When Wesley got back to his apartment after his confessional conversation with Don Allman, the message light on his answering machine was blinking. Two messages. He pushed the playback button, expecting to hear his mother complaining about her arthritis and making trenchant observations about how some sons actually called home more often than twice a month. After that would come a robo-call from the Moore
“Hi, Wes,” she said, sounding uncharacteristically unsure of herself. There was a long pause, long enough for Wesley to wonder if that was all there was going to be. In the background he heard hollow shouts and bouncing balls. She was in the gym, or had been when she left the message. “I’ve been thinking about us. Thinking that maybe we should try again. I miss you.” And then, as if she had seen him rushing for the door: “But not yet. I need to think a little more about…what you said.” A pause. “I was wrong to throw your book like that, but I was upset.” Another pause, almost as long as the one after she’d said hi. “There’s a pre-season tourney in Lexington this weekend. You know, the one they call the Bluegrass. It’s a big deal. Maybe when I get back, we should talk. Please don’t call me until then, because I’ve got to concentrate on the girls. Defense is terrible, and I’ve only got one girl who can actually shoot from the perimeter, and…I don’t know, this is probably a big mistake.”
“It’s not,” he told the answering machine. His heart was pumping. He was still leaning into the open refrigerator, feeling the cold wafting out and striking his face, which seemed too hot. “Believe me, it’s not.”
“I had lunch with Suzanne Montanari the other day, and she says you’re carrying around one of those electronic reading thingies. To me that seemed…I don’t know, like a sign that we should try again.” She laughed, then screamed so loud that Wesley jumped. “
A beep interrupted her. The allotted message time had run out. Wesley uttered the word Norman Mailer’s publishers had refused to let him use in
Then the second message started and she was back. “I guess English teachers also have feelings. Suzanne says we’re not right for each other, she says we’re too far apart in our interests, but…maybe there’s a middle ground. I’m glad you got the reader. If it’s a Kindle, I think you can also use it to go to the Internet. I…I need to think about this. Don’t call me. I’m not quite ready. Goodbye.”
Wesley got his beer. He was smiling. Then he thought of the spite that had been living in his heart for the last month and stopped. He went to the calendar on the wall, and wrote PRE-SEASON TOURNEY across Saturday and Sunday. He paused, then drew a line through the days of the work—week after, a line on which he wrote ELLEN???
With that done he sat down in his favorite chair, drank his beer, and tried to read
He wondered if it was available from the Kindle Store.
* * *
That evening, after replaying Ellen’s messages for the third time, Wesley turned on his Dell and went to the Athletic Department website to check for details concerning the Bluegrass Pre-Season Invitational Tournament. He knew it would be a mistake to turn up there, and he had no intentions of doing so, but he did want to know who the Meerkats were playing, what their chances were, and when Ellen would be back.
It turned out there were eight teams, seven from Division Two and only one from Division Three: the Lady Meerkats of Moore. Wesley felt pride on Ellen’s behalf when he saw that, and was once more ashamed of his spite…which she (lucky him!) knew nothing about. She actually seemed to think he had bought the Kindle as a way of sending her a message:
On the website he saw that the team would leave for Lexington by bus at noon this coming Friday. They would practice at Rupp Arena that evening, and play their first game—against the Bulldogs of Truman State, Indiana—on Saturday morning. Because the tourney was double elimination, they wouldn’t be starting back until Sunday evening no matter what. Which meant he wouldn’t hear from her until the following Monday at the earliest.
It was going to be a long week.
“And,” he told his computer (a good listener!), “she may decide against trying again, anyway. I have to be prepared for that.”
Well, he could try. And he could also call that bitch Suzanne Montanari and tell her in no uncertain terms to stop campaigning against him. Why would she do that in the first place? She was a
Only if he did that, Suzanne might carry tales straight back to her friend (
“Never mind,” he told his computer. “George Herbert was wrong. Living well isn’t the best revenge; loving well is.”
He started to turn off his computer, then remembered something Don Allman had said about Wesley’s Kindle:
Wesley turned off his computer, went into the kitchen, got another beer, and pulled his own Kindle from his briefcase. His pink Kindle. Except for the color, it looked exactly the same as the ones on the Kindle Kandle website.
