“So This Is the Future,”

Fiction by Steve Lerner

It was hard for the old man to unravel the knot he had tied at the end of the plastic bag. No matter, he was in no hurry, and the birds would wait. Today they would have to be especially patient. The extreme cold had penetrated his gloves and slowed his gnarly arthritic fingers. While cursing himself for tying the knot so tightly in the first place, he remembered when his fingers were capable of tying the tiniest of trout flies. That was a long time ago.

As he mumbled to those fingers that seemed to purposely betray him, some small birds and a couple of squirrels began congregating around his bench. The birds pecked at the brown grasses as they waited for their largesse of shelled nuts and dried breadcrumbs. It was a combination that seemed to suit both his feathery friends and his wallet.

Despite the cold and the wind, which made his eyes water, he eventually succeeded in opening the bag. It was no small achievement, all things considered, and he warmed to the notion that he would reuse the bag. He wiped some drops from his eyes and cast the mixture using a semicircular motion. The gathering had grown considerably since he first sat down, and all present promptly went about the business of filling their stomachs.

Finally things were as they should be. Aside from an occasional dustup between the squirrels, everyone settled into their daily routine. The birds trusted the old man enough so that a few chickadees ate from his hand. With half his rations remaining, the old man was looking forward to perhaps another 30 tranquil minutes.

It didn’t happen. Suddenly, with a singular whoosh all the birds vanished, and the squirrels scurried toward the nearest tree. Instinctively, he thought it must be a hawk. It wasn’t. It was a teenage boy obliviously whirring by on a skateboard. Angered by the chaos the boy created, the old man cried out, “What the hell’s the matter?” stopping midsentence. The boy was wearing earplugs connected to an iPhone or mp3 player. He knew about such things because, much to his chagrin, his grandkids were wedded to these kinds of devices.

The boy was plain inconsiderate, and there was no excuse for what had just happened. The signs posted throughout the park read, “Skateboarding allowed in designated areas only.” In the old days, he mused, he would have been fast enough to grab the little punk, and if he couldn’t get him to listen to reason, at least he would have scared the daylights out of him. Then again, maybe not. He was being rash and he knew it. No doubt what really bothered him was seeing how transfixed the boy was by that silly device he held in the palm of his hand.

After a few minutes, the birds emerged again, re-establishing a familiar pecking order in front of the bench. He tossed a handful of seed and reminisced about the times he sat in front of his parents’ first television set, a black-and-white Zenith. More often than not, his entire family sat together and enjoyed the shared experience. Today he thought just about every kid he knew spent far too much time punching a keypad of some sort or another. He wasn’t a technophobe; he simply saw the world through a different lens.

As he released the last of his feed, he recalled a recent dinner at one of his favorite restaurants and watching, in utter amazement, six girls who texted nonstop for almost two hours. It was disheartening to him that during the entire time they scarcely said a word to one another. He remembered how expressionless and isolated they looked, and wistfully thought, so this is the future.

Steve Lerner is a retired English teacher who lives in Water Mill.