The Good Old Boy, to look at him, you’d think his head was ready to pop. It had the pink inflated complexion of a waxy ham. The hair on top was thin and gray and cut close to the skull by a barber he visited every two weeks and always tipped generously (the Good Old Boy thought anything greater than ten percent was a generous tip). His neck bulged around his ears and chin like a flotation device, so that you could easily imagine unscrewing the head and tossing it into the pool. His eyes were jovial puffs and leaked around the corners. He always seemed to be laughing—when he didn’t look perplexed.
Though the Good Old Boy was officially retired, he still did some consulting work, which meant a lot of sitting around his home office with the landline on speaker phone. He couldn’t seem to bring himself to drop out of the game completely, take up gardening or what have you. Consulting didn’t quite cut it either. What he really wanted was to swing a major deal, like he used to do in the good old days. He just didn’t feel alive if he wasn’t slapping palms over a beer, roaring with laughter, looking a guy straight in the eye and telling him, “Hey, I like you.”
But the Good Old Boy hadn’t swung a deal in a long time. He felt out of touch. At Thanksgiving dinner, sitting ensconced at the head of an overloaded table, he asked his ten-year-old granddaughter what the kids were into these days.
“I’m going to a climate protest tomorrow,” she said.
After dinner the kids went off to play and the adults repaired to the living room for drinks. The Good Old Boy sank into a sofa, scotch in hand, and told stories about his greatest deals. When his second cousin once removed asked what he was up to lately, the Good Old Boy launched into the pitch he’d cooked up in his head over pumpkin pie and ice cream.
“Well now, this is a big idea. This is the next big thing, I tell ya. It’s a car . . .”
The Good Old Boy paused dramatically.
“. . . But a car that’s good for the environment.”
No one said anything, though his wife gave an encouraging sigh. Then his youngest son, from the corner, piped up: “People are already working on that, Dad.”
“They are? Well, that just goes to show what a good idea it is. Great minds think alike!”
“The thing is,” the son said, “you don’t know anything about cars. Or green technology. Or the environment.”
The son had, of late, developed an annoying habit of taking the Good Old Boy down a peg in front of the family.
“Maybe so,” the Good Old Boy said, “but you know what I do know about?”
Everyone waited for it.
“. . . I know how to make a deal.”
“But Dad,” the son said, “the biggest companies in the world are already working on this problem. The smartest engineers and materials scientists are already way ahead of you on this. You can’t just”—the son made air quotes—“get in the game at this late stage. The barriers to entry are too high. You can’t overcome first-mover advantage in a billion-dollar industry like car manufacturing. You’re literally talking about reinventing the wheel.”
His neck bulged around his ears and chin like a floatation device, so that you could easily imagine unscrewing the head and tossing it into the pool.
The Good Old Boy glared at his son. He knew the son was struggling financially and had a lot of anger over his own inability to get ahead in life. The son often directed this anger at the Good Old Boy for some reason. What had the Good Old Boy ever done but given his children every possible advantage in life? The lack of gratitude really irked him. When the Good Old Boy was his youngest son’s age, he had three children and a business with his name on the letterhead. He tried not to rub that in, but sometimes, Lord help him, it was all he could do to hold back.
“Son, I’ve been around the block. I’ve seen a thing or two. When you’ve built your own successful business from the ground up, we can have a chat about reinventing the wheel!”
To break the tension in the room, the Good Old Boy did what he always did.
He roared with laughter.
The Good Old Boy met with a guy he knew who had connections in the auto industry. The guy agreed that a car that was good for the environment was a great idea, a legitimate game-changer, but when the Good Old Boy asked the guy to help him write a business plan, the guy demurred. He told the Good Old Boy that the smartest minds at the biggest companies in the world were already working on the problem and close to cracking it. In other words, the Good Old Boy’s son had been essentially correct. The Good Old Boy folded up the drawing he’d made of a car with solar panels on the roof, with tail fins, which might seem impractical, but he had a feeling that tail fins would have their day again (frankly he couldn’t understand why they’d gone away in the first place). He went home. He called Steve, the head of his leadership network, who was a Good Old Boy from the past like himself. Steve hadn’t made any deals in recent memory either. Instead he consulted full-time and wrote a weekly leadership newsletter he sent out over email, and also as a paper version, for Good Old Boys who’d never quite made the leap to digital.
