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Short Story

The Primitives

We found The Cave Man.

Shay was the one who brought him to our attention at around episode seven or eight. We were part of The Cave Man’s early audience, but not his first hits. Whoever they were, we doubted they had our intensity of devotion, watching the back episodes in one afternoon and then refreshing his channel every hour until one of us wrote a script to do the checking for us. The script sent us all an alert when a new video was posted. And whenever one was, it didn’t matter what the deadlines were. We pulled up a browser tab and watched immediately. Our views were always within the first hundred. In every video, The Cave Man built something practical using only the things he found in the jungle, and only using the tools he’d fashioned from stones and wood and woven plant material.

Because Shay didn’t seem to mind our teasing that she wanted to bone The Cave Man, we knew it was true. But we soon stopped kidding around with Shay because the rest of the team, all guys, soon became infatuated in our own ways. We marveled at The Cave Man and what his hands built: clay huts, ingenious drainage canals, weapons—especially the weapons. We started an internal channel just to discuss The Cave Man and his many inventions, then took it underground when they put monitoring crap on our computers. We left comments in our code for others on our team to find and contribute to. Sometimes our back and forth discussions were longer than the code itself. Writing in complete English sentences felt loose and liberating amid all those tight commands. And though we knew our comments were stripped out in the compile and invisible to anyone using the products we shipped, we liked to think ghosts of our discussions were out there, in the wild, just as The Cave Man was.

In love or enthralled, we all wanted to be The Cave Man. True, our team was also building something new, something streamlined and of utility to price-conscious consumers, but we began to lose faith in the importance of our turnkey rental car comparison shopping service. We began to yearn for a trade: our workstations for The Cave Man’s stone ax, our transportation vouchers and free lunches for a little clay hut in the middle of god-knew-where. We’d gladly exchange San Francisco’s cold fog for the jungle’s teeming warmth.

Some of us were let go during the belt-tightening before a new investment round. Then came the new hires who were like WTF is all this stuff in the code and we explained. At first they were puzzled, then converted. They were terribly unproductive as they caught up on episode after episode. We covered for them. This was something important. We were a tribe.

The hankering for a new episode was strong. We had seen The Cave Man make fire a dozen ways using nothing but jungle material; we’d seen him build a kiln; fire clay into sturdy interlocking tiles and use them to construct a pitched roof with guttering that then filled a clay water jug whenever it rained. The Cave Man even figured out how to build a smoke-heated floor for cold nights. He wove baskets, mats, blankets. He killed a pig with a slingshot. He cooked it on a spit that turned from power generated from steam. It was amazing. He was one of us, millions of years ago—though, of course, we knew he was our contemporary.

Our obsession grew. Based on the camera work, The Cave Man was a solo act. He was always either in the shot—the camera steadied by a tripod—or he was filming hand-held, badly. He never spoke. He never looked into the camera. He was our age, in his late twenties, but fit beyond belief. We didn’t need to ask Shay to know that he was pretty attractive, muscled as he was in the manner of tribespeople in nature documentaries, the hunter types who don’t wear modern clothes and haven’t been rotted away by sugar. We had a ten-thousand line comment in a credit-card validation subroutine discussing whether he was a carnivore or herbivore, paleo or vegetarian. The Cave Man continued to build. We continued deconstructing him.

For example: he was pale. Some of us took this to mean that he didn’t live at the site—not in the clay hut he’d built, nor the straw one or the other five or six, nor in the cave nearby where episode one had been filmed, the one showing him crushing berries into a watery paste that he then spat through a hollowed reed and against his hand, leaving the outlines of his digits on the cave wall. So, pale = lives somewhere else. Maybe he was one of us, chair-bound, but who came out to the jungle on the weekends for a light dose of UV. We hoped this wasn’t true. It made him seem lonely and we didn’t want him to be lonely. That said, if his weekends were like ours, he’d have a belly like ours. He’d look tired. And he never looked tired. He was always concentrated on the task at hand. He was indefatigable. For example: we watched him heave huge dollops of clay into one of his woven baskets and carry them up the steep creek bank to a new pit he’d dug with his stone pickax—all without breaking a sweat. What was he building now, in this pit, we wondered? He never put titles on his videos other than their episode number and he disallowed comments on his channel. We guessed another kiln, we guessed a meat smoker, we guessed some kind of bathtub. We were usually wrong. When it turned out to be a bellow so he could smelt iron ore, well, we almost lost our shit.

