That next weekend was the worst, not just because I couldn’t believe how mortally wounded it felt to be dumped by a girl who I cared so little about that I regularly forgot her eye-color (brown); not just because I’d been given an impossibly short amount of time to rewrite the book I’d spent the last year authoring, designing, play-testing, and promoting in articles and on the cover of our in-house magazine, Pyramid; and not just because as part of Steve’s announcement that the book would be late, he also said that we’d both be staying in Austin during the first big convention of the summer, the Origins, second only to the show at which the book was scheduled to ship, which was called GenCon. The previous Origins had been in Fort Worth, a driveable distance for us from Austin, and it had been a blast, the first time I’d really connected with people who worked at other game companies as, well, someone else who worked at a game company and not as a fan. It was much cooler hanging with the game industry people as another industry person.
What pushed that weekend over the top was having to sit around the office knowing full well that there was no way I was going to rewrite a 208-page book in four days, and that I’d be damned if I was going to sit on my ass at home dwelling on my worst fear, that my stutter had returned. And while trying to imagine how to even begin thinking about the problem, I had to sit and watch Jeff poke away on the Web, idly browsing page after page.
“Dude,” he said, chuckling. “You seen this?”
I made a kind of scoffing sound, because it was the best I could do at the time.
Jeff looked slightly wounded, leaning in toward the monitor. “It’s cool.”
I took a shallow breath and said, “That really what you spend your time doing?”
He grinned. “It’s awesome. There’s more stuff here every day.”
“You’re wasting your…” I couldn’t get out “time” or “life,” and as I groped around for another appropriate word. He didn’t seem to notice.
“It’s what everybody’s going to be doing,” he muttered, clicking on the next link, and I think that’s the best prediction he ever made. It made me angry for a couple of reasons, though.
In the online community that Steve Jackson called Metaverse, he had imagined digital storefronts and virtual real estate, and he’d worked hard to get other game companies to set up shop in his text-based online city. But the limitations of having to move a character around in order to get from one store to another was a limitation of the Metaverse as presented in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. It was not a limitation of the Internet that was being built before our eyes, and it was not how people actually wanted to do things. People wanted to type in a URL, or click a bookmark or a link, and be taken directly to wherever they wanted to go, the moral equivalent of a teleporter in virtual world. If you don’t have to bother with traveling in order to get from one place to another, then there’s no need to concern yourself with the geography of the world. In fact, you don’t really need the world at all. You just need a browser, and an interconnected Web of pages that could come to encompass the world.
So the age-old geek question had been a terrible waste of our time thinking about. It didn’t matter what the Internet would look like. It wouldn’t look like any one single thing in our lifetimes anyway, it seemed — not the abstract glowing shapes of Neuromancer, not the fantasy metaphors of True Names, and not the edgy, photorealistic virtual reality of Snow Crash. The shape of the Internet was Jeff, and growing millions of people like him, clicking links on crappy pages in buggy, incompatible browsers. For most people, that would be the Internet experience for years to come.
On our end, while the gaming side of our online dreams never happened, the Internet as it was coming to be shaped was definitely a money maker for the basic “get online” side of Illuminati Online. Metaverse slowly faded away, and the venture settled into being a simple service provider rather than a virtual world builder. Toward the end, before Steve acknowledged that the gaming services side of the dream was wearing thin, Doug had been looking more and more haggard. He’d gone from being the guy who’d been living the international cyberpunk dream, the laid-back tech guy who could do anything, to another guy who was just as beaten down as the rest of us from all-nighter after all-nighter. Then Doug got an interview with a local tech company — an actual tech company, Tadpole, who made crazily expensive workstations the size of a laptop; imagine that! — and suddenly, he was gone. Sure, Jim McCoy was still there, and a couple of other people I cared about, like Chris Williams, but the aspirations I heard most often coming out of the io.com staff, when it turned out that they had any aspirations at all, stretched about as high as writing a script to see if there were any three-letter .com domains that hadn’t already been taken — xfc.com, for example. There were still a few of them sitting around waiting to be grabbed, in the summer of 1994.
These people were not looking to change the world. They were solely in it for the money. Hunter S. Thompson said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” That summer, I understood what he meant.
I refused to waste my time Web browsing.
“Why don’t you try it?” Jeff asked. At the end of the day, he was a sweet, well-meaning guy, and every day it felt as though there were fewer and fewer people there whose company I genuinely enjoyed.
I gave Jeff the most honest answer I could. “Uh-uh,” I said. “Might like it.”
It was diabolical that one of the ways in which my speech impediment hit me the hardest was in trying to say the first-person pronoun “I” — at the beginning of a sentence, at least. Even today, my posts and messages are littered with horrible constructions like, “Might like it,” instead of, “I’m afraid I might like it,” because when I’m rattling text off quickly I have it ingrained to avoid beginning with “I” so that I’d have a greater likelihood of starting to get the sentence out. Otherwise, some times I wasn’t able to get anything out at all.
