It was Max’s birthday. He and Jenna weren’t an item anymore, but every year on his birthday, unless they were seeing someone else, they got together, ate, drank, and had sex for old time’s sake. Max was a big man with big hands, clean shaven but sun-weathered. Jenna had her long, dark hair tied down her back. With enormous dark eyes and a wide, smiling mouth, time had been kind to her olive complexion. She had a nose which was more regal than cute, and her cheeks dimpled when she smiled.
They walked into the Saddle Bar and Grill and snagged a pair of stools near the front. Max placed the large cowboy hat he always wore on the bar stool next to him before sitting down. After pulling her stool as close as it could get to his stool, Jenna sat down on his other side. He waved to a few people he knew and then ordered them both a beer. When the beers arrived, he slid one over to her.
“Thanks. Here’s to you being older than me forever,” she said. He laughed. They clinked and drank. They sat there for a moment, enjoying the comfortable silence of familiar companionship.
“How’s business?” she asked him.
“Can’t complain,” he said, “I’m busy. Having another gun class in a couple of weeks.”
Max was the owner of Dig It, a business which sold heavy equipment and generators. He also supplemented his income as a gun dealer. He was a die-hard conservative who believed that every man, woman and child in America should be taught gun safety, preferably in public school. Until then, he considered it his public duty to pick up the slack, so he held classes on a regular basis in the Baptist church fellowship hall, even though he wasn’t a church-goer. The pastor owned a .357 Magnum and let Max rent the hall at a reduced rate. All of the kids in the youth groups were encouraged to attend the classes. As a bonus, nobody messed with the Baptists.
“What’s new with you?” he asked her.
They drank their beers while the jukebox played. She put her arm around him, then reached up and brushed her hand along his flat top of gray hair. Then she kissed his face all over. It wasn’t romantic or sexual, just friendly affection. They made small talk about their families, new events and struggles. Finally, he changed the subject.
“You know, lately, I’ve been thinking about something. You know how sometimes a person will drive down the street just minding their own business, and their phone will ring?”
“Uh huh.” She took a swig.
“It’s their mom or wife or brother, doesn’t matter.”
“The thing is, when a person talks on the phone, they experience something called ‘cognitive distortion’.”
“Which is what?”
He stopped to take a drink of his own beer.
“Well, it’s a fancy term which means that talking on the phone is a huge distraction from driving. It causes a bunch of accidents.”
“Yeah,” she said, “but if that person was sitting next to them in the car, they could be talking to them and saying all the same things. What’s the difference?”
“A person sitting next to you will stop talking if they see that you might swerve into a semi, for one thing. Another thing is that most people don’t realize how badly they drive when they’re on the phone. They honestly believe that they’re driving like a patrol car, when, in reality, they’re driving way too slow and jamming up traffic. Then, they miss their turn. Their eyes are open, they appear to be paying attention, but their mind is on that little box up against their ear. Sometimes, they’ll drive ten miles under the speed limit and unwittingly create an obstruction. For another thing, it’s not just in the car that it happens. Sometimes, you can be having a face-to-face conversation with someone, and their phone will ring. What does that person do?”
“Answers their phone! Oh, I hate that!”
“Right. The caller might even be someone they don’t want to talk to, say their mother or ex. But what do they do?”
“They answer it anyway.” She made a face
“That’s right, only to leave you there twiddling your thumbs while they talk. Not only that, but, even if you try to distract them during the conversation, you will lose. The phone always gets their complete attention.’
“Okay, so I see your point about talking on the phone in the car.”
“But wait! There’s more!” he grinned, “There is also a GPS tracking feature in cell phones. You can be tracked, say, by the government, even if the phone is turned off.”
“Right, I knew that,” she said. She couldn’t think of a single reason why anyone would want to know when she went to the laundromat.
“The capability also exists to listen in on your phone conversations and read your text exchanges, even texts that you deleted,” he said.
“Good, there are a couple of questions I’d like to ask them about my kids,” she said.
He laughed and signaled for another round of beers.
“I’m not done with this one!” she protested.
“Anyway,” he said, “back to the topic. You know that there is research which shows that using a cell phone causes brain cancer, right?”
“There is also evidence that cell phone use stimulates brain activity.”
“How so?” she asked.
“No one is really sure how. So far, they only know that it happens, not so much the effects of it,” he said. “It’s an unknown, but because it can’t be proven to be harmful, no one has actually said, ‘Hey, wait – shouldn’t we find out if there are any ill-effects from this?’ instead of, ‘Can five billion people be wrong?’”
