Going to California

Dog Boy

Eighteen years and three weeks ago, I drove from Austin Texas to the San Francisco Bay Area, from a tin-roofed shack off an unpaved alley behind a high-school friend’s house to take a well-paying job in Silicon Valley. I was making a move between what I saw as a life where I wasn’t contributing anything to the world, to a place where I felt I could.

On a whim, I brought a hand-held tape recorder along for the ride. Every once in a while, I’d record random thoughts or tell some story or other. The drive itself was a bit of a blur, and I couldn’t remember what all I’d said. I despise the sound of my voice, so for eighteen years I’d never listened to the tape.

But two weeks ago, I did, and I felt compelled to transcribe my favorite part. Looking back, this story is both the core of everything that was great about my move to Silicon Valley, and everything that went really, really wrong.

Here it is, essentially verbatim.* My 18-years-later notes are in parenthesis.



My greatest achievement in art school, in my opinion, was also my first — which was sort of disappointing, as (everything else) was basically downhill from where I was.

My first summer I returned to the University of Texas and officially entered art school, I took a 3-D design class. I took a sketching class, and a 3-D design class. Out of the sketching class, I got the friendship of a woman named Stacy, who also had a painting class on my floor. And who was breathtakingly beautiful, and mind-numbingly attractive. At the same time I had just been so hurt by a major breakup that I found it impossible to really give in and accept her affection for me. (We ended up spending tons of time together. She even came over to sleep in my bed, and I never so much as tried to kiss her. I didn’t think I deserved her affection. This would be a running theme.)

But the other class I was taking was a 3-D design class. I met some really cool people there who I would end up knowing for a while, as well. It was in this class that I had the greatest achievement of my art-school experience.

(There were four of us in the group.) One was a really cool guy named Chris, who ended up being in a band called Mother Tongue and moved out to LA and did all swell — I’m told; I saw their name on the cover of a magazine once and I thought, “Wow, man, they must be bad-ass now.” And they were, they were great. (Had always been.)

Once, I’d gone to go see a movie at the Hogg Auditorium on the UT campus where they would show movies in their really kinda crappy auditorium, these really painful wooden chairs. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience, but they played films that you wouldn’t see elsewhere. And he worked there, he helped run the place. (He was on ticket duty that night, and even though I hadn’t seen him in months he did the cool-guy head-nod and waved us in for free.) I was there with my girlfriend Melinda at the time, watching Casablanca. Afterwards he and his friend played this song. (It echoed down from the projection booth.) They were both playing guitar and one of them was singing, while the other would come in with harmonics in the background. And they were great. We sat there on the ground in the foyer of Hogg after the movie, just kinda holding hands, leaned up against each other, sitting on the ground. And it was cold, we were bundled up because it was February — and it was great.

It was actually his idea, the dog. We were working on our final project. Our final 3-D design project was to create a sculpture, in a group, that would be integrated with its environment.

There were two girls in our group. One girl, I think she was Greek, a very petite olive Greek with dark, black curly hair. She was beautiful. This last half of the summer was to be her last little bit of freedom before she moved to San Antonio to marry an Arabic man that she was very enamored of, who was probably her very first decent lover. So she was going off to San Antonio to marry him, then they were going to move off somewhere else, their eventual destination I’ve forgotten after ten years.

The other girl, Michelle, was really cute. We mugged out real hard one time after I dropped her off at her place, while working on the project. She was the one who contributed the leash and the rhinestone collar at the last minute.

Because: all of the suggestions that we put forward to our teacher, she shot down. And she wanted to know what we were going to do — ahead of time, we had to tell her, we had to sell her on it. It had to be a sculpture that was integrated with its environment. It had to be around the art building and the environs.

So we suggested things like a large spider in a giant web up in the corner of the stairwell of the art building, and she said no. We suggested a lot of things and they she shot down everything. Meanwhile the other groups were happily cranking along during class and constructing (things like) their enormous lipstick and power case to be erected in the girls’ bathroom. That one was done by the girls who were just taking the basic 3-D class (as a necessary elective before graduation). So there were a lot of dilettante girls who needed their three-hour credit and figured they’d fill in half the summer with this 3-D design class that (actually) took up four hours a day, I believe every day of the week.

It was a great life, though, it really was. I knew I was blessed at the time and I loved every moment of it — but I didn’t love myself, and I didn’t allow the love of anyone else to shine through.

That was really a drag. I feel like I’ve sort of truncated my emotion right now, and it’s this emotional energy that I’ve bottled up the whole time (more than ten years) to sweep me across half of North America at 85 miles an hour.

So anyway, there we were. It’s the night before the project is due. We’re at my place, we’re drunk — I’d just cooked up a big shrimp-pasta crazy-ass thing, threw in a bunch of wine and we all got plowed and hung out and tossed around ideas, just flailing in the blindness because we were so drunk, and so desperate.

And Chris, god bless him, suggested road kill — he suggested producing a fake road kill.

The Art building was directly across a very small, one-way, one-lane, inner-campus drive from the Fine Arts building. Between the Fine Arts building and the inner-campus drive there’s this nice creek with a small bridge that you cross over before you actually enter into the dark, early 70s-constructed Fine Arts building, which was a very peaceful building: low, set back and dark and brown, and in fact integrated with its environment rather well, I think.

Chris suggested that in that inner-campus drive, we set up some nasty piece of road kill. The consensus was that “dog” was the best idea, so I got a bunch of stuff that night from a nearby grocery store after everybody left — god, it was like 2:30 in the morning. (I was coming back from dropping off Michelle at her house. That was the time we made out in my car.) And I cut out of foam core an underlying base for it to set on, like a dog lying on its side — a small dog, like a petite frou-frou dog but not super tiny. So you would have to step around it.

(On the tape, I start to chuckle.)

Michelle brought the little rhinestone-studded collar and the pink leash, like someone was out walking this little frou-frou dog and it got hit. (Now I laugh.) And it was just laying there. And I got a Tupperware container full of blood and little jiblet guts from the late-night butcher at the grocery store across the street from my complex into which I’d moved just recently, having just arrived in Austin and still getting my feet on the ground. (I’d been in Austin for nearly not quite two months, and I’d only been single for a few weeks.)

That morning first thing I went to Cloth World and bought some kinda gray-black frou-frou dog hair, a square yard of it. Went up to school and cut the thing out, wrapped little (fur) legs around the base so that they would have something to be anchored to, like they were kinda stiff, and stuffed it with crumpled up and shredded pieces of the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper that they conveniently left lying around near the Art building to be used by students in their projects.

The girl, whatever her name was — dark, Greek girl — contributed a black marble which I gummed up with all of the hog’s blood that I’d left out overnight (along with some real hamburger that had gone bad), stinking it up in my kitchen, exposed to the low heat of a Texas summer morning. Really pretty ripe. She’d contributed the black marble, which I cut a little slit out for, and with the coagulate I’d gotten at the grocery store, we then stuffed its shredded, open dog belly —

(more laugher)

— with the rotten, mixed-up hamburger meat —

(even more laughter)

—and entrails.

(laughing very hard now)

The Tupperware container of blood, we then flecked onto the shredded edge of false dog hair that surrounded his belly. The blood poured down —

(giggling uncontrollably)

— the small one-lane street, down to the white concrete curb, dripping off into the hot mid-day sun. Me and Chris sat on the side of the inner-campus drive by the stairs going directly up into the Art building and watched people pass it for a couple of hours before class started. Actually, we met at noon and we watched for an hour until the class started. We sat up there and watched people walk by it and just laughed and laughed and laughed, because it looked so fucking real —

(losing it again)

— and people just freaked out when they saw it — and, more importantly, smelled it.

(choking on laughter)

That was really the best reaction.

(choking on tears and laughter)

When their nose confirmed what they saw, they freaked out.

I really did like startling people. It was a lot of fun. I couldn’t hold back my excitement too long, though. I went upstairs to get David Erwin, who was a friend of mine I made in the class and who I’d really go through most of design school with. We’d remain in touch intermittently for the rest of my time there in Austin. I really liked him.

