Lionel flipped through the laminated cards that hung around his left wrist. He held up a finger to the grocery store clerk who had been mopping up spaghetti sauce and glass when Lionel tapped him on the shoulder. After passing a few more cards, he smiled and showed a cartoon picture of a jug with bubbles printed on its side.
The clerk nodded and started turning over cards on his own bracelet. Eventually, he presented Lionel with a bold number “6.”
Lionel went to the bracelet on his right wrist, which had much fewer cards on it. He thanked the clerk by holding up a card of one man bowing to another.
Lionel maneuvered his cart around the mess and turned the corner. As he passed each aisle, he looked above the shelves to the signs displaying the items. When he reached aisle six, he hit his hand against his forehead, seeing the same jug picture on the sign. He rolled down the aisle and settled in front of the laundry detergent. He chose the one with the thin purple flower on the front and placed it in his cart. Lionel took out his notepad and crossed off the picture.
Ringing out, he passed a couple of housewives chatting in front of their carts, quickly exchanging Universal Language Cards (ULCs). Women stereotypically wore more bracelets than men, and this couple had about three on each arm. Most bracelets were categorized by items, pleasantries, names, emotions, places—pretty much anything you would need to communicate. Lionel rarely wore more than two at a time, but he was soft-spoken. These women went up and down their arms at breakneck speed, methodically displaying a variety of cards to each other. The only audible sound was sporadic laughter. Lionel sighed and headed home.
Lionel carried the groceries into his house as the sun was setting. He placed the bags on the kitchen table and sent the babysitter away with a quick exchange of ULCs before he heard the rush of hurried footsteps.
“Daddy!” Cathy exclaimed as she put her arms around Lionel’s leg.
He smiled and patted Cathy on the head. Then he opened the counter drawer, placed two fingers around the bracelet on his left wrist to release the clamp, and put it in the drawer next to a pile of others. He fished around inside, and, with a snap, another was on his wrist. He started flipping, then held up a card of a small boy chopping wood.
Cathy groaned, “But I don’t want to practice.”
Lionel pushed the card closer to her face.
Cathy huffed the word, “Fine.”
Lionel waited on the couch for Cathy to return from her room. After a few minutes, the front door opened and Selene walked in. She dropped her keys in the bowl next to the door. “Hey, hun.”
Lionel smiled but put his finger up to his lips. He held up the picture he had shown Cathy.
“Again?” Selene’s shoulders slumped. “You have to give that kid a break. She gets enough practice at school.”
He put up both his hands and motioned for her to keep it down. “Obviously not,” he whispered. “Other kids her age are already having full-blown conversations out there.”
Selene hung her coat on the rack, “So?”
“So—don’t you think she’ll have a better quality of life if she could communicate, at length, with others?”
“She’s eight,” Selene stressed. “What kind of profound, life-altering conversations did you have when you were eight?”
“That’s not the point,” he said softly. “You stumble now…” he trailed off.
Selene shook her head, "Who cares about those damn cards?" She was asking a question she already knew the answer to. They've had this conversation before.
"Everyone, Selene. Everyone cares about these," he shook a bracelet in her direction. "How the hell do you expect her to go anywhere in life if she can't even talk to anyone?"
Selene sighed and put a hand on Lionel's shoulder. "She has us," she said softly and then walked into the kitchen.
Cathy came into the room carrying bracelets in her arms, “I’m sorry I took so long, Daddy. I couldn’t find my Monuments one.” She dropped the armload onto the rug in front of Lionel. In the kitchen, Selene started chopping vegetables. Cathy abandoned the cards and her father in the living room as she ran to the kitchen. “Mommy!”
Lionel could hear them embrace. Selene asked Cathy how her day was. He wished he didn’t have to keep pushing Cathy like this. He’d rather be Selene, interacting genuinely with his daughter instead of drilling her constantly. But what could he do? Cathy was falling behind fast and her teachers were giving up. She was doing fine in most of her classes, but couldn’t seem to grasp Language. She spent most of that class crying and trying to speak with her classmates—she barely picked up her training bracelets. Rightfully, he was concerned.
Selene, on the other hand, was having a difficult time seeing past the special bond she had with Cathy because of it. Their household language was something private and cementing in their relationship. The minute Cathy was fluent with the cards, she would begin to form lasting relationships with her peers and start distancing herself from Selene. Selene never said this aloud, but Lionel could tell that this was why there was no urgency for Selene to get Cathy back on track. Even now, as he eavesdropped on their conversation about dinner, Lionel could hear the leisurely way in which she spoke to Cathy, as if he wasn’t waiting to practice.
Lionel drilled Cathy for about an hour before Selene called them in for dinner. It was a painfully slow process: him presenting Cathy with different scenarios and Cathy stumbling to determine which ULCs would be most relevant. “So you have a doctor’s appointment,” he would start reassuringly, “and you can only bring three bracelets. Which ones do you bring?”
Cathy would twist her mouth into a soured comma as she swept her gaze across the pile on the floor. “Umm,” she would murmur. “I would definitely bring Greetings. And then…” she would trail off searching somewhere else in the pile. “Then I would bring Places and Emotions.”
