The Old Man and the Press

Saturday Stories #4

sunset electronica

The devices had been useless for so long with only error messages to greet every effort to connect, so many days and week and months – was it years already? – that everyone had finally come to the realization that the web wasn’t coming back to life.

Some said it was a conspiracy, that evil men and women had fed our dependency and then cruelly took it away to make us despair. Others said we just ran out of fossil fuel to feed the power plants and we owed it to the Earth to silence the things that drained the power. Others said we didn’t pass on the knowledge of how to fix the machines and thus we lost the ability to make repairs.

And then there were the ones they called The Realists, who asked whether it really matters what happened and shouldn’t we just get on with living without electronic connections. My dad and mom were Realists.

They talked about the day their last electronic toy had stopped working. Dad was frantic, but Mom had it figured out.

“This is the dawning of a new age,” she had said, “not an age of hypnotized, mesmerized empty heads, but an age of being and doing and looking alive.” She took the now-silent device from his hand, examined it, and dropped it to the ground. “It will not harm you anymore. The web has gone quiet.”

“But it wasn’t harming me,” he protested.

“Wait a few days for the fog to clear,” she said. “Then you’ll see where the hurting is. The trouble will come from the trolls. They thrived under the web. They lived all of their lives in the magic electric land, and now they’re lost. They won’t be happy, and lord knows they won’t be kind. We’ll have to be prepared for them.”

He blinked and stared at the sun as if seeking information there. No phone? No contact with the outside world? No answers to questions? How would he live?

“You’ll be fine,” she said, as if reading the questions on his face. “That wasn’t a magic helper, my love, it was a mesmerizer. It granted you wishes and kept you pacified while it was sapping your will, infecting your brain. It’s a marvel you have any gumption left to walk and talk. You can walk and talk, now, can you?”

The look on her face made him laugh, and he wanted to take a picture of it. But the camera had been in the device. He longed for it, and he had a notion in the back of his mind that the longing was the reason he needed to be rid of it. The back of his mind – he realized it had been some time since he had used the front, middle, back or any part of his mind.

And so they started accumulating relics of the times before the digital electronics had taken over, relieved to find they still worked pretty well. They found an old machine that played music that somehow was stored on round slabs and reproduced the sound by spinning the slabs and setting a needle on them. They had another machine that applied ink to paper to make copies of written things – news, stories, poems, essays even photos – although not the videos that the web had had.

Mom and Dad said if we’re going to still have civilization, we need to spread the words somehow.

“And that’s what you do with this machine?” I asked, trying to figure out the contraption that sat before me now. It was very large, with gears and wheels and cylinders. “Spread the words? How?”

He pulled an old-fashioned book out of his pocket, worn and yellow with a leather cover: The Mechanism of the Linotype by John S. Thompson.

“It’s all in here, how to put the letters together into words and the words into paragraphs, and then transfer it all onto the press and, well, spread the words.”

“Why?”

My old man smiled.

“Why?” he said. “Listen. Do you ever look up at the sky, that big old moon hanging there, and wonder what it’s like up there in those nooks and crannies? No, that’s not what I mean, never mind that. Do you ever look at the mountain way over there and wonder what’s happening on the other side? Scratch that, too – what about those woods there, what about the other side of town? You ever ride your bike to the woods or the other side of town?”

“Well, yeah, of course.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. To see what’s there.”

“Exactly! That’s the whole point.”

“What is?”

“You wanted to know what’s there. You wanted to see. It wasn’t enough to be here. There had to be more to life than these four walls, this neighborhood. You had to see what that ‘more’ looked like.”

“I guess.”

“And then you wanted to tell your friends about the cool stuff you found, and warn them about the stuff that wasn’t so cool, so they could check out the cool stuff and avoid the not-cool stuff.”

“Well, sure.”

“You became a reporter.”

“Huh?”

“You went to explore, to see what was going on, and then you came back and told what you saw.”

“I suppose.”

“You spread the words.”

I got it. “Sure I did.”

“Why?”

“Well, because. Because people need to know.”

He turned the crank on the press and a printed piece of paper rolled out.

“Now you’re talking, son. Now you’re talking.”

The apocalypse had been happening all these years, and they had been too spellbound to realize it – but now the fog was lifting, and he saw that post-apocalyptic life would not be brutal and chaotic, as people had feared for years, but alive and well. The devices had been the agents of the fear they had all felt.

I admit it, I was anxious – chalk it up to fear of the unknown – but something in my parents’ words assured me that everything was going to be all right.

Except for the trolls …

Advertisements