Computers Opportunities (a short story)

Copyright 2017 Katherine Lato

Jimmy’s wife used to greet him with a warm smile and a hot breakfast, making the hours spent working the night shift worthwhile. When their daughter was born, the true purpose of his life was revealed, but daily existence became harder. Money was tight. His wife’s face became more reserved every year as she struggled with her growing disappointment in him. Even with both of them working, they could barely afford rent and the basics of life. Without college degrees, their opportunities were limited.

After eight hours walking around an empty factory as a security guard, Jimmy wanted to go straight home, eat breakfast and take his daughter to school. Seeing her happy face was his daily reward. But if he went home without filling in an application at the new store going up across town, he would disappoint his wife.

These days, Linda greeted him with cold cereal and accusations about having a dead-end job. Well, two dead-end jobs since he also worked security over the weekend at another company. Or she would greet him with suggestions on where he should apply. “I bet there will be lots of opportunities for hard workers,” she had said last night before he left for work. Evidently frustrated by his lack of enthusiasm, she became more direct. “They are accepting applications.” When he didn’t agree, she got the peevish tone in her voice that he hated. “Oh, Jimmy, apply before all the good jobs are gone.”

“Are there openings for the day shift?” he asked.

“So they claim. You should apply soon.”

“Can you pick up an application for me?” Jimmy asked.

“You have to apply in person.”

Which meant it was a computer application that had to be made on-site. His buddy claimed they did that to ensure that people understood English, but it felt more like a technology test. Jimmy didn’t want to admit that he was afraid of computers. They made him freeze. His fingers were too big and awkward at the keyboard and he never knew where to look on the screen. It just reinforced his father’s comments that he was too stupid, too immature to ever make anything out of his life. Nothing he did was ever going to make things better. So many people understood computers, even their eight-year-old daughter, but Jimmy could barely manage to answer a text on his phone. It might be different if they had a computer at home, but they couldn’t afford one. Plus, it wasn’t enough to have a computer. They would need access to the internet and then they had to worry about perverts spying on their daughter, or getting access to their personal information and pretending to be them. It was all too complicated. One of his buddies said that the internet was great for getting information about sports, but between working seven nights a week and helping to take care of Molly, Jimmy didn’t have much time to watch sports anyway.

“So, are you going to apply?” Linda asked. “Or is this another opportunity that you’ll let slip away?”

He grunted.

“That’s not an answer.”

“I’ll apply.” His hands formed into fists as he thought about typing at a computer in front of someone who knew all about them, which just made his own stupidity more obvious. Like his father always said, it was a good thing Jimmy had the brawn because the brains had passed him by. He might look like an adult, but he would always be a huge child.

His wife’s complaint broke into his thoughts. “Oh, Jimmy, you always say that, but then you don’t do it.”

When he was a child, he thought his name was O-jimmy because that’s what his mother called him. She had the same tone his wife used now. “Oh, Jimmy, when will you apply?”

“Tomorrow morning. Now get off my back.”

“I’m just asking.”

* * *

He really wanted to go straight home, but he had promised Linda. Jimmy swung the truck into the half-finished parking lot where the new store was going up. He wanted a better job, one that let him work while his daughter was at school and sleep at night instead of trying to ignore barking dogs, lawn mowers, and all the other noise of the day.  If he was home at night, Linda might look at him with respect and love again.

He gripped the steering wheel tightly as he parked his pick-up truck far away from the construction. He took several deep breaths before leaving the safety of his vehicle. The bright ‘Applications accepted here’ sign directed him to a trailer. When he opened the door, an attractive redhead glanced up from her computer, her blue-green eyes surveying him thoroughly.  Her voice was polite, but cold, as she asked, “May I help you?”

He swallowed. “I’d like to apply for a job.”

“Please fill out the application over there.” She pointed to a computer on a folding card table. “Then bring me your ID after you have answered all the questions.” She turned her attention back to her laptop.

He told himself this wasn’t a test, and there wasn’t a time limit for filling out the form. There was no reason to be nervous. He carefully filled in his name and hit the return key. The computer beeped at him, the noise loud in the trailer. Jimmy froze, then glanced at the redhead.

