Time’s Bending Sickle

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15. To Entertain the Time

“No more punch cards?” The Hopkins registrar’s assistant was incredulous. We had signed the contracts, and I was walking some of the staff through the new system.
“No more. One more run will put the stuff you have on cards onto the discs. Then you won’t have to punch another card.”
I handed out manuals, ran over the contents briefly, and emphatically pointed out the toll-free number printed in large figures on the front and back. “Your time is valuable, and you are paying for ours. So don’t hesitate to use this number if you can’t find the answer to your question in the manual in two minutes.”
Marina looked on this session with a smile that reflected those of the staff. Some of the latter had been unhappy at the prospect of taking on a new procedure, but they got happier as they learned what it could do for them. Even the fussy registrar seemed satisfied.
I repeated my invitation to the members of the committee to dine with me at Cullen’s expense. Again, all declined but Marina.
“Actually, there are other plans afoot,” said Marina. “Of course I arranged for a quartet session at Clio’s. She insisted on having us all for dinner first.”
I remembered all the serious equipment in Clio’s kitchen and accepted with pleasure. We agreed to meet at Clio’s at seven. I stopped by my hotel and called home and office, then picked up a nice bottle of Beaujolais nouveau and one of Sancerre. I pulled up before the wedge-shaped house a little before seven.
The face that met me at the door was like that on the painting, but it moved. Clio had a very expressive face, and for the rest of the evening it was rarely in total repose. I described the face in the painting as “strong.” I suppose I meant it was not conventionally pretty, for the features were generous rather than delicate. Her green eyes were large and her lips were full. She wore no makeup, and her straight brown hair was held back with a clip. She wore a chambray shirt and jeans. I guessed her to be about thirty.
“You must be Tony. I’m Clio Novak. Come in.” Her voice was an alto with rich overtones, and her handshake was strong.
“Thanks. It’s good to meet you, though I feel that I met a bit of you when I was here before.”
“That’s right, you were my watchdog when I was gone. You sure didn’t leave any tracks.”
“I hope you didn’t mind my crashing here. I felt lousy, and Marina and the others insisted that I stay.”
“I’m glad you did.”
We had been standing inside the door. I held out the wine I had brought. “I tried to cover the possibilities.”
“Oh, thanks. Love them both, but I think the Sancerre will be best tonight. I’ll get it cold and finish up a few things in the kitchen.” She took the wine and started toward the kitchen, then stopped and smiled knowingly. “Would you like to get the cello out and warm it up?”
“I thought you’d never ask.”
She pouted. “No one loves me for myself alone and not my yellow cello.”
“It’s a wonderful cello. Your father’s?”
“Yes,” she called out from the refrigerator.
“Was he a professional?”
“No, but he could have been.” She went to the closet and pulled out the cello case. “He didn’t get to play this very much. He was a lawyer, and hated most of his work. But he made a lot of money, and when he was sixty, he bought this cello. When he was sixty-six, he died.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Me too. But he had a good six years. His other cello wasn’t bad, but it didn’t sing like this one. Here,” she said, pushing it toward me. “Let’s hear it. I’ve got to cook.”
I took it carefully out of the case, adjusted the end pin, tightened and rosined the bow, and took a few tuning strokes. Suddenly I was nervous and self-conscious. I felt as if I were auditioning. I began playing the Bach suite I knew best, the third, the one that begins with a descending C-major scale. The cello seemed to jump in response, and I soon forgot everything but the music. When I looked up, Marina, Doreen, and Alice had arrived and Clio was leaning out of the kitchen door, wiping her hands on a plain white apron.
“If you can tear him away,” called Clio, “we’re about ready to eat.”
