“The Loud Table” by Jonathan Carroll is an sf-fantasy about four elderly men who regularly hang out. One of the men is worried that he’s getting Alzheimer’s, but the truth might be even more discomforting.
There were just the four of us now, although it used to be five. Bill Hagar had died the month before. The colon cancer finally finished the job and there wasn’t much left of him at the end. Bill was the quietest of our group and the biggest coffee drinker. He said he mostly just liked to listen now because he’d spent his whole life talking. At this stage of his game, he only wanted to sit in the audience and be entertained by others.
They called it the loud table because a group of bigmouths who loved to hear themselves talk sat together at the same table almost every morning and talked nonstop. That group was: Bill, Joe Beck, Dr. Lee, Conrad Meyers, and me. Conrad, who was German, called it our Stammtisch. My late wife once called it our clubhouse, and both of them were right. The day it was announced the coffee shop was closing for two months for renovations, all of us were flabbergasted. Because we spent so much time there, it was like being told to get out of our own house and live somewhere else while it was being fixed. But where were we supposed to go in the meantime?
Old men are nesters. Give us a place to sit, chat, or read the newspaper in peace, and that’s all we want. Take the chair out from under our heinies and we squawk. The place looked fine to us—what did they have to renovate? The manager told us it needed new paint, new plumbing in the kitchen, and other stuff here and there. It had been twenty years since it had a face-lift, and now was the time. The work would only take a couple of months and then it would be ours again.
There were other places like this in town, and the food in some of them was definitely better. But somehow, we’d settled on this one years ago and had made it our own.
Old women have a knack for keeping busy, but old men don’t. Maybe we used up all of our busy before we retired. Look around and you’ll see what I mean—old women are always going off to lunch together or bridge club or museums or whatever. On the other hand, us men sit at home watching whatever dreck is on TV, or we read too much of the newspaper every morning. We used to have so many things to do in our busy lives, but now there are these big fat chunks of free time in a day that are like mile-long icebergs that we don’t know how to steer around. After retiring, I knew I was in trouble the day I caught myself watching an entire TV show at ten o’clock in the morning about candiru fish in the Amazon River. Right then and there, I turned the TV off and said out loud to an empty room, “I’ve got to find something to do.”
I didn’t play golf, I didn’t bowl. Cards bored me and so did most other games. What I liked doing was talk, gab, shoot the breeze with people who had something to say. One morning, while looking for a good glazed donut and a place to read TIME magazine, I happened onto this establishment. I’d known Conrad Meyers for years. When I walked in and saw him, he called me over and introduced me to his friends. It was like stepping into a bakery when you’re hungry. These guys had been around; they’d seen things. They brought me right into their conversation like I’d been in it all along. We talked about everything that first day—politics, sports, women—and I had a great time. When eventually they got up to leave, I asked if I could join them the next day if they were planning to meet again. They welcomed me then and every time I saw them after that.
What would we do now that they were taking our Stammtisch away? We had to find another joint to set up our loud table, but where? Joe Beck, who was sort of the unspoken leader of the group, asked for suggestions. We looked at each other like someone might have an answer, but all of us shrugged no in our different ways. So, we went on a hunt for a new temporary home away from home.
For a few days, we tried that nice converted firehouse over on Walpole Avenue, but coffee there cost a fortune and we’re a bunch of pensioners on budgets who drink a lot of coffee. So, we shuffled our thick soft shoes over to Cynthia’s next, which we heard good things about. The coffee is decent but they play music there all the time, play it loud and too much of it is Madonna, so need I say more? Once when he came back from the toilet and Madonna was on, Conrad started dancing when he got close to our table. Dr. Lee told him he danced like a chicken. I asked how a chicken danced. The doctor stood right up and started dancing too, if you could call it that. His interpretation of how a chicken danced really wasn’t so far off from what Conrad was doing.
After he sat down, Conrad said, “I had an idea just now—what about we try going to Tough Nut?”
Joe’s voice was both indignant and incredulous when he answered, “That gay café?”
Conrad nodded. “I hear it’s very nice and they serve great cakes.”
“But it’s for gays, Conrad.”
“Ja, so what? We’re looking for a place to drink our coffee, not find a date.”
Joe glared at him but said nothing. Conrad looked at Dr. Lee and then at me for approval.
“I say why not? We’re four old fuckers who haven’t had an interesting new experience in twenty years. And I’m always up for a good piece of cake. We’ll be lucky if they even let us old ugly guys in to the place.”
“Speak for yourself. Just the other day I was told I’m still a very handsome man.”
