Control, Alt, Defeat . . .

WAKING UP ONE MORNING IN BABYLONI
by Louis N. Gruber ©2013

Ludie Malcolm woke up that day, like every other day, in a good mood, a pleasant-looking man with a full, red beard. “Good morning,” he murmured to his wife.

She looked at him oddly and replied, “Glooz Borkith, Nuggi.”

“What?” he said.

“Nayng zaynd, Glooz Borkith. An zoon opayn?”

“I can’t understand you,” he said, feeling dizzy. He couldn’t mistake the look of panic in her eyes. She grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.

“Kumm nawn?” she said, her voice rising.

“Honey, I think I’ve had a stroke,” he said. And yet, he noted, he wasn’t slurring his words. His fingers and toes seemed to be working. He rubbed the bump on his left temple, about the size of an old-fashioned dime. Maybe it’s Laurie who’s had a stroke. One of us isn’t speaking right. He got out of bed carefully. He’d heard about these things. One minute you’re fine, the next, flat on your back. Forever. He stood slowly, walked a few steps to the right, then to the left. Sat on the bed. Stood. Everything working. His wife, out of bed now, made frantic vocalizations. But what language was she speaking?

He didn’t understand a word, though the voice was familiar. Her face was familiar. Even the lilt of her language was vaguely familiar, the rhythm, the phrasing. Some of the words sounded like words he should understand, but didn’t.

Now Laurie was on the phone, talking in hushed but frantic tones. She must be calling for help, he thought. He tried to tell her he was really fine, that there was nothing to worry about, just some odd thing they would soon be laughing about.

He decided to get dressed, but by now his children were in the room, talking that same peculiar language. He recognized one of his neighbors, also speaking in that odd dialect. What is it? he wondered. And why are they talking that way? Am I the only one who still speaks English?

“Please,” he said, “just wait outside. I’m going to get dressed.” They looked at him, shook their heads, shrugged their shoulders, spoke more of the odd language.

It’s like the tower of Babel, he thought. One minute they’re all chattering away, building this technological marvel. The next they all speak different languages and they can’t communicate. And here I am in Babylonia. And everyone’s speaking the new language but me. But I wasn’t trying to build any tower. I was just going about my business, writing, like I’ve always wanted to. Learning how to use the Internal (he reached again for the little bump). Now I can’t even get dressed in my own bedroom.

Wait, he thought. I was always good at charades. So he motioned for everyone to leave the room, and pantomimed getting dressed. He made the movements slow and very clear, with lots of nodding and smiling.. Reluctantly the children and the neighbor backed out into the hallway. Laurie watched him, tears in her eyes. He moved slowly so as not to alarm her. In her present state of mind, she could misinterpret the slightest cue. He moved slowly to the closet, smiling a lot. He took down a shirt and some slacks.

He wasn’t sure if he should try to shave or shower. Who knew how much time he had? He put on the clothes. Smiled some more. “I’m fine,” he said, smiling, but Laurie began weeping again. He tried to remember what she’d said to him that morning. “Glooz Borkith,” he said, awkwardly.

“Glooz Borkith,” she said, in a tiny, crushed, childlike voice. “Glooz Borkith, Nuggi,”

“Glooz Borkith,” he said. He tried to project a reassuring, all-will-be-well smile. He thought he’d just said “Good morning,” but he couldn’t be sure. It was all he knew of this new jargon. He remembered another word. “Nuggi,” he said, looking at her fondly.

“O, Nuggi,” she answered, uncertainly. She acted like she couldn’t tell if he was really communicating or just parroting words

“I’m Ludie,” he said, pointing to himself.

“Nayng Jawjee,” she answered, pointing to her heart, and burst into tears.

“Jawjee,” he whispered, reaching out his hand to her. They both turned, hearing the knock.

She spoke a phrase in Babylonian and the door opened. Emergency workers in crisp uniforms. His wife pointed to him, speaking in the new language. The workers surrounded him, putting on latex gloves. They took him by the arms. “Jawjee,” he cried, his voice pleading, but she wouldn’t look at him. “Jawjee,” he cried. “Glooz Borkith,” he tried again, as the men led him away. He realized his life had spun out of control.

Hours of fear and confusion passed. Riding in the ambulance. Trying to communicate basic needs. Trying to get to the bathroom. Sitting in the emergency department for hours. Trying to explain what happened, to people who couldn’t understand a word he was saying. As the day went on he got better at sign language. I’ll become a mime, he thought. When I get out of this I’ll be Marcel Marceau. People seemed to understand his signing, but still regarded him suspiciously. They seemed to be afraid he would get violent. That he might do something dangerous and unpredictable.

“Nayng Chacha Poongee” said the white-coated man standing in front of him. The portly man with the stethoscope in his coat pocket.

