A speech pathologist evaluates a woman who speaks only gibberish
by Maureen McHugh
I hate when I have a call in Inglewood. It’s still the 1990s in Inglewood, and for all I know, people still care about Madonna. Los Angeles County has a forty-bed psych facility there. Arrowhead looks like a nursing home; a long one-story building with a wide wheelchair ramp and glass doors and overly bright, easy-to-clean floors. I stop at the reception desk and check in.
“Rosni Gupta,” I say. “I’m here to do an evaluation.”
The young man at the desk catches his bottom lip in his teeth and nods. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Hold on, ma’am. I’ll get the director.” He has an elaborate tattoo sleeve of red flowers, parrots, and skulls on his right arm. “Dr. Gupta is here,” he says into the phone.
I also hate when people call me Dr. Gupta. I’m a Ph.D., not a medical doctor. I’m running late because I’m always running late. That’s not true of me in my personal life. I’m early for meeting friends or getting to the airport, but in my work there are too many appointments and too much traffic. Being late makes me anxious. I’m a speech pathologist for Los Angeles County working with Social Services. I’m a specialist; I evaluate language capacity and sometimes prescribe communication interventions and devices. What that means is that if someone has trouble communicating, the county is supposed to provide help. If the problem is more complicated than deafness, dyslexia, stroke, autism, learning disability, or stuttering, all the things that speech therapists normally deal with, I’m one of the people who is brought in. “Devices” sounds very fancy, but really, it’s not. Lots of times a device is a smart phone with an app. I kid you not.
“Are you from LA?” I ask the guy behind the desk.
He shakes his head. “El Salvador. But I’ve been here since I was eleven.”
“I love El Salvadorian food,” I say. “Tamales de elote, pupusas.”
He lights up and tells me about this place on Venice called Gloria’s that makes decent pupusas, until Leo shows up. Leo is the director.
Just so you know, I’m not some special, Sherlock Holmes kind of woman who has been promoted into this work because I can diagnose things about people. Government does not work that way. I took this job because it was a promotion. I’ve just been doing speech pathology for about twenty years and have seen a lot, and I am not particularly afraid of technology. I have an iPhone. I attend conferences about communication devices and read scientific journals.
What I understand about this case is that the police got a call about a woman who was speaking gibberish. She was agitated, attacked a police officer, and was placed on a seventy-two-hour psych hold. She has no identification and is unable to communicate. They can’t find any family, and since she is nonverbal except for the gibberish, she was given an initial diagnosis as profoundly autistic, and when a bed opened up at Arrowhead she was placed. I’m here to determine what the problem is.
The file is pretty lean.
I don’t know Leo-the-director very well. He’s a balding, dark-skinned guy wearing a saggy gray suit jacket and jeans. He looks tired, but anyone running a psych facility looks tired. “Hi, Ros, how was the 405?” he asks.
“Sorry I’m late,” I say. “The 405 was a Saturday Night Live skit. Tell me about your Jane Doe.”
He shrugs. “She’s not profoundly autistic, although she may be on the spectrum.”
“So she’s communicating?”
“Still no recognizable language.”
“I don’t know. I’m thinking she may just be homeless and we haven’t identified the language.”
“How did you end up with her?” I ask. Nobody gets a bed unless they are a risk to themselves or others or severely disabled. Even then they don’t get beds half the time. There are about 80,000 homeless in Los Angeles on any given night—not all of them on the street, of course—some of them are living in cars or crashing on couches or in shelters—but a lot of them are either severely mentally ill or addicted, and there aren’t that many beds.
“She’s 5250 pending T-con. Apparently she was pretty convincingly a danger to someone,” Leo says.
Section 5250 is a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code that allows an involuntary fourteen-day psychiatric hold, and T-con is a temporary conservatorship that gets the county another fourteen days to keep someone. We’re a bureaucracy. God forbid we not speak jargon; we have our professional pride. At some point in that fourteen days there has to be a probable cause hearing so a court can decide whether or not the hold meets legal criteria. I’m a cog in that machinery. If I determine that she can’t communicate enough to take care of herself, then that’s part of a case to keep her institutionalized.