I went up (to our classroom and found David), and asked if he wanted to go across the street to the cafeteria in the Fine Art building’s basement, and he said, “Yeah —yeah, sure, man.” So we walked on over, and we walked out of the Art building and went down the steps, and there, as we were crossing the street — you would have to step around it to get to the Fine Arts building — was this dead dog.

As we approach it, he slows and he gets quiet and he goes, “Oh my god, I think it’s a dog. Oh my god. I think he’s dead. I think that’s a dead dog.” I bust out laughing, and his eyes get big and he looks at me and he says, “I don’t think that’s a real dog. I think you made that dog.” And I just lost it completely.

Chris (off to one side by the bushes) saw what was happening and laughed again, as David said, “You know, I was just thinking, ‘Somebody loved that dog.’” I think he was kind of upset with me for having done that. He ended up taking it in good spirits.

So (minutes later, back in class) we walked through almost all of the other students’ pieces. Since ours was outside, it was going to be one of the last ones. We went into the bathroom and we saw the giant thing of lipstick, and we went out and into the hallway and inside one of the studios and saw some crazy piece of shit in the corner — and it was all kind of interesting and fun, and here we are, we’re hanging out, we’re students in this 3-D design class, all proud of ourselves.

Then we drop outside to go look at ours, which Chris and I tell them is across the street in the gully, in the creek bed of the Fine Arts building across the street.

Our teacher, however, knows what’s going on, as she had to drive up the inner-campus drive so that she could park her little pickup truck near the sculpture department, which was on the far side of the Art building. Man, she was really cool, too. She actually drove right past it. It was a little off to the side of the road so that cars could drive past, but they had to go out of their way just a little bit to get around it on the left-hand side. It was on the Fine-Arts building side, so that coming out of the Art building you had to cross the street towards it, and you had a little time to suck it in as you approached it, coming down the stairs of the Art building. She drove past it and then stopped —

(more laughter)

— and saw us laughing, and then busted out herself laughing, gave us the thumbs up, and drove off to park.

So she completely went along with our charade of our thing being across the street.

Other people naturally had reacted to the thing in the meantime.

There was one guy who was this crazy-haired art student Master’s candidate who was doing I don’t even know —



This part of the tape ends here, for no obvious reason. But the rest of the story’s details are indelibly burned into my mind.

Other people naturally had reacted to the thing in the meantime.

There was one guy who was this crazy-haired art student Master’s candidate who was doing I don’t even know what, and walking across from the Fine Arts building he saw our little sculpture and yelled, “Goddammit,” stomping straight over and grabbing it by the leash to dispose of it. Blood and entrails fly everywhere as Chris and I leap out and shout, “No — it’s Art!”

He froze, looked at the bloodied fake fur and shredded newspaper and foam-core base dangling from the pink, rhinestone leash, and his face transforms. “I’m so, so sorry, man,” he said, and to his credit he helped us reassemble it.

Several people saw it and steered clear of the thing completely. At least one of them called the campus trash patrol, who drove up in a pickup truck and tried to scoop it up. We kept them from destroying it, with the promise it’d be gone well before sundown.

So. We all walk out of the Art building, down the short stairs, and I’m at the front of the pack so I stride headstrong across the street toward the Fine Art building’s little creek. But something marvelous happens: everyone else — except David and Chris and the two girls, who hang back to observe — slows as they approach the dog, forming a loose circle around it. I heard emotional muttering, and then a shriek — then the whole group yells, and everyone in the circle spins on their heels, groaning and scowling and shaking their heads, while I laughed hysterically, literally squeezing my sides together.

Dog Art

Our teacher took a few photos for us. We got an A in the class, and for the first time I felt like I had won — like I wasn’t a loser with nothing to point to, I was finally the cool guy I’d always wanted to be.

I was so wrong, and I’d find out for sure a few weeks later when I ran into a girl from that class late at night in the back of the grocery store. She was really something: smart and fun-sounding and pretty-looking, exactly the girl from whom I desperately wanted validation.

Rolling my cart over toward her, I caught her eye and did the cool-guy chin nod, saying, “Hey, good to see you again.”

Her mouth curled to a half-smile at first glance, before freezing as full recognition settled in. “Oh,” she said, looking me up and down. “You’re that dog boy.”

She turned away, redirecting her cart and rolling off. One small moment and I felt completely eviscerated, everything raw about me spilling out onto the grocery-store tile.

I never saw her again.

Too often, the things I thought I needed to do to prove myself were exactly the things that held me back. This would come up over and over when I moved to Silicon Valley, until I finally learned my lesson and was able to take the first step beyond, into the real world.



Four years ago, I began writing about my life and how I got to California. Starting today, I’ll be posting weekly updates until I finally get to the end.

Thank you for reading. Here now is the rest of story.


* I made extremely light edits, mostly dropping some repeated, irritating words. Frequent offenders: “just” and “like” and “really”. I trimmed a bit of detail for focus, and I also moved two paragraphs around to make the story a little less convoluted.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 8.5

“I grew up in a time,” I told him, “when people, grown-ups, were still proud to say they didn’t even know how to turn on a computer, like it was a mark of status or something. When I was fourteen, I managed to save a little bit of money and my parents for whatever reason let me buy a computer. I ended up running a bulletin-board system from my bedroom through high school.”

“What kind?” he asked. I noticed that the girl with her back to me had stopped typing.

“Oh,” I said, “the sharing-text-files kind. You know. The exploring-places kind.”

He looked back towards me, but he was no longer looking through me. He was looking into me.

I continued. “I was mostly a pirate, but I learned from the phreakers. Hung out on chat lines, trading numbers and things. Figured stuff out. Free long-distance You know. You’re from Chicago, right? There was a big group up that way, a lot of boards.”

He smiled. “In Chicago,” he said, “we used to hang out on loop lines.” That’s right. They were phone numbers which didn’t terminate once someone called in, they looped back around and as far as we could ever tell they’d let any number of people call in. “The phone company uses those lines for testing,” he said.

“I remember.”

“I found one, one time, that turned out to be the main loop line for a central office. To help with troubleshooting line problems, they had it piped over the intercom system for the whole office.” He paused to see if I’d get it.

I did. “You mean everything said by a bunch of hacker kids was being broadcast out over an office at the phone company?!”

He giggled. “Yeah,” he said, smoothing back blonde wisps. “It was pretty bad, but we had no way of knowing. We only used it at night and on weekends, when the office was empty.”

I knew exactly what stupid things young hacker kids told each other.

“Holy crap,” I said.

“Yeah. Then one day we skipped school and got on the loop.” He wrinkled his face. “It was bad.”

“How bad?”

“Not really bad, actually.” He laughed again. “It was more funny than anything. A guy in the office got on the line and was like, ‘You kids get off this line, this is phone company property, don’t you know this is coming out of every speaker in the ceiling of every room in our office?’ And we were like, ‘Really?’ And he goes, ‘Yes!’ So of course we starting going, ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuckers! Fuck, fuck, fucking everything!’ And he was all, ‘You goddamn kids, I’m going to find you and you’re going to fucking pay!’ And we said, ‘You know everyone in your office just heard you say that, right?’ And he was like, ‘Goddammit,’ and slam, hung up the phone, and we all hung up and we never called back.” He stopped laughing. “They didn’t catch us, of course.”

“Holy crap,” I said, feeling a grin pressing hard into my cheeks.

“They call me Lineman,” he said, extending his hand. “What was your handle?” he asked.

Without missing a beat, though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d done it, I told him my true name.

“Never heard of you,” he said, quickly cold.

“I’m okay with that,” I said, and coming from the hacker underground, where reputation was the currency of respect, not caring about your rep either meant you were too ignorant to realize you were poor or you were too rich to care how poor other people thought you were.

I was neither, mostly. “I’ve been out of the game for a long, long time,” I said, “but it was fun, back in the day.”

He began to smile again, then he looked away, at a large cardboard box on the floor.

“You know what that it?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“Five-hundred lockpick sets. Brad had the idea to give them away at a conference, but—” He shrugged. “Turns out that’s illegal.”

“A minor detail,” I said.

Lineman winced. “He’s not very big into details.”

“Huh,” I said. “That’s not good.”