We should have started a fan site. Instead, we tried to find him.

We scoured the internet. The Wikipedia entry was suspect. Thom, the new database hire, was into birds and he said he heard the call of a bird in some videos that wouldn’t be found in South America. Plus, the videos’ timestamps would have meant that The Cave Man was putting them out at maybe three or four in the morning, which was another knock against the Wikipedia entry, and South America as his home. We ruled out North America mainly because of the sounds of birds and insects in the video, though Gobi said it looked like Florida and the rest of us (who hadn’t been to Florida) thought there was no way this could be Florida or else we’d all be living there right now. Winter came and the videos continued. There was no snow so we concentrated on the temperate zones. Africa was always a possibility, but a white man alone in the jungles of Africa seemed unlikely. If we were alone in the jungles of Africa we’d probably have a rifle nearby, at the very least. There’d be wild animals to worry about. Poachers, too. The only animals we’d seen in the videos were scorpions and toads and that one pig he killed with the slingshot. The Cave Man was unafraid and we were unafraid for him, though sometimes we worried he’d set the jungle on fire. He liked to leave his fires unattended. So, anyway, we scratched out Africa.

Time passed. We discovered love but weren’t always paying attention to the dosages and expiration dates. Some of us got married and some divorced soon thereafter. Others realized they’d never have a relationship. Some of us had kids and they were precious, and then parasitic, and then, during health scares that turned out to be nothing, precious again. At work, the IPO ideas fizzled. The company was bought out. Everything felt in motion.

In year three, the Cave Man began to tan and grow a beard. Ah-ha! we thought. He’s been laid off from his day job. When, several months later, he was clean-shaven again, we were happy that he’d found work. The tan and loin cloth had been a bit much. We preferred his pale shaved body and a pair of clean cargo pants—it made him seem more relatable.

We wondered how The Cave Man researched for his projects. Did he figure everything out in his head, or through endless trial and error? Were there hundreds of hours of deleted footage in which nothing went right and in which he cursed in languages we, perhaps, didn’t know? Thom helped compile a list of all the birds we heard in the videos’ background by isolating their calls. One of us wrote a program that matched those calls with a database of bird songs. Shay wrote a script to do screen captures of The Cave Man’s face which were then combined into one huge meta face that became the wallpaper on her workstation, her tablet, and her phone. Her ringtone was the theme song for The Flintstones, an old cartoon series. Her status said in a relationship.

When The Cave Man put in four live streaming cameras, well, we did lose our shit. We requested additional monitors at work and had the streams up like we were moonlighting as security guards. One camera pointed downhill to the creek. Now we could watch it rise and fall with the rains. Another pointed at the clay house. Another at the trees for some reason, and a final one that showed pretty much the entire encampment with something like a corner of roof covering a good quarter of the screen. It was a building we hadn’t seen. We wished we could write to The Cave Man and tell him to move the camera a bit, but he was unreachable. We didn’t even know his name or what language he spoke.

We began to try out names for him, mostly because he didn’t do anything in the cave anymore and we didn’t like the primitive connotation of “The Cave Man.” We tried out dozens of names. We upvoted and downvoted. In the end, we couldn’t agree so we just shorted it to T.C.M., which we then began pronouncing tee-come, to deflate it down to two syllables. We didn’t make any sexual jokes. We had too much respect for T.C.M. Eventually T.C.M. was inflated into Turner Classic Movies for a while which let us talk about him openly in meetings. “Did you think Turner Classic Movie will show that film about huge rope swings?” we might say, without management caring enough to even listen. They thought it was positive we took an interest in classic cinema. Eventually we settled on calling The Cave Man Turner.

