Harold really didn’t want to go. He heard a giggle and turned to his left to find his granddaughter, Julia, engrossed in a typed conversation on her cell phone, grinning like a madman. Madwoman. Madperson. He had to be careful about that; Julia was constantly correcting him, telling him to be more careful with the things he said. He was trying, but it was hard. People never used to be so sensitive about these things. He had never even considered that his style of speaking might offend other people. That was before Julia, of course. She’d opened his eyes to a lot of things.
Harold watched her a moment more. She had just cut her bangs short, and he thought it framed her face nicely. He had a sudden strong feeling of déjà vu; at this angle, she really reminded him of his daughter, Hannah, Julia’s mother. Other than their profile, however, Julia and Hannah couldn’t be more dissimilar. Julia was a free spirit, artistic, loved to dance and sing. Hannah was an accountant, with all of the connotations that came with that. As a child, Hannah had always been uptight. Harold used to joke that Freud had coined the term ‘anal retentive’ after her.
Of all their differences, one of the biggest was their relationship with Harold. Hannah had never been close with her father. To be fair, Harold had never been much of a father. Until he retired 12 years ago, Harold had been constantly traveling for his work. Looking back, his life felt like one long business trip. Harold didn’t hold any resentment for Hannah’s distance; he had earned all the antipathy he got from her.
On the other hand, and for some reason that he had yet to figure out, Hannah loved her grandfather. She enjoyed spending time with him, talking with him, doing things with him. He supposed it could be a sort of manifestation of teen rebelliousness; her mother disliked him, so she loved him. Hannah barely spoke to him; Julia spent lots of time with him.
Sometimes Harold felt ashamed and guilty to be spending so much time with Julia, when he had been barely there for Hannah. Add to that the fact that Julia might be using him to get back at her mother. But despite his reservations, Julia was just so damned charming. She laughed at his old man jokes; she listened to his old man stories. And she taught him a thing or two, too. Mostly about how the world had changed when he wasn’t paying attention. And now he was on to his next ‘lesson’.
Julia’s phone made another ‘ping’ sound, and she giggled again at something that popped up on the screen. A mere second later, without even looking up, she reached her hand up and pulled the cord to signal to the bus driver that they were getting off at the next stop. Harold marveled at this; how did she know where they were? She hadn’t looked up from her phone once since they had sat down.
The bus pulled to a stop and they got off. It was taking him longer to descend the bus steps these days. He was getting arthritis in his knees; he may have not found much time for his daughter when he was younger, but he had always found time to run. He had run 17 marathons altogether -- the last one only 14 years ago. He was certainly paying the price now.
The walk from the bus stop to the doors of the mall wasn’t too long, but long enough that he started to limp, favoring his left leg. Despite the pain, Harold enjoyed the hot sun on his face. It had been a very hot summer, but Harold had always liked the heat. He pulled his trilby hat up to let his face feel the heat more fully.
As slow as he walked, it didn’t deplete Julia’s enthusiasm or energy. Julia practically skipped along beside Harold, excitedly chatting and laughing away about something her friend had written her. Sorry, textedher. Julia had corrected him on that one, too.
Entering through the mall door was like stepping into a freezer. The temperature change was so jarring that it took his breath away. “Jeez,” he gasped. “Why do they have to keep it so cold in here?”
“Oh, Grandpa!” Julia teased. “It’s not that cold! Why don’t you put on some more clothes?” He looked down at himself. What was the matter with the way he was dressed? He had dressed appropriately, he thought, for this outing. Aside from his beloved trilby, he was wearing grey slacks, a blue button-up shirt, and a tweed vest. Not like Julia, with her cut-off jean shorts and tank top, dressed like she was going to a rock concert. “Come on, Grandpa! It’s this way!” She pulled his hand eagerly, which caused a new bolt of pain to shoot through his knees.
They turned the corner and passed several clothing shops, all displaying “fashion” you couldn’t pay him to wear; a bookstore, which had a table out front promoting ‘vampire romance fiction’; three shoe stores that all only sold colorful running shoes which he thought looked more like clown shoes than runners; and what he at first thought was an ice cream shop but was actually selling something called ‘fro-yo’.
Finally they arrived at their neon destination: the cell phone store.
Harold sighed heavily. “Oh come on, Grandpa,” coaxed Julia. “You’re going to love it.” Harold deeply doubted it. He had been avoiding getting a cell phone for years. His aversion to them only grew after the flip phones evolved into smart phones, or as he liked to call them, ‘make-you-dumb phones’. He didn’t want to become a mindless slave to those things like everyone else. Since his running days ended, he went for daily walks, and at least every other day he bumped into someone looking at their phones and not where they were going. And besides, he had heard that those phones might cause brain cancer.
