The Memory of Charles Babbage — Rob Swigart

Ada went swimming. The day was extremely hot, so she went swimming. The water was also hot, but not as hot as the day. The day was one of the hottest she could remember.

Ted was on the beach, reading a textbook. He was studying to be a medical technician, and he was reading about the various proteins that showed up in urine.

“Albumin,” Ted called to her from the beach towel.

She couldn’t hear what he said, so she just waved. Then she let herself drift under the surface. A breaker curled overhead, making a noise.

It was darker underwater, mostly blue shot with white streaks. Sand stirred up from the bottom made small billowing spirals, in one place exposing some kind of shellfish. Ada thought about the man she knew who refused to eat anything that had eyes. She wondered about this shellfish, whether it had eyes, whether the man she knew would refuse to eat it, and if so, should she have shellfish at the wedding dinner anyway, even though this man she knew would be there and might not eat it.

She moved along the bottom. The spirals of sand settled, and the turmoil at the surface receded. There was an enormous peace down here, she realized, in all this blue shot with white streaks. She was glad to be only twenty-two at times like this, with her life before her and a rewarding career in computer programming just ahead.

Ted didn’t worry about Ada. She was a good swimmer. He worried more about albumin, and certain products of the pancreas. There were, he thought, a good many things to worry about, especially when you got older. Ted was twenty-five. Albumin was something to worry about.

Ted failed to notice that it was very hot. His interest in proteins began to fade a little, as if time were bending backward, as if he were steadily moving backward through his interest in medical technology to a more primitive state, when urine proteins and blood chemistry were mysterious and distant. When he called out to Ada the word “Albumin,” it had an abstract, incantatory quality to it, as if somehow saying the word, Albumin, would do something strange, like ward off disease or protect her, Ada, from harm. He thought she was in danger of some sort, perhaps, underneath the water, and saying the word just before she went under would protect her from whatever was there.

When Ada disappeared beneath the surface, he said it again, over and over, “Albumin, albumin, albumin, al-bu-min.” He had forgotten that the pancreas was “a long, soft, irregularly shaped gland lying behind the stomach.”

“Huh?” A jogger stood over him. He was wearing a silver velour jogging suit and a watch on a heavy gold bracelet.

“Albumin,” Ted said.

“Oh.” The jogger moved on down the beach, followed by a black Labrador retriever named Snips. His departure caused Ted to look out to sea once more. Ada was doing the breaststroke on top of a wave. She saw him look and smiled, but she was too far away for him to see the smile.

Ada stood in knee-deep water, feeling the salt drying on the skin of her shoulders. She could see Ted lying back on the towel, the book closed on his chest.

“Ted,” she said later, standing over him.

He squinted up at her, shading his eyes with the textbook. “Yeah?”

“You should be studying.” She sat beside him and began to brush the white powdery salt from her forearms. This made the blond hairs that fuzzed her skin stand up for a moment, then fall back flat on the tan flesh. Ted reached for her, but she took his hand before it arrived. “When we’re married,” she said.

This statement caused Ted to remember that he had an exam tomorrow, and he would have to relearn everything he knew about these proteins in urine and blood that indicated trouble in the body. He sat up and opened the book.

Ada watched Ted frowning over a table of urine chemicals of some sort. The chemicals were listed on the left, followed by a column listing the normal readings for such chemicals. Finally, there was a column listing the possible diseases or malfunctioning organs that abnormal levels might indicate.

Looking at the table of chemicals in Ted’s book caused Ada to think about the nature of computer programming. Programming could order things like that, in rows and columns. Programming was a way of shaping things, of making sense of the world. Life, she thought, was a program, one with enormous flexibility. A good program should be like that, should be like life.

Ada’s father was an admirer of Ada Lovelace; had, in fact, named his daughter after Augusta, Countess of Lovelace. Ada Lovelace was the eldest daughter of Lord Byron, a fairly famous English poet who once went swimming across the Dardanelles or the Hellespont, Ada never could remember which. Ada Lovelace was good at mathematics and helped out Charles Babbage, and some people credited Charles Babbage with inventing the computer. He called it an analytical engine.

Ada Lovelace invented computer programming.

Ted’s Ada was not named Lovelace, she was named Sherman, after her father, Kyle Sherman. She had inherited his admiration for Ada Lovelace, though, which was why she wanted to become a computer programmer.

“Did you know that Charles Babbage invented the cowcatcher?” she asked Ted.

“No,” Ted answered. “I didn’t know that.”

Ted never understood why Ada wanted to be a computer programmer. She had a great body; she was almost an Olympic swimmer, and she played good tennis. Why did she want to be a computer programmer?

Finally, he closed the book. “The cowcatcher?” he asked.

But Ada was no longer interested in her conversation with Ted. She was watching a jogger come toward them along the waterline, followed by a black Labrador retriever. The retriever saw Ada watching him and came over. He’d been playing in the waves, and when he got to Ada he shook vigorously, sending salt water and sand all over Ted’s textbook.

Ted thought about killing the dog. He could, he thought, introduce extremely high albumin levels in the dog. Perhaps a certain kind of blow to the body, in the neighborhood of the pancreas. But by this time Ada was rubbing the dog’s ears, and the jogger had come over, breathing hard.

“His name’s Snips,” the jogger said. “He’s a Labrador retriever.”

