All In Good Time

Memorable writing that sparks imagination. Lean in. Hear the writer’s voice on the page.

All in Good time

By Lynn Levy

“How do you work it?” Joe finally asked.

Agnes smiled. It was one of her rules. No cell phones in the house. Not no phones, but by the time these kids got handed over to her, less-is-more turned out to be a good starting place.

“What’s the phone number?” Agnes asked.

Joe shrugged, which was not a surprise. Kids didn’t memorize numbers anymore. The phone stored them.

“Alright,” Agnes said. “The first thing you have to do is memorize the phone number here. Get it down until you can say it by heart. It’s just 10 numbers. 304-555-0058. Say it back.”

“Three oh four,” Joe started and faltered. “Can I write it down, at least?” Joe asked.

Agnes shook her head, and repeated the number. This first test told her a lot about the child. The reward was to talk to a friend – an important act of connection. At that age, they craved their friends even if they couldn’t say why. She watched them overcome the small hurdle, to memorize her phone number and their friends’ – which of course Agnes had. She knew all the important numbers for the kids she took in. CPS was used to it by now, and her kids did well, and often asked to stay. Not always, but more than less, so they did as she asked and didn’t argue.

Some kids got angry at the task. You could tell a lot about someone by how they dealt with frustration. The bright kids generally had no trouble memorizing, but they might react with boredom or annoyance or curiosity, or they might be matter-of-fact about it. All of that told Agnes something.

Joe needed about 10 minutes to memorize her number, then he had the hang of it, of remembering the short bits instead of all 10 at once, and learning his friend Gabe’s number took only a moment. It was too soon for hugs, but Agnes patted the back of his hand.

She angled the heavy phone toward him and took the receiver off the hook. “Here,” she said.

Joe took it, his hand visibly dipping. He wasn’t expecting the weight.

He held it for a second, and Agnes tipped her chin at him. He put the receiver up to his ear, gingerly. “What’s that noise?” he asked.

“It’s called a dial tone. It lets you know the phone is ready to work.” Another thing lost with cell phones, that audible connection to the machinery of it all.

She dialed the first digit of Gabe’s number, then the second and third.

“Really?” Joe said.

“You do the rest,” Agnes prompted.

He finished the number, then looked a bit relieved at the familiar ringing tone.

“Hey,” he said when Gabe answered. He stood up, as if to go somewhere else, and then realized he was tethered. She watched the implications play across his face. He couldn’t leave. He couldn’t speak freely with Agnes present.

“I’ll just be in the kitchen,” she said.

Being assigned to Agnes was like getting in a time machine, kids said. She had a bit of a reputation that way. Kids talked about her, but they didn’t really know what it meant until they got there.

Agnes didn’t hate technology, not really, but she felt it made people dependent. And people who were dependent had a harder time climbing out of the mire of their own problems. So, she made her kids memorize phone numbers, so they would learn to retain important information. She made them talk to their friends, not text, so they would learn to pay attention to voices and inflection. She taught them to read paper maps, and navigate for her when they wanted a ride. And she taught them to use the typewriter, so they would slow down and think about what they wanted to say.

Of course, eventually, they all left her, and rejoined the present, and the moment they did, they all went and got their own phones again, first thing, the thing they’d most longed for, most missed. But if they were with Agnes long enough, some of them, not all, but many, found it had changed. Found that it was easier, after all, to understand subtext in the tone of a friend’s voice than in their choice of emoji. Found that a drained battery was not a cause for panic. Found they felt more choice and control over when to attend to it, and when to ignore it.

“You got Agnes?” the older kids would say to the younger ones. “She’s cool, but you won’t feel the same about your phone after,” they’d say.

Of course, it wasn’t just the trip to the past, the Bakelite rotary phone and TV with 13 channels and manual typewriters that changed the kids. It was Agnes herself, and how she used her throwback world to help them reach themselves.

“You won’t feel the same about your phone,” some would say, sagely. But the ones who really got it said, “You won’t feel the same about yourself.”

 Lynn Levy lives in Northern California with her husband, an overly familiar wild scrub jay called “Bubba,” and an enormous wisteria. She and the wisteria are in negotiations regarding ownership of the patio trellis.

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