“Is there a problem?” she asked.

“No, no problem.”

He typed in his address. The machine beeped at him again.

Jimmy’s skin heated up and his palms started to sweat. This was stupid. He was stupid. If the job required using a computer, he would never keep it anyway. But he had promised Linda he would apply. And he wanted a day job. If only the computer would quit beeping, but it did it after every line. Maybe it was supposed to.

But if that was the case, then the redhead wouldn’t look so annoyed.

He managed to get through the application, although he feared he mistyped his references. When he finished the last line, the computer didn’t beep at him. He stood, feeling like a child who had finished two long days of standardized testing and was finally free. He reached into his wallet for his driver’s license.

The redhead pushed a few buttons on her laptop, looked at his license, then frowned. “This says James.”

“Yes, that’s my legal name.”

“But you typed in your name as Jimmy. You’ll have to redo the application.”

He stared at her in disbelief. Redo the application? Was she crazy? “Can’t you just change the name?” he asked.

“I’m afraid not. It’s a secure system and it stores the information under your name. My boss would know if I changed anything on your form and he would be upset with me. You have to do it all yourself.”

“Can’t I just erase my first name and—“

“Sorry, no,” she said. “You’ll have to redo it.”

“The whole application?”

“Yes.”

Jimmy stared at the machine while his face burned with embarrassment. He couldn’t face the constant beeps and the redhead’s disapproval. He looked at his watch. No time. He had to take Molly to school.

“I’ll have to do it later,” Jimmy said. “I need to get my—“

“Applications close in two days.”

Jimmy nodded, eager to escape the trailer. Once outside, he stood with his back against the closed door, breathing hard.

When he arrived home, he didn’t have time to eat a bowl of cereal, so he grabbed a piece of bread and a slice of cheese. If he worked normal hours, he could have coffee in the morning. Like a normal father. And he could get up early and cook eggs for an egg sandwich. Molly would like that.

He was munching on the bread and cheese when Linda walked into the kitchen. She said, “You’re late. Molly needs to leave soon.”

“I know,” he mumbled around his bite.

“Why were you late?” Linda asked.

“I stopped at the construction site.”

“Did you apply?” Linda asked.

“I stopped in and filled out the form.”

“So they’ll call you for an interview?”

“They didn’t say anything. I guess we’ll see.”

Linda’s eyes had the cold stare that made his blood freeze.

“What?” he asked.

She opened her mouth, but closed it when Molly skipped into the room. “Let’s go to school, Daddy. Ms. Johnson says I can use the computer before class.”

At least his daughter was comfortable with computers. If they had one at home, maybe she could teach him? No, that was backwards. Parents were supposed to teach their children, not the other way around. He wished he had learned how to use a computer when he was in school, but only the smart kids got to use the few computers available in his school. There weren’t enough for everyone to learn how to use them. Since graduating from high school, he was too busy making a living to have time to learn how to use a computer. Besides, he wasn’t good at learning new stuff. He was glad Molly had more opportunities.

Molly’s chatter on the way to school made him smile. She was enthusiastic about everything, especially her favorite teacher, Ms. Johnson.

When they arrived at her classroom, Molly walked right up to the computer and sat down. Her confidence made him proud, but it was awkward trying to make conversation with her teacher. Ms. Johnson had stood when they entered and was still standing so he couldn’t just leave. Her blue blouse was made of some shiny material that didn’t wrinkle, very practical for teaching grade school. She looked prettier than any of the teachers he had while in grade school.

Jimmy shuffled his feet. “It’s nice of you to let Molly come in early.”

“She’s very enthusiastic.” Ms. Johnson’s eyes lit up with her words. “And she grasps the concepts quickly.”

“Not like me,” he said. “I’m all thumbs when it comes to computers.”

Ms. Johnson’s voice was soothing. “Oh, I doubt that.”

“Believe me, I can’t even fill out a form without getting a loud beep every few seconds.”

She tipped her head. “It’s probably something minor. You might be hitting the return key when it should be the tab.”

“Huh?”

“Molly, could you show your dad?” Ms. Johnson pursed her lips, then said, “Let’s see, bring up the login page on that new program we started last week.”

