Going to California

In-between Days — 7

Something like a month earlier, the line began to form to see what would be the first Star Wars movie in 26 years. To say that emotions were high among the geek community, and even in American culture at large, would be an understatement.

Rick and I had spent a large, single-digit number of afternoons scouring the local toy stores for the new Star Wars action figures, those having been the currency of cool in our grade-school years of our youth. If you had a Sandperson, or a Jawa — or, later, Yoda — then you were pretty bad-ass. In fourth grade, I’d had a long, ongoing narrative going amongst all the toys in my room, and my Star Wars action figures figured prominently. When my parents finally made me pack them away so that I’d have one less reason to be “that uncool kid” in junior high, I’d been morose for weeks. I was thrilled to have gotten them back from my parents after all that time, and even more thrilled to see what great condition they were in.

I, of course, had two Yodas. No, I don’t remember how or why.

This all made it that much more important that Rick and I indulge what might well be a last hurrah, making regular sweeps for the rare figures. Because as much as it was feeling like it could be the beginning of something cool — I mean, it was Star Wars; how could you fuck that up? — there was also a sense in the air of an end coming. We were seven months from the end of the millennium, and the occasional bubbling-over of little pockets of insane cults over the course of the last ten years did nothing to dispel an overall concern that something bad might happen on the other side of the millennial boundary. It doesn’t make any sense, but if there was one thing I’d learned from my deep study of paranoia it was that it doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t. The global computer system crash promised by the Y2K Bug, the Japanese nerve-gas cult, the Web developers who thought a flying saucer would take their opiate-laced souls to another world — so many little things contributed to an uneasiness felt across the nation.

And still, we had new Star Wars, and as a person who’d made a serious practice of attending opening nights, typically with large groups of friends — when I saved 16 prime seats at the opening of Jurassic Park with nothing more than three extra sweaters I’d brought to do exactly that, after having been third in line to get into the theater, I thought I might be lynched; I was so relieved when Mentor and his wife showed up early to lay reasonable claim to that much entertainment real estate — I was going to be there. Unfortunately, I had a job. A lot of people did not, and were literally camped out in line for tickets. The theaters were wholly unprepared for the “gotta see it first” culture of the geeks, and eventually relented, agreeing to sell tickets weeks ahead of time just to get their sidewalks back, but they’d made it a condition of the advance sale that leading up to the sale, all the campers had to stay put in their the tents they’d erected in front of the theaters. If a tent was empty, you lost your place in line.

I’d been cursing my bad luck that the startup hadn’t yet been bought, so I was still gainfully employed, when I’d gotten the call: some buddies from Steve Jackson Games who’d worked in the warehouse were rotating through shifts in the fourth tent in line for tickets at Austin’s finest, newest theater at the time. If I’d agree to work a night shift, I could have some tickets, as many as four.

It would’ve been fine, if some other big geek hadn’t gotten drunk and fallen into the tent where I was sleeping, bringing his booted foot down upon my skull. I screamed, and he apologized — he was with the Ain’t It Cool News tent, and might not actually have been old enough to be drinking — before running off.

Over the next couple of days, I was in so much pain that I went back to my chiropractor. I usually saw the woman of the couple, but after she took a look at me, she sent in her husband.

“So,” he said, “you remember in school, how they taught you about continental plates? Right?”

“Uh-huh.”

He held his hands out before him, like he was grasping a globe. “Well, your head, your skull, is much like that. You have a lot of plates, and they all fit together neatly. What’s happened to you is that the plates aren’t perfectly seated right now. So we’re going to work on that.”

“Um, okay. Great.”

He looked me seriously in the eye. “Okay,” he said, and walked behind me, grasping my skull. His hands felt like silk-wrapped granite. He exhaled and he did something, and I heard a low-frequency tone shoot up to the inaudibly high then back down to a low background buzz. My head felt a full quarter larger than it had been. So much room for thoughts.

The doc walked around to face me. I started to move and he held out his hand. “Stay there for a few minutes,” he said. He looked exhausted, suddenly. What had just happened? “Just stay there.” I wiped his brow. “I think that worked — it worked well. Just don’t move for a few minutes. Let everything settle in.” Then he turned and he left and I never saw him again. His wife came back in after a little while, looked at both sides of my head, declared me awesome, and sent me in my way. I never saw her again, either, though we did have a fateful phone conversation not to far in the future, from California.

So I had my tickets, and I’d invited my friends — my best friend John, who I haven’t had a reason to talk about except to say that he kept me sane when I had few reasons to cling to sanity — and Robin, who I’d failed to sleep with several weeks earlier, and one of Robin’s friends, who I’d never met.

