Plowing the Dark

A Novel

Richard Powers

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Plowing the Dark
1
Years later, when she surfaced again, Adie Klarpol couldn't say just how she'd pictured the place. Couldn't even begin to draw what she'd imagined. Some subterranean confection of dripped stone, swarming with blind cave newts. A spelunker's scale model Carlsbad. Summer dacha of the Mountain King.
The Cavern, Stevie had called it. Stevie Spiegel, phoning her up out of nowhere, in the middle of the night, after years of their thinking one another dead, when they thought of each other at all. The Cavern. A name that formed every shape in her mind except its own.
She had not placed him on the phone. It's Steve, he said. And still, she was anywhere.
Adie fumbled with the handset in the dark. She struggled backward, upstream, toward a year when an a capella Steve might have meant something. Steve. You know: the twelfth most common name for American males between the ages of twenty-four and thirty-eight?
Steve Spiegel, he repeated, hurt by her confusion. Madison? Your housemate and collaborator? Mahler Haus? Don't tell me: you've torched your entire past.
A vision of herself at twenty-one congealed in front of her, like the Virgin come to taunt Slavic schoolchildren. Recollection swamped her carefully packed sandbags. Steve Spiegel. The three of them had planned to live the rest of their lives together, once. He, she, and the man who'd live long enough to become Adie's ex-husband.
Jesus! Stevie. Her voice skidded away from her, a gypsum imitation of pleasure's bronze. Stevie. What on earth have you been doing with yourself?
Doing ... ? Adie, my love. You still make life sound like a summer camp craft project.
It isn't?
No, you decorative little dauber. It is not. Life is a double-blind, controlled placebo experiment. Has middle age taught you nothing?
Hah. I knew that at twenty. You were the one in denial.
Tag-team remembrance dissolved the years between them. OK, the gaps and rifts. OK, all the expended selves that would never again fit into the rag box of a single curriculum vitae.
Adie. Ade. You busy these days? I thought we might be able to hook up.
Outside her loft, the stink of singed oil and rotting vegetables settled. Car alarms clear down to the Battery sounded the predawn call to prayer. She cradled the phone under her chin, a fiddler between reels.
Steve, it's kind of late ... She hoisted the guillotine window above her futon, its counterweights long ago lost at the bottom of the sash's well. She crawled out onto her fire hazard of a fire escape, adopting her favorite phone crouch, rocking on her haunches, her lumbar pressed to the rose brick.
Jesus Christ, he said. I am so sorry. Entirely forgot the time difference. What is it out there: like after one?
I mean, it's a little late for reunions, isn't it?
Missing the whole point, the sole purpose of reunions, their sad celebration of perpetual too-lateness, the basic one-step-behindhood of existence.
Oh, I don't want a reunion, Ade. I just want you.
She laughed him off and they pressed on. They made the obligatory exchange of hostages, each giving over the short versions of their overland passage across the intervening decade.
Seattle, he told her. Can you believe it? Your doltish poet friend, the one who used to spout "Sunday Morning" until late Monday night. Supporting the computer industry's insidious plan for world domination.
Still lower Manhattan, she replied. Your washed-up watercolorist. Currently supporting the wall of my crumbling apartment building with the small of my back.
Surprised? he asked.
About ... ?
About where we've landed?
Nobody lands, she said. So how is the world of software?
It's the oddest thing, Ade. Ade: as if they still knew each other. You know, I lied to get into this business in the first place. Told them I knew C++ when I didn't know it from B-- --. But it turns out, I know this stuff in my sleep. Born to it. Code is everything I thought poetry was, back when we were in school. Clean, expressive, urgent, all-encompassing. Fourteen lines can open up to fill the available universe.
Different kind of sonnet, though, right? Different rhyme scheme?
I don't know. Sometimes you gotta wonder.
Wonder, in fact, was why he'd called. He'd come to rest in a moist den of pine on a twisty black macadam road looking out over Puget Sound. He was coding for a start-up called the Realization Lab, the latest tendril of that runaway high-tech success story TeraSys. But the RL was still experimental, more of a tax write-off than a source of any near-term revenue.
TeraSys? You mean you work for that little Boy Billionaire?
Indirectly, he laughed. And they're all boy billionaires out here.
What does your building look like?
What do you mean? My building, building? What does that have to do with anything?
I'm trying to visualize where you are. You're calling from work, aren't you?
I ... well, I guess I am.
William Butler Spiegel! The man who swore he'd never do anything more serious than wait on tables, so as not to compromise his muse. Still in his office in the middle of the night.
Middle ... ? Out here, we're usually just getting started around 10 p.m.
Just tell me where you are. OK, look: I'll start. I'm squatting in my undershirt out on a black wrought-iron grille about twenty feet above the exhaust fan of the kitchen of a pasta dive ...