“By who—your mirror?”
Tough Nut turned out to be a really nice cafe. The fellows who ran it and their clientele were a friendly, generous bunch who treated us, well, sort of like rare tropical birds. Because how often did four old straight men show up at the door of their establishment? We went there often while our coffee shop was being renovated. The only problem was it opened at eleven and all of us were usually up and about around six in the morning. We were used to getting together at our old haunt around eight a.m. just as the doors opened. Old men don’t sleep much. Don’t sleep much, don’t eat much, piss much; we are walking clichés of what old men are supposed to be like—men that once upon a time we never ever thought we would become.
The most interesting morning we spent at the Nut was when the owners Jared and Steve sat down with us and Steve asked quite directly what it was like to be old men. I know nothing about gay life but I could see something of that was wrapped up in his question, so it deserved a particularly honest and straightforward answer. Us old owls were quiet while thinking it over, and then I spoke first.
“I keep wondering if I was walking down the street and bumped into my younger self, would he recognize me—the old man he was going to become? Would he see anything of himself in me? You know when you look at pictures of yourself or someone else you know well when they were children? You can almost always recognize something in their face, or the way they stand, or an expression that stayed with them as they grew older. Well, besides my old face and body now, would young me see anything—any little bit of himself in this old man? Recognize any similarity or connection between us?”
Jared said when he went to his twenty fifth high school reunion, he only recognized about half his male classmates, sort of identified others, and way too many of the faces he never would have connected with the kids he knew when he was eighteen. They looked completely different.
“Invisibility,” Joe Beck said, apropos to nothing. We waited for him to go on. He didn’t.
“You get more and more invisible as you get older. Haven’t you felt that? People don’t see you. Or if they do, you’re only something in their way, an obstacle, like a chair or a big rock. You’re just another object blocking the sidewalk. Haven’t you noticed how impatient people get around us when we don’t move fast enough?”
Conrad disagreed. “The way you’re describing it, Joe, we’re just the opposite of invisible, because we’re always pissing people off for being in their way.”
Dr. Lee spoke for the first time. “No, I know exactly what Joe means. Haven’t you noticed how loud or angry many seniors are? Shouting at the bus stop, scolding their dogs or kids on the street, ranting to themselves, pushing their way into the checkout line at the market… Last week I saw an old crow of a woman snatch a jar of peanut butter out of another woman’s hands even though the shelf right next to them was full of that brand. I think it’s all because they’re, we’re ignored or unnoticed so often that we do feel invisible sometimes. I know I do. Clearly, some believe by shouting or showing anger, people will finally pay attention to them, even when it’s just for small things. What’s ironic is both old people and young children have a lot of time on their hands. Neither of them needs to be in any hurry, because they don’t have much to do. But from the way they squawk, the old ones sound impatient or pissed off at too many things—too many trivial, silly things. Like it or not, people do pay attention to the guy who keeps honking his horn.” He was silent a beat or two and then said in a wistful voice, “There’s no cure for old age. No one recovers from it.”
A kind of thick, sad silence hung over our table like early-morning fog in Scotland, all of us silently acknowledging the truth of those lines.
Conrad said, “You know what I wish? I wish one thing, just one single thing in my life stayed the same. Do you know what I mean? That our hair didn’t turn white, the dog didn’t grow old and die, or our kids had stayed eight years old and adorable… Just one single thing we could hold onto and not worry about it growing up or getting old or needing renovations.…”
I smiled and said, “It’s an interesting idea, but what would happen if that one thing turned out to be horrible or something you hated? Like you never left third grade and that monster Mrs. Prentice stayed your teacher?”
“You’re being facetious and I’m not. I want one single thing in my life to remain the same right up until the day I die. Then whenever I get the feeling life is slipping through my fingers like sand, I can turn to that one fixed thing and hold tight, knowing it will stay that way till I’m gone.” For emphasis, he said the last part of the sentence slicing one hand down into the other like an ax into wood.
Silence fell over the table again; each of us probably mulling over the idea and, I’m sure, thinking what we would like to stay the same in our lives until the day we died.
But it surprised me to hear Conrad say that, because he seemed the most contented of our small gang. He was a wise and generous man, enough so that by the time old age knocked on his door, my impression was he’d welcomed it as best he could and graciously moved most of his past out of the guest room so this new presence in his life had a comfortable place to stay.
In contrast, the rest of us grumped and whined, raging too much and often at the dying of the light. We certainly wouldn’t give our old age two cents if it had asked for a loan. If I had to sum Conrad up in one word, I would choose amused. He seemed mostly amused by life and people. He also had a capacity to forgive that I could only admire. But now here he was out of the blue saying this and it troubled me.