When Cathy would beam up at him, Lionel would start to lose his patience. “You need Body Parts. You’re going to the doctor’s. You need to be able to tell him where things hurt,” he would sigh. “So, which bracelet would you replace?”
Here is where Cathy would just stare at Lionel and here is where he would get most upset. “Emotions. You don’t need to bring Emotions to the doctor’s.”
Cathy hesitated, “But, isn’t that important for the doctor to know too?”
“It’s the doctor’s, not psychiatrist’s.”
“But sometimes I’m scared when he has to stick that light in my ear or put that really big bracelet around my arm. It squeezes too tight.”
Finally, Lionel had said, “Maybe,” to Cathy bringing the Emotions ULC bracelet to the doctor’s. “Alright, so take those bracelets off, and we’ll start again.”
"Daddy," Cathy's tone shifted, and she began looking at her father with the same immovable stubbornness for which Selene had become famous. "I really hate these cards. I don't want to use them."
Lionel rubbed one of his eyes in exhaustion, "Sweetie, you need to."
"Why? Why can't I just talk to my friends the way me, you, and Mommy do?"
"They have their own language. We need these cards, so you can understand each other."
Cathy rolled her eyes, "I know, but I just think it's stupid."
Sternness flashed over Lionel's face, "We do not use that word. You know better."
Cathy was steadfast, "Who cares? My teacher said that since we started using these cards hundreds of years ago and stopped talking in public, lots of words have been lost. Other families probably don't even have a word for stupid."
Lionel didn't want to admit that he agreed with his daughter and lose his parental footing. It was stupid. The cards that were supposed to connect everyone and bridge the gap between languages had divided them more than ever.
Eventually, he just shook his head, "I don't care. We just need them, and you have to use them." Then, he tried to soften it with: "Okay, sweetie?"
A few weeks later, he had swiped into the cataloguing department of the Private Language Council for his quarterly audit. The guards had checked the screen on their side of the glass and confirmed Lionel was the approved member of the Anderson household before hitting a button on the keyboard. A holographic version of the ULC for, “Have a nice day,” an excited yellow smiley face with a gloved thumbs-up, flashed briefly on Lionel’s side of the glass and the doors to the left opened up with barely-audible automation.
The waiting area was completely silent. People usually didn’t bring many bracelets to their audits, so the handful of adults sat in their off-white chairs watching the television mounted on the wall. A sequence of ULCs scrolled across the screen from right to left—the news. A car crash left a woman and baby dead; the scroll stopped for a few extra seconds when it reached a picture of the woman in a hospital gown, smiling, just after the birth, holding the crying baby. Lionel smiled at the sweet picture. The scroll continued on to a story of plummeting gas prices, “the lowest in years” showed the large downward arrow followed by a calendar.
The door behind Lionel opened briskly and Hank, a man in his fifties, poked his head in. “Anderson,” the spoken word sounded like a gong in the silence.
Lionel stood up and walked through the door following Hank down a long corridor. Eventually, they were in a stark room with a table and two chairs. Hank took a seat and motioned for Lionel to sit as well. “Hello, Lionel. How are you been?”
Pulling the chair behind him to sit down, Lionel said, “I’ve been better.”
Hank opened up a manila folder and drew a pen from his pocket. He clicked it before focusing his attention to the papers on the table. Without looking up, “Your previously audit was ago in January?”
Hank wrote. Then, “Have there been any new additions you wish to make to your household language? Any new slang, figures of speech, or expressions that have emerged since last time?”
Lionel sighed to himself. He found it funny that the only time Hank sounded completely normal was when he reached the important questions, the ones he was surely instructed to practice before their meetings. Any attempt at improvised or genuine speech from Hank was always peppered with minor inaccuracies. And Lionel didn’t blame him. The Andersons were one out of the eighteen languages in which Hank was fluent. Linguists were of short supply lately and their caseloads were growing. The amount of conjugation charts and turns of phrases that must be juggling themselves in Hank’s brain at any given moment must be astounding, Lionel thought.
After about an hour of the standard back-and-forth—no real changes to the Andersons' language—Hank closed his folder and smiled at Lionel, “Painless.”
Hank cleared his throat, “How are kids?”
“Cathy?” He chuckled tiredly, “Well you know what it’s like having your hands full with Nick and Sean, right?”
Hank smiled trying to match Lionel’s demeanor, “Oh, yes. The parent works never is done.”
“Exactly! Selene and I thought we finally had a handle on her, but she just keeps throwing us for loops,” Lionel spun his finger to accent his point.
Hank just smiled. These audits, more often than not, became venting sessions for people who finally had an ear outside their families to listen to their grievances.
“And Selene doesn't think it's a problem,” Lionel continued, “but I keep telling her that Cathy has to use her cards. She just doesn't listen to me.”
Hank arched an eyebrow, “What do you mean?”
Lionel sighed heavily, “Cathy is refusing to learn her cards. I've tried everything, but she just—and so she's failing Language, and I just feel like she's going to have this uphill battle for the rest of her life if we don't do something. I don't know.” He stared off, lost.
