O L D A L
Zoom in on
the California Federal Home for the Elderly
It is a hundred stories high and shelters twenty five
There were no windows on the black surface of the
structure, but vandals some years ago painted circles and lines in white on
one side, forcing the eye to see the Home as a large domino standing on end
in a largish ditch, which is the Colorado River.
At the base of the tower are transportation depots, a mall, and a road leading to the interstate freeway a few miles away. Nothing else lives or moves from here to the horizon; it is an expanse of desert.
Zoom inside the building to the living quarters of Alvin Haigland,
a resident since 2025. His address was 478-374-468-8890 and he thought of
himself as "Old Al."
He reclined on a large comfortable chair that was virtually a womb
and watched videos on the Wall. Every interior surface of his apartment was
a wall screen. He manipulated the Wall with his hand gestures and face
twitches and voice commands; video camera chips throughout the room paid
rapt attention to his every movement. Sometimes he watched stuff like
people lava surfing on Io, the innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter, but
mostly he watched pre-Millennium stuff, from the days when he still
understood the world and the culture he lived in. He also watched new
episodes of Star Trek and Rockford Files and Hill Street Blues--the Wall
could generate new episodes of anything he wanted.
Mostly he watched the Wall and dozed, changing scenes when he felt
like it, sometimes letting a show drone on and on, sometimes flicking
restlessly from one show to another. He was old and tired.
The chair took care of his body without confining him in the least,
but he often went weeks without getting up from it at all. The chair
allowed for that and added the proper hormones and biocomplexes to keep him
in the prime of physical health. False echoes of exercise in the food
convinced his muscles to stay in tone.
The chair noted his daily food intake and then adjusted his diet
accordingly. His waste products were broken down in the "toilet" by intense
heat, then passed through a spectrometer which noted the relative abundance
of elements and compounds. Whenever an incipient flaw in Old Al's
metabolism was detected, the chair remedied it with judicious additions to
his diet to keep him healthy. It added subtle organic compounds to whatever
food and drink Al ordered, medicines that mimicked the body's chemical
messengers of youth, even though his organic glands had long since
He was wrinkled and nearly hairless. He didn't know how old he
was--he'd checked into this old folk's home when he was 75, and who knew
how many years ago that was? Old Al never let himself think about what year
it must be now. He rarely asked his Wall to show tapes of any events after
October 4, 2025, the day he'd isolated himself from the world. He sat and
pored endlessly over virtually every movie and video ever produced.
Everything was available to him.
Al used to watch News For Boomers, which attempted to explain the
current world in terms the Baby Boomers could understand, but after about
ten years the show could no longer make a profit as the number of Boomers
dwindled and, more importantly, stopped making significant purchases
outside of life maintenance stuff. No market meant no media coverage. And
besides, the Boomers didn't care about the current real world: they lived
in the past, in the video residue of their heyday.
Al asked the Wall for a baseball game. He programmed his chair for
a glass of beer and a couple of hot dogs. The Wall served up a great game
between the Cubs and the Phillies from the '18 playoffs. He cheered for
both teams and asked for full-sense in the 9th when sudden rain changed the
strategy of the game.
So with the crowd cheering around him and the roaring of the
approaching thunder and lightning of the storm and the refreshing spray in
his face, Old Al didn't notice the banging noise for a few minutes. He
frowned and muttered and adjusted the audio and
listened closely when the banging came again. What was it?
He stilled the Wall and after a moment the sound came again.
"Knocking," he said. The door. Old Al hadn't thought about the door
for a long time. He hadn't been through it since... he didn't know. He
nodded and his hands went into motion. The Wall came back to life and
displayed the hallway outside Old Al's door. A man, two women and a child
and a Home servo stood there.
The man reached forward and knocked again; Al was startled to hear
the sound both live and through the Wall. The man turned and said something
to the two women in a language his Wall couldn't translate. FasTalk, that's
what it was. Part of the reason he had holed up here.
It didn't occur to him to do anything to alter the flow of events
He wondered why they hadn't called him first--then remembered that he had
a permanent refusal on new input. One of the things that led to Al's
putting himself into an old folks' home was that he kept getting taken in
by scambots. He no longer could tell the difference between a robot and a
real person, and when apparent old friends called up with hard luck
stories, Al at first was taken in and lost a lot of money. And then the
scambots got even better.
The scambots worked by gathering as much information about Al as
they could and then creating a plausible front face on the videophone with
a plausible story. In 2025, just a week after the first manned landing on
Mars, he'd gotten a call from a young woman who persuaded him she was the
great-granddaughter he'd raised starting in 2004. Only the little girl
would have known how much the Mars landing meant to him, and she called up
and asked for the moon. And he ended up cleaned out, ripped off, and was
left with no choice but to accept a Social Security internment. Al severed
all communication with everybody. He sealed himself in.
Al watched on the screen as the man stepped forward and spoke
quietly with the servo. After a moment, the servo extended a probe into the
control panel outside the door. The door slid open and the people entered
the room; he zoomed in to follow them.
Abruptly he realized that he heard the babbling voices from both
the Wall and from behind him. He sat up and turned around and looked at the
group. They fell silent. They wore blue jeans and T-shirts and the
ubiquitous lightweight headsets that let them watch video 24 hours a day,
anywhere on Earth.
