Out of Time

A Short Story by Chris Bell

The battery in my blue and rusted 1984 Chevrolet Cavalier went dead on a rundown street in North Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning.  I surveyed the scene.  At the corner, a group of men in dirty white tee shirts and ragged pants stared abstractly at the world, waiting for a liquor store to open, some with bottles already in hand.  The street was lined with boarded up buildings sprinkled with graffiti.  A payphone sat opposite the liquor store.  I got out of my car feeling conspicuous in my suit and tie costume I wore as a newly minted English professor at a local community college.  As I walked across broken glass and concrete I arrived at the inevitable conclusion: time to get a cell phone.

I hadn’t consciously refused the purchase of a cell phone; I simply did not have the anything important enough to say that would justify the bill.  In general I had been slow to enter the cyber world.  I didn’t surf the web much and used email only for work.  My favorite pastime remained frequenting a local bookstore to browse the shelves and get cup of coffee.  Mostly, I remained blithely unaware of the preponderance of new technologies like cell phones in people’s everyday lives.

That began to change when I walked into a cell phone store to make my first purchase.  The walls were lousy with phones.  Every inch was lined with different models in different colors.  Where there weren’t phones there were accessories for them.  And where there weren’t phones or accessories, there were pictures of people happily using them.  One featured a family sitting on the couch.  The son held his phone in his hands like a joystick, his thumbs hovered slightly over the screen, a huge smile plastered on his face.  The mother sat next to him engaged in conversation with her phone to her ear, smiling as well.  The daughter also had her phone to her ear with a look of delighted surprise at whatever someone was telling her, and the father sat the end of the couch with a device in his ear that looked like the com link Uhura from Star Trek wore in her ear aboard the Enterprise.  The dad was laughing, his head thrown back in joy.  They were all blond, blue eyed, and healthy.  The perfect family that evidently never talked to each other.

The picture complemented the mood in the store.  I was the only person without a phone.  Some stood around in a daze, periodically pushing buttons, apparently checking to see if they had missed something in the three seconds that had elapsed since the last time the pushed them.  Others talked animatedly.  One woman who stood talking to an employee was chatting on her phone simultaneously, while the employee continuously pushed buttons on his phone. Finally, a man named Josh waved at me, indicating he would serve me in a moment, apparently after he finished his conversation, which he was having through Uhura’s com link.  He also held a phone in his hand that he kept glancing at, and another was attached to his belt, looking lonely and forlorn.

Finally, Josh walked over to me, pushed a button on his com link, and asked if he could help me.  I told him I needed a phone for emergencies; Josh felt otherwise.

“This plan offers a thousand rollover minutes per month.”

“But I don’t need that many minutes.”

“That’s what everyone says.  Then they get stuck paying for using too many minutes.”

“But I only want this for emergencies.”

“Trust me, you’ll talk more than that.”

“But I don’t really have anything to say.”

Josh seemed flummoxed.  He became more concerned when I chose a phone with the cheapest price tag.

“You can’t do much with that phone.”

“But I only want it for emergencies.”

“But with that phone you can’t even keep a list of contacts.”

“What are contacts?”

“A list of names of people you call frequently.”

“But I only plan on calling one person if I have an emergency.”

“What if that person isn’t available?”

“Then I’ll call someone else.”

“But you won’t have the contact in your phone.”

“I have a photographic memory.”

Josh blinked.

“But it doesn’t even text.”

“What’s text?”

“Sending someone a written message through your phone.”

“Like email?”

“Exactly!”

“But I already have email.  I just want to call someone in case I have an emergency.  Believe me, I don’t have anything to say.”

After turning down a phone with which I could do no more than make calls, Josh finally allowed me to walk out of the store having purchased a phone with which I could only make and receive calls.  I also purchased the minimum plan available, two hundred minutes per month.  Yet I still could not fathom anyone with this much to say.  Who needed to talk on a cell phone for more than three hours a month?  I never talked on the regular phone that much in an entire year.

Still, with my new, mostly unused phone, I began to realize how odd I must have appeared in public.  When I walked through the mall on my way to the bookstore, I suddenly noticed everyone engaged inconspicuously in conversations on cell phones.  Teenagers sat on benches and texted.  They still congregated in bunches, as teenagers do, but they communicated little with each other, except to periodically show something ostensibly witty on the phone.  They never talked to each other, just a glance and chortle, then back to their own phone.

I also realized I had somehow bought a brand new dinosaur.  My phone lacked verbs: it didn’t flip, text, surf, or photograph.  It was a simple black device with a number pad and a small screen.  If I pulled my phone out in public, people looked at me as if I were encased in glass in a museum.  Their eyes got wide and their heads cocked slightly to the side as they tried to envision how I lived in such a remote culture.

Soon after this, social networking became popular, which some tried to turn me onto as well.  The pressure to get a phone with which I could change my status portably mounted.  In fact, Josh ran into me in public, so intent was he on his phone.

“Excuse me.  Oh, hey,” he said, glancing around to make sure no one he knew saw him talking to me.

“Hey.”

“Um.  What’s going on.  How’s that phone?”

“It’s ok.  Don’t use it much.  You know, nothing much to say.  What are you doing?”

“Just checking Facebook.”

“You have one of those?”

“You don’t?”

“No.”

“How do you keep up?”

“With what?”

“Your friends.”

“I email them.  Sometimes.”

“But how do you show them pictures?”

“I don’t have a camera.”

“But how do you know what’s going on?”

“I read the paper.”

“No, I mean with your friends.”

“Email.”

“But you can’t show anything on email.”

“What do I have to show?”

“You know.  You can list your favorite movies, TV shows, bands.”

“But my friends already know those things about me.”

“But that’s not the point.”

“What is the point?”

“You know.  Get out there.”

“Where?”

“Just – let people know.”

“Know what?”

“Anything!”

Suddenly, Josh’s phone chimed. He pushed a button.

“Oh, look man. I gotta go.  Seriously, get on Facebook.  It’s the future.”  He pushed another button and evaporated.

I walked on, heading to the bookstore. But when I got there a sign was posted on its doors: “Sorry.  We’re closed.  To shop, visit us online.”  Crestfallen, I pulled out my phone to complain to a friend.  Finally I had something to say.  The battery was dead.


 

Christopher B. Bell is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of North Georgia, where he specializes in post World War II American drama.