Time’s Bending Sickle

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19. Time So Idly Spent

From the time she began her therapy, Jean spent more and more time writing in a thick notebook, a journal her therapist urged her to keep. She was intense and preoccupied, so I guess that was better than her usual depression; but she also seemed more anxious, and was no more cheerful or interested in any other activity. The one exception was the Cullen board, on which she spent a fair amount of time and energy. She even gave up computer games.
In the meantime, the other computer game, Cullen, CuCpS, was rocking along. Our sales and profits were up a bit, and Howell seemed too distracted to bother the free spirits at Wizardware, so they were not complaining. They even talked about writing a stock market game to please the new computer users and their new bosses. But it was the real stock market, I discovered, that was bothering Howell.
Although our stock had risen pleasantly enough shortly after we went public, and made a tick up when we acquired Wizardware, it got stuck just below twenty, and refused to break through that ceiling. Going public seemed to do what we said we wanted: we had the cash to retire some debt, get some new equipment, do some R & D, acquire another business. There were problems, of course; the IBM PC and now the Macintosh continued to flake away our small customers, and the competition for big jobs was stiffer. We rode up and down with other companies during recessions, shakeouts, or other terms for the business cycles. But we did all right. Still, the stock price was clearly eating at Howell.
The word drifted down from Steve Keller, our technical head, that Howell was again going to try to acquire a hardware company. Jean later confirmed that the proposal was before the board. I naturally asked Perry Fein what he knew.
“Junk. Crap. Shit on a power cord. They used to make lousy stereos and now they make lousy computers. Their chips are all seconds, their wiring is often in trouble with UL, they’ve had several lawsuits over warranties. The only reason they’ve been in business this long is that they’re cheap, and that they got in ahead of the better manufacturers. Many of their customers feel locked in. There’s talk that they bribed their way into some utilities and local governments.”
“Why on earth does Howell want to buy them?” I was aghast.
“I suppose because they can be had cheaply. ‘Ramforce’! Around the lab we call them ‘Ramfarce.'”
“Why do you think Steve Keller is going along?”
“Maybe he thinks we can shape them up and make some money.”
“If other people share your opinion of their reputation, they will be a hard sell,” I said.
“That’s your problem.”
It certainly was. I asked Jean what the board had been told. She reported that Howell had vaguely talked about some “small liabilities” but had been stressing the price and the advantages of having an in-house hardware company. Howell wanted to be able to sell the hardware as part of our regular packages. “It’ll give the customers something concrete to keep.” I told Jean what Perry had said, and asked if Howell had said much about how fast hardware technology was moving. It would take constant development to keep up, and it might be a saving in the long run to do as we had been doing, leasing the available hardware that was best for our programs. Jean defended Howell, insisting that he was too smart a businessman to make a bad deal, and that Cullen engineers could fix Ramforce. I had to admit that Howell was a hell of a salesman.
To Perry’s disgust and my dismay, the deal went through. Howell’s salesmanship must have won over the rest of the board–I know it had made Jean impervious to my arguments. I dropped in on the lab one day after the sale was completed and found the engineers peering at the guts of a computer that had a logo of a ram’s head on the case. Those sleek gray cases were quite handsome, but from the head-shaking the engineers were doing, the insides must have been a mess. “Look at this,” Jack Cutting, our senior hardware analyst, said to me, pointing to a board. “We have to start by firing all the people on the line who are legally blind and have palsy. Some of these solders will break if you sneeze, others look like goose turds.”
Perry straightened up from the lab table and pushed up his glasses. “We’re making a list of technical fixes that we recommend. I’m for keeping the case and throwing everything else out.”
Jack picked up a clipboard. “Better chips. Better boards, better solder, better assembly. They get their CRTs and hard drives from the worst shlock suppliers; we’ll have to do better.”
“We could sell the CRTs as birth control devices,” said Perry. “I hear they make you sterile.”
The stories about the acquisition in the press always managed to mention the spotty reputation of Ramforce, and carried quotes from Howell boasting that that would change now that Cullen was in charge. “Watch out, Apple,” one story had Howell saying, “Cullen’s going to make Ramforce a Sherman tank.”
