A tawdry tale of dial-up bondage and customer 'service.'

Like most spiritual chimeras, it sprang forth randy and dank from the heaving loins of Hell.

Or in this case, a box store with hot bargains.

And so I lurked, on that ill-fated October morn, in the electronic Eden of Circuit City, 4439 N. Oracle Road. Drunk on the sweet nectar of corporate marketing, I prepared to hawk my thrift-shop soul for a voluptuous blue and white Mac.

After all, argued the wee Satan on my shoulder, hadn't I spent years banging out licentious claptrap on a sad stream of wheezy second-handers? Wasn't I was ready to legitimize my ill-tempered tirades with a dependable new computer?

A lapsed Luddite I was becoming, and exuberantly so. Then and there, in that flashy playpen of unleashed id, I lustily shed my robes of consumer constraint and joined the orgy. Caution and conscience be damned. Time for something quietly elegant, technologically flamboyant, sensuously efficient.

Something Mac.

My fall was precipitated by a smokin' deal: Buy an $800 iMac for a measly $400, and tweedle out the remainder with a $400 rebate, going toward 36 months of online, dial-up rhapsody with CompuServe.

LET'S JUST SAY THAT I came to know Steve very well, although I never saw him naked. In fact, I never saw him at all, which is probably best. But in my mind he remains a giant, albeit of the meager sort.

CompuServe's "Customer Care" folks touted Steve as their nonpareil, the clean-up man, a wizened soul floating through the wee hours and into my telephone via his ethereal cubbyhole in Jacksonville, I think, or Atlanta, or maybe Kansas City. If anyone could get me connected to CompuServe, Steve was the dude.

Indeed, at first his bag of tricks seemed wondrous, his voice reassuring, his manner smooth and seductive. In Steve's verbal embrace I experimented with downloading, uploading, loading from behind and loading as God intended.

Sinful or not, it soon became clear that CompuServe was not to be the path of online enlightenment for my little iMac.

Who was to blame? Not Steve, nor the other disembodied CompuServe voices that followed, those of Mark, Korrie, Stephanie, Christina, May, Robert, Kyle, Sara, Blaine and Susan. True, most offered only slim assistance, delivered with that disdainful whiff of the knowing, forced by circumstance to deal with the techno-ignorant. But it was Steve who let slip the crucial caveat: CompuServe--and Circuit City by default--were knowingly stuffing the iMac stocking with exactly the wrong software to join the online world.

Why? Because the right software was new and scarce, and they needed to hustle these iMacs out the door.

I wallowed in my deserved fate: instant karma for reckless largesse. Techno-revenge. Of such purchasing power I was obviously not worthy.

THEN I CALLED MARK Unger, computer department manager for the Oracle Road Circuit City. Mark Unger did not call me back.

But yet another voice, in that same store's computer department, found it hard to believe that I couldn't make my antiquated CompuServe software work.

No comprende, no nada? the chipper young "sales associate" asked.

Nope, I answered in straight Americun. Finally, and after much incredulous contemplation, the associate conceded a remote possibility that the software CompuServe included with my moribund iMac was the likely culprit.

Then he referred me to the Circuit City at 5530 E. Broadway Blvd. There, a more disassociative associate offered me a bootleg copy of the right goods--seemingly the only appropriate CompuServe/iMac software in Tucson.

But not for long: The bootleg didn't help, either. Which took me back to Steve in Customer Care, who quickly slipped from his state of grace. Tough luck, he said, let's try something else. I suggested the strategy of ditching my deplorable rebate contract with CompuServe altogether.

"Sorry, buddy," Steve said. "No can do."

It was a crushing blow, especially since CompuServe and Circuit City had screwed me, so to speak, and despite my hours and days spent fiddling and configuring, the phone pressed to one ear, sweaty fingers on the mouse.

But my inability to connect with CompuServe online didn't mean much to the bean counters. To withdraw from their rebate contract, Steve said, I'd still pay a mandatory $50 fee exacted upon all backsliders.

Fault, and where it should lie, was beyond the point. Mere ships Steve and I now became, passing in the torpid waters of a long corporate night. Or nights, rather, six and counting.

I briefly grieved over what could have been. And then I went over Steve's head.

