Going to California

Life by the Valley — 7.3

When we got to work, Matt stomped off on his own. I disappeared just before lunchtime, and when I came back I went straight to Phil’s office.

“I made a mistake,” I said.

“What do you mean?” he said. I didn’t have to be finely attuned to the British accent to hear he was being coy.

“With Matt,” I said. “I’ve seen him rub people wrong before, but this is a whole new level. Or maybe it’s I’ve never been leveled by him before. But he’s gone wrong, and people are starting to listen to him, and it’s going to be bad for the project.”

“You don’t trust him,” he said.

“Yes.”

“Does anyone else on the team feel this way?”

I thought about it. Most people were still charmed by him, but I’d been watching — with him talking so much, I had a lot of time to observe other people. A couple of the older, no-bullshit guys clearly doubted him.

“Yes,” I said.

“Okay,” Phil said, palms flat on his desk. “So you’re paying attention. That’s good. Here’s the deal: on Friday last week, your ‘buddy’ came in here and he told me that I had to stop you from doing what you were doing, right in your tracks. That I had to give him your job, and that you should work for him as his little helper.”

“What?”

“Now this morning, he went into Mary’s office and told her that he needed my job.”

“You seem pretty calm, considering.”

“When you know what you’re dealing with, you can afford to be calm.” He sighed. “It’s good you came to me.”

“What makes Mary think he won’t just do the same thing to her? What does Taher think?”

“He’s out, back Wednesday for the staff meeting.” I didn’t usually attend Mary’s staff meeting, but this time our whole group had been invited to give an overview of the project’s progress. It was going to be a big deal.

He narrowed his eyes at me. “This could be ugly. Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked. “This guy’s an old mate of yours right?”

“It’s already ugly,” I said. “Every morning and evening, he’s been the same cool guy I’ve always known, then at work he’s been some kind of crazy person. He has no money, so he’s staying at my place, and I’m paying for all his meals. This weekend, all he did was order me around and talk shit about how I didn’t know what I was doing.”

Phil looked at me for a long time as his face slowly softened.

“That is the worst thing you could have possibly said. I am really, really sorry that that’s what’s been going on. You should’ve told me much earlier and I’d have gotten it all sorted out.” He thought a moment. “Maybe that wouldn’t have been for the best, though. At least now it’s clear. You went above and beyond, you gave him every chance and he stabbed you in the back. He tried to stab me —”

“I’m really sorry about that.”

“Don’t you apologize, it wasn’t you. Better people have tried.” He leaned forward. “What I’m saying is you gave your best mate a chance, and he turned on you like a mad dog. I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll talk to Mary. Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right.”

I believed him. Two days later, we were all in Mary’s office. Matt was tapping his fingertips on the table, practicing some drum riffs. The Packet Storm product owner, Brad, couldn’t make it.

Taher came in and the meeting started. The engine team gave the technical side of the presentation, to positive head-nods all around. Then Mary introduced Matt to Taher as the consultant we’d brought in to speed development of the Web site through which the service would be offered.

“Let’s see it,” said Taher.

“It’s going to be a while before we have a site,” he said. “We have a whole lot of work to do before we put down a single line of code.”

Taher shot Mary a questioning glance.

“The site itself is not on the critical path,” Matt quickly said. “There are plenty more important—”

“Do you know,” asked Mary, “what ‘critical path’ means?”

“Well, yeah,” he said. “It’s all the biggest, most important things in the project.”

“No,” she said. “It’s the longest path of dependencies through the project. You can have small things on the critical path that don’t seem important.”

“Oh, yeah, I know that. I read that book in high school.”

Mary laughed lightly. “High school,” she said.

“What do you have so far?” Taher asked, clearly unamused.

Phil brought up the couple of screens I’d done before Matt had arrived.

Taher nodded. “Looks good,” he said. He smiled at the team. “It’s getting somewhere.”

“Thank you,” said Phil. I began to notice how no one was looking at Matt anymore. They never looked back, either, not the rest of that day or the day after, when meetings began to be held without him being invited. People didn’t stop to speak to him in the hall. Mary walked out her office and blew past our cube on her way to the door.

“Hey,” Matt called. She was gone.

