WORDS Leigh Alexander | PICTURES Tom Humberstone
The Unearthing is a piece of fiction written in 2014 about that year’s public excavation of Atari games that had been infamously buried since 1983, and which I, working at the time as a ‘game journalist’, did not actually attend. All events and persons here are invented except for Ian Bogost, who is extremely real.
I’m talking to a magazine editor about attending a funeral for someone neither of us know.
Robert Phelan wants me to do a magazine feature about the big desert dig, with the Atari games that have been buried since the 1980s. That E.T. game, and stuff. A landfill full of old video game cartridges is being dug up, and apparently people care, or they are making dutiful obeisances to caring, which is what people in my line of work do these days.
“Looking for someone who can really nail the cultural aspects as well as some interviews from on the scene, excavators, gamers, &tc,” His email says. “&tc.”
Then it says, “can you call me at 2PM EST today?”
I have the kind of job where no one ever finds out about the deep pillow rut that gets carved into my cheek every morning when I rouse at eleven.
Phelan Skypes me at 1:52. I consider just ignoring him because I haven’t finished my coffee, but there are probably any number of melodramatic bloggers he could give this byline to, and this paycheck to, and I want it to be me. Otherwise it’ll be Tino Gentle, if that’s even his real name, who gets the job, and I can’t stand that guy.
The thing that makes me answer Phelan’s call promptly is imagining the first line of whatever Gentle would probably write about the landfill dig: I’m standing at the precipice and I am neither here nor there, and I’ve just risen from a hotel bed with a heartache and a dick-ache or something like that. This guy would inspire a hundred fellow-Gentles to leave comments like “oh man, I too have loved.” And “brilliant piece”, that death sentence of a comment.
“This is Leigh,” I say as I shove in my headphone jack. It’s my professional voice. I say, “Hi, Bob.”
“Hi, it’s Robert,” he says over me. Commissioning editors are always like that, going, “hi” before you get “hi” out of your own mouth, and saying “yeah, yeah” before you’ve finished a sentence. They say “so” a lot, and “and, uh.” And “just kinda”. For people who are the boss of words for a job, they tend to be pretty bad at talking.
“So,” says Robert Phelan. “So, we were thinking about maybe getting somebody down to the desert for this Atari thing, which I’m not sure if you heard about, and, uh –”
“Oh, definitely, I heard about it,” I say. “It’s a pretty interesting cultural thing. Yeah.”
“Definitely,” says Phelan, “definitely. So yeah, we were thinking of just, like… because we don’t, you know, have a ‘gamer’ audience, maybe, like, eight hundred to a thousand words, where you just kind of go and, uh… just kinda see what that’s all about,” he says.
I tell him it sounds “do-able”.
“We figure on getting you down there maybe the day before, maybe talk to some folks, and then you’re there for the thing the next day,” says Phelan.
I’m thinking stuff like obviously, but I go, “Yeah, definitely, that would be ideal.” I add, “It’d be good to be present for the unearthing.”
I don’t ask Phelan how much money. He knows I don’t really care how much money, so long as I’m doing the article about this Atari dig for his prestigious and slightly out-of-touch bureaucratic mainstream magazine, with its per-word rate.
Bob Phelan won’t make my travel arrangements. It’s always Elena. No matter what man is signing my paychecks it’s always one of these finance women to whom I have to send all the emails asking about the paychecks, the reimbursements, the flights. The Roxannes, the Christies, the Elenas. They always have horrible email style, terse grammar. It always takes a few more rounds of correspondence than it should. The worst person you could possibly put in charge of a writer’s money is someone who sucks at writing emails.
Of course, I wonder what Elena thinks of me: A full-grown adult she has to book airfare and a cab and a hotel for. Who really needs someone to speak for them and transact for them this way except a child? For all I know that’s why the billy-club linebreaks, the unwieldy syntax, the clipped sign-off. I’m a baby and she’s a nanny.
I land at the airport with a desert in my mouth, fearing that I stink of whiskey. There is a man holding a sign with my name on it, and in a few minutes I’m in the back of a town car, watching nondescript southwestern suburbia whip past. At times like this I like to run phrases around the inside of my mind: I’m on site and I’m traveling for work and I’m on the scene and I’m doing up-close journalism.
