II — Ur Functions

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 Echo, reminding him—for the dozenth time—that his subscription had lapsed. But it wasn’t his mother and it wasn’t the newspaper. When he heard Ellen’s voice, he paused in the act of reaching for a beer and listened bent-over, with one hand outstretched in the fridge’s frosty glow.

“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. “Chase down that loose ball! You either run or you sit!” Then: “Sorry. I’ve got to go. Don’t call me. I’ll call you. One way or the other. After the Bluegrass. I’m sorry I’ve been dodging your calls, but…you hurt my feelings, Wes. Coaches have feelings too, you know. I—”

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 The Naked and the Dead.

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 2666. It was a crazy book, but sort of interesting.

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: Maybe you’re right, and maybe I can change. Maybe we both can. He supposed that if things went well, he would in time come to convince himself that was indeed so.

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 colleague, for God’s sake!

Only if he did that, Suzanne might carry tales straight back to her friend (friend? who knew? who even suspected?) Ellen. It might be best to leave that aspect of things alone. Although the spite wasn’t entirely out of his heart after all, it seemed. Now it was directed at Ms. Montanari.

“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: I thought they only came in white. Certainly the Henderson kid’s had been white, but—what was the saying?—one swallow didn’t make a summer. After a few false starts (Google, full of information but essentially dumb as a post, lead him first to a discussion of whether or not the Kindle would ever be able to produce color images on its screen, a subject in which Wesley—as a book-reader—had absolutely zero interest), he thought to search for Kindle Fan Sites. He found one called The Kindle Kandle. At the top was a bizarre photo of a woman in Quaker garb reading her Kindle by candlelight. Or possibly kandlelight. Here he read several posts—complaints, mostly—about how the Kindle came in only one color, which one blogger called “plain old smudge-friendly white.” Below it was a reply suggesting that if the complainer persisted in reading with dirty fingers, he could buy a custom sleeve for his Kindle. “In any color you like,” she added. “Grow up and show some creativity!”

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). If it’s a Kindle, I think you can use it to go to the Internet, she’d said. He wondered if it was true. He turned the Kindle on, and as he did so, he remembered there was something else odd about it: no instruction booklet. He hadn’t questioned that until now, because the device was so simple to use it practically ran itself (a creepy idea, when you considered it). He thought of going back to the Kindle Kandlers to find out if this was a true oddity, then dismissed the idea. He was just goofing around, after all, beginning to while away the hours between now and next Monday, when he might hear from Ellen again.

“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 Wesley’s Kindle booted up. Listed were the books he had so far purchased—Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, and The Old Man and the Sea, by Hemingway. The gadget had come with The New Oxford American Dictionary pre-loaded. You only had to begin typing your word and the Kindle found it for you. It was, he thought, TiVo for smart people.

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: We are working on these experimental prototypes. Do you find them useful?

“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 world.”

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, It was my own ur. Something basic and primitive deep inside, telling me not to do it.

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 was Kolor on the Kindle. Beneath the welcome message was a picture—not of Charles Dickens or Eudora Welty, but of a large black tower. There was something ominous about it. Below, also in red, was an invitation to Select Author (your choice may not be available). And below that, a blinking cursor.

“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 this?” Wesley whispered. Below the message, the cursor blinked. Above it, in small type (black, not red), was one further instruction: NUMERIC ENTRY ONLY. NO COMMAS OR DASHES. YOUR CURRENT UR: 117586.

Wesley felt a strong urge (an ur urge!) to turn the pink Kindle off and drop it into the silverware drawer. Or into the freezer along with the ice cream and Stouffer’s frozen dinners, that might be even better. Instead, he used the teeny-tiny keypad to enter his birth date. 7191974 would do as well as any number, he reckoned. He hesitated again, then plunged the tip of his index finger down on the select button. When the screen blanked this time, he had to fight an impulse to get up from the kitchen chair he was sitting in and back away from the table. A crazy certainty had arisen in his mind: a hand—or perhaps a claw—was going to swim up from the grayness of the Kindle’s screen, grab him by the throat, and yank him in. He would exist forever after in computerized grayness, floating around the microchips and between the many worlds of Ur.

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. The Sun Also Rises was there…For Whom the Bell Tolls…the short stories…The Old Man and the Sea, of course…but there were also three or four titles Wesley didn’t recognize, and except for minor essays, he thought he had read all of Hemingway’s considerable output. Also…

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: Cortland’s Dogs. This was some lunatic computer programmer’s idea of a joke, pretty much had to be, but Cortland’s Dogs at least sounded like a Hemingway title. Wesley selected it.

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: Ur novels may not be disseminated as according to all applicable Paradox Laws. Do you agree? Y N.

Smiling—as befitted someone who got the joke but was going along with it anyway—Wesley selected Y. The screen blanked, then presented new information:

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 Wesley’s Kindle. The same items were there—Revolutionary Road, The Old Man and the Sea, the New Oxford American—and he was sure that wouldn’t change. There was no Hemingway novel called Cortland’s Dogs, not in this world or any other. Nonetheless, he got up and went to the phone. It was picked up on the first ring.

“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 oeuvre, don’t you?”

“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 ecod and damme. What’s on your mind?”

“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?” Highlight Y or N, Wesley thought.

“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…FRANKIE, PUT THAT DOWN! DON’T—” There was a crash. “Shit. I think that was Delft. I gotta go, Wes. See you tomorrow.”

“Right.”

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 something) called Cortland’s Dogs had been downloaded from…

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: To Sy, and to Mary, with love. Then this:

Chapter 1

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.

A man’s life was five dogs long, Cortland believed.

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 Primary Colors; the program had whiffled through thousands of writers in a matter of hours or days and had come up with a newsmagazine columnist named Joe Klein, who later owned up to his literary paternity.

Wesley thought that if he submitted Cortland’s Dogs to that computer, it would spit out Ernest Hemingway’s name. In truth, he didn’t think he needed a computer.

He picked up the Kindle with hands that were now shaking badly. “What are you?” he asked.

The Kindle did not answer.

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