O L D   A L

Colin Campbell



Click for detailed view Zoom in on
the California Federal Home for the Elderly Learning Disabled.
It is a hundred stories high and shelters twenty five thousand seniors.


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 atrophied.

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 bit.

Crestfallen, the boy said, "Happy birthday, Greatly Al," and stepped back.

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 tonight."

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 yet."

"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 everywhere.

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 the Moon."

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 shouted.

"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 away.

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 States.

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 agrees."

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 born."

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 Dad."

"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 and father...

*          *         *

"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 smiled.

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 wept.

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 the child?"

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."

"Any time."

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 right?"

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 game.

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 her off?"

"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.

"I... uh..."

"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, I'm..."

"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 that bowl?"

"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 know."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I lost track of her a very, very long time ago."

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 it."

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."

"Well..."

"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 to him.

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 galaxy.

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."



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Swagazine 9
Winter 2001




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