Updated: Dec 14, 2020
This is the fourth episode of an abridged version of my novella Alice. You can read the whole thing here over the next weeks or buy a copy and binge. Or you can do both and compare the two – writers may learn from the differences. As always, you are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard. Thank you.
Jack was really old school about technology. He insisted on having the cell phone on speaker so it wouldn’t give him brain cancer, so I found out his friend was dead with him. He wrote down the name of the cemetery and thanked the person who told him, then said goodbye and handed me my phone.
“I don’t know how to hang that thing up. You don’t have to pay long distance for that call?”
“No, we have unlimited calls and text anywhere in the country.”
“And your mother has internet on her phone, doesn’t she? That’s what she was doing before?”
“Yeah. So can I… I’m sorry about your friend.”
He shrugged it off. “Wouldn’t a land line cost less? Or having one cell phone? What with your mother losing her job and all?”
I’d never known anyone who had someone close to them die, so it was a relief to talk about anything else. Maybe that’s how Jack felt, too. “We talked about it when she got pink slipped, but my cell phone’s how I stay in touch with my friends, especially over summer, and Mom needs hers for jobs. So I’m going to babysit more and pay half.”
“I’m just meeting my granddaughter and here she is taking care of babies herself.”
He sounded sad again, so I babbled on about texting and Facebook and Twitter and all the ways my friends and I communicated.
“You don’t have to be an adult for that?” he asked.
“As far as the internet is concerned, I’m eighteen.”
“Does your mother know?”
“Yeah, she lectured me about not talking to strangers online, but she caved on the age issue because she knows that’s how all the kids connect. She admitted that’s important. But she insisted that I keep her on my friends list, so I have to tell everyone to be careful what they post.”
He stared out the window and let out a big sigh. “Does your mother have many friends?”
“Not really. Mostly she works and then spends time with me. It was cool when I was little, but it’s kind of a pain sometimes.”
“That’s probably my fault,” he said. “When she was little, she made new friends all the time, then we’d move on. Somewhere along the line, she started keeping to herself. I didn’t even notice until she was gone and there was no one to tell me where.”
I didn’t know what to say. Most of what he’d been telling me about my mother was really weird and didn’t fit with what I knew about her at all, but being a loner was totally Mom. After all, she even went to a sperm bank for me. But I’d never thought about why she might be that way.
“You and your friends do things together, too?” he asked. “It’s not all electronic stuff?”
“But skinny dipping’s not one of them?”
He smiled. I was glad he wasn’t talking about sad stuff anymore. I grinned back at him.
“No, I don’t think my friends would do that.”
“Too bad. It’s a liberating experience. What will you be doing with them now school’s out?”
That’s when I told him how my friends all lived across town and everyone had plans for the summer. It hadn’t mattered when Mom and I were going to hike the Appalachian Trail all summer, but now it was a bummer. But it wasn’t as bad as finding out a friend was dead, so I stuck on a fake smile and tried to sound excited that I’d have all that extra time for babysitting.
“Who do you babysit for?” he asked.
“There’s one family down the street, but I think there’s more with little kids.”
He looked at me like I’d said something really strange. “Think? You don’t know your neighbors? How long have you lived here?”
I got defensive. “All my life, but we’re never home. When I was little, Mom taught gymnastics across town and took me with her – that’s where I met my friends. We’ve been friends forever. We do things together after school and summers, Mom and I go camping different places.” By then I was shaking. Everything caught up with me all at once and I couldn’t stop the tears but I managed to lower my voice. “It’s just now everything’s messed up. And I can’t tell Mom because she’s worried enough.”
Jack pulled me into a hug and let me muffle my sobs against his chest. He didn’t mind the snot all over his shirt.
I’d almost gotten it under control when we heard Mom coming. He gave me a wink and went to head her off. I washed off my face and holed up in my room until dinner.
Dinner was tense. Jack still looked like a hippie, but he wasn’t so scruffy after he’d showered, shaved, and put on some clean clothes. He complained about the bus trip.
“It would have been more comfortable if I’d hitchhiked,” he said. “But the folks at the hospital didn’t think I should do that. . . So, is this a small town or a suburb?”
“A little of both,” Mom replied. “It’s more separate from the city and smaller than most suburbs, but there aren’t a bunch of people who’ve lived here forever. Most of it used to be a farm until they built these houses for commuters.”
Jack nodded. “So it’s a bedroom community? People mostly just sleep here?”
I put in my two cents. “And they work in their yards and gardens. The houses in this area are all pretty small, mostly like ours, but they all have big yards.”
“Folks keep things nice?” he asked.
“Pretty much.” Mom replied.
“Looks like you picked a good place for Nina to grow up.”
“Don’t try to schmooze me,” Mom warned him. “You’re only staying a few days.
“I know.” He put his hands up, then looked at me and lowered them.
That ended conversation until Jack helped clear the table while I loaded the dishwasher. Mom had already excused herself to get back to her job hunt.
“I usually take a walk after dinner,” Jack said. “Let’s scope out the neighborhood, see who might need a babysitter.”
As he closed the front door, Jack asked if there were any kids my age in the neighborhood.
“A few ride the bus, but they keep to themselves.”
I shrugged one shoulder. “I think they’re Muslim. I know it’s two different families, but all the parents speak English with that accent like Apu.”
“On the Simpsons, the storekeeper?”
“Oh, that cartoon. I’ve seen that a couple times. Never bothered having a television myself.”
“Mom’s like that. She’d rather read.”
“Guess I didn’t do everything wrong.”
The red Porsche with the personalized license plate that said “I SUE 4U” went by about the time we reached the vacant house on the corner.
“Lawyer I take it?” asked Jack.
“Yeah. He moved in next door last summer. He’s hardly ever home.”
“Probably busy taking people’s money away from them. He doesn’t have any kids, either, right?”
“I think he lives alone.”
There was some new graffiti on the abandoned house and the grass wasn’t coming back.
“That place looks like shit,” said Jack.
“It’s been empty a couple years. Mom said it’s going through foreclosure.”
“That’s too bad. Especially when everyone else keeps their places so nice.”
“There’s two more the other direction. They’ve been empty even longer,” I said. “They’re worse.”
You are welcome to share this link with others, but please respect copyright by contacting me for permission if you want to use the material elsewhere. Even if you’re making it into a school skit, I’d like to know where it’s being heard. Thank you.
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