Cetacean Solutions, LLC, a provider of content-management solutions (a.k.a. laboriously customized databases) to enterprise clients (a.k.a. businesses), was in a slump. All spring we had been overrun by orders, which we worked ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day to fill, but in the fourth quarter of 2000 the orders suddenly ceased. Cetacean, which our company's logo instructed us to picture as a mighty whale diving deep into the ocean, presumably to do battle with the giant squid of unmanaged user content, now seemed less like a whale than like a whaling ship roaming an ocean from which whales had largely vanished. Dave, our captain, sent the sales team to the top of the mizzenmast to scan the water with their telescopes; meanwhile on deck the engineers mended the boats, sharpened the harpoons and polished the brass fittings. Even the maintenance work we did for our existing clients had slowed to almost nothing by August. It was like the middle of Moby-Dick: no whale in sight, only occasional contact with another passing ship, and nothing to fill the time except digression. Our office, a converted Victorian on the eastern flank of Potrero Hill, within sniffing distance of the Anchor Brewery, had a Fun Room in the basement: a brightly carpeted lounge where, in busy times, we rested our brains while playing ping-pong or foosball. Now that there was no work and our days could, in theory, have been all fun, the Fun Room had taken on a new, sinister purpose. Every third or fourth day we assembled there for an all-hands meeting on a different theme: Defining Standards in Code Creation, Measuring the User Experience, Working in the Cloud. Employees with vacation days suddenly experienced a desire to go on vacation; those without them petitioned for unpaid leave. I was hoping that when I came back from the desert meaningful work would be in sight, but on Tuesday morning I found Mac, my boss, looking at boat trailers on the Internet. He didn't own a car, much less a boat, but there was something about the structure of the boat trailer that interested him, he said, something about the way it suggested absent realities. I asked if there was going to be a meeting.
"Will you look at this thing," Mac said. "This is for sure a nuclear-sub trailer."
"What happened to the sub," I asked, "that it's for sale?"
He thought about this. "Maybe there are no bridges rated for sub transport."
We fell together into silent estimation of submarine tonnage vs. bridge loads, then Mac snorted and switched to his e-mail. "All-hands meeting at eleven."
"What's the topic?"
"Hydration for Performance," he read off the screen. "Did you know that twenty percent of human fatigue is caused by improper or insufficient hydration? An optimal fluid-consumption program developed by NASA for long-duration space missions will be presented. But, aren't astronauts catheterized?"
"Does it matter?"
I groaned at his pun and went down to the Fun Room to get a free Coke. I twiddled the handles of the foosball machine. Something had to happen, I thought. Any minute the cry would go up from the lookouts and someone would claim the gold doubloon nailed to the mast, but nothing happened, nothing at all. Eventually I heard people coming down the stairs for the performance-hydration meeting, and slipped out the fire exit.
I took my filthy festival clothes to the laundromat, and while they washed I called Alice. The call went straight to voicemail, and I left a message, asking her whether what had happened last night meant that we were on again, whether she wanted to be on again, what being on again might mean. I went across the street and bought an iced coffee, and while I was standing outside the laundromat drinking my coffee, I saw a man in a green Army jacket crossing Seventeenth Street. From the back he looked like Swan, a homeless man who used to distribute leaflets in my neighborhood. For years I saw him every day, handing out his leaflets, or typing them, or feeding the pigeons who were his other chief occupation. He was angry, dirty, taciturn and paranoid, but at the same time he was completely extraordinary. It was as if mysterious powers had put a lighthouse in the Mission, a strange beacon left over from an era when people traveled differently and different things mattered. Like a lighthouse, Swan stood all by himself, marking a place no one else had reached - warning us off, I sometimes thought, and sometimes I thought, inviting us to follow him. Swan disappeared in the winter of 1997. My friends held a rally to protest the city's policy of driving its homeless citizens from gentrifying neighborhoods like ours, but it didn't bring Swan back. That was when my life in San Francisco began to feel ghostly. And now, I thought, here he was, as if nothing had happened! "Swan!" I cried, and I ran after him. The old man was quick; I didn't catch up with him until Church Street. And of course it was someone else. Swan was gone.
Copyright © 2011 by Paul La Farge
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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