“Kindle-Kandle, bibble-babble,” he said. “It’s just some flaw in the plastic.” Perhaps, but why had it come one-day express delivery when he hadn’t specified that? Because someone at the Kindle factory wanted to get rid of the pink mutant as soon as possible? That was ridiculous. They would have just thrown it away. Another victim of quality control.
He thought of Ellen’s message again (by then he had it by heart).
“I miss you, kiddo,” he said, and was surprised to hear his voice waver. He did miss her. He hadn’t realized how much until he’d heard her voice. He’d been too wrapped up in his own wounded ego. Not to mention his sweaty little spite. Strange to think that spite might have earned him a second chance. Much stranger, when you got right down to it, than a pink Kindle.
The screen titled
The question was, could you access the Internet?
He pushed the MENU button and was presented with a number of choices. The top one (of course) invited him to SHOP THE KINDLE STORE. But near the bottom was something called EXPERIMENTAL. That looked interesting. He moved the cursor to it, opened it, and read this at the top of the screen:
“Well, I don’t know,” Wesley said. “What are they?”
The first prototype turned out to be BASIC WEB. So Ellen was right. The Kindle was apparently a lot more computerized than it looked at first blush. He glanced at the other experimental choices: music downloads (big whoop) and text-to-speech (which might come in handy if he were blind). He pushed the NEXT PAGE button to see if there were other experimental prototypes. There was one: UR FUNCTIONS.
Now what in the hell was that? Ur, so far as he knew, had only two meanings: a city in the Old Testament, and a prefix meaning “primitive” or “basic.” The screen didn’t help; although there were explanations for the other experimental functions, there was none for this. Well, there was one way to find out. He highlighted UR FUNCTIONS and selected it.
A new menu appeared. There were three items: UR BOOKS, UR NEWS ARCHIVE, and UR LOCAL (UNDER CONSTRUCTION).
“Huh,” Wesley said. “What in the
He highlighted UR BOOKS, dropped his finger onto the select button, then hesitated. Suddenly his skin felt cold, as when he’d been stilled by the sound of Ellen’s recorded voice while reaching into the fridge for a beer. He would later think,
But was he not a modern man? One who now read off the computer?
He was. He was. So he pushed the button.
The screen blanked, then WELCOME TO UR BOOKS! appeared at the top of the screen…and in red! The Kandlers were behind the technological curve, it seemed; there
“What the hell,” Wesley told the empty room. He licked his lips, which were suddenly dry, and typed ERNEST HEMINGWAY.
The screen wiped itself clean. The function, whatever it was supposed to be, didn’t seem to work. After ten seconds or so, Wesley reached for the Kindle, meaning to turn it off. Before he could push the slide-switch, the screen finally produced a new message.
10,438,721 URS SEARCHED
17,894 ERNEST HEMINGWAY TITLES DETECTED
IF YOU DO NOT KNOW TITLE, SELECT UR
OR RETURN TO UR FUNCTIONS MENU
SELECTIONS FROM YOUR CURRENT UR WILL NOT BE DISPLAYED
“What in the name of God is
Wesley felt a strong urge (an
Then the screen produced type, plain old prosaic type, and the superstitious dread departed. He scanned the Kindle’s screen (the size of a small paperback) eagerly, although what he was eager for he had no idea.
At the top was the author’s full name—Ernest Miller Hemingway—and his dates. Next came a long list of his published works…but it was wrong.
He examined the dates again and saw that the death—date was wrong. Hemingway had died on July 2, 1961, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. According to the screen, he had gone to that great library in the sky on August 19, 1964.
“Birth date’s wrong, too,” Wesley muttered. He was running his free hand through his hair, pulling it into exotic new shapes. “I’m almost sure it is. Should be 1899, not 1897.”
He moved the cursor down to one of the titles he didn’t know:
The screen blanked, then produced a book cover. The jacket image—in black and white—showed barking dogs surrounding a scarecrow. In the background, shoulders slumped in a posture of weariness or defeat (or both), was a hunter with a gun. The eponymous Cortland, surely.
