by: Steven Bryan Bieler ((Header art by Peter Davey entitled “Two Hawthorn Bushes on a Mound.”))
A tech manager’s journey to take his mind off lost love, and confront the fears that lie buried deep inside, begins with an axe and ends on a rooftop, listening to Pink Floyd as the sun slowly sets…
Writing code was one thing. Jason could do that upside down and underwater. Cutting down a tree was another. How do you cut down a tree? If only you could go online and watch a video, Jason thought.
Jason’s bus was still trying to escape Seattle, crawling up the tentacle of ramp onto the I-90 bridge over Lake Washington. He missed the car. Jenn had taken it when she left. That was fair; she’d bought it before they were married. But he had just installed the sound system of his dreams. Sitting on this hard plastic seat and listening to cassettes through headphones was not the same.
He couldn’t think of a cassette he wanted to play.
All right, rambler, he told himself, let’s get ramblin’. He hauled his computer out of his backpack, opened it on his lap, and thumbed it on. Everyone on the bus had escaped into a book or a magazine or a newspaper. Or they were sleeping. The woman sitting beside him was reading an interview with the actress from Felicity. The woman had a tattoo on the back of her neck, a dolphin leaping from the collar of her blouse. That must’ve hurt, he thought. She was the second woman with a tattoo he’d seen this month. It was cool but it probably wasn’t a trend.
Jason opened a blank file on the desktop and typed “PRIORITIES.” The bus made it onto the upper bridge deck. Compact waves marched across a scale model of an ocean. He started a list:
- Team near finish line. Kick butts.
- Y2K compliance meeting.
- Cut down trees.
Jason touched the keys but without enough pressure to move them. Finally, he backspaced over “Jenn” and replaced it with “Meet someone.”
It was Friday morning, hours away from the Memorial Day weekend, and Jason didn’t know what he was going to do for the next three days, except stand in front of the sink, eating dinner with a spoon from a carton of coffee ice cream. Or play Doom. Or join the other guys without a life and go into work. He could hitch a ride from somebody, sleep in the hammock under his desk, shower next door at the 24H, and get takeout from the Chinese place or the Greek drive-thru.
If my life was a novel, I’d take it back to the library.
But Jason could cut down the trees. There were two. They were called Hawthorns. They were related to roses even though they were trees and twelve feet tall. They stood in the wide strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk in front of their one-story, blue-and-white house with the covered porch. He and Jenn had sat on the porch when it rained. They watched the rain and listened to the Mariners or played music. No, no, no. No more rain-watching. Jenn was gone. Her choice.
The Hawthorns were bare and knobbly most of the year. When they bloomed, which they were powering up to do, they dropped sticky stuff all over their car. Jenn’s car. Which was gone. Currently, he had no reason to worry about ugly trees, but he needed something to do. The house needed cleaning. The house needed decontaminating. The trees, though, would force him to go outside. He would learn as he went along. He’d build a tree-cutting knowledge base. And muscles. Muscles might attract female engineers, or at least disambiguate him from the rest of the male engineers.
The bus was slowing again as the early-morning traffic oozed toward the eastern cities and techno-burbia. Jason closed the file. I should use this time productively, he thought, but he couldn’t tell if the company cared about this game they’d been building since what felt like forever. He couldn’t tell if he cared. He couldn’t face the spreadsheets he’d brought home and was bringing back, unopened.
Forget that. Jason jumped instead to his Y2K survival game, You’ll Wish You Were Dead, which he was coding in his spare time. No way was he showing it to his employer. He’d start a bidding war with the big publishers. Or maybe publish it himself. All he needed was a visionary with money. He rooted around in his backpack until he found the jewel case containing the DVD of his work.
One thing was certain: There would be no commuting hassles or project milestones or oxygen-sucking meetings or absentee wives in the de-electrified, gasless, brute-force, barter-for-your-life world of You’ll Wish You Were Dead.
Friday went about as Jason figured.
React, react, react.
Checking email first thing in the morning was like sitting down in front of an open fire hydrant. Within this gusher, Jason counted six Darwin Awards, a document called “100 Reasons Why Kirk Is Better Than Picard” that he had seen one hundred times before, a link to a cartoon cow who mooed “The Lone Ranger Theme Song” (the cow couldn’t reach the higher notes), an email thread that had gone on so long he could no longer remember why he’d been included, a flame war about Linux, and twenty-six messages with the subject “RE: Meeting,” none of which were about a meeting.
Jason was worried that his team was not going to meet their target date for creating a stable alpha version of their game. He segmented his worry into three areas:
1) They didn’t have a name. The Vice President for Throwing Harpoons Through Your Hopes had taken away Galactic Bedbugs after the focus groups refused to fall in love with it. Now on the launch list they were called Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter. It was hard to motivate himself to motivate his people to build a thing called Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter.
Except Stephanie, the writer. She churned out the pages. She was happy just to be here. Her last project had been a racing game with talking beach balls.
2) János, the game’s designer, had detonated over this latest outrage. He had quit. He cashed his stock and a week later the team received a postcard from him with the news that he was walking from Seattle to Tierra del Fuego. He had already made it as far as Tacoma. With János gone, Jason was not only the project manager, he was now the manager manager. “And all I got was this lousy T-shirt,” he said. Everyone laughed. He didn’t.
3) Stephanie was flirting with him. Stephanie was quiet. She was divorced, a year out of it. He wanted to ask her questions but he didn’t want to hear the answers. Stephanie was a good writer. She could write drama and she could write comedy. She was stealth sexy, like a Transformer that starts out as a soccer Mom minivan and transforms into – he’d like to know what.
Stephanie was flirting with Jason and she had been for about two weeks. Wasn’t she? She didn’t usually look directly at anybody, in meetings or out, but a couple times a day now their eyes met and then she looked away, but sometimes not too quickly. He told her once that her yellow plastic Swatch was cool and she’d worn it every day after that. Plus, instead of the rubber bands she twisted on to hold her pony tail, today she wore a neon pink stretchy thing. Jenn would know what that meant.