My iPhone decides it has service, rattles to life in my hand, an aging model wreathed in rubber safety bumpers. It buzzes to let me know that at some time between my takeoff in New York and now, Bob Phelan has left me a voicemail. I don’t listen to it. I won’t listen to it. So, just kinda checking in to make sure you got on site okay, and uh, just kinda figuring out what your timeline is.
Flat land shimmers past to either side of me. I try to look much more hot and tired and put-upon than I am so that the driver won’t try to talk to me. The hotel is suddenly present, a flat complex of adobe-colored guest houses with a geometric swimming pool slapped in. Didn’t bring a swimsuit.
The check-in lobby seems like a bad use of space, bad design. Needless plain of beige square tiles, thinly-populated island of tourism pamphlets, and a desk way, way at the back. Immediately I notice there are video game journalists hanging around it, like, people who write only about video games for a job.
Here are some ways you can spot a game journalist: Out of fashion, out of shape. I don’t really mean physically — I mean you distinctly realize you are looking at people who definitely don’t fit into the world easy. There is often a hesitant, performative body language. You’ll be struck by the contrast between the apparent age of the person’s face, or their thinning hair, and the fact they’re wearing sloppy, brightly-colored sneakers. Someone always is wearing a tight plaid shirt. Someone is always wearing a fucking Zelda t-shirt. The longer I do this kind of thing the more unsettling I find it, the huge gulf between a game person’s apparent age and the child-like way in which they carry themselves.
The growling of my suitcase’s wheels across the tile catches their attention: A gangly white dude with dreadlocks and his utterly nondescript companion: Middling height, forgettable face, more beard rash than beard, and a backpack with cartoon pins all over it. They stare at me and it doesn’t look like a friendly expression, but I don’t really know what it does look like.
Can’t tell if I’ve met these guys before or they just all blend together, these Bens, these Jeffs and Petes. Can’t tell if they know who I am or not. Can’t tell if they hate me or not. One of them is a woman who is doing a good job of playing along: short pink hair, owlish glasses, demure look. I can already tell I won’t see this woman anywhere around this trip without these geeks hovering possessively around her. She gives me a milky half-smile that makes me resent her instantly.
While I’m in the elevator I already realize I feel tense. I didn’t know those guys, but somewhere here is probably some guys I do vaguely know, and I’m probably going to have to have dinner and drinks with all of them. I taste a taut dread.
In my hotel room, which is sparse and obligatory as a TV stage, I turn up the A/C, strip down to panties and a t-shirt, and wait to get very cold before climbing among the sheets with my laptop. As soon as I get online I go look if Ian is on Gchat. It’s just a thing I do whenever anything feels dull and awful.
Ian is a game design teacher and a professional skeptic. People call him a “curmudgeon”, but they don’t really understand how much love, how much actual faith, that kind of skepticism takes. On a pretty regular basis one of us will IM the other something like “help” or “fuck” or “people are terrible”.
Only when you fully believe in how wonderful something is supposed to be does every little daily indignity start to feel like some claw of malaise. At least, that’s how I explain Ian to other people.
I’m not sure if the same is true for me. I’m not sure if it’s so super wonderful I’ve left home and come all this way to watch some nostalgia fetishists digging up novelty game garbage from the year I was born.
“Help,” I type to Ian. “There are game journalists here.”
“Everything is terrible,” he replies.
“Are you doing the, uhm,” he types, “the thing, the Atari thing.”
I go, “ya”.
Ian has been quietly infuriated by The Atari Thing for the past few weeks. The way the “thousands of unsold E.T. games buried in the desert” thing has been billed by every publication as an “urban legend” (it’s been verified many times over, he’s pointed out). The way it’s not just the E.T. game, but several other pallets of unmovable product.
Everyone seems to have forgotten about that part and made this a story about E.T., the unbelievably bad film tie-in that cost so much to make and was so terrible that history would name it the single great harbinger of the games market crash of 1982 (the economic factors were incredibly complicated and certainly not influenced by one single game, Ian has pointed out).