Dinner was delicious. There was fresh sole in a subtle sauce, wild rice, homemade rolls, and a salad of avocado, grapefruit, and poppyseed dressing. A killer dessert of intense but light chocolate mousse came with rich, dark-roasted coffee. The conversation was lively and jolly. It wasn’t until days after that I realized that there might have been anything unusual about being the only man among four women, for I felt perfectly comfortable. There was some in-group conversation, but also deliberate efforts to annotate it for me, and include me in the discussions. Alice asked Marina about someone named Barbara, and then told me she was Marina’s housemate. Somehow they got me to tell about Wizardware and Tom Backscheider’s attitude toward paté.
Clio contributed easily and naturally, but mainly listened. As we finished our coffee, she rose and said, “Now go play while I get my paint going. I can clean up when I’m painted out.”
We obliged, and plunged into Beethoven’s opus 18, the first one with the drawn-gold slow movement, moving on to the first of his opus 59. We hit a few snags in this one; Alice, who was playing first, repeated what almost every first violinist says about that part, that it was harder than the concerto.
Between movements I could see Clio painting away. When we finished the Beethoven, she called out, “How about a Shostakovitch?”
We obliged with the eighth, the powerful, tragic piece Shostakovitch dedicated to the victims of fascism and war after visiting Dresden; it was also a reflection on his own life, quoting from several of his earlier works. We were pretty much wiped out when we finished that. Clio had opened the other bottle of wine I had brought, and had split and toasted the leftover rolls with a kind of olive and garlic spread. We managed to find room for more food and drink.
I stopped eating long enough to speak to Clio. “You’ve distracted me so successfully with food and that cello, that I haven’t had a chance to ask to see your paintings. The one you were working on when I was here has lingered in my mind.”
“The one with the horse and hawk?”
“I finally let that one go to the gallery. I’m not sure I have any here that are fit to be seen.”
“Come on, Clio,” said Doreen. “Give us a peek.”
“Well, there is this one I’m working on. Everything else is at the gallery. There’s not much there yet, but you can see what there is.”
She turned on the studio light and rolled the big easel around. There were swirls of color, but no recognizable forms.
“I don’t quite know what’s going to emerge,” said Clio. “I like to work out some composition and color basics first, and then sometimes forms sort of creep out. Nothing here yet.”
“Where’s your gallery?” I asked.
“In Georgetown,” she said with a deprecating turn of her voice, as if embarrassed to be in such a predictable area. “It’s called ‘A Studio of Her Own.’ The owner’s a Virginia Woolf fan.”
“They have only women painters,” Marina said.
“What’s the latest on the New York branch?” Doreen asked Clio.
“They’ve just about closed a deal on the space. Maybe they’ll open in another few months. They won’t have to do a lot of remodeling.”
“They must be doing a good business,” I said.
“Not bad,” said Clio. “For the first time I can afford to take an unpaid leave from my teaching job. Then I can really get some work done.”
The group finally broke up. As I was leaving, Clio shook my hand and said, “I enjoyed hearing you play Dad’s cello. You know where to find the sweet notes. Come again when you’re in town.”
Although I was physically tired, it took me a while to fall asleep when I got back to the hotel. The music, food, and conversation had been stimulating, and my mind raced for some time, though I didn’t have any visions. Finally, the colors of Clio’s painting spun around and my dreams emerged. I don’t remember the dreams, except for one bit about playing Clio’s cello: I was playing a Bach suite, and the cello seemed warm and pliable, bending with the music.

I didn’t have any visions on the flight back to Dallas, and arrived to find Jean up to her ears in boxes and packing material. She had just bought an Apple computer. “I should have talked to you about it, but I didn’t think you’d mind. I used my own money, anyway.”
We still had some debts, and were trying to save for a house, but I can’t say I minded. “I won’t complain if you’ll let me play with it some.”
“Sure, I thought we could both use it. If you’ve got to sell games, you might want to try them out.”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Through the company. We got a good deal. Say, where do you think this cable goes?”
We managed to get the computer set up and turned on. It was like a new pet. I got “Dragonbreath” booted up and showed Jean how to play. She really got into it, pounding the table in frustration when one of her dwarves got incinerated. The only problem was that I couldn’t get her away from the computer and into bed.