The Good Old Boy put Steve on speakerphone in his wood-paneled home office.
“I think I’m gettin’ old, Steve.”
“Nonsense. Age is just another word for experience. You know who’s old? Warren Buffet is old. George Soros is old. The best of the best. They’ve seen a thing or two come and go.”
The Good Old Boy leaned back in his giant leather office chair and tented his fingers on his belly.
“It’s just, all the guys on the cover of Fortune these days are a quarter my age.”
“And think of what those kids could learn from a guy like you! A guy who’s been around the block. Look, I know the feeling. We all know the feeling. You don’t make a deal in a while, you get to wondering if your best years are behind you. But let me relate to you something Tony Ohio once told me, back in the day.”
At the sound of that name, the Good Old Boy’s breath caught in his throat. Tony Ohio. Greatest dealmaker there ever was. They just didn’t make ’em like Tony Ohio anymore. The Good Old Boy once had a power breakfast with him in 1985. Tony Ohio ate six eggs.
“I was down on my luck,” Steve said, “hadn’t made a deal in I don’t know how long. I thought the world was passing me by. But then Tony takes me aside and he says, Steve, he says, make no mistake, the world is passing everyone by. Think about it. The only constant is change, he says. And then he says, You never step into the same river twice.”
The Good Old Boy thought of the ravine back behind the farm where he grew up. He’d stepped into it twice. More than twice. But then he realized what Tony Ohio meant. Sure, you could step into the same ravine twice, but the ravine itself was different each time, since the water flowing through it was different water, so, in fact, you never stepped into the same ravine twice. Change was the only constant. It was true! Tony Ohio was deep like that, almost a philosopher. He ate jam on his eggs. The Good Old Boy had never seen anyone do that, eat jam on his eggs, but ever since then he’d done the same. Good way to get your fruit.
“The challenge for the entrepreneur,” Steve said, “is to adapt to change. Don’t fight it. And never let it get you down. Now listen. You’re looking for a business opportunity? I have one word for you then, and one word only.”
The Good Old Boy leaned toward the phone—an honest-to-god old-fashioned phone, with a cradle and receiver and a coiled wire and all—which sat amid piles of paper on his oak desk. He was eager to hear the one word that Steve thought he needed to know. Steve was plugged in. Steve knew all the trends, and where the smart money was at. The Good Old Boy leaned so far toward the phone on his desk that he almost fell out of his giant chair. What was the one world already?
Steve pronounced it softly, in an almost conspiratorial tone: “The Internet.”
The Good Old Boy had a mousepad with a picture of his grandchildren on it. He moved his mouse in circles on the mousepad, and the arrow on the screen of his big Dell computer moved in a circle. He sat at his oak desk in his home office with his youngest son on speakerphone. He hadn’t told the son what the guy he knew who had connections in the auto industry had said, about how the son had been essentially correct. He didn’t feel like giving the son a win. But maybe the son knew a thing or two after all.
“How the hell do I download Google?” the Good Old Boy said.
The son sighed—which, on speakerphone, at the volume the Good Old Boy needed it at, sounded like there was a jet aircraft in the room.
“You don’t need to download Google, Dad. It’s on the Internet. Your computer is hooked up to the Internet, so you’re hooked up to Google.”
“Well, how the hell do I open it? Where do I click?”
“Are you on the Internet right now?”
“I’m in My Documents.”
“Get out of My Documents.”
“I don’t know how the hell I got in here.” The Good Old Boy let go of the mouse and leaned back in his chair. “Listen, son, I’ve got a proposition for ya. The Internet, it’s really taking off. I talked to a guy I know who has a nephew who really knows his stuff. A real whiz-kid. He’s got the chops. And this nephew’s looking for an investor in his startup. I’m tellin’ ya, son, it’s gonna be the next big thing. Have you heard of Facebook?”
The son sighed. “Yes, Dad, I’ve heard of Facebook.”
“Okay, great. What is it exactly?”
“Facebook is—Jesus Christ, do you have any idea what you’re getting yourself into?”