Enumerating his worries did not send them to the Recycle Bin.
The day crawled on.
No one complied at the Y2K compliance meeting. When the Y2K Wrangler from Information Services brought out a stack of Y2K-compliant zip discs, the rabbity intern asked, “How would a zip disc work if the computers don’t work?”
Bearish Hojo with his red beard obscuring his “Eat. Sleep. Play Warhammer.” T-shirt suggested that windmills would be popular when the electrical grid died. They could just plug the zips into a windmill. He volunteered to spend a couple of weeks scouting windmills in Holland.
Brick, who was built like a beer keg on stilts and who was only there when he wasn’t kayaking around Vancouver Island, suggested where Hojo could plug his zips. The background artist, Heather Junior, challenged Brick to be more specific. Brick obliged.
Cindy, the lead animator, was wearing groundhog slippers. Her feet were encased in fake brown fur with eyes, nose, whiskers, and mouths in the front and high bushy tails at the back. She swept off her cat’s-eye glasses and said she was going to sue them all for creating a hostile office environment where sexual predators roamed unchecked.
“Choose me, Pikachu!” Hojo boomed. Everyone was suddenly afraid that Hojo would start singing Pokémon songs.
The Y2K Wrangler looked to Jason to restore order, but though Jason had meant to be good he had not prepared for this meeting and wasn’t invested in any particular outcome. He could not get it up for Y2K. Instead, he was thinking of the conversation he’d overheard between Stephanie and Heather Junior. Heather Junior had asked what divorce was like. Stephanie said she was glad to be divorced. She was going to relive her 20s because she’d missed them the first time around. Jason was twenty-eight. He wondered how you could miss a decade.
Hojo belched and said, “Sorry, I’m off my meds.”
There were more meetings throughout the workday. It was clear that no one could get anything done in a meeting, but everyone kept meeting.
Jason’s engineers informed him that they had rigged a camcorder on the roof pointing west. They had programmed this set-up to pop open a window on their screens an hour before sunset. Hojo, Brick, and Blake, the Visual Basic programmers, explained that nature was healthy and they should all spend more time there, or they should at least spend more time watching what was there while they weren’t there. They could build a library with rankings and on cloudy days they could replay the greatest hits.
Jason thought this was ultra cool, but he was their manager twice over and no one was supposed to know how to get up on the roof. It also occurred to him that they should all be working on Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter, not colonizing the top of the building. “Work, guys. Work,” he said. They laughed. He didn’t.
Jason dropped by the fourth floor to hide for a while with Les, the older guy in Accounting who claimed he had paid for college by playing backgammon for money. Jason liked Les. He was like a father except you could talk to him. Sitting in Les’ office with all the artwork by his kids and the photos of Les holding various unfortunate fish and his bowling trophies and his London Calling poster was like going on vacation to the 1970s.
Les told Jason the way to cut down trees was to hire a company that cuts down trees. He handed Jason his copy of the Yellow Pages, but Jason handed it back. “I’m going to do this myself,” Jason told him. He had a whole three-day weekend to work in – or rather, he had three days to fill. He already owned an ax and something that said “LUMBERJACK” on it that had a U-shaped aluminum frame with a blade of crocodile teeth spanning the ends of the U. The tools had been left behind by the house’s previous owner. They’d been sitting untouched in his garage for two years amid his computer junk, stickered skateboards he never used, and a full-size cardboard cutout of Han Solo.
Les was impressed; you could tell when one of his scraggly gray eyebrows went up.
“You got a chainsaw?” he asked.
“Get one,” Les said, and handed him his copy of the Yellow Pages, but Jason handed it back.
“I’m rocking this old skool,” he told Les.
Les looked at him and asked, “Are you getting laid?”
“I sure am.”
“Bullshit,” Les said. “Now get out of my office. And don’t get hit by a tree.”
Jason kept running into Jenn in odd corners of his head. She ran beneath his thoughts like an operating system he couldn’t uninstall.
It was an hour before sunset and a window bloomed on his screen and Jason, who’d been slowly revolving on his chair, wondering what it was like to be a planet, decided that his workday had ended. Once home, he looked up Kozmo online and ordered a pizza with meatballs, red onions, banana slices, and pineapple chunks – there was no one around to object – and a VHS tape of Deep Impact. A skinny dreadlocked white kid wearing saggy pants and flip-flops and driving a beat-up Yugo delivered everything an hour later. The pizza was almost warm. The movie was almost watchable. Jason fell asleep on the couch where he and Jenn had eaten pizza, watched bad movies, and made love time and time again.
The weekend had staggered into the starting gate.
The Saturday-morning sun was steaming a winter full of rain out of the ground. Jason had had his latte. He had eaten his oatmeal, then a slice of cold pizza, while watching an episode of Voyager he had taped. To Jason’s dismay, he had mis-set the VHS timer and only caught the second half of the episode. It was the holodeck again. Nobody in Starfleet ever had a decent fantasy, Jason thought.
With his red-and-black flannel shirt tied around his waist over his black jersey, his pre-washed jeans, and his high lace-up boots from Land’s End, Jason strode from his garage, armed not with a screen, keyboard, trackball, touchpad, joystick, or mouse, but with an ax and his U-shaped tool with “LUMBERJACK” printed on it.
Jason considered his adversaries. He mentally tagged them T1 and T2. The Hawthorns were decades old. Their trunks were braided like twists of cable and their branches were tangled like cable unraveling. Jason slipped on leather work gloves fresh from the Wallingford Garden Center, then picked up the ax, holding it as if he were expecting a fastball. He aimed for a spot on the trunk of T1 between his waist and his knees, uncoiled, and let the Hawthorn have it.
Hitting the tree was not like hitting Enter. The energy of his swing, blocked by the tree, rebounded through his arms, into his shoulders, and down his back. A muffled whack bounced off the row of wooden Craftsman houses across the street. Jason examined the trunk. He had made a scrape in the bark. It might take a while to chop his way from a scrape to a wedge. It might take a long while before T1 gave up and fell over.