Julia tried to convince him to get one every chance she got. Digging his heels in only made her more determined to persuade him to get one. If he had a phone, they could text each other all the time, she’d said. She could call him anytime, no matter where he was. Eventually he’d relented, not only because he was tempted by the promise of more Julia-time, but also because of his own health concerns. He was slowing down a bit these days, and having a cell phone would allow him to call for help if he was away from his home phone. So, now, here he was.
Julia led him inside, and he was struck by how much electronics had changed since he was a young man. Gone were the transistor radios and floor model televisions; instead, the store was filled with impossibly huge flat screen televisions and other gadgets that he hardly even understood what they were used for. And he couldn’t see any radios at all anywhere.
“Can I help you?” The store clerk had approached them while he was gawking at gigantic television that was somehow projecting an image of him and Julia. Harold looked around but couldn’t figure out where the camera was. He turned his attention to the clerk. The kid couldn’t have been more than 16, but actually looked 12. His hair was bright green, which oddly matched the bright blue vest that substituted for the store’s uniform. He wore jeans that had more rips than actual material, and Harold counted no less than three piercings decorating his face. It took all of Harold’s willpower to not to roll his eyes. Julia definitely wouldn’t like that. Well, he gets points for commitment, at least, Harold thought.
“This is my Grandpa, and he wants to get his very first cell phone!” Julia said, giving more details than Harold cared for. “What would you recommend?”
The green-haired clerk (Harold really wanted to refer to him as the ‘punk kid’, but rejected it on the grounds that it might be a little too on the nose) pulled out a brochure that explained the various different kinds of cell phones and handed it to Julia. As she flipped through the pages, Harold noticed the clerk eyeing his granddaughter’s chest. That’s enough of that, he thought. “I want one that’s easy to use,” Harold said, stepping between Julia and the green kid’s laser gaze. “I’ve never had a cell phone before, and I’m not really sure how to use them.”
“Yeah, sure,” Kermit the Clerk (Harold was inwardly proud when he thought of that one) replied. “Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, right?” The kid snorted a laugh. Harold stared at him for a moment, stone-faced; then joined in a way he hoped was dripping with sarcasm. If Harold was successful, the clerk never noticed. Julia, for her part, glanced up and exchanged a knowing amused glance with her grandfather. She shared his appreciation for sarcasm; it was another reason why he loved her so much.
The next hour was a blur for Harold as the Wicked Clerk of the West (another one Harold was proud of) explained the variety of available plans and options to Harold and Julia. Harold was frequently lost; the jargon and terms used to describe cell phones may as well have been in an alien language. At one point, Harold asked what ‘SNS’ stood for. The Unremarkable Hulk (Bingo!) found that hilarious and called over another clerk to fill him in on the joke. The two of them had a good chuckle over that before they explained, as if talking to a child, that it stood for ‘Social Networking Sites’. That still didn’t explain anything to Harold, but he stayed quiet after that, and let Julia handle the rest of the details.
Later, sitting in the food court sharing a basket of fries, Julia helped him turn it on. It came to life with a series of buzzes and blips, and she showed him how to use his fingerprint as a passcode. “You mean, I have to give it my fingerprints? Like I’m a criminal?”
Julia laughed a long time at that one. “No, Grandpa. Not like a criminal! It’s for privacy. The phone recognizes your fingerprint so no one else can turn it on. “
“But does my fingerprint get kept in some sort of database somewhere? I don’t want to be put on a list or anything,” he replied.
“No, Grandpa, it’s not like that. You know what, never mind. We can skip that part. You can use a passcode instead. Just numbers.”
“But what if I forget it?”
“Just use something that’s easy to remember. Like, use an important date from your life. ” Harold thought about various number combinations he could use: his birthday, Julia’s birthday, his wedding anniversary, the date his wife died.
“But can’t people guess those numbers? Don’t hackers guess those dates first?” She rolled her eyes and reassured him that no one was going to hack his phone but he wasn’t mollified. Instead he chose a random selection of numbers. He’d just have to try hard to remember them.
Then Julia introduced him to various applications, or ‘apps’ as she called them. She showed him one called Instagram, which, as far as he could tell, seemed to be just a lot of photos of food and cats. Is this what the internet is used for?, he thought. This thought he kept it to himself, though. He didn’t want to seem a wet blanket; Julia just seemed to be enjoying herself far too much. They took a series of photos together with her holding the phone at arm’s length; ‘selfies’, she called them. Then she created an Instagram account for him (‘Juliascoolgramps’) and picked the best photo (Harold thought they all looked the same, though) and ‘uploaded’ it.