“Look, son. You know as well as I do that I’m a bit of a caveman when it comes to computers. Now I got a meeting with this whiz-kid and his team next week, and here’s the thing—I’d like you to come with. So that you can vet them.”
“Dad, I don’t know anything about the Internet.”
“Sure you do. You’re on it all the time.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Everyone’s on it all the time. It doesn’t mean we know how it works. Do you know how the sewage system works?”
“Listen, son. Do your old man a favor. Come have a sit-down with these kids. You don’t need to say anything. Leave the talking to me. I’m tellin’ ya, I got a good gut feeling about this one. And as an experienced guy like me knows, you let your gut lead you.”
The Good Old Boy burped a steak-and-jam burp into his fist.
They met the whiz-kids at an IHOP. Normally the Good Old Boy liked to do deals over drinks, but none of the kids were of drinking age, so IHOP it was. The Good Old Boy and his son arrived early, which was a psychological trick the Good Old Boy always used: when you’re making a deal, never let the other guy watch you sit down. They didn’t notice the whiz-kids when they walked into the restaurant. Maybe the Good Old Boy and his son were expecting something different.
They certainly weren’t expecting three skinny teenagers with wispy mustaches in loud clothes and puffy neon sneakers. The whiz-kids spotted the Good Old Boy and descended on the table, where the son eyed them warily and the Good Old Boy looked perplexed, then roared with laughter. He got up to slap them on the back. The nephew of the Good Old Boy’s contact appeared to be the ringleader. He wore a fur stole and a gold chain and had frosted tips gelled up into a rolling crest. A lumpy walleyed server appeared and the Good Old Boy ordered the fifty-five-plus Rise ’n Shiner, over easy. The whiz-kids each ordered the T-Bone Steak & Eggs, scrambled. The Good Old Boy changed his order to the T-Bone Steak & Eggs, over easy. The son ordered a coffee.
“Well, fellas,” the Good Old Boy said, “lay it on me.”
The kid in the fur stole with the frosted tips said, “We leverage the network power of social media in order to deliver scalable results with bleeding-edge cloud-based reactive brand-management algorithms on a real-time basis.”
The Good Old Boy pressed his belly into the table, leaned forward, and said, “Well that sounds real interesting, fellas.”
He asked to see their business plan and the nephew with the frosted tips held up his phone and flipped through his Instagram account, which mainly showed pictures of the boys in speedboats surrounded by girls. The Good Old Boy spread jam on his eggs and nodded.
“We’re already pulling in ten G’s a week,” the nephew said. “But we need a major capital investment to maintain our burn rate.”
“I see, I see,” the Good Old Boy said. “Very interesting. I have to tell you how impressed I am that such young entrepreneurs as yourselves have grasped the finer nuances of your highly technical field.”
He nudged his son with his knee and gave him a sly sidelong look. The son had more or less checked out by now, having noted how the kids across the table were basically high-fiving each other with their eyes.
“This is gonna be the next big thing,” the Good Old Boy said, after paying the bill and shaking hands with the boys and telling them he’d be in touch.
“Dad, those kids make spam. That’s all they do. They’re not Internet geniuses like you think they are.”
“Oh, come on, son. These guys are smart guys.”
“Yeah. Smart con artists. I Googled them while you were talking. Their Twitter accounts have all been suspended. Did you even do minimal due diligence?”
“Well, sure. I went on over to their Internet site, had a poke around. It’s real top-notch-looking, real slick. I got the web address saved on my computer at home. I’ll email you the link.”
“You don’t need to email me the link.” The son held up his phone. “Dad, look closely at this website. Do you see these blocks of text? Notice how they’re all in Latin?”
“Well, that’s what I’m telling ya! These kids are some smart kids! Latin! Imagine that!” The Good Old Boy burped a steak-and-jam burp into his fist. “I think what we’re looking at here is what we call in the biz a ‘unicorn.’ You know what a ‘unicorn’ is?”
“Yeah. It’s a magical horse that doesn’t exist.”
The Good Old Boy was prepared to make an offer, but he called the nephew several times over the following days and got no response. On the fifth call, an automated voice said the number had been disconnected. The Good Old Boy contacted the guy he knew who was the nephew’s uncle, and the guy told him the nephew was in big trouble, something to do with erectile dysfunction pills and a Ukrainian fishnet.
