Damon Norko

Smarties!

…….Ubiquitous. That was the word – such an odd-sounding word. It sounded onomatopoetic, as if utter commonality was somehow slippery, wriggly, wet. It was a word that wrapped around one’s tongue and made one spit. Ubiquitous.

…….Smarties were ubiquitous.

…….Joanie had looked up the word in the hardcopy dictionary, the one old Ms. Klaxon kept in the back of the classroom. The pages of the book were yellowed but crisp, adorned with student ephemera. When Joanie finished typing her lesson units into the public terminal she often asked permission to peruse the books in the back of the classroom.

…….Ms. Klaxon would give a cackle of delight and remind Joanie that the same books were available on her Smartie. And Joanie would remind old lady Klaxon that she had no Smartie. Joanie preferred the old books.

…….“I love turning the pages,” she told Ms. Klaxon once, “– to know that someone’s hands have turned those pages before me, again and again. I feel as if I join a conversation that goes on throughout time.”

…….Joanie closed the dictionary. She stood it on its side and tested the tensile strength of the pages with her chin, putting just so much weight on them until the book collapsed and flopped open. “Can’t do that with a Smartie,” she laughed to herself.

…….Suddenly self-conscious that she was playing with a book and not reading it, she glanced over at Ms. Klaxon. No worries – the teacher was absorbed in her Smartie.

…….Joanie looked around the room. All of her 48 classmates were similarly absorbed.

…….“What are you doing?” she asked Kelly, the girl to her right.

…….“Making a list,” said Kelly without looking up. Joanie peered at her. Kelly’s brown curls obscured her face.

…….“List of what?” pressed Joanie.

…….“Lists of lists that I want to make,” said Kelly.

…….Joanie looked to her left. A freckle-faced boy with earbuds in his ears was listening to music, completely locked-in. Joanie sighed. It’s all anyone did. Even Joanie herself owned a Smartie, but she kept it in her bedroom dresser drawer. Maybe now was the time for her to take it out again . . .

…….Joanie remembered the day she decided to put her Smartie away. It was last summer. She’d been playing tag with her brothers on the nature strip behind her house when they been caught and drenched by a sudden storm. Normally, their Smarties would have warned them about the weather, but they were distracted by the good time that they had been having.

…….The rain pelted them. The wind turned their hair into floppy cords, whipping them across their faces. Their noses began to run. Her brothers fled, but Joanie stayed out in the rain. She let the raindrops massage her face. All was wet and wonderful and real. And Joanie knew right then that all of the games and the music ads and the reminders and the lists and, yes, even the dictionary definitions found on the Smarties, were artificial.

…….They were pictures of something – and Joanie wanted the something instead.

…….Lost in thought, her eyes slightly closed, her chin balancing on the book, Joanie apparently missed the end-of-class signal, for when she opened her eyes, she found that her classmates had already shuffled out the door.

…….“I never heard the tone!” Joanie said sheepishly to Ms. Klaxon. “Did it really go off?”

…….Klaxon did not look up from her desk. Her neck was at right angles, as if her Smartie were a miniature swimming pool and she was about to dive in.

…….“Ms. Klaxon?”

…….“Oh, child, are you still here?”

…….“I’m just leaving, Ms. Klaxon — I am positive that I never heard the tone!”

…….“The school has switched to Smartie tones,” said the teacher. “So now we no longer hear: ‘But I was on my Smartie — I didn’t hear the tone!’”

…….For the rest of the day, Joanie had to wait for the other students to signal the end of class. She was utterly tired of playing “catch up” by the time she climbed onto the school bus home.

…….Nobody ever spoke on the bus, so Joanie counted mailboxes as they ticked past the window . . . one, two, three . . . there were forty-seven of these relics along her route — one in front of each house. Joanie had counted and recounted them many times. Aluminum ones, brick ones, wooden ones. Some mailboxes had their mouths open, the bent and rusted flaps looking helpless and hungry.

…….The only sound besides the engine was the clicking and clacking of very small plastic screens.

…….Finally, the silence was broken. From the front of the bus, a girl unplugged her earphones, turned her head and called to another girl in the back, “Susie, did you get my text?”

…….Susie replied, “Just a second, Allie, I’ll respond when I get done this video.”

…….The world whooshed by. Suffocating, Joanie got off the bus a stop early. She walked the additional block to her house with a determined stride. Down the sidewalk, up the brick stairs, through the screen door, past her mother, Joanie headed straight for her bedroom and the drawer that contained her derelict Smartie.

…….The Smartie’s screen glittered like pumice in the slant-light of late afternoon.

