For many, Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language. Few are aware of his lifelong fascination with computers.
The heroes’ glory might be measured by the length of the streets that they are allotted postmortem. If one judges this way, Sergeant Levarda must have been a mere novice in the hero business. “Novice” seems an overstatement, if one considers that three cars parked one after the other sufficed to cover the whole length (and width) of that street. Should we then say a “rookie,” or a “tenderfoot,” an “aspirant” or rather an “intern” in the heroes’ ranks, that is a sort of wholehearted volunteer, like Clinton’s Monica.
So, here they are, blind-dating this blind alley: Sergeant Levarda Street.
The housing allotment paper in one hand, the suitcase in the other and Istina’s sweating hand in the other one-with the funny feeling that something was wrong in this enumeration, on the other hand-Vlad squinted at the blue enameled plate that read Sergeant Levarda. Entrance? Why did they call this dead-end street “entrance”? Entrance to what?
“The entrance to the soft golden sphere of immortality,” whispered Istina. He gave her a loving look; the girl had been constipated for a couple of days, and here her period was coming. You could guess that by her narrowed eyes and her lips turned moist and red like a piece of bleeding meat. Funny time for her period to come! Her poetic period, that’s what we meant.
“The rotten ethereal sphere of eternity,” she attempted a variant. Vlad gently stroked her forehead. It was burning.
“The moldering purple of all infinity,” she groped for the words, and let her eyes sink in the shade of the dead-end street. He reached his hand toward her with his Bic ballpoint clicking its buttons, bic, bic, be you. She averted her head.
Vlad was aware that in a period like that there was nothing he could do for her. The volatile atoms of contrary ideas clashed under her dark forehead in some obscure epic. Often the clash would end with nothing but a cloud of confusion in her sinuses and one of her daylong migraines. He confronted again the plate on the wall with the housing allocation document that bore the Writers’ Union’s header and Ulici’s signature. He unfolded the other paper, issued by the borough council, yes that’s it. Sergeant Levarda Entrance, the entrance to.
“To the third hierarchy, the order of the heroes,” her face glowed. Let us mention that hierarchia-hierarchy-was one of the three divisions of the angels, each made up of three orders.
“In the hierarchy of minor heroes.” He dropped the suitcase. Minor? Well, yes, as all they allotted him was this tiny alley. A blind alley. “Is this the house?” she asked, already ringing the bell of the first door (She was always doing things like this. When they took the train to Piatra Olt, she would jump at random in any car and would let him lug the luggage across half the train until they eventually discovered their seats). “No! It was at no. 3!” He sighed, as she was already apologizing to the pajamaed tenant at no. 1.
By the time they groped for the door in the dark, stroked their fingers over the brass plate on which a blind man might have easily read the prominent name of interwar critic Vladimir Strainu, by the time they unlocked the rusted latches and realized that there were no light bulbs, by the time they aired out the rooms which seemed to have preserved-stale, dry, and crumbling like leaves of old tobacco-the very air of the Kalende literary circle,1 by the time they improvised a dinner (chips, ham, and plum moonshine) on the small terrace with only the stars to light them, well, by that time their first day in the apartment on Levarda Entrance was already over. The bells at Saint Ilarie’s mumbled something twelve times, a PRO hot-air balloon sank slowly near the roof ridge, two cats rolled across the dead leaves screeching as if stabbed, a sudden shower started rattling on the tin roof, and in the end she opened herself like a large lobster on the floor of the former literary circle: I thought you would never get to that.
On their first morning in the new house, Vlad sat on the edge of the bed and, looking tenderly at Istina, wrote: “When you say about a young woman that she has ash-colored hair and eyes, this product of combustion in the root of the word-ash-already calls forth more than a mere color-a taste, a scent, and a feeling of loss. Then how should you say that her eyes are pearl gray in a vibrant and resplendent way? That her dun hair is like some mutant gold with deep shimmering waters? Why am I writing all this? Because, like the fire in the hearth, love is always in need of new words.”
Levarda Entrance-they both felt since their first morning there-was indeed the entrance to a new order. It was for the first time that they were neither sub-sub-sub-, nor sub-sub-, nor even just subtenants. They were plain tenants with due lease papers. The papers said that-against a monthly payment worth two packages of butter-they were free to roam about the house, free to go forth and multiply their words in peace. It was the first time since they had disembarked in Bucharest, six years ago, two young unpublished writers, that they felt solid ground under their feet. They had lived in basements, cellars, closets, garages, sheds, attics, garrets, mansard rooms, and even in a treehouse, everywhere above or beneath the ground, but never at the ground level proper. Now for the first time they could put their names on the door, they wouldn’t have to retrieve their letters from their neighbors or, worse, from the dump where some xenophobe postman would toss them.