Ian also says the junked cartridges were probably ironed beyond recognition by a steamroller, and probably also they poured concrete over them. There is probably nothing to dig up. And even then, what’s the point. They gawk and take pictures. They invent and then devour yet another “cultural event”, these fans of a medium where culture goes to die.
“This is bad,” Ian types. It’s one of his truisms.
In another tab I’m watching a muted YouTube Let’s Play of the infamous E.T. game. The titular alien, a drain trap of pixels stuttering around a green screen, is trying to assemble pieces of a phone that will get him home. The phone and the home are the only parts remotely related to the premise of the 1982 movie, I think. E.T. ticks and clicks across the screen, following a trail of pale blips that are supposedly candies, occasionally ducking into unremarkable bushes, passing from one identical screen to the next.
It really is unspeakably awful, impenetrable nonsense. To call it surreal insults surrealism, I think, and then I write it down: To call it surreal insults surrealism. Ugh.
“Why the fuck am I writing about this,” I start to tweet, and I delete the tweet. My feed is full of writers who are here, writers who say they are “stoked”, who are making plans to go to a “hilarious” margarita bar some permachild from some website or another has found. This place is literally a desert, I quickly realize, idly Google Mapsing, watching blurry strip malls in Street View splay out alongside parched highways.
“I need a fucking real job,” I type to Ian, but he’s offline already.
My room is hot in a way that the dry chill of the A/C can’t seem to salve. I can almost taste freon, I imagine; I imagine my skin cracking. I imagine desiccating here, and I switch it off. I got a brick of Jack Daniels in JFK Airport, and there is still enough left.
Three hours fall into a hole in front of Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, Spotify, Wikipedia, Gmail, as I drink in my underwear, and the stifling sunlight turns blood red and spills across my room. I feel inexplicably irritable, like I’ll have to defend this time to some invisible interrogator.
There is an email from R. Phelan that says “can u call me plz” and it makes me close Gmail. I can’t shut off the din outside: voices and footsteps in the hall. People are hanging out. They are laughing much too loud, singing tunelessly. They sound like they don’t know how to behave.
At one point I open my door on its chain for a minute and squint down the hallway. I think I spot the pink-haired girl and her increasing posse, adult men in flip flops and wacky ballcaps.
In my feed is a Tweet that says: “I’ve arrived in Alamagordo. Smells of cottonwood and burning books and the beautiful women of La Luz.” It’s fucking Tino Gentle. He read about Alamagordo on Wikipedia, the creepy little shit.
No matter how I neck the bottle I can’t shut it all off. It must be about 6:00 PM when I fall asleep; the last thing I remember is a violet and halogen stain to the light outside my window and an inexplicable buzzing from somewhere in the motel room.
It’s dark when I wake up. Nothing is buzzing and I am maddeningly thirsty, like, wedge my head into the bathroom sink and drink metallic-tasting water from a tiny faucet until I’m nauseated-thirsty. After that I am wide awake and cold, and my phone is dead, and the clock radio in the room is dark, even though I could have sworn it was working before.
I put on the same clothes as earlier and I take the little elevator down to the lobby to look for the bar, seeing no one on the way. It’s quiet, but the warm, wan light spilling through an archway says the bar is open. There is nobody there, either, and I briefly worry that this is one of those places where they close the bars at 10 and there’ll be nothing to fucking do all night, but it turns out this one is still open.
I buy a whiskey and diet. “You’re not here for the… video game thing, are you?” The bartender asks, and he looks at me a little skeptically. I used to be annoyed that no one ever read me as a video game person, like why shouldn’t I be, what are you saying about my life, but I haven’t felt that way in a long time.
I tell him yeah, and that I’m just a journalist, and my eyes must be broadcasting how much I really hope he doesn’t try to talk to me, because he doesn’t. I sit and read my phone, thumbing along the glass like I’m doing a rosary.
“Leigh Alexander,” someone suddenly says, an abrupt greeting that makes me stiffen a little bit.