…….“Are you recyclable or not?” Joanie asked, before consulting the decal on the side of the blue recycling tub. “Apparently not.”

…….Then Joanie remembered something about a special Smartie drop-off bin.

…….“Mom,” she called indirectly to the house, “how do you get rid of a Smartie?”

…….“Well, I don’t know, dear,” came her mother’s voice from upstairs. “I think there’s a bin or a box at the library for old Smarties. No one ever throws them away.”

…….“Mom, I’m going to run down to the library.”

…….“Make sure you take your Smartie, in case you need to call.”

…….“Oh, I will.”

…….Joanie was very fond of the library. Just the sight of the building’s yellow brick facade conjured up memories of the books, the pages of which, yellowed and finger-dented, still proudly snapped when turned. Joanie had often turned pages for entire afternoons, lost in fantastic universes. But she hadn’t been to the library since school had started.

…….Joanie slipped through the glass doors and headed for the librarian’s desk. There was no one present. Joanie looked around. A velvet rope and pole delineated space for a line of non-existent people. The computer stations that furnished the rest of the room were unoccupied. The magazine and newspaper racks were empty. The shelves that lined the walls were also bare.

…….“I didn’t know that this branch was closing!” Joanie said softly.

…….“Unfortunately yes,” said a voice behind her. “We only have a few days.”

…….Joanie turned around to find a short, round, genial man pushing a custodian’s cart.

…….“Well, hello, Mr. Panza! Does this mean you are out of a job?”

…….“I’m lucky to have been here this long. They let the librarians go a few months ago, when we went to all on-line.”

…….“All on-line? So where are all the books?”

…….“In the museums,” said Mr. Panza with a shrug. He made some motions with his feather-duster and pushed his cart a few feet. “Soon the computers will be there too. Everything is Smartie now.”

…….The mention of Smarties reminded Joanie of her mission. She scanned the library and spotted the “Smarties Recycle” bin beneath the Community Bulletin Board, which was now a mess of torn and faded paper flyers.

…….Yards Sales, Lawn Services, Baby Sitters, Guitar Lessons and Dog Walkers all vied for her attention. All of the services had been re-located to their appropriate categories on everyone’s Smartie. But Joanie liked better the absurd randomness of the library’s Community Bulletin Board.

…….Joanie took the Smartie out of her pocket. It felt heavier than normal, a condemned prisoner dragging its feet to execution.

…….“You don’t want to go, do you?” Joanie asked. But she personified the Smartie a bit too effectively; for unexpectedly the device vibrated. The sensation emanated up her arm and settled as a chill in her spine.

…….“I could have sworn I turned you off!” Joanie double-checked the on/off button. It was indeed in the “off” position.

…….Joanie scrutinized the Smartie. The camera light glinted green.

…….“Just as well, it looks like you are defective after all,” Joanie said, as she tossed the Smartie into the bin. It rattled around in the rubberized plastic.

…….“That may be the last of those,” called Mr. Panza from across the room.

…….Joanie was almost to the door when she heard it.

…….From the recycle bin, muffled by the plastic but amplified by the emptiness of the library, came a plaintive “beep” from her Smartie.

…….“It’s off!”

…….Joanie concluded that the bouncing around in the bin must’ve accidentally switched on the Smartie. She wanted to leave, but she felt her beeping phone would annoy poor Mr. Panza. So Joanie returned to recycle bin and picked up the phone.

…….“Beep!”

…….“We’ll see about that,” said Joanie. She turned the Smartie over and slipped off the back cover, removed the battery from the Smartie, and tossed it separately into the bin. She replaced the back cover and re-discarded her Smartie.

…….Was it going to be quiet? Joanie took a step, and then another.

…….“Beep!” went the phone again, fading slightly.

…….“Well, you’re dying . . . good-bye!” said Joanie, and then she hastened out of the library. She heard two more “beeps” before the glass door shut behind her.

…….“Joanie hurried home to find her mother and brothers in the living room, the glow of the flat screen TV reflected in their eyes. Like many small boys, her brothers liked to hang their heads backwards off the sofa, legs anchored to the armrests. Her mother, seated between them, didn’t notice her upside-down boys.

…….“What’s so interesting?” Joanie asked, looking at the TV while she slid into a vinyl armchair.

…….“It’s all interesting,” said her mother pleasantly, “Your brother Markie plugged his Smartie into the television, and now we can watch anything!”

…….“You can watch anything — I’m going upstairs.”

…….Joanie left her family in the thrall of the Smartie, went to her bedroom, and closed the door. Immediately Joanie was comforted by familiar surroundings. A stuffed unicorn guarded her bed. On the back of her door was a large poster depicting a charmingly tangled-up kitten. On her walls were many pictures of fantasy castles and faraway lands. And on the table beside the bed were the books Joanie had borrowed from Ms. Klaxon.