After a long moment he said, "Yeah?!'
The little boy stepped forward into Al's room and waved his arm and
said, "To the Moon, Alice!" in a clear, high voice, and as he spoke, the
Walls coruscated with videos of The Honeymooners starring Jackie Gleason
and Audrey Meadows and Art Carney, and footage from the first Moon landing
by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and footage of Werner Von Braun from his
Nazi apprenticeship until his rocket triumphs at the peak of his career,
all cascading across the walls with thundering audio. The man and the
younger woman gave an astonished laugh, and the boy turned and grinned at
them. Then he looked back at Old Al and saw that Old Al didn't get it a
Crestfallen, the boy said, "Happy birthday, Greatly Al," and
Old Al stared. He looked from the boy to the adults. The older
woman looked vaguely familiar. "Who are you people?" he said, trying to
shout. "What are you barging in on me for? Get the hell out of here."
The younger woman spoke in the complex trilling FasTalk that Old Al
had never been able to understand. She shrugged when he didn't reply and
looked to the older woman, who shook herself and said, "Grampa can't speak
nothing but SlowSpeak, if that. Right, Grampa?"
Old Al stared at her. She looked familiar, true, but after--how
many years?--of watching faces on screens, every face was familiar. She
seemed to be fifty or sixty. He wondered how old he was himself now. He
didn't pursue the thought.
The child approached Al's chair and gripped Al's hand." Happy
birthday, Greatly Al," he said again, then turned to the adults and broke
out in a big smile and ululated something complex in FasTalk.
"I want all of you to leave, right now," Al said, rising up out of
his chair and pulling his hand away from the boy. He pointed at the man.
"You! Get out now!"
The old woman said, "Grampa, we're here to take you for a birthday
trip, that's all. Please be nice. This is your descendent Maldive, his
mother Glissando, and his father, Trane. Maldive had a school project to
find his oldest living ancestor, and it turned out to be you. Maldive found
out your birthday was the same day as the first landing on the Moon." The
Wall resumed showing video of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon;
Maldive said something in FasTalk to the woman, and she looked surprised.
"He says it's also the day you won your medal in Vietnam--is that right?"
Maldive gestured and the Wall began displaying video of Vietnam,
grainy CBS News footage of troops marching, soldiers digging, and the scene
froze as Maldive focused on one soldier and ran some video enhancement
process and zoomed in--and it was Al!
Al had never known he was captured on video during the war. "How
did you... what..." He collapsed back into his chair. He hadn't thought
about the war for a long time... he hated thinking about it...
* * *
He remembered July 20, 1969, all right. He remembered riding in the
armored personnel carrier... "What are you reading this time, Haigland?"
said Sergeant Chester Copeland.
Al jerked his head up. "Nothing, sir," he said. He tried to hide
the magazine but Copeland grabbed it.
"Amazing Stories, eh?" said the sergeant. "What's a grown man like
you reading this kind of crap?"
"It's not all crap, a lot of it is stuff that's really going to
happen. I sure wish we had a TV so we could watch the Moon landing
Copeland tossed the book out into the dusty red road. "Aren't you a
little old to believe that shit?"
Henderson, the radio man, said "My cousin says it's all fake.
They're just going to land in the desert and make out like it's the Moon."
Before Al could reply there was a huge explosion behind them. "What
the fuck?" said Sergeant Copeland. The vehicle stopped and the men got out.
Lieutenant Smith from the lead vehicle was trotting toward them.
"What the fuck is going on, Sergeant? That bridge wasn't supposed to blow
"Yessir. I don't know what happened. Haigland, you were the one
with the fancy setup on your C4--why don't you go back and check it out?"
Al slung his M-16 over his shoulder and hiked back to the bridge
they'd just rigged with explosives. Al was always arguing with Copeland
about stuff, because Al had grown up with explosives on the farm. Most of
the time his squad had been strapping C4 to trees along side the road all
day, and then at dusk they would detonate them all. The purpose was to
clear the jungle back a hundred yards on each side of the road so that
Charlie couldn't lie in wait close to the road. Al had gained a reputation
in the squad for the patterns he laid out in his detcord... each night they
waited until dark and toked up and watched the burn at a thousand feet per
second along the long, intricate pathways that Al had set up, and then all
the trees went boom.
He walked around the bend and there was the bridge all blown to
hell; well, he was expecting that, but what had set it off? He unslung his
M-16 and approached cautiously. Only some of the explosives had detonated,
and the bridge was mostly intact. As he got closer he saw the tattered
remnants of a Vespa motorbike, the kind that the Vietnamese whores used,
and then he saw the girl in the middle of the bridge, blown to pieces, with
an unborn baby still attached by the umbilical cord, bloody and writhing
and trying to cry, and then the baby stopped, dead.
He stood there staring and staring. It was his own explosives that
had blown her up. Somehow her Vespa and touched them off. Despite being in
the war zone, hers was the first dead body Al had ever seen. Blood was
Eventually he was able to go back to the squad and make a report.