“Okay,” she offered, “but every time new technology is created, there is some naysayer tells us it’s going to kill us. I think my Dad really died from eating burned bacon.”
“Maybe. You never know,” he grinned.
“So, how is this different?”
“I’m not really sure yet. All I know is that, it seems like everyone who has a new phone, say, within the last year or so, is weirdly attached to it. And I consider myself to be an expert on weird attachments.”
He leered at her. She giggled and bumped him with her arm. Then she drained her first beer. His second was nearly half gone.
“It’s funny you should mention that, because my phone is about to breathe it’s very last breath and I’m going to have to get a new one.”
“Do yourself a favor and don’t.” he said.
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked.
“I’ve got a spare I’ll give you,” he told her. She wasn’t surprised. He was the type of person who liked to be prepared for anything.
“Are you about ready for some dinner?” he asked.
“Uh huh,” she replied.
“Let’s go get some grub.”
They got in his pickup and he took her to his favorite seafood restaurant. She had the gumbo and he had the special. After dinner, they went back to his house. After he unlocked the door, she handed him her leftover bag, which he took into the kitchen to put in the refrigerator.
Meanwhile, she kicked off her shoes in the foyer. As she walked through the living room, she pulled off her socks and shirt. Her jeans and bra came off in the hallway. When she got to his bed, she stepped out of her panties. She pulled back the bedspread and climbed in it to wait for him. He appeared a moment later.
“Happy Birthday!” she told him, “Come here and get your present.”
Afterward, he brought her another beer from the fridge and also the cell phone that he’d promised. It was an older flip top model, but it had a keyboard and touchpad. Now that he’d told her about his theory, she thought that erring on the side of caution was a good idea. His theory was unsettling, but she trusted his instincts, maybe even more than she trusted her own.
The next morning, she drove up to the phone store in Phoenix and activated the phone he had given her. While she waited for her turn, the store was busy so she watched other customers look at the different models and styles of cell phones. They seemed normal to her. But, what did she expect? Drool and glowing eyes? She got her phone activated and left the store.
As she drove home afterward, she paid close attention to other drivers. He had been right; people on the phone generally drove more slowly than other drivers and obstructed traffic. She saw at least two people turn without signaling, and one who repeatedly looked into his lap while he was driving. She figured he was texting.
She tried to think of anyone she knew who didn’t have a cell phone. She couldn’t think of anyone other than her four year-old niece and seven year-old nephew. Children seemed to be introduced to technology at a younger and younger age. She decided to ask Max if he knew any cell-less souls.
When she got home, she called Max on the new phone.
“Hey!” she said.
“Hi, girlie,” he answered. “Did you get the phone turned on?”
“I did. Thanks. Hey, do you know anyone who doesn’t own a cell phone?” she asked him.
“Well…maybe the Connolly’s. I’ve never seen Pearl or his sister carry one. I always wondered about it, too. I’ll ask him the next time I see him. While I’m at it I might as well ask him what he thinks of my theory, too.”
Later that day, Max locked the gates of Dig It, and then drove over to see Pearl. Pearl was in his front yard planting marigolds. His sister, Emma, was watching him from the porch. She was working on a craft project that looked like crochet.
“Hi Max!” Pearl waved a muddy hand. “Want some tea or something?”
“Sure,” replied Max. “Whatcha got there?”
“Oh, Emma wanted flowers. More flowers!” he laughed.
Their front yard had five enormous pine trees which lined the street. In addition to being home to an impossible variety of flowers, it also contained every possible statue and knickknack imaginable. There was the Virgin Mary and Buddha, a gnome, fountain, Shiva, a miniature donkey cart, a nude woman, a cherub, and of course, a small pond full of koi.
“They provide aesthetic appeal, Pearl!” Emma exclaimed.
Max didn’t really care for all of that frilly yard stuff, but women liked it and Pearl seemed content to do whatever made Emma happy.
“What’s on your mind, Max?” Pearl asked, after they sat down on the porch with Emma.
“Do you have a cell phone, Pearl?” asked Max.
“No, I don’t. Usually, if someone wants to talk to me, they call Emma and she relays the message,” answered Pearl.
Emma stopped crocheting long enough to smile. “Built-in receptionist, that’s me,” she said.
“What about you, Emma? Do you have a cell phone?” asked Max.
Emma laughed as though she found the idea ludicrous.
As if on cue, Max’s cell phone began to ring.
“Max Peck,” he answered.
“Hey, Max, it’s me.” Jenna said. ”I have a problem.”
“What’s up, kid?” he asked.
“This cell phone you gave me,” she replied, “There’s something wrong with it.”