…….Joanie kicked off her shoes, threw on her pajamas, and lay down. At least her bedroom was Smartie-free. How many other rooms were likewise? Joanie turned at looked at the pictures on her wall. Had the phones crept into these remote places, too? Even the fictional ones? Joanie laughed to herself, imagining the knights and the ladies all texting to each other . . . no, that wouldn’t work at all.

…….Growing sleepy, Joanie nestled into her bedcovers, and let her mind wander. The day’s events became dreams, populated by the people she had seen. She and her school friends were heroes and heroines, defending the land from dark powers. Mr. Panza was there, too; his white feather duster was a magic wand. Joanie found herself running through the school, trying to rally her friends to the fight — but no one was listening to her! Forlorn, Joanie prepared to face the foes alone . . . and then she saw them — legions of black rectangles swarming over the green hills.

…….Joanie tossed and turned, shaping the dream. She was looking at herself lying in bed. Light from the hallway framed her door. Distended shadows stretched across her floor. Then, imperceptibly, one of the shadows moved. Joanie squinted and could just make out a small dark rectangle slipping under the door. Joanie tried to blink it away, but the rectangle was still there. Just a dream. She squeezed her eyes shut. And then she pulled the covers over her head and buried her face in her pillow for the rest of the night.

…….Finally, slivers of the morning sun began to creep into her bedroom. From beneath the sheets, Joanie sensed the glow as she began to wake up.

…….“Must be early,” she mumbled, reaching out her hand to check her alarm clock, which had yet to sound its obnoxious noise from its post on the bedside table.

…….Instead of the boxy plastic clock, Joanie’s fingers found something harder — a metal alloy with a glass screen.

…….Joanie flung back the covers. There on the table was her Smartie.

…….“No!” Joanie swung her feet to the ground.

…….“Oww!” She recoiled her left foot quickly as she was gouged with something sharp. The alarm clock was on the floor, facedown. Joanie picked it up and found that its face had cracked. She had impaled her foot on a shard of clear plastic.

…….Joanie glared at the Smartie. It was inert, inscrutable.

…….Joanie knew what she had to do. She brushed off her foot, and, while reaching for her bedroom slippers, set the alarm clock back on the table. Then, thinking the better of it, she snatched up the clock and retrieved both her slippers with one hand.

…….“Wait here, I’ll be right back,” said Joanie to the Smartie. Taking her battered alarm clock with her, she went the kitchen. She opened the utility drawer and deposited her clock and retrieved the small black-handled hammer that was used for hanging pictures. Joanie returned to the bedroom, keeping the hammer hidden behind her back.

…….“Ok, time to go,” she said.

…….The Smartie seemed even heavier than before.

…….Humming distractedly, Joanie went back through the kitchen and out the rear door of her house. With her free hand, she shielded her eyes from the rays of the morning sun, which was now full in the sky. Joanie peeked through her fingers to the rear of the yard, where her mother’s garden had been abandoned some years ago. What plants remained grew wild, choking the garden’s narrow flagstone path. Joanie headed for the path. She stepped onto the flagstones, testing them with the toe of her slipper. She detected a wiggle. After some prying and a few sharp tugs, Joanie disinterred the loose stone. In its place, she put the Smartie.

…….The aperture of the camera lens at the top of the Smartie glinted crimson.

…….Joanie raised the hammer and struck a blow. The light weight of the hammer was inadequate: Joanie inflicted just a sharp “ding” in the corner. A tiny web of cracks appeared. The Smartie’s camera switched itself on. Joanie saw her own face on the screen. Her dark brown eyes were wide open and her usual gentle pout was replaced with the grimace of a maniac.

…….“I don’t care how I look!” Joanie snarled, raising the hammer and striking the Smartie again. More cracks appeared, and the Smartie screen changed to the Hang in there! kitten from the poster in Joanie’s room.

…….“Don’t even try to be cute!” scoffed Joanie, swinging again.

…….The hammer made a direct hit, and the Smartie’s screen began to change more quickly. Pictures of Joanie’s friends and her mother and her brothers and her pets and her teachers and everything from her life scrolled frantically past.

…….“I don’t even remember taking those,” remarked Joanie, sizing up another swing.

…….But the next picture on the Smartie gave Joanie pause: it showed a beach in midsummer. Bright sunlight had skewed the contrast — the figures in the foreground were silhouettes. The darkened figures were a man and a girl.

…….It was the last known picture of Joanie and her father.

…….“Why, you — ” Joanie began, but more words did not come. Instead, more blows did.