“You mean the new-old program,” Molly said.

Ms. Johnson’s laughter sounded like chimes in a cathedral. “Yes. The one with the bad user interface.” She turned to Jimmy. “It’s an old program, but the graphics look good on our equipment, plus it’s useful for the children to realize that not everything is easy to get started.”

Molly typed at the computer. “Here it is, Daddy.”

“Now, give your dad a try.”

“I can do it for him,” Molly said. “He doesn’t mind.”

Jimmy nodded. “That’s right, I—“

“Molly, give your dad a try.” Ms. Johnson lowered her voice. “She needs to practice taking turns with the computer. She has a tendency to keep control. Since she types fast, some of the kids let her, but she needs to share the keyboard with others. Besides, how will we see what is causing the beeps if you don’t do the typing?”

Jimmy typed in his first name, then hit return.

The computer beeped.

“Try typing the tab key—it’s on the left side.”

Jimmy looked at the keyboard.

“It’s over here, Daddy.” Molly leaned over his shoulder.

“Molly, let your father find it himself,” Ms. Johnson said. “It’s all right if other people take longer than you to find something. They still can do it for themselves. I can type faster than you. Would you want me to do all the typing at the computer?”

“No way.”

When Jimmy touched the tab bar, the cursor moved to the next box. He typed in his favorite color, then touched the tab bar again. “It didn’t beep.”

“I’m not sure, since I don’t know what program you’re using, but I suspect that when you type the return key, the form is beeping because you haven’t filled in all the required information. Try tabbing between the boxes.”

Jimmy stood up. “Thank you. I’ll try that.”

“I wish we had a computer at home,” Molly said. “Then I wouldn’t have to share.”

“Sorry, sweetheart,” Jimmy said. “We can’t afford one.”

Ms. Johnson said, “Molly, please do the quiz on squares while I talk to your father.”

“But blue isn’t my favorite color.”

“Go back and relogin as yourself.”

“Okay.”

Once Molly was busy with the computer, Ms. Johnson said, “I hope you don’t think I’m overstepping, but there are organizations that give away refurbished computers. With a bright child like Molly, computer access could really increase her opportunities.”

Jimmy stiffened. Nothing in life was free. “What’s the catch?”

“No catch. There are people who believe that everyone should have access to digital technology. Some of them have started nonprofits to help with that.”

“And they give away new computers?”

“No, refurbished ones.”

Jimmy’s face must have reflected his puzzlement because she said, “Refurbish means to restore a computer. Usually the hardware is a few years old, but part of the process is to ensure it works.” She pointed at the computer where Molly was busy typing. “That’s a refurbished computer. Some places sell them, but others give them away, especially to students.”

“So Molly would have a computer.”

“It would be for your whole family. Like I said, Molly could use practice in sharing computer time.”

“I don’t know how to use a computer.”

“A friend of mine teaches an introduction class at the community center. There’s a program in our city to give people who attend two classes their own computer.”

“I’m not much of a student,” he said. “And I work the night shift.”

“What time do you start?”

“Ten.”

“My friend’s class begins at 7:00 and ends at 8:30. It’s once a week for six weeks with the first class tomorrow night.”

“I don’t know…” Jimmy trailed off as he looked at his daughter. He would love to give her a computer at home, but he doubted he could understand the class. It would be embarrassing to be the dumbest one there.

“Go to one class,” Ms. Johnson said. “My friend is really patient.”

Molly looked up at that point. “I would share the computer with you.”

Jimmy hadn’t thought she was listening, but evidently she had been paying attention. Getting her a computer was worth being embarrassed so he asked Ms. Johnson about registering for the class. She told him she’d contact her friend, that he only needed to show up.

After work the next morning, he drove to the construction site. The same redhead directed him to the computer to fill out the application. He wrote James as his name, then tabbed to the next box. No beep. Computers weren’t that difficult after all. He finished the application, then showed his ID to the redhead. She took down his information and told him that the boss would be in contact within a week.

“You’re the first person to come back. The boss likes persistence. Good luck.”

“Thanks.”

