He had to remind himself to breathe.
Sitting there in the truck, liquid daylight leaking into the city, he couldn’t breathe unless he thought about it. Counting backwards from thirty. He reached forward to the radio and turned the station. He turned again, and then again, trying to find a balance, something to soothe him.
“Hey asshole. Stop with the radio.”
“I’m a little on edge, is all.”
“Yeah, me too. Before I break it.”
“All right, jesus.” He reached forward and turned the radio off. “That better?”
The driver didn’t say anything. He leaned his head back on the headrest and closed his eyes.
The guy in the passenger seat looked out the window. He didn’t care to watch the dark monotony of night slip away to another day’s luminous truth. He didn’t notice the ravens swirling stark in the rectangle of sky above the alley. He could have rolled down his window and focused his attention on the sound of morning, the crisp regeneration and cool yawning concrete. That might have calmed him. He picked up his Walther instead, slipped out the magazine and then clicked it back in. Out and in. Down and up. Click, click. Click, click. The smell of the city never changes overnight and for some men the sound and feel of a loaded gun is worth a thousand dawns.
“You know what I was thinking?” the driver said.
“You were thinking.”
“We’re isolating ourselves.”
The guy in the passenger seat stopped playing with the Walther.
“I mean, not like, you and me. I mean all of us. The world. Americans.”
“How’s that?” Click, click.
“The technologically advanced.”
“There is movement toward isolation in the wake of technological advancement. This happens on a personal level, but also culturally. People shrinking from each other. Less face-to-face contact. The more technologically advanced a culture becomes, the more its parameters of communication shift. The modes change shape with each new wave of progress. Think about it.”
“Think about the language. Dialects. Think about means of expression. The invention of words and terms.”
“You’re thinking about the Internet. People shop for anything from home. They don’t need to go out, spend hours in the bookstore or trying on a pair of pants.” Click, click. “They don’t have to go to the bar or to church to find a date, to sample the talent.”
“Notice how almost everyone has a mobile phone now,” the driver said, lifting his up and looking at it. “We use these phones to communicate in a myriad of ways.”
“Less standing in line. The Internet has made standing in line an endangered species.”
“Text and e-mail. Voice. Video, photo. Imagine if we could see the streams of communication going on all around us. Even right now, at this hour. Imagine all the invisible voices and coded language, all the hidden data. Slender rhythm of radio and television waves. Digital binary information, little ones and zeros dictating the pulse and flow of all the world’s knowledge.”
“The prayers.” Click, click. “Imagine if we could see all the prayers.”
“I wonder what it would look like, if each mode of communication was a different color.”
They looked through the windows to the alley set in cool morning shadow, the chinked and stained concrete, old brick facades of buildings left to derelicts and huddled runaways. Dumpsters ahead and behind them filled with waste matter. The driver looked up through the windshield to the sky, a snatch of cloudless pale blue emerging stridently to claim another awed human rumination.
“The change is so gradual that we can hardly scrutinize it,” the driver said. “I mean, we go from a megabyte of technology to a gigabyte. We go from cordless phones to cellular phones.”
“From Playstation 2 to Playstation 3.”
“We don’t graduate straight to high-def television from shortwave radio.”
“Self-deification takes patience.” Click, click.
“Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the transformation is dense and tangible enough to observe and study, maybe even to manipulate. Maybe this is what the guys in lab coats and power suits are thinking of next. Clustered in places called Washington. New York. Los Angeles. Cairo.”
“Sitting around a table, men wearing gleaming white ghoutras and women dressed in paramilitary fatigues, guerrilla-clad luminaries with mysterious backgrounds and red smiling faces.”
“Calculating the science of communication in order to control it.”
The guy in the passenger seat clicked the magazine free of the gun and clicked it back into place and he looked down to it black and reassuring in his hands and he imagined how he would react if the people in the bank mutinied or if the cops came in with their guns aloft and he tried to imagine pointing the Walther at one of them and pulling the trigger and he told himself he could do it if he had to but he wasn’t convinced. He pictured his wife of twenty-four and in his mind he saw their son with his mother’s curly blond hair and his father’s stone gray eyes and he tried to imagine how his family would survive if the action this morning went south.
“Do they even have record stores anymore?” he said. “Are there such establishments as record stores, and are they operational? Quite frankly I haven’t seen one in at least a year.”
“People on the subway. Most of them plugged into a music player. The others with their heads buried in a shiny magazine. Maybe there are books. I think people still read books.”
“Nobody burns books anymore.” Click, click.
“Nobody talks about how the ball team is doing. Nobody asks about the wife and kids.”
“The discussion board is the new subway.”
“People assume the wife and kids are fine. The wife and kids are healthy and plentifully drugged.”
“People assume.” Click, click. “People shouldn’t assume.”
The driver reached forward and flipped the radio back on. He changed the station to a news program and the two of them sat listening to the hurried headlines until the sweeping brand of day lit its distinct mark upon the world and the cellular phone buzzed in the driver’s pocket.
“We’re on,” he said, and started the truck.