Mainframe Man

Eddie Ollie stands at the row of gray metal boxes with his hands in his pockets, shoulders slumped forward. Windows near the tops of the boxes reveal reels of magnetic tape, face on, so that one reel feeds tape into the other. Beneath the windows are rows of small, circular indicator lights, some red plastic, others green or yellow. Labels provide a legend to reveal the obscure operational parameters the lights once dutifully monitored. Eddie is keenly aware that these lights are dark; that the tapes are motionless. He is also keenly aware that the room is hot and stuffy, filled with the unmistakable odor of vacuum tubes and toasted Bakelite plastic. Not that his machines ever harbored such antiquities, but this room has witnessed a parade of technology, and with the environmental controls shut down, with the air still and motionless, faint reminders of the past seep in like the ineffable scent of death in a crypt.

On the verge of sixty, Eddie bears a crown of gray and black hair centered on a glistening, reflective globe; he sports bushy gray eyebrows and laugh lines that form deep furrows in his fleshy cheeks; and his thick lips warmly frame a gentle smile before they frown to convey tragic gravity. He is average height. He neither towers over his interlocutors nor is he forced to tilt his gaze up; he looks you straight in the eye. He is thick and soft, but not rotund, and his hands, which he bears proudly, are the meaty implements borne by hard-working peasant stock. When he offers a handshake, his grip envelopes, his grin emerges, and his earthy brown eyes invite trust, not confrontation.

Eddie surveys the thick, black, rubber power cables that lie on the floor at his feet like the entrails of a disemboweled beast. A grimace darkens his demeanor. He shakes his head, draws a deep breath, clamps his eyes tight, and exhales. His eyes open with glistening tears dammed up by a squint. Behind him, a row of windows bisects a wall along a busy corridor as if the room were a showcase. At one time, it was. No longer. Employees pass by, and avert their eyes when they spot Eddie.

A man much younger than Eddie watches from the corridor before reaching for the knob and opening the door. He takes a deep breath too, and clenches his jaw tight before letting his breath go with a loud, ponderous sigh. He turns the knob and opens the door. The chatter of passersby shatters the room’s silence. Hands still in his pockets, Eddie turns on his heels. The young man leans forward, right hand extended for a handshake; a smile dimples his face as he cocks his head to one side to feign obsequious sympathy.

“Mr. Ollie, it’s so good to meet you,” says the young man.

Eddie shoots a penetrating but defeated gaze at him, then at the floor, before he looks up and replies, “Really? Why?”

“Well, I’ve heard so much about you. My predecessor, Mr. Angle, spoke very well of you. Mr. Angle told me about these old machines.” The young man smiles and hesitates. “Not old when you sold them to Mr. Angle, of course. They were state of the art in their day. Well... you know what I mean.”

“Sadly, I do,” replies Eddie. “And you are?”

“Oh, right, I’m sorry. I’m Paul Sager. I’m the IT manager here at Culvert Industries. I’m replacing Mr. Angle.”

“IT?” Eddie asks.

“I’m sorry?”

“You said IT?” Eddie repeats.

“Right, yes. IT... Information Technology,” says Paul.

“And what happened to Oscar?”

“Oscar?” Paul asks.

“Oscar Angle, your esteemed predecessor.”

“I’m sorry. I never got his first name.... He’s retired, Mr. Ollie. Culvert offered him a generous buyout, so he grabbed it and ... well, he headed for greener pastures, so to speak.”

“Greener pastures?”

“Yeah, you know. He seemed ready to move on,” Paul says.

“I’m sure he was.”

“Well, anyway, as you can see, we’ve retired these workhorses, too,” Paul continues.

“I see that.”

“We’ve replaced them with personal computers. They’re just amazing, Mr. Ollie. With those little Winchester hard drives, they can store ten megabytes of data. Just phenomenal.”

“Breathtaking,” Eddie says. “So you transferred your data to personal computers?”

“Yes, we have. That was my first task at Culvert. We worked around the clock, copying the data through ninety six hundred baud modems — the quickest — running around the clock on six PCs, as they’re called. It took two weeks, but it’s done, and we’ve backed up all of the data to floppy disks. I’m sure you’ve seen them...”

Eddie nods, “Yes.”

“The entire set takes up three filing cabinets, instead of the twenty by twelve room that our tape archive required,” Paul says.

“Good for you, Paul. It sounds like you’ve got everything under control. I guess I’ll be on my way, then.”

“What about you, Mr. Ollie?” Paul asks. “Will you move into personal computers, too? I mean, now that mainframes have faded like dinosaurs? There’s so much opportunity with these new machines.”

“I don’t know,” Eddie says with a glance toward the old machines.

“I’m sure you’ll find PCs a much easier sell than those bulky mainframes.”

As Eddie turns to Paul, his eyes flash with vitriol, then resume a doleful glow of resignation. “I don’t know, Mr. Sager, maybe that’s what I’ll do, get into personal computers. Or, maybe I’ll just fade away like the dinosaurs. I’m not sure I’m ready to forge ahead in this brave new world.”