Not long after, Howell and Steve Keller met with me and some of the sales staff. They handed out sheets of specs and revised service packages that included the Ramforce hardware.
“Should we be selling these before the technical fixes are done?” I asked–reasonably, I thought. Howell was impatient and condescending.
“Go ahead and sell. Of course the fixes will be in before we deliver anything.”
The fix was in, but not in the Ramforce cases. I sold a records package to a school district in the Valley near Brownsville, a poor district with a lot of Hispanic farm workers. They hadn’t had it a month before I got calls about glitches. The system hadn’t gone a week without crashing. The local service company we had contracted to make repairs was happily billing us for more than our profit. I had the school send up one of the units, which I took to the lab. In less than thirty seconds Jack Cutting saw that no changes had been made.
Howell was angry at me when I told him about it. “What do you expect us to do, throw away all that inventory? If we rebuilt all those units, we’d spend more than new ones would cost.”
“I can’t sell that shit,” I said.
“You’d better.”
“Look, Howell, if you let that stuff go out, you’ll just let Ramforce’s bad reputation taint Cullen’s pretty good one. If you won’t fix the old units, it would be better to give them away.”
“Tony,” he said, his anger subsiding into a quiet burn, “all computer hardware is subject to problems from time to time. With our own hardware, we can sell the packages cheaper than with leased equipment. If we get an occasional bad unit, we’ll fix it or replace it. And if you won’t sell it, I can replace you. It’s that simple.”
I hadn’t heard such a threat before, though I had had my fears. Was he just bluffing, or did he feel confident that he could risk the opposition of Jean and her mother? I tried one more point.
“Have you seen the bills for those turkeys we sent to that school district in the Valley? Warranty repair in one month has cost us more than our profit.”
This seemed to get his attention. “Let me see the warranties.”
“They’re industry standard.”
“Let me see them.”
I sent copies to his office. In a week, I got revised warranties. Instead of being repaired by a local serviceman, units would have to be returned to the factory in Fort Worth. A tough sell got even tougher.
Our stock price twitched upward slightly after our acquisition of Ramforce, but didn’t go over the twenty dollar mark. Howell stayed in a sour mood for weeks.
Several regional sales reps called me to complain about the new packages. Two reported losing sales when the customers found they had to take the hardware and the new warranties. Complaints continued to come in from the school district in the Valley. Some old customers were dismayed to find that the hardware they were used to would be replaced by Ramforce units when their leases were up. But the bad word had not gotten very far, for we had an inquiry from a Houston hospital about our records package. It would be a big job; I had to go try and make the sale myself.
It was a cool spring day, clear and crisp. In another few weeks, Houston would settle into its unrelieved summer sauna, but that day I didn’t even mind wearing my salesman’s costume, a lightweight navy suit, white shirt, yellow tie. My target was one of the big charity hospitals at the medical center. I hated what I had to do; at least I promised myself that if I made the sale I would do what I could to get them the improved hardware.
The halls of the hospital were lined with urban wounded. Some were merely old and poor, but some had actually been shot or stabbed. Those not actively bleeding, in shock, or otherwise near death were sitting patiently, gingerly holding bloodstained bandages tight to their injuries. The harrased administrator I first talked to jerked his thumb toward the hall and said that he hoped we could do something to speed up that situation. He said that our lower rates encouraged them to inquire about our package. “If we can save some money, we can treat more people, and if we can speed up our records, we might get to them quicker.”
I laid out our package; I didn’t push anything or make any promises. But I didn’t tell them about our troubles with Ramforce. Although I tried hard to assuage my guilt by not trying to sell the package, my restraint may have worked against me–rather, it may have helped me make the sale. The administrator was impressed enough to take the prospectus to his committee of managers. He said he would call when they were ready for a demonstration.