Levarda Entrance was their way out of the order of the homeless. They discovered that their money no longer vanished in bohemian bistros, but now tended to stick on a wall that needed painting, tomorrow on a windowpane that needed changing, the day after tomorrow on a writing desk found on a rummage sale, or on secondhand curtains or a bed from a clearance sale. And thus Vlad Mireanu and Istina Raica, two promising talents of Romanian literature-he an award-winning poet and critic, she a powerful poet and short-story author-found themselves for the first time in their lives facing a danger different from the rupture between concept and expression.
“You are in deadly danger!” fumed Tadeus Capus, stumbling in the thick carpet that they had picked up in a garage sale, with so dim a pattern and so crumbling a texture that it reminded them of the frescoes in Pompeii. A floor lamp crashed, as Tadeus fell on the coach. His muddy boots came to rest on the camel-hair bed cover. “Oh dam’ you, you’re in deep trouble!” So indeed they seemed to be, as his left paratroop boot swung a couple of inches near the glass table they had bought for nothing from a bar in liquidation. “Liquids!” beckoned Vlad, and Istina bolted to the kitchen to fetch a glass of strong liquor to temper their guest’s virulence. When she opened the door of the fridge, Tadeus caught a glimpse of the provisions inside. This was too much for the incurable bohemian and somber oneirist.
“Oh, no! Provisions! You’re hoarding stocks! Prudentia est incipit damnation! The danger is right under your noses: you’re getting bloody bourgeois!”
The two felt their flesh creep as if a neoplasm had grown there. They considered, seriously, Tadeus’s warning. So they gave up buying a television.
Autumn was already there. An icy blizzard blew across Romanian culture. A sudden gust of inflation made the prices soar and the subsidies for the arts plummet. The publishing houses swung and creaked with neither rain nor wind, independent reviews froze out, editors’ salaries froze too, proofreaders dropped from the organizational charts like withered leaves.
One morning they discovered they were trapped. Snowdrifts blocked their door from the outside, a heap of unpaid bills from the inside. They panicked and did something they would never have done before: they wrote their résumés, braced themselves for tough job interviews, and went to sell their talents out in the real world.
And it might be because their business cards no longer had a mere blank under “home address” that they got two well-paid jobs: he as a reviewer of restaurants at a women’s magazine, she as a writer of horoscopes at ProTV. The TV moguls were impressed by her “gift of conveying truths that are half-promised in a way that is ambiguous yet full of a striking, black refulgence,” as one critic had put it on the back cover of her second book. Blurb, burped the critical authority, slurped musingly a third slivovitz, and scrawled the above text on the back of the bill at the café of the Literature Museum. Which she paid, of course.
Now at night, as he went out onto the terrace to pee on their neighbor’s callas, he knew that somewhere between the green and the purple floodlight stripes circling the ProTV tower across the street, there was someone up there who thought of him when mentioning “the innate in Virgo.”
Soon, they improved the marketing of their merchandise. Before collecting their texts in a book, they would submit them to all kinds of literary festivals and competitions. They praised the man at Desesti, praised the wine at Cicârlau, and sent metaphysical poems to the Poetry and the Unemployed Festival in Târgu Neamt. The prizes they eventually won were converted into a coffee machine, an alarm clock, and a set of new bathroom faucets.
When they notified Vlad that he had won the Grand Prize of the Society for Culture of Alcohol Magnates, also known as S.C.A.M, he felt exhilarated. The award consisted of eight hundred dollars offered by the tycoons of the alcohol industry. “Where should I put the money?” he wondered. His wrinkled wallet suddenly appeared to be an unworthy recipient for Franklin’s rustling portraits. He sacrificed his last dough to buy himself an attaché case, then got on the train to Cluj. On the platform-surprise-no big band, no cheerleaders, and no reporters were waiting to greet him. Instead he was met by a lady with slipshod makeup who told him that the chairman of the S.C.A.M had just made a boo-boo, well, a blunder, you’ll find about it in tomorrow’s papers. No, I’m sorry, the money’s gone with our chairman, everything’s gone, but if you hurry up, you might pick up something before the police come and seal the place. She took him to an office across which Hurricane Charley seemed to have just passed. Stern-looking gentlemen received orders on their cell phones and carried more and more folders to a young man who fed them into a shredder. A guy with a ponytail moved from one computer to another, fingered something on the keyboard, and announced, okay, I’ve cleaned this one too. A woman was Xeroxing a cookbook. Others were rummaging through the drawers and dumping their contents into their handbags. The janitor was ransacking the bar and emptying it into a tote bag. Pick up whatever you like, said the woman invitingly.
And this is how Vlad became the unwilling owner of a state-of-the-art computer.
“That’s Old-Nick-in-the-box you brought there!” grumbled Tadeus, somewhat without rhyme or reason; he had heard about the award and popped up at their place scenting a free festive meal. Istina made a long face, her shopping list shrinking at once. Vlad locked himself in his room in a huff and stared with resentment at that machine that had ruined their evening.