As Lionel was talking, Hank had reopened his folder and pulled a bright yellow paper from the back. He wrote as he spoke, “You are right. But you know kids. I believed it will all work out.” He punctuated his swift signature on the paper with a smile.
It was a bleary afternoon when Lionel left the audit. The roads were somewhat damp from a passing storm. These audits always gave him a headache. He didn’t know if it was the lights that all government buildings seemed to have installed or the buzzing they emitted, but he had the same sensation when leaving the DMV.
On his drive, Lionel found himself thinking about Sunday school—a handful of bored teenagers in a hot room reading out of worn textbooks full of brightly colored ULCs, the teacher only there to mediate and scribble page numbers on the whiteboard. He remembered being surprised the bookmakers didn’t leave out the story about the Tower of Babel, considering the irony. Didn’t they think it would just piss whoever was reading it off, knowing we weren’t satisfied with the amount of isolation God imposed on all of us, we needed to isolate ourselves even more? Maybe this wasn’t a new thought because he remembered at the time just wanting to be home smoking. It didn’t matter that they were all in the church house reading; they were alone anyway.
He wanted to feel like Selene: blissful in the family unit. Cherishing the specialness of what it meant to be “an Anderson.” Or Cathy, who wanted to connect to everyone in the same way a painter rubs two colors into one. But he was somewhere in between. He felt like he always would be.
One day, Lionel and Selene found themselves outside the principal's office at Cathy's school waiting for an "urgent" meeting to start. When Lionel saw the large red exclamation point in the email, he knew they were probably going to tell him and Selene that Cathy was repeating first grade.
He tugged lint from his pants as a secretary typed away at a wide, digital keyboard, swiping through pages and pages of ULCs before finding the ones to add to the memo he was constructing. A poster of a cat dangling from a tree—the ULC for, "Hang in there"—was hanging just behind the secretary's head on the wall. Selene was stoic.
Not long after they arrived, the door to the principal's office slowly creaked open. Principal Hinkle appeared, flashed a smile, and motioned for both parents to step inside—four card bracelets were dangling from each of her arms. This is going to be a long talk, Lionel thought.
They sat down on the other side of a desk cramped with personality: a "Best Mom" mug adorned with a female bathroom silhouette icon cradling a baby with bottle icon was stuffed with many different colored pens, a picture frame with painted handprints housed a gleaming shot of Hinkle's two sons soaked in snorkel gear, and pink and yellow and blue sticky notes with scribbled gibberish (the Hinkle language) were stuck pretty much anywhere there was space. The principal held up the "Hello" ULC and the Andersons did the same.
Through a complicated array of cards, Hinkle thanked them for coming on such short notice. She explained that Cathy was posing a huge problem in class due to her refusal to engage with the ULC system. She is spending most of her time in the principal's office due to the teachers' inability to rein her in; Cathy is incredibly distracting to her classmates said the card of a young girl followed by the card of a person skipping after a butterfly followed by the card of a group of students at desks.
Selene apologized for Cathy's behavior with a deft series of cards that showed her sincerity.
Principal Hinkle accepted her apology with the same "Thank you" card that Lionel had shown to the grocery store clerk. More drastic steps needed to be taken to ensure that Cathy was going to be successful in life. Hinkle sighed then held up the picture of a young girl, a picture of an airplane in the sky, followed by a picture of a large brick building with a school bus in front of it.
Selene and Lionel looked at each other for a long time. Her eyes started to water, but she pushed it away when she reached for a card to show the principal: a red question mark.
Hinkle looked surprised, but went through the card progression again—this time much slower.
Selene's left hand snapped towards Lionel's, and she gripped it tight. Her other hand went up to her face to shield her eyes. Lionel unclasped his hand from hers and fumbled for a card. He asked the principal if there were any other options by holding up a card with three columns of question marks.
Hinkle studied the card before frowning. She simply shook her head.
Lionel's gaze dropped in disbelief; it landed on a bright yellow paper poking out from under a stack of wrinkled memos. His stomach knotted up as he caught the last half of Hank’s signature adorning the bottom of the paper.
Lionel turned towards his wife. Selene now had several lines of tears trailing from her eyes. Her head was pointing down and away from the principal. Lionel could see that she was trying to hold on to whatever sense of professionalism she could while she was simultaneously trying to come to grips with having her daughter shipped away from her; it was a truly heartbreaking dance of politeness and parenting. Cathy was Selene's little girl. Lionel knew that Selene couldn't care less if Cathy ever learned how to use those cards properly.
He wasn't sure if it was out of guilt or sympathy, but Lionel regained Selene's hand and broke the silence, "Honey, she has us."
Selene looked up at Lionel and pushed a red blotch into her face wiping away the latest tear, "What do you mean?"
As if it was an answer, Lionel pulled Selene to her feet, turned towards the principal, and spoke as if she could understand him, "We'll be taking our daughter home now."
Then he held up his middle finger and walked out of the office with his wife.