I tried to flush out the noise and smells of the hospital by walking for a while in the adjacent park. Then I crossed the tree-lined street to the campus of the small but select university I had heard about ever since I moved to Texas. The campus was built in a pleasant Mediterranean style out of red brick and white marble. Live oaks provided shade, and the students, leaving their classes at noon, provided life and color. The middle of the main quadrangle was dominated by a seated bronze statue of the founder. I was checking it out when four young men approached from different directions, and without a word, burst into tight, four-part barbershop harmony: “Hello, my honey.” A small grinning crowd had gathered and applauded as they finished with professional flourishes. Of course they had rehearsed this act, but they made it seem that any random four students could meet and toss off any difficult feat, especially if the weather was nice. I was moved by this disciplined play. I strolled among the bright, appealing figures in t-shirts, ragged shorts, sneakers or sandals, feeling as if I were trapped in medieval armor in my navy suit. I wasn’t very old, but the contrast made me feel old, and nostalgic for the free yet focused time in my life when I had music and the first washes of love for Jean.
I sat on a bench and asked myself how I had gone from an unworldly music student to a creep who was trying to sell a defective system to a charity hospital. Instead of helping those poor, damaged folks, the computers would go down and make their waiting and suffering drag on even longer–if they didn’t die. I thought about Toby looking at the dying Saviolo.
Back in Dallas, I got the demonstration ready for the hospital officials, who would come up in a few days. Of course the hardware was rebuilt–almost to the extent of Perry’s suggestion that we keep the case and replace everything else. The package worked very well, and the software was actually very good. I was sure we’d make the sale. The officials arrived, were duly impressed, and returned to Houston after signing on for a package that included forty Ramforce units.
In processing the order, I casually inquired of the shipping foreman about the packing dates on the boxes of the units, ostensibly for identification. Those marked for shipment to Houston all had packing dates from before Cullen acquired the company. So the hospital would unpack their pretty gray hardware, plug the units in, boot up the software, and–all the lights would go out, or a patient would get an order for a hundred high colonic enemas a day. I had to do something.
I wrote an anonymous letter on our home computer, took the disc to a copy shop and printed it on Cullen stationery, addressing it to the administrator I first talked to. I told him to get one of their technicians to open the cases of a few units, and if the chip cartridge lacked the brand of a certain high-quality chip, they should refuse delivery, for they wouldn’t work reliably. I asked him to protect my job by not trying to identify me and by not telling the company about my warning.
I felt better, but also uneasy. I didn’t know if my scheme would work, and I didn’t know what I could do about future sales. Should I try to tell Jean, or even Tillie, what was going on? Would they take my word, or would they run to Howell and let him persuade them that I was out of line? Would Howell then fire me or just make my life miserable?
After I mailed the letter and returned to the office, a dapper man, not much older than I, got off the elevator and gave me a sharp glance. His eyes had a feral quickness, and his hair looked like fine, smooth, brown fur. He went straight into Howell’s office.
“Who was that?” I asked the receptionist.
“Oh, that’s Mr. Tedesco, the investment banker.”
I wondered what Howell wanted with an investment banker, and why he wasn’t talking to J. C. Atwell, the ruddy, amusing man who helped us go public. Maybe this Tedesco was Atwell’s new assistant.

My previous vision of a hung-over Toby about to meet Ben Jonson had been interrupted. At the next opportunity, I picked up Every Man in his Humor again, concentrated, and was rewarded with a sequel.
After fingering his tangled hair and adjusting his rumpled clothing, Toby welcomed Sly and the burly young man he introduced as Ben Jonson. The latter, just a few years younger than Toby, had a heavy, pockmarked face, wavy brown hair, a crease at the top of his prominent nose, and a wart by his left nostril. He carried himself as one ready to defend or attack, as the need arose.
“Pardon my disorder, gentlemen,” said Toby. “Some gallants, my pupils, poured more sack down my throat than my belly could entertain, and my head is paying the score. How may I serve you?”
“You may attend us to the new theater, the Swan,” said Sly, relaxing on a bench.
“Tis open, then?”
“Aye, just. Ben here will be performing with my lord of Pembroke’s men.”
“You are a player, Master Jonson?” asked Toby.
“Sometime a scholar, sometime a soldier, now a player.”
“Ben is Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy.”
“A marvelous well-penned play, that,” said Toby. “I would fain see all the poets of these times pen such another play as that was.”
“You may yet see a better,” said Jonson, with a challenging tone.
Sly spoke. “Let us walk on toward the theater, if you are ready, Toby.”
“Lead on.”
They walked out into a street, more like an alley, and as they walked, Toby said to Jonson, “You said you had been a soldier–so have I. I was in Portugal and the Low Countries.”
