“This totally looks like a video game,” Audrey says, in what sounds like a shy fashion.
“I was trying not to say that.”
“Why,” she says, laughing. It’s the second time she’s said why to something I don’t feel like explaining, that should be obvious, and I’ve only been hanging out with her for like half an hour.
“It just sort of bugs me, when I do things like this, how everything has to be about video games,” I say. My own voice sounds unnatural, over-casual, like I’m worried about how much older I probably am than Audrey. “Like we don’t have a cultural vocabulary bigger than stupid cake memes and waiting on the next Zelda. Like we don’t have references outside of ourselves.”
I said “we”, which is weird.
“Yeah,” says Audrey diffidently. “I read that thing you wrote about why you stopped writing about games.”
Just like that, she is changing the terms of engagement. She’s read my work. She’s read my old work. God, what did I write in that thing. She definitely hates me. I pass her the bottle again, we start walking again. I talk to the downy nape of her neck.
“I mean, it was just getting frustrating for me, personally, at that point. It’s not that I think people aren’t doing any great games writing. It’s not like I think, like, everyone sucks, or you –” fuck fuck who does she work for again fuck fuck — “I just felt like, for me, I wanted to grow up. Like, not… I don’t mean, like…”
“No, I get it,” she says. Maybe I’m underestimating her by thinking of her as shy. Maybe she’s just deft, veiled. Can’t make out her tone, her feelings. “It made total sense.”
“So what games do you like,” I ask her. I feel desperate.
She stops walking again and turns to face me. At some point she must have taken her glasses off; I notice her cheekbones are flecked with mascara displaced by the heat. “Like,” she says, breaking into a thin smile, “all of them.”
“We’re here,” she adds, and sidles between two white pylons toward where this bare plain of dirt is being swallowed up into the darkness, uneven shapes blacker than the shadows, like a boss fight lying in wait.
I really thought it would be bigger, more remarkable. This really just looks like a construction site, earth that has been run over, around and through with machines again and again. The great skeleton of a crane is hulking yards away from us. Audrey says it’s probably a broken crane, since the ones they’ll need for tomorrow will be bigger, will have teeth.
Then she paces ahead of me and climbs up into the cab of the crane, like a weirdo. I think about telling her I am 32 years old and I’m not going to climb on a fucking crane, but she probably already hates me enough, so I climb up after her. There is enough room inside the warm, dusty glass bubble for both of us, with her tiny butt. She puts her creepers up on the console and lights a cigarette. She smells like clean sweat. I wonder again if fucking Tino Gentle has slept with her.
“I just think this is stupid,” I find myself telling her. I feel like I’m in a confessional. “My friend Ian says there probably isn’t even anything here. It’s just a publicity stunt to masturbate ‘gamer nostalgia’.”
“What does your friend Ian do,” asks Audrey. Without my asking she passes me the cigarette. When I put it between my lips I notice she has already wet the filter a little bit.
“He’s a professor,” I tell her. “And he makes games. He made an Atari game once, even.”
“Like, back in the day?”
“Like a couple of years ago. He wrote a whole book about how programming for Atari was like zen. And he made these four… like, visual poems, about seasons, on an Atari cartridge.” Inexplicably I feel slightly out of control of my emotions. “He sold it physically, like, a few of them. He cut all the velvet and framed the inlay himself.”
“It sounds like he really loves Atari,” says Audrey, blowing this thick curl of dusty blue smoke that doesn’t dissipate, just rises with slow weight to the roof of the crane cab.
“He really loves games,” I find myself saying. “But he hates them, too.”
“Like you,” says Audrey, with a pale laugh. She passes me her damp cigarette again. I am trying not to think about her spit, and so I just nod and smile.
“You know,” she says, and takes a deep breath, “I really like your work. I’ve always really liked your work.”
“Like, until I read your work, I just thought of games, as, like, products to consume,” she keeps going. I think partially this is what she thinks I want to hear, but I can’t manage to interrupt her. Her cigarette is burning out in my hand.
“When you wrote about things like the desire to perform… or to see yourself reflected, or not… or like, wanting to do a growth arc, or to have a sense of control over your environment, like, I really related to that stuff,” she says, her gaze falling on my half-empty bourbon bottle pinned between her knees, glass neck jutting. “Like, my parents put all this pressure on me when I was a kid, and, like I didn’t get much of a childhood, and, like… I mean, I’m rambling, but reading your writing and whatever, and how you felt kind of the same, is what made me want to do this.”
“I’m sorry,” I manage to laugh. But she isn’t laughing.
“Thanks,” I say instead. “Thank you.”
“I think the dig is cool,” she says, shrugging one shoulder at me. “Like, you can bury something as a product, and more than thirty years later, dig it up as a feeling.”
“Yeah,” I say. I can hear that electric hum all around me, closing in. “I’m sorry, but who are you writing this for again?”
“Rolling Stone,” she says. She has mastered it: The wince you give another writer when your byline is going to be a bit better than theirs. The nod I am supposed to do after, nonplussed, I have not mastered, so much.
“The website, or, like, the magazine?”
“Probably both, in some form.”
“That’s good,” I decide on saying. “Like, at least the cool new people are getting bylines like that, and not, like, Tino Gentle.”
“I hate that guy,” she laughs, finally. I haven’t really heard her laugh like that yet, bourbon-laced and loose, her chin tipping up a little.
“I thought, like, he must have tried to sleep with you, if you come to these things a lot.” I’m drunk. I don’t care. “Because you’re, like, super pretty.”
“No, no,” she shakes her head vigorously. “I’m. I mean, like, I don’t… I don’t actually like guys.”