“Probably not a fishnet,” the son said on speakerphone. “Botnet. Did your friend say botnet?”
“Hell, son, I don’t know. Fishnet, botnet—what are we talking about here?”
The Good Old Boy called Steve, the head of his leadership network, for advice. Steve’s wife answered. Steve was gone. Heart attack in his sleep, never felt a thing.
“One of the last of the Good Old Boys,” the Good Old Boy muttered into the phone. “He’ll be sorely missed, Sheila. Sorely missed.”
The Good Old Boy fell into a funk. Christmas was coming and his wife spent whole afternoons putting tinsel and poinsettias everywhere while the Good Old Boy moped around in the background, staying out of her way. Just about the only thing that got him animated was the ongoing impeachment hearings on CNN. His son stopped by to help set up the tree. The Good Old Boy stood with his arms crossed and watched while the son held the tree and the Good Old Boy’s wife said to move it a little to the left, then a little to the right, then a little to the left again, until it was finally straight.
“Aren’t you going to help decorate?” the Good Old Boy’s wife asked him.
“Aw, I’ll leave that to you two. You know I got no eye for it. Think I’ll just go catch up on CNN. I tell ya, this president’s on his way out. How a total blowhard like that with no idea what he’s doing could rise to such a high position is a mystery to me.”
The Good Old Boy disappeared into the TV room, where he could be heard shouting encouragements to the CNN anchors—“Git ’im, Anderson!”—while his son climbed a stepladder and positioned the star.
“A little to the left,” the Good Old Boy’s wife said.
“I’m worried about Dad,” the son said. “I’ve never seen him this blue.”
“Oh, he’ll sort himself out. He’s always like this between deals. A little to the right.”
“It’s just, I don’t know if there are any more deals out there for Dad. The world has moved on.”
“Well, I certainly hope not. Making deals is the only thing he lives for. A little to the left.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
A shadow fell on the Christmas tree. The Good Old Boy’s wife and son looked to the TV room door, where the Good Old Boy stood trembling.
“Dad? You okay?”
“I’ve seen the future. Just now, on CNN. They did a segment.”
“What are you talking about, dear?”
“It’s called A.I. . . . The next big thing.”
“Dad . . .”
The son followed the Good Old Boy to his home office.
“It stands for Artificial Intelligence, son. You wouldn’t believe it—”
“I know what A.I. stands for.”
“Then you know the possibilities.”
The Good Old Boy turned on his Dell. It hummed and whirred. He swiveled in his giant leather office chair to face his son.
“One day in the not-too-distant future, we’ll have digital assistants to manage our inboxes. No more of this.” He gestured to a large stack of printed emails sitting on his desk. “Computers will do our banking, cut our hair. It’s the future, son. It’s The Jetsons—but real. I’ve got to move on this. I’ve got to. I feel it in my gut. An experienced guy like me knows when he’s caught a glimpse of the next big thing.”
The Good Old Boy swiveled toward his screen and launched Internet Explorer. The MSN homepage loaded. He hunt-and-pecked the word “Google” into the Bing search box, looking up at the screen after every few letters to make sure he’d typed them right. He hit return. The Google homepage loaded. He hunt-and-pecked the word “please,” read it over, then hunt-and-pecked the word “Google,” read it over, then hunt-and-pecked the word “artificial”—though he only made it halfway through “artificial” before the search box filled in his request: please Google artificial intelligence.
He stared at the screen a moment, perplexed.
“Now, how in the hell did it know what I was looking for?”
The son left him to it. If the Good Old Boy needed to pursue quixotic investment opportunities in order to feel alive, so be it. As long as he didn’t remortgage the house.
“I’m going to remortgage the house.”
“Dad . . .”
It was a crisp, cold, sunny winter’s day outside. The Good Old Boy stared at the frost on his home office window and leaned back in his giant chair. The son sighed on speakerphone.
“Son, I’ve found a once-in-a-lifetime investment opportunity. These guys, they’re the real deal. We’re talkin’ the young Bill Gates here! I’m meeting with them Wednesday night. Will you come with?”