Who knows why it took us four years, but we eventually thought to replicate some of Turner’s inventions. But which? We were of two camps. Some of us thought Turner was merely recreating the tools and trades of our ancestors. Others thought that he was creating something far in advance of our ancestor’s abilities. After all, Turner had a modern imagination. He knew about leverage and gears. He understood thermodynamics and geometry and aerodynamics and ballistics. We settled on trying to build a straw hut and plant sweet potatoes, both of which seemed to land safely in the column for “likely actions by early man.” We found a place in the park and worked there for three weekends until we ended up getting fined for four-hundred dollars for willful destruction and illegal harvesting. We appeared in court. It was pretty funny to us. We had hydroponic marijuana growing in a locked closet at work—why would we plant it in a park? Toadman was caught cutting down tree limbs for the supports for our straw hut so he had to do community service. His excuse—that he had Native American blood—didn’t fly, though it was one-sixteenth true. We texted him fake links to new Turner videos while he was helping plant new trees in the park as part of his one-hundred hours. But really, we were jealous. We were in the office while he was taking sick leave and working outdoors in the jungle, or the closest thing to it. Later, he took us back to the park to show us how he and the other public service volunteers had actually finished the damn hut, though it looked terrible. Still, we congratulated him.

Shay took on a boyfriend with a striking similarity to Turner and who kept asking us what was so funny. He talked too much, though, so she let him go. We had more kids, we found gray hairs. Some of us turned thirty, incomprehensibly. One of us died. Turner didn’t seem to age. We took up a few thousand lines in our code discussing the theory that the videos were all filmed in one go, say over one year, and that Turner was simply doling them out slowly.

We improved our video notification script. Now it only alerted us of a new video if our manager stepped beyond the geofence we placed around our building. We watched Turner build a lookout tower which rose and filled the live camera that had been pointed upwards at the trees. Turner thought ahead. He was conscientious about his actions, too. In one video he went around to all the stumps of trees he’d felled and we saw that all of them had thick new growth. His only pollution was the smoke from fires. We ignored all the pollution from broadcasting the feeds, etc.

One of us realized we never heard planes in the videos. We went back to our maps and pulled up flight routes and circled the areas on the earth that are least trafficked. It was then that we thought to actually find Turner in a serious, tangible way.

We paid no attention to satellite maps since Turner’s camp was under the jungle’s canopy. We could only ping the live feeds to a server in the U.S., but then Shay went to Thailand on vacation and there, pulling up the feeds, she found that the IPs she pinged came from Australia. Turner had to be a geek, like us. Who else would care enough about streaming latency and video quality to use a content delivery network? Turner cared about the user experience.

And then our company was bought out again and this time our entire team was shuttered, except for Thom. We didn’t mind being unemployed. We had just been a part of a fulfillment system and none of us felt fulfilled. We had enough money to not work for a while if we wanted.

Some wives and girlfriends were appalled by our plan to find and visit The Cave Man. Others, to whom we’d given more vague intentions, thought we deserved some time off. We discussed our options. We had to tell sons and daughters that they couldn’t come with us on our trip because of, well, school, for example. Two weeks, we told our significant others.

Eight of us left to find Turner. Eight of us got drunk on the plane. We treated the first few days as a vacation, but then we became serious. We rented two rental cars, disappointed to find that our hidden, hard-coded discount coupon no longer worked. Someone had touched our code. We drove around. We asked people about Turner, pulled up his videos, but were met with shrugs. We figured they were protecting him. We meant him no harm, we said. None. We were fans.

