The Writing Disorder



New Fiction


by John Bruce

      George worked for Digital Discipline Technologies, which everyone called DDT, as a field engineer, which meant he was mostly at customer sites. It was always tough starting at a new customer, because nobody ever knew who you were supposed to work with there, or exactly where you were supposed to report. George always tried to get that information out of whatever project manager was sending him there, but typically the project manager wouldn't return calls or e-mails, and it would be hard enough just to get the street address of the customer site.
      The usual was what happened here. He turned up at 8:00 on a Monday morning at the security desk at Interplanetary Insurance's corporate headquarters. There was already a good-sized team from DDT working there. Nobody had told Interplanetary to expect him, of course, and the security desk didn't have phone numbers for the DDT people. Nobody had given him the names of any Interplanetary Insurance people, either. So he wound up calling DDT's main switchboard back at headquarters and getting cell numbers for the DDT names he was supposed to see. He called a couple of them, but nothing happened.
      Finally he got a callback from Fernando Aguilar. Fernando pulled off the interstate on his way down from Chicago to answer the call. “I’ll get there in the middle of the morning,” he said. “I don't know when anyone else will be in, so as far as I can see, you should just wait until I get in. Then I can get you a badge.”
      Bill Baker, the project manager, was supposed to have let George in, but nobody knew where Bill was. He had been in charge of the project, which was in deep trouble, for more than a year. The project wasn't finished, the customer wasn't happy, but Bill was still there.
      When Fernando got in, he was able to get George past security and up to DDT's cubes. It turned out Bill had been there all along, but he hadn't gotten George’s calls or hadn't thought they were important. He set George to working with Peter Michaels.
      Peter was supposedly the project's Unix expert, but the more George got to know him, the more he realized Peter mostly just talked a good game and spent most of his time and effort trying to avoid work. When George arrived at Interplanetary, Peter had been there for several weeks. Nothing much had gotten done in that time. He sat down with Peter for a few minutes, comparing notes on how they each did installs and trying to find out what the status of the work there was. The next thing he knew, Peter started rolling his head around on his neck. Then he got up and said “I’ll be back,” but that was the last George saw of him all day.
      Peter was there again, though, when George got in the next morning. He discovered Peter had more than one tic with his head. In addition to rolling it around on his neck, he'd periodically grab it in both hands and twist it so his neck would make a cracking sound. Apparently it was some kind of spontaneous self-chiropraxis. Other people noticed it. A couple of days later, Fernando and George were sitting alone in the computer lab. Fernando turned to him and said, "You know, George? Sometimes he just feel like. . ." and grabbed his head and twisted it.
      Peter had a repertory of stories about himself that he repeated almost verbatim, without caring much about how many times he'd told them before. "My wife smokes. I make her go outside to smoke. I don't care if it's the middle of winter and it's zero degrees out, she has to go outside to smoke." Or, "My wife doesn't mind my going to strip joints. She says there's probably no place in the world that you're less likely to pick someone up." All this, of course, was more than George ever wanted to hear about Peter’s marriage, but he heard it all every couple of days.
      Beyond that, he was a whiner. One of the things George discovered when he got on site was that the data bases hadn't been properly installed on the servers, and some of them were corrupted. This wasn't a big deal to him, for several reasons, the biggest being that these were test machines. The etiquette of a test machine is that you don't expect the kind of rigorous backups that you see on a production machine. You can take a test machine down with minimal notice to the people on it. A test machine isn't change-controlled like a production machine.
      So when he found that the data bases had problems, he started recommending that they just go ahead and reinstall them. It didn't look like much work had been done on the machines. He estimated it would take 20 minutes of work to recreate the data by hand. Peter wouldn't hear of it. He felt everything should be restored the way it had been as if nothing was wrong with it.