“Sometimes I don’t either,” I say, and this is probably funnier than it ought to be for both of us.
“I don’t want to be weird,” Audrey says, “but–”
“No, me either, I just want to, like, write good–”
“But could I, like, do you want to, could I kiss you?”
Melted starlight and fogged glass.
I think it’s close to 4 AM when we are in her bed, with the A/C turned up, emulating the E.T. game on my laptop. I keep having the thought we’re too drunk to fuck anymore but the reality is that this is kind of better than sex, my ankle hooked around her ankle, heads together around the screen.
“This is such shit,” she says, beaming.
“Why the fuck are there M&Ms,” I say. “Is this some kind of shitty branding thing?”
“E.T. loves M&Ms,” says Audrey. “You know that part where he’s playing with little Drew Barrymore and he has too many. I can’t remember little Drew Barrymore’s name in the movie.”
Gertie. It was Gertie. I was one year old when this game came out. Audrey is four years younger than me.
“I want M&Ms,” she says. “I want to find a flower and part of a phone.”
My phone is dead, and so is the clock radio. I have no idea what time it is or whether I have any emails. I never called my editor. We finished the bourbon and got beers from a weird vending fridge in the motel lobby. We have to get up early. It might already be early. I feel incredible pleasure, incredible calm, and a slow-growing headache.
“We’re going to be so fucked,” I tell Audrey.
“I know,” she says.
She asks me what I remember about the Turbo Grafx-16 and I am up til the pale light telling her everything. Everything about me.
When the sun comes up we find ourselves in a dustcloud, claws of machinery straddling the earth.
We were supposed to be there by 8:00 in the morning, but when Audrey and I came at 9:00, nothing had started yet. My phone doesn’t get any service out here, but I use it to take a picture of a guy standing at the lip of the landfill, on top of “history”, playing his 3DS intently.
There is a documentarian interviewing people. I stay out of the way, but he seems eager to get a lot of interview footage of Audrey. Most of the time she and I don’t stand too close to each other, but we keep looking at one another through the heat shimmer. I can’t hear what he’s asking her, but he has such nervous body language. I make out his stammering the words urban legend.
Everyone cheers when the diggers first break ground. The sound of matter rattling through the teeth of the crane is fascinating, tactile, like the tide going out. The smell of garbage sets in slowly, lurking under pungent clay, and a cloud of dust soon rises that makes it hard to see the outline of the machine. It’s humming. I’m triangulated.
It soon sets in we will be standing here for a while. Sometimes people wander off in small groups to hunt for water. Several yards away Doug Verne is doing one of his live casts. There’s a camera crew. He cuts a sort of pathetic figure, not classically handsome or fit enough for real TV, but the barrier for what constitutes charm in our field is so low.
“The barrier for what constitutes charm in our field is so low,” I whisper to Audrey, pointing my chin at Verne subtly. She doesn’t hear me the first time, and when I say it again, she says I’m mean. The look on her face is nakedly disappointed.
“I mean, I was just –”
“Hi Leigh,” someone says. Tino fucking Gentle is standing there.
He’s wearing a vest in the middle of the desert, probably because he thinks he looks like a classic gentleman about to do fisticuffs or something. I turn my little rupture of discomfited laughter into a snort, into a cough. Just the dust.
In my peripheral vision, drifting like smoke and dust, Audrey seems to be walking elsewhere, moving away from me, out of view.
“They should get to the cartridge layer soon,” Gentle says, hands in his pockets, staring mutely out over the site. Frowning. I hate his brick-shaped face. I hate his small eyes and his square glasses. I hate his look of perpetual fatigue and his limp hair.
“You aren’t excited?” I say. “It seems like the kind of thing you could do some really glorious prose about, like, that’s your thing. I really like your work.”
“Thank you,” he says, without the slightest inclination to reciprocate, not even doing his part of the lie for pleasantry. “Actually, I rather regret I came. I was expecting romance, but this is all a bit mercenary. Just some regular trash, really, no real story to speak of.”
“I think it’s cool,” I say. I don’t know if I’m talking so that Audrey will hear me or because I mean it. I don’t know anymore. “Our industry has completely changed since the time when we buried these things. Their meaning has changed, even though they’ve been underground all the while.”
It smells of hot garbage and grinding machinery. My head throbs every time I move. I will never feel clean again. I say to him, “I think if you can’t make a story about this, then you can’t find beauty in anything.”
“Nostalgia is just self-justification for the arrested,” he says.
I hate him. I hate him. I hate him.
“Well, there are a lot of ways to be grown-up besides just making shit up about drinking and sex,” I tell Tino fucking Gentle, my chest taut, my body rattled inside by the humming of machines. The head of the crane is shuddering up, lolling, dropping, slavering, down again.
“I don’t know who you think you are,” he says, dryly, like beginning something. Can I hit him, can I push him over the precipice, into –
“That’s it,” a voice calls. “It’s there,” says another. That’s not it, and wait a minute, and then it is, the edge of a silver package, dusty and lightly dented. You can still see ATARI emblazoned across its face, signal red. Ian was wrong.
“Holy shit,” Doug Verne is saying into his camera, “Holy shit, it was all true. It’s all been true.”
No one ever thought it wasn’t true, I’m thinking.
I can no longer see Audrey, or Tino Gentle. Everyone is gathering a distance away from me to touch, to open, to pick, wearing huge gloves, through the first promising clusters of garbage. I don’t go closer. There is dust stinging my eyes and I can feel tears cutting trails down my cheeks.
I have to call my editor.