…….Yet the picture of the beach did not change until the screen was in bits and pieces. Joanie put down the hammer. Carefully, she swept the remains of the Smartie off the flagstone into its shallow grave.

…….“Whatcha doing?” came a small voice, and Joanie turned to find both her brothers, Markie and Benjie, surveying her work.

…….“Nothing,” said Joanie, and she quickly tugged the flagstone back over the hole. “How did you know I was out here?”

…….The boys simultaneously reached behind them and pulled their Smarties from their pockets.

…….Joanie’s image appeared on their screens.

…….“Go get ready for school!” Joanie snapped, making both boys scamper off.

…….Joanie jumped up and down on the crypt a few times. A faint “beep” emanated from beneath the stone.

…….“Not possible!”

…….Joanie had to get ready for school herself. She replaced the hammer in the kitchen drawer, threw on some clothes and her sneakers, and put her lunch in her backpack. When the school bus arrived, Joanie headed for the front seat, sat down, and stared straight ahead.

…….Joanie was halfway to school before she heard another “beep”.

…….“Is something wrong with your phone?” she asked Susie, the girl behind her.

…….“My Parts and Plusses game has a lot of sound effects,” Susie replied, without looking up. “No need to shout.”

…….“I’m trying to talk over the beeps,” said Joanie.

…….“What?”

…….“They’re beeping — I know they’re beeping!” said Joanie, casting a furtive look. The camera eye of Susie’s Smartie peered back.

…….Joanie slunk down in the seat. They know.

…….The bus lurched to a stop. Joanie looked at her sneakers. She watched her sneakers as they descended the rubberized black stairs of the bus, as they crossed the pocked asphalt of the parking lot, and as they conquered the polished tiles of the school. Avoiding the eyes and especially the screens of her fellow students, Joanie followed her sneakers all the way up the stairs to Ms. Klaxon’s class.

…….But class was even worse than the bus.

…….In class, Joanie could not fidget or put her head down or talk. She tried to pay attention to Ms. Klaxon as the teacher read her lessons from the projector screen in the front of the classroom, but she was constantly interrupted by annoying beeps in the back of her head. Presently, Joanie noticed that the entire class was working on an assignment. Ms. Klaxon had projected the Bill of Rights on the front board, and the rest of the students were busily typing something in response to the text.

…….But where were the questions?

…….Joanie raised her hand. “Ms. Klaxon, I am not sure what we are supposed to be doing.”

…….“Now, Joanie, I sent the assignment out on Smartie ten minutes ago.”

…….“But . . . I don’t have a Smartie, remember?”

…….Ms. Klaxon smiled patronizingly. “I’m sorry, dear, I always forget. I guess I’m subconsciously hoping that you’ll bring it to school one day. It would be so much easier for us all.”

…….“I can share mine, Ms. Klaxon,” Kelly offered. She scooted her desk a bit closer to Joanie.

…….“Here.” Kelly placed her Smartie on Joanie’s desk.

…….“No!” Joanie hissed. Kelly gave her a quizzical look.

…….“Kelly, there’s something going on with the Smarties,” Joanie whispered fiercely, her head flooding with beeps. “Kelly! (beep) Kelly you really should listen to me (beep) there’s something going on with the (beep, beep) Smarties!”

…….Aware she was being overheard, Joanie looked up to find her classmates staring at her.

…….“There is too!” Joanie insisted, no longer whispering.

…….Then Joanie noticed that all of her classmates were holding their Smarties up — and they were all pointed at her. She look at Kelly’s Smartie on the desk in front of her. On the Smartie’s screen was the photo of the beach with Joanie and her father.

…….With a quick flip of her fingers, Joanie flung the Smartie against the wall.

…….“Hey, my Smartie!” shrieked Kelly, leaping to the aid of her device.

…….“Young lady, go straight to Mr. Muldane’s office!” ordered Klaxon with a firmly pointed finger.

…….Joanie was glad to get away from the stares of her classmates. She did go to the office, but she paused for a drink of water on the way. She did not dread the Principal — he had always seemed like a pleasant man. He’d said “Hello!” to Joanie many times. His suspenders and bushy handlebar mustache gave him a look of a sea captain; he was like a man washed up from another time. As it turned out, Joanie’s trust was well-founded. Mr. Muldane gave her a gregarious “Hullo!” Instead of letting Joanie sit by herself across his expansive wooden desk, he came around to join her on the office chairs.

…….Joanie started her story slowly, afraid that the beeps would interfere. But the beeps had subsided for now, perhaps driven back into her subconscious by the gentle calm of the Principal’s office, and the firm will of the Principal. Yet Joanie still felt the beeps, even if she did not hear them.