“It’s actually bad,” he admitted, leaning over to rip the box open and pulling out a few plastic bags inside each of which was a leather pouch, a little longer than my palm but maybe only half again as wide.

He ripped open one of the plastic bags and unsnapped the leather sheath, exposing some long, metal implements, each with a different kind of craggly bit on the end.

“I was thinking,” he said, “that I’d put the word out that anyone who wants one can have one. If they’ll just send me an email with their address, I’ll mail it to them.”

“That’s a great idea,” I said.

He fished out another handful and held them out toward me. “Want some?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Know how they work?”

“Not really.”

So he taught me how to pick locks.

“That’s shockingly easy,” I said.

“It’s kinda embarrassing how easy it is,” Lineman said. “But these are easy locks. They’re all different, you just have to learn them.”

“Huh,” I said. The girl had turned around to look at me. She was still smiling. I felt myself looking at her differently, though I wasn’t sure exactly how.

“We should hang out,” she said. Lineman was nodding.

“I think we will,” I said.

It wasn’t until late that night, after struggling with all the locks in my apartment and finally getting to the point where a few of them would open trivially, when it finally occurred to me that I had a lot to tell Phil.

Later, a voice in my head added: When there’s more to say.

It would not be long.

Going to California

Life by the Valley — 6.1

But I shouldn’t leave you hanging over what happened with Doug.

On my first day at work in California, Doug had randomly picked a Caribbean restaurant on El Camino Real, between the road that cut over from our office and where Stanford began. They served an enormous set of ribs, with steamed vegetables, which was truly amazing. We’d taken Jim there, and he also fell in love with the ribs. After that, for a long time it was our go-to place for meeting up after work.

One day, after diving into a rib plate, I looked up and started laughing as the details of my day came back to me. I’d been powerfully hungry, given that I’d been too excited to get to work to bother with breakfast, and I’d been too excited about my research to have taken a break for lunch, so 7 PM saw my first meal of the day.

“What?” asked Jim.

“Crazy day,” I said, wiping the Caribbean rib dirt from my cheeks. I have no idea what they slathered on those racks, but it was other-worldly.

“Go on.”

“Well, I skipped lunch. And breakfast.”

“You had coffee?”

“Coffee’s not breakfast for most people.”

He nodded. Most valley dudes could accept coffee as a meal substitute. We would agree to disagree. “Go on,” he said.

“So we got Packet Storm back online — the Packet Storm guys did, anyway. My boss is still pissed that he didn’t get control of that project once it became a real thing, but I figured our scanning project should probably learn from all the content they’ve got there.” I leaned forward. “It’s a land mine. I mean, a treasure mine. I mean, a treasure trove.” I shook my head. “Jesus, I need to eat more often.”

“Sounds like you were right the first time.”

“That’s probably true. It’s no wonder Harvard took it down, though. It’s not just one land mine. It’s like a minefield, with a stack of flyers every twenty feet showing you how to make different kinds of mines. You wouldn’t believe the kind of stuff these tools can do.”

Jim looked up from a rib with an expression I took to say, “Try me.”

I leaned forward more. “Remember when they added microphones to Sun workstations? If a machine’s running a recent version of Solaris, I can remotely switch on the microphone without the user knowing. And listen. And they’ll have no idea.”

Jim nodded. “I remember that one. It was a little while back, wasn’t it? There’s a patch.”

“Sure, but not everyone keeps their machines up to date,” I said. Jim looked perplexed, but then he was one of the top system administrators in the entire world. Who wouldn’t care about computers and not keep up to date on their security patches?

“And doesn’t it only work across local networks?” he asked.

“Maybe,” I said. “But there are a lot of unpatched machines out there.”

“Said the man who’s working on an Internet security scanner.”

“I don’t exploit the vulnerabilities,” I said, “I just revel in the horror of knowing what’s out there.” I laughed again.

Jim smirked. “Okay, what else?”

“Well,” I said. First principles. “There’s this guy named Doug.”


I think it’d been a little over three weeks since Doug had come into the office. Earlier that day he’d called my cell phone.

“Greetings,” he said.

“Hey, good to hear from you. What’s up.”

“Oh, not much. The usual. I had a question for you.”


“Are people…unhappy with me, there at work? You see, I got up this morning and found my cell phone no longer worked.”

“Your company phone?”


“Well,” I said, wondering how best to put it, “you kinda haven’t been around for…three weeks? Not answering your phone. I think people might’ve been wondering what was going on.”

“And what did he say?” asked Jim.

“He admitted as to how he didn’t have a great answer to that.”

“Huh,” Jim said. “Well, that sucks. I should probably drop him a line, see how he’s doing.”

“He’d like that.”

A few months later, when Doug’s ex-girlfriend finally moved out of the place they’d been sharing, she let him know when she was going to be out so that Doug could drop by and sort through all the him-related things she was leaving behind. There wasn’t a whole lot that he hadn’t already taken away, but he did discover a series of FedEx envelopes containing increasingly concerned questions from Tahir asking where the hell he was. The last one regrettably acknowledged their necessary parting of ways, after which I’m guessing they switched off the service to his corporate cell phone. Doug’s ex- had been signing for the letters and then shoving them under the bed without bothering to tell him that they’d been arriving.

Doug never returned to Kroll-O’Gara. Instead, he and Jim turned their full attention to building the peer-to-peer file-sharing system they’d call Mojo Nation, which would be the incubator for what we now call Bit Torrent. But that will take a while to happen. For now, back to my crash.

Going to California

In-between Days — 7.5

The phone rang.

“Hey!” It was Felicity. “I’m coming to town this weekend. Are you going to be around? I got a bunch of family stuff to do, but Sunday work work for me. I’m driving back out after that.”

She’d settled in a small town in east Texas, within miles of the large-scale printing facility I’d discovered out in the country, where we’d printed the first issue of my magazine. That stretch of land, about 45 miles long and a couple of miles wide at its heart, was home to the original Texas oil boom, years ago. It was around this aggressively exploited area that new surveying continued, reaching out to touch other natural resources like natural gas and coal. It was that area’s strip-mining that my former roommates, the archeologists, had dedicated so many years of their life to protecting, when they could, and when they couldn’t they did their own sort of mining, preserving whatever artifacts could be retrieved in the time they had.

Felicity was also only not far from where my mother’s parents owned a patch of land — out amongst the pine trees, with a small horse and a couple of other animals to care for — and where I’d spent many weekends as a child. It sounded like it was a different place, now.

“Hello?” she said.

“Sorry, I was thinking about family.”

“Yeah — me, too. I’m coming in to help my mom with a bunch of stuff. She’s been in this storage unit forever, and it’s already cost way more to keep than it would’ve been to buy the stuff over again, so—”

“My granddad passed away,” I told her.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh—I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry, too. That’s why I’m not going to be around this weekend.”

“Oh. So the funeral is in a couple of days?” It was Wednesday.

“It’s Sunday,” I said. “Afterwards, I’ll say goodbye to everybody and head on back. When do you have to take off?”

“Mmm, three or four, if I’m going to get back at a decent hour.”

The funeral would be just after noon. I wasn’t going to define a sharp period of time that I thought it should take, but it would have to be at least an hour. Austin was about four hours away.

“I think I’m going to miss you this time,” I said.

“Oh. Well, here’s what you do: call me, when you know, and maybe I can wait for you.”

“I don’t think I’ll know. I just want to drive up, and be there for it, and drive back. I don’t want to think about schedules.”

“I’m—Sure, I totally understand. And I’m really sorry to hear it. That’s bad, and I’m sorry.”

“Well, thanks. He was almost 92 years old—”

“Holy crap!”

“I know!” I sighed. “And his older sister died last week. She was 103, and she still had a really sharp mind.” I laughed. “It’s funny to wonder if he died because she’d died, because I don’t think he liked her that much, actually. He was the youngest of eight children, so they’d always called him ‘Baby’ — and I can imagine that after ninety years, that might start to get under your skin.”

She laughed. “Agreed.”

“I’ll call you,” I said.


On the drive up, I kept checking in to see how I was feeling. I wasn’t happy, though I’d be glad to see everybody, but I wasn’t sad, either. I’d hit a plateau of calm, somewhere, from which I looked out at the world through unselfish eyes.

