John Horvath on Fri, 6 Feb 1998 01:38:53 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> warning: short story

In response to the call for more fiction, here's a short story. The delete
button should be located in the upper right hand corner of your keyboard.
For those who dare venture further, enjoy!


                        T H E   L U N C H E O N

                            by John Horvath

The sun shone through the room gently, adding to the light that came
from the glowing monitor in the corner. The silent sunlight reflected
the serene mood of the office, broken only by the soft clattering of the
keyboard and occasional beeps from the computer. It seemed like early
morning, an early Monday morning, but in fact it was fast approaching
noon on a Thursday.

The office was spacious and elegant, something fitting for the CEO of a
major software firm. Usually at his large mahogany desk studying charts,
spreadsheets, and other paper forms of information, or, what was more
often the case, on the phone, Alfred decided to take one of his periodic
breaks and check the computer in the corner for any messages.

Although his work desk was big and spacious and could easily accommodate
a computer, Big Al, as he was known by his close friends and associates,
preferred to maintain what he termed the "classical" style of a work
desk: a big empty space in front of him, telephone to the upper left
hand corner, and desk-set paraphernalia along the front edge -- pens,
pictures of the wife and kids, small clock (analog, of course), writing
pad, and calendar. He preferred to have his computer stashed away in the
corner, facing the wall, where he would do most of his e-mailing and
other net related activities. When asked why he had his office set up in
such a way, he simply replied that he thought it would be more
convenient if the computer wasn't in front of him all the time. After
all, as CEO, he has to meet people occasionally in his office, and he
somehow felt that a computer between him and another person was a little

The truth of the matter, however, is that Al spent most of his time in
the corner anyway, since almost all his correspondence and meetings were
done through the computer. He hardly had any visitors, except for his
associates who would stand with him by the window. In addition to this,
his desk was big enough that the computer could easily have been put in
such a way that it would hardly be noticeable.

Nevertheless, such idiosyncrasies mattered little to the firm. What was
important was that it was successful, and expanding all the time. When
Big Al had taken over, the firm was just a small software company,
desperately trying to resist the crushing boot of the multinational
giants. In time, he had been able to turn it around so that it soon
began stepping on the toes of the multinationals. Anyone able to do that
in the software world can put his computer wherever he likes.

Al squinted as the late morning sun reflected off the monitor. That does
it, he said to himself, he's going to get a damn LCD monitor. But like
always, as soon as the sun moved to the other corner of the room by the
afternoon, his intentions would be pushed to the back of his mind. For
the moment, he adjusted his eyesight to take into account his own
reflection with that of the characters that illuminated back at him.

At least it wasn't a problem for him to readjust to what he was seeing;
he just had to concentrate a little more and move slightly closer to the
screen. It was a plain black background with greyed white letters, and
not many of them, either. In a way, it was strange, for although his
company specialized in software that was "user-friendly", he still
preferred to do his personal work the old-fashioned way, in a
user-unfriendly style. Ironically, he actually felt himself more at ease
with the computer in this way. Just him and the machine; no pretty
colors or smart little boxes containing messages filled with verbal (or
in this case, textual) diarrhea. No, for him this was the true meaning
behind that misnomer cyberspace. Just him and the map in his mind, the
black screen, and the step by step passage to where he was going, and
the seeming mystery behind it all. If anything went wrong he knew where
to fix it, or at least how to back-track and take another route. For
him, this was one of the simple pleasures of life.

Typing in the simple mail command, he scanned through the list of
messages waiting for him. All that appeared before him was the usual
amount with the usual subjects. Suddenly, one caught his eye: "lunch?"
It was not really the subject heading, although he had to admit it was
not the type of subject heading he was used to receiving. Instead, it
was who it was from that made this message stand out from the rest.

"Well, I'll be a son-of-a-gun," he murmured softly as he proceeded to
read the message. The message was from an old friend he had known in
high school too many years ago. Although they kept in touch through the
years, it was mainly the standard, people-you-haven't-heard-from-for-a-
-long-time way of keeping in touch, that is, writing during that holiday
in which card makers make most of their money: Christmas. Sometimes they
broke with tradition and wrote when there was something important, like
his friend's second wedding, second kid, or second divorce.

Before, the old excuse for not keeping in touch as regularly as they
should was always blamed on the post office. If there wasn't a strike,
slow and inefficient service, or the host of other things that only the
post office is capable of, then it was insufficient postage. Then along
came E-mail. Unfortunately, E-mail hadn't changed a thing. At first the
replies came promptly, sometimes within the same day. But soon after,
the time between messages became longer until it fell right back to the
way it was with regular mail. Only this time you didn't have the postman
to blame. Those with a little more ingenuity, however, quickly found
alternative excuses: system down, virus, or it was never received --
lost in cyberspace along with the postman.