For the next few months, things rocked on uneventfully. We reached an agreement with Wizardware, and began working on the packaging and marketing. Profits for Cullen were small at first, but promised to grow. Everybody seemed pretty happy with the deal. Tom Backscheider hacked out some clever new games, enjoying his new freedom from management. Howell griped about Tom’s rejection of some of the packaging art and about the high royalties paid the game writers. He had agreed to these provisions of the deal, but he hated to have anything out of his control, so he complained. The board also rejected his idea for taking over a hardware manufacturer, and that put him in a foul mood for weeks.
Jean fretted over the board’s decision both before and after their action. Her mother, in a rare instance of involvement, agreed with the majority, and insisted that Jean vote their shares against Howell’s proposal, but it clearly went against Jean’s own wishes. I didn’t inject my own opinion very strongly, but I didn’t think it wise to go into debt for a hardware company when many were dropping in the wake of the new IBM PC. It’s true that because of that situation the company was cheap, but it seemed to me that we would do better to invest in more R and D. Perry and his group were complaining about the need for more programmers.
Jean had a bout of depression after that vote, and even stopped playing games on the computer for a while. She would sleep for hours during the day, but would be up in the middle of the night, staring at inane stuff on the TV.
One day I came home after work and found her just as I had left her that morning, watching TV in her pajamas. It was clear that she hadn’t bathed.
“Have you had anything to eat?” I asked. She waved a hand in an ambiguous gesture. “Want to go out for dinner?”
“Not really,” she sighed.
“What can I fix for you?”
“I’m not hungry.”
I sat down beside her and took her limp hand. “Talk to me. What’s the matter?”
“Too much trouble.”
“How do you feel?”
She sat silent for a long while. Then she closed her eyes and whispered “Empty.”
“That’s because you haven’t eaten.” I tried some half-hearted jocularity. It didn’t work. I spoke more seriously. “Don’t you want to talk to someone? Get the doctor to check you out?”
This sort of thing went on for some time. I tried everything I could to cheer Jean up, to interest her in something. I called Callie, got her to call Jean, but she had no luck. Tillie had little patience or sympathy for her daughter’s problem, so she was no help–if anything, talking to her mother seemed to deepen Jean’s depression. Nothing seemed to work. Our sex life, not too good before, was a blank. I was getting seriously worried. I suggested joint therapy, despite my fears about my visions, but she wouldn’t hear of it.
But eventually she got interested in one of the new Wizardware games I brought home, and gradually returned to what passed for normal life.
Jean’s routine since the company went public was something like this. She got up, showered, dressed, ate a bowl of cereal, checked the stock market, called her mother, did the crossword, went shopping, read the financial pages and some business magazines, did a little cleaning and straightening, watched TV, and, after getting the computer, played games. We had always shared the cooking, but during her depression I took over, and Jean never got back to it. We began to eat out more, despite the expense.
Jean never seemed to call her old friends anymore. She did not seem to have really close friends in Dallas, though there were a few that she had gone out with from time to time until her depression. And she seemed reluctant to call Callie after resisiting her efforts to cheer her up. Except for her comment about feeling empty during her depression, she never mentioned her inability to get pregnant, or the possibility of having a baby.
Fortunately–or perhaps unfortunately–there was no board meeting while she was depressed. She took her position on the board, limited though it was, very seriously. As soon as she got the agenda for a meeting, she began studying the issues diligently. If she hadn’t fully developed a position on a topic, she at least had a set of probing questions ready. She would even call Howell and pump him for information; I was surprised that he patiently gave her lots of time whenever she called. Days before the meeting she would go through her wardrobe carefully, planning every detail of what she would wear. I don’t think she went to a single meeting without first buying some piece of clothing or accessory.
We fell into a kind of polite, gingerly coexistence. Since she took every gesture of affection as a ploy for sex–which still didn’t interst her–I retreated to a manner which I hoped was open but not intrusive. Jean sometimes complained that I didn’t talk to her. But when I tried to make conversation, she rarely made any effort to respond. Some talk about the business interested her, but not always. “You tell me more than I want to know.” She said this after spending twenty minutes on the phone with Howell on the same topic.