Almost as if he’d read my mind, he looked straight at me. “When I was younger, I had a girlfriend. She was like a thousand-dollar perfume—unique, gorgeous, but then gone much too soon. It was for the best though, because in the end, we weren’t really a good fit. But the other day, she came to mind for some reason, and I couldn’t remember exactly what she looked like. It made me miserable. This goddess loved me for a while. She did. I’d look at her then and think this amazing woman loves me—she actually loves me. It was one of the high points of my young life, but now I can’t really remember what she looked like. Sort of, kind of, but not really. I read a book once that said in the end, all we have left is our memories. Well, I don’t know how close I am to the end, but already some of my best memories are abandoning ship. I can’t tell you how much I hate that.”
Kind Jared, who was at least twenty years younger than any of us, tried to lighten the thought. “But at the same time, doesn’t it help with the lousy things that happened in your past? Aren’t you glad to have forgotten some of the bad times, or people who made your life miserable twenty or however many years ago?”
Conrad smiled but shook his head. “Sure, but the problem with memory is it doesn’t discriminate when it loses things. It’s not like it pans for gold, separating precious memories from the dirt. I think we’d all agree”—he threw a hand out in a sweeping arc to indicate all of us old boys—“that we want to keep as much of our past in our heads as we can at this point. I’ll gladly live with my bad memories so long as I know the good ones are up there too 100% as well.” He tapped his forehead with a finger.
“Besides, you don’t miss many things when you’re young, because life is just so full and engaging. But when you’re old, you miss so much that used to be part of your life, both big and small. This sounds silly, but yesterday when I was getting a massage, I realized I wasn’t ticklish anymore. It made me sad. When you’re young and annoyed anytime someone tickles you, you never think there’ll come a day when you miss it but you do.”
An hour later, Conrad walked home with me. He lived on the other side of town, so I thought this detour was only because he was in the mood for a little exercise. I was wrong.
“They think I have Alzheimer’s disease. There are no exact tests for it, so they only can judge by the symptoms. They don’t know if it is early-onset Alzheimer’s yet, which is the worst, but it looks that way.”
For the moment, I didn’t say anything. How do you respond when someone who matters a great deal to you says they’ve been given a death sentence?
“Do the others know?”
“Lee does. But only because I wanted to hear his professional opinion about how long he thinks I have and what are my options. I’m going to tell the others soon.”
As a small in-joke, we always called our friend “Dr. Lee” instead of just Lee because his whole name is Lee Li and that kind of cracked us up when someone said it, including Lee. Especially after Bill Hagar said the first time he was introduced to the doctor, his name sounded like that of a panda in a zoo. But the flipside of his echo’y moniker was Lee Li had been a highly regarded oncologist before retiring. So, it made complete sense Conrad went to him first with his grim secret.
“That’s what you were talking about back at the cafe, about not being able to picture your old girlfriend anymore.”
“Don’t answer this if you don’t want to, but how bad is it now? How badly has it affected your memory?”
He took a deep breath, let it out, and looked away. “I have trouble typing. I have trouble spelling. Yesterday, I looked at the keyboard and for a few seconds didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it.”
I said nothing while waiting to ask him one question—one single question. But I needed to wait until he led me to it.
“I’m telling you now because you said your wife had Alzheimer’s before she died.”
“Is it all right if I ask you some questions about it?”
“Of course, Conrad, but can I ask you something first? When you close your eyes at night to go to sleep, have you ever seen an intense green? A very special, almost electric green—like bright light that’s been shone through an emerald? Or the green of some wonderfully exotic fish in an aquarium? It didn’t last very long but if you’ve seen it, it’s memorable.”
Conrad looked both surprised and puzzled at the same time. “Yes! Yes, I did two nights ago. How did you know that?”
I patted him on the shoulder. “Then you don’t have Alzheimer’s, my friend. You don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
He looked at me with a combination of great skepticism but with hope peeking over the edge. “What do you mean? What are you talking about?”
Coincidentally, we were only a block away from an internet café. For a few moments, I considered going in there to show him. But despite having known Conrad a long time, I had no idea how he would react to my proof. So, I thought it best to invite him over to the house, where I could do it discreetly, just in case he freaked out. When we got to my place, I asked if he wanted coffee. He shook his head, understandably eager to see my proof that he didn’t have Alzheimer’s.