“I was in the Low Countries also, at Knodsenburg, with Sir Francis Vere. I killed an enemy there, and got opima spolia.”
“I was at the ambush with Captain Hall’s company. Did you go on to Nimwegen?”
Jonson seemed displeased with Toby’s innocent question. “Nay, I returned to England.”
Sly smiled. “Ben is a married man.” Jonson nodded soberly and said nothing.
“I lost my wife in the plague,” Toby said quietly.
They walked in silence for a while. They crossed London Bridge and continued along the Bankside.
Sly brightened, and said, “As I told you, Ben, Toby here is a fencing master. Did you not say you wanted to better your handling of the rapier?”
“Aye,” said Jonson. “Sword and pike served me well enough in the Low Countries, but here tis all foining fence.”
“Indeed,” said Toby, “a gentleman must needs know rapier play if he is to defend himself in London. I have practiced that art for many years, and studied the best Italians, and have acquired a few rudiments.”
“You could show Ben some tricks, could you not, Toby?”
“I would gladly impart some of my poor learning in the science.” They were in an open area, not far from the new theater. “Here,” said Toby, stopping, “let me see your stance, Master Jonson. Use your sheathed rapier.”
Jonson gripped his sword and held it before him, his wide body a threatening bulk. Toby also gripped his sheathed rapier, and turned to face Jonson so that he presented his right side.
“Twine your body about, Master Jonson, so that you present a slender mark. Hollow your body more, sir, thus. Now stand fast on your left leg, note your distance. Look you, sir, exalt not your point above this state.” He got Jonson’s stance to suit him. “Now try a passada, a thrust.” Jonson lunged forward, but Toby easily parried his blade and touched his shoulder with the point of his sheath. Jonson frowned. “You are very stout, sir, if I may say so. But this fence demands more speed than strength.”
“I must go on to dress for the play,” said Jonson, “but I should like to engage you for a few lessons, Captain Hume.”
“Most willingly. But I was only a lieutenant.”
Jonson went on ahead to the theater. Sly took Toby on a liesurely tour of the new building while they waited for the play to start. It seemed a bit larger than the Rose, but had the same basic circular–or rather dodecagonal–shape, with three floors of galleries overlooking an open yard partly covered by a stage about forty feet wide by thirty deep. A structure over the sage covered the first and third floor galleries behind and made an area the players called the tiring house. The second floor gallery continued directly behind the stage, and was decorated with small pillars. A small room on top of the structure overhanging the stage contained a winch for raising or lowering supernatural beings. As Toby and Sly were coming down a ladder after visiting this area, one of the players met them, carrying a trumpet. After they were out of the way, he climbed up, raised a flag bearing the figure of a swan on a pole above the peaked roof, leaned out one of the windows, and sounded his trumpet.
Toby and Sly opened one of two arch-topped doors and stepped out on the stage. They turned and surveyed the area where the stage met the tiring house.
“At a need,” said Sly, “they can hang a curtain from the lord’s rooms above and cover the doors.”
“At the Rose, as I recall, they have one large door, almost always covered by a curtain.”
People were beginning to file into the seats and the standing area on three sides of the stage. Sly and Toby jumped down from the stage and climbed a narrow stair to the second gallery, where they found seats on a bench. Two young women began circulating through the audience with baskets of oranges, apples, and nuts. When the theater was about three-quarters full, a group of four brightly-dressed gallants entered, and were escorted by a boy–a theatrical apprentice, no doubt–to a set of steps leading to the stage. The boy bustled into the tiring house and brought out stools which he placed on the edge of the stage. The gallants, with much supercilious conversation and flourishing of cloaks, took their seats. The boy then brought out two more stools which remained empty. The orange women retired, and the noise of the audience subsided to whispers and rustles.
Two armed figures entered. One was all in black, with the visor of his helmet covering all but his mouth. The other had splatters of red paint on his armor, and his face was painted chalky white. This character was the ghost of Don Andrea, and his companion was the personification of Revenge. After a long expository speech, they sat on the empty stools, and watched as other characters, including Jonson as the middle-aged courtier Hieronimo, entered. Hieronimo’s son, Horatio, came on as a hero, bringing as prisoner the prince who had killed Don Andrea in battle. Later, Horatio talked with Andrea’s beloved, Bel-Imperia, who decided to take her late lover’s friend as her new love. Plot and rhetoric carried the play along.
