Word Processor of the Gods
At first glance it looked like a Wang word processor—it had a Wang keyboard and a Wang casing. It was only on second glance that Richard Hagstrom saw that the casing had been split open (and not gently, either; it looked to him as if the job had been done with a hacksaw blade) to admit a slightly larger IBM cathode tube. The archive discs, which had come with this odd mongrel, were not floppy at all; they were as hard as the 45’s Richard had listened to as a kid. “What in the name of God is that?” Lina asked as he and Mr. Nordhoff lugged it over to his study piece by piece. Mr. Nordhoff had lived next door to Richard Hagstrom’s brother’s family… Roger, Belinda, and their boy, Jonathan. “Something Jon built,” Richard said. “Meant for me to have it, Mr. Nordhoff says. It looks like a word processor.” “Oh yeah,” Nordhoff said. He would not see his sixties again and he was badly out of breath. “That’s what he said it was, the poor kid… think we could set it down for a minute, Mr. Hagstrom? I’m pooped.” “You bet,” Richard said, and then called to his son, Seth, who was tooling odd, atonal chords out of his Fender guitar downstairs—the room Richard had envisioned as a “family room” when he had first paneled it had become his son’s “rehearsal hall” instead.
“Seth!” he yelled. “Come give us a hand!” Downstairs, Seth just went on warping chords out of the Fender. Richard looked at Mr. Nordhoff and shrugged, ashamed and unable to hide it. Nordhoff shrugged back as if to say Kids! Who expects anything better from them these days? Except they both knew that Jon—poor doomed Jon Hagstrom, his crazy brother’s son—had been better. “You were good to help me with this,” Richard said. Nordhoff shrugged. “What else has an old man got to do with his time? And I guess it was the least I could do for Johnny. He used to cut my lawn gratis, do you know that? I wanted to pay him, but the kid wouldn’t take it. He was quite a boy.” Nordhoff was still out of breath. “Do you think I could have a glass of water, Mr. Hagstrom?” “You bet.” He got it himself when his wife didn’t move from the kitchen table, where she was reading a bodice-ripper paperback and eating a Twinkie. “Seth!” he yelled again. “Come on up here and help us, okay?” But Seth just went on playing muffled and rather sour bar chords on the Fender for which Richard was still paying. He invited Nordhoff to stay for supper, but Nordhoff refused politely. Richard nodded, embarrassed again but perhaps hiding it a little better this time. What’s a nice guy like you doing with a family like that? his friend Bernie Epstein had asked him once, and Richard had only been able to shake his head, feeling the same dull embarrassment he was feeling now. He was a nice guy. And yet somehow this was what he had come out with—an overweight, sullen wife who felt cheated out of the good things in life, who felt that she had backed the losing horse (but who would never come right out and say so), and an uncommunicative fifteen-year-old son who was doing marginal work in the same school where Richard taught… a son who played weird chords on the guitar morning, noon and night (mostly night) and who seemed to think that would somehow be enough to get him through. “Well, what about a beer?” Richard asked. He was reluctant to let Nordhoff go—he wanted to hear more about Jon. “A beer would taste awful good,” Nordhoff said, and Richard nodded gratefully. “Fine,” he said, and went back to get them a couple of Buds. His study was in a small shed-like building that stood apart from the house— like the family room, he had fixed it up himself. But unlike the family room, this was a place he thought of as his own—a place where he could shut out the stranger he had married and the stranger she had given birth to. Lina did not, of course, approve of him having his own place, but she had not been able to stop it—it was one of the few little victories he had managed over her. He supposed that in a way she had backed a losing horse—when they had gotten married sixteen years before, they had both believed he would write wonderful, lucrative novels and they would both soon be driving around in Mercedes-Benzes. But the one novel he had published had not been lucrative, and the critics had been quick to point out that it wasn’t very wonderful, either. Una had seen things the critics’ way, and that had been the beginning of their drifting apart. So the high school teaching job which both of them had seen as only a stepping-stone on their way to fame, glory, and riches, had now been their major source of income for the last fifteen years—one helluva long stepping-stone, he sometimes thought. But he had never quite let go of his dream. He wrote short stories and the occasional article. He was a member in good standing of the Authors Guild. He brought in about $5,000 in additional income with his typewriter each year, and no matter how much Una might grouse about it, that rated him his own study… especially since she refused to work.
