Monday, November 15, 2010

Love is so disorienting.

One day Jack Martindale realized for sure: something was definitely wrong with his GPS device. It started mildly, occasionally dropping him off a few houses or one street over from his destination. But it got worse to the point of becoming completely unreliable. It wasn't so much random or wrong, the places it sent him, it was more like being on a wild goose chase. 

The GPS had been a birthday present; kind of a godsend. He got irreparably lost so often. There was a big hole in his neural network somewhere, he suspected. He frequently drove past his own house. Finding his car in a parking lot: a nightmare. He thought of himself as a pretty visual person, yet when he tried to picture which roads he'd come from or where he had last turned his mind eventually went dark. Attached to his windshield, the little picture his GPS showed of the roads in front of him was like a smaller window into reality. But something curious had happened inside of Jack at the same time the little navigation device gradually lost its bearings.

Jack had begun to know where he was. He had the GPS to thank for this. It was almost as if, instead of fostering his dependence on the little machine, it had taught him to find his way.

At first, "Richard," the least robotic of the gallery of voices the device gave him to select from, gave him the most minimum of direction. "Turn left, then turn right." It never announced the street names or whether he'd be turning onto an exit, a ramp, or a regular road. Quite a few times he would make the wrong turn. Fortunately Richard would quickly recalculate, and later, Jack learned to anticipate upcoming changes in direction. It was like they worked together. Anticipating changes seemed to help Jack find his way easier during those times when Richard couldn't help him. Finding his way back from the bathroom in an office building. Meeting up with his friends at restaurants with more than one dining room. In the case of this personal development, the GPS taught him through omission. Soon it began adding extra insight into the directions it gave.

One day for example, Jack had an appointment with a new dentist. The dentist's office was a disappointing treasure at the center of a maze in a particularly serpentine office park. "Turn left," Richard said, as Jack took his exit from the highway, "now turn right... then turn left again," Richard said. Richard never said "again." That was odd. This was odder: "Tip: Say 'left right left' so you'll remember. It doesn't appear you do that." Very sophisticated technology I guess, Jack thought. It's learning my patterns. It was like Pandora, or the Genius. Jack laughed at himself sometimes, realizing the funny way in which he'd come to think about Richard. He'd developed some affection for this machine that seemed to know him. It was hard for this feeling not to grow as Richard continued to give very specific advice the next several times Jack used it.

"Remember your landmarks," Richard taught him. "Always stamp your ticket in the parking garage; you will usually find a machine for that near the elevators." Knowing where he was made Jack feel more confident. Getting lost, it had always been repeated evidence of how flaky he thought himself to be. Maybe he was capable of being more on top of things, he began to realize. Around the time Jack first had that thought Richard started giving him what seemed to be the wrong directions.

"Turn right, no, turn left," Richard would say, with what seemed like increasingly human intonation. Was Richard getting lost, Jack wondered? No. Richard was looking for something. After a while, Jack could see it. A tiny pulsing blip showed up in the corner of the map on Richard's screen. It had seemed at first that Richard's mistakes in direction were random. Soon after the blip started showing up it had become clear Richard was following it.

Jack had rifled through Richard's instruction manual several times, at first out of a curiosity that soon developed into one of those mild obsessions. What was Richard looking for?

The GPS manual was written in poorly translated English. It showed fuzzy pictures of control screens clearly belonging to other products or versions of his product, and at other times omitted key details. Where to plug it in. How to download new maps. And nowhere, in any of the keys displaying the GPS' gallery of little icons, flags and traffic signs and points-of-interest like gas pumps or museums, was there a picture of that pulsing blip. In between tasks at work he found himself scrolling through PDFs online, documents he'd found in obscure corners of the product's web site. He gave up at last, starting to fall behind in his work, and getting headaches from peering at scuzzy JPEG images. He was left to reach his own conclusions about the mysterious blip, some of them practical, and the others a bit ridiculous.

Richard was either broken, and the blip was a scrap of programming fallen off its string, or Richard had begun to surpass his programming, becoming more erratic as he became more human. Jack decided to help Richard out, just as Richard had helped him. He questioned the logic in this kind of thinking less than he would have before. That's what people call the spirit of adventure, the myths we create around more mundane purposes to keep them interesting, he thought. But it wasn't completely without sense. A machine has its own purpose. Who's to say its purpose was any less important than his own?

And so one Tuesday Jack blocked off his lunchtime schedule, a big gray box appearing next to his name between the hours of eleven and two in the shared Outlook calendar used in his office. He worked relatively independently, his boss was frequently away. He could probably slip out for half the day with impunity if he wanted to. And in spite of the time he'd spent flipping through Richard's instruction manuals the past week he was well caught up on work, maybe for the first time since he'd started this job five years ago. It still takes time to lose old habits though, and he'd programmed himself to cover up any impression of possible flakiness with anticipatory excuses. He was required to attend various trainings and certifications from time to time as part of his job. As a compromise he labeled the appointment, but with only one word. "Orientation."  