In the second act, a couple of players brought an arched trellis covered with artificial flowers onto the stage, indicating that the scene was a garden. A love scene between Horatio and Bel-Imperia was interrupted by a jealous rival of Horatio, the captured prince, and two henchmen, who hanged Horatio from the arbor. I noticed that they discreetly hooked a black rope to a harness under Horatio’s coat when they put the noose around his neck. They stabbed him for good measure and left, carrying the screaming Bel-Imperia. In response to Bel-Imperia’s cries, Hieronimo–Jonson–entered in his shirt, carrying a sword and torch. He cut down the body and discovered it to be his son. Jonson moved vigorously, and spoke his part without a lapse. But he was stiff, and his voice had a limited range. He would either declaim on one level or rant at a higher one.

Who hath slain my son?
What savage monster, not of human kind,
Hath here been glutted with thy harmless blood,
And left thy bloody corpse dishonored here,
For me, amidst these dark and deathful shades,
To drown thee with an ocean of my tears?

Despite Jonson’s less than convincing delivery, I could see tears welling up in Toby’s eyes; perhaps he thought of his lost son. Jonson improved only slightly when he spoke a long passage of Latin at the end of the scene; the language rolled off his tongue with the ease of long familiarity.
The play wound on, Hieronimo pretending madness to cover his genuine grief and passion as he plotted revenge. He arranged this by staging a play within the play, a version of the story of Soliman and Perseda, in which dramatic deaths covered “real” ones. As the corpses began to pile up, Hieronimo bit out his tongue in a bloody stage effect, and finally stabbed himself. The audience was generous with applause, though the gallants sat on their hands when Jonson took a bow, and a few catcalls could be heard from the upper gallery.
“Ben is a witty fellow,” said Sly as they waited for the theater to empty, “but no great actor. Yet let’s keep my secret and flatter him. I’ll stand us a quart of wine at the Cardinal’s Hat.”
Eventually Jonson emerged from the tiring house, spitting. “Tis almost as bad if I had bit off my tongue in sooth. A cup of canary to sweeten my mouth, good Will.”
Over their wine, the three men talked of the play and the performance, commending Jonson within reasonable limits. Toby confessed to being moved by the play, and spoke of playing in Soliman and Perseda. Jonson spoke slightingly of the play, saying there were much better tragedies in Roman history, if a true poet would only compose them according to art.
They talked of war and the slaughter wrought by firearms and mines. “If only wars were fought by the codes of honor,” said Sly.
“Aye, indeed,” said Toby. “At Deventer I saw a most terrible slaughter in the breach, but also a most chivalrous fight between an Albanian champion and young Van der Cathulle. If only battles could be settled by single combat, ‘twould save many young men from maiming and death, and the state much wealth. If ’twere a just world, twenty gentlemen of good spirit, strong and able constitution, should be able to stand up to an army, if all obeyed the rules of honor.”
Jonson looked amused. “How so? Twenty hold an army?”
Toby laughed. “Oh, tis a mere fantasy, I know. In this fallen world, strength and force is all. But just put the case that all were compelled by honor to answer challenges, one against one. Then, if twenty tall men, perfect in your stoccata, your reverso, your punto, your imbrocatta, your passada, your montanto–if these men met with an army of, say, a thousand, and they were content to wait their turn while our twenty fought twenty of theirs, killed them, fought twenty more, and killed them, and so on, at the rate of sixty a day, within”–here Toby made a comic consultation of his fingers–“three weeks, ours would have killed them all, by God’s foot.”
Sly and Jonson smiled. “A patient army, that,” said Jonson.
“‘Twas almost so at Deventer. We pressed so at the breach, it was as if we were waiting our turn to collect our wound or our death. Is there more wine?”
“I will find the drawer,” said Jonson, and walked into the next room. The drawer soon came in with a fresh jug, but Jonson did not return. Sly and Toby poured wine and Toby talked about Deventer. Jonson entered smiling.