“You’ve got a nice place here,” Nordhoff said, looking around the small room with the mixture of old-fashioned prints on the walls. The mongrel word processor sat on the desk with the CPU tucked underneath. Richard’s old Olivetti electric had been put aside for the time being on top of one of the filing cabinets. “It serves the purpose,” Richard said. He nodded at the word processor. “You don’t suppose that thing really works, do you? Jon was only fourteen.” “Looks funny, doesn’t it?” “It sure does,” Richard agreed. Nordhoff laughed. “You don’t know the half of it,” he said. “I peeked down into the back of the video unit. Some of the wires are stamped IBM, and some are stamped Radio Shack. There’s most of a Western Electric telephone in there. And believe it or not, there’s a small motor from an Erector Set.” He sipped his beer and said in a kind of afterthought: “Fifteen. He just turned fifteen. A couple of days before the accident.” He paused and said it again, looking down at his bottle of beer. “Fifteen.” He didn’t say it loudly. “Erector Set?” Richard blinked at the old man. “That’s right. Erector Set puts out an electric model kit. Jon had one of them, since he was… oh, maybe six. I gave it to him for Christmas one year. He was crazy for gadgets even then. Any kind of gadget would do him, and did that little box of Erector Set motors tickle him? I guess it did. He kept it for almost ten years. Not many kids do that, Mr. Hagstrom.” “No,” Richard said, thinking of the boxes of Seth’s toys he had lugged out over the years—discarded, forgotten, or wantonly broken. He glanced at the word processor. “It doesn’t work, then.”
“I wouldn’t bet on that until you try it,” Nordhoff said. “The kid was damn near an electrical genius.” “That’s sort of pushing it, I think. I know he was good with gadgets, and he won the State Science Fair when he was in the sixth grade—” “Competing against kids who were much older—high school seniors some of them,” Nordhoff said. “Or that’s what his mother said.” “It’s true. We were all very proud of him.” Which wasn’t exactly true. Richard had been proud, and Jon’s mother had been proud; the boy’s father didn’t give a shit at all. “But Science Fair projects and building your very own hybrid wordcruncher—” He shrugged. Nordhoff set his beer down. “There was a kid back in the fifties,” he said, “who made an atom smasher out of two soup cans and about five dollars’ worth of electrical equipment. Jon told me about that. And he said there was a kid out in some hick town in New Mexico who discovered tachyons—negative particles that are supposed to travel backwards through time—in 1954. A kid in Waterbury, Connecticut—eleven years old—who made a pipe-bomb out of the celluloid he scraped off the backs of a deck of playing cards. He blew up an empty doghouse with it. Kids’re funny sometimes. The super smart ones in particular. You might be surprised.” “Maybe. Maybe I will be.” “He was a fine boy, regardless.” “You loved him a little, didn’t you?” “Mr. Hagstrom,” Nordhoff said, “I loved him a lot. He was a genuinely all-right kid.”
And Richard thought how strange it was—his brother, who had been an utter shit since the age of six, had gotten a fine woman and a fine bright son. He himself, who had always tried to be gentle and good (whatever “good” meant in this crazy world), had married Lina, who had developed into a silent, piggy woman, and had gotten Seth by her. Looking at Nordhoff’s honest, tired face, he found himself wondering exactly how that had happened and how much of it had been his own fault, a natural result of his own quiet weakness. “Yes,” Richard said. “He was, wasn’t he?” “Wouldn’t surprise me if it worked,” Nordhoff said. “Wouldn’t surprise me at all.” After Nordhoff had gone, Richard Hagstrom plugged the word processor in and turned it on. There was a hum, and he waited to see if the letters IBM would come up on the face of the screen. They did not. Instead, eerily, like a voice from the grave, these words swam up, green ghosts, from the darkness: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, UNCLE RICHARD! JON. “Christ,” Richard whispered, sitting down hard. The accident that had killed his brother, his wife, and their son had happened two weeks before—they had been coming back from some sort of day trip and Roger had been drunk. Being drunk was a perfectly ordinary occurrence in the life of Roger Hagstrom. But this time his luck had simply run out and he had driven his dusty old van off the edge of a ninety-foot drop. It had crashed and burned. Jon was fourteen—no, fifteen. Just turned fifteen a couple of days before the accident, the old man said. Another three years and he would have gotten free of that hulking, stupid bear. His birthday… and mine coming up soon. A week from today. The word processor had been Jon’s birthday present for him. That made it worse, somehow. Richard could not have said precisely how, or why, but it did. He reached out to turn off the screen and then withdrew his hand.