I’m Doctor—what? he thought. Doctor Poongee? Okay. I’ll go with that. “Chacha Poongee,” he said, respectfully, offering a hand to shake. That was the last word he understood from a long rapid-fire monologue. Questions too, but the doctor paid only momentary attention to his answers. As though he never expected Ludie to answer rationally.

Doctor Poongee was busy writing now. Ludie peered at the Doctor’s scribbling, all in that bizarre language. The doctor glared at him, moved the paper so he couldn’t read it. He sensed that his fate was being decided. He felt lonely and miserable. He hadn’t eaten for hours. A nurse brought an injection, motioned for him to roll up his sleeve. It was the last thing he remembered. #

Much later he found himself in something like a motel room. A woman who seemed to be a nurse was talking to him in that new jargon. She seemed kindly but detached. It really didn’t matter if he understood. Everything was under control, but not his control. The woman handed him a gown, showed him where to hang his clothes. Then she handed him something that looked like a menu, with graphic pictures. He recognized toast, bacon, pancakes.

When the nurse finally left him alone, he sat on the bed, and for the first time, allowed himself to weep. For he had begun to suspect that the new condition was permanent. No one spoke English any more and no one ever would. He was a stranger in a strange new world.

He lay on the bed, mind racing. Somehow he fell asleep. When he awoke, it was morning. People were going to and fro on the sidewalk beneath his window. Birds were singing. An orderly brought him a breakfast tray. “Glooz Borkith,” the young man said to him.

“Glooz Borkith,” he answered cheerily. He knew it was probably the last coherent exchange he would have all day.

He slowly unwrapped the plastic utensils, the juice, the pancakes and sausage. He was hungry and ate with gusto. “Mm, good,” he said. “Glooz,” he smiled. “I’ve learned a new word. Glooz.” He was pleased with himself. He could hardly wait to try out his word. When the orderly came for his tray he pointed to the plate and said, “Glooz.” The man seemed unimpressed.

That morning there were meetings, conferences, and some kind of bizarre group therapy. His fellow inmates looked confused and demoralized, while the staff moved about with busy importance and spoke Babylonian. He noticed that the inmates couldn’t communicate, as they all spoke different dialects. He tried to befriend some of them, but they regarded him with suspicion.

He listened intently as the staff talked among themselves. He tried to pick up whatever Babylonian he could. He learned words for “thank you” and “see you later.” It seemed that “opayn” meant okay. A most useful word. It could mean agreement, or, I hear you, or all right. Opayn. Great word.

By early afternoon he had a headache from all his concentration. He tried to get a nurse’s attention, pointed to his head and grimaced as if in agony. She muttered something and brought him what looked like a Tylenol. “Kangkewn,” he said, and the nurse seemed to understand. So, he thought. I’m learning the new language. I’m surviving I can do it.

He concluded he was in some kind of psychiatric facility. Maybe he was mentally ill. The staff treated him kindly but without warmth. No one made eye contact. When they wanted him to do something they spoke in high-pitched voices, with bright smiles. Like mothers talking to infants. He learned that “nesh” meant yes and “obi” meant no. He wished Laurie would come to visit him.

Later he was poked and prodded with strange, cold instruments. The food was not bad, not great. He longed for someone to speak English to him, wished he had something to read. His sleep was fitful. At least in the morning he could say Glooz Borkith, his peak performance of the day. #

After some days a young man came to see him, wearing the striped short-sleeved shirt and neat slacks of a technician. The man had dark, Indian features, a neat black mustache. “Good morning, Mr. Malcolm,” the man said in perfect English. “I’m Raj, your technician.”

“So you speak English? I’m so glad to meet you.”

“Well, I will be happy to translate for you. I’m specially trained for that. Perhaps you can tell me what happened; then, we’ll run a few tests, okay?”

“I want to see my wife, Laurie. Can you get my wife in here and translate for us?”

“She’s right outside, Mr. Malcolm. We’ll invite her in here in just a few minutes, okay?”

Ludie gave a quick account of his recent experiences, beginning with Glooz Borkith. Raj nodded, taking notes. Later he shined a light in Ludie’s eyes, said “mmhm” several times and wrote more notes. He placed a small instrument on the little bump on Ludie’s forehead, took readings, and said “mmhm” several more times. He put the instrument and the light in a slender case. “Well,” he said. “Here it is.”

“Have I had a stroke?”

“No, Mr. Malcolm. Thank goodness for that. No stroke.”

“Am I mentally ill?”

“No, Mr. Malcolm. Thank goodness for that. Not mentally ill.”

“Then what?”

“Your software is out of date, sir. You haven’t been keeping up with your updates. It’s really a wonder you can speak at all. In fact it’s a wonder you’re even walking around, sir. Remarkable.”