Granddad had several people dropping by regularly to check in on him. Until his heart-attack, he’d still insisted on mowing his own yard. Every afternoon, he’d sneak out into the garage and smoke a bowl of damp tobacco in one of the wooden pipes he kept in a cigar box among all his power tools, neatly hanging from peg-surfaced walls. He hung saws on his peg-board; we’d hung modems from ours. Our worlds were not that far apart.

“They found him the next morning,” my mom told me. “One of the nurses, I think. He died in his sleep, at some point the night, with his cat.” She shook her head. “You know he loved that cat. He always had it sleeping on his chest, and that’s how they found them, your grandfather lying on his back and that cat curled up on top of him.”

I’d called Felicity that morning, before the funeral, and left her a message that I didn’t expect to be back before five, so I didn’t expect I’d be able to see her. I wished her well, and I told her we’d see each other another time.

We had a service in a church before we set him into the ground and said our words over him. It was the custom to present the dead to the living one last time, lying in their casket. I’d been in the antechamber in the back of the back of church, where the pall bearers, some of granddad’s older nephews and their boys, now men much older then me, stood somberly.

When I’d approached, the oldest of them had reached out to shake my hand, and I’d felt something funny in his grip, almost like he’d been trying to tickle my palm with his middle finger, or brushing the underside of my thumb with his — it was such a surprising flash of sensory input that it overflowed the cognition I had available. I wasn’t actually sure what had happened, though I did catch him quickly darting his eyes to some of the other men, who then bounced a glance around between them. The rest greeted me more formally, clasping my hand softly and simply.

And that, I thought, is how it feels to fail a secret handshake.

“We’re really sorry for your loss,” the oldest of them said.

“That’s kind of you,” I said.

“He’s a good man, Charlie was,” said another. They glanced around amongst themselves again. “A fine man.”

“Thank you.”

“Oh, son,” said the oldest, “I had a question for you.”

“All right.”

He pursed his lips, looking away, then down, then back up at me. His eyes looked different, sharper.

“Your grandfather belonged to a brotherhood, an order — he had for a long time.”

I nodded. “Yes. I saw the letter on his wall, saying he wouldn’t have to pay dues any more for the rest of his life.” I didn’t add how I’d thought they must have figured he could only live so much longer.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “That’s it.”

“I have a lot of respect for the Freemasons. I know my granddad was proud of it, and I always respected him for that.”

They glanced among themselves again. Some of their backs straightened.

The eldest nodded. “That’s good. So then you can keep an eye out, if you can, as you’re going through the things in his house with your family. There are some things Charlie had that would better belong to us. Some books. Some articles of clothing.” He formed a small halo with his hands over his head.

“I know what you’re talking about.”

“Good,” he said. “Good. We need it back. We’d like it. If you could get it for us, we’d probably even put it up on display, in a case, put old Charlie’s name on it.” His face grew serious again. “But the books,” he said, “we do need the books.”

“I will keep my eyes open,” I said, nodding gravely.

He licked his lips. “You know,” he said, “not anyone can become a brother. You must be vouched for by a brother of good standing. Or your father can be a mason. Or your grandfather.”

“I understand,” I said. “I appreciate that. I always respected my grandfather, so that’s a great comfort for me.” He seemed unsure that I might not have understood him. “Thank you,” I finally said. “I’ll let you know.”

He nodded, and then the organ music began. We turned, the group of us, to look through heavy velvet curtains as people arranged themselves to begin the memorial.

One of them said to the others, “So that’s one more?”

The eldest nodded. “One more. The end days are upon us, or will be soon.”

Another asked, “When will we see the New World Order here in the States?”

“It’s already here,” the oldest said. “But it won’t become visible to us until after the world currency takes over. First Europe and the Euro, then a short time after that it’ll be a single currency for all of us. Then the New Order.” He grimaced. Then to me, he said, “You better hurry up and head on down or you’re gonna miss the proceedings.”

Back at granddad’s house, after the funeral, I would be the one tasked with getting the cat out from under the side table granddad had set between the two recliners, across from the TV. He looked like an enormously hairy cat, until you touched him and you realized that no, he was just enormous. I’d never handled a twenty-seven-pound cat before, and I’d rather pass if I ever have to do it again. He clawed the hell out of my hands and my forearms, getting him out. The distant family out from Mineral Wells who’d offered to take him were doing him and us a kindness, so the least I could do was take the brunt of the animal’s fear. He’d spent his whole life with my grandfather. I think he knew what was going on.

The cat probably felt worse about the situation than any of us did. We were going to feel bad about it for a while, but gradually the bruise would fade and anything that eventually remained would be the new structures around the framework of our lives, invisible and unknowable. That cat would miss my grandfather every hour of every day for the rest of his life.

Washing my myriad wounds before daubing them with hydrogen peroxide, moments with my grandfather came back to me. How happy I’d always seen him with that cat. He’d loved him, truly he had. That cat was always getting choice scraps from the table — a practice he’d used on his dogs for so long that why not keep it up with a cat? Granddad would pull the heavy wooden handle on the side of his recliner, leaning back away from the ball game on the TV and kicking his boot-clad toes up in front of it, tipping his cowboy hat half over his face and tapping his chest, encouraging the cat to crawl up and get comfy on his chest.

My hands were washing my hands but my mind was no longer thinking about them. The cat. The twenty-seven-pound cat. That granddad had spent years fattening up. That he had trained to sit on his chest, over his profoundly congested heart. That he did not want an operation to save.

I came out of the bathroom, hands dripping. My sister saw me first.

“I-i-i-i-i-i-i-,” I said.

“What?” she asked.

“Motherfucker, motherfucker,” I muttered. “Jesus Christ.”


I took a breath. “It was suicide by cat,” I said.

She took a breath, glanced out the door where the cat had just gone, looked back at me, and a smile broke out over her face.

“Oh, my God,” she said, hands covering her growing grin.

Then we were laughing, then we were crying, and we hugged, and it was okay.

I drove back through the heat of the day, even later than I’d expected by several hours. I wondered more than once if I’d be passing Felicity on the highway, though I was relieved to think we wouldn’t be meeting up. I had a feeling it would be complicated.

Pulling into the alley behind my shack, windblown and calm, as the dust cleared I saw someone sitting on my front step.

“Hello,” Felicity said, standing up, straightening her skirt.

Going to California

Making Magic — 15.75

There’d been a young, auburn-haired woman on the plane, right across the aisle and behind us, who’d spent the flight deep in concentration on a book. She was reading quickly, occasionally pausing to underline a word with sharp deliberation.

When the printer’s rep let us stop at our hotel to check in before heading to the facility, we ended up in line for the front desk just behind the girl from the airplane.

“‘Scuse me,” I said.

She turned and let me see her smile.

“You were on the plane with us,” I said.

She nodded.

“Sorry for asking, but I noticed you were doing a lot of underlining while you were reading.”

She nodded again. “Every time I hit a word I didn’t know,” she’d told me, “I marked it. I flew out here for an interview, but when I have some time to myself tonight, I’ll look them all up to be sure I’m getting everything.”

“Wow,” I said.

“What are you here for?”

“Press check,” I said. Then, knowing full well the risk of ridicule, I said, “Have you ever heard of Magic: The Gathering?”

“I think so,” she said, eyes narrow.

“We’re doing one of the first games like it.”

“What’s it about?”

“Secret conspiracies trying to take over the world.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It’s pretty cool.”

“It sounds cool,” she said. “You’re staying here?”

“Yeah,” I said, wondering why she was asking. Of course I was staying there. That’s why I was in line to check in. All I could think to say back was, “You?”

“Yes,” she said. “They got me a room here on my own, so I’m just hanging out.”

“Oh,” I said. We exchanged names; I don’t remember hers. “I don’t know when we’ll be back from the printer. It may be late, but I hope it won’t be too late. If you’re around in the hotel restaurant later, I’ll look for you there.”

“Okay,” she said, still smiling. Then it was her turn to check in.

As she walked away, keys in hand, she glanced back at me. She had green eyes, and she was still smiling.