When I say “institutionalized” I can just see people’s expressions change. They go all One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Institutions are not happy places. The one I’m in right now is too bright. It’s all hard surfaces, so I hear the squeak of shoes, the constant sounds of voices. The halls are way too bright. It’s about as homey as a CVS and not nearly as attractive. But you know, a lot of people need to stay institutionalized. I had a nonverbal patient, Jennie. She was twenty-six, and after many months of working with her and her caregivers to provide her with training, she was finally taught to go and stand by the door of the storage room (where the adult diapers were stored) to communicate that she needed to be changed. I would like to live in a world where she didn’t have to live in a place like this, but I’m glad to live in a world where she has a place to live. I’ve been to visit family in New Delhi, okay? In New Delhi, if Jennie’s family was rich she’d have great care. If her family was poor, she’d be a tremendous burden on her mother and sisters or, more likely, dead of an opportunistic infection.
I’m wearing sandals, and the heels are loud on the linoleum. They’re three to a room here, but a lot of the people are in the day room or group therapy. We stop at a room. Two of the beds are empty and carefully made with blue, looseweave blankets on them. A woman sits on the third bed, looking outside. She is clean. Her hair is long, brown and coarse, pulled back in a thick ponytail.
“That’s Jane,” Leo says.
“Hello, Jane,” I say.
She looks directly at me and says, “Hi.” This is not typical autistic behavior. We’re allowed use of a conference room where I can do my evaluation. I prefer it to a clinic. It’s quieter; there are fewer distractions. Walking down the hall, Jane is about 5’6” or so. She’s as brown as me. My family is Bengali although I was born and raised in Clearwater, Florida. (I came to Los Angeles for college. UCLA.) Jane doesn’t look Indian. She doesn’t look Central or South American either.
Jane doesn’t say anything beyond that ”Hi,” but she continues to make eye contact. She’s not pretty. Not ugly either. Jane actually rests her elbows on the table and leans a little toward me, which is disconcerting.
I’m 5’3”. My husband likes to walk, so we walk to the drug store and sometimes we go out to eat. He’s six feet tall, a teacher. He’s white, originally from Pennsylvania. When we walk to restaurants from our little neighborhood (it’s quite pretty; we couldn’t afford to buy a house there now, but when we bought our place the neighborhood was still rough), there is enough room on the sidewalk in places for about three people to walk abreast. If there are two people walking toward us, and they’re two men, I’m the person who always has to get out of the way. A man will unthinkingly shoulder-check me if I don’t and occasionally look over his shoulder, surprised. This is a stupid thing, I know. There are a lot of entertainment businesses in our area—people who make trailers for movies or do mysterious technological things involving entertainment. They’re young men. They wear skinny pants or ironic T-shirts or have beards or wear those straw fedora things. I am old enough to be their mother, and I am just surprised that they do that.
“Would they run over their mother on a sidewalk?” I ask.
“It’s because you’re short,” Matt says. Matt is my husband. He is middle-aged, but he also wears ironic T-shirts. My favorite is his T-shirt of a silhouette of a T. rex playing drums with its little tiny arms. Matt is a drummer in a band made up of old white guys.
Men never do it if it’s two men coming up on two men; they all just sort of squeeze. I get very irritable about it. I grew up in America. I feel American. My parents come from New Delhi, and they are clear that my brothers, Jay and Ravi, and I are very American, but growing up I felt like I was only pretending to be. Sometimes I think I learned how to be a subservient Indian woman from my parents, and I give it off like a secret perfume.
When I was younger I walked very fast, all the time, but now I’m middle-aged and overweight and I don’t dart around people any more, so maybe I just notice it more or maybe I’m just more cranky.
I plan to do an evaluation called ADOS on Jane Doe. ADOS is one of the standard evaluations for autism. It can be scaled for a range from almost nonverbal to pretty highly verbal, and since the file said that she spoke gibberish, it’s a place to start. I never get to ADOS because it’s obvious pretty quickly that she exhibits no autistic behaviors.