"Goddamit, you mean we're going to have to re-wire that whole bridge? You
are one stupid fuckup, Haigland, you got to get your mind back here from
Al didn't know what to say. He was still numb with shock. His mouth
started to form the words, "Oh yeah?" but before he could say anything
Sergeant Copeland's right eye exploded into a fountain of blood and a roar
of automatic weapons fire began. Copeland collapsed; Al stood frozen until
a voice yelled, "Down! Get down!" and he dived into the ditch next to
Henderson and hugged the bottom.
"Where's the sergeant?" somebody yelled.
"He's down, he's dead," Al called.
The firing tapered off, but then a mortar attack started. Al
chanced a look over the edge of the ditch and saw the other APC burning,
three men down including the lieutenant. "The lieutenant's hit!" Al
"I'll get him," Henderson said, and he dashed out through the
mortar blasts and dragged the lieutenant to the ditch, and was hit just as
he got back. The lieutenant was still conscious. "Call base camp, get a
chopper out here," he said. Al rolled Henderson off the radio and called,
and within ten minutes a Huey gunship arrived and napalmed the enemy
position into a flaming hell, and in another two minutes Al and the others
were aboard the helicopter. Al felt a huge rush of relief as it lifted
As the helicopter landed at base camp a mortar attack began and the
helicopter was hit and exploded.
Al woke in the hospital. His head was bandaged and his leg was in a
cast. He opened his eyes and saw a nurse looking at him. "Say, Colonel,
this one is awake now," she said.
The colonel turned and looked down at Al and reached out and took
his hand and shook it. "Congratulations, son," he said. A flashbulb went
off and Al was blinded and heard the colonel reading. "...and indifferent
to enemy fire carried a wounded soldier to safety, retrieved the radio and
called for helicopter support, thus saving the lives of the entire squad."
Then he pinned a Bronze Star to Al's pillow and moved away.
"Wait a minute," Al said, "I don't remember anything about that,
what are you talking about?"
The nurse said, "You and the lieutenant were the only ones who
survived the helicopter crash. He said you were the one who dragged him to
the ditch." She shrugged. "They had to find something positive out of it."
"What about the Moon?" Al asked. "Did they land on the Moon okay?"
The nurse gave him a shot and everything faded away.
* * *
"Grampa," the woman said, shaking Al's shoulder, "wake up. Look,
Maldive found a picture of you getting your medal."
Maldive looked at him and said, "Happy birthday, Greatly Al."
Glissando and Trane were rummaging in Al's closet. "Hey, get out of
my stuff! What are you doing?"
"Grampa, we're taking you on a trip, it's your birthday, we need to
get some of your clothes." She turned and spoke to Glissando and Trane and
her face writhed and contorted as if she were in an epileptic seizure--that
was another thing Al hated about FasTalk.
"What did you say to them?" Al said. "Who are these people?
She said, "Gosh, Grampa, you don't remember? I told them your
memory would be shot."
"I wish my memory was shot," Al said. The pulsing final moments of
that unborn child's life haunted him for years after he returned to the
Glissando handed the woman a shirt and a pair of jeans and she
started putting them onto Old Al. "No, no, no," he said, "I'm not going
anywhere, I don't want to go out."
"Grampa, the home servo said it would be a good idea. You've been
locked in here way too long. It's time you took a trip, and the Home
Maldive smiled at Al and babbled something to Al, his face screwing
up into ugly contortions, and then finished by saying once again, "Happy
birthday, Greatly Al."
"Who is this kid?" Al said. "What is he talking about?"
The woman shrugged and rolled her eyes. "He's your descendent,
Grampa, remember? Years ago my daughter Gliss, over there, posted her DNA
genome on the Web and said she was searching for an optimax male, and
Trane's name was on the top of the list. Of all the men in the world, he
was the best match to create the best possible child. At first her plan was
just to have the baby and raise it single, but then she and Trane met and
it was, like, magic. And they've been together ever since."
Trane and Gliss were watching her as she spoke, and now they began
chattering and squinting and gesturing, and the Wall displayed a whirlwind
collage of them together. "Here's the night of the conception, they're
saying," she said, and Al was embarrassed to see them naked in bed,
coupling. "The conception was when they were in the Maldive islands in the
Indian Ocean, and that's where they got the name. And here is Maldive being
Al looked away from the bloody birth scene and saw the dead
Vietnamese baby again. "Stop it," he said.
"And now Maldive is 7 and he says he has a picture of you when you
were 7 and you had a telescope." And the Wall showed a picture of a little
boy and Al recognized himself, and he recognized the telescope...
* * *
When he was seven he'd raced home from school on a Friday, a crisp
October 4 in 1957. "There's another Moon now!" he said to his mother. "And
it's Russian, and I learned a word in Russian: Sputnik. That's the name for
the moon. The Russians made it and put it in a space ship and now there's
another moon in the sky."
"Shush," said his mother. "What are you doing learning Russian
words? That damned school."
"No, Ma, this is real, the Russians really did it." And she scolded
him and made him stay in his room. He told her to listen to the radio for
herself, but she wouldn't.
His father got home from the Ford assembly plant at 6. Dad sounded
worried and he talked to Mom and Al chanced coming downstairs. His mother
didn't look at him.
"...so that means the Reds can drop a H-bomb anywhere in the
country in half an hour, Phil Tennyson was telling me all about it.
It has a chance at us every 90 minutes."
"Hi Al. Get me another beer."
