Free to Read: "Into the Head, Into the Heart"

"Into the Head, Into the Heart" originally appeared in Shoreline of Infinity #3. It was one of the stories I used as part of my 2018 Clarion West application.

 


Into the Head, Into the Heart

What’s the most interesting thing that’s ever happened at Ray’s? Good question.

You even brought an old tape recorder. Man, I haven't seen one of these in 40 years. Is this the stop bu...

     Sorry. I won’t touch it again. Well, if I’m going to answer your question, you need to know a little bit about this place, and about the kind of people who drink here.

My name's Mark. I started coming to Ray's about 45 years ago. This place was called ‘The Secret' then, a reference to how the bar started as a basement speakeasy. So that makes Ray's, what, 135-ish years old? 

Anyway, back in my day, it wasn't an old men's bar. You'll see it, too, when you're old enough. Bars are born as young men's bars. They turn into middle-aged men's bars before finally becoming old men's bars. A new generation picks up the torch, or the bar dies. Circle of life.

On my first visit, I met Ray, the owner. He was in his early 50s and had been a bartender the entirety of his adult life. Andy, his son, was my age, 23. He had just graduated from college and decided to work for his dad. Being a bartender is in his blood, and he's done well by it.  

     It was about the time I started coming that Ray was getting fed up with how people would drink in silence, their attention glued to smartphones or tablets. Ray would go entire nights and say no more than ten words to his customers. How can a bartender tend his bar if all he gets to do is pour drinks?

     Ray did what he thought was right, and drew a line in the sand. Read that sign up there: If it was made after 1989, keep it outside. The man carved it by hand from a slab of reclaimed oak. Why 1989? That’s the year Andy was born. Also, I guess it sorta rhymes.

At first, Ray caught a lot of hell for it. Some asshole actually brought in one of the first cell phones, a massive brick of a thing, just to piss off Ray. Screamed into it all night. The funny thing was, something I didn't know at the time, was that those phones didn't work even then. Guy was talking to himself! 

Ray just shrugged it off, and most people enjoyed the change. Ray bought some old arcade cabinets and pinball machines. Yep, those are them back there, the same ones. Andy even keeps a jar of pre-1990 quarters for customers who want to play. You wouldn't believe how few people carry real money these days. I bet no one under fifteen has ever even seen a quarter. 

When Ray died, Andy changed the bar's name to honor his dad. He kept Ray's rule. No cell phones became no Glass; no Glass became no ContactVue, and so on and so on. Don't get me wrong; I've used all that stuff. Gotta respect the wishes of the dead, though. Every time I come in, I check my gear at the door with Andy's daughter, Rita. 

     But most people like it, I think. Ray’s gives them something new to try, even if new is simply taking an hour or two away from modern life.

Well, I think I've given Ray's a good introduction, one that Ray'd approve of. Back to your question. Hmm, I don't think that's a hard one at all. It happened six months ago when Nous showed up.

     It all started on a slow Tuesday. I had noticed thinner crowds over the previous few months. The novelty of the place had worn off over the years, I guess.  

Andy was trying to keep up his good humor that night, but I could tell that something was weighing on him. "What's up, buddy?" I asked him as I finished off my first beer of the night.

     Andy set down the glass he was polishing. “Business is lousy,” he said, avoiding my gaze. “Been that way for over a year. I’ve burned through my savings.”

     “Any ideas?”

     “Well,” he said, pouring me a fresh lager. “Possible investor came by last week. Young guy. Still had acne. He likes the place, how it’s not really nostalgic, just simple.” He smirked. “I took it as a compliment. There’s a catch, though.”

     I waited for him to speak.

     “I’d have to break dad’s rule.”

"Now, hold on, Mark," Andy said before I could start in on him. "He said it would be real...how did he put it...unobtrusive. Some sort of game, apparently. He can make it look like one of our old arcade cabinets. Besides, there's space between Tempest and Eight Ball Deluxe." He looked up at the sign over the bar as if his father was glaring down from it. 