Three hours later he still hadn’t managed to turn it on. “Great!”- harrumphed Istina-“now we have a TV that doesn’t work!” He comforted her, let it be, they say that a toy like this might change your life. She considered the things he might have bought for that money and had to agree: that nasty toy was already changing their lives.
The object was abandoned on a carpenter’s workbench (a find from the nearby vocational school) that was the only furniture in the dining room. The dust from Pache Protopopescu Avenue lay on its screen. Flakes of plaster peeled off the ceiling and snowed over its keyboard. On their way to the kitchen, the convoys of ants found a shortcut through the casing, crossing the circuits of the motherboard.
When he found out that they had a Compaq they didn’t use, Poli, the webmaster at the publishing house, crossed himself in amazement. It took him a mere ten minutes to turn it on. In return for two bottles of Salaj palinca, he taught Vlad the basics of computer operation.
At the beginning Vlad was exasperated: the mouse rolled astray, the windows popped up or vanished unasked, the screen got dark and there he was in the middle of some Star Trek rush of galaxies. He made hundreds of silly mistakes. The trouble was that he could understand no word of English. Whenever an unusual message popped up on the monitor, he had to call someone at the office, spell out what he could see on the screen, and ask for help in a desperate voice. And eventually he found out that the message said just “You don’t really want to erase this file, do you?” or “There’s another file with the same name, what the hell should we do?”
Vlad took some intensive courses in English and spent many hours with the dictionary. By mid summer he was getting along pretty well.
Even Istina, a professed technophobe, started to use the computer for her work: she dragged Death across the screen, covered it with the Madman, flipped over the Wheel of Fortune, and then dealt the deck of Tarot cards over and over again. It helped her when she was short of inspiration for her horoscopes. After all, fortune was her job now.
This was to be all she ever learned about computers.
For Vlad the computer meant his full recovery from the writer’s block. His habits had changed. He no longer wandered across the Baneasa forest at dusk, scribbling uneven lines on hamburger wrappers. Now he would have the computer run a slide show of wild landscapes (Caspar David Friedrich, Turner, Constable), then he set about stroking the keyboard tentatively, then fingered it inspiredly, then pounded it crazily, like Eubie Blake, the unrivaled master of ragtime blues. At the beginning he would just write anything, Dada automatic writing, then he would delete it, then undelete, then add, annotate, a versatile, never completed stream of words. It was like trying to write on water. The flow of electrons that bounced against the glass of the monitor was in fact but an ever-changing, random stream that drew now letters, tomorrow landscapes from the Valley of Fire, the other day plain darkness. The lesson that the stream of cathodic glare taught him was a simple one. It read: Humility. In a world where everything flows, panta rhei, the ambition to produce anything definitive seemed to be at least ridiculous. Vlad discovered with equal anguish and delight that, viewed on the monitor, even his most accomplished poems were by no means more definitive than, say, a dandelion puff, a snowflake, or a vinegar fly.
Not even that box was a definitive one. That was made clear one evening when the screen turned pitch black-not with a bang but with a whimper-and its smoke blackened the ceiling.
“Was it grounded?” was the first thing Poli asked when they called him in the dead of night to fix the machine. Grounded, what’s that? “Oh, these amateurs! You’re lucky you weren’t typing right then, you would have been electrocuted. Cute-you washed the damn’ thing with a sponge? Got it all wet, no wonder it short-circuited! In short, here’s what got burned.” The list meant nothing to them, but when Poli added a price estimate, they felt their blood run cold.
Staring at the empty screen, Vlad had a heavy heart, like when you lost someone you loved. Ten more days to go to payday, how should he bear this so long? “I am here with you, honey,” Istina tried to comfort him, and hugged him from behind. But her presence only made his heart feel even heavier.
He was sleepless, he couldn’t eat, the texts he wrote for the women’s magazine became-as the editor in chief didn’t fail to notice-more and more unsavory and unappetizing.
One day, as he was shuffling back from a book launch at the Literature Museum, he stopped to buy a bunch of violets for Istina. As he was a bit lit, he paid the Gypsy a bit more than she had asked. Then she offered to read his hand. He yielded to his first impulse and let her jabber her charade. “Your path crosses that of a man, oh, no . . . it’s a woman. . . . He . . . she . . . will enslave you and you will obey her orders and whims.”
“Big deal!” he sniffed scornfully. “You’ve seen my wedding ring and-”
“I ain’t talkin’ ’bout your wife, man!” she said. “Wait! I can see that better now: it’s a broad you gonna meet tonight, but you don’t know she’s meant for you. In the end the two of you get together, but I can see some wall between you, so you can’t touch her . . .”
He spat on the sidewalk. “You make me laugh.” Only then did he notice the small pile of papers the woman had displayed on the pavement. They were stockholder certificates, those funny bonds that the government had distributed freely to turn every Romanian into a hard-boiled capitalist. Not quite knowing what to do with them (one was not supposed to cash them for a few years), the new capitalists were happy to barter them for a set of Ukrainian knives or a pair of Chinese blue jeans. The Gypsies had a way of cajoling people that they’d be better off with some “solid” capital rather than flimsy promises of future riches.