“Hi, I’m Rosni Gupta,” I say.
She studies me.
I tap my chest. “Rosni Gupta. Ros.”
“Ros,” she repeats. Then she taps her chest. “Malni,” she says. She has an accent.
It takes me a couple of times to get it. She works with me, showing me what she does with her mouth to make the sound. I fiddle with it as I write it down. I think about spelling it Emulni but Malni feels closer. She has a strong accent, but I can’t place it. It’s not Spanish. I say a couple of words to her and gesture for her to say them back. She doesn’t make the retroflex consonants of the Indian subcontinent—the thing that everybody mangles trying to sound like Apu on The Simpsons. She watches me write.
I don’t use a laptop for my field notes. I like yellow legal pads. Just the way I started. She reaches out, wanting to use my pen. Her nails are a little long, her hands not very calloused. Her palms are pink. I hand her the pen and slide the pad across to her.
She writes an alphabet. It looks a lot like our alphabet but there’s no K, Q, or V. The G looks strange, and there are extra letters after the D and the T, and where we have a W she has something that looks like a curlicue.
She offers me the pen and says something in a language that sounds liquid, like it’s been poured through a straw. She gestures at me to take the pen. It’s the first time she’s really spoken to me in a full sentence.
I take the pen and she points to the page and points to the first letter. “A,” she says. It sounds like something between A and U.
Eventually I write an A, and she nods fiercely. I write our alphabet for her.
“Wait,” I say, gesturing with my hands, and she nods. It’s only a few minutes to go to Leo’s office and borrow his iPad and bring it back. I show her a Google map of the world. “Where are you from?” I ask.
She studies the map. Eventually she turns and she scrolls it a bit. I change it to a satellite version and I can see when she gets it. Her face is grim. She stabs her finger on the California coast. On where we are right now.
“No,” I say. “That’s where we are now, Malni. Where is home?”
She looks up at me leaning over the table. She stabs her finger in the same place.
I write up my report that she is not autistic and recommend a psychological follow-up. She might be bipolar. Leo tells me as I leave that the cop who brought her in tased her, but it had been determined after forty-eight hours that she was not a threat. I never got any sense she was violent. I was certainly never worried about my safety. I take my safety very seriously, thank you, and I’ve done evals with potentially violent clients, and when I was worried, I requested protection. I never felt the need with Malni.
I make dinner that night while Matt marks papers. Matt teaches sophomore English at the high school and is the faculty advisor for the literary magazine. For nine months of the year he disappears into the black hole that is teaching, and we lose our dinner table. He surfaces for brief periods from the endless piles of papers and quizzes, mostly around Saturday night. He tells me about his students, I tell him about my clients.
Matt likes Bengali dishes, but I don’t make them very often because I didn’t learn to cook until I was out of school. My go-to, as you might have guessed, is Mexican. I like the heat. Tonight is carnitas á la Trader Joes.
“What’s this?” Matt asks. He’s sitting at the dining room table, papers spread, but he’s looking at my notes. We’ll end up eating in front of the television. We’re Netflixing, partway through some BBC thing involving spiffily dressed gangsters in post-WWI England.
“What’s what?” I ask.
“Looks like someone’s writing the Old English alphabet in your notes.”
I bring out sour cream and salsa and look at what he’s pointing to. “That was my Jane Doe in Inglewood.”
“She’s a Beowulf scholar?” he asks.
“That’s Old English?” I ask.
“Looks like it,” Matt says.
I have a caseload and a lot of appointments but about a week later I call Leo and tell him I want to schedule some more time with Jane even though I shouldn’t take the time. He tells me she’s been moved to a halfway house. It could have been worse; she could have been just discharged to the street. He gives me the address and I call the halfway-house coordinator and schedule a time to see her in about a week.