“I didn’t mean anything by that, Mr. Ollie, that crack about the dinosaurs. It’s just that, well, there’s so much excitement now, with these new machines.”

“I understand perfectly. You seem very excited,” Eddie says. A thin smile parts his lips, and he glances around the room. “It’s a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Sager. Good luck in your new job.”

“It’s a pleasure meeting you, Mr. Ollie.” Paul replies.

Eddie reclines in a lounge chair with vinyl webbing attached to a painted white steel frame, rusted where screws penetrate the steel. The webbing envelops Eddie’s rounded figure like lines on a topographic map follow geographic terrain. Eddie’s eyes are closed against the bright sun. In one of his hands, which dangles over the plastic armrest, is a sweat-beaded beer. Eddie’s forehead and upper lip are beaded with sweat, too. The droplets grow and coalesce into rivulets that run down his face with a pause at the precipice of his jaw before dropping toward the hairy forest of his chest. There, they begin a slow descent through the forest toward a small sea that fills the depression around his bellybutton. In Eddie’s other hand he grips a wadded up white undershirt. He wears only his boxer shorts.

Eddie raises the beer to his mouth and tilts it back with a shake to get the last drops, then sets the can down next to two others on the shimmering hot black slate patio. He reaches with his other hand into a bucket where three more cans, ensnared in the plastic rings that form the six-pack carrier, float in cool water. A small black beetle struggles for traction on the vertical wall of the bucket. The beetle begins to drown, defeated in its silent, solitary struggle. Eyes closed, Eddie lets his hand dangle in the water, then swirls the bumping cans in the bucket. He grabs one of the cans and frees it from the plastic snare with a twist. He lifts it, pops it open with his other hand, and takes a long swig. The beetle clings to Eddie’s hand, redeemed, before it drops to the patio and motors off with six-legged efficiency, the purposeful motion of a creature unfettered by memories or anticipatory flickers of the future.

Across the patio, Eddie’s wife, Sue, watches from behind the screen door. She arrived a moment earlier, surprised to see Eddie’s pale blue Buick in the driveway, parked where she usually berthed her space-station sized wagon; the “kid ferry,” a relic from her days as an archetypal suburban mom. For the last ten years she has returned to an empty house after an early shift at the hospital, 6:00 AM to 2:00 PM. She is a nurse. She is lithe and energetic, as tall as Eddie, with graying blond hair pulled tight into an unobtrusive ponytail. Her face is supported by high, stern, Yankee cheekbones, but is tempered by sympathetic dimples that set off her smile like quotation marks.

Sue grimaces and slides open the screen door. Eddie hears it, but does not open his eyes. Sue watches him a bit longer, then steps onto the patio, still dressed in her pressed white uniform, clutching her cap in her hand.

“Eddie?”

“Yeah, Sweetie?”

“You’re home early,” Sue says.

“Yes,” Eddie replies.

“Everything all right?”

“Sure. Everything’s fine.”

“How long have you been there?” Sue asks.

“About an hour.”

“You’re sure you’re all right?”

Eddie opens his eyes, squints, and sits up, dumping the sea of sweat from his belly button. It spills onto his boxer shorts to form a dark triangle above his crotch. He contemplates this, reflexively self-conscious, then looks around the patio, then at his wife, then leans back and closes his eyes again. She stares at him, holding her little white nurse’s cap in front of her with both hands. Her lips, brightened with scarlet lipstick, are pursed, and her eyes form wide, inquisitive circles. Then she squints too, at Eddie glowing there in the bright daylight in his boxer shorts, mopping his brow with his undershirt.

“I’m unemployed, Sue. Is that all right?” Eddie asks.

“What? Eddie … why?”

“I called on my last customer, and they informed me they’d replaced my mainframes with PCs. Sure enough, my machines were powered down, unplugged, and decommissioned. They’re scrap metal. I told my boss. He said, ‘That’s it, then. You’re done, Eddie.’”

“Just like that, you’re done?”

“Just like that. I’m done,” Eddie replied.

“Son-of-a-bitch.”

Eddie's eyes flutter open, and a smile of amusement flashes on his face like a camera shutter before his eyes close again and he resumes his impassive demeanor.

“You’ve gotta fight this, Eddie,” Sue says.

“Fight what?”

“Getting fired, unfair dismissal; you gave your entire life to that damn company. They owe you better, and you gotta demand it.”

“Demand what?” Eddie asks.

“A job.”

“I’m not in a union, Sue. They can fire me ‘at will.’” Eddie opens his eyes, sits up, rises, then walks past Sue and into the house.

“We’re all happy to hear you’ve decided to come over to the dark side, so to speak, Eddie.” Charlie Spears speaks with an unctuous, almost menacing grin plastered on his face.

“Well, progress marches on, Mr. Spears.” Eddie replies.

“March it does. And we’re gonna lead that march, Eddie. Call me Charlie.”

“You seem very confident, Charlie,” Eddie says.