“Well, stop me when you’ve had enough.”
“OK, enough.”
She did seem interested in my Baltimore music friends, especially since I had met Marina in London. She asked a lot of questions about them all. I did pretty well on what they looked like, how they played, what their jobs were, but there were a lot of questions I couldn’t answer.
“Are any of them married?”
“I’m not sure. Marina and Clio are not, but I think Doreen mentioned a husband.”
“Have the others been married?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did they mention children?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Are they in relationships?”
“I don’t know. It didn’t come up. Should I have asked?”
Jean snorted in disgust. “Men!”
At work, competition seemed to be picking up. After Apple’s VisiCalc spreadsheet program became more popular, and IBM’s PC hit the market, many of our smaller customers bought a computer and did their own work. And the big companies could afford to squeeze us for the big jobs. Howell began taking on the job of selling our services to the really big customers. I continued to push our records and hospital services, and was assigned the job of getting more profit out of the games. The pressure got pretty intense on all fronts.
It occurred to me that the small personal computers, which were eating into one part of our business, might be used to repair another part of our business. Games could be a start, but perhaps our programmers could work up clever things to do on the personal computers that were more practical. I would keep my ears open for ideas while I talked to the games people. Maybe they could write a game that could teach a young player to use a spreadsheet.
Although I talked on the phone occasionally to Tom Backscheider, and though he tried to answer my questions and be helpful, I felt I was not quite getting the picture of the games business. I got permission to go to California, taking Perry Fein along as a technical translator, to see if we couldn’t find out something that might help increase our sales. I called Tom to schedule some times to meet and tour. And another possibility had occurred to me.
“Tom, do you know anyone out there with a cello I could borrow?”
“Gee, no. What for?”
“Perry Fein is a good violinist. I thought we might play some trios with you.”
“Bummer. I’ve never played trios, and I don’t know anyone with a cello. Might’ve been cool. I just play Bach, myself.”
I told Perry to forget about taking his fiddle. “In that case,” he said, “there are things I really need to do here. Why not take Hiro? He’s all the technical help you’ll need, and he knows games better than I do. He’s even written one.”
“Really? Has he sold it?”
“I think so. Ask him.”
I did. Hiro Watanabe was eager to go, and proud to tell me that he had sold his game to one of Wizardware’s competitors. “But they’re a good outfit. I’ll be interested to meet Backscheider–I’ve heard a lot about him. All those games makers out there know each other.”
“What’s your game?”
He laughed. “It’s called ‘Secret Agent Sushi.’ It involves getting bad fugu, the dish made from blowfish. If it’s not made right, it can kill you.”
“Sounds like fun.”
We landed at LAX, rented a car, and Hiro drove us to Wizardware headquarters, which I soon learned was called “the zoo.” It could have been more accurately called “the jail,” for it was in a building that used to be a county sheriff’s office. It was an old adobe building, complete with barred cells, in a recently repopulated mining town north of Los Angeles. A colorful sign outside said “Wizardware” in gothic letters surrounded by stars, half-moons, and astrological signs. Inside was a nicely remodeled and furnished space drowning in mess. The old west atmosphere had been preserved in the woodwork and sandy plastered walls, but the litter was modern. High-grade office hutches and conference tables were covered with piles of paper, floppy discs, empty pizza boxes, beer and soda bottles and cans. There was a lingering whiff of marijuana in the air; if Tom didn’t do grass anymore, there were those who did. A long-haired, hefty young woman wearing a kind of denim mumu sat near the door at a desk containing a phone bank, a typewriter, and an Apple computer.
“Hi,” she said. “Are you the dudes from Dallas?”
“Yes. I’m Tony Maclean and this is Hiro Watanabe. Tom should be expecting us.”