Touring the printer’s facilities was a slideshow of impressive views. They couldn’t possibly have afforded enough space any closer to an urban center. There were warehouse floors with two and three rows of gigantic, German-made, multi-color presses, larger and more aggressive-looking than an armored tank scaled to the size of a bus. There were barrels of ink that would intimidate Donkey Kong. There were many palettes of unprinted paper and card stock.

“How many cards are we actually printing?” I asked Andy as we walked from one enormous, bright, airplane hanger-scale warehouse to another.

“You didn’t hear?”

“I heard that the numbers were high, but that with the new game some distributors were changing their orders.” A collectible card game based on Star Trek was hitting stores in something like a week, and it looked great. We were worried about two things: getting the game out before the company ran out of money, which would put most of us out of work, and getting the game out before too many of the oncoming competitors made it onto the market.

There were only so many people who were going to be interested in collectible card games, we figured, and it wouldn’t take too many games to saturate the market.

“They changed their numbers,” Andy said. “They raised them. You really didn’t hear? The sales on the Star Trek game is going so well that the stores raised their orders to the distributors. So we’re printing twenty-three million cards.”

I wanted to stop walking but I figured I had to act like nothing was wrong, even though I knew full well that retailers had been suffering terrible shortages of Magic shipments to the point that they’d started ordering far too many just to get a minimum amount. The Star Trek game wasn’t going to keep us out of the market. It was giving the stores enough cash and confidence to boost their orders for our game. They may be ordering four or five times as many as they can actually sell, presuming that supply will be a problem.

The distributors had the option to send back what they didn’t think they could sell.

“Oh my God,” I said quietly to him. “We don’t have to push it to the stores — it’s getting it out of the stores that’ll be the problem. That means the game has to actually be good.”

“It is good,” Andy said. “It’s going to be fine.”

And the press check itself was fine. Your basic Twentieth-Century color printing was a careful balance between four colors: Cyan, a kind of light electric blue; Magenta, a neon hot pink; plus Yellow and Black. We only had to make a couple of tweaks to the flow of magenta on one of the card-back sheets, and that was it.

But I knew what I was probably passing up as I was asking a guy with a black beard to tweak the flow of hot pink fluid on his massive, German-born press.

A couple of guys at the printer offered to take the time to crudely cut out a partial set of cards for us. It only took another twenty minutes or so.

“The final ones will have reliably straight cuts and rounded corners and everything,” said the guy with the black beard. “Hopefully these’ll do you for now.”

“They’re fine,” I’d said, transfixed by actual cards in my hands. “They really are fine.” And they were. Andy and I would take turns pawing them back in our room.

They looked at least good enough.

We got back to our hotel before midnight, fifteen minutes after the restaurant closed but while room service was still available.

There weren’t a lot of video-watching options in Holland, Michigan, near the end of 1994, but Conan The Barbarian was on, so we watched Arnold Schwarzenegger chew his script as we ate room-service burgers.

Early on, he is asked, “Conan, what is best in life?” And he delivers his famous answer: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.”

For some reason, that had both of us laughing like eight-year-olds, howling with relief. It was the deep laugh of people who were for a moment in the same place at the same time, who trusted each other like everyone should have someone to trust, who were free.

When Andy and I were done laughing, I said, “Wonder what happened to that girl.”

“She’s lamenting,” Andy said.

“Hope not,” I said. She didn’t seem like a lamenter. “Hope she did well on her interview.”

“Hey,” he said. “Hey, Derek, man: what the hell was it you did at the airport? That was bad ass.”

“Just a hack, a little trick that in most cities doesn’t even work any more. To tell the phone company that money has been put into a pay phone, it sends up a little signal, and if you can reproduce that signal then you can fake having put money into the phone. That’s all I did. Who knows, maybe by next year it won’t work at all. But it worked today.”

“That is fucking bad ass. I knew that Mentor knew about all of that stuff, but I never actually saw someone do it, like right there, right in front of me.” He frowned a little. “So you used to be a serious computer guy?”

“Yeah, I was a programmer, a while back.”

“And you’re a designer now? Why’d you stop?”

“Oh, I knew I’d never be that good. And I figured that there was something else out there that wasn’t programming but wasn’t sitting in front of a green-screen doing data entry.”

“And what was that?”

I fumbled to explain myself. It’d been years since I’d even thought about it.

“People look at computers and they have no idea what they’re actually capable of doing,” I said. “But the truth is that computers are extremely limited. People get frustrated with computers because they don’t know how limited they actually are. They figure they should be able to do whatever they want to do, and while they know that computers are getting faster and whatever, outside of being able to play Doom or not being able to play games at all, I don’t think most people truly understand what a computer can do. It’s either a really fancy abacus, or it’s magic.”

“I’m with you.”

“But in the space between what a computer normally does and what it will never be able to do, there’s a boundary. And the more you know about that boundary, the better you can press on it. And if you can press on it just enough, you can carve out a little pocket, and that’s where you find magic — the only real magic you’re going find in this world.”

As we turned our attention back to the film, in the back of my head I realized I’d finally actually done it — we had done exactly what I was telling Andy. We’d pushed our tech and ourselves far further than was reasonable. In a little over two months, we had made magic. I also realized I was wrong, and that it was far from the only magic in the world. If I could come out of the other side of where my head had gone and trust someone, anyone, I don’t know what else to call it other than magic.

On the plane the next morning, I couldn’t put down the samples. This is real, I kept telling myself, touching one card after another. From the nothingness of insanity I’d summoned up something really, really real.

I had done a cover story in Pyramid Magazine for the game, but suddenly that didn’t seem like enough promotion. Every quarter, we put out a quarterly newsletter to our retailers called “Where We’re Going,” which ended up being passed along to customers in small numbers, but we’d produced Illuminati: New World Order so quickly that it would hardly be promotion enough.

We needed a way to speak not only to retailers, like the newsletter, but to our customers, like Pyramid — not only for this game, but for everything, as much as possible. It couldn’t be at our invitation — meaning, we weren’t going to send people email every day to promote the game. The fans would have to drive the interaction.

On the plane, on the way home, the heavens parted and the sun shined down and an idea came upon me. I set down the cards and stared off into space, reveling in the joy of being given such a gift.

Back in Austin the next day, as Steve was looking over the sample cards himself, I shared my thought with him.

He listened carefully. “That,” he said, “is an excellent idea.” He pointed downstairs. “Do it.”

“Okay,” I said.

You won’t believe what it was.

Going to California

Making Magic — 13.5

The first playtests were rough. I didn’t watch them; I was coloring art that I’d repurposed from Pyramid for use in the card game. However, I heard about how they went as I was passing through the larger upstairs room later that evening, looking for coffee, as the games were winding down. Dustin was there.

“It was a little rough,” he said, smirking. He had a pleasantly deep voice that could make the worst news seem amiable. “Some cards are way overpowered, especially when you think that you could have a lot of them in a deck. It’s the same problem Magic is having.”


“Oh, yeah. Their first batch of rare cards were far too powerful. I think they never thought people would spend hundreds of dollars to build a deck stocked with rare cards. But it’s happening.” He shrugged. “I heard they’re going to ban some early cards from official play—”

I took a half-step back. “What do you mean, ‘official’ play?”

“They’re having tournaments, now, with real money involved. They’re talking about ultimately wanting to see Magic played on the sports cable networks — like ESPN and whatnot, I guess.”

Three years later, ESPN2 would begin broadcasting Magic: The Gathering tournaments, for a while.

“And anyway,” Dustin went on, “you don’t want people with, like, four Black Lotus cards in tournament play. It’d ruin the game.”

Nineteen years later, in November of 2013, a Black Lotus card in pristine condition went for $27,000 at auction. That was more than my annual salary at the point when I was working on our game.

Steve seemed bullish about the playtest.

“I learned a lot,” he said, nodding vigorously.

“Are you going to keep the action tokens working the same way?” asked Dustin.

Steve smiled. “I think it could be improved, but yes, more or less.”