Because we were out of an office setting and in new routines, or maybe because our bodies were producing sufficient vitamin D for the first time since a spring break years and years ago, one of us fell in with Shay. We had a minor indiscretion we swore would stay between us. And when the others found out, that it would stay among the seven of us, Gabe having flown back to start a new job prior to said incident. It was nothing really, this indiscretion, but one of us was angry with himself. It wouldn’t have happened if we had Turner’s willpower. We wanted Turner as our future supervisor, boss, middle management, and CEO. He could tell us what to do and we’d jump to the task. Yes, we’d probably cut ourselves, burn our hands, get filthy and calloused—but it would be glorious. We’d live by our wits. We’d never have to compile again, never unit test again, never sit behind screens of code. We were ready to never return.

We needed another week to find him. This stretched to two more. We focused on an area on the eastern end of Australia. We were explorers. We put several thousand miles on our rentals. We traded them for 4x4s. We handed out screenshots of the jungle around Turner’s encampment at nature centers and that got us closer. The video feeds threw up an error one morning and we got the URL for an internet provider, a small one. We had the service area. We narrowed in. We did look at satellite images then.

The video fields did not come back on. There were no videos that week or the next. We were terribly worried. We asked naturalists about wild animals. We wondered if Turner might have fallen into a kiln or been bitten by an insect. He could be out there, dying. We considered putting out a missing persons report. And then we felt guilty. Perhaps Turner knew we were looking for his camp and he’d decided to shut everything down. We only wanted to find him and here we’d ruined it for millions of his viewers.

But then everything was as before and we watched, from a hotel room, as Turner made a long rope from woven vines which he worked into a pulley system tied to the top of his tower which, it was revealed, was built just a few feet below a large bee hive. No wonder we hadn’t seen him in weeks—he’d been busy. We were thrilled as we watched him bring down comb after comb, his body shielded from the bees by large fronds he’d tied about his torso. We went out and bought honey and ate buttered bread covered in the stuff. We had another indiscretion with Shay and felt less bad afterwards. Some of us thought it was time to hack Turner’s account to help us find his location, but the truth was that none of us knew how. Around this time we stopped doing video calls with home because we became tired of the nagging of those that no longer understood our obsession.

Now that we were watching the live feeds in the same time zone, we began to notice that Turner always made his first appearance on camera two and then disappeared for a bit right before the live feeds would flicker. We realized—and upbraided ourselves for taking so long to figure this out—that he regularly cut out the live feed and put in a few hours of canned footage so he wouldn’t be seen setting up his camera and tripod and recording his videos. He must be using a laptop somewhere to splice in the previously recorded footage. It was like Ocean’s Eleven. We loved it.

When Turner made his appearances, he was always shirtless and shoeless, so we doubted he entered the bush from a business. It had to be a house. He worked freelance, we reasoned, as we’d always dreamed of doing ourselves. In addition, there had to be a place where he kept his laptop safe from the rain. A shed of some sort. And electricity to power it unless he was running something like a ThinkPad with a slice battery. Based on the internet provider’s coverage area and the terrain, we narrowed his location down to eighty or so possible locations and then—after many miles of hiking—down to fifty, then thirty, then twenty. When we weren’t hiking through the jungle, searching, one of us thought about how he’d tell his wife and his children about himself and Shay. It would be hard for everyone.

And then it happened. We were on a trail behind a cluster of spread out homes and wouldn’t have noticed the ethernet wiring in the PVC pipe, there under the trail, had one of us not gone into the bush to take a piss. The cable ran from a house—an unassuming single-story with a back porch and cups of fruit and seed left out for birds that we saw hopping and rocking and squawking on the railing. Who ran ethernet cable into the bush? We were certain we’d found the place. We followed the cables for longer than we expected they’d go, all the way to a clearing. We could feel it: the vegetation was right, the trees, the sound of birds and insects. And there, just as we’d imagined, was a little shack, though we hadn’t expected the solar array. The shack was locked but we knew that was probably where Turner kept his laptop—or maybe a homemade kit, a cluster of low-powered Raspberry Pis or something—when he was splicing in his canned footage. From the shed, four ethernet cables ran deeper into the jungle. The one among us with networking experience scoffed a little, because Turner could have just used a splitter closer to the cameras. We told him to shut up. We found the first camera and were elated. We realized then that it wasn’t a bit of roof that was always blocking the upper left quadrant of the streaming feed but a piece of laminated cardboard attached to a metal hanger and stuck into the dirt, placed there to keep the sun from flaring up the lens. We moved on, excitedly. One of us, then, realized they’d likely left the rental car keys locked inside one of the rental jeeps. We told him to shut up, it didn’t matter. We were here. We had arrived.