When Jimmy arrived home, he felt so proud of himself that he almost told Linda about how the computer hadn’t beeped at him, but then she would know he hadn’t actually applied yesterday. It might cause a fight, so he said nothing. He decided not to mention the class either. She would be overly-enthusiastic and he didn’t need the pressure.

“You’re late,” she said.

“Traffic was bad.”

“This early in the morning?” Linda’s tone made her disbelief obvious. “What’s really going on?”

Molly came into the room and hugged him. “If you like, I’ll let you practice on the computer this morning. Unless you want to talk with Ms. Johnson instead. She’s really nice, isn’t she?”

“Let me grab some bread and cheese,” he said. “Then we can go.”

“What is she talking about?” Linda asked.

Jimmy opened the bread box, but it was empty. “Are we out of bread?”

“Check the refrigerator,” Linda said.

“Cold bread?”

“It keeps longer. What’s this about your chatting with Ms. Johnson? Is there a problem at school? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“No problem,” he said. “We were just talking about how good Molly is at computer stuff.” He ruffled his daughter’s hair. “But we already knew that this one is smart, right? Let’s go, Molly.”

“What about your breakfast?” Linda asked.

“I’ll skip it. I don’t really want a cold sandwich.” He walked toward the door, then turned back to face Linda. “I have to go in early tonight for a meeting. I won’t be able to read Molly her bedtime stories.” He bent down so he was eye-level with his daughter. “Do you want Mommy to read a chapter of ‘The Little Prince’ or something else since I won’t be there at bedtime?”

“I can wait for you,” Molly said. “Ms. Johnson says I need to be more patient.”

“What special meeting?” Linda asked.

“I’ll tell you later.”

Linda’s frown was more pronounced than usual. “Oh, Jimmy, you aren’t in trouble, are you?”

“Daddy’s not in trouble,” Molly said. “He’s going to a class with Ms. Johnson’s friend.”

“What friend?” Linda’s voice had a hard note.

Jimmy glanced at their daughter. They argued at times, but rarely in front of Molly.

Linda said to Molly, “Daddy and I need to talk. Go select a book for me to read tonight.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to make him a warm sandwich, Mommy?”

Linda froze for a second, then nodded. After Molly left, Linda got the bread out of the refrigerator and dropped it onto the counter with unnecessary force. “It’s bad enough that Molly constantly talks about Ms. Johnson, but now you’re doing it.” She placed two slices of bread into the toaster.

Jimmy got out the sliced cheese and selected two pieces before answering. “Are you jealous?”

“Do I have reason to be?”

“No.”

“You’re hiding something from me. First you’re late coming home and now you have a ‘special’ meeting tonight. Don’t play me for a fool, Jimmy.”

“I’m not cheating on you.” He reached out to stroke her back, but she moved away. “I was late this morning because I went back to the building site to complete my application.”

“What?” Her blue eyes showed confusion, but the hard glint was gone.

He explained about the beeping computer and how Ms. Johnson had helped.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to think I was stupid.”

“You’re not stupid. You just haven’t had much exposure to computers. Neither have I. That’s why we need to get one for Molly soon.”

“I know,” Jimmy said. “The special meeting isn’t for work. I’m taking a class about computers. If I pass, I can get a refurbished computer. It’s not new, but it’s one that works. Ms. Johnson said the school uses refurbished computers as well.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Linda asked. “Were you going to pretend you had a work meeting every week?”

“I didn’t think it through.” Jimmy spread his hands wide. “Also, I didn’t want to disappoint you in case I couldn’t learn the material. I’m not good at schooling. I know I don’t make as much money as—“

She placed her fingers across his lips. “Oh, Jimmy, you don’t disappoint me. Our life is hard, but it’s not your fault. I think you’ll be fine at your class. If you’re not, I’ll try. Not that I’m good at schooling either. Molly gets her smarts from you, not me.”

“You’re plenty smart,” he said. “You married me.”

Her smile made him pull her close. Only the sound of their daughter entering the room caused them to step apart. He almost forgot to bring his toasted sandwich with him.

* * *

Jimmy was nervous as he stood by the door to the classroom a few minutes before seven. This was a dumb idea. If he went home, he could read to Molly. Linda was probably better at learning about computers than he was.