It was only as I passed Waco, the roughly halfway point between the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and Greater Austin area, wondering when I would next carve out the time to read the last half of Cryptonomicon, that I shook my head and realized that my midnight tickets for the new Star Wars movie were for that very night, and that regardless of how many days my pals had stuck it out in an REI tent just to be able to buy tickets, if I got in line thirty minutes before showtime, I’d end up with the worst seats in the place.

I stopped at home long enough to feed my cat, whom I’d come to love quite a bit, against my better judgement, then I busted on over to the theater where I was sixth in line for the midnight show’s general seating. John and Robin and her friend joined me about six hours later, and we chatted and laughed and snacked until they let us into the theater. I was riding a high after having motored through the rest of Cryptonomicon in the time I’d sat on my own, and it reverberated through my reflection on my life and my concern for my grandfather’s.

It wasn’t exactly crushing that it was such a terrible movie. Really, it was one more inexorable step towards an adulthood I’d too long delayed.

Then the phone call: my great-aunt, at 103, had passed away. That was sad, as she’d been bright and mobile up until six weeks before, when she’d broken her hip walking through a grocery story’s automatic doors, but granddad’s reasonable reaction to the passing of his last sibling was more concerning.

When granddad got the news, he panicked, had a heart attack. After hanging up the phone from the news, he’d stumbled over to the front door of the woman across the road — a feisty young woman in her late-60s, who’d already buried two husbands and who recognized from his stride and from his pallor what was going on. She’d called the paramedics without making a fuss. Unfortunately, Weatherford being as slow it is, all three of her adult children happened to be sitting at home scanning the police and emergency radio bands, and when the call went out for an ambulance to their mom’s address, they freaked out, racing over and blocking her driveway with their irregularly parked cars, preventing the arriving ambulance from being able to get anywhere close to my grandfather, who was being overlooked entirely in the clumsy comedy of three children harassing their mother about what could possibly be wrong with her. To their credit, they alternately helped the paramedics and stood off to the side saying nothing, once the truth came out.

Meeting up with family, especially in Weatherford, was always an odd occasion. My life and my interests were so different from everybody else’s, and it wasn’t like I could feel anyone reaching out to bridge the divide.

That’s not totally true. One man, a second-cousin about my age, tried to make friends by telling me how happy he was that he now lived in the suburb where I’d grown up, and how great it was that his neighborhood was almost entirely white people, with only a couple of Mexicans. His life was so empty that he found it to be a good use of time to sit out on his porch, staring down anyone with dark skin who might make the mistake of thinking they could drive through his neighborhood.

“I just want them to know we don’t need their kind here.” I kept waiting for him to break character and say, “Aw, I was just messing with you! Come on: shouldn’t anyone know better than that, nowadays?”

But no. Let no one wonder why I spent so much of my youth dreaming of a world, even in a galaxy far, far away, where it didn’t matter what kind of alien you were, as long as you didn’t give in to your dark side.

The day of the funeral, I was there to help check granddad out of the hospital. He’d been the youngest of eight kids, and now he was the last. Twice he told me of his desire to be done with life, gripping my arm much more strongly than I thought him capable.

He asked, “You ain’t against me, too, are you?” The skin on his hands were worn and crossed with creases, like a piece of paper that had been folded too many ways, too many times.

“I’m here for you,” I said, though not in the way he wanted me. It didn’t matter. Inside of a week, we’d be back in Weatherford to bury him.

In the meantime, the news came out that we were going to be bought by a company that I’d never heard of — that no one I knew had ever heard of, even though two of their executives were on the previous year’s list of richest Internet tech dudes. So, okay, they have money, and their success actually predated the Internet. They didn’t have a Web front-end for their big, successful software package, something about businesses and enterprise relationship management, and while they could’ve hired a bunch of a class of people who’d begun calling themselves Webmasters — a word that made me want to stand in the unpaved alley behind my little shack and slam my car door against my hand over and over — they instead wanted a tech-facing solution as well as a market-facing solution. By saying they were buying us, they’d have a story as to how they were going to set up a beachhead in the new Internet world, whatever that meant.

I started taking afternoons off from work. They weren’t going to need me anymore, and still I spent long hours wondering what I was supposed to do with myself. Eventually, I started walking. In Texas, going out for a walk anytime between late spring and early autumn was a commitment: you were either pacing yourself, presuming you knew how much it’d take you to get to where you were going, or you were on a suicide mission, aiming yourself at a distant target in the hopes that you’d eventually get there. I’d spent a lot of time on Texas summer suicide-mission walks, and as long as you kept going, and didn’t mind sweating, and always stopped to hydrate, it wasn’t nearly as bad for you as it might be otherwise.