When we saw the mud hut it was, in all honesty, smaller than we expected. Everything was smaller and we realized it was because we’d made Turner out to be six foot something and really he was probably quite a bit shorter. But it didn’t matter. It was a passing disappointment, unshared, and we instead ran from one project to another. There was the kiln. Which one? Episode 55 or 92? It didn’t matter. And there was the straw hut. And here were his tools, under a plank of bark. God almighty, we’d found where The Cave Man dwelled!

We didn’t get a cell signal out here so we couldn’t see ourselves on camera, but we realized everyone else could. We were proud. We were the first. We’d found the spot. The earth is covered with a gazillion square miles of land and we’d found the needle in the haystack. Turner wasn’t there, of course, because he only came around on the weekend, usually, but still, we were elated. We got high. We drank. As it got dark we started a fire using his tools, our palms blistering. We took turns testing out Turner’s smoke-heated floor. We were delicate and careful in the beginning.

When we woke, bug-bitten, hungry, we saw that we’d carved things on the outside of the mud hut. Profanities. T-cum! Also, victory slogans. There was feces in the hut. Piss on the walls. When had we collapsed the woodshed built in episode 44 to keep Turner’s wood supply dry? We were guilt-ridden and hungover. As consolation, at least one of us had had the foresight to point all of Turner’s cameras away sometime in the night.

We found Turner’s baskets and trudged down to the creek. The water was low. We hollowed out the earthen banks as we’d seen him do a hundred times. We splashed water on our excavation and turned the rock-hard clay into something malleable. The baskets were impossibly heavy. We couldn’t hoist them onto our shoulders like Turner did but had to carry them between us. We fetched more water using his fired water jug and wetted the clay down and when it was warm and soft we got to work filling up our carvings on the walls. We were contrite, even though replastering the house was a good deal of work. We tried to fix the straw hut as best we could, and the woodshed. We had overloaded the flue with dried sticks and we pulled out the half-charred pieces and hid them. We couldn’t remember if the crack in the kiln had been there. If we had cell reception we could have pulled up a recent episode and known. We saw the geometric tracks of our sneakers and boots in the dirt and so we took off our shoes and smoothed them over. We couldn’t believe Turner managed to walk here, barefoot. Our feet felt precious and tender. During all of this time we were thinking the same thing: what would Turner think of us? Maybe he never watched the live streams. It probably wasn’t archived. We could be safe unless someone told him, but no one had a way of contacting him. Paranoia came and went.

We thought, since we were already there, since we had searched the whole earth for him but were now too ashamed to see him, that we might as well explore a little, and in doing so, help us get past our shame. We saw where Turner had taken down some of the bee hive. We heard the birds but didn’t see them. We were drenched by a heavy leaf-tapping rain and found, around a bend in a ridge, the cave, the one that held Turner’s handprint from episode one and which now gave us shelter. His handprint was still as ruddy and well-defined as it had been six years ago. Our fingers were skinny compared to his. We thought, briefly, that he might be inside. We called out. No one answered. We passed a few dumb-looking animal portraits and understood why he’d never shown these on video. The man was an engineer like us, not an artist. We put our phones into flashlight mode. There were more animals, figures, patterns. They weren’t all bad. We wondered how he’d painted the ones on the ceiling. We comprehended, finally, that these were old. Ancient, even. They were suddenly amazing. Our realizing this, we thought, was a good sign of our humanity. There were more drawings. Many more. The cave went on, downward. Wait, we said, “cover your lights.” It became pitch black except for the blood-reddened orbs of our many thumbs and the light show from our hangovers. We uncovered our thumbs and continued until we came to a wall of rubble from an old cave-in. We’d reached the end. We looked at animals we couldn’t identify. People with geometric bodies. Arrows, maybe. We saw a grass hut. We saw a figure on a tower—could those dots be bees? We were in hallowed ground, where inspiration was born. The others climbed back out of the cave. Shay put down her phone and began to unbutton someone’s pants. Someone began to unbutton her top. But then we both stopped. We were cold, shivering, and felt too brief and fleeting, somehow, to go on.