Andy was justifying an awful decision, but who was I to argue? I didn't want Ray's to shut down. That would break Andy's heart, and if this kid could deliver something that wouldn't bother old timers like me, whatever. 

     In fact, I didn’t even notice Nous when they delivered it the following Sunday. I had a lot on my mind that night. My best friend, Henry, was going through a rough time. For the record, Henry’s not his real name. The guy deserves some privacy, especially after what Nous put him through. 

     Henry and I first met in the early twenties when our company decided to combine offices. We did developmental testing for semi-autonomous drones. Not the big military ones, little ones used for home delivery.

Ray's was our hangout after work, a place to wind down. Eventually, we both met girls and married, had our own kids. Our wives were friends, and our children played with each other. For a couple of decades, we all had a good time. 

     About a year ago Henry’s wife, let’s call her Ann, was diagnosed - breast cancer. It was too far along to do anything for her.  

After the funeral, Henry became a shut-in. Before coming to Ray's that night I had been at his house for half an hour, begging him to visit the bar with me, that it would help him relax. Henry didn't budge. 

So, no, Nous didn't stand out at all the day it arrived. Andy had to point it out to me. It was ugly. The cabinet was mat black, no gloss, no art like you see with old arcade games. The only design was its name printed above the screen in white block lettering. On both sides of the single joystick were three cherry red buttons. I figured it was designed for both right and left-handed players.

     “So that’s it?” I asked.

     “Yep,” Andy said, sighing. “All I had to do was sign for it. They plugged it in. That’s it.”

     “Is it even on?” I asked because the screen was blank.

     “Yeah. Starts up when you put a quarter in it.”

     “How is it?”

     Andy handed me a quarter from his jar. “Give it a try. I think you’ll like it.”

     I took the last swig of my beer, and feeling just a little tipsy, walked over to the machine. The mechanism made the familiar clink when I fed it Andy’s quarter.

     “Grab the stick,” Andy said before I had the chance to ask why nothing was happening.

‘Calibrating' appeared on the CRT monitor the moment I touched the joystick. ‘Do not let go of controller or experience will end.'

Experience, I thought. What pretentious crap. I remember when games were...

     And that’s when it happened. What popped up was the last thing I could have ever expected: ‘1994 Nintendo’ and then the title screen. It was Donkey Kong Country; a game I had gotten for Christmas as a five-year-old. How in the hell did it know?

     The music was crystal clear, like listening through headphones. I forgot all about Ray’s, Henry, and my own life. It wasn’t that I felt like a kid again.

     I was a kid again.

     The game suddenly ended when I laughed. Somehow Nous knew that it had done its job.

Still a little dazed, I returned to my stool. "How about that?" I whispered. 

     “How about what?” Andy served me another lager.

     “Didn’t you see it? Didn’t you hear it? Donkey Kong!”

     Andy shook his head. “No, I didn’t.”

That was the thing. He hadn't. I couldn't believe him until I saw, or didn't see it, for myself. Unless you were the person playing, Nous looked broken. It was like every player was practicing miming. 

Each experience was different. Like me, sometimes it was a video game. Other people revisited old vacation spots or watched favorite episodes of television shows. Andy viewed a memory of himself working with his dad. No matter what, though, the experience lasted no more than twenty or twenty-five minutes. 

Word got around fast. Over the course of a week, I watched no fewer than 200 people stand in front of Nous, goofy smiles on their faces as if they had just fallen in love. A few people did try it a second time, but the line was usually so long that the overeager ended up just going home. Andy, of course, made a killing off drinks. By the end of the week, he seemed back to his old self. 

Now here's where the story gets ‘interesting' if that's what you want to call it. 

It was after the initial excitement about Nous died down that I finally convinced Henry to come back to the bar. He had lost weight, making him look a hell of a lot older than 68. Andy, being the good guy he is, welcomed him back with a free pint. 

     For an hour or so the three of us caught up. We let Henry talk about Ann as much as he wanted. He didn’t cry, though. Henry’s a strong guy, or at least so we thought.