"I learned a word about the new moon, Dad: Sputnik. It means
'traveling companion' in Russian."
His father reached over and slapped him in the face. "Goddamn it,
Marge, now where is he picking that up?"
"He said they were teaching Russian at school."
"Well you can just go to bed right now. And don't let me hear you
use that kind of talk again."
Al fled. He didn't cry until he was in his room. He turned the
lights off and sat by the window and watched the sky. Eventually, just as
the moon rose to drown out the stars, he saw the satellite. Or he thought
he did: a star moving across the sky. At first he wasn't sure. Then--yes,
it was moving. And it seemed wrong, that a star should move, and the
universe seemed to twist a bit--it must be he who was moving--it almost
made him dizzy.
He got out his telescope, an old mariner's telescope with a cracked
two-inch lens, but he couldn't hold it steady enough to locate Sputnik.
Then it was gone, and the Moon dominated the sky, and Al watched it through
the telescope and dreamed of landing there and leaping in the low gravity.
The telescope was his friend over the next few years. It was his
excuse to go out into the back yard at night and put the telescope on the
wobbly old tripod and stare at the Moon and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and
ignore the arguments and breaking dishes and black eyes between his mother
* * *
"Where did he get that picture? I don't remember that picture," Al
said to the woman.
"Grampa, every picture and movie and video ever taken is on the Web
now, and the search engines can recognize faces and find anything you want.
It's child's play. Come on, now, put on these pants."
"Goddammit, I'm not going anywhere. You people stop right now."
"Grampa, please. I'd stop it now, I really would if I could, but
Trane is the one in charge here. He's the one you have to convince."
"You, Trane--you get out of here. Leave me alone," Al said.
"No," said Trane. His face twisted and he squinted and said,
"+_+_++==, uh, AlvinHaigland4783744688890: 7/20/1950: 04hours 52 minutes 18
seconds: latitude 30.94 Longitude 43.39..." He shook his head in
frustration and gabbled something at the woman.
"'You,'" she said.
"You--" Trane stopped again and thought for a moment, then said,
"You gotravelvoyage accompany / join / nurture group / childenjoyment." He
Old Al said, "Huh?"
Trane looked annoyed. He spoke to the woman, who shrugged. "He
wants you to come with us for the child's sake," she said. "I can't really
tell why. I--I'm not as hot at FasTalk as they are."
"Happy birthday, Greatly Al," Maldive said again, and then said
"+_+_+_)++_M" in FasTalk.
"He's asking about your wife, Shirley," the woman said. "Don't
bother Greatly right now, Mal. Gliss, bring those shoes.
"What's going on?"
"Oh, Gliss and Trane can understand SlowSpeak fairly well, but the
boy just doesn't know a thing about it, we just taught him to pronounce a
few phrases. It was fun for him to pronounce those archaic syllables. I
don't know where he got that 'to the Moon, Alice' stuff."
"It was from an old TV show from the 1950s. How did he know about it?"
She looked puzzled. "He's hooked to the Web, Grampa. There's
nothing outside his realm. He knows everything."
"I thought you said he was only 7 years old."
"Well, yeah, but it's different from when you were 7." She looked
into his eyes. "Things are way different now, Grampa. He would like to know
about Shirley, though--he couldn't find anything about her."
Al sat back and let them dress him. He hadn't thought about Shirley
for a long time...
* * *
The Army kept Al in a hospital in Seattle for six months after he
was wounded on July 20, 1969, and then discharged him on Friday, February
13, 1970. He was still only 20 years old.
Instead of flying directly home to Wisconsin, Al flew down to
Anaheim, California, to visit Jim Turner, a fellow patient who'd been
discharged a month earlier and who had invited him to spend a week near
Disneyland in the California sun before going back to the snow land.
Al didn't know how to cope with civilian life, not as a soldier. It
started at LAX--people kept spitting at him as he rode the escalator down
to the baggage carousel. "You shouldn't have worn your uniform," Jim told
him. "We aren't popular here."
"I don't have any other clothes," Al said.
"Don't worry about it," Jim said. "I'm having a few friends over to
celebrate your arrival tonight--they're all cool."
But Al didn't celebrate much. He sat by himself drinking beer and
smoking dope when it was offered and listened to Strawberry Fields Forever
from the new album by the Beatles, but nothing could push out from
his brain the image of the blown-apart Vietnamese girl with her squirming
fetus still attached and the Vespa still chugging away with its drive
wheel under water sending a roostertail of spray into the air...
"So you were really in 'Nam?" a voice said. Al roused himself and
saw a blonde girl in hip-hugger jeans and a top that was merely a
diaphanous scarf wrapped around her breast and tied in back.
"Uh, yes," he said.
"I'm Shirley," she said. "Do you have any dope?"
"Well, sure," he said, and grabbed the bong from Jim and passed it
to the girl.
Later in the evening as the music blared Al bumped into Jim, who
grinned and said "Looks like Shirtless Shirley likes you."
Al looked blank for a moment, then said, "Shirtless?"
"Her hobby is taking off her top in public to blow the straight's
minds. I thought you two might get along--she's from Racine."