On top of the pile, the weight that prevented it from being scattered by the wind seemed to be no-it really was-identical with the burned part in his computer. A hard drive, Poli had called it. How did it get there?
“Well, I found it”-answered the woman-“I can’t give it to you. Keeps my papers in place. You’d better buy one! C’mon, best certificates in town!”
“It’s not the papers I want, it’s that scrap of metal. What could we use instead of it?” he looked around for a stone or something.
“I could use a bottle of vodka. It warms me up, makes you happy, and keeps my papers in place!”
In the evening, Poli rubbed the grime off the former paperweight and turned up his nose. “Where the hell did you get it?”
“Well, I have my own sources,” bragged Vlad mysteriously.
“Ahem. Looks fishy to me. Some clone. Well, if you insist, I’ll plug it in to see if it’s any good, but I can’t guarantee anything.”
Vlad’s heart gave a thud when the system started purring and the blue screen filled with little fluffy cumuli like after a successful takeoff.
Then a straw yellow window opened out of the blue. Inside it he could read: Tip of the day.
Poli gave it a free translation: “The day’s op-ed. I see the hard drive has Office 97 already installed on it. Not bad.”
You will find in a few days: you couldn’t live without me.
“You can’t do without me, ah, these commercials are all over the place!”
Out of thin air appeared a little man in Renaissance attire with a ruff and a Venetian bonnet who bowed toward them from his small floating window. “Now, what’s that?” Vlad wondered.
“It’s called a wizard, the assistant, actually a system of interactive assistance, animation, a silly gadget for silly people.”
“Silly like us,” winked Vlad.
The little man winked too, then pulled from under his Venetian coat a scarf, which he waved cordially in guise of a greeting. He took a long stiff feather from the breast of his shirt and scribbled something on a parchment. What’s he writing there? I greet thee, my excellent friend. He’s offering his services as a guide. Like Virgil.
“Hey, we know this guy! This is no one else but old Will Shakespeare!” laughed Istina.
“Yes, his cartoon variant,” grinned Vlad. The little man seemed to get upset and, waving his kerchief once again, he vanished among the clouds.
Will was a sort of genie-in-the-lamp, only that he was a bit too wayward. He never appeared (as the program maintained) when he was invoked, but only when he was in the mood to do so. One thing soon became clear: Will made his appearance only once a day, never more often. Every time the yellow banner above his head bore a different message that would stay there for about twenty seconds before disappearing. Vlad made a habit of jotting down those words and then translating them.
In time, as he kept gathering the Bard’s pieces of advice, he ended up learning a lot of useful things.
Two months later, the Bard said no more than: Thou shalt hearken my imperative commandments. You will obey my urgent orders, stuttered Vlad, not quite knowing what he should do. He sensed, however, that from that moment on things were likely to change.
The indications became more and more imperative indeed. The first advice was:
Use hanging indents to enhance the impact of your text.
Vlad did not understand too much, not even with the help of his Webster’s. What would that mean: use the notches that are suspended so as to intensify the concussion of your text? Nonsense! So he ignored the advice and went on with his work. The following day, Shakespeare frowned like a samurai and unreeled the same banner. The third and the fourth day, still the same text. It was getting irksome.
Not even Poli was able to diagnose this abnormal behavior of the software; it might have been badly copied on that dubious hard disk. Yet he could tell him what “hanging indent” meant: those paragraphs that have a first line that is not inset but protruding, like with some lists.
“Or like in plays!” Vlad gathered in a flash.
The computer nerd smirked pitifully (oh, these amateurs!): “Yeah, you could say so . . .”
Ah ah ah, you prankster! beamed Vlad’s eyes. He had figured out the meaning of old Will’s message. Where, if not in plays, does the first line-the one beginning with the character’s name-hang outside the paragraph? Vlad conjectured here not only a self-indulgent apology of the great playwright, but also an invitation that he, the master of the magic box, should set to write dramas. And that’s what he did.
It took him three months to read Shakespeare in the original, then, as he felt he should establish some dialogue with him, other than by means of that screen, he wrote three plays, which were considered in turns parodies, witty replicas, or blasphemous caricatures of the work of the Bard of Avon. Thus he composed a drama, a comedy, and an absurdist farce, and sent them to several theaters. The farce was staged by an experimental theater company, but the royalties he got were themselves a farce!
Meanwhile, Will had been hailing him from his window with the same old text. It was obvious that he expected Vlad to obey his order. The only thing that seemed to have changed was the playwright’s costume, which was getting more and more colorful as Vlad proceeded with his work.
The day when the last theatrical company sent Vlad the same negative answer, Will changed his message:
Left-flushed lines, with their jagged right edges, are ugly. Better use justified text.