The son came with. The Good Old Boy interpreted this as a vote of confidence. The son even wore a suit, as the Good Old Boy had instructed him to, since these guys were the bona fide real deal: MIT, Stanford, and Harvard drop-outs, not a bunch of teenyboppers in fluorescent clothes. The Good Old Boy and the son got to the sushi bar early so the other party wouldn’t get to watch them sit down.
“This wouldn’t have been my first choice,” the Good Old Boy grumbled as he unlaced his orthopedics outside the tatami room. “What the hell kind of culture makes you take your shoes off to eat? No offense, hon.”
The hostess dipped her head in a smiling bow. The Good Old Boy and his son clambered into the room, and the Good Old Boy pointed out which seats they should take to establish the optimal dealmaking dynamic.
“You want to have your back to the wall,” the Good Old Boy explained, “with a straight line of sight on the door. What Tony Ohio used to call the ‘gunslinger’s seat.’”
“On account of, if you were in a saloon, that’s where you’d want to sit, in case your enemy walked through the door.”
“No, yeah, I get it.”
The hostess appeared, smiling. “Your party has arrived.”
She stepped back. Four slouching men in hoodies and jeans ducked into the room. They were pale and smooth-faced and appeared not much older than the last crew the Good Old Boy had tried to make a deal with. None of them looked him in the eye but stared just over his head when they said hello. He roared with laughter to set them at ease.
“Welcome, fellas, welcome!”
The Good Old Boy introduced his son. He expected the artificial intelligence experts to introduce themselves, but they didn’t, so he asked them one by one what their names were and where they’d gone to school, where they’d worked. None of them had worked anywhere, as it turned out—except with each other on what they called “The Project.” The Good Old Boy knew never to get down to business right away, but to get to know a guy first, get a feel for him, before you talked shop. Tony Ohio had always been a master at this. The stories he could tell! The Good Old Boy could still picture him to this day, spreading jam on his eggs in the gunslinger’s seat at a Denny’s, exuding warmth as he leaned forward and, with that trademark Tony Ohio twinkle in his eye, told the Good Old Boy about the time in Los Angeles when he and Hunter S. Thompson got drunk and chased a raccoon up a tree. The Good Old Boy laughed so hard at that one he nearly choked on a sausage fragment.
The Good Old Boy had some stories of his own—did he ever!—but leaning over the table toward the artificial intelligence experts, he found himself drawing a blank. They’d taken out their devices and seemed deeply engrossed in those little blue rectangles of light. He wasn’t quite sure how to get their attention. He took a stab at it.
“Boy,” he said, “this reminds me of the time I was a young guy like you all, and I went for breakfast with Tony Ohio. You all heard of Tony Ohio? No? Well, he was a legend in my day. Anyhow, Tony had this story, involving a raccoon, and a Colt revolver, and a large quantity of rum—”
A server poked her head in the room.
“Can I start you off with any drinks tonight?”
The Good Old Boy looked around the table. “Whaddaya say, fellas? Pitcher of beer?”
One of the artificial intelligence experts tore himself from his screen and said, “Actually we’re on a dopamine fast right now.”
The Good Old Boy looked perplexed. He glanced at his son, who shrugged. The Good Old Boy roared with laughter.
“Well, one or two beers won’t hurt, right?”
“Actually, it would,” another artificial intelligence expert said. “We’re letting our receptors rest until Burning Man, when we’re scheduled to end our fast in a midnight ayahuasca ceremony with upper management at Uber and Salesforce.” He turned to the server. “Just waters for us. And you do do brown rice here, correct?”
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Thank you, good.”
The server looked to the Good Old Boy and his son. “And for yourselves?”
“Well—uh—I’ll have a beer.” The Good Old Boy pointed his thumb at his son. “And he will too. You got Kokanee?”
When the server left, the Good Old Boy tried to return to his story about Tony Ohio and the raccoon, but he couldn’t remember how it went now, where the raccoon had come from or how it ended up in the tree, so he roared with laughter and changed the subject. These gentlemen didn’t seem too keen on small talk anyhow. He figured it was time to cut to the chase.
“Now then,” he said. He leaned forward and shot a sly look across the table. “A.I.—which we all know stands for Artificial Intelligence.”
The experts finally looked up from their devices.