In the woods of upper Michigan, James Cortland deals with the infidelity of his wife and his own mortality. When three dangerous criminals appear at the old Cortland farm, “Papa’s” most famous hero is faced with a terrible choice. Rich in event and symbolism, Ernest Hemingway’s final novel was awarded the Pulitzer Prize shortly before his death. $7.50
Below the thumbnail, Kindle asked: BUY THIS BOOK? Y N.
“Total bullshit,” Wesley whispered as he highlighted Y and pushed the select button.
The screen blanked again, then flashed a new message:
Smiling—as befitted someone who got the joke but was going along with it anyway—Wesley selected
THANK YOU, WESLEY!
YOUR UR NOVEL HAS BEEN ORDERED
YOUR ACCOUNT WILL BE DEBITED $7.50
REMEMBER UR NOVELS TAKE LONGER TO DOWNLOAD
ALLOW 2-4 MINS
Wesley returned to the screen headed
“Don Allman,” his office-mate said. “And yes, I was indeed born a ramblin’ man.” No hollow gym-sounds in the background this time; just the barbaric yawps of Don’s three sons, who sounded as though they might be dismantling the Allman residence board by board.
“Don, it’s Wesley.”
“Ah, Wesley! I haven’t seen you in…gee, it must be three hours!” From deeper within the lunatic asylum where Wesley assumed Don lived with his family, there came what sounded like a death-scream. Don Allman was not perturbed. “Jason, don’t throw that at your brother. Be a good little troll and go watch SpongeBob.” Then, to Wesley: “What can I do for you, Wes? Advice on your love-life? Tips on improving your sexual performance and stamina? A title for your novel in progress?”
“I have no novel in progress and you know it,” Wesley snapped. “But it’s novels I want to talk about. You know Hemingway’s
“I love it when you talk dirty.”
“Do you or don’t you?”
“Of course. But not as well as you, I hope. You’re the 20th century American lit man, after all; I stick to the days when writers wore wigs, took snuff, and said picturesque things like
“To your knowledge, did Hemingway ever write any fiction about dogs?”
Don considered while another young child commenced shrieking. “Wes, are you okay? You sound a little—”
“Just answer the question. Did he or didn’t he?”
“All right,” Don said. “So far as I can say without consulting my trusty computer, he didn’t. I remember him once claiming the Batista partisans clubbed his pet pooch to death, though—how’s that for a factoid? You know, when he was in Cuba. He took it as a sign that he and Mary should beat feet to Florida, and they did—posthaste.”
“You don’t happen to remember that dog’s name, do you?”
“I think I do. I’d want to double-check it on the Internet, but I think it was Cortland. Like the apple?”
“Thanks, Don.” His lips felt numb. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Wes, are you sure you’re…
Wesley went back to the kitchen table. He saw that a fresh selection now appeared on the contents page of his Kindle. A novel (or
Where, exactly? Some other plane of reality called Ur (or possibly UR) 7,191,974?
Wesley no longer had the strength to call this idea ridiculous and push it away. He did, however, have enough to go to the refrigerator and get a beer. Which he needed. He opened it, drank half in five long swallows, belched. He sat down, feeling a little better. He highlighted his new acquisition ($7.50 would be mighty cheap for an undiscovered Hemingway, he reckoned) and a title page came up. The next page was a dedication:
A man’s life was five dogs long, Cortland believed. The first was the one that taught you. The second was the one you taught. The third and fourth were the ones you worked. The last was the one that outlived you. That was the winter dog. Cortland’s winter dog had no name. He thought of it only as the scarecrow dog…
Liquid rose up in Wesley’s throat. He ran for the sink, bent over it, and struggled to keep the beer down. His gorge settled, and instead of turning on the water to rinse puke down the drain, he cupped his hands under the flow and splashed it on his sweaty skin. That was better. Then he went back to the Kindle and stared down at it.
Somewhere—at some college a lot more ambitious than Moore of Kentucky—there was a computer programmed to read books and identify the writers by their stylistic tics and tocks, which were supposed to be as unique as fingerprints or snowflakes. Wesley had a vague recollection that this computer program had been used to identify the author of a pseudonymous novel called
Wesley thought that if he submitted
He picked up the Kindle with hands that were now shaking badly. “What
The Kindle did not answer.