"Business is good," Henry said after a while, finally taking a look around the bar. There were plenty of younger faces enjoying each other's company. It was one of those nights when you wished Ray was still alive to see it.

"Thank that baby back there," Andy said, pointing to Nous. Surprisingly, it was free. 

     “A new game.” Andy slapped a quarter on the bar. “Give it a try, Henry. It’s on the house.”

     “Okay.” Henry went over to the machine.

     Andy and I made the mistake of not telling Henry that Nous was more than an old arcade cabinet. Even if he had known, I doubt that would have changed what happened next.

As Henry began to play, I turned my attention back to Andy. Twenty or thirty minutes must have gone by before I noticed that the stool next to mine was still vacant. I turned around. Henry hadn't finished playing. Besides his right hand moving the joystick ever so slightly, his body was stone.

His face...that expression. It was something between pure desire and pure devastation. I didn't know the human face could look like that. 

     I stood to get his attention when Andy grabbed my arm.

"Don't," Andy whispered. His voice was shaking. "When they put Nous in here, they said there's only one rule: the user has to choose to end the experience. If we ended it for him, it could..." He didn't have to finish his sentence. 

"Jesus Christ, Andy." I was trying to keep my voice down. "It's hurting him." 

"We can't do anything. We just have to wait." I was pissed at Andy, but I didn't say anything else to him. What good would it have done? 

     We waited. Thirty minutes became forty, forty minutes one hour. The patrons who had come to play Nous went home frustrated. A few people asked if ‘that man’ was all right. I drank water the rest of the night. Whatever was going to happen when Henry stopped playing, I needed to be stone cold sober.

     Finally, it was only the three of us. Henry’s face had relaxed somewhat, but he had begun to sweat. His legs were shaking, too. It looked as if he had just run a marathon.

     It ended just after one in the morning. Henry whispered his dead wife’s name before collapsing like a puppet with its strings cut. Thankfully, Andy had already called an ambulance. As the EMTs took Henry away, all I knew was that he was still breathing.

The next day Henry called me from the hospital. He sounded all right, but the doctors wanted to keep him a few days for observation. I didn't ask what he had seen. Honestly, I didn't want to know. 

Right away I came down here to tell Andy, but when I arrived, he was already talking to someone I'd never seen. He was a young man, at most twenty-two. He still had pimples. 

     It was Andy’s investor.

His name was Colt. He owned a start-up that specialized in passive neural interfaces. Nous was his way to showcase the technology. Over the next twenty minutes, he explained everything about Nous. In short, there was no miracle or curse. A little scan here, a little amplification there...

     “Nous was just supposed to give people what they wanted.” Poor kid. He was crying over what had happened to Henry. "I've already taken care of it down at the hospital. Your friend won't have to pay anything. And Andy, you can keep the investment money. I really love what you've created with this bar." Wiping his eyes, he took a good look around the place.

"Thank you," Andy said. "And for the bar, thank my dad," Andy told Rita to lock the front door, that Ray's was closing early. Over lager, Andy and Colt had a long conversation about the difference between what people want, and what people need. 

"There's not much to it, really," Andy said. "It's easy to tell what people want. Giving them what they want, you got to be careful. I've been doling out alcohol my whole life. I've come across plenty of desperate people who tried to drown themselves in booze. I saw that same look on Henry's face when he played Nous. He didn't want to die. Please don't think that, Colt. He just wanted his Ann back. 

     “Henry needed to know that his wife loved him, that he was a good father, and that he should try to be happy again. That would have been enough.”

I told you Andy was good at his job. The man just knows. 

     Colt took Nous with him that night. He was, Andy and I hoped, a little wiser about the human condition.

Well, that's the most interesting thing that's ever happened here. The bar's still doing okay. At the very least, it'll last until Andy, Henry, and I bow out. 

In fact, now that I think of it, you've come on an interesting night, yourself. I bet you didn't even notice it in the back corner. You see, Colt came by earlier today. Said he's been fiddling with Nous the last couple months, used Andy's advice to adjust the programming. He even renamed it: Kardia. 

     What do you say? I’ll spot you the quarter.