I’m running late, negotiating mergers across three lanes of freeway traffic, when my father calls.
“Do we know a Richard Thruster?”
It’s the third time he’s phoned today. During breakfast, he called to report sparks in his oatmeal. (“Pull your spoon out of the bowl before it goes in the microwave, Dad.”) After lunch, he wondered what possessed his television to change channels by itself. (“Your dog is lonely without Mom there. Don’t let him chew on the remote.”)
This time he says, “This Thruster fellow keeps sending me computer mail. First he was pushing pills for some very embarrassing medical concerns, now he’s got some god-awful pumping thing he says will turn my trouser mouse into a python. It’s unnerving what this guy knows about me.”
I’ve slowed to 50, tailgating a driver who’s taking the speed limit literally. With the phone to my ear I don’t see the pickup truck, sitting high and angry, that’s barreled up behind me on the right. It bellows a blast of horn when I cut into its lane.
“It’s not a real guy, Dad. It’s like Prince Albert in a can, someone’s idea of a joke. Tomorrow it’ll be Woody Cox, or Ida Banger.”
“Both friends of your mother’s, no doubt.” He wheezes a defeated sigh. I picture his breath filling the room like mustard gas, a toxic cloud that would send my mother fleeing if she hadn’t already left. “Day and night that woman sat at this computer, typing to total strangers in those chatting rooms. The things she must have told them about this wilting old body, this stone-age brain of mine. No wonder these morons keep mocking me with their phony ads.”
I realize this call might take some time. I dig in my jacket for the hands-free earpiece and tap it into place. It’s then that I notice the pickup truck has swung wide and rumbled up alongside me. The driver, a skinny kid who looks barely old enough to reach the gas pedal, has mistaken the finger on my earpiece for a rude gesture. He grins and makes a slow slicing motion across his neck with a greasy thumb.
“I’m not proud of what I did with that hammer,” my father continues. “I figured a couple of whacks to the computer box and your mother would return her attention to me. But she liked her distractions. That retired electrician she brought home was no gentleman, with all his salacious talk about slots and hard disks. She ate it up, and I caught her glancing sidelong at my trousers every time he mentioned ‘micro soft’. The guy wrote a number on the back of his card. The next day your mother was gone.”
The pickup truck races into the lane in front of me now, barreling forward and spitting black exhaust at my windshield.
“I’m sure it’s not as bad as all that. Listen, Dad, I’m in traffic, I’ve got to go.”
“Well, mister big shot corporate guy who can’t make time for his father, throw me a bone. Explain how I’m supposed to survive now. I walked to the market for a few things today, they asked for my club card, debit or credit, paper or plastic. How the hell do I know? Your mother took care of everything.”
The pickup truck brakes in front of me, accelerates, brakes again. The driver wags his skinny middle finger in the cab window.
“I’ll call you, Dad. There’s a tunnel ahead. I’ve got to go.”
“Whatever. I’ll be here in my dark hole, beating on this stupid computer with these useless remote controllers and this silly folding phone. This junk was supposed to bring us together, now I’m lonelier than ever…”
The freeway drops down into the throat of the tunnel. The driver of the pickup truck brakes hard, knowing I’ll swerve sharply to avoid him as he barrels away laughing. My father’s voice crackles in my earpiece while I growl a stream of obscenities that must sound to him like the clamorings of some primitive beast waiting just outside his door.
Greg Likins is a mild-mannered public librarian who resides somewhere near Nampa, Idaho. He refuses to own a cell phone.