I have to go in the evening because Malni—they call her Malni now—has a job during the day. She does light assembly work, which is a fancy name for factory work. The halfway house is in Crenshaw, a less than desirable neighborhood. It’s a stucco apartment building, painted pale yellow. I knock on her door, and her roommate answers.
“I’m looking for Malni?”
“She ain’t here. She be coming back, you might run into her if you look outside.” Her roommate’s name is Sherri. Sherri is lanky, with straightened hair and complicated nails. “You her parole?”
“No, I’m a speech therapist.”
“There ain’t no therapy to do,” Sherri says. “You know she don’t speak no English.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I like your nails.”
Sherri isn’t charmed by my compliment. But I do like them; they look like red and white athletic shoes, like they’ve been laced up across each nail. I’m terrible at maintenance. Hair, makeup, nails. I admire people who are good about things like that.
I head outside and spot Malni coming from a couple of blocks. Malni walks with her shoulders back, not smiling, and she makes eye contact with people. You’re not supposed to make eye contact with people in the city. It’s an unwritten rule. There’s a bunch of boys hanging on the corner, and Malni looks straight at their faces. It’s not friendly, like she knows them. It’s not unfriendly. It’s … I don’t know. The way people cue looking at people and away from people is something to look for when determining if they’re autistic or if they’re exhibiting signs of psychosis. I’m trained to look for it. Persons on the autism spectrum generally don’t make eye contact. A lot of persons with schizophrenia don’t look at people and look away in the normal rhythms of conversation; they stare too much—too long, for example. When I assessed Malni at Arrowhead, she cued normally.
Malni walks the boys down, looking right in their faces. The boys move out of her way. I suspect they don’t even realize that they’re doing it. I remember her file says she was tased when police apprehended her. A homeless woman of color speaking gibberish who kept looking them in the face and wouldn’t drop her eyes. Did they read that as aggressive? I bet she didn’t have to do much to get tased. It’s a wonder she didn’t get shot.
Malni sees me when she gets closer and lifts her hand in a little wave. “Hi, Ros,” she says and smiles. Totally normal cueing.
I follow her back into the apartment she shares with Sherri.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” Sherri announces from in front of the television. “I worked all day.” There’s a Styrofoam box of fried chicken and fried rice nearly finished on the coffee table in front of her.
“That’s okay,” I say.
Malni and I sit down at the kitchen table, and I open up my laptop. I call up images of Beowulf in Old English and turn the screen around so Malni can see them.
She frowns a moment, and then she looks at me and smiles and taps my forehead with her index finger like she’s saying I’m smart. She pulls the laptop closer to her and reads out loud.
It’s not the same liquid sound as when she talked, I don’t think (but that was two weeks ago and I don’t remember exactly). This sounds more German.
Sherri turns around and leans against the back of the couch. “What’s that she’s talking?”
“Old English,” I say.
“That ain’t English,” Sherri says. It’s like everything from Sherri has to be a challenge.
“No, it’s what they spoke in England over a thousand years ago.”
“Huh. So how come she knows that?”
Malni is learning modern English. She can say all the things that you learn when you start a new language—My name is Malni. How much does that cost? Where’s the bathroom? Everyone keeps asking her the same question, “Where are you from?”
She keeps giving the same answer: “Here.”
I pull a couple of yellow legal pads out of my messenger bag and a pack of pens. I write my name and address, my cell number, and my e-mail address on the first one.
“Hey, Sherri, if she wants to get in touch with me, could you help her?”
I’m not sure what Sherri will say. Sherri shrugs. “I guess.”
Malni looks at the writing. She taps it. “Ros,” she says. Then the number. “Your phone.”
“Yes,” I say. “My phone.”
It’s my work phone because I never give clients my home phone. Not even my clients who read Old English.
I think about Malni walking through those boys. I’m meeting with one of my clients. Agnes is Latina. She’s sixty-four and had a stroke that’s left her nearly blind and partially deaf. She’s diabetic and has high blood pressure. She has a tenth-grade education, and before her stroke, she and her daughter cleaned houses.