A tall man in a short-sleeved plaid dress shirt is striding toward me — Doug Verne, a guy who has been doing “web shows” and “live casts” for as long as I’ve been writing. He is always live from the floor. I usually see him hanging in violet-lit banquettes with whichever corporate spokesperson he last pointed a microphone at. I think when I was younger I’d have been glad to have been acknowledged by this type of figurehead, but these days I know he’s just talking to me because I have a lot of Twitter followers, or because it’s the thing to do and he is from Los Angeles.
“Hi,” I say, and I actually get up from the barstool to perform the awkward hug. He is wearing Acqua di Gio and I know that’s what it is because of this one male model I used to write papers for back in college. What a dick that guy was.
“So this is pretty wild, huh,” says Verne. He has volumized his hair so that it doesn’t look like it’s thinning. His sunbed tan only seems to emphasize the pale wrinkles around his eyes, and something about their half-liddedness makes it look like he drinks a lot, or has had Botox, or maybe both at once.
“Yeah, this is pretty wild,” he speaks again before I can answer. “We’ll be down at the unearthing first thing tomorrow getting some interviews with the, the guys, the workers and stuff.”
“Yeah,” I find myself saying. “It’s pretty wild.”
“Totally,” he says, and his arm is still kind of lingering on me. It’s not sexual aggression, it’s just entitlement, fake intimacy. People from L.A. expect to be able to touch you wherever they feel like, like way down low on the small of your back.
“So, you played the Atari? I mean, the E.T.? Have you checked this one out? You gonna try to score a copy from the landfill?”
I squint into his wrinkles and wonder briefly if it’s cocaine he’s on and if I can have any, but it seems it’s just his personality.
“I had an Atari when I was little, but the only game I remember is Juggles’ House. My dad said I was always super into playing Juggles’ House,” I shrug, and I try to smile.
“Cool, cool,” says Verne, automatically. “Yeah, it should be pretty crazy. There are a lot of people here. I’m gonna be down getting a lot of interviews. Have you heard of ‘Gamercyde’?”
“Cool,” I say.
“I’ve got a call in a little while with some guys from Twitch, to set up a live cast, with Gamercyde and those guys,” Verne continues. Some guys. Those guys. All these guys.
I hear more voices. More of those guys are coming into the lobby, more plaid shirts, ringer tees with references to Borderlands or BioShock or Portal or something on them. They eye me and Verne a little bit balefully as they pile into a booth and start making jokes about the hotel menu. They probably don’t like either of us.
Someone is taking out a 3DS, fixing a goggled gaze almost sweetly on its twin rectangles of light, twin windows into Nintendo childhood. It’s like they can’t even not do video games for five fucking minutes, I find myself thinking. I’m in a bad mood. I must be on my period.
“Anything else for you guys,” the bartender asks Verne and me. I order another whiskey diet even though I drank the first one too quickly, expecting that Verne will offer to pay, with all of his guys at Twitch and Microsoft or whatever the fuck else he is talking about that I’ve stopped listening to.
He doesn’t offer to pay. I charge it to my room and I take my glass outside without asking.
The front walkway of the motel’s main building has a brittle old hood, and I’m standing underneath it in my shitty ballet flats and sweatpants and feeling like I am not, after all, obviously very much better than anyone else. I’ve had enough to drink today that my consciousness starts to drift, a little, into faery space. In there, I think about things like good enough and better than, and how video games grabbed hold of our little hearts when we were children.
I used to think about this stuff a lot, actually. I wanted to do writing about it, until I realized games writing was a lot of trend-chasing and putting numbers on things and writing about, I don’t know, your genitals or your heart or something, like Tino fucking Gentle.
I had forgotten about Juggles’ House. My dad taught me to play games, in the house that his freelance writing bought us. My throat feels tight, and the clear pinpoints of stars swim unexpectedly in front of me.
I need a fucking real job, I hear myself whisper to myself.
“Hey,” someone says.
It’s the girl with the pink hair and big glasses, standing a few feet away, smoking a cigarette. My mouth auto-fires into something that feels like it might be a smile. I have, I realize, a hunted-animal type of reflex to smile at people who greet me. Even though she’s probably the last person that I want to see right now. She looks like a fucking Final Fantasy character, probably on purpose.