“What’s that?” he asked.
“I can’t figure out how to set the alarm, and I need it to wake me up in the morning. Can you show me how it works? I’d ask Jan, but she won’t be home until late.”
“Okay, well, I’m up here at Emma and Pearl Connolly’s place. Do you know where it is?” he asked.
“I sure do,” she said.
“Why don’t you come up here and I’ll show you how to set it,” he told her.
“Okay,” she answered. “I’ll be there in ten.”
She hung up the phone and within a few minutes was parking her old white Buick at the curb of the Connolly’s house. She stepped out and made her way toward the porch.
“Holy crap!” she said, looking around the yard, “The only thing you’re missing is a menorah and a Chinese bridge.”
“The bridge is on backorder,” said Pearl with a grin. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Pearl Connolly. I’ve seen you around,” he said, as he reached for her hand to shake it. He was so tall that she thought she’d need a ladder just to look up at him. He had blue eyes which twinkled when he looked at her. “That’s my sister, Emma,” he added.
“Hi, Emma!” said Jenna. “You and I met at Bingo, I think.”
Jenna handed Max the phone, and within a few seconds, he’d shown her how to set the alarm.
“Thanks Max.” she said, then she turned to Pearl, “Has Max told you his theory yet?” she asked him.
”I was getting to that,” said Max.
“Pull up a chair, Jenna,” Pearl told her. “I was just going to get a couple of beers.” He disappeared for a minute and came back with three beers. He handed one to Emma, another to Max, and the third to Jenna. Then he sat down and rolled a joint, which he lit and put to his lips. He inhaled deeply.
Jenna wasn’t surprised. A number of people lived in smaller towns like Blue Valley City for the precise reason that there was very little law enforcement and most of the neighbors left one another alone unless they needed help. Still, he didn’t seem like the type, and God, wasn’t he attractive? She found herself staring at him: tall, lean frame, blue eyes, curly hair that was supposed to be grey but somehow wasn’t. She felt a little embarrassed when she realized that she was thinking about what it would be like to have sex with him. He smiled at her just then, almost as though he knew what she was thinking. She blushed and suddenly got much more interested in her beer.
Meanwhile, Max had started to explain his theory to Pearl and Emma. Pearl made the appropriate noises of encouragement, enough to keep Max talking, but Jenna was pretty sure that he was looking at her through the duration of Max’s story. Finally, Max was finished.
“So, what do you think, Pearl?” asked Max. “Have you seen anything weird?
Instead of answering, Pearl turned his head toward Emma and said, “Emma? Have you been following this?”
Emma wasn’t as tall as her brother, but the resemblance was obvious. They both had the same nose and chin, and deep blue eyes. Her hair was light, blonde waves that swept back from her face. She reached for the unlit joint he still held in his hand. At some point, he’d put it out. She sat down with the rest of the group. She lit the joint and took a tiny little puff from it, and then put it out again.
“I’ve been researching it all day”, she replied, “It’s much more serious than even Max is aware,” she said. “Something will probably have to be done to stop it.”
Max and Jenna stared at one another, puzzled, and then back at Emma.
“There are some things going on of which you may not be aware,” she told them. “Actually, there are some things going on of which a lot of people are unaware, but up until now, it wasn’t a problem,” she said. ”This problem with the phones is, I believe, a serious technological anomaly.”
Pearl watched Max and Jenna to see their reaction. When they looked at him, he said, “This is a small town, so news about other people travels pretty fast. Some of it is wildly exaggerated, but, realistically, you can kind of get the gist of a person’s character from the flotsam and jetsam of gossip that drifts around a small town.
“You two are unique to this town because neither one of you is a criminal, a drug addict, or hiding out here for nefarious purposes. We, on the other hand, are here trying to fly under the radar, so to speak.”
He had waved his long, bony hand between himself and Emma at this last sentence, and paused to smile broadly.
He continued, “I’d like to show you something in the kitchen.” He stood, “Come on in. I’ll get a couple more beers. You might as well stay for dinner.”
“Absolutely!” agreed Emma. There’s a meatloaf in the oven that should be nearly ready.” The four of them went into the house and to the kitchen, where the smell of spiced meat cooking indicated that it wouldn’t be a long wait until dinner. On one end of the kitchen, there was a charming bay window which overlooked the riotous front yard. Mounted on the wall next to it, instead of the expected plate display or spoon collection rack, there was a huge computer screen. Pearl sat at the keyboard which was sitting on the breakfast bar, ran a search and scrolled through the results. He finally stopped and clicked on one that went to an online news article about a merger between two huge communication corporations.