Vlad was confounded again. What could that mean? His dictionary was of little help. Ahem. The lines that are abandoned glowing with freshness or vigor, with their sharply irregular edges, are bad, so one should better prove one’s text to be just and rightful? It didn’t make much sense!
Poli explained to him again: left flushed lines are lines of text that are aligned against their left side, while justified had nothing to do with justice, as it only meant a paragraph aligned on both sides.
“It’s like poetry against prose?” muttered Vlad.
The PC wizard snorted haughtily (oh, these amateurs!) and admitted, yup, you could say so.
So, lines aligned against their left side, with raggedly notched edges-what could that be? Wow, it’s poetry, *Šñcause in poems you have those uneven lines! This, said Will, should be replaced by solid paragraphs-that should be prose, right?-with lines that are justified. Justified? Ahem. Well, in fact fiction is not always justified, it’s mostly invention; besides, if you have dialogue, then you get again those ugly jagged right edges. Then, what could it be? O, it’s bloody criticism, yeah, with its long paragraphs, so nicely aligned on both edges. Not essays, but solid criticism, with its massive blocks of text, stolidly argumentative texts, criticism substantiating its many charges with irrefutable evidence, stern indictments resting on concrete motivations, well, that’s what he’d call a justified text!
That was the day that literary historians of a later age would mark as the moment when the poet Vlad Mireanu had prematurely disappeared. At the acme of his literary glory, he abandoned poetry and set about writing literary history and criticism in a most thorough and diligent way.
If, while he was a poet, the computer barely worked a couple of hours a week, now the whole research, archiving, stocking, database processing, and eventual editing kept the PC busy almost nonstop. Not even when he took a nap (and his guilty sleep hours became shorter and shorter; at least in this respect he resembled Mircea Eliade’s myopic youth,2 not even then could he do without the monitor glare.
“The PC should not be turned off too often: that’s another electrical shock that weakens its memory,” that’s what Poli had explained to him once, and this advice had given scientific shape to his secret conviction that his inexhaustible friend only suffered when he was forced to have a rest.
“With older generation computers”-added the PC nerd-“there was a risk that, if the machine was left on for a longer period, the electron flow constantly bombarding the screen engrave the last image on the glass.” It occurred to him that this was an extraordinary thing, the computer’s swan song, the last poem before its death, the last image on its retina-something we’d have thought to be just a fleeting cathodic shower chiseled, incised in the lucid crystal of this monitor. “But this is history now,” Poli went on, dismissing this anachronistic vision, “now we have the screen savers”-what are these?-“a sort of screen wipers and guards, animated shapes that keep bracketing the electron gunshots to avoid burning the glass.” That is how Vlad would fall asleep: lighted by the fluctuating glare of the monitor. The dipsomaniacs that returned late into the night from their pubs and made their customary urinovomitive halt in the sheltering murk of Sergeant Levarda sometimes found themselves with their noses against the window beyond which kaleidoscopic shapes were twisting and spinning and wobbling, rhodochrosite crystals that liquefy into throbbing exotic flowers that sprouted lanceolate protuberances, quills that multiplied like a porcupine’s, swords that blunted into milestones, into Gaelic cairns, then they rounded into seeds, swelled into colored drupes, into ink-blue blastulae, then into indigo morulae, so that in the end it all coalesced into one single large zygote of fluorescent plasma, hovering in the dark as if in a black hole.
Anyhow, the great Englishman had been cooling his heels for some time waiting for Vlad to hit the jackpot as a literary critic. As the grass grew under the Bard’s feet, so did his hair. Each day his tresses got longer and more luxuriant, while Vlad’s book got ever thicker. Good Will felt uneasy about this:
Back up your files to prevent data loss due to fatal disk errors!
Indeed-confirmed Poli-there’s a chance that the hard drive might have a fatal error. And then . . . ? Then all the data on it is irretrievably lost. Vlad started to have nightmares: he woke up at four in the morning wet with cold sweat. He had dreamed that the screen managed to yelp Fatal Error before the hard drive was gathered to its fathers. Istina consented halfheartedly to spend the money meant for the Hoover to buy a second hard drive on which he backed up all vital files.
Will was an inexhaustible source of wisdom. One evening he brought back to his mind a problem that had been tormenting him for some time: Do you want to be published postmortem only? Neither did I. So, print your files in their final form before posterity gets to alter them. Therefore, if you don’t want to leave publication to posterity, then you’d better print your files in a timely fashion. Okay, but with what? All hell broke loose when, without warning Istina, he raided the account where they were saving the money for the washing machine, and bought instead an HP printer.
Lice might be treacherous. Use anti-virus programs to rout them.
He had never considered the viruses, the lice, as Will called them. So Poli installed the last F-Prot. Three days later, this sounded the alarm. Virus alert. Armageddon! Save Our Souls! Women and children first! Will flashed amid the chaos with a warrior banner: All suspect files will be deleted. Do not interfere with the deletion process!
