Frank had just started to feel something about his son Ronnie, but then the little black machine had beeped, the words glowing like black holes in the bottomless white space of the screen, and now all Frank can feel, with his whole being, down deep in the darkest, most true parts of Frank, is that he definitely, for sure, does not want to touch a shark. Not even in a joking sense, not even for a woman. Frank in the center of his living room stands up and still and tall as he can, thinking, thinking, trying to think of a way out of this situation without sounding like a sissy.
Babette sent the message to his mobile phone:
Have great idea. Touch a shark! R U up 4 it?
Frank is new to this world of message sending. His fingers are big and stained black in the creases of his knuckles, black in the lines around his fingernails, dark gray in the calluses. Days, Frank fixes machines down at the plant. Evenings and weekends, he assembles and reassembles his single-seater Alabaster Apis WR ultralight aircraft engine in his garage. Frank has the kit to put the whole plane together, but because he figures he may not get around to flying the thing anyway, he spends most of his free time with the machine’s engine. Hours and hours with his hands sunk deep inside the heart of so much metal and grease has given Frank these big black-creased hands that he is mostly proud of. Hands that know their way around the dark of any machine, hands that feel and make and fix. Frank and these huge fingers of his that fumble around for the right buttons to push on this fancy mobile phone his son Ronnie has given him.
Ronnie, back. From where, Frank does not know. But Ronnie has come back and Frank is glad to have family around again. The mobile phone is a present Frank did not expect. Maybe a thing that he does not deserve. What with what Frank did. Not one thing or anything in particular, really, but everything. All the things Frank did and did not do. He told Ronnie to keep the phone for himself but his son had seemed serious about it, and Frank did not want to ruin things again.
You’re too far out of the loop, Frank, Ronnie had said. And, look, it’s free. I put you on my family plan.
Frank does not know what a family plan means or who else Ronnie is calling family these days or how this silly electric miracle of a machine could be free, but he saw how Ronnie was proud to give him the phone and Frank likes thinking that this little black glowing monster in some way lets him hold proof of the truce between them in his hand.
But this message from Babette:
Have great idea. Touch a shark. R U up 4 it?
Frank stares at the screen and does his best to make sense of the letters. Not justwhat they mean, but what they really mean. Why Babette and why Frank and why this message and why that shark? Why write it out like this, like a challenge, like a record of what Frank is and is not willing to do with his hands? Why not just call and say Hello and talk voice-to-voice like regular human beings?
This is not the first time Frank has received a message on his mobile phone. Ronnie sent one a few weeks ago, not long after he had given the thing to Frank. That one said:
Welcome 2 the future Frank.
The phone had started singing some song and Frank had opened it and read Ronnie’s message and then closed it again. To think about it. To sit by himself for a while and wonder whether he was Frank in the future or Frank in the past. Or just Frank, in the right now. Frank had sat and thought for a while and gone out to the garage to replace the rotary valve shaft and even hours later he could see those words glowing in his mind.
Welcome 2 the future Frank.
It had occurred to Frank that he might write a note back to his son. His plan was to type out his own message. Some words that would show Ronnie that he appreciated his generosity. That he was sorry. The message Frank wanted to write back to Ronnie would have said:
Thank you, son. I really appreciate this phone. I hope you get this message. Love, Frank.
But when Frank had opened the little black lid of the phone to send his message back to Ronnie, his son’s words were gone. All that glowed back at Frank was the time and the picture of a fighter jet that Ronnie had set as the background.
Because you like planes, Ronnie had said.
And Frank had said, Nice, Thanks, and had stopped himself from pointing out to his son that he likes ultralight aircraft, not jets. Frank likes the idea that one day he might put his whole small plane together and go for a fly, solo, just him, just Frank, free and in command of his self-made one-seater. Fighter jets mean armies and uniforms and men you have to salute. Rules to follow, and more speed than any one man needs. Frank likes the freedom of ultralight planes, and more than that. More than that, what Frank really likes are all the small pieces inside the engine that have to click into the perfect place to work together to make the machine go. Frank, staring at that fighter jet, had thought, then, about what he had not said to his son. His big fingers had pushed the buttons, trying to find Ronnie’s message inside the little glowing thing. But the words were gone. Ronnie was somewhere else, and though Frank wanted to throw the phone against the wall and watch it break into pieces, he did not. Frank had sat down in his chair, held the smooth black plastic egg of a machine inside his fist, and thought about the message he did not know how to send.
Wondered if the phone was going to beep again.
So now, looking at this message from Babette, Frank knows not to shut the phone. Shut the phone and the message will be lost for good and Frank will lose his chance to write back.