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Lost Art

John Deisinger is a writer from Wisconsin who lives in Michigan. He writes historical, contemporary, and science fiction. His website is www.johnmdeisinger.com. Story Comments: This story came to me out my experiences with tutoring. I've often wondered if society might reach a point when things like conversation and human interaction might need to be taught to students alongside algebra and grammar. This story portrays a scenario that seems to me fairly plausible, sitting here as I am tapping away on my smartphone.
They love the chess clock; it practically screams sophistication and nation-states. I put it down on the bulkhead, where it will look especially incongruous; polished maple and brass on top of carbon fiber dyed an obnoxious shade of blue.
"45 mins, rite?," she texts to my phone. "Rents paid 4 45 mins."
"That's correct," I say, "Standard rate."
"^_^ awesom. Can start now plz?"
I depress the brass button, letting the ticking fill the room. Her phone screen goes blank as the EMP rolls off the clock in waves. She shudders with exhilaration, or fear, or anticipation. I fold my hands and smile at her.
"So, uh... how do we... uh...," she stammers. Her voice is choked. Out of practice. Like a rusty water pump, from the days when we had water pumps or rust.
"We talk about a topic we have in common, usually. Something both people can say some words about," I say, gently, priming her. I smile, a smile that commands a premium of $199.00 before Standard System VAT.
"Uh... kay. Uh... um...," she says. Her eyes flick to her dead phone. She doesn't panic, doesn't scream or scramble for it. Good. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they think they wanted this but they don't.
"What about the weather, miss? Shall we discuss the weather?"
"Oh," she says. The sweat rolls down her chin. But she's smiling. Confident. She can do this! "It was... cold? Today?"
"I agree. It was cold today. I wonder if tomorrow will be warmer; it seems like the clouds were clearing up this afternoon," I say, nodding along with her.
"I don't know, I don't, I..." she says, her voice getting higher. She doesn't know, because she can't see the forecast, and can't check her phone, and can't see her email, and the walls are closing in and she doesn't know what to say and it's awkward; she doesn't know what to say and it's terrible. I hope she doesn't vomit. Her parents won't be happy with me if she's sick, and I could use the money.
"I'm not sure either, of course. Hard to say this time of year, right?," I say, rescuing her.
"Right," she says, chuckling nervously.
"Right," I say, and pat her hand. "You're doing great."
"Thanks. Um," she says. Her thumbs twitch when she speaks. Phantom movement. Neurologically linking communication with a keypad.
"Did you watch The Twitch yesterday evening?," I say, steering the Art somewhere new.
"Uh, yes! It was fucking epic as fuck!," she says, and I glare at her. Repetitive, for one. Profane, for another. Art isn't usually conducted that way. Save it for the forums. Abashed, she tries again.
"It was, uh. It was, uh, it was...," she says, stuttering uselessly. She doesn't know how to say the words. She doesn't know how to say something without the universal hyperbole of electronic dialect. She's like a heroin addict trying a cup of coffee for the first time in ages. What is this?
"You're doing great," I say again. "Take your time, and think of the right word. I'm right here, everything's fine."
She nods, vigorously. We sit in silence for two whole minutes, as she fidgets and chews her tongue and tries not to look like she's staring at her phone in desperation. I keep up the beatific smile. I remind myself not to use the word "beatific." She'll try to look it up online and risk a panic attack when she can't.
"It was pretty good? It was a pretty good... episode?," she says at last. I nod, and she breaks out into a wide grin.
"It was pretty good. I thought the firefight scene was especially action-filled, this time. Usually," I say, breaking through the Art to talk about it, "usually when you bring up a topic you speak back and forth about it for a little while to explore it."
"LMGTFY," she says, retreating to snark.
I pursue her with sanctimoniousness. "Acronyms are for texting. Use words here. Now, tell me about what you liked. And use examples," I say. She chews her lip for a moment, considers ending the session, but doesn't.
It's all uphill for the rest of the 45 minutes, but some progress is made. Subjects and verbs mostly reach a grammatical detente, syntax is only marginally butchered. I catch the parents looking in through the window. He's dressed in velvet tails and a quizzing glass. She's got enough taffeta to hit silk quota for the whole quadrant; thousands of dollars of fabric there. I used to work in zero-G sericulture, actually, back on the Mustafa Kemal. Nationalist industry, you know, from Old Turkey. So I know these people can afford to pay me for this. For teaching their daughter a Lost Art.
The chess clock chimes, and her phone lights back up. Messages to be read, distractions to be consumed, the umbilicus of data eager to be reattached. I have to give her credit; she doesn't lunge for it or cry out in joy. But she doesn't hesitate long before picking it up.
"Thank you for an evening of pleasant conversation, Ms. Morgan."
She actually looks up. Makes eye contact. "Thank you," she says, and then dives back in.
I wink at her, collect my clock, and walk out of the room.
"It went well, didn't it?," the father says, approaching me with hand extended. He learned from Conversational Logistics; I can tell by the cadence of the question. They're all right, but too mass-market. They deserved a freelancer for their daughter.
"It did. She's still anxious. Hyperventilating on occasion. But with practice... well," I say, shrugging. "She'll be offering insightful commentary on TransLuna Operatics and the Leningrad Mons stock prices in no time."
"It's not easy to hold a conversation these days, is it?," the wife says, cooling herself with a hand fan. More silk, more Conversational Logistics, more hundred dollar bills spent on luxuries.
"Not cheap, anyway," I say, and leave.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 24th, 2015


John Deisinger is a writer from Wisconsin who lives in Michigan. He writes historical, contemporary, and science fiction. His website is www.johnmdeisinger.com. Story Comments: This story came to me out my experiences with tutoring. I've often wondered if society might reach a point when things like conversation and human interaction might need to be taught to students alongside algebra and grammar. This story portrays a scenario that seems to me fairly plausible, sitting here as I am tapping away on my smartphone.

- John Mile Deisinger

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