…….After listening to Joanie’s story, the Principal raised his hands in the air and declared: “I understand completely!”

…….Joanie tried not to let her relief seem too obvious.

…….Mr. Muldane gave his mustache a twirl. “You see that cabinet over there?” he said, indicating a mahogany-colored door with a chrome lock mounted on the wall behind his desk. “That used to be filled to the top with Smarties, back in the days when we used to take them away from students. And after so many years of taking them away, well–” the Principal said with a wink “–it’s hard to accept that they have replaced books and pens and paper.”

…….“I like books!” Joanie proclaimed.

…….“I do, too!” said the Principal. “As a matter of fact, I don’t carry a Smartie, either! I don’t even own one! I am proud to say that I actually write letters, by hand, in my own hand writing. And if I have something really important to say to someone, I prefer to deliver it in person. And in my cabinet . . . ” The Principal walked to the mahogany cabinet and unlocked it. The shelves were stocked entirely with old textbooks. “Books!” he said.

…….Joanie got up and ran her fingers over the worn volumes.

…….“My own private stock,” the Principal remarked dryly. “Now, Joanie, we need to talk about what happened in class today. While I want you to enjoy your books and your pens and paper, I can’t have you disturbing other students by assaulting their Smarties.”

…….“I’m really, truly sorry about that,” said Joanie. “Kelly is, like, my best friend.”

…….The Principal clasped his hands behind his back and went to the window. “I’ll tell you what, Joanie. I’ll speak to Ms. Klaxon and your other teachers and see if they can’t provide you hardcopy assignments, based on the actual textbooks.”

…….“Why . . . thank you, Mr. Muldane!” Joanie could not help the tears forming in her eyes.

…….Mr. Muldane smiled broadly and wrote her a pass. Joanie calmly returned to the awkward tension of the class, ignoring the whispers and sidelong stares of her classmates. She flashed Kelly a reconciling smile and went to her seat.

…….Joanie tried to follow along with the class assignment as best she could, trying to guess the assignments by peering over other students’ shoulders. In the silence of the classroom, the beeps crept back, nibbling away at her attention span. But Joanie fought them with the knowledge that she would be soon getting hardcopy assignments.

…….A few minutes before the end of class, Joanie noticed a sudden flurry of fingers. At every desk, students started clicking frantically on their Smarties. The classroom was a cacophony of clicks and tones of send and receive.

…….Joanie knew something was up. Something had happened. Joanie looked from one student to another. From their exclamations, she was able to gather some details.

…….Heart attack . . . fell . . . taken away on a stretcher . . . Smartie.

…….“Who?” Joanie demanded, to no one, to everyone, once she had pieced together the picture.

…….“Principal Muldane,” said Kelly. “Good thing he was on his Smartie when he collapsed: they were able to get to him right away . . . ”

…….“But that’s not right!” said Joanie, and the beeps in her head roared to life.

…….“What do you mean? The Smartie saved his life!” said Kelly.

…….“But (beep) he (beep) didn’t (beep) have one! (beep),” Joanie almost shouted, then covered her mouth. “He told me he never used one,” she repeated to herself. “It’s not right.”

…….Joanie fell into her chair. Not right!

…….The public address system suddenly sputtered to life, startling everyone with a burst of static.

…….“The rumors that Principal Muldane has died are not true; he has merely fallen ill,” Assistant Principal Greene’s voice came, steady and calming. “I will be acting as interim Principal. Kindly return to your academic texting. Good afternoon.”

…….The bad news was confirmed. Joanie went limp, letting the beeps roll over her.

…….Joanie didn’t hear the knock at the classroom door, but she saw Ms. Klaxon cross the room, answer the door, and receive a small package.

…….“For you,” Ms. Klaxon said, turning to Joanie, “from the Principal.”

…….Ms. Klaxon placed the package upon Joanie’s desk. It was a yellow clasp envelope, sealed. Joanie shut her eyes, imagining the contents of the envelope.

…….Carefully, she traced her finger around the edges. She tested its weight with a gentle push. She felt the contours of the raised paper. She took a deep breath, ready to open it.

…….But then Joanie froze, listening.

…….The beeps had stopped.

© Damon Norko

Damon Norko began his writing career with a sign on his back: “Poems-4-Sale.” He showcased these poems in his rock band, The Submensas, from 1983 to 1993. In 1987, he moved to Baltimore and opened the Art Attic art gallery, a Kinko’s store, and a chess store. Now an English/drama teacher in Frederick County, where he recently directed a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. His major published works are The Glue Story (1991) and The Delilah Factor (2010).

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