The Dork Knights
A rivalry that zooms straight out of today’s pages.
He concluded his purchase of the newspaper and shut his laptop. His assistants turned toward him. “Amazing,” one of them said. His name was George. “Hardly,” the man said. “I’m just an ordinary man.”
The other assistant, Abigail, ignored him. She had recently been through a breakup, which, he had been told, was what happened when a romantic partnership dissipated as a result of the dissatisfaction of one or both participants. “Sorry to hear about your breakup,” he said to her.
Any ordinary man would have done the same. But would an ordinary man have bought a newspaper? For years he had sold books. That was ordinary. He had a family. That was ordinary. He went to the gym. Ordinary.
The man stood. George and Abigail stood, too. The three of them took the elevator to the lobby, walked to a boxy sedan, and drove off.
Across town, another man was racing across town. Moments earlier, he had been sitting in a conference room, listening to a scientist speculate on the future of renewable energy. It was all in the sun and the wind, the scientist had said, and the man had found the notion, for a moment, poetic.
He flashed back to college. “A leafy shelter from the sun and wind,” he said to himself, out loud.
After the meeting, the man had walked to the parking lot, where he had stepped into his car — a car he not only was driving but had in fact designed — and put foot to pedal. His girlfriend had told him that she needed him at dinner in fifteen minutes. “Impossible,” he said. “I’ll be there in five.”
He looked at the speedometer. He was going a hundred miles an hour. He swung onto the stretch of road with the restaurant, drifted left as he feathered the brakes, brought the car to a halt just feet from the front door. He tossed his keys to the valet. “Under five,” he said to no one.
At a stoplight, the man in the ordinary car reached over and lifted a newspaper off the passenger seat. Abigail stared at him, or maybe glared. What was the difference again? The man looked at the front page. He was on it. The top headline was about him buying the paper in which the top headline appeared.
“It seems kind of conceited for me to read an article about my buying a newspaper in the newspaper I bought,” he said. George nodded and laughed. Abigail turned to the opinion page, where there were opposing viewpoints regarding the purchase. She summarized the arguments. One writer lamented the sad sequence of events that had felled journalism. Another writer hailed the man as a hero. “I think the truth is somewhere in the middle,” Abigail said. George waited until he saw the man nodding and started nodding, too.
At the next stoplight, the man looked around the car. Abigail was honest with him, and he liked that. George was a toady, and he liked that, too. He was happy to have them with him.
The man who had tossed his keys to the valet was deep into his meal when he noticed a waiter looking at them from across the dining room. He was a skinny young man with a skinny mustache and he was fretting the edge of his order pad.
“Do you see that?” he asked his girlfriend. She snorted. She was an actress, she said, which meant that she was a student of human behavior, which meant that of course she had seen it. “He seems agitated,” he said. “What do you think it means?” His girlfriend lifted her drink to her lips and told him that it meant that they should drink to his wonderful inventions and fat bank account and then hurry home.
The way she said it made everything — the drink, the inventions, the prospect of hurrying home — sound deliciously disreputable. He looked out the window and pointed toward his car. Behind her, the waiter started toward them.
Flanked by George and Abigail, the man who had bought the newspaper was told that he would have to wait. He waited. A wait was ordinary and he appreciated it. He waited more. It was starting to feel less ordinary.
He saw the waiter moving across the restaurant floor, toward a table where a man sat with a young woman. That man and that woman, he thought, must have something to do with the waiter’s agitation, and perhaps even with my wait. He dispatched George to ask the host and made Abigail stay with him. Just a man and a woman waiting for a table, he thought. Nothing to see here.
The waiter came toward the man who had braked to zero from a hundred in under four seconds. The waiter himself was in a process of braking. He excused himself and began to speak. Words tumbled nervously from his lips. Evidently, he said, there was, well, maybe it was his fault, he didn’t know, he had just learned, maybe, well, he wasn’t sure at all how it had happened, but.
“Just say what you need to say,” the man said. This seemed to give the waiter courage. He planted both feet, squared himself up, and made an announcement. A richer man needed the table.
Flanked again by George, who had returned from talking to the host, and by Abigail, who had never left, the man who had come ordinarily across town watched the waiter arrange for his table. The waiter spoke. The man at the table listened. The waiter spoke some more. The man at the table stood. The waiter shrank. The man at the table began to shout. The waiter turned and fled. The man sat back down and resumed eating, slowly at first but then at his former pace.
As soon as the waiter had left, the man’s girlfriend began to speak. She said that she would give up her table for no man. She said that she was sitting next to the richest man she knew and had no intention of changing that. She said that she was desperate to remove any and all garments. She slid a finger into her mouth and out, and read the names of desserts from the menu.
The man who had bought the newspaper led George and Abigail out into the restaurant’s parking lot, where he placed a small tracer on the underside of the car the man at the table had indicated by pointing. “George,” he said. “Warehouse.”
George drove the three of them to an undisclosed location north of the city and pressed a dashboard button. The side of the warehouse slid open with a deep burr. Abigail gasped. “Those are engines,” the man said. “From the moon rocket.”
He and George loaded the engines into a truck, activated the tracer, and set out to find the car from the restaurant. “George,” he said. “Angle the engines and prepare to fire them up.”
The man from the restaurant was driving home. His girlfriend was beside him, detailing carnal activities to come. All at once, the man’s blood was hot. He thanked his girlfriend. “No,” she said. “Behind us.” He looked in the rearview mirror. His car was in flames. He pulled over to the side of the road. He and his girlfriend ran, screaming, all thoughts of sex forgotten.
The ordinary man chuckled.
Thus began the animosity between Bookman Prime and the Solar Flare. And on they went, battling one another, as Bookman Prime expanded into biotech and reconceived the way that information was stored on servers, as the Solar Flare designed a high-speed underground transportation system…
…as the Solar Flare destabilized international markets to undermine Bookman Prime’s portfolio, as Bookman Prime blotted out the sun and, in so doing, hamstrung the Solar Flare’s already tenuous solar-power initiative, as they left the earth for the moon and fistfought in decreased gravity…
…as the Solar Flare landed a haymaker, as Bookman Prime kicked in the general direction of the Solar Flare’s face, as one obtained advantage and then lost it to the other, as veins on their heads filled with angry blood…
…as they declared a truce, briefly, and returned to Earth, united, to vainly oppose male pattern baldness and divorce and indigestion and insomnia, as they had a falling-out, became enemies once again, repeated various aspects of their conflict, and were finally both defeated by Time.
Ben Greenman is a contributing writer for the New Yorker and the author of several acclaimed books of fiction and nonfiction. His most recent books are The Slippage, a novel, and Mo Meta Blues, which he co-wrote with Questlove of the Roots.
This story originally appeared in Issue 27 (October 10, 2013) of The Magazine, a fortnightly periodical of original non-fiction reporting and essays. This special bit of fiction was commissioned for our anniversary issue. Find out more about subscribing to get five medium-length articles every two weeks.