Racine, Wisconsin, just a few dozen miles from Al's home town. It
turned out that Shirley was a runaway, a fiercely independent 17-year-old
with a birthmark in the size and shape of a handprint on her ass, a
fiercely horny little girl who clung to Al and soothed his re-entry into
America over several months. Al had money saved up--there'd been nothing to
spend it on in the jungle or at the hospital--and he rented an apartment in
Santa Ana where he and Shirley spent their days in drug-clouded bliss. The
weed wasn't as strong as the stuff in 'Nam, but it was good enough.
Al sat in the sun by the pool and read lurid tales of spaceflight
and time travel and godlike power while Shirley spaced out her days working
waitress or barmaid, but then one day she said, "Al, I'm pregnant," and
Al wiped her tears with his long hair and held her close and said,
"Shirley, we'll raise a perfect baby together."
But then the baby arrived a month early in 1971 and Al resented
having to miss the 4th of July picnic with his Nam buddies and his
motorcycle friends in order to take Shirley to the Santa Ana-Tustin
Community Hospital, and then he was disappointed when it was girl. "I
thought we were going to make a boy," he said to Shirley, trying to joke,
and she turned her head away.
The expenses piled up and Al's savings evaporated, and he had to
take a job. His experience with heavy equipment in the combat engineers was
good enough to get him a job with the phone company running a backhoe
digging holes for new telephone poles, and the money was pretty good, but
the job left him away from Shirley all day and the face of the dead
Vietnamese girl started haunting him again, and he dissolved the face with
vodka, as much vodka as possible, to make the dead little baby stop
wiggling in the perpetual rerun in his brain.
By 1976 he and Shirley were barely speaking; she had custody of
their little girls Cathy and Louella, and he lived in a rooming house in
Santa Ana most of the time. He had sky-high hopes for Cathy, and he called
her Mars Girl because the Viking space probe was scheduled to land on Mars
on her 5th birthday, Sunday, the Fourth of July. He took the family on a
picnic in the mountains that day.
Half of Los Angeles seemed to have had the same idea, and the old
Ford was steaming and wheezing from the heat and traffic by the time Al
found a vacant picnic table.
Cathy was bouncing up and down in the back seat. "Can we plug in
the TV now, Daddy? I want Mars!"
"It's not time yet," Al said. He parked and turned the car off and
listened to it steam. He hoped it would start again.
He opened the trunk and pulled out the ice chest and set it on the
table while his wife Shirley carried bags of food. He rummaged in the ice
chest for a beer, then turned and saw Cathy carrying the tiny portable TV.
"No, put that back in the car, Mars girl," said Al.
"But it's my birthday and I want Mars," she said. "You promised."
"Well, the cord won't reach to the table, we have to keep the TV
close to the cigarette lighter. Besides, it's not time yet." Cathy took the
TV back to the car and plugged it in.
"You and your goddamned Mars," said Shirley. "Why do you lie to
Al went back to the car and carried the charcoal and starting fluid
and the battered barbecue back to the table. Shirley paced along with him.
"It's bad enough you spend your time reading that trash science
fiction and now you've got her on it," she said. She set a double armload
of bags on the table.
Al wordlessly set down the charcoal and grabbed a beer. It was
going to be a long day. He watched Shirley go back to the car again and come
back carrying Louella. "Al," she said, "Where's the bag with the diapers?"
"Oh, no, I left it on the kitchen table--I was going to bring it
down, but that's when Cathy started crying about the TV."
"You didn't forget your goddamned beer, though, did you? What am I
supposed to do with Louella?"
"Cathy didn't need diapers when she was as old as Louella," said
Al. "Maybe somebody around here has some extras, we could trade them a beer
or something." He gestured at the other tables among the trees on the
grassy slopes and toward the people playing softball on a flat field.
Shirley glared at Al, then marched down the slope toward a family
playing horseshoes; two babies were being tended there. Al watched Shirley,
then noticed the pitcher at the softball field, an energetic teenage girl
in shorts and a halter top. He looked back at Shirley talking to the other
mothers. She'd had such a nifty little figure when he met her; now she was
23 and her face was pinched and her body sagged with fat.
He opened another beer and poured it in a mug and watched Cathy
playing with some other five-year-olds she'd met--he was proud she seemed
to be the leader of the group.
Shirley spoke behind him: "Al, this is Mr. Grantly, he said they had way
too much potato salad and he brought some for us." Al turned and said hello
to the stocky gray-haired man. "Care for a beer?"
"No thanks," said Mr. Grantly. He set a covered bowl on the table.
"I'll bring the bowl back as soon as we're done, Mr. Grantley,"
said Shirley. "Thanks a lot for the diapers, too."
He left and Al said, "Did you have to make us look like beggars? We
brought enough food. I'm sorry I forgot the fucking diapers but I did, all
Shirley said nothing but opened a beer for herself. She took a
drink, then grinned and shook the bottle and held her thumb in the neck and
sprayed Al with foam. Al shoved her and she staggered away and tripped over
a stump and fell heavily. She sobbed and said, "Al, I was just playing."
Later in the afternoon Al was cooking hamburgers. Shirley said, "Al."
Al ignored her and took a drink of beer.
"Al... I'm pregnant again."
The word leaped out at Al and his stomach lurched. He began turning
all the burgers and greasy smoke erupted around him.
"Since when," he said, coughing.
"Two months. I think it was that night when Louella walked all by
herself, remember? And we go so happy and went out to celebrate?"