Dustin nodded, leaning back over towards me. “You coming home soon?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Still got some things to do.” And I did. I worked late, pushing myself to pull a better quality of art out of Photoshop, which was then and now the professional’s choice for digital graphics work. It had really taken off in the previous couple of years, new filters being discovered and written about in order to produce various digital effects. Still, there weren’t any tutorials at the time for colorizing art. I had to figure it out as I went along, and pass what I’d learned along to Jeff and soon to Rick once I’d learned something new.

My roommate — ex-roommate, I reminded myself — was a Photoshop junkie. Like me, he had a monstrous computer for the age, which he used to produce contract work for one client or another. He stayed on top of the tech, which was cool. He didn’t actually do much work, which was not.

There were times I very distantly missed my old roommate. I’d taken him and his girlfriend at the time to a comedy club, Austin’s Laff Stop — where Lizard and I had gone six years before, as freshmen at the university — to see the angriest, most honest comedian I had ever known, Bill Hicks, perform. Everything — nearly everything — he said was so true and horrible. For the second show of his I saw that week I made sure we grabbed a table right by the stage, where I literally had to crawl back up from underneath it, mopping tears from my face. It was one of the greatest shows I’d ever seen. It turned out, sadly, there was a reason he was being so honest. Six months later, Bill Hicks would be dead from pancreatic cancer.

Good times with my roommate were great. Ultimately, though, I didn’t trust him, and it’s not entirely his fault. I didn’t trust most people — Andy and Mentor and Jeff, sure; Doug and Jim and Patch and Felicity, sure; Rick, of course; Suzanne and even Steve, in my own way. Beyond that, I’m drawing a blank. There were a couple of other people back then who I trusted, but who I’m not writing about now, though really that was probably it.

So moving in with archeologists was a real step for me.

“Whoa,” I said, walking into our house, squinting as if I’d been sprayed with crowd-clearing chemicals. Dustin had found a giant, three-bedroom place in south Austin, with a massive central living room sporting 1970s-era shag carpet. Radiating out from the brick fireplace, from one corner of the room, was a dampness in the carpet. We weren’t sure where it came from but it would not go away, that smell like a wet, dead dog. After a couple of weeks waiting for it to go away — we kept the doors and windows open; we stayed away from the third of the room that squished when stepped on — the landlord had promised to send some people by to take care of things.

Dustin and his girlfriend — fiancé, rather — were sitting on my couch on the far side of the room, fanning air away from their noses. The carpet had been pulled up and away for the fireplace, and an industrial blower was loudly shooting air underneath.



They couldn’t find where the dampness was coming from, though they figured that drying it up would stop the smell.


“TEN-DAY,” Dustin said. He and Melinda and the four or five of their friends who I’d met worked one of the few regular jobs still available for archeologists in mid-1990s Texas, processing survey certificates for strip-mining operations. Because there was a huge history of nomadic Native American life in and around Texas, and their seasonal paths took them back and forth across some of the richest deposits of lignite coal in the whole state, the mining company needed to have done a full survey of whatever land they planned to ruin by peeling up in order to extract the coal. And they needed a certificate to prove that they’d done the work, and the survey company only got paid after delivering the certificate, so there was pressure to turn the work around quickly. If an initial survey uncovered evidence that a plot of land seemed to host one of myriad perennial Native American campsites, a full survey needed to be done to verify that the site contained nothing of historical value — graves, especially. But the survey had to be done quickly, because that’s how the surveying company got paid. In order to do the work quickly, young archeologists were trucked out by the tent-load to spend ten days at a time scraping and digging, followed by four days off to decompress and to take a decent shower for a time. They called these “ten-days,” and that’s where our other roommate had gotten off to.

The whole thing was fascinating and stomach-turning and another real lesson in how the world worked. I retreated into my room, opening the window to keep away the dog smell, and settled into a deep brood.

I’d been angry for awhile, feeling betrayed by unnamable forces. It was not a conspiracy, it just was. Passing by a bait-and-tackle shop, I’d seen a t-shirt they had for sale: above a picture of a fishing lure were the words, “Bite me.”

What was I angry about? Hey, man — what do you got?

Earlier that day, I’d brought Rick in for a tour of the office before his first day at work. Coming in through the main entrance, we ran into Suzanne first. I introduced them.

“Um, hey,” Rick said, pointing at a small framed photo behind her. “Is that you?”

Suzanne smiled with a tightness that was her replacement for blushing. “Yes,” she said. “That’s me.” It was a photo of her dressed as Robin, from Batman — from The Dark Knight Returns, specifically, where Robin was a girl — sitting on a couch, petting a cat.

“Because that’s my cat,” Rick said. It turned out that the Halloween party that she and I had gone to — I’d dressed as the Joker — was at a large house where Rick had been one of many roommates. So, years later, a photo of his cat greeted him on his initial tour of his first post-school job.

“That’s wild,” I said. “You were there, Rick?”

“It was my house; I was there.”

“We were together at the time,” Suzanne explained, pointing back and forth between us.

“Ah,” said Rick. “Say no more.”

Later, Suzanne pulled me aside.

“He’s got a girlfriend,” I said.

“Do you want to get dinner?” she asked.

“Ah,” I said. “Sure. Not like I have plans.” I pressed my hand against my forehead. “The first playtest is tonight. Should probably be here for it.”

“So, tomorrow. When are you done?”

“I don’t know. Seven?”

“I’ll be gone by then,” she said. “Will you pick me up?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

“You remember where I live now, right? I’m just around the block.” She’d moved to live in one of the apartment complexes close to work.

I remembered.

Later that day, Jeff asked me, “When are you gonna start dating again?”

I scoffed. “That is the furthest thing from my mind,” I said.

“I dunno, man. I mean, I’m happy being married, but if I were single I would totally be out there.”

“Doesn’t feel right,” I said. “Feel like this summer’s been so oppressive. I wanna wait until things have cooled down, I think, to be able to think about that. I need to cool down, somehow.”

“That’s for sure,” he said.

I glanced at my shirt. “Bite me,” it said.

Going to California

Making Magic — 7.5

For Cookie’s last night in town, she asked me to help pack her U-Haul. I had no problem saying yes — two and a half years dating is worth more than an evening carrying boxes and furniture down a rickety flight of stairs.

There was another guy there helping, a friend of one of her roommates. He was a big dopey dude who kept ducking out on making eye contact with me. I wasn’t surprised, though — in general, they had little but contempt for me, her friends, and I’m afraid I seldom gave them much reason to think differently. Once someone has it fixed in their head that you’re crazy and uncool, any attempt to prove them wrong only proves them right. Plus, they all had what I thought of as real jobs — in marketing, or in video production, or at serious design studios — and probably at least in part because I didn’t take myself seriously, they were never inspired to take me seriously, either.

For example, I was hanging out at her place one day when a guy-friend of hers, a decent designer and a techie with what I considered real vision, dismissed Illuminati Online as not interesting. I said, “The number of people on the Internet is doubling every six months.”

He laughed. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “That’ll never happen.”

“It’s happening,” I said. “It’s gonna make us think about design differently. Get enough people—”

“Oh, please. Doubling can’t go on forever.”

“Sure, but how many more times does it have to double before you’ve got tens of millions of people—”

“Please,” he said, turning away with a scowl. “You’re wasting my time.” And this was a 24-year-old tech-centric, Mac-wielding graphic designer in 1994, who really should’ve known better.

At the beginning of that year, sure, there were 623 Web sites on the Internet. I’ll put that another way: across the entirety of the Internet, there were about as many Web sites as 15 years later there would be apps on the Apple App Store in its first week. Eighteen months after that conversation, there would be more than 20 million people on the Internet, with more than 23,000 Web sites available to visit.

I was always surprised to find myself unable to make a connection with my girlfriend’s friends, though mostly because I kept forgetting how she had been undermining me to them. She was such a nice and sweet girl, everybody said so. She told me that she only half-jokingly referred to me as the anti-Christ amongst her friends. I asked her which half was joking but she wouldn’t say any more.

It began to dawn on me, carrying boxes of her stuff down to the truck, that most people don’t simply decide one day to pull over on the side of the road to break up with a boyfriend of two years over the phone, without an outside prompt — like needing to tell someone, after arriving at their apartment, that you were now officially single.