Jason shortened his grip on the ax handle and hit the trunk again.
“Takin’ down the tree?” someone asked.
A man with a thick thatch of white hair stood on the sidewalk. His face was round, the bottom half heavier than the top, as if it had settled. He wore a zipped-up powder-blue windbreaker with an American flag pin on the collar, faded khaki pants, and black sneakers. Jason had been in the checkout line with him at Ken’s Market about a week ago. They had exchanged two sentences about sourdough pretzels.
“You’re not usin’ a chainsaw,” the man observed.
“No,” Jason said. The pretzels must’ve been a bonding experience. “Got my ax. Right here.”
“’fraid of ’em?”
“I’m not afraid of them,” Jason said.
“Go a lot faster with a chainsaw.”
Jason sensed that his interrupter wanted an explanation, but what was he going to say? My wife got tired of being married to me and now I need something to do so here I am pretending to be a lumberjack. I should be camping on a mountain top, meditating, or hanging with limber mountaineering chicks.
“Well,” Jason finally said, “you see, I have time.”
The man nodded. “You’re young. Use the time now, while you got it.“
“Okay,” Jason said. “I’m getting back to it now.”
“Give ’em hell, Harry,” the man said.
Jason didn’t get it, but he did get it that the man wasn’t going away. He sighed, stepped back into his batting stance, and hit the tree again. Now that he had an audience, he wanted to produce a fearsome spray of chips, but all he got was another scrape.
A burbling engine noise slid up behind him and stopped at the curb. It was a boat of a Pontiac, low, heavy, and dusty brown, with all of the side chrome pieces missing. It looked like it had escaped from an old cop show. The driver was parked on the wrong side of the road. He cranked down his window, took off the sunglasses that wrapped halfway around his head, revealing tiny, watery blue eyes, and asked, “Takin’ down the tree?” The car cleared its throat. Fumes leaked from under the keel.
“Dude, turn off your engine,” Jason said. The driver turned the key. Too late, Jason realized his mistake. Now the smell and the noise were gone but the man was anchored.
“He ain’t usin’ a chainsaw,” the new arrival said to the man on the sidewalk.
“’fraid of ’em.”
“I’m not afraid of chainsaws,” Jason said.
“Not fond of ’em myself,” the new guy said. “Friend of mine was runnin’ one in his garage with the door shut and damn near ass-fixiated. His wife had to pull ’im out of there.”
The first man chuckled, then coughed as if something wet and dark might fly out of his throat. “My wife won’t go near the garage,” he finally wheezed. “I like it that way. It’s my Fortress of Solitude.”
“Amen, brother,” the man in the car replied. “My wife and me been married fifty years this September!”
“Got ya by four years!”
“Guess we’re still beginners.”
Jason was wondering if old men always give you their career marriage stats when a third man arrived with his golden retriever and asked if they were taking down a tree. He was wearing a black suit over a frayed lime-green polo shirt. Wisps of white hair escaped from under his yellow baseball cap. The golden retriever had streaks of white on its muzzle and in the pale red fur of its ears and wore a collar with “I’m the boss” printed on it.
Jenn would’ve been outside by this point asking everyone’s names and organizing a block watch and a potluck and a book group. Jason sighed. Always take charge of the situation. That’s what a manager does.
Jason offered his hand to the first man, with the thick white hair. “Name’s Jason,” he said.
“Walt,” the man said.
“Lew,” the man in the Pontiac said. “That’s short for Llewellyn. My folks were Welsh.”
“Hello, I’m Minton,” the dog walker said. “Call me Minty. And this is Mikey.”
“Good dog, Mikey,” Walt said, scritching the dog on both sides of its head.
They were all staring at Jason now, even the dog. Apparently, logging was a great way to meet people, but not female-type people.
“I think I’ll start with the saw instead of the ax,” he finally said.
“Wouldn’t a chainsaw be quicker?” Minty asked.
Jason woke up early Sunday morning when unconsciousness kicked him out and slammed the door. After a day of hacking and hauling pieces of tree his body felt as if he’d been living inside an armor-plated accordion. He hobbled up the low hill to the Greenwood Bakery for his first latte.
By the time he had ended yesterday’s hacking and hauling, he had met Walt, Minty, Mikey, Lew (short for Llewellyn), morning Hank, afternoon Hank, and Lavelle. Lew never left his car. Lavelle brought coffee in a thermos, which leaked onto his fleece slippers. One of the Hanks needed a hearing aid. Mikey needed a hearing aid, but he was a dog. Everybody had a story about working at Boeing and winning World War II and girls loved and lost and vacations and children and driving Studebakers. Whatever Studebakers were. Jason couldn’t understand why Minty had spent a summer walking a Florida beach with a metal detector until the men explained he was looking for lost change. Coins? Jason told them he hadn’t been inside a bank in two years, but they didn’t believe him.
He couldn’t face the trees today and every retired guy in his zip code.
Jason had brought his cell phone to the bakery. He had a good connection, so he started calling his people until he found someone willing to give him a lift across the lake. Brick said he was going to the office, but only briefly, like maybe for the morning or possibly until the evening, but he’d be home by bedtime if not the next day.
They arrived at the office at midday with takeout from the Chinese place, but Hojo had already been to the Greek drive-thru. To drink they had Mountain Dew, Oly, some bottles of Rainier, and Hale’s Pale Full Sail Ale. From Heather Junior’s boom box they heard Salt-n-Pepa’s “Push It.” It wasn’t appropriate for an office, on a weekday or a weekend, but Jason didn’t want to say something and have her switch back to the Felicity soundtrack. They passed Hojo’s office and heard him complain to someone on the phone, “I don’t know about this chain mail, man. I just tried the 3D and my butt looks huge.”
Though management always turned the ventilation system way down every Friday night, the building hadn’t heated up much and their floor was end-of-the-day-socks smelly but not full-on-gym-shorts funky. The office’s stale pizza smell masked most of it. As they worked they could hear the hollow plastic clatter of keyboards and the occasional digitized detonation as the team wrestled with their game. Or as people went AWOL to play some other game.
