The following Saturday, with the first week of school finally retreating into memory, Milo awoke to a very special day: his birthday. Having a birthday that fell around the start of school, Milo was used to it being overshadowed by one of a countless number of activities that fill the calendars of helpless school children, but this year was different.
Marvin had planned an all-day celebration that Milo knew would be unforgettable. He was going to pick him up in the morning and they would be together all day long. Then in the evening, Milo’s mom would join them in the city for the cake cutting and opening of presents. Milo was a bit sad, knowing that this meant his mother had tried and failed to get out of her shift at the diner, but he knew how hard she had to work so he could go to school.
Maybe it was time to sell off his old computers, get a part time job, and help out. It wouldn’t be legal to work, but he could find something online. There were countless programming gigs that he could do with a faked identity. But today was supposed to be a special day, so he pushed these thoughts from his mind.
Though Milo tried to pretend otherwise, he cherished his birthday above all other days. So when Marvin arrived in the morning, Milo had been waiting by the door for at least an hour. He’d hardly slept a wink the night before either, and for good reason. Each year Marvin managed to outdo himself not necessarily in the lavishness of the gifts, but in their thoughtfulness. Milo recalled with fondness the many great memories of birthdays past, from ice cream and candy to all-day gaming sessions, to that one year where Marvin accidentally threw a surprise party — which Milo found to not be quite as exciting as everyone always made them out to be.
So when he finally heard the plaintive beep of the old VW bus, Milo leapt to his feet and was already out the door, bounding across the lawn.
“I can’t believe my eyes! Is that a living, breathing, teenager I see before me?” Marvin teased, emphasizing the word with what was probably supposed to be a British accent, butchered pleasantly with his characteristic charm.
Milo smiled. Finally turning thirteen was a big deal, but the way that Marvin had said it put Milo immediately at ease. This was going to be a really fun day, Milo knew it already.
“Now that I’m thirteen, I’ve made some important resolutions,” he said, referring to his annual habit much akin to what most people did at the start of the year. “I’ve decided to sell off my computers. I think I might pick up a different hobby.”
As the color drained from Marvin’s face, Milo continued, “I’m kidding, Grandpa. Actually, I do have a question about the BASIC on the Timex Sinclair you gave me last time.”
Laughing together, Milo got in the old bus and they sped off on their special adventure together. First stop was for the ever irresponsible but delightfully indulgent ice cream breakfast. This year Marvin took him down to Pascal’s on the Pier, and they talked about programming languages while eating ice cream and walking by the shores of Puget Sound. The sun managed to break through a few times and brighten their walk, which only made it that much more pleasant.
After ice cream, Marvin took him to one of their favorite vintage computing shops and they hunted through old boxes full of yellowed manuals in the hopes of finding one for the Sinclair. Sadly, they didn’t seem to have anything related, but they enjoyed the sport anyway. Part of the fun of being a collector was the chase, at least so Marvin told him.
As it was getting on into midday, the pair stopped by Milo’s favorite eating establishment, Pizza Wizards, on the way back to Marvin’s house. Eating pizza while playing old pinball machines combined two of Milo’s favorite activities. Marvin, who was not playing, seemed to be enjoying the experience vicariously.
Occasionally Milo would notice Marvin with a rather pensive look on his face which would almost immediately flash to a smile. Milo thought it odd, but with the entire day engineered to be things he enjoyed, it was almost as if Marvin was intentionally distracting him. Maybe because mom couldn’t make it.
Into the lazy stretch of a sunny afternoon, the party bus finally rolled into Marvin’s neighborhood and Milo was reminded again of the unusual circumstances which surrounded his Grandpa’s life.
In the midst of modern architectural masterpieces and overpriced cookie cutter mansions, Marvin’s hippie rambler seemed lost in time. The flaking paint and Himalayan prayer flags didn’t quite fit in with the perfect lawns and manicured shrubbery of his neighbors. But that was one of the things about Marvin that Milo really liked: he wasn’t concerned about being unusual. He didn’t feel bad when other people disapproved, he just kept being Marvin. Milo wanted to be like that someday.
After the van shuddered to a halt and the doors squeaked open, Milo ran to the front door and waited in mock impatience for whatever Marvin had planned next. The sound of anxious scratching could be heard from behind the door.
“This being your thirteenth year, I had a long discussion with Inu and we decided that we had to make it special,” Marvin said as he opened the door and Inu — the reddish fox-like dog that bounded out to greet them — swarmed Milo with as affectionate of a greeting as could be found in the animal kingdom.
Milo got down on his knees and said, “Is that true, pup? Got something special planned this year?”
Eyes fully closed with delight and tail wagging her entire body, Inu licked Milo’s outstretched hand.