He played along, the stakes high. Khaki shorts and a green raglan T-shirt. Kicked back in a molded plastic office chair in the middle of a ... well ... redwood-and-cedar kind of thing. Lots of river stone. Local materials.
Very tasteful, they declared in unison. Old shtick, recovered from a dozen lost lives ago.
Geez, I don't know. What does my building look like? I've never really thought about it, Adie.
Come on, poet. Look around you. Walk me through the front door.
Hmm. Let's see. Maybe 10,000 square feet of usable floor, all on a single story. Lots of brick and earth tones. A maze of little cubicles made out of those tan-fabric-lined divider things. There's a nice little sunken atrium and such. A ton of vegetation per cubic liter. Big panoramic expanse of passive-solar smart window looking out at Rainier, on the ventral side.
I see. Kind of a futuristic forest ranger's roost.
Sure. Why not? You'll love it.
Hang on. You? As in me ... ?
He slowed and unfolded. We're putting together a prototype immersion environment we're calling the Cavern. Computer-Assisted Virtual Environ--Look, Adie. I'm not going to describe this thing to you over the phone. You just have to come see it.
Sure, Steve. I'll be out in an hour.
How about a week from next Tuesday? For a no-obligations site visit. All expenses paid.
Oh. Oh God. You told them I knew C++?
Worse. I told them I knew the greatest illustrator since representational art self-destructed.
Illustrator, Stevie? How tasteful. Haven't lost your knack for words, I see.
Nothing had changed in him. He was still that kid of twenty, compelled to round up and protect everything he thought he loved. A mini-Moses, still shepherding around the dream of starting an artist's colony where he could gather all those who needed a hideout from the real world. His voice alone was proof, if Adie ever needed it: no one abandons his first survival kit. The most we ever do is upgrade the splints.
You're exactly what the project is looking for, Adie. We can make these incredible digital circus animals, and we can get them to jump through any hoop imaginable. We just need someone who can draw the hoops.
I don't get it, Stevie. Don't get it at all.
We're all coders and chrome monkeys. A bunch of logic monsters, trying to make walk-in, graphical worlds. We need someone who can see.
Know how I picture it out there? Open-toe sandals made out of silicon. Fuzzy-faced, bicycling Boeing executives. Tofu-eating knowledge engineers and multiply-pierced, purple-frosted meth heads waiting next to each other on the curb for the Walk light.
See? You know what the place looks like before you've even seen it. I told the team how you used to do those Draw-the-Pirate tests as a kid and fix all the original's errors. I showed them that ARTFORUM sidebar. The reviews of your SoHo show in '79 ...
Oh God, Stevie. That's ancient history.
Oh, I went further back than that. I showed them my color slide of your huge acrylic group portrait of us. The one that won the university painting prize ... ?
How dare you. I hate you.
I told them about the award controversy. How one of the judges thought you were using projection? How he refused to believe that you'd actually freehanded ...
Steven. We were children then. You don't have to fly a stranger across the continent just to find someone who can draw. Courtroom portraitists are a dollar ninety-eight a square yard. Besides, I already have a life.
You're not a stranger, Ade. He sounded hurt. That's what's so perfect about this. You don't have to stop painting. Just come out here and do what you--
Steve. You have the wrong person. I don't do ... I'm not painting anymore.
Silence pinged off the far coast, full duplex.
Did something happen? he asked.
Tons happened. Oh, all my parts are still intact, if that's what you mean. It's just that painting's over. No great loss, I assure you.
Loss? Adie! How can you say that? What ... what are you doing, then?
About what? Oh. You mean for work? I freelance. Commercial stuff. Fliers and the like. Book jackets.
You'll do a book jacket but you won't ... ?
Won't do original work. I have no problem with designing for a living. Copy and paste. All the pastel coffee mugs and cartoon cars that you want. But Art's done.
Adie. If you can still make ... Do you see? This would be a chance to do something completely ...
Sounds like you're looking for somebody else, Stevie. For the greatest illustrator since representation self-destructed.
Well, have it your way. Something in his voice said: You always did. But do me a favor, Adie? Just make sure that you see this thing once before you die.
The sentence jumped out at her, from a place she could not make out. The sound of the words, their roll, their order. See this thing once, before you die. The strange familiarity of the invitation caught her ear, if not yet her eyes.
Put it that way, she heard herself mouth, I wouldn't mind.
Sure, he said. He'd never asked for anything but the chance to save her. Whenever you like. Preferably after 10 p.m.
The hard rose building brick pressed up against the small of her back. From a flight and a half up above night's fire escape where she sat, she watched herself say, How about a week from next Tuesday, then? On you.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Powers