Some kid made an atom smasher out of two soup cans and five dollars’ worth of auto electrical parts. Yeah, and the New York City sewer system is full of alligators and the U.S. Air Force has the body of an alien on ice somewhere in Nebraska. Tell me a few more. It’s bullshit. But maybe that’s something I don’t want to know for sure. He got up, went around to the back of the VDT, and looked through the slots. Yes, it was as Nordhoff had said. Wires stamped RADIO SHACK MADE IN TAIWAN. Wires stamped WESTERN ELECTRIC and WESTREX and ERECTOR SET, with the little circled trademark r. And he saw something else, something Nordhoff had either missed or hadn’t wanted to mention. There was a Lionel Train transformer in there, wired up like the Bride of Frankenstein. “Christ,” he said, laughing but suddenly near tears. “Christ, Jonny, what did you think you were doing?” But he knew that, too. He had dreamed and talked about owning a word processor for years, and when Lina’s laughter became too sarcastic to bear, he had talked about it to Jon. “I could write faster, rewrite faster, and submit more,” he remembered telling Jon last summer—the boy had looked at him seriously, his light blue eyes, intelligent but always so carefully wary, magnified behind his glasses. “It would be great… really great.” “Then why don’t you get one, Uncle Rich?” “They don’t exactly give them away,” Richard had said, smiling. “The Radio Shack model starts at around three grand. From there you can work yourself up into the eighteen-thousand-dollar range.” “Well, maybe I’ll build you one sometime,” Jon had said. “Maybe you just will,” Richard had said, clapping him on the back. And until Nordhoff had called, he had thought no more about it. Wires from hobby-shop electrical models.
A Lionel Train transformer. Christ. He went around to the front again, meaning to turn it off, as if to actually try to write something on it and fail would somehow defile what his earnest, fragile (doomed) nephew had intended. Instead, he pushed the EXECUTE button on the board. A funny little chill scraped across his spine as he did it—EXECUTE was a funny word to use, when you thought of it. It wasn’t a word he associated with writing; it was a word he associated with gas chambers and electric chairs… and, perhaps, with dusty old vans plunging off the sides of roads. EXECUTE. The CPU was humming louder than any he had ever heard on the occasions when he had window-shopped word processors; it was, in fact, almost roaring. What’s in the memory-box, Jon? he wondered. Bed springs? Train transformers all in a row? Soup cans? He thought again of Jon’s eyes, of his still and delicate face. Was it strange, maybe even sick, to be jealous of another man’s son? But he should have been mine. I knew it… and I think he knew it, too. And then there was Belinda, Roger’s wife. Belinda who wore sunglasses too often on cloudy days. The big ones, because those bruises around the eyes have a nasty way of spreading. But he looked at her sometimes, sitting there still and watchful in the loud umbrella of Roger’s laughter, and he thought almost the exact same thing: She should have been mine. It was a terrifying thought, because they had both known Belinda in high school and had both dated her. He and Roger had been two years apart in age and Belinda had been perfectly between them, a year older than Richard and a year younger than Roger. Richard had actually been the first to date the girl who would grow up to become Jon’s mother. Then Roger had stepped in, Roger who was older and bigger, Roger who always got what he wanted, Roger who would hurt you if you tried to stand in his way. I got scared. 1 got scared and I let her get away. Was it as simple as that? Dear God help me, I think it was. I’d like to have it a different way, but perhaps it’s best not to lie to yourself about such things as cowardice. And shame. And if those things were true—if Lina and Seth had somehow belonged with his no-good of a brother and if Belinda and Jon had somehow belonged with him, what did that prove? And exactly how was a thinking person supposed to deal with such an absurdly balanced screw-up? Did you laugh? Did you scream? Did you shoot yourself for a yellow dog? Wouldn’t surprise me if it worked. Wouldn’t surprise me at all. EXECUTE. His fingers moved swiftly over the keys. He looked at the screen and saw these letters floating green on the surface of the screen: MY BROTHER WAS A WORTHLESS DRUNK. They floated there and Richard suddenly thought of a toy he had had when he was a kid. It was called a Magic Eight-Ball. You asked it a question that could be answered yes or no and then you turned the Magic Eight-Ball over to see what it had to say on the subject—its phony yet somehow entrancingly mysterious responses included such things as IT IS ALMOST CERTAIN, I WOULD NOT PLAN ON IT, and ASK AGAIN LATER Roger had been jealous of that toy, and finally, after bullying Richard into giving it to him one day, Roger had thrown it onto the sidewalk as hard as he could, breaking it. Then he had laughed. Sitting here now, listening to the strangely choppy roar from the CPU cabinet Jon had jury-rigged, Richard remembered how he had collapsed to the sidewalk, weeping, unable to believe his brother had done such a thing. “bawl-baby, bawl-baby, look at the baby bawl,” Roger had taunted him. “It wasn’t nothing but a cheap, shitty toy anyway, Richie. Lookit there, nothing in it but a bunch of little signs and a lot of water.” “I’M TELLING!” Richard had shrieked at the top of his lungs. His head felt hot. His sinuses were stuffed shut with tears of outrage. “I’M TELLING ON YOU, ROGER! I’M TELLING MOM!” “You tell and I’ll break your arm,” Roger said, and in his chilling grin Richard had seen he meant it.