This began with asking Steve, and then Mark, Korrie, Stephanie, Christina, May, Robert, Kyle, Sara, Blaine and Susan, where I might find CompuServe's corporate headquarters, the brick and mortar behind this whole sordid affair. None could--or would--say.

Ironically, I had to traipse over to a friend's computer and go online to track down the company's elusive command post.

Kim Wilder-Lee was a spokeswoman for CompuServe at their corporate offices in Columbus, Ohio, and she boasted one of those chirpy voices crucial to perpetual spin. But I was well into my second week of this cyber odyssey, and hardly in a state of spiritual equilibrium. Nor was I comforted by her assurances that such cases as mine were so rare as to be worthy of intense empirical scrutiny.

Now I won't say that our conversation was particularly warm or loving. But I did emerge with my $50 fee waived, and that very day mailed out a check for $400 to repay the rebate.

El finale, done, completo, nada mas, I thought with relief.

I soon thought again. This corporate Beelzebub would prove a stubborn bastard indeed.

IT WAS FEBRUARY 1 when I finally sat down and dissected my credit card bills. That's when I discovered that CompuServe's monthly fees were still coming hot and heavy. I called Kim Wilder-Lee, only to find that she--or at least her job--had been devoured in a patricidal frenzy by the parent company, America Online.

Several calls later, I finally started getting answers from Anne Bentley, communications director for AOL (and happily fielding customer complaints at 703-265-2100). Soon we were conferencing with Bentley's customer service ace, a perky fellow named Dan.

We cut and we diced, and when it was done, Dan had pledged the true return of my $50 fee, and paybacks on the monthly fees. "This whole story has had me intrigued," Anne Bentley said.

The next day I received a nasty letter from CompuServe's Virginia-based bill collectors, demanding $450 for the rebate cost and the contract withdrawal fee. "Pay in full!" collections agent Sarah Smith admonished in bold-faced print.

"Oh, that wasn't a nasty note," Smith later told me on the phone. "It was only your first from us, right?"

Four calls back to Anne Bentley brought several messages--via her assistant--to the effect that "She's moving it along as quickly as she can."

Swell. I'd long since signed on with another ISP, paid my $400 to CompuServe, agonized endlessly with Steve, Mark, Korrie, Stephanie, Christina, May, Robert, Kyle, Sara, Blaine and Susan, threatened to expose the whole tawdry mess to faithful Weekly readers, been billed for a service never used, harangued by churlish debt collectors, and patronized by smug public-relations folk.

A bonafide spiritual journey, an emotional juggernaut, an endless Hades. I longed for the garden of grace.

Again I called Anne Bentley at 703-265-2100, and left a message.

On February 3, I received a call from Lauren Salvage, who noted that my consumer soul had been likewise salvaged. In other words, this AOL Customer Service Project Manager said, everything was fixed, my collection bill exorcised, my account null and void, and sorry about my unfortunate frolic in cyber hell.

On a sunny afternoon three months after stepping through the whishing doors of Circuit City, I received a voice mail from Anne Bentley. "I'm just an intermediary, so I'm trying to get the people on the ground, who can make a difference, to get your problem resolved," she said, a touch defensively. "So I think we've done that, I think we've done that pretty expeditiously ..."

Expeditiously. A cool word for quick and efficient.

I WAS GIVING MY OFFICE its annual dusting a few days later when I came across a wrinkled copy of that cantankerous lefty gazette, The Nation. Weirdly--and this is true--it fell immediately open to a fierce dissection of corporate hegemony by E.L. Doctorow. In his essay ("In the Eighth Circle of Thieves," August 7, 2000), Doctorow noted that "conglomerated organizations of capital are not exactly people."

This perked me right up.

Instead, Doctorow argued, they remain "compositions of human talents formatted to their purposes. They are dedicated networks of artificial intelligence."

He went on: "They think and feel in numerical abstractions. They will advertise their employees as their human face, they will give themselves hearts and souls in their television commercials, but as institutions they are dimensionally beyond the humans who work for them or the shareholders who gamble in their stock.

"They are profit manufactories," Doctorow concluded, "that accumulate people or rid themselves of people according to the transhuman logic of their balance sheets ..."

I reveled in such declarations. Three months, 32 phone calls and one scorched soul later, I was no longer alone in the cold corporate sea. There were others bobbing on the troubled waters of living, breathing, unpolished humanity.

I thankfully grabbed my oar and paddled home.