His plastic name tag read, "Welcome to Fry's! I'm NOURZOY. How may I help you?" He eyed Steve nervously and bit his thumbnail.
"Yes, sir, a '9733b.' I'm sure we have that. Let me go check the stock room."
The salesman fairly fled down the aisle in the direction of home stereo.
"Well, we won't see him again," Steve remarked dryly. "This guy doesn't know USB from LDS."
Steve and Paul stood in the solid state components aisle of the gigantic emporium. Fry's was still something of a mainstay of Silicon Valley life -- but only barely. Once it had been the main depot for electronics and computer parts
-- aisle after aisle of transistors, chips, printed circuit boards, ham radio components, soldering equipment, oscilloscopes: all the provisions and necessities of hacker life. But as digital equipment became more commonplace,
so had Fry's. You still stood a reasonable chance of finding obscure electronic components, but the stock -- like the hacker ethic -- was shrinking quickly. It had been displaced by miles of audio equipment, shrink-wrapped software,
CDs and home appliances.
A few features remained intact: a seemingly endless magazine rack with legendary concentrations on technology and naked women, and a gantlet of point-of-purchase impulse buys aimed directly at the |ber-geek -- highly caffeinated soft drinks, emergency-orange Hostess marshmallow orbs, mace dispensers, laser-pointer key-chains.
But the new era had brought some Kafka-esque entertainments. Fry's salespeople, knowing themselves to be woefully less well-informed about the merchandise than any customer, aggressively evaded contact. The result was a game of cat-and-mouse played out in the undergrowth of this dense retail jungle -- customers stalking salespeople.
In the unlikely event they were caught, they behaved like prisoners of war, meeting customer's interrogations with elaborate obfuscation, misdirection, hedging or outright lies. But by far the most common response was "Sorry, this is my first day."
Which was plausible, actually; Fry's was one of the bottom rungs on the Silicon Valley employment ladder. It was easy to grab, but nobody seemed to linger for long.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Steve got down on his knees, rooting through boxes of chip-sets as Paul stood glumly in the aisle, hands in his pockets.
"OK ... here's a 68030 ... here's a 21064 ... here's a 6502 -- jeez, and it hasn't fossilized yet -- ah! Here it is. Ta-dahhh!" He held up his find triumphantly. Paul smiled half-heartedly.
Steve registered his friend's general lack of enthusiasm. "What is it with you tonight? I thought the Thai food would cheer you up. It always worked before. Why have you gone off your feed?"
"Oh, nothing. Just thinking about somebody at work. Until recently, anyway. Worked, I mean ..." Paul's voice trailed off.
"You know, it's ugly to see you having problems with rudimentary sentence construction." Then, with a dawning awareness, "Uh, this somebody wouldn't just happen to have an XX chromosome set, would they?"
Paul stared off into space. Then, snapping back, "Sorry ... what was that?"
"Ah, the invincible Paul Armstrong with his super-powers in remission, all because of some mortal female. How the mighty have fallen."
Paul quickly changed the subject. "So, what are you working on these days that requires all this funky hardware?"
Steve gave him a surreptitious look. Then, in his best Navy SEAL briefing impersonation, "Classified. Black project. I could tell you, but then I'd have to keee-yull you."
"And here I was thinking you loved me."
"It's for an art project, sort of."
"What -- rhapsody in solder? Fantasia in hexadecimal?"
Steve decided to hint at his project. "Ever heard of a performance artist named Psychrist?"
Paul cocked his head. "Um, wasn't he in Mondo 2000 a while back? Something about a remote-controlled, industrial welding robot grafted to a flame-thrower? Didn't it go rogue and burn down some derelict warehouse in Amsterdam?"
Steve grinned. "Yeah. It was totally cool."
"Oh, man, you've fallen in with the black-
"That'd spoil the surprise. Why don't you come along and see? It'll be fun. I get to bring a guest, but Isabella Rossellini is out of town that weekend. You can be my date instead."
Paul sighed. "Thanks, but it sounds a little too much like the evening commute on 101. I think I'll stay home."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
NOURZOY never did come back.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
"I am seeing Pierre in a new way," Natasha confided, leaning closer to Liz. "He is not so old as I thought. He might make a good husband."
Liz was awakened by the sound of Laurel's key in the front door. Her friend bounded in, a bag of groceries under her arm.
"Aw, it's so nice having someone to come home to. I brought dinner, sleepyhead."
"Thanks, hon." Liz stretched and rubbed her eyes. "You saved me from the strangest dream ever." She recounted the scene in the sleigh.
"It all sounds pretty reasonable, except for the part about 101 being deserted. That's definitely delusional," Laurel chided as she stocked the refrigerator. "You need to get out more. Two straight weeks of baking and Tolstoy are
starting to get to you."
"But I'm enjoying myself. Leisure suits me, don't you think?" Liz tilted her head glamorously.
"No rest for the wicked. You remember that little catering scheme I was cooking up with my pal from the Bistro? Well, we're happening, babe. We just got our first job. And we really could use a hand."
"Where?" said Liz, interested.
"It's a performance art event in the city. Some artist who's famous for setting things on fire, so they can't do it in a gallery, obviously. They're holding it under one of those freeway overpasses they closed after the Loma Prieta
earthquake. A week from Friday. We're doing all the food ahead of time, box lunches with attitude. Want to come and help?"
"Sure," Liz cheerfully agreed. "Sounds like a step up from my last position."