      He'd remonstrate angrily, with all kinds of whining and wheedling, that George was somehow trying to take the easy way out. He'd stride up and down, waving his arms, genuinely upset that George was proposing what appeared, to George anyhow, to be a perfectly reasonable plan. Bill Baker stayed out of it, not wanting to risk anything by taking a side.
      George kept explaining to Peter that there hadn't been good backups of the data bases, and what was in them now wasn't any good. Since there weren't good backups, there was nothing that they could restore from. Peter wanted him to call support and see if there was anything that could be done. George wasted a lot of time with support, to please Peter, and confirmed that no, there was nothing that could be done. He finally went ahead and reinstalled the data bases when Peter wasn't looking.
      Peter was upset, of course, that by reinstalling the data bases, George had actually done something to change things, and it was something Peter didn't understand and couldn't control. The customer was beginning to see things happen, although Bill Baker immediately began to keep George out of meetings with them so they wouldn't decide it had something to do with him being there. But at least George had begun to establish an environment where they could make progress.
      And then, a week or two later, Peter was off the project. No explanation, just gone. Probably a good move, though, George thought.
Not long after he started there, George began to realize that he was the only person who knew what was going on. One day Bill absently handed him some documentation a former subcontractor had left behind, and as he read it, George realized that this was the key to some of the pieces of the installation that had puzzled him. In fact, it was the answer to a lot of questions. Bill could have saved a lot of time if he'd brought George up to date on this stuff the day he started.
      Then George realized that Bill didn't have a clue what this stuff was about, whether it was important or not. Bill wound up giving it to him because he found it one day, and he figured he ought to give it to someone, and that was it. And as long as George had it and seemed to think it was worth something, that was all Bill needed to worry about.
      A week or so later, George made some changes to the test systems and left for the weekend. Bill and he had confirmed before he made the changes that no customer user IDs were on the systems. That was important, because the changes he’d made would make all the users’ passwords expire. If there were just a few people from DDT on the system, it didn’t matter. If customers had to be on the system to do real production work, George would have to notify them and do everything he could to minimize the problem.
      That Saturday afternoon, George got a call at home from Illinois: some customers had tried to get on the system, and their passwords didn’t work. Somebody had made a mistake. There were in fact customers working on the test system. This was the kind of thing that fell through cracks when Bill was involved.
      Bill was a bizarre-looking guy, disturbingly skinny. His trousers hung precariously around his pelvis, the shoulders of his shirtsleeves drooped a couple of inches down his arms below his real shoulders. He had long, shaggy hair and a shaggy mustache, both of which he peroxided, making them a bright platinum blonde. This, with his sad brown eyes, made him look like a forty-niner down on his luck who had just gotten back from having his hair dyed.
      Maybe Bill was anorexic, thought George, though Bill was a guy, and it's mostly women who have anorexia. He’d heard from other people now and then about working for anorexics. Under stress, the condition gets worse. They can't focus, and they forget things, which makes them hard to work for. This was Bill. Bill would have meetings with the customer, from which he would return with tasks, schedules, and dates.
      With the information Bill gave him, George would call travel and make arrangements to stay over a particular weekend, because that was when Interplanetary Insurance could give him their systems. Then by chance he would run into someone on the customer’s staff and mention the schedule. The customer would tell George that they had thought it was the following weekend, or the previous weekend, or whatever, and then George would have to go back to Bill and reconfirm everything, and after much hemming, hawing, blinking, and equivocating, George would learn that the customer had told Bill something other than what Bill had told George.
      So George would have to call travel again and get his tickets reissued and call his wife and tell her it wasn't next weekend, it was this weekend, and so forth. This didn't bother Bill, since he was in the sublime, peaceful state of being the boss, and he was probably also woozy from hunger.
      Bill had grown up in Southern California, had some jobs there. He talked especially about one with a computer vendor that had gone under, but then he wound up in Illinois working for another company that went under. Nobody mentions it much, but there’s a small reverse-migration pattern from California back to other states.
