My optimism seems laughable now, but it was no less farfetched than the other things that happened in San Francisco in those years, when piledrivers shook the earth in every vacant lot South of Market, vast dark restaurants unfurled their cushioned nooks. South Park was blanketed with beautiful young people eyeing each others’ business plans, and, on the highways, there was a proliferation of billboards touting Agilent, Scient, Teligent, Aquient, companies which ceased to exist almost as soon as they were named, so that to an observer who knew nothing about venture capital or the stock market it might have seemed as if the Bay Area were indulging in an experiment, the creation of a dead language from scratch.
Then the invention of a new blue light.
I first saw it in a nightclub, a brilliant sapphire dot at the base of a massive speaker. I’d never seen an electric light that color before: it was bluer than the sky, bluer than blue paint. It was the bluest thing I had ever seen. I watched it fixedly, as if it were a fairy light that would lead me to some new land, until Erin pulled me away, laughing.
Some technological breakthrough must really have been responsible for that light, strange though it is to think that in a technology as simple as the electric light anything remained to be discovered, because soon it was everywhere. It shone from between the keys of mobile telephones; it ringed the underbodies of cars; it reflected off polished steel in bars; it flashed on pendants and spilled from plate-glass windows, turning squares of sidewalk the absolute blue of a hyperlink.
Weird things happened by that light. One night in 1996 (this was before Swan disappeared, before the Day of Outrage), Victor and I were eating hamburgers in a bar by the Embarcadero, a kind of beach shack left over from an earlier phase of the city’s development. We were arguing about whether it would be worse to be deaf or blind in the modern world. Victor argued that our culture was so predominantly visual that almost anything, even paraplegia or schizophrenia, was less of an impairment than blindness; I tried to make the case that blindness separated you only from mass culture whereas deafness separated you from the people you actually chose to associate with, and that, if you looked at it that way, blindness was actually a blessing, whereas deafness was a tragedy. Victor was about to rebut when a man in a cornflower-blue shirt surged up out of the darkness.
“Are you boys designers?” he asked. He must have been about fifty; his otherwise black hair was gray at the temples; he wore sunglasses even though it was night.
We looked at him blankly.
“I overheard your thoughts,” the stranger went on. “You strike me as very intelligent people. Am I right?”
“We are somewhat intelligent,” Victor said.
The stranger smiled. “May I ask what you do for a living?”
I said that I was a historian, or at least a student of history.
“I am a shark wrangler,” said Victor, who had learned the word wrangler recently and liked to show it off.
The stranger showed neither surprise nor disbelief. “Let me ask you a question,” he said. “What do you think you’ll be doing in five years?”
“Eating grilled meat,” Victor replied without hesitation.
“I mean, for a living,” said the stranger.
“Who cares?” Victor said. “I am for the moment only interested in the meat.”
“What about the spirit?” the stranger asked in a low voice, just the sort of voice you expect people to use when talking about the spirit. “Do you ever think about that?”
Victor looked up from his burger with knowing amusement. “The spirit too requires meat,” he said. “Aquinas.”
The stranger laughed. “Your Mr. Aquinas was right.”
He dipped two fingers into the breast pocket of his shirt and came out with a pair of business cards, which he pointed at us. “You boys have brains,” he said. “I’m always looking for brains. Will you come and see me, one of these days?”
He left before we could answer, his shoes tap-tapping rapidly on the pavement.
“Aquinas never said that,” I said.
Victor shrugged. “Are you sure?” Victor had read all of Aquinas, a fact which he often used to his advantage. He held the business card up to the light and studied it with perplexity. “This is a strange country,” he said. I could only agree. The card read, Moses Smith, Entrepreneur, and there was some sort of embossed logo.
“What was he, a zombie?” I asked. “Brains! I need brains!” I made as if to grab Victor’s head and break it open.
It was a measure of how wildly everyone, including us, was dreaming, in those days, that we didn’t for a moment doubt that Moses Smith meant what he said, or that he would have hired us if we let him. We joked about how desperate the New Economy must have become if it needed people like us, and how like a horror movie it all was, really, and how, in time, it might come down to a handful of humans holed up somewhere, and a horde of zombies howling without. It wasn’t until I revisited the scene in memory, days later, that I understood that the tap-tapping we’d heard wasn’t Moses’s shoes: the man was blind.
About three months later, I came home from the Blue Study and found three strangers in our kitchen, wearing brightly colored polo shirts, long loose shorts and white sneakers, as though they’d all just participated in some fantastically clean sporting event. When I came in they fell silent, and one of them surreptitiously covered a pile of documents with his elbow.
“This is Mike, and Matt, and Ilya,” Victor said. Each nodded as his name was spoken. I poured myself a glass of water, refilled the water filtration pitcher, and looked in the refrigerator for something to eat. As soon as I left the kitchen they began to speak again, quietly at first, then with increasing enthusiasm. Victor was shouting, shto? shto? which I would have liked to think meant that he was going to the store, but actually meant only that he couldn’t hear what his friends were shouting.
I knocked on Alex’s door and found him on his bed, listening to music through headphones. “Do you know who they are?”
“All I want to know is how to make them go away.”
I lay in wait for Victor the next day. What was he doing, I demanded to know, and why had he left the kitchen a mess? Victor looked at me as though I were a friend’s dog, for which he felt no love but which he was obliged, from time to time, to walk. “Oh, sorry. We’re starting a company.”
My pride didn’t allow me to ask any more questions. I told him to be sure his company cleaned up after itself and closed the door to my room with a haughty clunk. But in fact I was desperate to know what kind of company Victor, the medieval historian, could be involved with. I tried to pry hints from him when he was at home; I caught him in the morning, when he wasn’t awake yet, and asked, “How’s the company going?”
“OK,” Victor grunted.
“What does it do, again?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Victor, does this have anything to do with Moses Smith?”
“I can’t say.”
“Did you call him? Did you give him your brain?”
“I can’t tell you,” Victor repeated. “I signed an agreement.” He revealed to me only that the company’s name was MySky, which could have meant anything from screen savers to satellites.
Misky, Alex and I called it, as if it were a Russian word. It became a part of our household vocabulary, an adjective that could mean shady or dodgy or just in poor taste. That dude is misky. Are these shoes misky? We even said it in front of Victor, but he wasn’t paying attention; the company was all he thought of now, the company and his lower back. When it became clear that we weren’t going to get a rise out of him, Alex and I went about our business in aggrieved silence, much as the people of Saigon might have gone about their business after the last American helicopter left. And the blue light shone and shone.