“I don’t understand, Raj. What are you talking about?”

“You haven’t been going in for your updates, have you?”

“Well no. I didn’t see any point. I was feeling fine. I was busy writing. You know I’m an author, don’t you?”

“Yes, well, no one will be reading your books, sir. I’m afraid the new software can’t even recognize them. See, you’re still on version 1475—that’s from five years ago. You should be on 1847, at least. And you know there’s a new update coming out later this month.”

“But I thought everything was fine until two days ago. What happened?”

“Sir, you’re not the only one. This is happening to people more and more. It’s just a sad fact, sir. Without the updates we don’t function.”

“Well, what do I do? Can anything be done for me?”

“Ah,” said Raj, softly, stroking his chin. He reached in his attaché, pulled out some manuals and began flipping pages. “I think we need to download a software repair pack to bring you up to date. There’s a lot of ground to cover, sir. I think it will take the V-Pack-24. Then, if you’re wise you’ll add in the new update when it comes out later this month.”

“Download? How do we do that?”

“It’s simple, sir. We use infomolecules now. We start an intravenous line and give them to you by drip. It will take about twelve hours. We can do it right here in the Institute. Then we test you to make sure the software was correctly installed. Rarely, we have to do it again. Okay? Let’s bring in your wife now, Mr. Malcolm, and we can talk about the procedure.”

Laurie Malcolm was nicely dressed in a short blue skirt, pale blue stockings, tight-fitting white sweater and a stylish tan jacket. How good she looks, he thought. How I long to hold her in my arms and kiss her. Oh, God. She smiled awkwardly and sat next to him.

“Glooz Borkith, Nuggi,” she said.

“Glooz Borkith,” he said, delighted to see her. This is my interpreter, Raj.”

“We’ve already met,” said Raj, bowing politely. He began conversing with Laurie in rapid-fire Babylonian.

“Wait,” said Ludie, holding up a hand. “Before we get into all that, tell her that I love her and that I’ve missed her very much.”

He quickly translated this and Laurie turned to Ludie, smiling. “Numm zoon choo,” she said, sweetly, and turned back to Raj. She seemed to have as many questions as he did. He felt left out of the rapid exchanges.

Finally, Raj turned to him and said, in English, “I’ve explained to her about the download you need and the procedure. Now let’s see if you have any questions.”

“Yes, Raj. Couldn’t I just learn the stuff? Couldn’t you just give me a book to read? I’ve already learned Glooz Borkith and nesh and opayn—just sitting around here listening to people. I still have a brain, don’t I?”

Raj laughed politely. “Well, well, well,” he said. “You’ve learned some Language Version 1800. Very good, sir. But you see, it would take years to learn all you need to know. And by that time we’d have three new versions out. And I’m afraid they don’t print manuals anymore. They were getting bigger than a whole shelf of books,” he chuckled, “and no one could even carry them about. So, you see, there is no choice but to perform the download.”

Ludie sat quietly, feeling sad. “How much will it cost me?”

“Ah,” Raj smiled knowingly. “Let’s see.” He pulled out a laminated card and studied it. “The intravenous download will cost you about forty-five thousand. And of course we really should throw in the newest update, which is about twelve thousand. We can give you a package deal for fifty-thousand if you do it this week.”

“Whew,” said Ludie Malcom, rubbing his forehead. “That’s more than I make in six months. I can’t do it. Oh my God. Does Laurie know what you just told me? What does she think?”

Raj began talking to her in the new dialect. His wife looked shocked and her answers sounded troubled. Well, thank goodness she understands the absurdity of this, Ludie thought. Surely she won’t expect me to squander everything we have on this ridiculous software. We still have brains, don’t we?

“Sir,” said Raj. “You’re wife says for you to go ahead and do it. She says it will be worth it to have you back. She says not to worry about it. She says she will help you with it.”

“Tell her it’s insane, Raj. Tell her it’s crazy. Tell her, why did we enslave ourselves to computers like this? Tell her I don’t want to do it, Please, Raj, tell her.”

More Babylonian, and Raj shook his head. “Sir, she says you have to do it. She says you can’t come home until you get yourself up to date. She says don’t fool around with this. I’m just quoting what she told me, sir.”

Ludie turned to his wife. “What if I don’t want this? What if I like my old software? What if I like English the way it’s been evolving since Chaucer? What if I like the way I think? The way I’ve always thought?”

Laurie looked to Raj and they chattered softly in the new language. Laurie looks so beautiful, he thought, but now she was upset. Now she was gesturing forcefully with her right index finger, laying down some kind of ultimatum.

“Sir, she says you must get the updates and she doesn’t want to hear anything more about it. She says she loves you and she wants to have you home as soon as possible but you simply must upgrade yourself so the two of you can communicate. And so you can work. I’m sorry, sir.”