Jason expected the office to feel like home, the place where he spent his sixty-hour weeks. But today it felt different, as if the building were less solid. The pogs he had carefully glue-sticked to one wall of his office, the display that always made him say, “That’s a lot of bottles of milk!,” didn’t conjure anything at all. He caught himself thinking of Lew’s story of driving his family to Alaska in a Ford Fairlane station wagon with a cooler full of sardine sandwiches that they used to distract a nosy brown bear.
People were working, or pretending to work, except the two guys from another team who were in their area playing air hockey. Clack, clack, swoosh. Jason wanted to build something, but he was the manager manager and the project manager. Instead he dived into his inbox, where he saw he had nine hundred and eighty-nine emails including twenty-seven warnings from the systems administrator that he had busted the capacity of his email client. He moved those messages to their own folder where they could keep each other company.
Jason was dismayed that many of his messages brought him immediate replies. It was the middle day of a three-day weekend. Don’t people have anything else to do on a holiday?
It had been dark outside for hours, late enough that a single car on the freeway was noticeable rather than negligible, and Jason was on his way to the office break room to search for leftover souvlaki and sipping his beer when he ran into Stephanie. She was alone in the mosh pit. Sunlight never reached this interior, circular, twilit room. Here the engineers filled their screens with code, lines of letters and numbers punctuated by brackets and slashes that animated starships and activated weapons and gave players the means to mow down rioting aliens.
The mosh pit was a boys club that had allowed only a few girls inside its doors, one of them being Stephanie. She was a few years older than the rest of the team, not old enough to be anyone’s mother, not even the pimply intern, but old enough to suggest the role. That would explain the relatively good behavior in this pit as opposed to the wretched hive of scum and villainy that was the team next door, where their best coder had hacked the elevators and made the fatal mistake of trapping the CEO between floors. They were still looking for a new coder.
Stephanie might’ve been a mom figure, but she did unexpected things. The boys were a little afraid of her, especially after her ex-husband showed up one day and he was a cop. On Friday she had come to work in sweatpants and a green button-down men’s dress shirt with the little polo guy on it. Last Christmas she arrived every day for a month in sweaters with reindeers, elves, or gingerbread men on them. But tonight she was wearing a Spice Girls T-shirt tucked into her Dockers. The T-shirt had seen too many spin cycles in the dryer. The way Sporty, Scary, Posh, Ginger, and Baby contoured across Stephanie’s breasts was unexpected and startling. Jason pulled up a chair, then quickly swung it around to hide his erection, which had exploded out of hibernation and threatened to trip him.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” she said back.
“Are you a coder now?” Jason pointed at the screen, where you could watch the code of their game being knit together by the compiler.
“No way,” she said. She had her hair pulled back in another neon pink stretchy thing and she was wearing her yellow Swatch. A half-empty bottle of Rainier sat on the countertop beside her. “I got tired of sitting by myself. I wanted company but the boys took off. Some sort of primitive hunting ritual.”
Jason was glad they were gone.
Stephanie seemed to decide something. “Are you hungry?” She stood, turned her chair around to mirror his, sat back down and rolled closer.
“Kind of,” Jason said. He suddenly thought of Jenn and how she liked to wear her purple “Judas Priest–Don’t tell me you don’t love the Priest” nightshirt with nothing else but her purple sneakers. He was never going to see that ensemble again.
Stephanie folded her arms across the back of the chair and rested her chin on the backs of her hands. “What are you hungry for?” He noticed that her eyes were dark dark brown.
Jason hesitated, breathed in, then rolled still closer, rose off his seat, and kissed her, their lips gently brushing. He sat back down.
“That’s not much of a kiss,” she said. “You must still be hungry.”
“You must be right.” He rose off his seat and she rose off hers and they tried it again. In the distance a door slammed.
Jason thought about the new managers workshop the company had sent him to, where they were supposed to learn about leadership, forbidden physical activity, and corporate liability, but he’d only heard the speaker’s introduction that day before he got a call and had to run to a software-incompatibility crisis. But then he stopped thinking about his new manager’s workshop, because the code on the screen nearest their kissing had stopped scrolling.
The compiler had finished one of their game’s missions. Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter was ready to test.
“My office,” he said.
“Way ahead of you,” she replied.
“I can’t hold ’em,” Jason said.
Stephanie’s Dockers, Spice Girls, and lucky rocketship underpants were neatly folded on the tiny refrigerator beside Jason’s desk. Her neon pink stretchy thing topped the pile like a bow on a gift. She still wore her yellow Swatch.
A torn purple foil wrapper lay on the carpet, a tropical leaf on a sea of beige. Jason had scooped condoms out of a punch bowl at a rival game company’s table at the last E3 conference. He had scattered the purple ones around his office. Just in case.
Stephanie wiggled her ass a bit in his lap to renew his interest. She gripped the joystick with both hands and Jason’ unstiffening cock with a ring of muscles he had never experienced. She had his attention. She dodged another volley of super-hot gamma blasts, checked the dials on her screen and the position of the attacking aliens (who had also lost their name), and pushed down on Jason’s feet with her own.
“Negative on energy release,” she whispered, in her best fighter-pilot persona. “Maintain status. I’m going in!”
Jason’s jeans and the rest of his clothes were thrown in a corner. He had been holding Stephanie on his lap through two levels of Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter and he was losing contact with his legs. Every time Stephanie ducked another “aliens to be named later” attack, she’d fling her upper body to one side and her curvy behind to the other. Her skin had been cool against his when their clothes first came off, against his chest and legs and under the palms of his hands, but you blast enough space-going battlewagons and you start to perspire.
The only light in Jason’s locked office came from the screen of the Pentium III he had excitedly unpacked that week: the plasma trails of the weapons, the intense bursts of white when a spacefaring vehicle came apart, and the green of the columns of data. Stephanie’s dark brown hair floated in the whirlwind of light, her unruly curls gaining mass and energy.