"Two months," said Al. "Then we're in time to make it not such a
big deal if we scrape it."
Shirley began crying; she approached Al and tried to embrace him
but he shoved her roughly aside and walked away. "Don't let those burgers
burn," he said. He went to the softball field and leaned against a tree and
sipped beer while he watched the lithe and tanned girl pitcher play the
When he was out of beer he went back to the table. "Look what I
caught," said Cathy. She held a wriggling chipmunk for Al's inspection but
then it almost got away and she clasped it to herself. "It wants to get
away. They're almost tame, Daddy, they walk right up to you. I wish it
would calm down."
"Let me see it," he said. "Maybe he'd like a drink--let's give it
some beer and maybe it'll calm down. Get me a beer, Cathy."
She brought the beer and opened it and took a little sip while
He held the little rodent and inspected it. "Pour it in my mug," he said.
Al sipped the foam off the mug and held then held the chipmunk
close enough to the mug to drink. It took a sip and turned its head; Al
dunked the head into the beer and pulled it out and the chipmunk spluttered
and Cathy laughed. So did Al.
"Daddy, when can we have Mars, I've been waiting and waiting."
"Not yet," he said.
Shirley said, "There won't be any Mars, Cathy. They postponed it.
Not for another couple of days or even weeks."
"Shirley, you bitch--shut the fuck up."
"It's true, isn't it? Tell the child the truth. The scientists
decided not to land on Mars today after all."
"Daddy said I could have it today and I'm tired of waiting, I'm tired! You
said I could have Mars and I want it!" She began to wail.
"You see what you did, Shirley? Goddam it, why'd you have to set
"You're the one filling her head with that space crap. Why on earth
did you ever tell her that fireworks show last year was for her?"
"It was for me, it was, it was, wasn't it Daddy?"
"Quit your crying. Here, sit up and eat your hamburger."
"No! I want Mars--hey, what did you do to my chipmunk?"
Al realized he'd had the chipmunk's head under the surface of the
beer for a while and pulled it out. The little body was limp in his hand.
Al felt light-headed suddenly and there was silence. He heard voices on the
softball field and the clang of a horseshoe down the slope. "Uh, gee, these
chipmunks really get drunk fast, don't they?" he said.
"What the hell are you doing to that poor creature?" said Shirley.
"Daddy what did you do to it?" Cathy began screaming and shrieking
and sobbing. Shirley tried to take the chipmunk out of Al's hand and he
shoved her roughly away.
"Here, take your chipmunk, there's nothing wrong with it, he's just
drunk." He gave it to Cathy but she dropped it and yelled louder. "Goddam
it now settle down," Al said.
"No! You killed my chipmunk, you won't give me Mars, you're a dirty old
liar and you hate me and I hate you--"
Al slapped her and she fell holding her face. She struggled to a
sitting position and sobbed, then wiped her face with her sleeve and
stared at Al. Her eye was Already puffed out and darkened; she
would have a real shiner. He rose and stepped toward her "Cathy... Cathy,
"You stay away from me!" Cathy ran away down the slope and bumped
into Mr. Grantly.
"We're about to leave," Mr. Grantly said. "Could I trouble you for
"Oh, I'm sorry," said Shirley. "Here, I've already washed it, thank
you so much."
"You shouldn't have made Mr. Grantly walk up here, Shirley."
Mr. Grantly looked at Al. Cathy showed him the chipmunk and said
tearfully, "My daddy made my chipmunk drink too much beer."
Mr. Grantly knelt and set the bowl aside and smoothed the fur on
the wet chipmunk. "Take it over to the water fountain by the softball field
and hold it under the water for a second--maybe you can wash the beer out
and save its life."
Cathy dashed away; Al said "Why would you tell a kid a thing like
that? You got a lot of nerve." Al stood up straighter and realized he'd had
a hell of a lot of beer so far.
"I did it for you, mister," said Mr. Grantly. He whirled his arm in
a powerful arc and punched Al square in the nose. Al tumbled backward and
banged his head on a stump. He smelled pine needles and the sky seemed dark.
"I've been watching you all day, punk. But I didn't want to hit you
in front of your kid. I wanted to give you a chance to regain her respect."
Mr. Grantly picked up his bowl and ambled down the slope.
Al looked at Shirley: she stared at him and said nothing. A crowd
of kids collected around Cathy at the fountain and Al heard their voices.
Louella started crying and Al said, "Take care of the goddam baby,
will you?" He pulled the last beer from the lukewarm water in the ice chest
and dumped the water on the ground.
He kept the fire going and sat staring into it until late in the
evening, despite Shirley's complaints. He'd brought a pint of whiskey and
was halfway through it when he faded out; Shirley had to drive home.
He spent a week in drunken guilt and didn't spend any time at home.
He tried to make it up to Cathy, but she never looked him in the eye and
Shirley wouldn't do anything but look him in the eye.
When the photos from Mars did come in on the 20th he tried to share
them with Cathy but she closed her eyes and turned her head.
Al hardly ever saw Shirley or the girls after that...
* * *
"Grampa?" Al roused himself--the woman was shaking his arm.
