Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the envelope and unfold it. There is no sound but the melody of the dial-up, the purity of the following Gregorian tones, and the sweet nihilistic measure of static. The brief elemental vibration that means contact. And then nothing. No smudge of ink, no greasy thumbprint left behind. In and out of the files, no trace. It could be the work of a ghost, this electronic eavesdropping.
I was the boy in the family and therefore, statistically, the person most likely to seize upon the computer culture, the child to wire the household, tune it into our century, keep the two systems, one for me, the other for the rest of the Shaws, up and running. Elvira, my sister, was detail oriented and analytical and could have easily outdistanced me if only she'd had the desire. She had the intelligence, certainly, to learn complex languages, to program, to hack. But through most of the time I was living at home she was scornful of technology, stuck, as she was, in 1862 with her Civil War infantry regiment, the 11th Illinois. At a young age, much to my mother's sorrow, Elvira became a hardcore Civil War reenactor.
It was I who begged and moped a little and pleaded for some kind of computer, a dud, a two- or three-year-old dinosaur--anything would do. I built myself a cardboard replica of the first Macintosh model, and for a good half hour at a stretch I lay on my bed typing on the paper keys, pretending to write programs that would win me fame and fortune. When I was nine, I appealed to my grandmother in a simple poor-boy letter: my grandmother, the one money bag we all in our particular ways went to, again and again, a source that seemed inexhaustible and at the ready. When the box arrived on our doorstep, I sat patiently with my parents showing them the fundamental maneuvers--dragging the mouse, clicking the mouse, see Mommy and Daddy double-click the mouse--as if the two of them were babies being prodded through an ordinary developmental stage.
Several years later with my own money, I seriously upgraded. I had to lure my mother to her own e-mail account with the promise that she'd have satisfaction and even happiness. It was still early days for the kind of communication we now take for granted. Wizard that I was, I guaranteed her pleasure. I provided the password for her so she could commune with her musician friends, the hip ones, so she could have her circle of intimates right in front of her without having to go down to the end of the town. For her screen name I did away with her flat, no-crackle name, Beth, and from the full Elizabeth plucked the zippy Liza, attached her age to it, Liza38. I told her it sounded like the code name of a blond spy with a sizable bust, someone operating out of what used to be East Germany. When I was fourteen and fifteen, I liked to think that what was surely my sophisticated sense of humor had blossomed into its fullest dark and ironic potential. But big-busted-floozy spy jokes were not my mother's style. She was not herself well endowed, and from my point of view she was no seductress. She smiled at my attempt at wit: Nice try, Henry. Although she would but of course retain her dear perfection no matter what name she used, Richard Polloco, the lover, took to the pizzazz of her screen self and often called her Liza38.
When I first stumbled into her e-mail file, I didn't mean to. It was accidental. It was about as easy to type in her password as mine. I wasn't even thinking. I had no plan, nothing premeditated, no scheme in place. I realized my error as the icons slowly formed before me in their beamy pleased way. It was through my fingers that I understood the misstep. "Welcome," our provider said. My hands froze above the keys. And again the voice. "You've got mail." You've got mail. What was the old girl up to? I suppose that thought went through my mind.
Excerpted from Disobedience by Jane Hamilton. Copyright© 2000 by Jane Hamilton. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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