With a hearing aid, Agnes can make out some sounds, but she can’t make out speech. Her daughter, Brittany, communicates with her by drawing letters on her hand and slowly spelling things out. I’ve brought a tablet so that Agnes can write the letters she thinks Brittany is writing. It’s an attempt at reinforcing feedback. Adult deafblindness is a difficult condition. Agnes is unusual because she doesn’t have any cognitive issues from her stroke, so there’s lots of possibilities. I’m having Agnes write one letter at a time on the tablet, big enough that she herself might be able to see it.
Agnes has a big laugh when she’s in a good mood. Sometimes she cries for hours, but today she’s good. She has crooked teeth. Her English is accented, but she’s lived here since she was thirteen—Brittany was born here and speaks Spanish as her first language but grew up speaking English too. “Mom!” she says, even though her mother can’t hear her. “Quit goofing around!” She smacks her mother lightly on the arm. Agnes’s eyes roam aimlessly behind her thick and mostly useless glasses.
Brittany, who is in her thirties, raises an eyebrow at me. Both women are short and overweight, classic risk profiles for diabetes and hypertension, like me. Unlike them, I have really good health care.
Agnes prefers drawing on the tablet to writing, and after twenty minutes of trying to figure out what Brittany has been asking her, “?yr name ?hot or cold ?what 4 dinner,” Agnes has given up and drawn an amorphous blob that is apparently supposed to be a chicken. “Fried chicken,” she announces, too loud because she can’t hear herself well enough to regulate her volume.
“She can’t have fried chicken for dinner,” Brittany says. “She has to stick to her diet.”
Agnes says, “El Pollo Loco! Right? Macaroni and cheese and cole slaw. Cole slaw is a vegetable.”
Brittany looks at me helplessly. Agnes cackles.
My phone rings. “Is this Ros, the speech lady? This is Sherri, Malni’s roommate.”
“Sherri?” I remember the woman with the nails painted to look like the laces on athletic shoes. “Hi, is everything all right?”
“Yeah. Well, sort of. Nothing’s really wrong. I just got a bunch of papers here for you from Malni.”
“Where’s Malni?” I ask.
“She took off to find more of her friends,” Sherri said.
“Her friends from wherever the hell she’s from,” Sherri says. “You gonna pick up these papers or what?”
I wanted Malni to write her story down. She filled almost three legal pads. I didn’t expect her to disappear, though.
“This guy showed up,” Sherri says. In honor of Agnes I’ve brought El Pollo Loco. Sherri doesn’t really like El Pollo Loco. “I don’t eat that Mexican shit,” she says, but she takes it anyway. “He was tall and skinny. He looked like her, you know? That squished nose. Like those Australian dudes.”
It takes me a moment, but then I realize what she means: Aboriginals. She’s right—Malni looked a little like an Aboriginal. Not exactly. Or maybe exactly; I’ve never met an Australian Aboriginal.
“Oh, cool, I didn’t know they had mac ’n’ cheese.” Sherri plunks down on the couch and digs in. “Yeah, so he started jabbering at her in that way she talks to herself. Was crazy. And he acted just like she did. All foreign and weird. Then they just took off, and she didn’t come back.”
“When was that?” I ask. My feet hurt, so I sit down on the couch next to her.
This is Thursday. Part of me wants to say, you couldn’t be bothered to call until yesterday, but there’s no reason for Sherri to have bothered to call me at all, even though Malni apparently asked her to.
“That bitch was super smart,” Sherri says.
I give Sherri twenty dollars, even though she’s a recovering substance abuser and it’s risky to give her pocket money, and I take the legal pads and go.
I call the Department of History at UCLA and eventually find someone who can put me in touch with someone at the Department of Literature who puts me in touch with a woman who is a Beowulf scholar. Why I thought I should start in History I don’t know, since Matt is an English teacher and he recognized the language. Anyway, I tell the Beowulf scholar I am looking for someone who can translate Old English and that I will pay.
That is how I get Steve. We meet at a Starbucks near campus. Starbucks is quickly becoming the place where everybody meets for almost every reason.