Later in the evening, as the last few boxes were being tucked away, I caught the dopey dude gently brushing the back of Cookie’s hand while she talked with her roommates. She recoiled, her head quickly darting around the room to inventory who was in it. She didn’t notice me, in the next room, watching her.

Not long after she walked me to my car. We said goodbye, and it was not quite the summation of more than two years together, but it was good enough. We didn’t indulge in a farewell kiss. That wouldn’t happen for nearly a year, yet.

We did hug, though, that precious, jigsaw-piece coupling that had kept me coming back to her time and time again. In a few days she’d be in Seattle, nearly as far away as it was possible to get while still staying inside the United States.

I pulled back and said, “I never trusted you.” It wasn’t a criticism. It was where I’d gone wrong.

She smiled with grim beauty and pulled me close again. “I never trusted you, either,” she said.

Radio on, I drove home. I worked very hard not to care. After all, I needed to focus. I had a move to manage, myself: I couldn’t go on living in that same apartment; I was done with that place for all kinds of reasons. Plus, there was the other thing that had come up.

I’d been wondering when I was going to be fired from Steve Jackson Games, but instead I’d just been given three months to produce something I never could have imagined: Magic, or something very much like it.

Here’s the story.

Going to California

Making Magic — 7.4

The point at which things began to go less well came when it was my turn. Of the three of us, I went second, after Andy’s girl quickly got her belly button pierced. So I guess it went bad pretty early. We’d met at Andy’s place — I was glad that I liked his fiancé — and had a few of shots of tequila before walking the couple of long blocks to the place that sold sex toys, drug paraphernalia, and also had a room in the back where tattoos and now piercings were being done. I wasn’t nervous. I’d been looking forward to it.

“Okay,” said the guy, the piercer. “Sit down here in this chair. Now, which side of your nose did you want it on?”

I pointed, rather than get into a “my left/right or your left/right” conversation.

He frowned.

“What?” I said.

“You know that’s the fag side, right? HA! I’m only kidding. It doesn’t matter. Hang on.” I shot Andy a look, and he came back with a thumbs-up.

The piercer had a thick piece of tapered rubber. “We’re going to put this inside your nostril to catch the needle. It’s a small needle, really, you’ll hardly feel it. It’ll stick into the rubber, and then I’ll loop in a ring, then you’re basically done. We cool?”

“Cool,” I said.

“Okay. Just keep looking straight forward and hold your breath while I’m doing this, okay?” He readied the needle, just on the edge of my peripheral vision.

“Okay,” I said, and before I’d gotten out the whole word I felt a pressure against my nostril, then some fiddling, and it was done.

The guy looked at me, dabbed the spot with a tissue, and then began to explain to me about how to care for it over the first week or so. “Don’t take it out for any reason. You’d be surprised how quickly it’ll close up. Like, ten minutes. I’m not kidding. If you’re afraid of infection or you just wanna speed up the healing, take some zinc pills or something.”

I nodded, and stood up. The piercer’s face took on a curious expression, though a serious one.

Slowly, he said, “Why don’t you sit back down?” The world around me disappeared into a tunnel, and the last thing I saw was his face, receding from me at high speed, then all was darkness.

As I woke up, I had to go down a short list to figure out where I was. I wasn’t at home, because I wasn’t under covers or anything. Plus, there were bright lights. Was I in a hospital? Opening my eyes, I saw Andy’s worried face looking down at me.

“I’m sorry, man,” he said. “I tried to catch your head.”

After the piercing, I’d forgotten to start breathing again and passed out. Unfortunately, that was not the worst decision I made that week.

Two days later, Cookie called.

“You got your nose pierced?” she said.

“Uh, huh,” I said.

“Can I come over? I got some new boots I want to show you.”

“What?” I checked the time. It was getting late. “Now?” I rolled over on the couch where I’d spent most of the day sprawled out. How the hell she’d heard about the piercing already, I had no idea. “I’ve been taking zinc to help with the healing, but I don’t know if I took too much or what but I don’t feel that great right now.”

“I’ll be right over,” she said, and she was, and she’d never looked better: freshly bobbed haircut and red dye-job, a new lacy good-girl dress, all white, and nearly knee-high black ass-kicking thick-soled lace-up boots. All the best hyphenations in one package of crazy.

She walked in, paced back and forth in front of me a couple of times, then she pounced, straddling me.

“I really don’t feel well,” I said. “I’m not kidding.”

“I don’t care,” she said. I’d never been able to pass up a chance to kiss her, which I know was sending mixed messages, but after a couple of minutes I had to push her off of me and run to the bathroom in my bedroom, where I threw up for maybe a good five minutes. That turned out to be long enough for her to get her boots unlaced.

When I stumbled out of the bathroom, wiping the bile from my chin, my body aching from the effort, she was kneeling on my bed.

“Come here,” she said.

There was no reason for it to be the worst sex we’d ever had, and it probably wasn’t actually the worst — there were so many contenders for the title — though over the years it was the one that rose up out of my mind the most often.

I took a break from kissing her to say, “I really feel bad.”

She nodded. “But you feel good enough to…”

In the moment, I only felt so nauseated.

She nodded again. Good. “Oh, I’m not on the pill anymore,” she added, a little late. “I use — ah, I mean, we should use a condom. Do you have one?”

I didn’t have a condom. I was struck by a terrible vision of my life going forward in a reality where I got her pregnant, and that was it. Fuck-me boots or not, I was through with her.

“I’m not calling you again,” she said, shaking her balled-up dress at me.

I clutched my belly. It turns out I’d taken too much zinc, and my body was simply rejecting the rest of it. I think my body knew more than I did, though. I suspect it wasn’t simply the zinc that it was rejecting.

The next morning, I’d have wondered if it wasn’t all a dream if it hadn’t been for the panties I found wrapped around one of my feet.

She was wrong, though. She did call me again, about six weeks later, to tell me that she needed my help. I stopped breathing again.

“On Sunday,” she said, “I’m loading up. I’m moving to Seattle.”

Going to California

Making Magic — 7.3

At a barbecue over at Mentor’s place, I’d run into a woman I’d known in high school, someone for whom I’d once nursed a pretty hard crush. She’d begun dating someone who’d gone to high school with Mentor, which made for a nice symmetry.

“Derek?” she said, walking up to me through the party, head-cocked and finger outstretched.

She and Mentor’s old friend were having a proper dramatic relationship, but she introduced me at one point to her roommate, a sharp woman with dark, thickly curly hair and a very femme punk look about her. She was the first girl I’d felt attracted to who had a nose ring; hers hung from the outside of one nostril. Even in counterculture Austin, piercings were only just becoming popular. It felt new, and it helped that she was hot.

Christine’s roommate needed a computer with Internet access to write a paper that was due the next day. She’d called me the night before — got my number from her roommate; we’d passed each other briefly at a party — to ask if I’d be around Sunday night, that she’d heard I had a computer on the Internet at my house, and that since it didn’t cost me anything to be online maybe I wouldn’t care how late she stayed up using it. This was just before when most people didn’t have computers. I’d said sure.

So with my car back, I was even able to pick her up. Actually, I’d planned to hang out a bit with Christine — we hadn’t spent any time one-on-one since high school, so maybe she wanted to check if she still had a good feeling about me before letting her roommate enter my lair — with the idea that we would meet up with her roommate later, presumably if I passed whatever test she had in mind.

I passed. Giving Christine a ride over to campus and swapping her for her roommate, she pointed back at the car and said, “Don’t keep her up too late, Derek, okay? She’s still gotta write that paper.”

Back home, it turned out she’d already eaten, so I set her up with the computer, and she got to it. I know the all-nighter deal, so I set out a blanket and a pillow. My sectional couch would more than accommodate her. To the clickity-clackity of my laptop, a rare creature in that age, I turned in for the night.

Maybe five hours later, I’m awakened by my bedroom door opening. She waves hesitantly, to make sure she’d gotten my attention. Half of her face was lit in dim stripes of blue, moonlight by mini-blinds, and the rest was darkness, with a glint of nose ring to one side.

“Hey,” she said. “Um, do you have a t-shirt I could borrow?”