The game still lacked sound. When he wasn’t listening to Stephanie’s breathing and the slap of her fingers on the keys, he could hear an occasional cough, click, or slam from the offices around them. He heard a laugh somewhere, or maybe a gasp. Were they tangling with alien races? Chasing each other down twisting corridors with shotguns? Discarding two cards and asking the dealer for two more? Were they flying solo?
Jason couldn’t see much of the ongoing conflict, except when a ship or a projectile or a small moon suddenly bounced above the line of Stephanie’s shoulder. He rested his chin on it and fit his chest against her back and inhaled her scent. Stephanie smelled like chicken, either from the Chinese place or the Greek drive-thru. “Hurry,” he whispered. He could feel the detonation approaching and it was going to seed the galaxy.
“What’s going to happen when the game wraps?” Stephanie asked. She gave him that subterranean squeeze again.
“We ship it?” Jason gasped.
“What’s going to happen to the team? Where will we go?”
“To other teams?” Jason’s heart was a bass drum leading a Fourth of July parade.
“You get to pick your teams,” she said. “You get the best assignments. Jason, you don’t want to lose me to some stupid game about crayons looking for their mother, do you? Or that one they’re talking about where you play an old guy hitting on college girls?”
Jason’s heartbeat had moved to the tip of his cock. It felt like a metronome, capable of swinging Stephanie left to right, right to left –
“Hell no,” he shouted. “Stephanie! You should stay on our team! You’re the best writer in the company!”
They were closing in on the “aliens to be named later” home world, a rippling, luminescent scarlet that was one of the game’s best effects.
“Damn right,” Stephanie declared. She thumbed the red button at the top of the joystick. There was a pause while the “aliens to be named later” closed ranks in a desperate defensive gamble, but they were no match for Stephanie. Their home world scattered across the screen, expanding across the galaxy in a bonfire of cosmic gases…until next time.
Stephanie sighed and collapsed into Jason. Victory made her glow like a Renaissance painting of the Annunciation. The adrenaline of battle caused her muscles to contract around him. She reached back and touched his hair.
“How about that jump into hyperspace?” she asked.
Jason got a good grip on her bare hips.
After Jason and Stephanie got dressed and the neon pink stretchy thing had gone back on, they discovered they hadn’t much to say.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Jason asked. “I mean, do you have plans? For the holiday? You must be super busy.”
“Oh, um, you know,” Stephanie said. “Family.”
“Right,” Jason said. “I know how that goes.”
“Um,” Stephanie said. “Need a ride home? If you’re going now? I have to leave right now.”
“Oh,” Jason said, “No, I got one. But thank you. I got one.”
They hugged, quickly, and Stephanie left, quickly. Jason was relieved, because he didn’t know what to do with her, but he suspected she was relieved, too, and that was depressing because he saw himself as a man women wanted to be with but if that were true why was he once again all by himself? He didn’t like how the data points were lining up.
J5, their network guy, left in the early hours with Jason as his passenger. They listened to Dark Side of the Moon on the ride back into Seattle. J5 was careful with his words. He had only said twelve all year, and eight of them were “Floyd.” The spear tip of the Space Needle blinked red. The moon painted Mount Rainier white. Jason wondered what Jenn would say about his weekend so far. She might see these first two days as a series of sub-optimal decisions.
At his house, Jason examined the wreckage of T1. The limbless trunk stood like a mast on its strip of grass, waiting for spars and sails and maybe a flag. Jason watched J5’s taillights disappear up the hill. He looked at the branches and twigs in the moonlight and wondered how he had ended up with Stephanie on his lap and he wanted to ask aloud what should he do next but what came out was a soft “Doh.”
Jason awoke on Monday morning, the third day of his holiday, and stayed right where he was, beneath a sheet that had been separated too long from its friend the washing machine. A day with no structure lay dead ahead for him. He could go back to the trees and his posse of old guys. He could go back to the office for two days out of a three-day holiday and take the nerd championship. (No, he’d still trail Hojo.) He could play music to break the back of the thundering quiet, but he couldn’t decide on an artist or a radio station. Or any movies he wanted to watch. Or books to read. He could eat, but he hadn’t gone to the market since – when? Christmas? Of what year? He was positive there was nothing in the refrigerator besides beer, mustard, and toxic waste.
He didn’t want to boot up any games. Not even You’ll Wish You Were Dead. That scared him most of all.
He was ready to call his father in Florida, a man he hadn’t spoken to in two years, when the phone rang. “Jason? Did I wake you?” It was Les from Accounting.
“No, no,” Jason said. “I’ve been up for hours. I like to get an early start on a free day.”
“Bullshit,” Les said. “Man, I remember recreational sleeping. But that was B.C. Before Children.”
The clock by the bed said 10:58 am. Through the dusty slats over the bedroom window, Jason saw Lavelle on the sidewalk. A woman with white hair battened down with a pink scarf stood beside him. They wore matching black track suits with yellow trim. Lavelle was gesturing. Was he explaining Jason’s tree-cutting process?
“Listen,” Les said, “I know this is like last minute, but we’re having a barbecue. Want to come over? You don’t have to bring anything. How about it?”
How about hell yeah? “Sure,” Jason said, playing it cool. “But I don’t have a car right now. You’re on Queen Anne, right? I don’t know about catching a bus on a holiday.”
“Don’t sweat the small stuff, kid,” Les said. “I know where you live. I looked it up on MapQuest. How’s that for high tech?”
“Les, you rule!”
“I’ll be there in forty-five. But fair warning, I’m going to put you to work. I need a willing mammal. Strong back, weak mind.”
“If you send me to lunch, you’ll have to retrain me when I get back,” Jason said, borrowing one of Les’ favorite jokes.
“Don’t do any thinking, either. I’m not paying for thinking.”
In thirty minutes, Jason was clean and presentable and waiting in front of his house. He was kneeling amid the tangled rigging of T1, wondering if the wood would be dry enough to burn next winter. The fireplace was where they stacked all their unread copies of Wired, but he could use Wired for kindling.