      George was working once at a customer site in California with a guy DDT had brought in from Australia. The Australian was puzzled at one thing: if you went to restaurants, hotels, rental car agencies, and airport ticket counters in places like Los Angeles and San Francisco, you got prompt service, and they didn’t make too many mistakes. But then too, he’d been to places like Sacramento, and up into Oregon, and things were different. People who weren’t busy seemed to take their time getting your order. And they made mistakes. You had to double-check things with them, or you might not have a room or a car at the other end of your flight.
      George explained to him about the coasts and cities. “Things are different in California if you draw a line that roughly corresponds to the I-5,” he said. “To the west of the I-5, you get people who are used to urban expectations. To the east of the I-5, it can be very different. And the territory to the east of the I-5 goes a long, long way.”
“Now I understand,” the Australian said. “The I-5 is sort of where that all starts, isn’t it?” Bill had started out west of the I-5, but he belonged east, and years earlier, he’d joined that reverse migration.
      But George had had several weeks where, without Peter Michaels in the way, Fernando and he had made some progress and gotten some things to the point where they could show the customer they worked. And at that point, Peter Michaels made his way back onto the project. George simply didn’t know how that happened, any more than he knew how he’d been taken off it. Peter worked out of the Denver office, and he’d apparently worn out his welcome with customers there, as well as in Arizona and New Mexico. He was sitting on the bench in Denver, and his boss was missing the piece of Peter’s commission that he got when Peter was billable.
      So all George knew was that one Monday, Peter showed up again at Interplanetary Insurance, back on the project. Not only that, he had a whole new wardrobe, straight from Land’s End or Banana Republic or someplace, including ski boots and a foreign correspondent-style flak jacket that he wore all the time, even new hip rimless glasses to replace the ones he’d had before. And beyond that, the tics were gone. He no longer rolled his head or grabbed it in both hands to make his neck crack. All George could think was that Peter’s boss, his wife, or both had given him a head-to-toe makeover to get him back on the project and billing. Peter had turned into Mister Slick, and the one person who was impressed was Bill Baker.
      When Peter came back, something clicked between him and Bill, and they were inseparable. They spent a lot of time standing around in the computer lab while Fernando and George were doing the work. Peter regaled Bill with ideas on how, now that the project seemed to be getting back on track, the two of them could sell Interplanetary Insurance on all kinds of extra work from DDT. Bill liked hearing this, but he also realized that he could use Peter as a buffer between him and the two worker-bees.
      "Bill says he wants you to work on the backups today," Peter would tell George in the morning. This was great. If the backups didn't need work, or if George wanted to suggest something else was more important, Bill wouldn't need to hear any backtalk from him or Fernando. They just had to do what Peter told them, because Peter clearly wouldn't carry anything back to Bill that Bill didn't want to hear. Peter, Fernando, and George were all in the same place on the org chart, but Bill had turned Peter into his messenger boy.
      This was how George finally heard that Bill had told the customer that the product — the whole reason everyone was there, installing it — wouldn't work. Getting the product to work was the big reason George had been brought out from California. DDT sold its killer app to a lot of customers on the basis that it kept two up-to-date copies of itself running on two different servers. If one server went down, the app would keep running on the other, so you had total reliability. Up to then, there'd been so many other problems installing the system that few customers had ever gotten as far as trying to get the thing running on two servers at once.
      In fact, George had already installed it and gotten it working for two customers. But one morning, chatting with Peter and Fernando, George pointed out that he'd gotten the data bases reinstalled on both of the test servers, and he was close to getting the replication up to demonstrate for the customer — what he thought was the work he should have been doing there. But Peter told him, "Bill doesn't want you to work on replication any more. He's already told the customer it doesn't work." It slowly dawned on George that this was one reason Bill didn't want him in meetings with the customer.
      George didn't know anyone else from the Chicago office, and he didn't know how the Chicago project manager would react if he told him what was going on. He'd had one talk with the guy over the phone when they first put him on the project, and he seemed to have some difficulty speaking English — George had a sense that even if the guy understood what he was telling him, the result wouldn't be good. There was no point in going to his own boss, Kit, about it: she was looking for reasons to fire him.