Steve is Asian-American and very gay. He wears glasses that would have gotten me laughed out of middle school. He is studying Old English and needs money. “I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation,” he says. “I am working on my dissertation, actually. It’s on persona and presentation in Anglo-Saxon literature. But there’s that pesky thing about rent.” He eyes the legal pads. I wonder what persona and presentation even means and what his parents think about having a son who is getting a doctorate in English Literature. Which, I realize, is racist. Just because my dad is an engineer and my mother is a chemist and they are classic immigrant parents who stressed college, college, college, doesn’t mean Steve’s are. For all I know, Steve’s parents are third generation and his dad plays golf and gave him a car on his sixteenth birthday.
“I can pay you $500,” I say.
“That looks like modern handwriting. Is it, like, someone’s notes or something?”
“I’m not exactly sure,” I say.
He eyes me. I am aware of how weird it is to appear with three legal pads of handwritten Old English. Steve may be a starving UCLA student, but this is very strange.
“I think it’s like a story,” I say. “I work for Los Angeles County Social Services. A client gave me these.”
“You’re a social worker,” he says, nodding.
“I’m a speech therapist,” I say.
He doesn’t comment on that. “This is going to take a lot of hours. A thousand?”
“Seven hundred and fifty,” I say.
“Okay,” he says.
I write him a check for half on the spot. He holds the check, looking resigned. I think I’m getting a pretty good deal.
After that I get e-mails from him. The first one has ten typed pages of translation attached and a note that says, Can we meet?
We meet in the same Starbucks.
“Your client is really good at Anglo-Saxon,” he says. “Like really good.”
“Yeah?” I say. How can I explain?
“Yeah. She does some really interesting things. It’s a woman, right?”
Malni tells a “story” about a woman from a place on a harbor. The place is vast, full of households and people. There are wondrous things there. Roads crowded with people who can eat every manner of food and wear the richest of dress. It is always summer. It is a place that has need for few warriors. Trees bear bright fruit that no one picks because no one wants it because no one is hungry. The air is noisy with the sound of birds and children.
She is one of a band of people. They work with lightning and metal, with light and time. They bend the air and the earth to open doors that have never been opened. They journey to yesterday. To the time of heroes.
“She’s a woman,” I say.
“It’s like a sci-fi fantasy story,” Steve says.
I already know that. Malni has been telling everyone, she’s from here. When I read those words, that they journeyed to yesterday, I figured that plus the Old English meant that somehow Malni thought she had gone to the past.
“Have you heard about anybody who had some kind of breakdown or disappeared in the last year? You know, a teacher? Someone good at Old English?”
“No,” he says.
I tell him a little bit about Malni.
“Wow. That’s . . . wow. You’d think someone this good would be teaching, and yeah, it’s a pretty small discipline. I’d think I’d have heard,” he says. “Maybe not. If I hear anything . . .”
“So she’s really good,” I prompt.
“There are only something like a little over four hundred works of Old English still around,” Steve says. “There’s Beowulf, which was written down by a monk. There’s Caedmon, and Alfred the Great and Bede, a bunch of saints lives and some riddles and some other stuff. You get to know the styles. The dialects. This is close to Alfred but different. I thought at first that the differences were because she was trying to mimic Alfred but getting it a little wrong, you know? But the more I read it over and over, the more I realized that it’s all internally consistent.”
“Like she’s really good at making it up?”
“Yeah,” Steve says. “Like she’s made a version all her own. Invented a wholly new version of Old English so that it would sound like a different person at close to the same time. And written a story in it. That’s a really weird thing to do. Make it super authentic for somebody like me. Because the number of people who could read this and get what she’s doing and also enjoy it is zero.”
