Anent Riley: He was a committed technophobe, forever pushed to the brink by the machines that controlled his life, from the ATM to the ticket dispenser at the parking garage and the clock radio that kept him awake half the night with its eternally blinking light. Card keys baffled and frustrated him—he could never seem to get the elevator to work or open the door to his own room in a hotel, and once he did manage to get inside, the TV remote, with its gang-piling options, invariably defeated him. He distrusted computers, preferring to write by hand, the way he’d always done. And the keyless car Caroline had talked him into buying put him in a rage every time he got behind the wheel—it seemed to change its agenda randomly, confronting him with all sorts of warning beeps and whistles, not to mention a sinuous female voice with an Oxbridge accent that popped up out of nowhere and never seemed to have anything good to say, when all he wanted was to turn a key, shift into gear and go. To drive. To get somewhere—his destination—without having to take a mechanical aptitude test. Was that too much to ask? Wasn’t that what cars were for?
Worst of all was the cell phone. He refused to carry one—If you want to know the truth, there’s nobody I want to talk to—and it irritated him to see the things stuck to the sides of people’s heads as if generating a nonstop stream of vapid chatter was essential to life, like breathing or eating or shitting. What he valued was simplicity, pen to paper, the phone on its stand in the front hallway where it belonged, starry nights overhead, wood split and stacked beside the fireplace in the 100-year-old farmhouse he and Caroline had bought six years ago (though admittedly the farm itself was long gone, replaced by tract houses, another irritant). Simplicity. Unmediated experience. Maggie, on her farm, tossing feed to the chickens or tugging at a cow’s udders in the absence of electronic babble. Still, for all that, as he settled back into his seat after his annoying encounter in the club car, he couldn’t help patting his pocket to feel the burden of the alien weight there—Caroline’s iPhone, which she’d insisted he take in the event anything went wrong on the other end of the line. What if Donna Trumpeter failed to show? What if the train derailed? What if terrorists bombed the Albany station? Then I’ll just go ahead and die, he’d said. Gladly. Because I won’t have to carry this, this—but she’d thrust it on him and that was the end of the argument.
He’d set the newspaper aside and had just opened the new novel by one of his former classmates at Iowa—Tom McNeil, whose skyrocketing fame made his stomach clench with envy—when the pneumatic doors at the end of the car hissed back and the big man entered, pushing the boy before him with one oversize hand and clutching a valise in the other. Riley noticed the man’s clothes for the first time now—an ill-fitting sports coat in a checkered pattern, pressed pants, shoes so black and glistening he must have shined them three times a day—and what was he? Some sort of foreigner, that was evident, even to someone as indifferent as Riley. The term Pole jumped into his head, which was immediately succeeded by Croat, though he couldn’t say why, since he’d never been to Poland or Croatia and had never known anyone from either country. Russian, he thought next, and settled on that. But Jesus, the guy wasn’t going to sit across from him, was he? If he was, he’d just get up and——
But no—the man chose a seat facing him, two rows up. There were other people in the car, a trio of nuns bent over their cell phones, a young mother with two comatose babies, a few salesman types, what looked to be a college girl with a book spread open on her lap though she too was busy with her phone, texting wisdom out into the world, and nobody so much as glanced up. The man made a show of heaving the valise up onto the overhead rack, then deposited the ticket strips in the metal slot on the seatback, pushed the boy into the inner seat and sat heavily in the other, his eyes raking over Riley so that he felt that tympanic thump of discomfort all over again. Enough, he told himself, dropping his eyes—he wasn’t going to let it bother him. Nothing was going to bother him. He was on his way to pick up an award and he was going to have a good time because that was what this was all about, a break in the routine, a little celebration for work well done, an a-ward, a re-ward, something Caroline could never even begin to understand because she was about as artistic as a tree stump. And it all added up, it did, no matter what she thought. He was in the game still and any one of his books could go big the way McNeil’s had. Who knew? Maybe there’d be a movie, maybe Spielberg would get involved, maybe word of mouth was operating even now.…
He bent to the book—a sequel to the New York Times best-selling Blood Ties, which immediately made him wonder if he shouldn’t attempt a sequel to Maggie—and followed the march of the paragraphs up and down the page for as long as he could, which was no more than five minutes, before he fell off to sleep, his chin pinioned to his breastbone.