“Yes,” one of them said, “we’ve trained a generative adversarial network on a massive dataset of minute unconscious breathing patterns to reveal an array of affective states in detected speech, which our system can extract retroactively from the gyroscopes of ambient cell phones. For instance we can determine a speaker’s degree of nervousness, which is a powerful proxy for whether or not they are lying. The Chinese government is extremely interested—but we’re attempting to keep investment onshore as much as possible in order to avoid regulatory scrutiny.”
“I see, I see,” the Good Old Boy said, and his belly pressed over the low table. “Very interesting.”
They ate their dinner in relative silence, which didn’t appear to bother the artificial intelligence experts, who were happy to poke at their phones. When the meal was done, the Good Old Boy shook hands and slapped backs and said he’d be in touch.
“Well?” he said to his son in the chill night air of the parking lot. “Young Bill Gates or what?”
“Let me drive, Dad. You’ve had a few.”
“What am I, some kinda lightweight? I can drive.”
They got in the car. The Good Old Boy’s nose was very red, and his breath puffed in billowing clouds over the steering wheel.
“I got a good feeling about tonight.”
The son stared out the windshield. Motes of diamond dust drifted in a streetlamp’s glare.
“There are some things you need to understand. For one, it’s not 1985 anymore. You can’t expect to just walk into a room with a bunch of business dudes, get shit-blitzed, and wake up the next morning with a hangover and a deal. Times have changed.”
The Good Old Boy put a hand on the steering wheel and gripped it hard.
“Okay, look,” he said. “I know you’re in a tight spot financially at the moment. I try not to bring that up. Hell, I know what it’s like myself. Things weren’t always easy for your mother and I. So I get it. You’re under a lot of stress. But that’s no reason to direct your hostility at me.”
“You’re not listening—”
“Son, let me tell ya something. So okay, sure, back in the day we’d get shit-blitzed when we wanted to make a deal. But you know why? Because when a guy’s shit-blitzed, you see his true self. And that’s key, if you’re looking to negotiate. What I learned over my decades of experience is something you can’t get from a book. You can’t get it from a classroom. I’m talking about an overall understanding of the complex and subtle laws of human psychology.”
“Seems to me you only ever needed to know one law, which is that when people are shit-blitzed they’ll agree to anything.”
“You think you’re pretty smart, eh?”
“Isn’t that why you brought me along?”
“I’m starting to wonder if it was such a great idea . . .”
“Hey, can I give you some advice? You know that thing you do where you roar with laughter? You need to stop doing that. It’s intimidating.”
“Intimidating?” The Good Old Boy roared with laughter. “What are you talking about?”
“Also, don’t slap people on the back. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t just touch people like that.”
“Aw, come on. People appreciate a little physical contact. It loosens ’em up!”
“No, that’s exactly the wrong thing to say.”
“And who died and made you an expert?”
“I’m not an expert. But you bring me along to your meetings, you ask for my opinion—well, I’m giving you my opinion.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion on me!” The Good Old Boy heaved a regretful sigh. “Look, son, I don’t think this is working out.”
“What are you, firing me now?”
“I think I am, unfortunately.”
“Dad, I’m not your employee. You weren’t paying me in the first place.”
“I just mean I don’t think I can bring you along to any more of these meetings.”
“Great! Fine! I never wanted to come in the first place!”
The son opened the car door and got out.
“Now, let’s not make a scene,” the Good Old Boy said. “I’ll drive you to the train at least.”
“I can walk. And you shouldn’t be driving!”
The son slammed the door and stormed off. The Good Old Boy sat a moment toying with his keys. Snow began to fall. He watched the sloppy flakes stick and collect on the windshield. He started the car, turned on the wipers. He had a good feeling about these A.I. guys. A good gut feeling. He started the car.
The Good Old Boy pulled out of the restaurant parking lot. Instead of heading home, he headed for the mountains. Yes, a nice winding drive on a mountain road was just the thing to clear his head. Those A.I. guys really knew their stuff. And now was the time to make a move, while the market was wide open. The snow washed through his headlights like someone was shearing a lamb in the wind. The highway signs gave way to forbidding evergreens. He told himself that now was not the time to wait. Act on the gut while you’re feeling it.
He poked at his phone on the dash mount. He kept one eye on the road ahead, the swerving snowy road. He put the phone on speaker mode and dialed the artificial intelligence experts.