After a somewhat exaggerated greeting, they finally went into the warmth of the house. Marvin went off to the side to put a record on the player, giving time for Milo to examine the wrapped contents on the coffee table in the den.
There were two presents resting there, both hastily wrapped. One of which seemed to be about the size of a coffee mug and the other very clearly was in an ordinary shoebox. Since Marvin never actually wrapped items in the boxes they came in, this told Milo virtually nothing other than their maximum size.
“Let me guess, a ‘Best Grandson’ mug and a new pair of sneaks?” Milo said, with a smirk.
“Just like last year,” Marvin rejoined.
“Can I open one of them?”
“You can open both,” Marvin said before adding, “and your mom will be bringing another present later tonight.”
Milo wrestled with the important decision of which present to open first. Do you go for the bigger one, hoping that it’s the more significant or opt for the concentrated value potentially in the smaller package? Impatience made his decision for him as he went for the bigger shoebox-sized package first.
As soon as he picked it up and felt the books shifting inside, he knew what it had to be. Urgently ripping through the poorly taped wrapping, Milo flipped open the shoebox to reveal a cache of impossible-to-find user manuals, example program print-outs, and other relics from the dawn of personal computing. Right on top was the original manual for the Sinclair. Milo was overjoyed.
“You only mentioned that a couple dozen times this last month, wasn’t that easy to find too since the Sinclair you’ve got is the one from the United —” Marvin started to say before Milo gave him a big hug.
Milo flipped through the manual and couldn’t believe how casually it was written. It was as if the author thought the computer hacker on the other side of the book was a long awaited friend, not like the disaffected prose of current technical writing. It made him feel like he was on the inside of a cool group of people. He smiled.
Milo returned to the table and grabbed the smaller package, disposing of the wrapping paper in similar fashion. He was correct that it was the box for a coffee mug, but he didn’t stop there. Opening it and tossing aside the excessive tissue paper — which prevented shaking from revealing any clues — Milo couldn’t believe his eyes. Marvin had found an old calculator watch from the ‘80s identical to the one he wore. Not only had he managed to track down such a sacred relic, but had also refurbished it back into working condition.
“Did you—” Milo said while putting the watch on his wrist.
“I had to make some modifications to get the circuit board working again, a little soldering, replacement parts, new display, things like that. But, check it out!” Marvin said with a flourish, putting his own wrist next to Milo’s. The two watches looked identical.
Milo was on cloud nine.
“Hey, I want to show you something,” Marvin said as he made his way to the back office. Normally off limits, the office was where Marvin conducted his research, though over all these years Milo had never been permitted inside. He had only glimpsed through partially open doors, but apparently becoming a teenager changed all that.
Walking past piles of journals, books, and computer peripherals, Milo entered the holy of holies for the very first time. If there was an eye to the hurricane of the house, it was this room, with its walls lined with books, huge desk covered with numbered lab notebooks, and — as Milo saw for the first time — a cabinet-sized computer with a strange keyboard and tiny monitor. Apparently the computer was a Lisp Machine, but Grandpa had put a piece of tape over the “Lisp” on the placard and had written “LISA” in a black permanent marker. A notebook sitting open nearby appeared to be filled with scratchings that were either some ancient language or a shorthand of some kind. The whole thing was utterly foreign to Milo.
“What is that, Grandpa?” he asked.
“It’s a Lisp Machine, Milo. Have you heard of one of those before?”
“No, I doubt many people have,” Milo said.
Marvin paused, and then with a certain measured voice said, “In a roundabout way, it’s what I’ve dedicated my life to studying.” He smiled and then quickly changed the subject.
“Are you still playing with that 8088 I got you last month?”
This time, Milo smiled. Grandpa was referring to a semi-broken computer that he had received as a spontaneous gift a few months prior. Marvin didn’t have the best sense of the passage of time and buying broken toys for grandchildren had not helped his reputation all that much.
“Yep, just took me a couple days to get it going again. It was like someone had deliberately fried some of the memory and written over the boot sectors on the hard drive. Weird, right?”
Marvin laughed, an infectious full-bodied laugh that raised the corners of Milo’s mouth too.
“I knew you’d figure it out! How about when I get back from my trip, we work on this one together?” Marvin said, tapping the Lisp Machine. “I’m sure we’ll be able to figure it out if we work on it together.”
That made Milo really happy.
Just then the doorbell rang and Milo’s mom joined them for the ritual of dinner with the special red plate. Then there was the cake and even more ice cream.
His mom had bought him a nice shirt and a new pair of jeans. Given that his entire wardrobe was composed of second hand clothing, Milo was overwhelmed. She had worked so hard, all just to help him fit in. All those extra hours were for his birthday. Milo was so thankful for her, but the words seemed stuck in his throat. Communicating emotions always tied him up in knots, but he mustered the courage and gave her a big hug. He felt loved.