Betty’s Laptop – A Short Story by Bob Sterry
Also known as ‘Wishing Keys’
Neither Bob nor Betty had any idea what half a century of living with the same person meant when they were married in a decade when traditional ceremonies were still popular. In particular they paid little or no attention to the vows they made as relatives looked on smiling. In sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, till death do us part, were mumbled in a haze of youthful lust and naivete. Millions of marriages started this way and a number of them did actually last half a century and more. An unsurprising number did not.
Betty had been surprised that she and Bob had made it any further than ten years. But she had been, and remained for another four decades, a traditional wife. She made as many personal sacrifices to maintain the marriage as Bob did not.
Her two adult children had often encouraged Betty to step aside from her domestic life and engage in some fulfilling pursuit. As a teenager and young woman she had shown considerable talent singing, especially opera and choral music. Marriage and the seeming duties of motherhood ended her pleasure. And she had tried to resume, but when Bob showed no sign of encouraging her, even mildly disparaging her efforts out of his own insecurity she dropped the idea.
And so the years passed, and at some point a small resentment made its home in Betty’s mind. It was not as though Bob had anything except his job to fill his days. She could almost point to the day sometime in their second decade when Bob became a couch potato. He had come home from his office, thrown down his briefcase, poured himself a whiskey, flopped into his recliner and reached for the remote. A scene familiar to millions of women. The small resentment grew steadily and by their third decade made itself known in the onset of mild bickering.
Betty could not actually define the root causes of her resentment. She only knew that from time to time the image of her rapidly expanding husband, he was already overweight, reclining semi comatose as the television droned on, triggered a sharpness in her voice. The edge of Betty’s first entry into this dialog style cut into Bob’s inertia much as a cattle prod does to a sleeping Heifer. His startled response contained surprise and irritation, and rather like a game of poker where players match each others wager, the bickering escalated.
Against this slightly acidic household background the two children began encouraging Betty to buy a computer. Not just a computer, but a high end laptop. They told her that she could enjoy her favorite operas and chorale performances via the internet without disturbing Bob and his diet of suspect newscasts and hyperbolic sport commentaries. Indeed, they gave her a list of the possibilities she might enjoy in addition. Betty had grown up in a pre-digital age and although she was quite happy using an ATM or the self check out at Safeway, the idea of owning her own machine had never occurred to her.
It took Bob’s retirement and his permanent presence in the house that raised the bickering to new levels, to persuade her to buy her first computer. Her children took her to a hi-tech store housed in an enormous warehouse. They guided her through the multitude of choices until she set her eyes upon one that somehow called to her. Something about the color or the way it felt when she nervously tapped the keys. A salesperson was summoned. Her children, familiar with the ins and outs of software and accessories made sure that their mother was getting what she really needed. When they left the store, the trunk of their car contained several colorful boxes, containing a laptop, a simple printer, hi grade headphones with noise canceling and even a mountable video camera.
It can be supposed that Bob’s slow but inexorable decline from two dimensional irritating bore to retired grumpy old fart was not altogether his own fault. But then at some point in his younger life a choice must have been made, out of fear perhaps, that took him along a narrow path of dull conformity. A path that allowed no divergence. Whether he ever struggled to find a truer self as the years rolled by Betty never knew.
Her children helped her unpack all the boxes and set up a sort of work station in the corner of the dining room. Bob stood watching, now and then making unhelpful comments. Eventually her children had to leave and return to their own lives. Betty sat looking at the screen of her new window into the world and allowed her fingers to take her there. She found it harder than she expected and Bob continuing his negative commentary only made her frustration more intense.
As she was preparing dinner that evening her eye was drawn to a newspaper lying on the edge of the counter. It was open to a full page advertisement for the local Community College. She had seen ads like these for the college before and had ignored them. She had no desire to learn Spanish, write plays, make artisan pastry, or improve her welding skills. But today one of the courses seemed to leap out of the page and held her attention. The ad announced itself as ‘Learn Your Laptop’ and invited new owners to attend a trial lesson series, starting the following week. There was also a photograph of the instructor, Doctor Meffist, staring out of the page with a friendly grin. Not yet knowing how to send emails, Betty called the number in the ad. and was asked to leave a message. The voice seemed at once charming and slightly chilling.
After dinner and another round of bickering, Betty felt foolish and went to find the newspaper, fully intending to call the number again and cancel her interest. But it was nowhere to be found. If she had not known Bob better she would have assumed he had cleaned it up.
The following morning the house phone rang at what seemed a louder volume than she remembered. On answering she heard her name spoken in a style that felt slightly antique, and yet very reassuring. It invited her to Room 101B at the Community College next Tuesday at 2PM. There was no charge for this trial series. All Betty had to do was bring her laptop and its power cable. She had no words to describe the curious feeling of anticipation and energy flowing through her as she hung up the phone. When Bob disparaged her decision to take the lessons she shot back at him with words she did not know she had in her vocabulary. Bob started to argue but she turned her back on him and he harumphed off to his recliner muttering. Once settled there he proceeded to refill the pipe he had recently acquired. Apart from his new permanence around the house, smoking this pipe was the only change Betty had seen in him for decades. He had bought it a week after his last day at work. Betty would have welcomed it had it not made the house stink and his breath offensively sour and toxic.