The following day, the program announced that the last viruses have been routed to the FAT sector, the very heart of the system. Poli confirmed: if they are not exterminated on time, the battle is lost. The whole hard drive will have to be erased and reformatted. The monitor’s battlefield got crammed with windows overflowing with miles of nonsensical texts. The loudspeakers resounded with dissonant hubbub, caterwaul, screeches, belches, alarms. Will managed to elbow his way among file wrecks to surface for a couple of seconds. He looked awful, all black and white, scrambled, trembling. On his forehead one could read: H6P3A5S1. Then he sank back in a commotion of hex dumps.
Vlad was troubled. No doubt, Will was contaminated too. His fate was sealed. Either he was to be devoured by the viruses, or-infected as he was-the anti-virus program was to butcher him along with the vermin. What a pity that he didn’t have time dispatch to him a last coherent message! H6P3A5S1, what nonsense! Or maybe this is some kind of code . . . All of a sudden, Vlad’s face glowed. Sure! H6 is Henry the Sixth, P3 is Part Three, A5 is Act Five, S1 is Scene One. He rushed at the Complete Works. He opened the volume and read:
The harder match’d, the greater victory: My mind presageth happy gain and conquest.
He exhaled in relief. Will-through the mouth of King Edward IV-was telling him to stop worrying. Amid the battle, he announced happy recovery and triumph.
The warfare was long and ruthless. The campaign had many ups and downs. At last, before F-Prot announced drily the extermination of the last enemy unit, Will appeared in his brass armor above a pile of opened windows (which were quivering with the wind of victory) and announced triumphantly:
Operation result = Success. Virus killed = 65. Casualties = 367 files.
Of course, Will was allowed to express his joy only in drab computer language. However, that time, as the previous one, he bootlegged a hidden message. H6P1A3S4.LOG. Vlad was already aware of the key. He opened the volume at Henry VI, Part I, Act 3, Scene 4, and flushed as he read:
Lets fall his sword before your highness’ feet, And with submissive loyalty of heart Ascribes the glory of his conquest got First to my God and next unto your grace.
A winner now, he bowed his sword in front of Vlad, consecrating his victory first to God and then to the grace of the tenant of Sergeant Levarda.
“Still, how did these viruses get in here?” That was something Poli could not understand. Indeed Vlad’s computer worked autonomously, cut off from the outside world. He would never insert floppies from external sources into it. He was connected to no network, he received no e-mail. Then how could one explain this?
Mind that Ignorance can cause more harm than Knowledge.
Ignorance is worse than Knowledge. Why were these words written in capitals? Wouldn’t that mean-Vlad conjectured-ignorance in matters of computers. And then, in this house Ignorance with a capital I is nobody but Istina!
Under pressure, Istina made a full confession. Yes, it was she who had inserted a virused floppy into the computer. No, it wasn’t by mistake. She did it on purpose. Vlad was confused. “Why did you do that?”
“Why? It’s because of this object that we spend less and less time together! You’re wasting all your time with this!” she shouted, pointing at the screen on which Will had popped up, with his long hair, ruby lips, and glowing cheeks. “Dam’ pansy!” Istina threw at him. Will winked at her and slipped out of the window, leaving behind him the fluttering banner that read:
Frailty, thy name is woman! . . . O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason, Would have mourn’d longer.
Therefore, Will warned him about the inconsistency of women, who show so little reason when it comes to things men cherish. To be noted!
Vlad took some precautions. He restricted the access to his computer with a password Istina couldn’t have guessed in a thousand years. Will appeared to be delighted with this. He dropped his armor and started wearing just a light doublet, its top button undone. His looks became gentler. He had shaved his beard and put an earring in his left ear.
Split a large file to tidy your workspace-Workspace . . . this should refer to a workbench or . . . rather . . . his writing desk! Vlad took these words as a declaration of independence. The computer claimed a desk of his own.
“You can’t do that! Ever since we got together we wrote at the same desk, this was one of the mysteries of our friendship, something unique, nobody understood how we could possibly write quietly sitting at the two opposite ends of the same table, without ever disturbing each other, but on the contrary heightening each other’s inspiration through osmosis.” This is how the girl protested, but it was all in vain. Actually, Istina was in trouble: she hadn’t written a single verse in the last year and her stories had hardly moved an inch. Anyway, lately they had had problems, he kept moving the table toward the darker corner of the room, while she wanted it by the window, as it had always been, we used to be solar and matutinal people, have you forgotten that? So what? he grumbled. And he bought himself a table that he put by hers, you see, nothing happened, we’re working elbow to elbow, only now we’re at different tables.
Monitor glare can be harmful to both your eyes and soul: keep the monitor in a dark place and you will be much better off. The scarf bearing this text was waved by a hand that was lighter than ever. Before Will vanished in the entrails of the computer, Vlad managed to notice that he had painted his nails a claret hue. These Elizabethans surely had some weird habits!