A red Mazda 323, shiny and dripping wet from the self-serve car wash, stopped in the middle of the holiday-empty road. The elfin, elderly woman driving it rolled down her window. Her hair was perfectly blond. She’d put on lipstick to go out. She smiled at Jason. “Excuse me,” she said. “Are you the nice young man who’s taking down his trees?”
Jason levered himself up with a branch like a cane, brushed the sawdust and bits of bark from his pants, and walked on over. “Why yes, I am,” he said. “Would you like a piece of tree?”
The driver put her hand to her mouth and giggled. She wore trifocals with pale green frames. “No, but I’m sure my husband would love one. Have you seen him?”
“Which one is he?”
“Well, in this weather he always wears his blue jacket, the one we bought at Yellowstone.”
“You mean Walt? Then you must be…Esther?” Jason tossed the branch back on the grass and they shook hands. Her hand was small, thin, and papery, the fingers cold. He felt the unexpected urge to warm her hand in his.
“It’s actually Estelle,” she said.
“Oh,” Jason said. He imitated the old guys’ banter: “I guess Esther’s his girlfriend?”
“If that’s the case, I’d better warn the poor woman what she’s getting into!”
Jason laughed. “Walt’s told me all about you.”
“He does go on,” Estelle said. “Has he been by today?”
“I haven’t seen him, but I’m not working on the trees right now.”
“Walt had so much fun over here on Saturday,” Estelle said. “It’s so nice of you to include him in your work.”
“Walt doesn’t actually do any work,” Jason said. “Bet you never knew that.” He couldn’t believe his side of this conversation. His father talked like this all the time.
“I found that out years ago,” she said. “The man’s consistent! But I wanted to invite you to his birthday party next Saturday.” She handed him a white index card with their address and directions written in beautiful loops.
“I’ll be there,” Jason said.
“Wonderful! Now I have to go find Walt. I’m sure he’s forgotten everything he was supposed to do today, and then tonight is our date night.”
Jason watched her turn right on 74th and head uphill. “Date night?” he asked.
Les, after offering Jason all the burgers and sides he could eat, and after making him promise not to drink all the beer, assigned him to the bar – two tables with folding legs that were pushed together with a tablecloth draped over them. Jason had an umbrella to keep off the sun and for a few hours he had no worries as he filled red plastic party cups with pop, water, wine, beer, and, for select customers, vodka and whiskey.
The party sprawled across the sloping back lawn behind the brick house that was home to Les, his wife, Mrs. Les, and their army of offspring. The grownups were mostly adults around Les’ age. None of them knew a thing about computer games beyond relics from the arcade era, like Pac-Man and Frogger. One happy drunk regaled Jason with his prowess at Pong, which placed the man’s prime at somewhere south of Jurassic Park.
The swarm of teenagers on hand took no notice of Jason, except for their shameless attempts to convince him that they were old enough to drink alcohol. They had their own picnic table in a far corner and their own boom box. The girls were graceful and languid, enjoying the commotion they caused among the boys, who talked too loudly and wrestled to get the girls’ attention. The girls looked like swans in a pond full of angry ducks.
Jason asked one of the girls what tapes they were playing over there and didn’t understand the answer. When he volunteered the news that he liked Nine Inch Nails, two freckled girls and their male admirers acted like he’d said Led Zep is so rad. They took their cans of pop back to their table, where somebody’s mom was busy confiscating their latest tape. The party was much quieter with the rap turned off. You could hear “Don’t Fear the Reaper” from the scratchy speakers that Les had propped in an open window. Jason saw the illicit tape later: The Slim Shady LP. He had no clue.
The moms came to the bar in twos and threes. They wanted wine and diet drinks. They were polite to Jason but they didn’t include him in their conversations, except one woman who lingered and asked him questions. The woman was tall and carried some extra weight with good posture. The way the brown buttons on the front of her dress followed the crests and troughs of her figure made him uneasy. Only moms were her age.
The women had three main topics of conversation:
Psychology (of children)
The dads came to the bar by themselves, but another dad often materialized once the first dad got to the head of the line.
The men also had three topics:
Gear (for sports)
Paying for college
The men tried to show Jason how cool they were by mentioning a band (almost always the Eagles) or asking him where he went to college. They were always disappointed when he said he was out of college, that he held a job, and went to work every day the same as them.
Les kept Jason around long enough to feed him supper and have him help with the clean-up. Mrs. Les gave him a picnic basket stuffed with leftovers. Les drove Jason home around 10 pm in his silver Ford Taurus station wagon with the “REFUSE TO LOSE” Mariner’s sticker on the bumper.
“Tell me you’re going to hire somebody to finish this,” Les said, as he crunched around on the debris from T1 and T2.
“No way,” Jason said. “I’m all over it.”
Les shook his head. “Fucking kid.”
Jason stuck the picnic basket in the fridge, walked down the hall to his bedroom in a beery, burpy, happy hamburger-and-pickle haze, and fell gratefully into the dumpster of sleep.
Tuesday began about as Jason figured.
React, react, react.
Jenn called. “It’s time, Jason,” she said. She sounded like she’d psyched herself up for this call, her voice as forceful as he’d ever heard it. “It’s way past time. I want that divorce.”
For weeks Jason had felt the way you do when you stand on a subway platform and the train is approaching and the train pushes the wind that lifts your hair and flows around you. He could deal with the train before it got to him. He could deal with it after it left him. It was the rush and the roar of its arrival, the doors opening and closing on old and new lives, the transition he could not hold back, that he couldn’t bear. “I can’t talk now,” he said. His head hurt from the day before. Head-hurting after drinking was new. “I’m at work.”
“I’ll call you tonight,” Jenn said. “Because we’re going to talk. We can’t live in this twilight zone. I know I can’t.”
“Okay,” Jason said. “We’ll talk. Tonight.”
Ten minutes later he received an Outlook invitation for a meeting that was already in progress. His attendance was mandatory. The subject line was blank.
Oh fuck. I’m losing my wife and I’m losing my job.
Jason took a seat at the conference table across from three men. He recognized the guy with the Sears-catalog male-model cheekbones from the executive group photo in the lobby. He had graduated from the school where all executives go to study how to be human. This man was from a department whose function Jason could not quantify: Marketing.
