Errata Literary Magazine

Bucks County Writers Workshop

Computer Science
by William J. O'Toole

April 23, 10:30 PM

Benjamin Alan Rose, he doodled the three words in bold script, exaggerating the first letter of each word, highlighting the capitols with teardrops of red ink simulating blood. Ben held the small white envelope aloft and studied his creation. Perfect, he thought, an author should have three names. It sounded distinguished, accomplished. Not Ben Rose, too informal, like the author of one of those self-help manuals. Not Dr. Benjamin Roseš too technical, even though he was in fact a physician, part of the whole point of this writing addiction was to escape the tedium of science and predictability of reason that twenty years of medicine had thrust upon him. He wanted to learn about the other side of life, the artistic side, reality seen through the lens of emotion. And it was working; over the last few weeks he felt a childlike joy as chapter after chapter leapt from his hands to the keyboard and onto the computer screen before him. He worked nights and weekends, sometimes until two AM, then up again at five, the predawn solitude calling him to the keyboard while the rest of the house slept.

He drifted into a daydream and saw the small translucent plastic tubes that carried blood from an arm vein to the oversized washing-machine-like device. His mind's eye then followed the cleansed blood as it left the dialysis machine and traveled back down an identical tube, minus the accumulated toxins of two days of human life. For two decades he had presided over the dialysis those whose kidneys had failed and many of these people worshiped him and trusted him unconditionally. As he aged, and his experience of time accelerated, this trust made him uncomfortable, for as his machine drained the hope and joy from the eyes of his patients, he was reminded of his own mortality and all the things he had yet to do and see and understand.

My patients are so depressed, so gray and lifeless, he thought. "They should put endorphins in the bath," he said out loud to no one, referring to the solution in the dialysis machines, the concentration of which determined what was drawn off the blood and what was ultimately returned to the patient. The sadness bound to this memory of work refocused his consciousness and abruptly ended his daydream.

He tapped his pencil on the desk, readjusted the phone receiver he had wedged between his shoulder and ear, and listened to the incessant sound of pop music interspersed by the recorded voice of the Gateway operator who assured him repeatedly that his call was important to them. This was unusual, he thought, typically when his system would not boot he would call tech support and they would have him hit this button or that and turn the computer on and off and everything would be fixed in a few minutes. This time, when he read the computer screen to the twelve year old on the other end of the line, he heard pages turning, manuals being closed, and repeated questions "you're sure it's error message #3275?" He was sure.

Ben was tired but upbeat, he carried the look and swagger of a man who had just pitched a no hitter or single-handedly saved a child's life (neither of which he had ever done). Through four caffeine-soaked weeks he had knocked off well over a hundred and seventy five pages of his best stuff, the guts of a novel so good it was sure to be not only a best seller, but a work of art. He awakened hours before work, coffee at his side, the computer keys clicking beneath his hands with a rhythm and cadence of a symphony in progress. Turns in plot, dialogue, descriptions, all coming to him as if from above. He felt like the authors of the bible were said to have felt, "an instrument in the hand of the Creator." Is how Dante and Virgil felt, he wondered? Joyce and Hemmingway? During these last few weeks, in addition to the early mornings, he would stay up until well past two AM, until the electricity of thought was finally dampened by an urgent craving for sleep. This would be the break he dreamed of, a shot at writing full time. He thought about the reviews, the interviews, perhaps a TV interview, if not on the networks at least on C-span. He thought about the money, not for greed sake of course, he had always lived a modest life, but this would allow him to concentrate on writing, and if there was any cash left over, well, what could be the harm? A sports car, perhaps a boat, a house at the beach, for inspiration of course.

His daydream was interrupted when the music coming from the receiver at his ear stopped abruptly and the voice of a Gateway supervisor began in an earnest but somber tone. "I'm sorry to tell you this sir but your hard drive has sustained an irreparable malfunction."

"What does that mean?" Ben asked.

"It means we need to send you a new hard drive, your present one is shot," the voice said, trying to sound upbeat, almost like it was a positive thing.

"But what happens to my old one?" As he said this his mind leap ahead, he had a sudden wave of nausea followed by a flash of heat that swept over his entire body. Not waiting for an answer to the first question he interrupted himself. "What happens to the stuff I have saved on the computer now?" he asked, his voice trailing off, afraid of the answer.

"Well, sir, in all probability, it's lost"

There was a long silence on both ends of the phone as Ben began to grasp the implications of this fact. Had he "backed it up?" the computer guy asked, "onto a disc?" He had not. Oh sure the outline, but that was months ago and he wasn't following it anyway. This couldn't be, it's not possible, one hundred and seventy five pages of his prized novel gone? He felt a muted scream rise up within him as he moved rapidly through the stages grief, shock, and then denial, arriving at a raw, molten form of anger that blurred reason and created the feeling of a grenade going off in his chest.

April 24, 12:30 AM

It was now over two hours he had been on the phone with a tech support guy. Ben was weary and wired at the same time, the feeling that comes when fatigue is treated with large doses of caffeine, but he was finally approaching something that felt like hope. Using a series of CD ROMS and prompts and other maneuvers that involved turning the computer on and off what seemed like a thousand times, they had located a folder using a DOS backup system that looked approximately the size of his half-finished novel.

" Click on 5, then C/: win98 and enter," the voice said. He typed the commands robotically, as if in a trance, anticipating them now, having completed hundreds of almost identical sequences in the preceding two hours.

"And finally click Enter," the voice said.

"There it is...and it opens!" he answered the question yet unasked, page one of one hundred fifty seven. It was all there.

In the next several minutes, while thanking the voice repeatedly, promising credits in the acknowledgement section of his book, he backed the work onto a bright red disk which he then promptly locked in his top desk drawer and went downstairs for a snack, too excited to sleep. He had learned his lesson, everything would be backed up or done on disc, computers were fallible, he proclaimed, just machines.

April 30, 5 AM

After only three hours of sleep he arose early and plugged the bright red disc into the side of his laptop. The document you created is in Microsoft Works 3.0; your present computer has a later version of this software that may not be compatible. Do you still want to open this document? He no longer reflected on the error message with the same intensity he had the first time it appeared, a week ago, when, while his hard drive was being repaired, he shuttled the disk between his computer at work with Works 4.5 and his laptop at home with 3.0. He had noticed, however, that each time he opened the document there were more funny characters in the text. He was a poor speller to start with but this was bad even for him. Despite this he pressed on with his writing, he was after all, "in the zone," and a backlog of chapters poured from him faster than he could type. Suddenly, when he scrolled back to see what he had written the day before, the screen froze. Afraid to close it he called tech support at Gateway who referred him to Microsoft. He listened in disbelief while a thirteen-year-old voice explained to him that his document had been "permanently corrupted" by repeatedly opening it in several different versions of Works and was "lost." He felt a familiar wave of nausea as his greatest fear was realized, made all the more intense having been conditioned by his previous near-loss of the same work on the hard drive. Just then he heard the sound of the alarm clock going off in the other room, signaling it was time to get ready for work.

Bucks County Writers Workshop