“Hey, guy. Put me on speakerphone. I’m prepared to make an offer.”
The Good Old Boy deftly piloted his car around the turns as he quoted the experts a figure. The shaggy arms of pine trees stretched toward him as he passed. The woods were a vast darkness but his high beams cut a trail. The A.I. guys told him they were prepared to accept his offer.
“That’s great news, fellas. Now here’s my condition. I want a seat on the board.”
A long pause ensued. The Good Old Boy took a hairpin turn.
“No,” an artificial intelligence expert said.
“No?” the Good Old Boy repeated.
“You’ll receive preferred shares,” another artificial intelligence expert said. “But you lack the qualifications we would need in a board member.”
“Now, what the hell kind of—” The Good Old Boy caught himself. “Qualifications? I’ve been making deals since before any of you were born!”
“But you don’t know anything about the field.”
“I got more years of experience than all of you combined!”
“But it’s not relevant experience.”
“We would require a certain level of technical competence.”
The Good Old Boy took another hairpin turn. He noticed tire tracks on the road up ahead. The tracks were fresh, not yet buried in snow. His gut told him to push back against these pencil-necked whipper-snappers—but his brain told him no. The artificial intelligence experts were right. He surely did not meet the level of technical competence. Hell, he couldn’t have even told you what artificial intelligence was, not really. Robots, he assumed, but he wasn’t sure. He sighed and slumped in his seat. But then an idea struck him, and he perked up. Why not try a Hail Mary?
Don’t get angry, Tony Ohio had told him that time they’d gone for breakfast, get even.
“Alright then,” he said. “Fair enough, fair enough. I’m an old dog, alright. But fellas, this old dog might have one last trick up his sleeve. If you don’t mind, I’d like to pitch a concept. I think it’s got legs, and if you agree, we might be looking at a highly beneficial partnership. My business know-how, your technical competence—it’s a match made in heaven. Now hear me out, fellas. Listen to this. We all know how concerned the young people are these days about climate change. That’s a huge consumer market right there, and it’ll only get bigger. So here’s my thought.” He paused for effect. “A car . . . that’s good for the environment.”
He watched the tracks on the road up ahead. The tracks veered right just before he veered right, then left before he went left. They were almost mesmerizing to watch, like the trail of a guardian angel weaving through the darkness, showing him the way.
“No,” an artificial intelligence expert said. “That is not a good idea.”
The Good Old Boy felt a rumble build within. He wanted to argue. He wanted to take these A.I. guys down a peg. But for once, he bit his tongue. Maybe these guys weren’t as smart as they looked on paper. Maybe they couldn’t see a good thing when it was staring them right in the face. Well, their loss. He told himself he would take the idea somewhere else—and cash in without them. Don’t get angry, Tony Ohio had told him that time they’d gone for breakfast, get even. Wise words. So the Good Old Boy thanked the artificial intelligence experts for hearing him out, and ended the call. He watched the tracks ahead. They put him in a trance. Swerving left. Swerving right. Swerving off the road.
“Holy hell,” the Good Old Boy muttered. He slowed his car. Thirty yards or so ahead, the tracks veered abruptly over the shoulder and down a steep hill of thick black pines. The Good Old Boy was conscientious about car wrecks, unlike your typical rubbernecker: if ever he arrived first at an accident scene, he always got out to direct traffic until the police showed up. He was a Good Samaritan that way. The Good Old Boy could tell from the freshness of the tracks in the snow that no one else had been by yet. If the driver was in distress down there, it was up to him to save them. He put his blinkers on and eased his car toward the shoulder. He hit a patch of black ice.
His wheels spun. He had no time think, much less react. All he could do was utter a cry as his own car followed the tracks over the ledge.
The Good Old Boy grabbed the wheel and held on tight. His headlights flashed on a wall of writhing evergreen boughs that slapped against his windshield like dirty brushes in an evil carwash. The vehicle rolled. The airbag deployed in his face. He heard a terrifying crunch from above and understood that the car was on its hood. Rocks and sticks ripped against the roof. He was sliding down the hill—fast. Was this it? The end? Would he never make another deal again? The airbag deflated and he clawed it out of the way. He was upside down, watching tree trunks fly by at breakneck speed. Then a smash. Lights out. He hovered in total darkness a moment. Complete darkness, and also complete peace. This darkness was not an absence of light, but an absence of world, and an absence of him. Yet, strangely, he was still there. But all that had preoccupied him mere moments ago—the dealmaking, then the mortal fear—it was all gone. So there was nothing to worry about.