Tom entered at that moment, squinting his eyes with his benign smile. After introductions and elaborate handshakes, Tom took us on a tour. Down the hall from the large front room was a row of four barred cells. “Here’s where some of the animals work,” said Tom. Inside one of the cells, a young man with stringy black hair was banging out code on an Apple. The other three cells were also equipped like offices, but they were unoccupied.
“Most of our writers and programmers are on night mode, but Gary here is on wraparound. He’s due to crash in a couple of hours.”
“Do they ever object to working in jail cells?” I asked.
“Naw. One of our guys actually wanted us to lock him in until he finished a job.”
Hiro laughed. “These would be more appropriate for the Cullen front office.” He glanced at me to see how I took it. I smiled.
“Yeah, Tony,” said Tom, a note of irritation jangling his serenity. “Howell’s getting to be a four-star asshole. Can you get him off our case?”
“What’s he doing?”
“I sold out because I wanted fewer hassles. Now I’m getting hassled to get more corporate. Polish our image, wear suits, cut out the weekend parties, where Howell has heard people”–here he gasped in mock horror–“smoke dope.”
“Is he trying to force you?”
“Naw, but he sends memos, policies, articles, stuff like that. Our customers would think we were trying to rip them off if we wore suits.”
“Maybe he thinks we should cultivate a greater variety of customers.”
“They don’t exist! We’ve never sold a game to anyone over thirty. I’ll bet you that anyone who owns an Apple only wears a tie for weddings and funerals.”
Although I sympathized, I had to disagree. “Lots of Apples are used by small businesses. Some of those folks might buy a game if they saw one. Look, I don’t think you should have to wear suits, but we all have to do what we can to sell the games.”
Tom frowned. “OK, but Howell wants me to pay new writers a lower royalty. He can’t make me, because that’s in the agreement. But he keeps bugging me about it.”
“Would a lower royalty keep you from getting the best games?”
Hiro spoke before Tom could answer. “Absolutely. I would never offer a game to an outfit that paid lower than the going rate.”
Tom looked at Hiro with new interest. Playing devil’s advocate, I asked, “Even if you would make more in volume because of the company’s marketing?”
“Sure. That’s just hypothetical. The higher royalty is real, and if the game is any good, it will get sold.”
Tom and Hiro got sidetracked talking about Hiro’s game, which Tom knew and admired. While they talked, it occurred to me that if we really increased volume, we could pay even higher royalties. We talked more about marketing and advertising. I knew Wizardware advertised in Softalk and a few other computer magazines, and sold its products out of west coast computer stores as well as by mail. We needed more outlets, more visibility.
Tom interrupted my thoughts. “Another thing. Howell doesn’t want us to talk to the guys at On-Line or Sirius. What does he think we are, freaking IBM?”
“Aren’t they competitors?”
“Yeah, but we’re all friends. We share ideas and try not to duplicate efforts. The result is we get out a lot of neat games. We also tell each other if we get stiffed by a particular store. We’re not trying to conspire to jack up prices or restrain trade, as the lawyers say.”
“Look at what’s happening to Atari,” said Hiro. “Since a towel maker and his lawyers started running that company, their good games people have all left. They even stopped giving the writers credit for their games, much less a reasonable royalty.”
“Tell Howell if he wants to make anything on games, just leave us alone and let us hack.”
Tom took Hiro and me to a good local Italian restaurant, and then to his house for a spell in his hot tub. It was very relaxing, with piped-in Bach and cold fruit drinks. Hiro seemed right at home, even when Tom’s wife, a small, pretty blonde, joined us. It was a bit harder for me to relax after that point, because we were all naked.
I learned a lot from the visit, but not what I expected to learn. I became convinced that if we tried to limit the creative freedom of the hackers, we’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. On the other hand, they were limited in their view of the marketing possibilities.
Hiro and I talked a lot about these issues on the way home. Hiro was impressed by the technical skill displayed in the games, the efficient use of assembly language, the potential for improved graphics. But shortly after the in-flight meal, Hiro dozed off, and I began to have visions.


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