When Betty drove to the Community College she had some trouble finding Room 101B. Students she asked said there was no 101B. But then she thought perhaps it is a basement room. And this proved to be the case. At the end of a long corridor littered with old chairs and broken tables she found an open door with bright light streaming out from it. Upon entering she was relieved to see that she was not the only student. Indeed, there were at least twenty people arranging their laptops on rows of tables. Betty noticed that they all seemed to be women of her own age. She thought she recognized some of them but nobody smiled at her. At the front of the room stood Dr. Meffist in a black suit. A narrow face with dark eyes under a cowl of black hair. Betty had never seen anyone whose charisma filled a whole room before. Glancing up, he saw her at the door, and immediately Betty felt his eyes almost piercing her mind. He smiled, a sardonic grin, and waved her to a vacant chair.
At some internal signal he stepped to the middle of the room and welcomed everyone to his class. He briefly outlined his objectives and began to explain the mysteries of laptop computing. In a voice the like of which she had not heard before, not so deep but penetrating, not so slow but measured, he taught. And it all seemed so obvious as Betty listened. Her fingers found a new life and nearly flew over the keyboard. And suddenly the class ended. Whilst Betty had learned a lot in less than two hours she was still far from proficient and recognizing it assured Dr. Meffist she would be back next week. He nodded his head as if to say, I know.
Back at the house Bob acknowledged her return with another disparaging remark about computer jockeys. Dinner that night was eaten in silence. And as Betty gazed over the table at a man she once thought could do marvelous things, could make her happy, could make himself happy, she began to wish him gone. Not dead, but gone. He gave her nothing, no respect, he was draining her, he should be gone.
This thought, springing out of her resentment and disappointment, took root in her day to day musings. It was almost a mantra, and a frustrating one. But meanwhile she was beginning to enjoy her laptop. Using the noise canceling headphones she listened to her favorite music with no fear of Bob making a sarcastic comment about fat shrieking sopranos. But emails and more complex functions puzzled her.
The next two lessons in Room 101B cured her of any fear she may have had about emails, and the intricacies of word processing and even spreadsheets. But they did not make any difference to the heavy burden she was carrying in the shape of Bob.
One Monday as she was sitting practicing her new skills by constructing a household accounting file, Betty noticed a curious thing. She thought she now knew the function of every key on her machine. But as she looked down at her keyboard two keys she had never seen before caught her eye, one on the left between the Ctrl and Fn keys, and one on the right between the Alt and Ctrl keys. The one on the left was dark maroon with a symbol that looked like a lightning bolt in gold. The one on the right was light green with a symbol that may have been a bloodshot eye.
The lesson that Tuesday took the students on a tour of the iCloud. In the break Betty beckoned Dr. Meffist to her and asked him if he knew what these keys were for. He feigned ignorance and suggested she download the manual of her machine; something she actually knew how to do by now. Of course, the manual made no mention of these strange keys.
Betty’s confusion as to what these keys might be tempted her to strike them and see what would happen. But she waited until the next lesson to once again ask Dr. Meffist if he had any idea what they might do. He looked her directly in the eye, paused a full five seconds moving his head slightly from side to side as if scanning her mind, and admitted that they might be ‘wishing keys’. He confessed that he had only seen them infrequently, but offered no explanation why they had appeared or what ‘wishing’ might mean in this context.
At home after a particularly fractious argument about recycling with Bob, Betty decided to strike the two keys. Nothing happened. She tried several combinations or sequences and still nothing happened.
The next Tuesday was the last lesson in the series. Dr. Meffist was at his most engaging and did his best to clear up any remaining fears and worries his students might have had about using their machines. Several of the students did have questions they preferred to ask him separately, as did Betty. He sat down in a chair across the table from her and she asked him again what was the function of these strange keys. She was convinced that he knew. But all he said was that in his experience wishing keys were only to be used in connection with a serious wish, and that a specific sequence of key strikes had to be used. And at this point she knew what her wish was, and she looked him straight in the eye for a full minute. Then she closed her eyes tightly and let her fingers strike the two keys in a long blind sequence. At the end she opened her eyes, shut down her laptop, looked up at Dr. Meffist and saw his smile.
Pulling into the driveway at her home she noticed that Bob had not put out the recycling. She stormed into the house shouting his name. There was no response. She went all over the house shouting at him until reaching the lounge and his recliner she saw his pipe sitting in an ashtray issuing a thin wisp of blue smoke. The cushions of the recliner were warm, but there was no sign of the body that made them that way. Bob had gone. A quick telephone circuit of the few friends he had and their children confirmed that he was indeed gone.
Betty had the sense not to call the police for a few hours, but she did reboot her laptop and was not really surprised to find that the ‘wishing keys’ had vanished. She ate a light dinner, drank a little wine, watched a British murder mystery on Netflix and slept well.
The following morning, close to lunchtime, Betty did call the police to report Bob as missing, and found in herself a skill for acting she had not realized in the past. Wringing her hands, she sat alternately offering the police sergeant more coffee and cookies or bursting into tears. It was a superior performance.
A few days later she drove to the Community College and went to the office. She asked if Dr. Meffist would be offering any more classes. The admittance clerk shook her head and assured her that they had never employed a Dr. Meffist, but would be glad to sign Betty up for advanced lessons with their regular computer instructor. Betty was not surprised. She was even less surprised when she failed to find room 101B or any trace of it.
Some weeks passed and the police said they were very sorry but had concluded that Bob had decided to leave of his own free will somehow, and they saw no evidence of foul play. They speculated he would turn up one day. Betty thought not. A few days later Betty went out and bought a puppy, an animal she could train. She called it Fausto and enjoyed walking him in the park, often in the company of other women, and their dogs. Women that she recognized from Dr. Meffist’ class.