I got Chinese food for us that night. The next morning I’d be driving him and his grotesquely enormous luggage to the airport. Phil had urged me to let the company put him in a hotel, but I’d declined. I wanted a chance to say goodbye.

“I just don’t get what happened,” he said, rocking back and forth and staring at the carpet. “Guys come out here and get crazy-ass jobs, they’re offered desks made out of LEGO and shit — I mean, they hired you. I don’t know what went wrong.”

“Did you tell Phil to give you my job?”

“That,” he said, “is bullshit. All I wanted was for the right thing to happen. Everyone would’ve been happy. Well, shit. At least I have the other two weeks.”

“I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”

“I need that money — it’d better happen. God dammit.”

“Did you tell Mary you deserved Phil’s job?”

He got quiet. “Look,” he said. “I swear to you, I have no idea what happened, okay? Everything was going fine.” He stared at a spot on the carpet. “I just don’t know what could have happened.”

“I’m not sure I know what happened, either,” I told him, and that was the truth

The next morning I drove him to the airport.

“Enjoy your fucking quarter-million dollars,” he said, wrestling his luggage from the back of my car. He could’ve just lifted it and it would’ve come right out.

Over the weekend, I reached out to my old friends in Austin, hoping they’d tell me I’d been a fool for trusting him. They didn’t.

Rick’s response was emblematic of all the others. “Of all the people in the world, he did that to you? To you? After you defended him, for years? I never pretended to understand, but you loved that guy. And what you described is the saddest thing I have heard all year. It is the saddest goddam thing in the world.”

On Monday, Phil pulled me aside.

“Like I said,” he told me, “we’re all sorry about what happened. But you need to know that we trust you.” He told me they were giving me a raise. I’d been there three months, and after what I saw as having been a massive failure I was getting a raise that on its own was more than half as much money as I’d ever made at Steve Jackson Games.

Distantly, I knew I was supposed to feel good. But Matt had cracked what little confidence I had left. It was the exact opposite of why I’d had him out in the first place.

Over the holidays, a few weeks later, I’d call his step-dad, Michael, to say Happy New Year. He’d sound neutral, and I’d wonder what story he’d been hearing. After a minute, he’d hand the phone to Matt. We exchanged polite well-wishes, and to date we would not speak again.

I think it was the money. Money makes people do weird things. You have to be careful how you handle it. It’s like uranium: you keep it in a vault and don’t think too much about it or you’ll wake up after not long to find your skin bubbling over. Jim had never seemed to be focused on money, just by technical excellence, and there he was starting his own company. He had a better shot than most at changing the world. Doug, I thought at the time, had gotten caught up in trying understand why he hadn’t been as successful as some of the people he’d seen get rich, people who’d simply been at the right dumb place at the right lucky time. As one of the smartest guys I know, I think it was tough for Doug to make sense of the difference between some of the idiots we would see high-fiving each other, buying last-minute first-class tickets to Hawaii, versus himself and where he was. And the worst part is he was right. It didn’t and doesn’t make sense.

Austin had been going through the same exciting economic uplift as the rest of America, though the articulation of the boom was much larger and more obvious in California’s Bay Area. On the roads out here, the cars were even that much nicer. The people were more fit, and more well dressed. Not everyone was rich, but there was an air that everyone was moving up, or at least should be. And if you weren’t, then the difference between the aspirational energy you felt around you and the place where you saw yourself to be could be crippling.

Even a relatively modest and kinda scruffy guy a few doors down from me in the complex had a classic 1960s-era Jaguar. The dude did a lot of work on it himself — it looked awesome. He was a good guy, actually, a bit older than me and not strictly a techie — I forget what he did, but it was more your ordinary job. Still, he was friendly, if a little shy, like so many of us out there at the time, unsure of what our places ultimately would be in the world.

We lived close to each other for four years, and I’ve no idea what became of him. I don’t even remember his name. If we’d had Facebook then, I bet we’d still be in touch today, Like-ing each other’s vacation photos and commenting on one another’s links. But with that strange, euphoric energy binding us to that place in that time, when everything fell apart, as it would shortly, and the energy rushed away there was nothing to hold us all together. We crashed, all of us, and some of us never recovered.

A few of us just crashed earlier than others, is all.

Driving back from the airport after I saw Matt for the last time, I reached out to that place in my mind where I still held some part of his mother, my friend.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

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