“Sure,” I said, pointing to my open closet. The top shelf was just stacks and stacks of t-shirts. She grabbed a black one that must’ve looked good to her, holding it out to confirm it was appropriately baggy and long enough. Taking off her shirt and her bra, she slipped the t-shirt over her head before unbuttoning her pants. Still, I hadn’t been expecting her to walk towards me and slide into bed.

“Hello,” I said. We kissed for maybe ten minutes.

“This has got to be the first time that a girl has ever hooked up with a guy simply because he had a computer that was online.”

“I’m not sure that’s strictly true,” I told her. We kissed for a much longer time.

I played with her necklace. She took off the t-shirt. I traced her shoulders, I kissed the crook of her elbow, the tips of her fingers. One finger bore a highly polished ring made from a speckled stone that could have been greenish.

“Nice ring,” I said.

“It’s from my boyfriend,” she said. “I think he wants to get married someday, but I think that’s bullshit — don’t you?”

I didn’t stop kissing her, but when she said the word “boyfriend,” her level of attractiveness fell through the floor. Huh, I thought to myself, that’s a first.

I’d begun dating Cookie while living with another girl, who I began seeing when her boyfriend had gone away for a month as part of a medical testing experiment. That’s a long story. And then my previous girlfriend, Suzanne, the only really serious one in my book, had broken up with me after she’d been seeing someone else for quite a while.

I began to wonder how cool it would be, how much I could accomplish, if only I was coupled up with a girl I could trust.

We woke up with each other, though we didn’t end up sleeping together. She’d put her t-shirt back on. I gave her a floppy disk with her paper on it and dropped her off on campus.

“I’m surprised your professor won’t let you email it to him,” I said.

“Why would someone do that? They want something they can lay their hands on and mark up.”

I shrugged. As we pulled up to her building, she looked at me squarely and said, very seriously, “I like you.”

“I like you, too,” I said.

“Let’s hang out again,” she said.

“You’ve got my number.”

At work, over lunch, Andy was talking about getting one of his nipples pierced with a small ring.

“Hey,” I said, “that’s funny, I was thinking about a nose ring.” I could start many sentences with “Hey” because of the outward rushing air of the H-sound. It started the air moving out of my lungs which was generally key to falling into a rhythm of speech in which I’d be less likely to stutter noticeably. “That’s funny” was another phrase that was pretty easy to say and which would often lead better into sentences less suited to be started with, “Motherfucker.”

We agreed that we would go together — three of us: me and him and his fiancé, who wanted her belly done — and get pierced. It went well, up to a point.


Going to California

Making Magic — 5

I put the phone to my head.


“It’s me,” Cookie said. I could hear traffic in the background.

“Where are you?”

“I’m out,” she said. “I was running an errand for work, when I realized: it’s over. I can’t go on this way.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“Please,” she said, “just give me this.”

“Why?” I asked, like I didn’t know.

“You have trouble finishing things,” she said. “And even when you do finish something, there’s always the next thing and the next thing. There’s always going to be something else.”

“I always want to be working on something.”

“And you never finish anything, you never do.” She stopped herself before she got too emotional. “Just to be clear,” she said, “the story I’m telling our friends is that I’m the one that broke up with you, and that it was your fault.”

“Okay,” I said. “Why wouldn’t I give you that?”

“Don’t say that,” she said. “You don’t get to say that. You never gave me anything.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Just give me this,” she said again.

“Sure,” I said again. “You’re sure?”

“I’m very, very sure.”

“Okay,” I said. “You know, I always loved you,” I added.

“And I love you,” she said with singsongy emptiness. “I just never really cared for all your, you know, all your ideas and everything.” She sighed. “I really only ever thought about how it felt walking down the street with you on my arm.”

That would echo in my head for years to come.

“Goodbye, then,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. Did I catch her by surprise? “Oh,” she said. “Goodbye.” Then she hung up.

I sat on the floor of my apartment cradling the phone for a few minutes, unwilling to move from that position. I called Mentor.

“Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he said. There was a long pause. “You should come over,” he said. “Andy’s coming by.”
I nodded, as though he could see me. “Later,” I said, hanging up.

As I pulled myself upright, I became aware of how every step took me further away from the place where I’d still been in my relationship with Cookie. I stood on the balcony as the evening leeched away the heat of the day. Staring at my hands, I felt no connection to anything that had happened more than ten or fifteen minutes earlier.

Next thing I remember I was over at Mentor’s. Jeff was there, and Andy, and three or four other people, everyone subdued. I delivered the news, but they already knew — it must’ve been clear by how my shoulders were hung as I walked up to the door.

I didn’t stay long, I thought. I had no interest in getting hammered, and though I appreciated the company, I generally did feel better when I was alone. After a round of “Sorry, man,” I left.

On the way to the car, tripping lightly in the dark — when did it get so dark? How long had I been there? — the strangest thing happened to me.

I know I’m a little crazy, but I also know exactly how crazy I am. Yet, this next thing happened.

A voice spoke to me, as plain as could be — two voices, actually, a man and a woman’s voice at the same time said three simple words: “Don’t be afraid.”

It sounded somehow like the most true thing I’d heard in years. And it sounded like an order.

It really did not seem to have come from inside my head. It seemed to come from just behind me, from my right and slightly above me. I kept walking down the slight incline of Mentor’s front yard, though I slowed, tilting my head back slightly just to check. No one was there.

As I walked around my car, got in, buckled up, I played back my memory of the voice.

It hadn’t sounded like someone trying to sooth me. It hadn’t sounded like someone feeding me a platitude about how everything would be okay. It sounded like what someone would say after they’ve strapped you into the experimental rocket sled of your own unintentional devising, explained to you what you have done, and then walked away to press the ignition when they felt like it. It was the most frightening way you could possibly tell someone not to be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid,” I told myself, starting the car, but I was, suddenly I was, I was very afraid.

Three days later, I walked out to my car — which I was still paying for, would be paying on for three more years — to drive in to work to find on the sidewalk two black, triangular pieces of canvas where my car used to be. They’d been cut from the vehicle’s convertible roof. The car had been stolen.

I called my insurance company first. They had cancelled my insurance the day before, because I’d missed two payments. It’s not like I didn’t have the money. I simply hadn’t done it. I’d been too worried about the book.

Two days later, Steve called me into his office.

“We’re not shipping this,” he said, pointing at a printout of the book I’d been working on for the past year. “It’s simply…not good. Take the weekend, and see how much of it you can rewrite. Rewrite the whole thing, if you need to.” He pulled out big chunks of it — the introduction, the fiction that I’d written, the game mechanics that I’d invented myself — and set it all out apart from the rest of it. There wasn’t much remaining.

“I understand,” I said. I stayed late at work. Jeff gave me a lift home. Every time we passed a little red convertible that looked like mine, I’d crane around to get a look at the license plate. They all looked like mine, but they never were.

“That all really sucks, man,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

The next morning when I woke up, I found my roommate asleep, half-naked, in the living room, a small stove-pot of macaroni and cheese that he’d cooked himself for dinner the night still resting loosely in his hand, tipped over onto its side, the macaroni so firmly gelled together that none of it had spilled out onto the floor, wooden stirring spoon sticking out at a nearly perfect 45° angle.

The phone rang again. Another grandparent — my dad’s mom — had a stroke. I couldn’t even drive to Weatherford to see her.

So I called Jeff, to see if he could pick me up. When he answered the phone, I opened my mouth but no sound came out. When I pushed, I got, “Juh-juh-juh-juh—”

Oh, no. I bit my lower lip, hard.

“Derek?” he said.

Breathing out very slowly, I said, “Yes,” and then, “Hey.”

“I’m not coming in for a while — maybe an hour? Can I call you then?”

“Mmm-hmm,” I said. I could hum just fine.

After hanging up the phone, I reached into my head for the places where I’d hoped that voice — those voices, any voice — might have come from. I’d just spent a year writing about angels, gothic and flashy. The voices I’d heard for that briefest of moments that night, and which I never heard again, had been some other thing entirely, and I couldn’t see how I could hack my way back the feeling of certainty I’d held when it or they had spoken to me. I’d even lost control of my own voice.

I remember thinking: I’d better be learning something.