“Gondwana broke off. Our water broke. No return. Carriage return. Miscarriage. And here we are begetting a new geological fault, in the smell of burned dirt, of atoms that fissioned right in the middle. We are two continental plates drifting. And without looking back, we slide away to found two new hemispheres. A white one and a black one. We play a black and white game with each other. I know where I am heading to, I call drifting only your moving away. You know where you are heading to, you call drifiting my moving away. We are two continents engaged in pale sliding. A quiet precession. Running away from home in quest of two new cardinal points.”
What Istina described here was that the two tables, initially placed shoulder to shoulder, set out to glide in opposite directions. Like in a séance. Only that the motion couldn’t be detected with the naked eye. All you could see was the effect: whenever she left home she would return to discover his table pushed a couple of inches further to the dark end of the room. Oh, *Šñtis too much sun in here, he kept complaining, it reflects in the screen, it stings like a harpoon in my eye socket. On the contrary, what she felt was that, as the cold season advanced, the sun’s route over the slot between the buildings got ever shorter, there’s not enough light in here. That’s how she apologized when he came home to find her table pushed closer to the window where the Physallis swelled its bladdery calyces like purple lampoons, every day more translucent, as if made of wax paper, and eventually let them loose off their stems to soar in the long air of Pache Protopopescu Avenue, hot-air balloons that needed no one’s help to start wandering across the wide world that opened beyond ProTV’s tricolor-striped building, to hover past the busy Iancu Square, past the endless rows of identical concrete blocks of flats in Pantelimon, over the tractors rusting by the roofless collective farm of Dobroesti, and eventually to falter over old Matei Dropie’s compost ditch.
Istina re-read the paragraph. Laid with her slender calligraphy that reclined backward in a significant way, the words seemed to crumble on the gray recycled paper. (Anyhow, all that we do to recycle old forms, worn-out conventions, she said, these Herlitz copybooks, made of recycled paper, are only reminding us of this humility). There was one more reason to get worried: for some time now, her handwriting had been shrinking, reticulated like oil paint applied on a frozen surface. There was no more glitter, no more silken moiré of the surface. With every review and every rewriting, her prose got ever more self-absorbed, ever thicker, smaller, and darker, like late apples abandoned on high, unreachable branches. Black, heavy, and wrinkled, the stories for her long announced volume were undergoing an ever deeper process of phenomenological reduction. She worked day and night. She would spend the whole night writing three pages, only to cross them out the next day. The shore of the one hundred fifty pages specified in her contract appeared remoter than ever.
She laid her elbows on the gray paper made of old newspapers, shredded top secret acts, faded photographs, straws, rags, lint and fluff. That’s what she felt she was casting on that recycled paper: rags, fluff, old straws from some past that was closing down, along its suture line. But that day, all of a sudden, the prose’s small tricks were no longer able to hold together all this suspension of volatile junk. And she realized with dismay that, once the glue of fiction had peeled off, once the stitches of the plot had popped out, the characters had burst open like some pods, and the dregs of the intertext had clogged the last natural drain, well, then there was nothing left on the sheet of paper but the bladders of some Physallis fruit, also called ground cherries, mere pouches of parchment, pink with embarrassment, filled with crazy seeds and hot air, captive balloons, not at all dirigible. She shivered from head to toe when she realized what was about to happen to her: Poetry.
The next evening, Will appeared without his waistcoat, wearing just a blouse with its top button undone. Funny, his waxed chest seemed to have swollen. He was getting fat. His facial hair had vanished altogether. Vlad had read somewhere that the Muslim habit of men waxing their bodies had entered Europe through Arab-Hispanic culture.
If your programs do not work properly then you should try closing useless jobs running in parallel.
Yes, on a closer look, his plans really sucked. The advice of the long-haired Will was, as usual, of great help. So he quit his useless part-time jobs-the one at the women’s magazine, the one as proofreader at the Body-Building Association Publishing House, and (of course not before he spat out what he really thought about them) the one at the Writers’ Union journal. Now they both lived on Istina’s salary. Her horoscopes soon turned gloomier and gloomier, your ratings are down, my dear, if you get below 35 you’d better look for another job, her boss warned her in a fatherly tone.
Istina was troubled. “Don’t you feel that we’ve lost something?” she asked him. What? “Warmth, trust. Let’s try to make things be as they were in the beginning . . .”
“In the beginning?” he mumbled absentmindedly, without taking his eyes off the monitor. “What do you mean?”
The following night, Will made his appearance just as Windows 95 flashed one of those occult messages that spoke about memory loss. With his disheveled hair and wrinkled shirt, the Bard seemed to have been awoken from a deep sleep. He elbowed the alarm window away. His lips glittered, ruby red (“Shit, I should rebalance the monitor’s colors,” thought Vlad), when he mouthed the words that flickered on the banner:
If you are running low on memory, it’s high time that you emptied your Recycle Bin.