Al permitted himself a smile as he read through the message. Good old
Peter, he mused, hasn't changed a bit. Glancing at his watch, he was
startled at the time. Life is passing you by Al, he thought, and all
you've got to show for it is a blank screen as soon as the machine is
switched off. Seeing that the message was sent only an hour ago, he
decided to send a quick reply accepting the offer. It would be good to
get away for once, even if it was only for a short lunch break. Quickly
sending off his reply, he was then struck by a thought: why didn't he
just use the phone?

Peter arrived, like always, on time -- twenty minutes late. Al wasn't
sure if his punctuality was due to his eastern European origins or
whether his watch was perpetually set at the incorrect time. He
remembered how their ninth grade teacher had prophesied that if Peter
didn't make a more conscientious effort to improve his timing, he would
be late even for his own wedding. Well, in that case she was not
entirely accurate: Peter didn't arrive as everyone expected; then he was
only 10 minutes late.

"Peter! How good it is to see you after all this time!" welcomed Al,
with an outstretched hand. After shaking hands in the old "buddy, buddy"
way, accompanied by a light slap on the opposite shoulder, the two
friends sat down and immediately broke into a conversation, as if trying
to make up for the past years in an hour.

"You've changed little since we last met," observed Al, noting in his
mind that it was probably at his third wedding, some four years or so

"Yup, it was at my fourth wedding, three years ago. You're still looking
good, as always, though it looks as if you've put on a little weight."

"Well, you know, I'm at that age when the old metabolism starts slowing
down. But I try to keep in shape, going to the gym and swimming
regularly." They paused as the waiter came by with the menus. It didn't
take either of them long to order what they wanted and the conversation
resumed. The topics jumped back and forth making no logical progression
in terms of time or theme. Whatever came to their minds came out and
they didn't have to worry about an uneasy silence. Their talk was
periodically broken, however, by the waiter serving the food or pouring
the wine, but it did not take long for them to carry on from where they
left off.

Peter was in town attending some kind of conference on Computer Assisted
Instruction, and it was from there he decided to send a quick invitation
for lunch. Being a teacher at a community college, Peter was only
vaguely interested in, or even capable of, using a computer. In fact, as
a teacher of literature, the only time the subject of computers came up
in class was when he explained the requirements for the essays that had
to be handed in. Unlike most of his other colleagues at the department,
who still regarded technology as a prelude to Paradise Lost, Peter
didn't mind entering the so-called "Digital Age", especially if it meant
that the essays that were handed in were legible. Content, on the other
hand, was another matter.

When both Peter and Al had gone through high school together, it had
always been assumed that they both would wind up doing the same things,
more or less. Al's main interest was history which, in the expansive
universe of academia, was not too far separated from literature. They
eventually ended up going to different universities, however, mainly
because the fields they were interested in were best taught at those
respective places.

Although Al finished with a Ph.D. in history, it already had become
apparent at that time that he was not going to work in that field.
Looking back, Al always explained that history and computers were not as
far apart as they seemed. It was the love of information, and how it was
processed, that interested him. He was thus standing on the same road;
the only difference between the two was in which direction he wanted to

Still, Peter never fully understood the process, and it finally came to
his mind in the course of the conversation to ask what he had been
meaning to ask for a long time. "So, Al, how did you ever get hooked in
to the computer business? I know it's something that's been probably
asked of you a lot, but I'm interested to know how it all happened."

"Well, to tell you the truth, I haven't been really asked that
question," he admitted. He paused for a moment, his eyes were as if they
were searching for something beyond the reality he was in. He blinked as
he retrieved from the deep corners of his mind something buried away
long ago. He looked down at his dessert and smiled as the memories came
flooding back. "Actually, it may seem a little ironic, but I hated

"You seem to be doing well for someone who hates what he does."

"I don't hate them anymore," Al corrected him, "although I can say that
I am not obsessed with them, not like some people. No, I didn't jump
into it with both feet; rather, you can say that I was dragged through
it -- although not kicking and screaming, like they are now."

He paused again, and then continued, this time in a more reflective
tone. "The first time you can say that I became involved in computers
was when I was writing my final paper for Dr Browner's course, you
remember? That nice, thirty page paper which just disappeared? Remember
that? Up to that time, I only used the computer because I was forced to
by one of my teachers -- but I was quick to learn the advantages of it,
mostly the spell checker and the way it nicely aligned the margins, not
to mention the fact that you could save your papers and then rehash them
for another course. That was it; a fancy typewriter, that was all.