Several people were talking to a guy with a gray ponytail. The  man waited for a pause, then approached Jimmy. “Hello, I’m Barney, the instructor for Introduction to Computers. Are you Jimmy?”

Jimmy nodded.

“Celeste Johnson mentioned that you were stopping by today. Welcome. Have a seat and we’ll begin in a few minutes.”

“I don’t know nothing about computers.” Jimmy winced. He sounded like a sullen teenager. There was something about teachers that affected him that way.

“That’s fine.” Barney’s smile was warm. “That’s the reason for this class.”

The man’s friendly attitude came through in everything he said. He didn’t make Jimmy feel stupid since he started the class by introducing himself and told a story about how he once had a student ask him how to go back to a previous screen. “I told her to use the up arrow, only I didn’t use a complete sentence. I just said, ‘Up arrow.’ That led to a confusing exchange.”

“How so?” asked a woman wearing a leather jacket even though the classroom was warm.

Barney smiled. “When I said ‘Up arrow,’ she said yes. So I said ‘Up arrow’ again and she said, ‘yes.’ Does anyone know why?”

Jimmy waited, but when no one else replied, he said, “Because her name was Aparo, so she thought you were saying her name?”

Barney’s eyes twinkled and his voice was enthusiastic. “Exactly!”

“Aparo isn’t a real name,” said the women in the leather jacket. “My name is Kate. That’s a real name.”

“I know someone named Aparo,” Jimmy said.

“So that’s how you knew!” Kate nodded her head several times. “That’s how he knew.”

“The point,” Barney said, “Is that if I say something that doesn’t make sense to you, please ask me. I’ll do my best to explain it another way.”

The class continued with Kate making several comments, especially when it was time to pick out an email. Barney explained that people often tried to use their full names, but that it might not be available.

Kate didn’t understand why. She didn’t listen very well, so asked the same question several times. Her lack of  patience reminded Jimmy of Molly. Ms. Johnson was right. Molly needed to learn patience. He didn’t ever want her to be annoying like Kate.

When Kate’s voice rose, Barney’s voice became softer. That was a useful technique. Jimmy vowed to try that with Molly the next time she became upset. It might even work with Linda.

Barney explained how email was different from regular mail since it didn’t have a physical address. Kate continued to interrupt.

“It sounds complicated,” Kate said. “Why not just use your address and your name and avoid naming your children after yourself?”

Barney said, “You don’t want to use your physical address since you don’t want to give that information to everyone. Remember what I said about being safe on the internet? Also, once you have your email, you don’t have to change it when you move. That’s why the name has to be unique across the entire world. If you have a common last name, someone else might already be using that as an email address. You may not want something close since people then might email the wrong person.”

“I thought computers didn’t make mistakes,” Kate said.

“The computers wouldn’t be the ones making the mistake, but your friends might. If you tell them your email is Kate, but with an extra e, they might type K.a.t.i.e. Then the email would go to someone who had that email, but not you.”

Kate put her hands on her hips. “Why wouldn’t the other person with my name forward the email to me? That’s what I would do.”

“They don’t know about you.”

“But they have my name.”

Barney said, “You don’t have to use your name, but think about what you choose. If you’re filling out an application for a job, you might not want something that sounds unprofessional.”

“My son uses bat-crazy,” Kate said.

Barney continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “If you do want to use your name, you can go with your first one and put a number or phrase after it. Kate, how many children do you have?”

She seemed startled to be asked a question. “Three.”

Barney wrote three potential names for her, then said, “I want you all to think of what you want your email name to be. Think of several possibilities since your first choice might not be available.”

Jimmy hesitated. All his life, people had called him Jimmy. Jimmy was a kid’s name, or a goof-off.  His legal name was James. It was time he started using that.

“Jimmy, have you decided what you want your email to be?”

“I’d like to use my real name which is James and the year my daughter was born.”

“Very good,” Barney said. “Would you rather I called you James?”

“Everyone calls me Jimmy.”

Barney smiled. “Would you prefer to be called James?”

James sat straighter in his chair. “Yes, I would. My name is James.”

The end