"Grampa, we're ready to go now." Al looked down and saw that he was
dressed. "Do you remember anything about Shirley? Maldive really wants to
"I'm sorry," he said. "I lost track of her a very, very long time
The door opened and the Home servo entered pushing a wheelchair.
"Okay, Grampa, your chair is here. The Home told us to tell you that it is
programmed exactly like your chair here in your room. Let me help you into
Al allowed himself to be placed into the chair and Trane pushed him
through the door and out into the hallway. How long had it been since he'd
been through that door? Al was afraid to ask.
As the group moved down the hall toward the elevators, Maldive was
suddenly at Al's side again. "Happy birthday, Greatly Al. Constellations?"
He spoke in FasTalk to the woman, and she said to Al, "He wonders
if you can point out the constellations in the sky for him."
"Of course I can!" Al said. "I've been watching the stars since I
was a little boy. I'm surprised that a boy who knows everything doesn't
know about constellations. When we get outside I'll show you the Big Dipper
and we'll work from there."
"He's studied all about them, Grampa, but he can't see them in the
sky for himself."
"Well, we'll get him straightened around," Al said. "You can hardly
see the stars from the cities, that's why. I used to show the constellations
to my great-granddaughter Marilyn whenever we drove up into the mountains."
"Of course you did, Grampa," said the old woman as she wheeled him into
the elevator. The doors closed she said, "I'm Marilyn."
"You're Marilyn? You can't be Marilyn, she's just a little girl,"
Al said. The elevator surged upward. "Up? Why are we going up?"
"That's where the car is, Grampa. On the roof."
Al sagged back into the chair and remembered Marilyn...
* * *
The first time he saw her was on July 20, 2004, his 54th birthday. He was watching
the live video from the Cassini probe as it made its first close pass
around Saturn's giant moon Titan and drinking beer in his apartment in
Anaheim, and the phone rang. "Grampa?" said a girl's voice.
"Hello," Al said.
"Hi, Grampa, it's Andrea, I'm just back into town and I wondered if
I could come and visit with you."
"Please, I don't have anywhere to go right now. Could I just sleep
on your couch tonight? I promise I won't make any trouble."
When Andrea arrived, Al saw that she had bleached spiky hair,
piercings on her ears, nose, lip and eyebrow, and multiple tattoos. She
also had a three-year-old daughter, Marilyn, in tow. Marilyn was blank-eyed
behind her computer glasses and clutched a laptop computer.
"Marilyn is cool, she won't make any trouble, Grampa," Andrea said.
Al had been astonished to discover that he was a great-grandfather
at age 54. Not that he had much interaction with his offspring. He hadn't
seen Shirley in decades, nor Cathy or his other children. He'd met Andrea
only a couple times. Al never had made friends easy, and as life went on
his social circle dwindled. He worked at the phone company digging holes
for telephone poles and stayed home and watched TV the rest of the time,
except when he went to the corner bar. Even the bar scene faded away for
him, though, as the place became filled up with younger and younger people
playing loud music he couldn't understand and none of them wanted to talk
So it was interesting to have people in his household again. Not
that Andrea was there much; Al became the de facto caregiver for Marilyn on
evenings and weekends. Al was aware of the Internet and the computer
revolution, but he'd never touched a computer in his life. He was
fascinated to watch a three-year-old interact with the computer in ways
he'd never dreamed of. The laptop had a built-in camera aimed at the
keyboard user; little Marilyn stood back a couple feet from the computer
and the camera showed an image of Marilyn on the computer screen, and then
bubbles started drifting around on the screen. Marilyn moved her arms and
hands and the Marilyn on the screen did the same motions, and when her
hands on the screen touched a bubble, the bubble popped and vanished. The
camera software was sensitive to motion, about as intelligent as a frog's
retina; anything that didn't move, didn't exist. In the frog universe, only
flies that moved were targets.
In the computer's little brain, pixels that didn't change were
deleted from memory. But as time went by, the cameras became more
intelligent. Andrea had vanished completely before the Huygens probe
descended into Titan's atmosphere on the Saturday after Thanksgiving in
2004, but Al didn't mind. He was enjoying the interaction with a real
person for the first time in decades.
But the cameras became more and more intelligent so rapidly... by
the time Marilyn was seven, she was able to bring to the screen any video
clip in her memory by twitching and signaling in subtle ways to the
cameras, including speech but not limited to it. A lot of human
communication is gestures, anyway, but the cameras learned to interpret
human gesture at a far higher level than a human could.
Well, maybe a human could. But a human can spend only so much time
interpreting the gestures of other people. A computer camera had only one
task in its existence, and watched you relentlessly, microscopically,
awaiting your bidding. Early in life Marilyn learned that she could program
sequences of motions and assign functions to them. She developed a certain
twitch of her neck and a particular shoulder shrug that would make the TV
change from channel 3 to channel 4, for instance, and as she grew older she
acquired the typical "orchestra conductor" mannerisms that Al hated so much
in the new crop of young people. Their faces were mad assemblages of sneers
and grimaces that had nothing to do with human emotion but were messages to
the computer. Al was horrified by them.
Andrea showed up again in 2007 and grabbed Marilyn away, and he
resumed his life of solitary agony. This was around the time when cameras
proliferated around the United States, cameras everywhere watching
everybody at every moment, and video stores competed with each other to
solicit citizens to bring in old pictures and videos to be digitized, free.