“Confident? Hell yes. We’ve got the product of the century sitting right here.” Charlie slaps his hand on the side of the personal computer on his desk. The slap returns a resonant thump from the putty-colored steel box. Charlie widens his grin. “This little machine is going to revolutionize the way businesses operate — banking, accounting, trading, you name it, we’ve got a program that fits their slot, and we’ve got the patents locked up. No competition for the foreseeable future, Eddie.”

“Sounds like they’ll sell themselves, Charlie.”

“Damn straight. You just get in the door and your work is done,” Charlie says.

“Well, I’m raring to go.” Eddie says. “Just...raring to go.”

“Then go, my man, go. You’re fully trained, and fully equipped to join the information age. Go get ‘em.”

And so Eddie did. He joined the information age, or the second one, by his measure; the first came with the now forgotten mainframes. He went door-to-door, office-to-office, pitching the latest personal computers. He rode the wave; he adapted; he bent but didn’t break. He stepped into the new frontier and never looked back.

But he didn’t sell computers. His finely honed pitch was met with vacant stares and immediate dismissal. He needed customers more than the customers needed him, and they knew it. Eddie watched them recede. He accepted it, like a terminal disease. He wasn’t an amateur; he knew when he’d lost. A great salesman knows when to shut up, and Eddie had nothing left to say. He returned empty handed yet again to the office.

“I understand the product, Mr. Spears. It is a good product. Too good. People walk into a computer shop or open a mail-order catalog and buy one of these things. No salesman tells them what to do. It’s like a TV. People don’t need a salesman to come around and sell them a TV. They just go to the store, pick one out, bring it home, and plug it in. Mainframes are different. A customer requires nurturing when they’re gonna make that sort of investment. They want their hand held. They want to be reassured over and over again before they sign the papers that seal the acquisition. And after they purchase the thing, they need to upgrade and expand the basic system. All this happens over a period of time. A good salesman facilitates the process, brings the customer in, imbues the customer with confidence that they’ve made the right decision. A good salesman loses sleep so the customer doesn’t. These things, these personal computers, they’re like toasters. The customer sits down with the little instruction book and ten minutes later, they eat a perfect slice of toast. Done. Finito. No hovering salesman necessary.”

“That’s a good speech there, Eddie,” Charlie Spears says. “It is. It’s a good speech. But it’s outta the past, and beside the point.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Maybe you ain’t trying, Eddie. I’ve got twenty guys out there selling the shit outta these things. And clearing healthy commissions, I might add. They don’t give them away, Eddie. They sell the shit out of them.”

“I know what these guys do, Charlie. I’ve been out with them; I’ve watched them.”

“Did you learn anything?” Charlie asks.

“These guys aren’t salesman; they’re thugs. They confuse the customers, they mislead them, and they twist their arms. They prey on ignorance and insecurity. They sell all right, and they burn bridges. They’ll never get back in the door after they’ve snookered their mark into paying a fifty percent premium they could have kept in their pocket.”

“So you say, Eddie.”

Eddie creeps over to a window and gazes out at the parking lot surrounded by boutique cherry trees and red maples planted by a landscaper when the lot was put in. Flower petals waft off the cherry trees in shimmering waves and descend to blanket the pavement and hoods of cars. Charlie leans back in his oversized, plush leather chair and stares at Eddie. His eyes are pinched with disdain.

“What’s it gonna be, Eddie? You gonna sell?”

Eddie reaches out his fingertips to touch the cool glass and watches the evanescent flower petals tumble and spin in the breeze. Beautiful now; tomorrow they will be transformed by decomposition into sticky, yellow crud that will bind up windshield wipers. Drivers will swear at the jackass who planted those trees. Eddie’s hands drop to rest on his hips as he turns toward Charlie.

“No, Charlie. You and your boys will do fine without me. I’m gonna walk.”

Charlie pinches his mouth into a frown and squints at Eddie. Eddie turns and walks to the door, pulling it shut with a sharp mechanical click like a bullet ratcheting into the chamber.

“How ya doin’, Eddie?” Carl, a tall, rail-thin scarecrow of a man, asks.

“Fine, Carl. What’ll it be?”

“Sausage biscuit, the usual.” Carl replies.

“Cup-a’ joe with that?”

“Yup, the usual.”

“You’re nothing if not predictable, Carl.”

“My wife says that’s my finest quality,” replies Carl.

“Maybe your only quality?”

“My only quality. All right?”

“All right, Carl,” Eddie says, and reaches for the sausage biscuit from the warming rack. He drops it on a brown plastic tray and pours the coffee into a foam cup. He puts the cup on the tray and taps a button on his cash register. “That’s two-forty-nine, Carl.”

Carl has his money ready, exact change. He slides it across the stainless steel counter.

“Thank you, Carl. And you have a nice day.”

Carl picks up his tray and grins at Eddie.

“See you tomorrow, Eddie.”

“Right on, Carl,” Eddie replies as he brushes a crumb from the insignia with the color and shape of bent french-fries on his rayon uniform.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.