During freshman orientation, they had told Jensen that Ray Bradbury had written his first draft of Fahrenheit 451 on one of the coin-operated typewriters in the bowels of the Undergraduate Research Library, URL for short. And he always thought that the notion was particularly romantic. And so, when his own typewriter broke its ribbon on a Sunday, he ran to the URL to type his paper on Central American Labor theory. But instead of romance, the found that the typewriters were actually pretty shitty. They stole his dimes, certain keys didn’t work, and it was hard to get the hang of the keyboard. This was back in the late 1980s, and all the typewriters had the smell of death on them, as if they knew that their days were numbered (and they certainly were). In fact, as Jensen plugged yet another dime into the typewriter, he couldn’t help but think of his roommate’s new Apple computer. It was his first longing for the next era, and he wouldn’t be back in the typewriter room at URL ever again.
He used to walk – just to clear his head, get a little exercise, get out of the apartment. Stephen lived in a nice city, a nice neighborhood. The streets were lined with oaks and interesting bungalows with porches and native gardens and birdhouses. Tennyson Street led up a little hill, where there was a pocket park with a bench that looked out over the city and the bay. And on these walks, Stephen would work out all kinds of stuff, you know, his wife, his kids, his father. He would come upon this park and that bench, and occasionally he would think to himself that this bench would be a good place to be a ghost, a good place to spend eternity, all the troubles of the world finally behind. One day, toward the end of the bad period, he finally sat on that bench, and whimsically, he said, “Hello ghost.” A few seconds passed, and then the ghost replied, “Hello.”
At one point, Edgar decided to drop all electronic communication. So henceforth, there was no email, Facebook, Twitter, he didn’t surf the Internet. He read newspapers, but moreover he asked people he trusted what they knew about things. He would make telephone calls when necessary for work, but he wrote handwritten letters to friends and family who lived far away, and went in person to see those that were close. After just a day or two of this, he came to realize that the non-electronic world was startlingly cold and empty. But eventually, the non-electronic became warmer, more emotional. He now occupied an alternative universe, one that existed as separated by glass from the rest of us.
“I think it’s a little obscene when writers confuse their creative issues with real problems,” he said as he gently nudged Adam’s manuscript across table. “I mean, you never hear a cancer patient babbling on and on about his narrative, or a person struggling to put food on the table for his kids worried about the pace of his dialogue. Books about writers, movies about moviemakers, plays about actors – where does the self-regarding end?” He took a sip from his coffee and, apparently, realized that he was being a little harsh. “Maybe it’s just a pet peeve of mine. It’s not certain that other people feel the way I do.”
Steve – yes, friends occasionally called him Steve-O – had a convertible once, a ’65 Ford Falcon, metallic green with a white top. And as any convertible owner will tell you, keeping up that top was nearly impossible. He couldn’t keep it clean, the plastic window fogged up immediately upon replacement, the radiator was ridiculously small for the 289 it was designed to cool. But he battled that car, fought for its survival – against rust, theft, transmission failure, tire punctures. With an old car, it was a constant struggle. Then a terrific wind storm came through, and when it was over Steve walked outside to find a giant palm frond sticking straight up through the top of the new white top for which he had just paid $1,700 for a week earlier. The next day, he bought a Saturn. A hard top.
In a move that surprised him, Blake quickly turned and grabbed an eight ounce bottle of salsa from the shelf. It had been ten years since he had done anything like this – something most people in their lives don’t do once. But then it had been a car that he drove over a man with a gun who had gotten the drop on a local police officer during a traffic stop. He was knighted a hero in town for that, complete with medals and honors and all that. Newspaper columnists described him as a man of action, a defender of truth, justice, and you know. But it was year later now, and Blake swung the bottle of salsa toward the gunman who, in his zest to intimidate the cashier, never noticed the quiet man standing by the chips. And as the salsa struck the gunman’s head, causing more damage to the skull than the bottle, Blake for just a moment understood that what motivated him was less the defense of the innocent than a bloodthirsty impulse freed by morality for a second time.
In the spring of 1974, Robertson invented a machine that made it possible for a human to regenerate without sleeping. It was never entirely clear how the machine worked – Did the person attach him or herself to it? Did it operate remotely? – no one every really knew. But the upshot was that Robertson himself never slept a wink in the ensuing forty years of his life. With the aid of the machine, he managed to get an entire night’s sleep simply by closing his eyes for about twenty seconds. And apparently, this worked fine for him for about ten years. It was then that he realized he had lost the ability to dream. At first this wasn’t important to him, but over time he became increasingly obsessed with the notion. Finally, in a desperate fit, he destroyed the machine. But he had lost the ability to sleep, and to dream, forever.
Marvin liked archery. So much better than guns, that were so fucking loud and – what’s the right way to put it? – obvious. No, bows and arrows were so much better, so much more civilized. You can’t really feel a bullet leaving the gun, but an arrow, well, that’s just a different thing altogether. Marvin’s father had bought him a bow when he was in the seventh grade. He used to shoot at cardboard boxes in the backyard. One day, his arrow caught the corner of the box and ricocheted straight up in the air. He shot the next arrow straight into the air, then ran into the house before it came down. He played that game until he was a junior in high school, then he stopped running inside. It was so much more interesting to watch the arrows land straight into the grass around him — the closest arrow landed four feet from him. And that was one reason he liked archery much better.
Einstein – not that Einstein, the other one – was frequently misunderstood. This we know, because who could understand such a person? Anyway, it was always the people who knew him the least who understood him the best. People who knew him for decades, who went to school with him, whose wives knew his wife, who had sat in those corporate offices for hours and hours – those people knew him the least. But if you had met him once, at a PTA meeting for instance, maybe splitting a doughnut and a shitty cup of coffee, you had a really good chance of understanding what he was all about.
Nathan was lonely – until corporate America wrapped its warm arms around him. It began at the local Safeway, where he was once again doing his shopping at 10 o’clock on a Friday night. The checker offered him a discount if he would simply register for a Club Card. He did, and in subsequent weeks his previously empty email inbox filled up with coupons and communications. It quickly became an addiction, and so followed member cards at office supply stores, gas stations, bulk discounters, department stores. He became versed in Rapid Rewards, Value Customers, Instant Savings, Key Club, Partner Discounts, and much, much more. And soon after the emails came the piles of envelopes in his real mailbox. And soon after that, he was no longer lonely. People knew who he was, wanted him, wanted to see him, wanted to impress him and attract his favor.