Hello

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The tall, black gas lamps cast a certain slant of light as Jennifer started down the path. The primroses were in full bloom, a deep, rich fuchsia pink. At intervals were stands of blue delphinium, for height. The flowers and gaslight lamps were on her right. To her left was a stream in which the lamplight reflected and twinkled as she approached the footbridge which was verdigris wrought iron, impossibly pretty. She sighed. “Late nineteenth century excess interpreted by late twentieth century romanticism. Might as well do it up.” With her enhancer program, she added a cache of primroses near the base of the bridge and compared it with the original print inset on her screen. To her delight she had remembered correctly: Kinkade, the great painter of light, once consigned to calendars and ceramic plates, had indeed done the same.

Across the bridge, the path narrowed to a sea of flagstones that curved gently to the left and took Jennifer under the graceful arch of climbing yellow roses. The walled fence was covered with English ivy and stands of pink and white hollyhocks which obscured her view of the depths. It was a familiar sight: “Glory of Morning,” Thomas Kinkade, 1995. It was her favorite, so much better than the rea-but-boring entrance to the academic building at the small college where she taught.

The phone on her ear rang. “Hello?”

“Jennifer, this is Brandon. What was the Star Trek episode you analyzed last month at MLA?”

“The Trouble With Tribbles.” Where were you, anyway?”

“I don’t know.”

“Brandon, how can you not know where you were? It’s your favorite conference.”

“Don’t be so . . .whatever, Jennifer. I was stressed.  Okay? I sort of holographed that I was there and let it go.

I caught the other nets for the review but needed your subject.”

“Brandon, that is so lame. Are you really that lazy? You could have . . .”

“I know. Bye, Jennifer. Gotta another call coming.” Jennifer rolled her eyes. No manners.

As Jennifer passed through the arch, she saw the mansion, a two-story Southern antebellum with white columns and green shutters on the windows. Broad porches wrapped the structure and light streamed from both stories.

Jennifer decided to add music and chose some Yanni as she entered. The odd association was not her favorite, but the documentation from most literary societies supported her choice. She would have preferred something more stimulating, like Guns-N-Roses but didn’t feel she could go against conventional wisdom, poetry of motion, as it were.

Then she heard the laugh and saw the young woman, sitting in her white crinoline. A roguish young sailor reclined nearby and whispered in her ear. They were on a heavy wrought iron settee of the same pattern as the bridge. The laughter was high and surprised, full of the implications of what he was saying, an epiphany in progress. Jennifer knew immediately they were laughing at her. She blinked the enhancement off as she entered the building.

Her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Jennifer? This is Heather. Are you…”                                                          .”

“Not now, sorry. I’m going into class.” The line went dead.

Slowly, the Kinkade faded as she neared the lecture hall. It was almost time for her first class, Allusions 1301. Phoebe and Delbert, the couple from the settee, now just an old vinyl-covered couch, sat more quietly as Jennifer approached, but the girl’s eyes danced as the joke played itself out. She smiled at them, rather weakly, and walked up the steps. Had the program been on, she would have added falls of white wisteria down a wide marble staircase, but she now felt humiliation festering in her thoughts. These steps, copied from old limestone patterns, were badly worn. Because everyone used enhancement programs, building upkeep was at a minimum. Furniture was shabby and unmatched. Classrooms were even worse, and occasionally even students complained about weeks-old French fries or rotting hamburger leavings, munched on by little elves/mice. Administration responded by clearing trash, but otherwise things rarely changed anymore.

In her command voice, a sotto voce, Jennifer called up her daily planner. It hovered in the air as she scanned for details about her class. Phoebe and friend were there, of course. Today was an introduction to the Star Wars trilogy. Students usually didn’t like it and thought it was boring. Jennifer had netted several pieces on it her first year teaching and felt a particular fondness for it. She never understood why the students didn’t like it and insisted on making fun of Han and Leia’s first kiss. It was so, well, so perfect. And how could they understand the scene in Look Who’s Talking Now, with the John Travolta character frozen to death in the morgue, and Kirsti Alley crying, if they didn’t know the allusion to The Empire  Strikes Back? It was one of her very favorites.

“Call Heather,” Jennifer commanded

“Hello?”

“It’s me. What did you want?”

