Vikram Jai, deep in work, startled at his son’s excited voice.
“Hold on. Just a sec…,” he pushed his chair back from his desk, empty but for three laptops yawning. The glass tableau itself provided a fourth interface.
Where was Phaedra? It was her turn to watch Tommy. Vikram had work to do. Both of them worked remotely, which had enabled them to move to this part of the sub-suburbs, but working from home had its drawbacks. For life to function smoothly, they had a day-to-day schedule which had been determined with an exactitude that complimented their Type-A personalities. Vikram didn’t like to be the Bad Guy—who did?—but right now it was his time to work and, though he loved his son dearly, Vikram’s current project: linking Cherry Hill’s Solid Waste Utility social marketing network with the Electric Company’s, was time-consuming work.
“Daddy!” clutching the doorjamb with one tiny hand, Tommy piped his discovery. “Mr. Jones’ house’s `visible.”
“That’s right, buddy, a house is visible…. What a smart guy you are! But you know what, Daddy’s got a special project he’s working on. Can you go tell Mommy `bout your discovery?”
Tommy ambled in and pulled at Vikram’s forefinger and pinky. “No, no, no,” he shook his head emphatically, “Mr. Jones’ house dis`pearing.”
“Phaedra!” Vikram yelled over his son’s head. “Isn’t Tommy supposed to be with you, dear?”
Vikram puzzled over his words: disappearing, yet visible? An engineer by trade, such paradoxes made Vikram uncomfortable. He certainly didn’t want Tommy to get used to making such errors of logic. But this was his son. There must be some other explanation.
And then it came in a flash: Tommy had omitted the prefix!
Vikram shook his head. What on earth were they paying that octogenarian public school cut-out for if not to help their son with such simple elements of language? Phaedra had read a story in a magazine about the importance of sub-triannual educational methods. Certain things that could be done to ensure that one’s three-year-old got a leg up on the competition. But a child’s development was like a house of cards: so easy to destroy through simple thoughtlessness….
“Dear,” Phaedra’s voice came thinly through the floorboards, interrupting his thoughts. “Vikram, you’ve got to see this.”
From the living room through the broad bay windows that overlooked an immaculate lawn, itself rimmed by beds wherein perfect ageless flowers swayed, the Jai family watched as the upper floor of their neighbor’s home turned clear as water. The road beyond could be seen through the pellucid gable.
“Mother F*ck*r!” Vikram exhaled.
Phaedra gave him a look and clasp her hands on Tommy’s ears.
Again. Mr. Jones had beat him again.
Racing from the living room, dashing up the stairs, Vikram went back into his office. He touched the tableau and waited impatiently for the computer to awaken. The screen brightened. Vikram briskly fanned through the many menus and, finding what he needed, prodded an icon. A smaller screen inside the big one appeared an old-fashioned phone icon at the center.
In about ten seconds, Buddy Jones’ falsely tanned face ballooned.
“Vik! How ya doin’, neighbor?”
Vikram knew from previous interactions that this jocular neighbor of his didn’t abide immediate dispensing of the requisite pleasantries. Jones was from the South after all. “Wonderful! Mr. Jones,” he said. “And how are you this fine morning?”
“Farting again instead of shitting,” Mr. Jones said. “You ever get a real case of the shits? Guess I musta picked something up in Guadalajupe.”
“Guadalajara!” Mrs. Jones screeched from off-screen.
“Yes, sir, like in the song: ‘oh black water, keep on running.’ Anyhoo, you musta seen some of the pictures on the board in the window. Some bug musta got in my beans.”
Vikram laughed from his throat. “Mr. Jones, that is a story and a half!”
“No need to stand on ceremony, Vik: call me Buddy.”
“Okay, ‘Buddy’,” Vikram exclaimed. “I was just calling to inquire about—”
“I know! Ain’t it a kick in the pants,” Buddy was all teeth. Suddenly, his smile dropped. “Um, Vik, you’re gonna hafta hold on a sec….”
The screen flickered, and Buddy disappeared.
“Mr. Jones? Buddy?”
“Yeehaw!” Mr. Jones’ cry came through the audio channel a second before his image reappeared, “What a ride. Sorry Vik. Let me do something `bout that so we don’t get disjointed again.”
He reached over the screen, his hand returning with a state-of-the-art remote control. Vikram had never seen anything like it.
“You looking out your window?” Buddy asked, remote poised in his meaty hand.
“No, I’m upstairs. Why?”
“Becuuuuz…I’m gonna turn off the Oskillatrex.”
“Oscillatrix, Buddy. How many times…?” Mrs. Jones squawked.
Buddy Jones chuckled. “Women. They only hear you when you’re wrong?”
Vikram smiled perfunctorily and shouted out the door. “Phaedra, honey, are you looking outside?”
“Yes.” She said from below. “Well, it’s stopped…doing whatever if was doing.”
“There ya’are.” Buddy smiled and put the remote down. Then he folded his hands in front of him. “Now: what can I do ya for?”
“Well, Buddy,” Vikram began but then the words stopped. He felt his false smile flag, and a quiet desperation creep into face.
He thought of the Mercedes-Fiat floating in Buddy’s garage across the way, of the bioluminescent dinoflagellate inclusions that gave the Jones’ eves a sparkle at night, of the virtual board that flashed pictures of the couples’ trips through the bulletproof glass of their equally large and elegant bay windows.
Oh those gadgets, those wonderful things that Buddy Jones invariably bought and displayed before Vikram had even heard of them! It didn’t help that Mr. Jones, upon seeing Vikram’s consternation at missing the latest cutting-edge item, reminded him with his down home ingenuousness, that he had long since retired and now had the time for such doohickeys. No. It didn’t help at all.
And so Vikram Jai, proud father and husband, head of the Public Utility social engine optimization program of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, inquired in the most neutral voice he could muster where Mr. Jones had procured such a remarkable device.
“Heh heh, Vik,” Buddy winked knowingly. “Why don’t you come over, and I’ll show you how it works.”