Vlad had just got a third letter from a publisher that turned down his volume of criticism. He tried to patch the damn’ book, but-as one editor put it in his rejection letter-“we deal here with a Mumbo-Jumbo-Jet stuffed with an amount of information that is disproportionate relative to the wingspan of its original ideas. Where there’s not enough wingspan there’s no aerodynamic force. Where there’s no sustention force, the object just won’t take off and fly.” This letter had touched a nerve. That’s exactly what he felt throughout those days: there was some sort of ballast that wouldn’t let him soar and fly.
And now Will-who had shaved his mustache off in the meanwhile-got excited and offered his help. Empty the Recycle Bin, he prompted him. Vlad took the trash can to the dumpster. Nothing happened. He was still low of memory. He threw away some basketfuls of junk. Nothing. He swept the yard. Nothing. Raked the flower beds. Nothing. He threw out a lot of empty bottles, nothing, disposed of a pile of old T-shirts, nothing, continued with old literary magazines, nothing, went on with some older poets’ books, nothing, got rid of his first copybooks of poems, nothing. The dumpster outside smoked with all the trifles Istina had offered him as gifts during all those years, tokens of secret intimate moments. His memory was still clogged, so he threw to the recycling fire that bundle of touching love letters with which he had snatched Istina from her former fiancé’s claws and made her cancel the wedding at the last moment. Those letters that were able to move the stars, as she called them, failed to sprout wings on his back and let him soar from the ground, where he lay, his shoulder blade stumps rigid and inert.
Do not run two large, memory-consuming programs at once. Otherwise your system may halt.
No doubt, his whole system was in crisis. Which meant that somewhere, in the back, another hidden program was running stealthily.
That evening, he sat at his desk with heavy shoulders, as if a lead anchor had grown between his shoulder blades. He logged in and typed the password, and the genie jumped from among the windows to greet him. All of a sudden, a veil was lifted from his eyes, and he realized the meaning of those minute alterations that Will had undergone. His hair had kept growing only to flow more softly over his shoulders. His arm had been getting slenderer only to wave the silk scarf in a sweeter manner. His mustache and beard had vanished only to uncover some sensuous lips. The coat had shrunk around his waist, only to highlight some well-rounded hips. And beneath the collar that was cut even deeper, a plump breast swelled, that did not allow for any doubt: under his disguise of a refined aristocrat, Will was a woman. And what a woman!
Close all TSR programs and restart your system.
TSR-he checked in the dictionary-meant Terminate and Stay Resident. That is, terminate it and settle there as a parasite. That he was terminated was something he had sensed for some time. But where the hell was that parasitic terminator, that TSR?
Still looking for an answer, he turned with sore eyes to the window. His eyes fell upon a bunch of flowers on Istina’s table. Lately she had been buying flowers, in guise of a painful mute reproach. By the flowers lay her copy-book with that horrid paper. Nonbleached recycled paper. Recycled? Re-cycle! That was it!
It took him one hour to dump all the stuff out, starting with the table and ending with Istina’s clothes. All those trifles-thrown on the sidewalk. All the ballast. He had thought there was more of it, but no, it all would fit in a Dacia pickup truck. There was one more hour left until she was to come back from work. (Se worked long hours in the night shift to more money). He locked the bolt, he latched the chain, and he turned on the system.
There were a couple of minutes left now till the bells at St Ilarie’s would mumble three tolls after midnight. He put his earphones on, hoping that now he would hear more than just silence. Will-the-Cross-Dresser came bouncing on the screen. The bodice had vanished, leaving him-or-her in a short linen blouse with a deep décolleté. This time he-or-she extracted the scarf not from under the collar but from between the breasts that rolled at every movement she made.
Vlad moved the mouse on the table. On the screen, the cursor turned into an open palm. He moved it over the woman’s shoulder. Stroking it. She swelled her breast like a dove.
Her lips moved. She mouthed something. He strained to hear her. All he could hear in his headphones was a squeak, a small WAV file. Of course, he thought aloud, with a bit of patience, in a couple of days I’ll get more of it.
He moved the mouse again. The hand on the screen pawed the garter. This undid with a click and the black silk stocking rustled down and uncovered a flawless leg. Vlad smiled and moved the hand to the other garter. Nothing happened. He clicked the right button. Double-clicked it. He clicked the left button. Nothing.
The woman bowed her head reproachfully. Vlad got the message. That was all for today. Of course, he thought aloud, with a bit of patience, in a couple of days I’ll get more of it.
Until then! The woman swung her hip, then sprang onto the edge of the window, which rocked like a boat. Soft windows. And she winked at him while under her butt the Tip of the Day banner unreeled itself:
After any system crash, remember: all’s well that ends well.
1The house on Sergeant Levarda Street was the residence of Vladimir Streinu (1902-70), one of Romania’s major interwar critics and editor of the literary magazine Kalende (founded in 1943), which was the nucleus of a literary group promoting modernism. 2An allusion to the scholar Mircea Eliade’s juvenile memoir Romanul adolescentului miop [The Novel of the Myopic Teenager].