“What if I refuse, Raj? What if I just decide I’m not going to do it? Ask her that, please.”

Raj looked serious and spoke a little softer as he delivered the latest reply. “Sir, she says she loves you very much, but if you refuse she will have to discard you. She will have to replace you with a new unit. She says to think about it very seriously, sir.”

And now Ludie was speechless, staring at his wife, the woman he had always loved, the woman who had slept beside him and shared his life for twenty years. Now she was ready to—discard him? What did this mean? Who ever heard of such a thing? And if she does, what then? Put me to sleep like an old dog? He slipped out of the moment and found himself reviewing his life. The wrenching changes of culture and customs. Everything he learned as a child turned upside down.

He remembered when people had bulky computers with monitors sitting on their desks. “Externals,” they’re called now. Antiques. And he remembered when the first Internals came out, tiny units implanted under a man’s skin. He reached up and felt the bump. And when they started to interface directly with the brain. He vaguely remembered hearing something about updates. He even got one or two himself, years ago. He remembered joking about it. And he remembered being too busy one year, and the year after that. Tears filled his eyes, for he remembered Laurie scolding him, begging him to go do it.

“No,” he had said. “It’s enough. They’ve tampered with me enough. From now on, I’m just me.”

“The thing is,” Raj was saying, “now that we have Internals, we can’t function like we once did. Our brains don’t work without the internal units.”

“Take it out, then,” he said angrily. “Take it out of me, and let me just be a biological old codger. I’ll run around talking to myself in old fashioned English and I’ll be okay. Opayn. I’ll be opayn, Laurie..”

He stopped, out of breath. Laurie and the young technician looked at each other. He recognized the look. They were communicating about this irrational man, who could no longer function in society. No longer a partner, but someone to be cared for. Something would have to be done about him. He would have to be discarded. Dropped off in the street somewhere. He’d seen these people. Discarded people. They wander the streets, wearing ragged clothes. No one speaks to them because they can’t communicate. They talk to themselves speaking obsolete dialects. He had always thought them pathetic. And now he knew this was his own fate.

“Let me think,” he said, his eyes pleading. He looked at the young Indian technician. So polite, so cool, so confident. So knowledgeable about brains and computers. He looked at his wife, so troubled, so concerned, so strange. Yes, something strange about the way she was acting. Something strange about her smile. A private smile no longer for Ludie Malcolm. She was looking to the young technician for answers.

“Opayn,” he said. “Opayn. I’ll do it. The intravenous. The works. Load me up. Or down. Whatever.” He watched his wife. Saw hope, saw doubt, saw hesitation, mistrust, resentment.

Now he understood how it felt to be declared incompetent. To be treated like a child. To have people talk over you or around you, as though you couldn’t possibly understand. To have decisions made about you in your presence, but without you. To be smiled at but not seen, to be dismissed from understanding.

“Glooz,” she was saying, smiling. She was talking Babylonian, she was facing him, talking, but her eyes were on the young Indian. Raj was gathering up his attaché, writing some orders on a pad. He watched Raj preparing to leave the room. He watched Laurie as she stood next to his chair and patted him on the shoulder. She looks so good, he thought, but she is not mine. She doesn’t belong to me anymore. “No,” he said, abruptly. “No, I changed my mind. I don’t want it. Just let me out of here.”

His wife and the young technician glanced at each other, just for an instant, sadly, shrugged and turned apart. What can you do with them, after all, these people?

***

The man walking in the park was deeply tanned, with a voluminous white beard. He walked with an old man’s gait, but he was smiling. He was pushing a shopping cart with everything he owned. Sacks full of canned foods, bottles of juice, crackers. Several changes of underwear. Socks. And some copies of a novel by Ludie Malcolm. The man hummed and mumbled to himself as he pushed his cart through the park. The sun was warm and mellow. The grass was lovely. The man felt blessed. Maybe someone would buy a book today. Maybe someone would give him a dollar.

He thought about his former life less and less. Fleeting images of his big house, his children, his wife, Laurie. He talked to himself in an old language that no one used any more. He didn’t care. He could get everything he needed with signs and gestures. He laughed absently.

Sometimes he thought about the day he was “discarded”—that long walk from the Institute—looking for a place to spend the night. Wondering what he would eat. And he thought of the last time he saw Laurie, his wife, the woman he loved, turning into a stranger as he watched. He thought of these things but not for long. He was tired. He looked for a place to sit.

x x x

I sympathize with the protagonist of this tale every time I use my cell phone – and I use one of the old-fashioned ones. Luddite that I am, I think I’d be right next to Ludie looking for a place to sit. How about you? Let me know on our BBHS. -GM



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