“Does he retrieve?” Ted asked. He’d decided not to kill the dog, since Ada seemed to like it.

The jogger laughed. “Never,” he said.

Ada looked up at the jogger. “Do you eat things with eyes?” she asked.

The jogger swung his arms easily back and forth as he left the young couple on the towel. The girl hadn’t been there the first time he ran by. He’d thought about stopping then, when he heard the boy say something about Al Buchanan, but it had turned out to be something else, some chemical he supposed, since the boy was studying a medical text.

“Come on, Snips,” he said, wagging his hand at his side, and the retriever bounded over, kicking sand against his calves as he ran.

The girl was pretty, he thought, but the boy was prettier.

He started thinking about Al. Here he was, running down the beach, his dog at his side, thinking about Al Buchanan. He hadn’t thought about Al in years, not since they’d gone to Acapulco together that April when it rained. They’d fought the whole time, he and Al. They’d fought about the rain, they’d fought about money, they’d fought about where to eat dinner. Al was a beautiful boy, but spoiled, the jogger thought. He was glad now that he didn’t see Al any more. He’d been startled when he thought that boy back there had said his name, that’s all.

The jogger glanced at his watch. It was getting late. The heavy gold band was warm against his wrist. Yes, it was getting late. He’d run enough. He should run up to the cafe on the other side of the highway and have a beer and then get home. Jose would be waiting for him.

“The Analytical Engine,” Ada was telling Ted, “was a primitive computer. But they couldn’t make it back then, when Babbage invented it. Their machinery couldn’t match the tolerances necessary.”

“Tolerances,” Ted said. “That’s rich.”

Ada looked at him. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing,” Ted said. “Tolerance, that’s all. I was thinking about tolerance. Tolerances, you know.”

“He also invented actuarial tables,” she said, as if that fact had some deep significance.

Ted finished folding the towel and pushed it under his arm. “Actuarial tables,” he said.

“Yes. You know, statistics, probabilities. What chance you have of getting killed. That sort of thing. For insurance companies.”

“Oh.” Ted lost interest.

The jogger was walking by the time he got to the side street where he’d parked his car, and had mostly gotten his breath back. Snips walked with his head down, nose to the pavement, as if there were some deep scent there, some game he should retrieve.

“Okay, motherfucker, hand it over.”

“What? What?”

He was a kid, maybe twelve years old. The knife looked very large. Funny, you’d expect a kid like that to have something else, a pocketknife, a Swiss Army knife, a switchblade, even, but not a knife like that. Not a big carving knife with a walnut handle. He assumed the kid had stolen it.

“Hand what over?” he asked. Snips wandered off on his trail, leaving the jogger behind.

“The watch, motherfucker. The watch. Hand it over.” He gestured with the knife.

“Oh.” The jogger shook his head as he reached for the heavy gold band. Jose won’t like this, he thought.

Ted and Ada got in their car. “What else did Charles Babbage invent?” Ted asked.

She laughed. “The speedometer,” she said.

Ted started the car. “The internal combustion engine,” he added.

“No,” Ada said, misunderstanding. “The Analytical Engine. And,” she continued, “he also invented the Differential Engine. It could calculate logarithms to twenty decimal places.”

“Oh. Yeah. Right. More decimal places than I’ll need.” He shifted slowly into first gear and moved out of the parking lot. Sand sprawled along the edge of the highway. It looked very untidy. Indicative of some disorder in the body politic, he thought.

“He invented the skeleton key, too,” she said.

“The skeleton key,” he said. “Really?” He was putting her on.

“Listen,” she said, teasing. “I’ve heard about a course we can take. After we’re married.”

“I have to pass my exams, first,” he said.

“You’ll like this course,” she said. “It’s a sex course.”

“Not until we’re married,” Ted said.

The jogger held out his watch. The kid reached for it, but he seemed to be a bit too far away. He thrust the knife forward, reaching toward the watch with his other hand, and the jogger took hold of the wrist of the hand holding the knife and twisted it viciously in a vertical spiral. The knife sank into the kid’s chest without a sound.

The kid looked surprised to see that he had stabbed himself in the chest with the knife. He looked down at the knife and noticed that it had a wooden handle. It was the first time he had really looked at the knife. It was really a fine piece of workmanship. The kid sat down so he could examine the knife more closely.

He looked up at the jogger. “Jesus,” he said.

The jogger nodded. “Nobody loves you,” he said. “When you’re old and gay.”

“Jesus,” the kid said again. “Jesus.”

The jogger nodded. “Come on, Snips,” he said. As he walked on to his car he carefully put his watch back on. It was awkward, walking and attaching the heavy gold bracelet, but he managed.

Al Buchanan, he thought. The kid looked like Al.

Ted drove past the corner. He waved at the kid sitting on the curb. For some reason, Ada telling him about the course they could take after they were married had put him into a good mood, so he waved.

Ada told him some of the details of the course. How they would have to set aside time for lovemaking four days a week. It was a requirement. Then she started to tell him about the apartment she’d found in a nice old building near the hospital.

The kid on the curb didn’t wave back. He seemed to be lost in thought, as if he were remembering some particularly pleasant event. A day at the beach, for instance, like this one, with hot sun, and warm water.

Ada glanced at him through the small window at the back of the car. Yes, she thought, he’s remembering something pleasant. Where would we be without pleasant memories?