"But that day, boy, I'll never forget it. I was at home on the weekend,
finishing my paper for Browner on my brother's luggable Compaq. In those
days, it was space-age technology. Imagine, you could take your computer
with you. Of course, it weighed nearly a ton, but in those days... yes,
the good old days. Anyway, I was there, in the living room, finishing up
my paper, because it was due Monday morning. I had just finished doing
the final touches and was in the process of saving the damn thing when,
suddenly, the screen went chinese."

While Peter politely chuckled at the stop down memory lane, Al shook his
head in disbelief, as if he was reliving the trauma all over again. "You
can't imagine what a feeling it was," he continued, still shaking his
head. "Thirty pages -- just gone. If it wasn't my brother's computer I
would have thrown it out the window. Somehow, I couldn't imagine it was
gone, it had to be somewhere; you couldn't tell me that weeks of work
disappeared, without a physical trace. Yet no matter how I tried, it was
gone. Only scattered pieces of it existed, but that was it."

Al sighed. You could still see on his face, especially in the eyes, the
scars of that day. "And that was the beginning. Ever since that time,
I vowed that I would never let that happen to me again. I had to
understand that thing called a computer, why it happened and how to
prevent it. But books were no good to me, it was just full of technical
jargon. So I just ended up spending my evenings playing around with it,
making it crash, recovering from it, crashing it again. Soon it wasn't
just the computer itself, but the different programs as well. In those
days it was not too hard, since there were only a handful of programs

"Can you believe it? I never attended a computer course in my life. I
ended up just using the computer, taking this and that as they came
along. In a way, I was lucky because I was using computers at the
beginning of the PC revolution. So, whenever I started to learn about
any new developments that came along, it was nothing more than just an
addition to what I had already learned. Nowadays, if you are going to
start from scratch, you have a mountain ahead of you."

"That's what really launched me into the business -- self-exploration.
Pretty soon I knew things about computers and programs that specialists
-- even those who wrote the programs -- never knew about. These were
just little tricks I had picked up because I had faced all the
possibilities. The problem with books and courses is that they give
people shortcuts, so when the unexpected happens, they are at a loss of
what to do. In the end, they wind up calling "specialists" like myself
to fix their problems or, as I now do in my business, to make things
look better and seemingly run easier or operate better. We are the new
elite; but at the end of the day, we are not much more intelligent than
other people, just a little more experienced. However, as you know it
and I know it, we have to play the game. In this way, what you do and I
do are more or less the same thing; we are just second-rate actors,
giving the appearance of truth, knowledge, and expertise, in order to
overwhelm our audience. In your case, it's the student; in mine, it's
the user."

The coffee came. Al pondered for a moment as he added the sugar and
cream, slowly stirring the cloudy substance until it was levelled to a
simple, brown color. He regretted this part of the meal because he was
only now beginning to feel relaxed, but he knew that the time was
getting late.

"So, that's how it happened," he concluded. "I just went with the flow
from that time on. I was always scared of being left behind, and now I
am one of those heading a small part of the change that's happening."

"Strange, isn't it," interjected Peter, "how things turn out in the end.
When we were in school together, if anyone had suggested our futures
would be like they are now, we'd say that they were mad. It makes you
wonder what's ahead. Any ideas?"

"Don't know," said Al, motioning to the waiter for the bill. "Just don't

Big Al stretched back in his chair at his work desk. He felt a little
bloated. It wasn't because he ate too much; in fact, he had about as
much as he usually has for lunch. Peter was right, though, he put on a
little weight. Maybe he should start watching his diet more.

He stared blindly at his desk. There was work to be done. Somehow he
didn't feel like moving, he still preferred to relish in the pleasant
memories that were opened over lunch, but which were now gradually being
packed away until the next time -- if there was to be a next time, that

Al pulled himself together and started sifting through the telephone
messages and memos that were piled on his desk. It suddenly occurred to
him that he had not read through the messages that were on his server
before he left for lunch. Back in gear, he moved toward the computer and
typed in the login sequence.

The machine made a faint, but distinct, grinding noise. A message then
appeared that was not what he expected: SEEK ERROR READING ON DRIVE C:.
Big Al grunted. Without hesitation, he kicked the tower which stood by
his right foot. The computer responded, giving him the login prompt that
he waited for. "That's better," he muttered as he typed in his login
name and then password.

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