“Thanks. Well, not much. I was just wondering whether you put in that call to Lipton-Jones. You said you would after his last episode aired.”

Jennifer flushed. It was well known how she felt about Jason Lipton-Jones. And it was also well known that he felt obligated to return all the calls he received. He was old-fashioned and lived in a house that had been modeled on Kinkade’s “Beyond Autumn Gate.” It was said that he never used his enhancement program. He actually cultivated living flowers. He was hospitalized an entire day once after falling when trying to repair a trellis above the esplanade. But his writing was so wonderfully clever, so intellectually allusive, that Jennifer was smitten.

“Yes. I did it yesterday. So what?”

“So nothing. Can’t a friend just ask?”

“You’re not my friend. You’re my sister.”

The line was strangely silent. “Very funny. Well, if you’re going to be that way. . .” The line went dead again.

Heather was that way sometimes. She’d sulk a few hours then call back. Jennifer was busy thinking and didn’t worry about it. Was it worth the trouble to do a retrospective for the special effects? Should she have the class move to split screen for all the kisses? They should surely see the wonderful paired dialogue, characters switched, in the last two films: “I love you./ I know.” Jennifer sighed. Teaching was all such a chore, really. And for what? Students who read old things, odd things, like Walker Percy and Doris Lessing and Blake and Frost, for goodness sake. Where would that get them?

Phoebe and Delbert came in. They were still laughing. Gertrude was with them, and they were trying to explain the joke to her. Of course, she couldn’t get it. She never got anything. Gertrude would glance over at her with a worried nod and a smile. They were wasting their time. But Gertrude finally snickered and sat down, her eyes glued, for once, on Jennifer.

“Let me check your homework first,” Jennifer said with a certain malice aforethought. She could ask for it sweetly, as a teacher should, and still realize the sway she had over these students, at least for the month that the term lasted.

She decided to check Georgie’s first. He was her favorite. The first day of class he discussed with some fluency Gilligan’s Island and had won the respect of his classmates with his cool delivery, if not the subject matter. He sat quietly today. His program work was astonishing, Jennifer thought. He had set himself in the middle of Kinkade’s “The End of a Perfect Day,” appropriately outfitted in fishing gear and a can of Diet Coke. Jennifer felt that warm glow of success. Then she realized she had a class with nothing to do, so she added aloud: “Please download Program Two.jol.lucy.3#99.” Star Wars could wait. It was a particularly essential I Love Lucy episode, the candy factory.

As everyone began whispering the soft commands, the door swung open rather dramatically. Jennifer had forgotten to lock it. Joe Mack came in, winded, and walked toward his seat. Jennifer hoped he wouldn’t say anything. He seemed to have something against her and asked really hard questions in class.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “Family crisis. My uncle Gene, who was falsely imprisoned years ago for stealing, adopted a young girl when her mother died. Cosette was taken quite ill this morning, and Gene asked me to sit with her when he went out. He must’ve had trouble getting home.”

Immediately Jennifer was concerned. “As you know, the door was not locked. Perhaps that was just providential today, Joe Mack.” There were snickers. “I’m sure you must be quite upset.” Several students laughed aloud and looked around at the latecomer.

Phoebe said, “Yes, you must be quite miserable.” The entire class burst into loud cackles. Jennifer blushed. Joe Mack was making a joke, at her expense, based on some obscure book, she supposed.

Someone flashed an image on her viewer of a waif-like creature. She felt another hot flush of embarrassment. She should have known the reference, really. Late 20th century popular staged work, tiresome. Jennifer stared at Joe Mack, who was still standing, and told him to sit down, please. And she reminded the rest to get to work.

The remainder of the homework assignments were dull and repetitive. Students portrayed themselves in the expected settings. Sears Homelife stores were obviously the farthest things from their minds. She gave everyone a low A. They would be upset, of course, but she had her standards. Only Georgie had shown any originality and deserved the 100.

Then her phone rang. It was egregious behavior to answer in class, grounds for suspension for a student, poor form for a teacher. It was just not done. But Jennifer had that funny feeling.

“Hello?”

“Jennifer?”

“Yes?”

“Jason Lipton-Jones, returning your call. Do I know you?”

“No, not at all.” One knew and spoke to so many people, after all. “I’ve netted several pieces on your work. I just wanted to say hello and tell you how much I liked your last work. It was so wonderfully . . . allusive.”