Then his body reappeared around the nut of his consciousness, and he sighed, and felt pain in his head and neck. His vision returned. Burning red. He squinted at a pair of taillights glaring against his cracked windshield. He grasped his seatbelt and undid it.
The side window was smashed and buckled. He managed to elbow it out of the way. He crawled from the vehicle, bruised but alive. His car lay jammed against the rear of the first car that had gone off the road, which was itself jammed against a tree. Snow fell softly around him. After the noise and havoc of the crash, the woods sounded spookily silent.
“What a ride,” boomed a voice in the night.
The Good Old Boy looked up. Just ahead, lying against a snow bank, was a portly man with a bleeding scalp. The man was about the Good Old Boy’s age and sprawled in such a way to suggest his injuries were far worse.
“I think both my legs are busted,” the stranger said, almost apologetically. Then he roared with laughter. “How’d you make out?”
The Good Old Boy tried to stand. He found he couldn’t. He crawled toward the other man.
“Can’t tell,” he said. His insides hurt. “Been better, I’ll tell ya that.” He roared with laughter, which hurt to do. He looked to the crumpled cars. “They sure don’t make ’em like they used to, eh?”
“You can say that again!”
The Good Old Boy crawled up alongside the other man, whose head was bleeding freely.
“That’s a pretty ugly gash you got there,” the Good Old Boy said.
“Hey—you don’t look so hot yourself!”
The Good Old Boy touched a hand to his forehead. It came away shiny and black with blood.
“Aw, hell. Guess we won’t be winning any beauty contests anytime soon!”
The other man roared with laughter. But the laughter cut short, and he winced.
“That smarts,” he said.
“I hear ya.”
“Ya know what would really help? I got a flask of rum in the glove compartment. Can’t reach it, on account of my legs . . .”
The Good Old Boy nodded. He crawled through the busted window of the stranger’s car and opened the glove compartment. A large flask fell out. He picked up the flask. The other man murmured to himself in the darkness as the Good Old Boy crawled back.
“Can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” the man murmured. “. . . Can’t ya? When did I ever become such an old dog? Only constant is change. It’s like Tony Ohio always said . . .”
The Good Old Boy finished the thought: “You can’t step into the same river twice.”
The other man’s eyes widened.
“You knew Tony Ohio too?” he said.
The Good Old Boy handed him the flask. “Oh, sure! Me and Tony, we went way back. Greatest dealmaker there ever was.”
“Living legend in his time!”
“They don’t make ’em like Tony Ohio anymore. That’s for damn sure!”
The other man—who the Good Old Boy now recognized as another Good Old Boy like himself—unscrewed the flask and took a swig. He handed the flask to the Good Old Boy.
“You can say that again,” the other Good Old Boy said.
Then they roared with laughter, and winced from the pain, and passed the flask, and talked about the good old days. The rum crept through their veins, seeming to replace the blood flowing freely out. And as they warmed, they would have sworn that the ghost of Tony Ohio himself swooped down to join their little camp. The three of them roared with laughter, and slapped each other’s backs, and talked about the deals they’d made and the deals they had yet to make. Tony told the story of the raccoon in the tree. Then the Good Old Boy, recognizing kindred spirits, let his friends in on the brainwave of the century, a car that ran on sunshine and pumped out only fresh air. The car was so vibrant in their minds they swore they could see a prototype. The gull-wing doors opened, so the three of them piled in, and the car rode up through the glittering sky.
And when on the following day two frozen corpses were recovered from the slope, the emergency crew would wonder why the men hadn’t called for help. They had their phones with them. They’d had enough time, apparently, to get shit-blitzed together before hypothermia set in. Another holiday-season tragedy, the emergency crew thought to themselves.
But what the emergency crew could never know was that, for the victims themselves, the crash was the opposite of a tragedy. Deep in the woods on that snowy night, amid the wreckage of their actions, the Good Old Boys had finally closed the deal that would let them rest.