“Hey,” I say. “Would you mind if I had one of your cigarettes?” I hate when people ask for an extra cigarette. Nobody who is addicted to something ever exactly has extra.
She says sure and she gives me one and she lights it, too, which surprises me a little. I’d pictured her getting her cigarette lit by one of her geek friends in the trousers that don’t quite fit. With the Pikachu badge or the decade-old Total Annhilation shirt. Actually, I hadn’t really pictured her smoking at all.
There is an awkward silence. She probably has no idea who I am, or she hates me. I can’t really tell which. Hates me, probably. All those guys inside probably told her that I’m a real bitch whenever they see me anywhere. Maybe she’s seen I’m a bitch on Twitter. Maybe she’s friends with Tino Gentle. Maybe he’s even fucked her. I totally bet he has. She reminds me of a glass of strawberry milk.
“I need a real job,” I tell her for want of something to say, and I laugh.
“Aw, why?” She answers, and I find her tone tough to read. She finds me confrontational, maybe. She doesn’t understand why this isn’t the trip of a lifetime for me. Maybe it’s her first press trip.
“I think this is kind of cool,” she adds, and I feel a part of me harden toward her. You would, I think.
“Yeah, I guess,” I say. “I’ve never been to New Mexico before. I mean, I’ve definitely never been to a landfill.”
“Me either,” she says, quickly. She seems nervous. I wonder if she seems nervous all the time, if that’s just her demeanor. “I mean,” she says, quickly, “the landfill, like, the — this landfill — I walked to it earlier. It’s close. You can walk to it.”
“What does it look like,” I ask her.
“Like, nothing,” she says. Her eyes look extra-large under her glasses, which reflect little spots of light from parking lamps, starlight-smattered. “It’s hard to believe there’s so much history under there.”
“Right,” I say, starting to plan what I’ll tell Ian about her.
“Do you wanna walk there?” She asks me. “Like, if you’re not doing anything.”
“Now?” I experience an urge to retreat, my mind telescoping backward, searchlighting around my tiny hotel room to see if there is anything, absolutely anything else I’d rather do. There is only a laptop and a backpack and a bottle of bourbon.
“Yeah,” I tell her. “Let me just get something from my room.”
Her name is Audrey, and I’m walking a short distance behind her along a strip edging the highway in the dark. The silence is loud: Whiskey sloshing in my bottle, the thick rubber soles of her creepers gnawing the gravel, shot through with glass bits and sand. There is an omnipresent hum, as if the noise of my motel room has gotten louder. I can’t tell if it’s insects, electricity, or the roar of some distant transformer.
Or my head. I realize I must be drunk, walking down a desert highway to a landfill with this girl. I can’t remember who she said she works for. She probably hates me. Maybe she wants to beat you up, my subconscious slurs belligerently.
I size her up. She’s wearing black tights and one of those space print tube skirts that were big in 2009. I can’t tell whether I hate her for this or am just compelled by the movement of her legs. I can take you, I think, you tiny-butt. Audrey. Audrey.
She glances over her shoulder, cheek limned in highway-halo, and she smiles at me. I am a uniquely horrible person, I think, just fucking horrible. I would hate me too, if I were her.
“Do you want some,” I say, holding the bourbon bottle by the neck out at her. I’m sort of surprised when she stops walking and nods, and all the sounds of our shoes in desert buckshot suddenly stop, and it’s nothing but that ever-present buzz and the sound of her handling the bottle, unscrewing the cap, putting the glass mouth to her mouth, a little ripple of amber light winging across her cheek.
“Thanks,” she says, exquisitely hoarse. “We’re almost there.”
We pass a tire store, a chain link fence around nothing. It’s post-apocalyptic, but sort of beautiful, too, glass dust and incandescence at war with a certain purity of the sky. I never see stars like this, powdering the deep blue. My eyes are adjusting to the darkness, and I start to notice unfamiliar plants, dry, curled little spiders, casting weird shadows on the moonscape.
“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.