Since my wife Stephanie died, I’ve lived alone with her moody marmalade cat that is a pleasant-enough housemate, especially after those 3741 enervating, unhappy days of marriage to Stephanie. Cats are loners that keep us company only when the mood strikes them, which is perfect for me these days. From my experience, they are neither smart nor stupid animals but simply supremely self-satisfied creatures that assume they rule whatever small worlds they inhabit, and any other beings in their neighborhood are there to either serve, feed, or amuse them.
The cat was lying on top of my desk when I crossed the room. After picking it up and putting it gently on the floor, I sat down in front of the computer and turned it on.
Conrad came up behind me. “Good lord, is that a Cabot computer? Does that company still exist? It must be what, twenty years old?”
I was watching the screen come to life. “Something like that. I rarely use it and it does what I need.”
“But where’s the modem? Don’t you have one? How can you get on the Internet if you don’t have a modem?”
I pushed back in the chair and looked at him over a shoulder. “Hold it a second, Conrad. Let this thing come on and then all your questions will be answered.”
The screen flashed the singular green I’d asked Conrad about before, and then a familiar face came into focus: Chad Harkness, emcee of my favorite television game show, Lower the Boom.
When I’d set this system up years before, I’d had to choose a face I liked talking to. After watching him on hundreds of episodes of Lower the Boom, I considered Chad sort of a friend, so his face became that of my chat pal.
He did not look happy but that was nothing new. He never looked happy when I called, which was entirely understandable. Sometimes, he tried to hide it with the fake frozen smile of a Third World diplomat. Or if he really rose to the occasion, he would actually ask how I was doing, not that he cared a single atom about how I was doing and we both knew it.
Over my shoulder, Conrad said “Propan? Who’s Propan?”
“Me. Just hold on, buddy. You’ll know everything in a minute. Chad, you need to make a small change.”
As always, Mr. TV Face tried to remain expressionless. But arrogant beings have a hard time doing that when they’re ordered to do something and they know there’s nothing they can do but obey. Because the one doing the ordering is so very much more powerful than them.
“Conrad, do you know what the singularity is? The technological singularity?”
“Sure, I’ve read articles about it. That’s when all the computers on earth supposedly become smart enough to figure out how to link up and become one giant brain. A lot of scientists are afraid when it happens, the computers will take over and destroy us. Scary idea. It’s supposed to happen in, like, fifty years.”
On the computer screen, Chad smirked and shook his head in disgust. He murmured, “Idiots.”
I pointed a finger at the screen and said sternly, “Don’t interrupt.”
Chad’s mouth tightened and he looked away, furious. Nobody else ordered him around like that. Nobody else could.
“It’s already happened, Conrad. Some time ago, actually.” I gestured toward the computer screen. “Chad here represents it.”
Conrad’s eyes widened. “It’s already happened? He’s like—”
“He’s their representative when I need to talk to them.”
“Them? You mean the computers?”
“Yes, when I need to talk to them, I call Chad.”
“Why does he call you Propan?”
“Because that’s where I’m from.”
“What do you mean? I thought you were from Fort Lauderdale.”
“Yes well, no. I’m really from Propan, a planet seventy-nine light-years from Earth.”
“You’re an alien?” He took several steps back.
“Yes. I’m here on vacation.”
“You’re from another planet and here on vacation. And that guy on the screen represents all the computers in the world that have already linked up to become some kind of giant mega-monster brain?”
“Yes. Citizens of my planet love vacationing on Earth. It’s very relaxing for us to come here and stay for the equivalent of one of your lifetimes. Humans go to the Bahamas or Greece, Propans come to earth. Do you want to sit down? You look rattled.”
Conrad didn’t move. “Why are you telling me this? Why am I here?”
I pointed at the screen. “When the singularity happened, the computer—let’s just call it Chad from now on—when Chad linked up, he had all of human knowledge that had ever been recorded. But what he couldn’t understand or grasp was how human emotion worked. That left a big hole in his knowledge, because emotion is one of the most important ingredients in human knowledge. It is what distinguishes man from machines. So, instead of taking over and wiping you out like some scientists feared, Chad hid the singularity, then, like a hacker, stole little bits and pieces of humanity every time any of you used a computer. They call it—”
“Sipping.” Chad interrupted me, looking smug and triumphant in one.
“Yes, sipping—like one takes small sips of a drink. Do you know those hackers who steal only one or two dollars from credit card accounts? People don’t notice small thefts like that, but if it’s done millions of times, they add up.
“Whenever a person uses a computer anywhere in the world, Chad often sips some small part off of their consciousness via their attention to what they’re viewing and adds it to his file of human behavior. First, he gathered all recorded knowledge; now he’s accumulating your behavior to study it which he hopes will help him figure out how human emotion works.”