We hiked in the direction of the trail and found it and walked back toward our jeeps. It was then that we saw Turner, The Cave Man, coming towards the trail from a house. He was shirtless and wearing dark blue shorts. He was carrying a ThinkPad and a dirty fabric backpack. We were ready to say “G’day” and nothing more in the hopes he would not take us for Americans. But he was near the area where the ethernet cables ran under the trail and he followed it before we reached him. We watched him disappear into the jungle. He was maybe five-feet eight or so. There was a tattoo on his back that he never revealed to the camera; we felt privileged and ashamed to have seen it. What would he think when he saw what we’d done? What new video would he make? Would he build something we’d seen on the cave wall or in chambers we hadn’t discovered? Or would it be weaponry, perhaps connected to trigger vines so that if anyone else tried to mess with his creations, they’d get a dart in the neck? We walked back to the jeeps quickly.

It turned out that the missing keys were still in the jeep door, the thick plastic fob from the rental agency wet and bright yellow. It was a small mercy. We said little. Someone said, “So, ThinkPad.” We grunted. Shay rode in a different jeep. We flew home and pretended nothing had happened, that we’d failed, which was true. We found new work, though not together. What had bound our team—work and Turner—continued to dissolve. We dipped into nano and edited our hosts file to block our browsers from visiting The Cave Man’s channel and the live streams. We handed our devices to our children and had them turn on Parental Controls to block our web browsers from ourselves. We hid each other’s posts so news of Turner wouldn’t appear in our feeds.

That first week back from Australia we heard from Thom that the codebase had been reduced by forty-two percent by new hires, simply by removing all of our Turner comments in the source code. Everything we’d written about The Cave Man, our theories, our jests, our repartee separated by code commits, was gone. We deserved that.

We changed jobs again and eventually managed to work from home. We coded in only our shorts. We exercised and lost the flab. Our wives said they liked the new us’es, but asked us what the fuck was with all the house plants. We stopped there, even drew back a little. Gained a little flab. Realized it was over, months after it was over. We put our shirts back on.

Yes, we’d found The Cave Man. But we wished we’d been sober and respectful at the time. We wished we’d chased after him when we saw him disappear into the bush so that we could have asked for his pardon. We’d have told him how we could make it up to him. We could have done some networking improvements. Built an app or a website. But Turner wouldn’t have wanted those things. But why did he make videos in the first place, we wondered? Why not do it all in secret? After all, he wasn’t monetizing the videos. We told ourselves he shared what he did because he wanted to be discovered, thereby justifying our actions. It was a dare. No, others countered. He wanted to show that his life was possible, or, rather, those earlier lives, the lives of everyone’s ancestors, the lives of everyone we’d forgotten because they didn’t have names and they weren’t in our photostream or family histories. More than one of us went into Wikipedia and added fake sources to disingenuously confirm that The Cave Man lived in South America, there where he’d be safe from people like us. We wondered who’d created the page to begin with. We wondered if, perhaps, we had not really been the first ones to find him.

Later, much later, some of us heard a rumor that Shay had gone back to Australia and was living with The Cave Man. This was long after his channel had grown old and stale, his domain name now redirecting to a Chinese nightclub. In one variant of the story, Shay even had a child with Turner. No one pursued the rumor. We felt forgiven by believing she’d gone back and made peace with him. We let it be. We went on with our modern lives and let the past grow blank. We started fires maybe once or twice a year. A candle. A grill. We weren’t even good with matches.

“The Primitives” first appeared in Passages North.