messages from Earth over the receiver, but your transmitter is broken and you can’t send anything back.
In one, it’s just started to rain and a small puddle begins to form on the ground. The puddle seems shallow, but actually you can dive underneath and there are networks of tunnels connecting massive caverns. Ruby and heliodor encrust the walls of the caverns, and columns of emerald and topaz hold up the mighty ceiling. Everywhere is lit up with bright shafts of light, but there is no clear source.
In one, you explore a temple somewhere in the rainforest filled with statues of men and women and carvings of great battles and decisions and visitations from gods. All gathers moss.
David eventually more or less decided that Gregor had at some point gotten old and was no longer of any use, but he kept these games around and still played them. They began to take on huge significance for him, and he began trying to think of ways that he could disseminate them.
At the table next to Alan and David’s, the women still argued. Alan was still speaking, but David’s attention had turned. They were discussing a male lover; the woman who was involved called him a poet and a saint. The other woman, the one outside of the relationship, called him a shoddy journalist and a drunkard. Meanwhile, the boy had finished his drawing, and he held it up to show his mother. She kept talking to her friend, without looking.
“Excuse me,” said David—interrupting Alan, who was saying something about venture capital. David got up to walk towards the bathroom and, passing the table where the two women still talked, brushed the table on the side that the boy was sitting with his hand. When he came back from the bathroom, the boy was passing something through his fingers—something small, rectangular, and gray.
The morning he left California, David woke up in a hotel room. The sheets smelled like old detergent. He lay in bed with his eyes closed for a long time, waking up slowly. He had been dreaming about something—a childhood friend, someone he could talk to—but when he tried to piece things together, he found that he wasn’t even sure if it was anyone he had ever known.
He remembered the night he had spent in the office, playing that game from his childhood, before Alice had walked in. He remembered the name “Gregor Cisneros” scrolling down from the top of the screen, and deciding then to find him wherever he was, even if it was Chile or Japan or something farther away. After that there were the flashes of light and the sound. It was like everything was being compressed into one moment in time, one point in space. He had thought about it a on the drive out to California as he counted the telephone poles: he had decided it meant the end of boredom, the end of loneliness.
He thought of the day before: meeting Gregor, how disappointed he was. David had so many ideas about the game—that it contained all the other games he used to play, each one of them on one of the little islands; that the magic world that he told Alan about somehow led there; that maybe real moments and scenes or life itself were somehow encoded into it. Whether or not that was all true, he had expected a visionary in Gregor, and found that scrubby little man working underground. He squirmed a little under his sheets and shook his head.
He thought of the sunset that last night in California, when he walked along the beach. He had walked under the fishermen’s long lines, in between their tackleboxes and the wall that went down to the rocks and the sea. When the rocks widened into a strip of beach he took off his shoes and walked through the sand, feeling the waves periodically wash his feet. At some point he sat down and watched the sun over the sea. The light reached some special angle and shattered into millions of pieces over the water, like the pixels in his games. The clouds were lit up pink and orange, and the shapes they were whipped into seemed impossibly complex, like a jigsaw puzzle where each piece was a puzzle itself. He thought of something he had once heard about the molecules of water in our bodies getting recycled up into the clouds; and if the atoms in the clouds once belonged in him then was all that complexity in him too? But just as this thought was forming in his head he found that he couldn’t think it any more, and he drifted back to sleep in the hotel’s crumpled sheets.
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