      But Kit hadn't yet found enough reason to fire him, so he was still working at DDT, and in fact, a lot of the time he was billable. Even that probably irked her, because it was project managers outside her California territory that were asking for him, which meant that the commission for his billing went to them, not to her. In fact, George was doing what the corporate gurus advise people in his position to do — faced with a boss who didn't like him, he was building up an independent constituency outside her area.
      But just as much as he knew what Kit was doing, Kit knew what he was doing. George still had to call in for weekly staff meetings, even though he was in Illinois, and Kit kept asking him how much longer he was going to be on that project, so his guess is that she was going to get rid of him as soon as the Illinois project ended, no matter what.
      He was getting sick, too. The flying back and forth, and the hotel air conditioning, and the cold machine room were giving him chronic bronchitis. His wife was packing an electric teapot and various herbal teas to try to treat the problem, and he spent the evenings back in his hotel room trying to dose himself, but nothing was working. He was popping cough drops all day and swigging patent cold medicines all night.
      The only bright spot was an Italian restaurant he'd found in a shopping mall between Interplanetary's headquarters and his hotel. It had white linen tablecloths and glitzy Roman statues set in plastic ivy, waiters who wore white aprons, and Frank Sinatra on the sound system. He went there a couple of nights a week, and they'd gotten to know him. The waiter always brought him a double bourbon as soon as he sat down.
      It was his one refuge, but somehow Peter Michaels had found out about it. George figured Fernando had told him. And he'd told him about the double bourbon and the waiters knowing his name. Peter thought this would be a good thing for him, too. He'd gotten tired of the strip joint in Peoria. He was starting to insist that George take him there the next time he went.
      And his time on the Interplanetary Insurance project ended sooner than he expected. He had stayed over the prior weekend doing installs and upgrades on production servers. He had decided that it would be both prudent and professional, prior to doing these installs, to develop a detailed list of exactly what software he was going to install at what level, what data bases he was going to copy, what fixes he was going to apply, and what parameters he was going to use.
      Then he made sure that Bill and the customer set up a status meeting with him present, in which they went over this detailed list, point by point. Bill didn't make it to the meeting; he had Fernando stand in for him, and the customer didn't much care what he was or wasn't going to do with the system as long as they had it back in time and it worked. But at least George thought he'd gone through the motions of getting a buyoff on what he was going to do.
      He hadn't reckoned on Bill. The following Monday, the production systems had come up with all the upgrades George had applied -- as far as he knew, all the right ones, with all the right parameters set, and all installed in the right order — and the product still wasn't working right. Nothing new was wrong, but the problem the customer was upset about still wasn't fixed. Bill was still driving down from Chicago, but he and Peter apparently had talked about it, and Peter came looking for him.
      "Bill wants you to reinstall," he said. "Bill says you didn't change the user number parameter the way he told you to."
      That was it for George. "Let's get one thing straight," he said. "I gave Bill a list of everything I was going to install, and every parameter I was going to set. There was no user number parameter on that list. Bill never said anything about it to me. He had the chance to tell me to change anything he gave me. He never said a thing about it, and he never went to the meeting where we discussed it."
      "Bill says San Diego says that's what's causing the problem."
      "I've talked to San Diego time after time," George said. "They've never said a thing about it to me. And there's nothing about it in the documentation." Even so, George realized he was arguing with the wrong person. "One other thing," he said to Peter. "I take orders from Bill. I don't take orders from you. If there's something that needs to be discussed, I want to talk with Bill about it directly."
      Peter went off in a huff. A couple of minutes later, George got a call on his cell from Bill. Bill was seething, George could tell. "Just in case there's been a misunderstanding," Bill said to him, very slowly, "I want you to reinstall with the user number parameter changed the way I told you to."