And any time your pictures were used anywhere in the world, you got a
payment. As the old ideas about privacy were overthrown, people were
posting everything in the hopes of hitting it lucky.
In the multiplicity of the video cameras, their ubiquitous presence
and instant accessibility deflated Hollywood's version of entertainment. By
the late 2010s, you could watch any person in the USA, real time, now, no
matter what he was doing. Oh, some prudes insisted on turning off the
cameras as well as the lights when they went to bed at night. So people
tended to watch exceptional people. Instead of actors pretending to be
detectives on hard cases, people could watch actual detectives as they
proceeded on their case. That started in the late 90s when the tube began to
fill up with the COPS type shows that show videotapes of actual arrests and
altercations, especially the True Car Pursuits type with video shot from
helicopters pacing the cops and robbers down below.
Where something was happening, the cameras were attracted. Now the
cameras were everywhere.
At first the Web celebrities were much like the Hollywood/media
celebrities. Be there and observe as giant movie stars go about their daily
life of expensive clothing and lavish parties.
Al fell for it just as much as the next guy. With a billion
possible inputs, the feed from the traditional broadcast networks was lost
in the crowd of interesting stuff to watch. Real stuff. And if you lived
your life as interestingly as you could make it, maybe other people would
be viewing you.
And you could make your living at it that way, because every view
was an addition to your income.
Al didn't lead an interesting life. He sat at home and watched the
wall. So nobody was looking in on him. The ones who did contact him always
turned out to be scambots trying to nibble at his financial base.
Al withdrew from the world because it was more and more mystifying
to him. He could watch any person or scene on the planet, and when he did
so, he could no longer determine what it was that they were doing. People
continued to remain like him in their biological formatting--they ate,
excreted, fornicated and slept just as people always have. But in their
other daily routine their actions and movements and decisions became
utterly beyond his understanding.
The big language shift happened in the 2020s. The Web was able to
provide real-time translations of any language as you spoke or listened,
and the new electroencephalograph headbands made mental control of the Web
a new option for those who could learn to use them. Children around the
world grew up knowing all the phonemes available to the human voice and ear
instead of the fraction each language used, and a Creole language raced
into existence among children. The new language used the vocabulary and
phonemes of the existing languages, but added video and gestures and pitch
and time delay, plus the ability to utilize on-line computing power to
process information that the human brain couldn't handle by itself.
FasTalk, they called it, because it could transfer information
between people faster than any language ever before in history. It was
almost impossible for an adult to learn it, or to participate in the new
society being built by the FasTalk kids.
Al gave up trying around 2038. He was 88 years old and some big
event had croggled the world, something similar to the way Boomers
remembered it being when President Kennedy had been shot. Al was 13 when
Kennedy was shot and he remembered every detail of what he was doing when
he found out about the carnage in Dallas.
Something like that apparently took place in 2038, but Al was
unable to comprehend exactly what happened. It wasn't that his brain was
withering away into Alzheimer's--such diseases were long since wiped out,
and nanobots patrolled his bloodstream rebuilding failing tissues. It was
just that you had to understand FasTalk in order to comprehend the event.
The technological singularity happened everywhere and nowhere, as
far as Al could tell. There was a new calendar in the world now, setting
aside the Chinese calendar and the Gregorian calendar and the Hebrew and
Islamic calendars, and 2038 was the last year in America. The singularity
marked January 1 of Year Zero.
Al could still communicate with the network in English, of course.
He asked for explanations and got back reports that looked like English but
made no sense, random words linked together in proper syntax and seemingly
on the subject of his request, but boiling down to nothing. He still had no
understanding of the event.
That's when he approved a suggested transfer to the California Federal Home for the Elderly Learning-Disabled facility.
And there he rapidly escaped into the past. He'd been roaming the
past for... how many years?
* * *
The elevator stopped. Al roused as they wheeled him out to the
tarmac at the top of the building. Skycars were landing and lifting off all
around. It was night
"Happy birthday, Greatly Al," said Maldive. He turned toward
Marilyn and emitted a stream of pharyngeal glottalizations; Marilyn turned
toward Al and said, "He wants you to show him the constellations."
"Of course I can show him the constellations." Al looked up into
the sky and saw... ten thousand stars he'd never seen before. The sky was
dark and free from urban light pollution; he could see the sprinkled powder
of the Milky Way, and the central bulge of Sagittarius at the core of the
But the old constellations were gone, swamped by the light of
hundreds and hundreds and thousands of satellites in the sky, brighter than
Sirius, brighter than Venus. No human eye could detect the natural stars in
their ancient patterns.
Al slumped in his chair. Finally, even this was denied him.
Maldive touched him softly on the arm. "To the Moon, Alice," he
said again, then babbled to Marilyn.
"Oh!" she said. "Maldive, you forgot the last word, 'going.' It
doesn't mean anything without it."
Maldive gabbled at Al. Marilyn translated: "Grampa, what he's
saying is, to the moon Al is going. We're taking you on a vacation trip to
the back side of the Moon, where you can see the dark pristine sky without
satellites. And Maldive wants you to show him the constellations from
there, just like you showed me."
« POETRY »
« FICTION »
« Biographies »
« Masthead »
« Home »