“Yeah,” he says. “I mean, I understand the beginning of the story, I think. It’s a time-travel story. She starts in Los Angeles, which by the way is really hard to describe in Anglo-Saxon because she doesn’t try to make up words like horseless cart or anything. For one thing, Anglo-Saxon doesn’t really work that way. So she starts here and she travels back in time. Then there’s all this part about being in the past in what I think is probably Wessex, you know, what’s now part of England. She makes up some stuff that’s different from the historical record, some of which I wish were true because it’s really cool and some of which is just kind of dull unless you’re really into agriculture. Then there’s this long explanation of something I don’t understand because I think she’s trying to explain math but it isn’t math like I understand math. But really, I suck at math so maybe it is.”
“She’s got math in there?”
“A little bit, but mostly she’s explaining it. There’s something about how really small changes in a stream make waves, and if you drop a stick in the water, no one can predict its course. How when you walk through the door to yesterday, it means yesterday is not your yesterday. Then she talks about coming back to her beautiful city but it’s gone. There’s a strange city in its place. That city is beautiful too, and it’s full of wild men and sad women. That city has savage and beautiful art. It has different things. Some are better and some are worse, but her family is gone and no one speaks to her anymore. She says the story is about the cost of the journey. That when you journey to yesterday, you lay waste to today. When you return, your today is gone and it is a today that belongs to somebody else.”
It takes me a moment to think about all that.
One of the baristas steams milk. Starbucks is playing some soft-spoken music in the background. It doesn’t feel like someone has just explained how to end my world.
“It’s kind of creepy, but the way it’s written there are big chunks that are really hard to read,” Steve says. “Is she crazy? I mean, what’s the deal?”
I want to say she’s crazy. Really, it’s the best explanation, right? She was a professor of Anglo-Saxon/Old English. She’d had a psychotic break. Sherri said a man who looked a lot like her—maybe a family member, a brother—tracked her down to the halfway house and took her home.
That strange and liquid language she speaks. The way she acts, as if she comes from a different culture where the men are not so savage and the women not so sad.
“I don’t know,” I say.
“I can give you what I’ve translated. I’ve translated all the words, but there are parts that don’t make sense,” Steve says.
I pay him the rest and add enough to make a thousand. He’s spent a lot of time on it. Time he could have been working on his dissertation.
“I actually learned a lot,” he says. “It’s like she really speaks Anglo-Saxon.”
“Maybe she did,” I say.
Someone, somewhere is working on time travel. I mean, someone has to be. People are trying to clone mammoths. People are working on interstellar travel. I have a Google alert for it and mostly what pops up is fiction. Sometimes crazy pseudoscience. Real stuff too. I get alerts for things like photon entanglement. People are trying.
I think I saw Malni on Wilshire Boulevard one time walking with two other people: a man who looked like her and a woman who had black hair. I was driving, late for an appointment. By the time I saw them I was almost past them. I tried to go around the block and catch them, but traffic was bad and by the time I got back to Wilshire they were gone. Or maybe it wasn’t Malni.
Maybe in some lab somewhere, people are close to a time-travel breakthrough. I walk downtown with Matt and I think, this might be the last moment I walk with Matt. Someone might be sent back in time at any moment and this will all disappear.
Will it all disappear at once? Will I have a moment to feel it fading away? Will I be able to grip Matt’s arm? To know?
There are two guys walking toward us as we head to the Mexican place. I’m going to have a margarita. Maybe two. I’m going to get a little drunk with Matt. I’m going to talk too much if I want to. The guys are not paying attention. I remember Malni. I throw my shoulders back a little. I do not smile. I look in the face of the one in my way. The world is going to end, you fucker. I will not give up this sidewalk with my love.
He steps a little to the side. He gives way.
22 fabulously fantastic stories I read in December – Maria HaskinsJanuary 1, 2018
[…] Sidewalks, by Maureen McHugh in Omni Magazine. “She says the story is about the cost of the journey. That when you journey to yesterday, you lay waste to today. When you return, your today is gone and it is a today that belongs to somebody else.” A strange woman is found in Los Angeles, but no one can understand the language she speaks. She is promptly committed to a psych facility. The speech therapist tasked with trying to communicate with the woman soon realizes there is a lot more to the case than meets the eye. A captivating and quietly mind-blowing story that doesn’t go where you might expect. […]