“Why, thank you so much. Really thoughtful of you. May I ask the topic of your last article?”

“Of course. “Parallel Structure: Lipton-Jones and His Use of Similarities to Earlier Works.” The Jeannie episodes in Rolling Thunder, Heaven Waits. It was . . .they were, well, really neat. I noticed particularly the double allusion to the Brady Bunch pilot. Very clever, wonderful.”

“Thank you, so much, well…”

“I wonder—ummm, would you like to download my last paper?” Jennifer was breathless, but terribly bold, bordering on rude. One did not ask. One waited to be asked.

Lipton-Jones was so polite. “I would be most interested. Your address?”

Jennifer began to give her personal code, then remembered where she was. She looked out from her screen to see the entire class in complete silence, riveted, staring, for once, at her. She turned around, actually let them see her back (it was never done), and whispered: “JennyO@gmail.com.”

“Fine. I shall be most interested. Well, I’m quite busy. Calls, you know. Good-bye.”

Jennifer turned around slowly. Should she excuse herself to the class, knowing they wouldn’t care? Should she explain what this great artist had produced? Should she plead the significance of his acceptance of her net piece?

“If everyone has finished, let’s move on to your next assignment. Tomorrow we will look at the Dallas allusions, so scan the soap references in your programs. Set a piece in a mid-twentieth century bedroom and kitchen. We’ll add some dialogue in class. Questions?” Everyone stood up immediately and began leaving.

Georgie stood up and turned away slowly. Then he turned back to face Jennifer. His enhancer package was modern and expensive. Jennifer did not approve of such extravagance for the young. The design of these enhancers also frightened her although she could not explain why. They covered his eyes like the old contact lenses on which they were modeled, but his were totally, glinty black. The outer edge had the thinnest rim of gold. When she commented on how odd they were, he said something like, “Tiger, tiger, burning bright,” but she did not catch his meaning. He seemed disappointed.

“I enjoyed your work,” Jennifer offered. Slowly, he moved his hand across his forehead.

He looked at her for a long time.

“Why did you do that?”

“Do what?” Jennifer was puzzled.

“Why did you give him your personal address? Couldn’t you have used the professional?”

Jennifer realized that only Georgie had heard, had paid any attention to what she’d done. “It’s permissible. Rarely. He’s a famous, well-thought-of person. I can trust him.”

Georgie looked at her directly for several seconds, and she could see her reflection in his enhancers. He seemed very wise and old, but his eye shadow was shiny, youthful, a very pretty shade of blue. Like the sky, she had heard.

“Good-bye, Jennifer.” He turned and left.

She sighed. What a rotten day. And it had been so carefully planned, too.

“Check email.” Lipton-Jones had not, as yet, asked for her net. The delay was unusual, but perhaps there was an explanation.

“Call Heather.”

“Hello?”

“What are you doing?”

“Nothing. Class over?”

“Yes. Want some lunch?”

There was a pause. “Jennifer, you never ask me for lunch. Problems?”

“Oh, no. Just haven’t seen you in a long time.”

“At least a week. Okay. Why not?”

“We could go to a film later.”

“Depends. What do you want to see?”

“The Inwood has one of the last copies of Dumb and Dumber on this afternoon.”

“You’re kidding!” It was rare to see anything so delicious as the early Carrey works. Jennifer liked being the older sister and knowing the best things. And Carrey was Heather’s favorite.

“Great. Can we have pizza?”

“Sure. See you there.”

Jennifer sighed. She blinked the enhancer back on but did not feel like changing the Kinkade

program. As she strolled down “Lamplight Lane,” the glow seemed faded. Maybe she needed a new battery so she took off the earring-like generator. She made a note, “Remember: new battery.” She put back on the little ball that connected her to the entire world, to everyone in it who could speak, and made everything so nice.

Then her phone rang. “Hello?”

“Hello. Please don’t hang up. Your professional number has been chosen to receive…”

“No!” Jennifer said, emphatically. For once, she did not feel like listening to the entire message and hung up without listening. She lifted her hair, greying but long and highlighted a bright silver, and put it over to the other side. It had been a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Or something like that. She smiled, surprised and delighted by the allusion to the familiar childhood book. She still felt very clever.

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