      George told Bill the same thing he'd told Peter. And he said they would need to go through the customer's change control to reinstall on a production system. "All right," said Bill. "We'll discuss it when I get in."
      Over the past couple of weeks, George had gotten a better insight into how Bill's personality worked. Bill came across at first as a shambling, absent-minded guy who was basically harmless. And when he could afford to be, he was just one of the guys, and he didn't adopt any sort of distance to show he was the boss. But when his real interests were at risk, which was happening more often, his personality changed in a hurry, and he became very top-down. He'd found Peter Michaels useful as a way to insulate himself from what he was doing on the project, and he knew well enough not to do anything so foolish as to commit himself to any course of action, like the list of specific maintenance George had submitted for approval.
      So when the upgrades George installed the prior weekend didn't solve the problem, Bill was able to say they didn't work because George hadn't done something he'd told him to. George came out looking bad, while Bill came out looking like someone who'd been right all along. George had figured this out, and he was mad. He was still mad when Bill got in. He sat down with Fernando and Bill to go over what needed to be done. George reminded Bill of the list of upgrades he'd submitted for review and any necessary changes, and the fact that Bill hadn't even gone to the meeting where George had asked for additions, deletions, or changes.
      In response, Bill began to chew Fernando out in front of George, saying he'd told him to tell George to change the user number parameter in the meeting, but Fernando hadn't done it. It was Fernando's fault, Bill now said, that George hadn't set the parameter. he was still foolish enough to think this was an open discussion, and he told Bill that it shouldn't have made a difference if he'd changed that parameter or not — as far as he understood it, the setting of that parameter wouldn't affect what the system was doing.
      Bill said this was something San Diego had requested, and according to him, it was something the last bunch of DDT guys had tested and found necessary a year earlier. “That’s news to me,” was all George could say. “It isn't anywhere in any documentation. And I don’t think it would be a responsible thing to try to fix on the fly.”
      George said that because he knew what was coming, and it came. “Make the change on the fly,” said Bill. There wasn't much George could do. It was late Monday. he'd worked all weekend, and he'd already cleared it with Bill that he'd leave after work Wednesday, taking Thursday and Friday as comp time so he could get home and try to get several days running in bed, in an effort to get rid of his bronchitis.
      George talked with the customer's system administrator, and he said he could give him the boxes at lunchtime Wednesday to take them down, reset the parameter, and bring them back up. So that was what Fernando and George set out to do. Three boxes were involved. It was very simple: make a change to the kernel parameter on each box and reboot. They did it. Two boxes came up just fine. They couldn't restart the data base on the third box. They did the usual — went through a couple of reboots, with the usual procedure for bringing the system up.
      No difference: on the third box, the data base wouldn't restart. The users couldn't get on the system, which they needed to do their work. They'd taken the customer from a situation where their production system was up and running, but with a small problem they'd been living with for a year, to a situation where their production system was down, and they couldn't use it. This was exactly why George had told Bill changing something on the fly wasn’t a good idea.
      George called support. Support had the usual ideas: did you try rebooting? Hmm. Did you try issuing a command to shut down the data base and then try to restart it? Hmm. Support dithered. "Let me call someone." They put him on hold. They came back after ten minutes. "Level two wants to know if you've tried rebooting again." And so forth. They weren't getting anywhere.
      It was going to be his fault in any case, no matter what happened. He really didn't care if he saw Bill or Peter again anyhow. Fernando said he could take over the discussion with support. George left and caught his plane home. He never heard how the problem turned out.
      The only good next step would have been to put the kernel parameter back the way it was, but he wouldn't give a hundred percent that the system would come up correctly even then. You might have to restore the whole thing from the last good backup. That's what he would have recommended, but he'd already recommended they not do what they'd done in the first place.

John Bruce’s writing has appeared in numerous literary zines, and he’s received a Pushcart nomination. He has degrees in English from Dartmouth College and USC and lives in Los Angeles.

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