I was startled to hear Noam’s voice over my right shoulder.
“Hey! Look at that!” he said, his eyes intent on my keyboard.
His tone and excitement alarmed me, and I pulled my fingers from the home row keys as if a hairy twenty-six-legged creature with probing antennae was crawling toward my wrist.
“What?” I yelled out, looking down at my hands. “My nail polish? I know, I never wear nail polish,” I said, curling my fingers inward like the shriveled toes of the wicked witch to hide the worn spots on my nails. I heard my mother’s voice telling me, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt you to spruce yourself up once in a while.” She and my father, both snazzy dressers, somehow bore four children, of whom only one had any interest in clothing. I have to admit that I feel better when I wear a new sweater, or spend extra time on my hair, and I always secretly thank her for her well-intended ‘encouragement.’ Having said that, the one and only time I wore a skirt and heels to the office, Noam, who dresses in jeans and sneakers every day, asked with concern, “Are you going on a job interview?”
When I looked up again I saw that Noam was shaking his head. “No, all of your keys are labeled!” he said, pointing his index finger at my keyboard.
“Uhmm, what… what are you saying?” I asked.
“The letters on my keys have all rubbed off!” he said, cocking his head and laughing.
My mind’s eye lit up with images of Noam’s hunched body, hands hammering away on thesis drafts, letters to the editor, articles, statements of solidarity, petitions, professional correspondence, recommendation letters, arguments, lectures, and email, for decades, on countless keyboards. First manual and electric typewriters, then word processors and progressively streamlined and ergonomically correct wireless keyboards, all the way to the present-time smaller keys of his compact laptop. I imagined tiny white specs of metal, paint and plastic embedding themselves beneath his fingernails, or flying off and landing in his eyebrows and the waves of his graying hair until only hints of letters, like the small upper crescent of the O, and the right most tip of the T, remained. I saw him striking the S with spectacular speed while writing his earliest drafts of Syntactic Structures. I envisioned each subsequent keyboard wailing and heaving as the refractory R succumbed to his repetitive rage against the machine, leaving this last keyboard black and bleak.
But then again, some letters may have disappeared along with others, an entire word at a time: morphophonemics, language, terrorism, thought, mind, media…there are endless possibilities. Or they vanished in long sentences: yawning colorless green ideas tumbling half-awake to his office floor and clinging statically to his slippers, trailing behind him as he navigated his overflowing office. In still another scenario, I could imagine keyboard neighbors “o” and “i” holding hands and jumping ship together, wearing only a diphthong. Or is it possible that his most-quoted phrases, in a show of solidarity, leapt to the floor to guide his steps steadily between rising stacks of journals, photos, old and priceless carbon copies and annotated manuscripts? Did they level his locomotion as he shuffled through that perpetually diminishing pathway between desk and printer until the floor’s polished sheen gave way to a narrow trail of bare, creaky wood?
The general population doesn’t know what’s happening, and it doesn’t even know that it doesn’t know.
I inhaled deeply, shook myself free from my reverie and said, “I’ll get you a new keyboard tomorrow.”
Noam is losing his letters. I am losing my mind. And the nail polish.