The longest part of that wretched weekend was the late Saturday night I spent alone at home. I practiced trying to say random things, with varying results. It’s nearly always easier to talk when there’s no one there to hear, of course, though I’d had my bad days. In grade school, on many days I spent hours mutely watching TV, mouthing the catch-phrases, the sayings, the words, all the words I heard. I had some bad days in my twenties, living in Austin, too.
There was, it seemed, a carefully cultivated structure in my mind that I don’t believe I’d consciously realized I’d been building. Maybe everyone does the same thing, only I’ve had to break the seal and void the warranty and manually mess around with the process because of my situation. Or maybe the whole thing’s just the product of my crazy memory.
(I think of my memory as being genuinely crazy because of things like developing a series of epic stories based on the characters I saw when I looked at numbers. For the record, my high-functioning memory is very selective. For example, one day in third grade, on the way to school, I found a small garden snake, dead in the road, so I put it in my metal Star Wars lunch box and forgot about it until lunch time. There, in the cafeteria, to my delight, I remembered it. Squeals all around as I displayed my prize, though somehow my show-and-tell didn’t come to the teacher’s attention until after lunch when the class couldn’t settle down. The teacher said I was being disruptive and sent me to the principal’s office. When the principal asked why I’d been sent down, I explained that I’d been disruptive in class after returning to lunch. The truth was that I could no longer remember why I’d been sent down there; I think I got distracted passing through the library on the way there. He told me not to be disruptive any further and sent me back to the teacher, who was astonished to see me again. “Did you even tell him about the dead snake in your lunchbox?” I slapped myself on the side of my head. After returning to see the principal and adding this crucial bit of context, I was sent home for the day. Because I only lived two blocks from school, they let me walk home, where I watched TV for five hours before dinner.)
It was as though I’d been growing a tree of language out of snippets of phrases, sayings, and whole run-on statements as delivered by characters from the movies and TV shows I’d seen, or from radio programs, or from lines from songs I knew, or from stage plays I’d seen. This tree of associated, reasonably compatible options comprised the scope of what I was capable of saying without risking too much trouble. I’d be fine either because I was merely repeating what someone else had once said, so it wasn’t like I was having to create my own sentences by piecing the words together one by one, a process which felt to me a lot like paving a road while driving down it, or because I’d built into a rhythm, which felt more like having paved a runway just far enough to let the airplane of my voice take off, more like making music than like making a personal statement.
This crystalline tree of language had grown so large that I’d basically forgotten it was there. I’d been pruning it, adding to it, making adjustments almost unconsciously for years. Now something bad had happened, and it had been shaken, and many little leaves might as well have fallen off the tree. I spent hours and hours that weekend, and in the weeks and months to come, watching TV, watching anything and everything, adding back some little leaves, the more discrete units of word inflection which had served me so well in the past.
I don’t even remember a lot of what I watched. Funny that so much of whatever it was probably contributed significantly to the core of how I talk now.
The other thing that helped was cursing. I quickly discovered that falling back into some rather extreme cursing would also smooth the way for pretty much any sentence start, though I’ll spare you from most of it. Still, profanity produced not only instant runway pavement for launching my speech, it also made for high-octane jet fuel. When you start you sentences with, “Motherfucker,” not only do you have no choice but to hurtle onward, but whoever you’re talking to is guaranteed to be all ears. The conversation doesn’t always go well. Still, I figured that I at least got out what I was trying to say without stuttering too badly, so I called it a win.
I saw Felicity that Sunday morning.
She’d gotten a job at my favorite breakfast place, Red River Cafe, where evidently it was appropriate to wear tall black boots and a long, purple crushed-velvet cape over a short black dress. My heart skipped a beat when I registered it was her. She was half a head taller than I was, which I noticed less while looking up at her as she was asking what I wanted to eat.
The crystal tree shuddered. I frowned, burbling a little, pointing at the menu.
“Really hungry,” I explained weakly. She smiled at me.
“How’s it going?” she asked later, sliding into the booth right across from me. I guess it was her turn for a break.
“Motherfucking great,” I said.
She grinned. “All right! Same here. I moved in with Patch. He’s split from his wife, and Doug Barnes had an extra room, so he let the two of us move in with him.”
“Fuckin’-A,” I said, pulling the lever that made my head rock up and down.
“Doug’s got a new job, at a big tech company. They make these workstation computers, the size of a laptop.” Her voice got quiet. “Do you know how fast those things are?”
“Mmm,” I said, hoping to sound impressed.
Getting back from the cafe, there was a message on my answering machine.
“Ah, Mr. Pearcy? This is the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. We have recovered your stolen vehicle. Call us back and you can come pick it up.”