“A marvelous witty rogue, Will Shakespeare. Please pardon my absence, gentlemen, but when Will begins a tale, tis hard to leave it.”
Toby looked up eagerly. “Shakespeare here? I would be glad to meet him, Master Jonson. I admire his King John.”
“Come, then,” said Jonson, and strode into the adjoining room. Toby followed, gripping the door frame for a moment and shaking his head. Jonson stopped and looked around, frowning. They went into another room, then another. “He must have gone. Another time, Captain Hume.”
A tobacco seller strolled through the tavern, hawking his wares. Toby called out to him. “Sirrah! Is that right Trinidado? A pipeful here.” He bought a pipe, and walked a bit unsteadily to the fire, where he pulled out a stick and lit his pipe with the burning end. Back at the table, he blew a puff into the air. “I began taking tobacco in the Low Countries. I have heard much of its virtues, but I know only tis a pleasant fume. I have heard it to be an antidote, so that, had you taken the most poisonous plant in all Italy, it should expel it, and clarify you with as much ease as I speak. And for your green wound, I am told, your balsamum and your St. John’s wort are all mere gulleries and trash to it, especially your Trinidado. I have heard it good for the expulsion of rheums, raw humors, crudities, and obstructions. Is there no more wine?”
“No more wine, Toby,” said Sly, “but there may be music. Is not that a viol, such as you play, hanging on that wall? Play for us.”
Toby looked at the viol and smiled. “And so I shall.” He pushed up from the table, steadied himself, and fetched the viol. He tuned it up and began playing “Fortune my foe,” with variations. Several of the patrons broke off their talking and listened. When he finished, many applauded.
At this point a man with ornate, but rather threadbare clothes approached the table. “Pray excuse me, gentlemen, but I am a lover of music, and found your playing, sir, most artful. Allow me to bestow a quart of wine upon you for giving us such pleasure.” He was smooth spoken, but somehow more theatrical than the three actors. Toby thanked him, and the others invited him to sit. He threw his cloak on the bench and ordered wine. “And bring a good pewter cup,” he told the drawer. Turning to Toby, he again praised his playing, and said that he knew a family who might have a place for him as music tutor if he were interested. Toby eagerly responded. The wine and extra cup came, and the stranger poured wine for all. After sipping his, he made a face.
“Tis somewhat hard. I’ll to the bar for a bit of rosewater. The drawer knows me, and will favor me with a little. Who else would like rosewater or sugar?” Sly sipped and said a little sugar would not be amiss. Leaving his cloak on the bench, the stranger took Sly’s cup and his own and went around the corner.
“A most kind gentleman,” said Toby. “I have longed to return to music, but have not known how I might get a place.” They talked of Toby’s prospects for a while.
After a time, Sly looked around, irritated. “He is in no hurry to return my cup; I would it were here, sugar or no.”
“He’ll return,” said Toby, “his cloak is here.”
But he did not. When the drawer came for the reckoning, he insisted that the stranger had left earlier. He demanded payment for the wine and the two cups. The cloak was, on examination, ragged, and worth only a tenth of the value of the cups and wine.
Toby was dismayed, Jonson and Sly angry. “We’re a fine clutch of coneys,” said Jonson. Leaving the cloak for a bar rag, they scraped up enough among them to pay the reckoning, and went their separate ways.
Toby crossed the bridge, walking a little less erratically now, then stopped and looked closely at two figures standing in a doorway. One was cloakless, the other wore a long cloak and broad-brimmed hat that shadowed his face. Toby turned so that he came up behind the man without a cloak.
“Cut ben,” said the man in the cloak, “two skews for an old caster?”
“Aye,” said the other, “a bord for each.”
“Half a bord. Here’s no stuling ken.”
“D’ye wish to cly the jerk? A bord three win for both.”
“Here,” said the man, handing over some coins and tucking two cups under his cloak. “Bing a wast.”
Toby strode forward, grabbed the cloakless man by the collar, and tripped him backwards over his extended leg. The man in the cloak had turned to run, but Toby quickly caught him. The cup thief scrambled to his feet and ran off. Toby twisted the other man around, bending his arm and knocking off his hat. He revealed a scarred, bearded face and one eye covered by a black patch. His other eye widened in surprise.
“Toby!”
“Felix?”

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