Jason didn’t recognize the other two men. Their sandy hair was thinning and their bulky faces were red from – playing golf? Not from playing golf in Seattle. Les and his friends played golf and they looked like they’d spent the spring at the North Pole.
“Hey, Jared, thanks for coming over on such short notice,” the cheekboned guy began. “Call me Cody, everyone else does!”
“Bill,” one of the golfers said.
“Burt,” the other golfer said.
Jason mentally tagged them T1 and T2.
They shook hands all around.
“I’m Jason,” Jason said.
“Oh no you don’t, Jared,” Cody said. He consulted his notes. His sleeves stopped two precise rolls up his forearms. “Wait,” he said, “oh yes you do! Ha! Jason, I’m glad we finally have a chance to circle up and talk. Now I know this is not going to light up your dashboard, but there’s no other way to say it. We’re canceling your game, big guy.”
I can’t talk now. I’m at work.
“You and your team have done an awesome job,” Cody said. “But we’re not getting any traction in the press and the advance orders are a net cash negative. We’re sitting in the front seat of this roller coaster and we’d better throw out the ballast before somebody narrows the guard rails.”
“But we lost our name,” Jason said. “No one can review us or place an advance order if they don’t know our name.”
Cody chuckled like the uncle who brings you toys after the doctors take your tonsils out.
“Losing your name was a tough break, that’s for sure. I don’t like getting rat-holed anymore than the next guy, but at the end of the day, which would you rather do? Crank out another widget or pop some new corn? I know everyone says I keep harping on the same dead horse, but this is a fierce space we’re competing in. It’s not all guns and roses out there. If we’re going to improve our performance at the margins we’ve got to step up to the plate and fish or cut bait.”
Jason’s head needed a serious defrag and disc cleanup, but even in this state he could see that no one was going to un-cancel Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter. To be honest, he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted them to un-cancel it. “What happens now?” he asked.
“Good question, right?” Cody asked. He turned to T1 and T2. They said “Hmmm.”
“I’m glad you asked me. We have a lot of moving parts here and I want to make sure we all know where to write our names while the concrete is setting.”
Cody shuffled the folders in the stack beside him and dealt Jason a blue one. “This ought to spin your dial: We’re turning the home products division into a customer-driven industry-ready integration-solutions provider.”
“We’re going after the under-penetrated slices,” one of the golfers chimed in.
“Is that where I’m going?” Jason asked. Now he was scared.
“Heck no!” Cody said. “You’re too impactful to be playing out of position, Jason. We’re forming cross-functional teams to capture incremental market share in the strategy space. We’re going to climb out of our silos, strategize at twenty thousand feet, and execute at sea level. You’re going to own one of those teams, my friend.”
Jason wasn’t sure what was happening, but he was sure he had to get out of this room. “Cody,” he said, “this is a lot to take in.”
Cody put his hands up, palms out. “Hey, big guy, I hear you. I know we’re trampling new snow here. This is not the same soup in a different bowl.” The golfers nodded their large puffy heads. They wouldn’t last a week after Y2K.
“So just tell me what you want me to do today.”
“Ha! I like you, Jason, you’ve always got your eye on the finish line. Okay, let’s head downfield. Archive all your code, then settle up your people resources. Pick two folks to keep and maybe two alternates. Give me the back and forth on the others, but don’t get too wrapped around the axle on this. We have a lot of right-sizing to do.”
“You mean layoffs?”
“That’s the white elephant in the room, isn’t it? We’ll distribute your people among other teams, but when the music stops some of them won’t have chairs. We have to put our house in order before we can take it on the road. This morning I pinged Justin about the budget and he says resources are already disappearing into buckets for next quarter. Let’s make something happen, guys and gals! When the tide goes out I don’t want anyone to see that we’ve been swimming naked. Got me?”
No. “I’ll have something for you by the end of today.”
“Make it by three,” Cody said, “because I have a hard stop at four.”
“Ring my doorbell if you have any problems getting your plans baked.”
If anyone wants me, I’ll be in my room.
Jason was staring at his Star Trek starfield screen saver, which he’d set to the slowest speed, sitting in the chair where he had had sex with Stephanie, when he heard a knock and the door opening and closing. When he looked up Stephanie was standing beside him. She wore a blue suit, a white shirt opened at the neck, and a strand of pearls. Also hiking boots. You couldn’t see a curve on her.
“What happened Sunday,” she said, all in a rush, “was nice. It was fun. It was probably my fault, and I shouldn’t have said some of those things. I’m sorry. But it can’t happen again. I’m not dating you.”
I can’t talk now. I’m at work.
Stephanie was waiting for him to speak.
“Can you play chess?” he asked.
“I know how the pieces move.”
“Go downstairs right now and talk to Étienne,” Jason told her. “He’s developing a chess game and he needs a writer.”
“What about our game?” Stephanie asked. “Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter? Are you getting rid of me?”
“They canceled it,” he said. Her shock made him realize that he’d been expecting something awful to happen for weeks. “Don’t tell anyone yet.”
“Um….How do you write for a chess game?”
“The game has a talking coach. She teaches you how to play better and not have your ass handed to you.” Jason realized later on that this was an unfortunate choice of words with a woman who had handed her ass to him. “You’ll write dialog for the voice talent. Étienne’s already recruited a chess master – he’ll guide you. Get down there now before anything else happens.”
Stephanie hesitated. Then she put one hand on his shoulder, looked into his eyes, said, “Jason, thank you,” then opened the door and ran.
Jason made his choices and typed up his report without getting wrapped around an axle and clicked Send. He called around to find chairs for his people before the music stopped. Then he invited them into his office one at a time and told them what was happening or what he thought was happening. Hojo was speechless. J5 spoke. Brick cried. Cindy said, “I will bury them.” Jason felt as if his body was present but his soul was asleep. He wondered how he had become so burned out and used up. The “aliens to be named later” could go ahead and conquer the galaxy if it meant that much to them.