Jack slipped his coat off the plastic hanger in his cubicle and felt Richard's solid bulk in his right pocket. It was rainy out so he zipped the pocket shut, then walked breezily past the rows of identical cubes meeting gazes where they came and exchanging waves or see-you-laters if they were given. He turned left and then right and then left. He stepped through the lobby and out into the wet afternoon, quickly finding his car. He set the GPS neatly into his bracket, which was suctioned onto the glass of his slightly grimy windscreen. The day was stark and striking, a vibrant blue-gray square in his view like the gray square in his office calendar.

Jack pressed the GPS' Power button and let his hands fall to his lap, taking in the cool sharp smell of the day, lingering even here in the closed space of his car while Richard went through his usual warm-up screen, a blue bar climbing across a white field. The screen blinked twice and came to rest on an aerial view of the city. No destination was programmed. Jack started the car and backed out of his spot.

"In 200 yards, make a right out of the parking lot," Richard said. Jack followed Richard's directions. "Exit left, onto the highway."

As Jack started gliding into traffic on the Interstate he saw the blip edge out into the corner of the screen and pulse three times. It appeared to be about two exits from their current location. In the relative silence, engine thrumming, wind occasionally buffeting the driver-side door, wipers whispering "shush," Jack imagined the sense of the silent weight of a shared understanding between him and the mute box attached to his windscreen. "Ridiculous" he thought, fanciful wandering pulled taut again, reeled in by logic. Logic claims to be objective. But now as at other times there was some force to it. He would find something when he reached the real location of the digital blip, he knew that. But it was most likely a cell phone tower or somebody's HAM radio or some discarded piece of communications technology leaving echoes of its former purpose.

"In two hundred yards exit left. Then exit right. Then take a sharp left. A sharp left." Jack could swear the pace of Richard's commands had sped up, the space between them decreasing. As Jack approached his exit the voice repeated, "Exit left. Exit, left." Jack followed. "Right," the voice said. Single-word commands. This machine is freaking out, Jack thought. The approaching source of the blip was scrambling the GPS signal, maybe. He was grooving down a service road now that looped the entrance to a shopping center. Grocery store, Home Depot, Target. From the display map it was pretty clear the blip was waiting for them somewhere in the sprawling parking lot, the space between it and the little cartoon image of Jack's car shrinking to a 24th of an inch at most. "Straightahead," Richard said. Almost one word. A lime-green Volkswagen Beetle sat in their path. What a Disneyesque cliche. It couldn't have been a shitty-looking Buick Skylark, right? But he shushed the thought away as the wipers whisked the remaining stray drops of rain. The sun had sort of started to come out.

Jack ignored the painted courses and cut a transverse line across the row of parking spaces toward the blip and toward the Beetle. The way the tentative sunlight bounced off the driver-side window of the Beetle Jack could see that the window was open. He pulled into the spot directly next but diagonal to the Beetle, facing the open window.

"Destination," Richard said. "Destination." And once more again.

Jack opened the door and stepped out of the car. For a moment he caught himself thinking, I should bring Richard. He didn't. The Beetle's window was a quarter of the way open. Cautiously casting a look edgewise, still aware of the possibility the car's driver would come out of Target or one of the other stores, he looked inside under arched eyebrows. Nothing on the seats or console gave any indication of who the driver might be. There wasn't a scattered pile of CDs or books that could have potentially telling titles. There were no butts in the ashtray. No piece of clothing or accessory that might give a hint of the driver's gender, even. But there was a GPS device adhered to the dashboard.

"Destination," Richard repeated from behind, still audible but muffled inside the closed interior of Jack's car. Jack turned, stepped back towards his car and opened his door. On the screen, the pulsing blip and the icon of his car were aligned on top of each other. Without thinking too much about it Jack unsnapped his GPS from its holder and took it out. Merriment at the logical absurdity of his actions and wonder at how absurd they did not actually feel took the form of a cockeyed smile that broke away from the corner of his set mouth. He felt a buzz in his chest. In the ambiguous light of possible rain the parking lot and everything around him looked grainy, almost pixelated. He turned back towards the Bug, stepped to it, arched his arm through the driver's window, and getting his hand with the GPS in it as close to the driver's seat as he could, dropped the device onto the soft vinyl. The excited buzz in Jack's chest extended out into the world, creating a uniform sense of possibility that made what happened next a matter of course. The other GPS device lit up.

A green background blinked into view, blinked again, and a start-up bar like Richard's scurried quickly across the screen. "Destination," a woman's voice said. Still in a kind of trance, the distance between practical and absurd explanations for what just happened not that great, all possibilities melding in the granulated buzz of his elevated mood, Jack turned and walked back toward his car. Jack's GPS had a volume control that changed to accommodate engine noise and Richard's voice started talking again at its lowest level. Joined by the female voice. Were they both repeating the word "destination," or had it become something else? Jack honestly couldn't say.

2 comments:

dufmanno said...

Damn.
I was all ready to make some sort of maniacal comment about the rise of the machines and then I got sucked in a blown away by this.
You ARE a svengali. I was totally right.
Seriously hope you are considering at least a short story collection if not a whole novel?
Like I tell Elly though, just make sure to include a sad minotaur and an imp.

Eric said...

This being the loveliest comment I've yet received from someone who is not my girlfriend or a relative I promise I will do my very best to make this happen, both the book and the imp. THANKYOU