Next she used an app (see, he can use the lingo too) that had several homemade videos on it. It reminded him of that old television show America’s Funniest Home Videos, which, as he remembered, showed an endless supply of home movies of men getting hit in the nuts with footballs.She showed him a few of the videos, and whereas there seemed to be less food, there were just more cats. And also men getting hit in the nuts with footballs. Harold had to admit that it was sort of comforting to know that some things never change.
Lastly, she downloaded a game for him to play where you flicked balls at creatures that gave the appearance of actually being there, but of course weren’t. Harold watched Julia catch a purple one and squeal with delight. “That’s a rare one, Grandpa!” He smiled and nodded as if he understood. It was certainly more fun to watch her play than to actually play the game.
“Julia!” The high shrill voice cut through the mall background noise like a knife. Harold turned to see three girls, Julia’s age, racing toward them. Julia ran to meet them equally excited. Harold didn’t want to embarrass Julia, so he pretended to play the game with the ball flicking while she chatted with her friends.
“Grandpa, these are my friends from school!” He looked up and said hello as Julia introduced each in turn. He forgot their names almost as soon as he heard them. The girls were all of the same age, wore similar clothes, styled their hair similarly; however, Julia stood out like a sore thumb. The other girls lacked the light that Julia had; they didn’t have her spirit. He did his best to be polite, but he resented every second he had to spend chatting with these vapid girls and not enjoying private time with his granddaughter. But he knew better than to push it.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m trying to catch this purple guy. Julia tells me he’s a rare one!” The girls giggled in unison, and went back to excitedly talking about some school gossip. He went back to the phone and pretended to flick a ball, but the phone screen had already turned itself off. He pretended anyway, just in case any of the vapid girls were watching. They weren’t.
After a few minutes, Julia bounced up to him, full of gossipy energy. “Grandpa… The girls are going shopping and then going to a movie, and they invited me along. I told them that I was hanging out with you today, but I was thinking, since you’ve already got your phone and everything…” She trailed off, obviously too embarrassed to ask outright. Harold was disappointed, more disappointed than he would ever have admitted to anyone, and certainly not to Julia.
“Oh, don’t worry honey. You run along and have fun with your friends. I’ll just sit here a while and play with my new phone. I’ll catch the bus home and we can hang out together another time.” He patted her shoulder reassuringly.
“Are you sure, Grandpa? I really want to hang out with you, but they’re going to see the new vampire romance movie. It stars our favorite actor.” She said the actor’s name, but Harold had already stopped listening.
“It’s really okay, Julia. You go. I’ll talk to you later.” He gestured to the clustered vapid girls, who were anxiously awaiting his permission to steal Julia away. “You take care of her, now, okay girls?”
They giggled again and nodded their vapid heads. He hated them.
“See you later Grandpa!” Julia called as she fell in step with her friends and disappeared around the corner. He waved after her, but she was already gone. He stood there for a moment, unsure of what to do. Suddenly, a shock ran through his hand; Harold thought he was being electrocuted. Startled, he dropped the new phone that had just vibrated in his hand. Slowly, he bent down to pick it up, and as he did so a fresh new flare of pain shot through his knees. He gradually straightened himself up, and held the phone up to his face. The screen that had been flawless 30 seconds ago was now shattered from the fall. But it was not so smashed that he couldn’t read the small message that had appeared:
Thanks Grampa! Hope u like ur new phone! TEXT you soon! J xo
Next to the message was a small yellow happy face. What had Julia called it? An emoji. Whatever that means.
He stared at the smashed message for a few moments; all around him shoppers hurried and frolicked. He caught a glimpse of green and turned his head to see the cell phone clerk walking with another boy about his age, this one with a brown buzz cut and wearing a smock indicating that he worked at the bookstore. The Unremarkable Hulk caught sight of Harold and leaned in to say something conspiratorially to his friend. The friend whipped his head around, spotted Harold, and then turned back to his green friend, both doubling over with laughter at some private joke. At Harold’s expense, no doubt.
Harold watched them go, their laughter fading into the distance. Only once he could neither see nor hear them did he return his attention to the smashed phone. He touched the on button, and was asked to input his passcode. Damn it, what was it again? He tried three different permutations, only to be told that the phone was now locked. Harold looked up, and started walking, slowly at first, working through the aches in his knees, but gradually building up speed.
He came to stop by a trashcan, and tossed in the ruined ‘smart’ phone. It made a satisfying clunk as it hit the bottom.