"I haven't enjoyed a rant this much since Thoreau," Beth said. "We need people stirring up the way we think about things."
My best friend, Beth, was trying to talk me into forming a Larry study group with her. His Web site received hundreds of hits a day, mostly from teens and college students. No one knew Larry's identity, and that conjecture alone was the source of several companion Web sites. Many kids at school were fans, but Beth was rabid.
"Josh, I know neither one of us has ever joined a club in our life," she said. "But that's precisely why we should."
I tried to listen to the details of her story, I really did, but there is something about Beth's mouth that gets in the way of paying attention to its contents. She often wore a certain brown lipstick and outlined the edges of her lips with this pencil she carried in her bag. Every time she talked, it was like this pale chocolate snowcone staring up at me, waiting to be eaten. I've been in love with her since sixth grade, but she didn't have a clue.
"I'll help you with the club," I said. "But just so the two of us can bag all the meetings and laugh at the other people who show up."
She wasn't amused. "This isn't a joke. Someone is finally talking about the things I've been saying all along, and I think it's important to help spread the word. Are you in or are you out?"
"Of course I'm in. I can't let you do this on your own. Next thing I know you'll be running for prom queen or something."
She punched me in the arm, her usual form of affection. "Hey, why don't you help me at the store this afternoon? We're having a run on shovels."
Beth's father'shardware store had been our work/tree house/summer camp since grammar school. Sorting the nuts and bolts, counting the different lightbulbs, shoveling the woodchips into wheelbarrows had never seemed like a job to either of us. The small store prided itself on carrying everything a homeowner could need, but for a loner like me it was a nonthreatening way to be a part of the community without too much social pressure. I told Beth I'd meet her there at four.
For a brief moment I pretended we were a couple, not snowbound outside Boston, but romping through the Caribbean surf--tan and in love. My fantasy shattered, however, when she waved goodbye and headed across the cafeteria to Todd Terrific--a new jock she was obsessed with. Can someone please explain to me how this preoccupation with dopey athletes happens even to headstrong young women who work in hardware stores and score 1350s on their SATs? Beth, what are you doing to me? Life was cruel and unfair--what did this Larry guy have to say about that?
The rest of school went by like the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray wakes up and every day is the same, down to the last boring details. Even when something new did happen--fire drill, substitute teacher--it was still just a giant yawn in the storyline. To keep myself amused during study hall, I invented a new alphabet based on the sense of smell.
At home that night, I booted up my laptop and logged on. I checked my e-mail, then the small portfolio of stocks my mother left me when she died. I made one last online stop: to Larry. I wondered if Beth was doing the same thing at the same time--an unrequited cyberdate.
The Larry logo filled the screen--a peace sign with a dove, a floppy disk, a planet, and a plug inside each of its four sections. I scrolled down through several photographs to comments people had written that day: puljohn posted a new link to Adbusters. Toejam ranted about Larry's last sermon, calling it brilliantly flawed. I was in the middle of reading his argument when Peter knocked quickly, then stuck his head in my room.
"Want some leftover pizza?"
My stepfather was the ultimate businessman; even in his terrycloth robe and slippers with the squashed heels, he could command his advertising consulting firm from the brink of failure to unbridled success. He had the whole sales thing down--the firm handshake, the warm smile, the good listening. It was the real Peter, not put on, like lots of other guys at his company.
He looked over my shoulder and checked out the screen.
"I've heard about this Larry," he said. "Some guy bashing our culture online. Anonymous coward."
"Some people think it's one of the big televangelists trying to reach the teen market. Or maybe it's a bored housewife in the suburbs looking for something to do."
Peter shook his head. "Probably some hacker trying to make a name for himself."
"I'll add that to the list of hypotheses," I said.
"You do that." He handed me a slice of pizza on a paper towel. "Dinner at Katherine's tomorrow. That okay with you?"
"Sure. Great." Katherine was my stepfather's girlfriend who had been putting on the full-court press to be the next Mrs. Swensen. I didn't have the nerve to tell Peter I found her as interesting as a bag of rice.
Peter closed the door and headed downstairs to his office. I browsed the Larry archives, then printed out the latest sermon to prepare for Beth tomorrow.
Slip on your Gap jeans, your Nike T-shirt, your Reeboks--or maybe even your Cons if you think that makes you cool and ironic in a Kurt Cobain kind of way. Grab your Adidas backpack, ride to school on your Razor, drink your Poland Spring, eat your PowerBar, write a paper on your iMac, slip on your Ralph Lauren windbreaker. Buy the latest CD from Tower, check the caller ID to see who's on the phone, eat your Doritos, drink your Coke. Stare at the TV till you're stupefied.
Is there any time of the day when we're not being used and abused by the advertising companies? Can we have an inch of free space, do you mind? Some ambitious kids rent their head space--the outside, not the inside (although the inside space is certainly emptier)--to local companies by shaving ads into their hair for all their friends to see. It's just a matter of time before corporations figure out a way to sell you stuff while you're sleeping. Maybe some kind of vitamin that releases visual and sonic enzymes that run like a ticker tape through your dreams--ALL THE LATEST RELEASES NOW AT BLOCKBUSTER ... CHEESIER NACHOS AT CHILI'S . . . BY THE WAY, YOU'RE SNORING. . . .
Am I the only one who sees the irony of sitting in lit class reading 1984, having a discussion of Big Brother watching out for us like it's some time way in the future? Some science fiction nightmare that's never really going to happen? Hel-lo? Our lives couldn't be more dictated by the corporations if they gave our schools A/V equipment in exchange for making us watch commercials in class.
Oh yeah, they do that already.
Good thing Peter hadn't hung around for that one. By two a.m., I had fourteen pages of notes for the new Larry club. When I added up all the things I'd done for Beth over the years, I figured it was more effort than they put into developing the last space shuttle.
And completely and totally worth it.