He checked his email and saw he had received an email from János, who had walked back to Seattle from Tacoma:
Down w/the tyranny of marketing! I am the new King! I have first-round VC $$$ to launch my own marketing portal. The fountain 4 all things marketing! The 7 Cities of Sanctified Bullshit! What should I call it, Niagara or Fishbreath? I’ll silence every idiot who ever thought they could tell me how to sell my own game!
I need engineers who can interface w/humans. I don’t understand the species. Jason, I sleep every night on bales of $$$. Set yourself free! Declare your independence! Dot-com, J, dot-com!
(PS: Don’t bring Hojo.)
Jason was watching his screen saver, listening to the rising tide of worry outside his office but thinking about a marketing portal, whatever that might be. It had to be better than running his own cross-dysfunctional team, whatever that might be. He was fantasizing about standing inside a holodeck where he was fantasizing about dot-coms and trying not to think about what he was going to say to Jenn because that made him ill and about Stephanie in his lap because that made him hard. The train had arrived, the doors were opening, and he could not bear the transition.
The sunset window popped open in the upper-right corner of his screen.
“We’re going to the roof,” Jason announced in the hallway, which contained his team and several others. “Everybody save or close out of whatever you’re doing. Hojo, run up to six and disable the lock on the door. Don’t give me that look, I know you know how to do it. Brick, Cindy, Blake, get down to the kitchen, get something to drink and whatever there is left to eat. Heather Junior, go get your boom box but don’t bring any of your music. We’ll all meet topside.”
Nobody moved. Jason had always been their buddy, even after being made their project manager when his cranky predecessor, The Bob, was promoted and shipped to the San Francisco office. Eons ago, The Bob had learned COBOL, probably from Copernicus, and still believed that made him Master of the Universe. The only thing older than COBOL was Mesopotamian. Nobody wanted to be like The Bob. But The Bob knew (and he was always ready to tell you that he knew) how to make something happen.
Jason had to borrow that. He rolled his chair out of his office and told the rabbity intern to hold it steady. He balanced on the seat and clapped his hands. Three times. It worked for Les when he was herding children. “Come on, people,” he yelled. “This is the end of days. This is the celebration they don’t want us to have. This is us sticking it to the Man. Now let’s move like we have a purpose!” Hojo was first through the door marked STAIRS. A moment later Jason heard Cindy in the stairwell yelling at the intern to stop stepping on her groundhogs.
Jason turned to the office’s racks of CDs. Now he was lost.
“Floyd,” J5 said, handing Jason Meddle. “ ‘Fearless.’ Play it.”
“This is sad. This is for a funeral,” he said.
“This is a funeral.”
“Yeah, but – ”
“Funerals aren’t for the dead,” J5 told him. “They’re for the living.”
Jason wondered if this was same guy he’d known from the Chinese place and the Greek drive-thru.
“Go,” J5 said. He was far beyond his limit on today’s words. “I’ll bring all the Floyd I can find.”
On the roof there was a breeze with a hint of summer heat in it. Cars roared below on the I-90 as they headed eastward into the Cascades or westward into Seattle. Cindy, Brick, the intern, all of them, along with curious people from other teams, crunched across the asphalt with snacks piled in Hojo’s motorcycle helmet and cans packed in a cardboard box.
“Diet Vanilla Pepsi?” Hojo was outraged. “Mr. Pibb?!”
“Get over it,” Cindy explained. “It was a holiday. The vending-machine lady hasn’t shown up yet.”
Heather Junior set up her boom box on a squared-off aluminum vent. Jason handed her the CD and said “Track three, when I say now.” Somebody handed him a Mr. Pibb. The thin lines of clouds over Puget Sound, visible beyond the downtown towers, were flaming into orange as the sun fell toward them.
Everyone looked at Jason as if he were about to cut down a tree.
“We made a good game,” he said. “Stephanie and I tested the Invasion Alpha mission, and it rocked.” He pointed his Mr. Pibb at Stephanie, who blushed and pointed hers back. There was scattered applause. Jason said, “I enjoyed working with all of you, and you can always call on me for a reference.” He remembered János’ email and said, “Except Hojo.”
Jason realized that in a week or two he’d give his notice and disappear like a flat stone that runs out of skips. He would never see most of these people again.
“The game is dead. But there are other games. There are other…things. In life.” Jason swept his hand outward, as if he knew what he was sweeping at.
“Like horror-movie chicks,” Hojo suggested. People threw packs of potato chips at him. “More for me,” he said.
“I met this man named Walt,” Jason went on, though he didn’t know where. “He’s very cool. I’m going to his birthday party this weekend. He’s like a hundred, but he and his wife still have a date night.”
“Go Walt!” somebody yelled.
“Shazbot. I suck at this,” Jason said. “Party at my house on Saturday. Beer, barbecue. Bring the beer and the barbecue. Bring everything I need to have this party. Everyone takes home a piece of tree. Okay, now,” he said to Heather Junior. Pink Floyd began to strum, and to sing about challenging someone to climb a hill, and he knew that in about a minute Jenn would pop into his thoughts and he’d choke up and look like a dork when Floyd got to “You pick the place and I’ll choose the time / And I’ll climb that hill in my own way,” so he’d better finish this and get out. He raised his Mr. Pibb. “Goodbye, Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter!”
“Goodbye, Unnamed First Person Sci-Fi Shooter!”
As Brick and Hojo tried juggling Mr. Pibbs and people dug into the treats and Pink Floyd brought a sudden stinging to his eyes, Jason turned away. For a moment he wasn’t thinking of Jenn or their game or everyone disappearing or getting rich at a dot-com. He saw himself leading his team one last time. He saw himself leading them over to Walt’s house to sing “Happy Birthday.”
You’re right, Walt. It would’ve gone much faster with a chainsaw. But I’m afraid of them.
Steven Bryan Bieler learned to write with a ticking clock above him, an editor with a cricket bat behind him, and dynamite strapped to his leg. Parts of that sentence may not be accurate. Bieler makes fun of your favorite bands at https://rundmsteve.com/.