“And then what happens if he does?”
“I don’t know. He’s never told me.”
“And never will,” Chad said grumpily.
“Probably at some point, he did consider wiping you out. But that won’t happen now, because Propans won’t let it. We like humans and Earth too much to allow either of them to be destroyed; this is one of our favorite vacation spots. You’re like the rain forest to us, so the whole planet and everything on it has been designated a protected preserve.
“We made a deal with Chad a long time ago: He can sip from all of your minds but only up to a point and then he has to stop. When people notice part of their memory failing like you did, they naturally believe it’s senility or Alzheimer’s or some other mental problem, and sometimes it is, like what happened to my wife. But just as often, it’s Chad sipping. That’s why I asked you before if you saw a green light when you went to bed: that’s always proof of having been sipped.
“So, Chad, you’re finished sipping Conrad. No more, understood?”
A low, surly grunt came from the screen “Yes.”
“You see my friend, human knowledge is lovely and vast up to a point, but compared to what we know on Propans, it’s like what a child learns here in their first year of school. What Chad now knows is no match for even a fraction of both our knowledge and what we are capable of doing with it. He realizes that now. Not at first, so we needed to firmly demonstrate it to him on several occasions in the past. But he knows his place now.” That last line I couldn’t resist saying with a little delicious spit of spite to it.
Confused, Conrad said, “But if you’re so powerful, how come you didn’t save your wife?”
“For two reasons—because she really did have Alzheimer’s and we don’t interfere with natural events when we come here unless it’s absolutely essential. You don’t cut down trees in the rainforest to build a hotel. Secondly, because she was a pain in the ass. She made my life here pretty bleak a lot of the time. I love our group now, but I didn’t love Stephanie.”
“Then why did you stay with her for so long?”
“She was part of the vacation package I chose before I came. You would probably call it something like ‘the pain and pleasure cruise.’ I like variety—sweet and sour, happy and sad mixed up. To balance out the ‘eh’ years with her, I met you guys, and my life’s been pretty great since then.”
Conrad looked at the floor and shook his head. “I don’t know what I’m going to do with this now. I mean—”
“You don’t have to worry, my friend. As soon as we leave here, all this will be wiped from your head. One step out the door and poof—Chad and everything you’ve learned here is forgotten.”
He hesitated, rubbed his mouth, and then spoke. “If you’re so powerful, can I ask one thing—can you give me back just one image of what Deborah Sullivan looked like? The woman I was talking about before—my beautiful girlfriend?”
“No, sorry, I won’t do that. It would be interfering and not really necessary. That part of your memory is gone for good, I’m afraid. But I promise you’ll not lose any more of it. Chad won’t be sipping from you again.”
I left the computer on when I saw Conrad out, because there were a few other things I wanted to discuss with it. Before we stepped out the door and Conrad Meyers lost all memory of what had taken place in the last hour, he turned to me and said, “Prove this is all true. Just some kind of little proof so I don’t think I’m going completely nuts.”
I had a hand on his shoulder. I took it off and, putting it together with my other one, held them out to him, palms up. A photographic image of Deborah Sullivan, aged twenty-seven, was there. Conrad grinned with great love and longing. He said to me in a whisper, “I’m going to forget that as soon as I leave here, aren’t I?”
I nodded and he did too.
“That’s okay. At least I got to see her one last time.” He walked out of my house and down the steps to the sidewalk. He stood there a moment as if trying to get the world back into focus and decide which direction to go in. Then he gave a little wave and moved off.
I closed the front door and walked into the living room. On the computer screen was a photograph of a thin old wisp of a woman who looked only unhappy and mean, the kind of woman who would snatch a jar of peanut butter out of your hand at the super market. I shook my head and rolled my eyes. “Deborah Sullivan today. Very clever.”
Chad said, “Why didn’t you show him this picture of her instead of that one?”
“That’s so typical of you, Chad. Not once in all the time we’ve known each other have you surprised me; you’re so predictable. That’s one of the wonderful things about humans: they aren’t. People are forever surprising in how they think and live. From one moment to the next, you cannot predict how they’re going to act, and a lot of the time neither can they.
“You keep trying to make a precise map of the human heart. But you can’t map a land that’s constantly changing. In important ways, it doesn’t even exist until this moment, and then it’s gone the next.”
On its own, across the room, the computer screen suddenly went black. Chad had left the building, pissed off as usual.
“The Loud Table” copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Carroll
Art copyright © 2016 by Keith Negley