In three hours, I’d walked from my place to Austin Books, the closest comic book store, and back. That trip was the first time I saw them selling old Star Wars toys. They had small cardboard boxes overflowing with loose-limbed and paint-worn Han Solo figures, lightsaber-less Obi Wan Kenobi figures, and other more elegant samples from a more civilized age. I bought nothing, taking in the air-conditioning and making my way home in the mid-day heat.

There was a convenience store on 45th Street, attached to a laundromat, where I stopped to rehydrate. I didn’t like buying bottled water — it felt too much like throwing money away — but I needed it. Behind me in line was a young woman of the typical Austin hippie variety, maybe twenty-two years old, with a young boy, maybe four or five years old. He was alternately trying to talk his mom’s ear off about Star Wars, or he was mumbling about something I couldn’t understand. She was tugging one ear and staring out the convenience store’s front window.

Finally, three people away from the cashier, I turned around. “Did I hear you say Yoda?” I asked.

His eyes grew wide, but he was too afraid to speak to me. He begged his mother to communicate for him.

“He loves Yoda,” she said. “He’s his favorite character.”

“Has he seen the new movie, yet?” I didn’t have the heart to criticize it in front of a child.

“No,” she said. “Haven’t, you know, had the time.” Which meant she hadn’t had the money. She pointed at the convenience store’s far wall, where it joined up with the laundromat. “Just washing clothes, trying to stay sane this week.”

“I hear you,” I said.

The boy was pointing furiously at a smear of green ink on his bicep.

“What’s that?” I asked. He looked confused, almost angry.

“Him,” he said.

“Oh! Yoda!” I said.

His mom winced. “He has these stamps.” She sighed. “A, ah, a friend of ours gave them to him. So he stamps himself with Yoda, but it’s hard to see. Hey: with that new movie out, there’s gotta be toys right?”

“Sure,” I said. “Tons of toys. Believe me, I went looking for them.”

“Cool! I mean, especially about the Yoda. That’ll be a huge relief. If I don’t get this kid a Yoda, I d0n’t know what’ll happen.”

He pulled hard on his mom’s peasant skirt and with loud whine asked, “When’s Roger coming back?”

She must’ve been long past her limit for hearing that question in a day, because she snapped.

“He’s not coming back!” she cried. “He’s not, okay? So just accept it! We all have to accept it, that’s what we do now, okay?” She put her hands to her face, sobbing. I paid for my water and got the hell out of there, walking too fast for the heat that surrounded me, because I knew something that she didn’t know, that I didn’t have the heart to say: that there were not any Yoda figures. Oh, he was a popular character, no doubt, but he wasn’t part of the first wave of figures. I hadn’t so much as seen a Yoda beach towel or anything.

Some strange set of symbols slid into place in my mind, imagining this kid suffering a great loss, one that had clearly crippled his mother, without some symbol of wisdom and serenity to form more fully in his head.

I opened up the box of Star Wars toys that I’d started keeping when I’d been eight years old, quickly laying my hands on my two Yodas. They were each identical, with the same robe and the same belt and the same orange snake around their neck and the same gnarled walking stick. They were in as perfect a condition as you could ever want. I picked one and raced in my car back to the laundromat, where I found the woman and her boy. She was staring off into space; he was rubbing the green splotch on his arm, his mind clearing churning.

I muttered under my breath, “Jesus Christ,” then I said, “I’ve got something for you.” She seemed confused. Then I explained as to how, yes, there were new Star Wars toys, but there were no Yodas. She doubted; I assured her; she grew an expression of fear, turning slowly to stare at her boy as I held out my hand to give him one of my Yodas.

“This was mine when I was a boy,” I told him. “You know about Yoda, right? He’s very wise. If you’re ever not sure what to do, you can ask Yoda, and he’ll give you the right answer.”

“Oh, thank you,” said the young mom, her boy’s eyes as big as they could be as he reached for the unexpected toy.

He’s going to break it, I told myself. She’s going to lose the little cane and he’ll melt part of the snake on a candle and the robe will go missing after the belt gets busted, but I couldn’t care less. What’ll be left, that small slug of brown plastic with a green, pointy-eared head, would be a wonder to him, an oracle. At least, that was my new hope.

She thanked me, began to offer to — I cut her off, smiling, backing away. I’d done what I’d come to do. I did not want to impose.

Three days later, peacefully in his sleep, my grandfather died.

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