Free Time

by on October 21, 2023 :: 0 comments

photo "Education by Trees" by Tyler Malone

Natalie scanned the park. She was there as a mother taking her preadolescents on an “adventure.” She, herself, had visited those grounds many times during the earliest spans of her life.

As a girl, she had used the baseball diamonds for softball. Similarly, she had rocked on the playground’s plastic horses and had used the swings to reach the moon. She and her coterie had taken turns, too, to run on their short legs, to spin the metal carousel upon which the others had perched.

When not accordingly busied, those lasses had climbed the wooden logs that had marked parking spaces. They had pretended to be circus acts. Additionally, those mademoiselles had sifted through the gravel at the entrance to the town dump adjacent to the playground. Those girls meant to find “precious” stones for their collections.

Sometimes, they contented themselves by watching little league and by using their allowances to buy artificially-flavored ice balls from opportunistic vendors. Their treats, which were served in paper cones, inevitably stained their clothes.

For years, Natalie had arrived at the park on her bike. Her glistening green contraption had had three speeds, and handlebar streamers had decked it (unlike her friends, who had, additionally, inserted playing cards among their wheels’ spokes, Natalie didn’t like rattling sounds.)

After making sure that her car’s brakes were secured, Natalie summoned her progenies. Steven had sat behind the driver’s seat, but Phyllis had sat behind the front passenger spot. Neither of them, though legally tall enough, had wanted to sit in front.

Natalie sighed. After knocking on Steven’s window, she opened his door. Her son barely looked up from his smartphone. Noticing his mother staring, he removed a single earbud and put his recorded program on pause.

His sister, in the next seat over, hadn’t perceived her mother’s approach as her eyes were closed and she was tapping out a rhythm on her knee. Eventually, she looked up nodded, and mumbled, “Today’s playlist.”

There had long been tennis courts at the municipal park, too, but Natalie had never used them. She had not been interested in tennis lessons, specifically, nor competitive sports, more generally. However, when the community’s girl scout council had hosted park camp week, she had always shown up. Her favorite activity had been icon trading.

Each picnic shelter’s band of girls made their own icons. One season, Natalie’s group had made faces out of halved walnut shells. Another time, they had used thick slices from zucchinis, whose diameters were so great as to render them undesirable for soup pots, as bases for wildflower bouquets. Yet another summer, she had glued beans and lentils to cardboard to make pictures. Adult Natalie wondered whether all the tradable items had started as comestibles.

Regardless, on the fourth day of those five-day experiences, a loud siren, located at the first aid hut near the playground, sounded. Girls scrambled to trade as many icons as possible. Those wild swaps had been even better, in Natalie’s esteem, than had been the weeks’ singular dinner, which had forever been held on the third night of camp.

Natalie picked up the wrappers near Steven’s feet. He didn’t notice. She then leaned into her car to tap Phyllis on the shoulder. As well, she held out her hand and indicated Phyllis’ discards. Her daughter begrudgingly scooped up the debris on her side and handed it to her mother. Thereafter, Natalie knocked on her car’s roof. It was time for her offspring to disembark to enjoy the park.

She was met with slitted eyes and tight mouths.

The mom considered seizing their electronic devices, but decided that music, while hiking, was acceptable. So, she inhaled and exhaled as the two juveniles very slowly unpacked themselves from her car.

But outside, they neither disconnected from nor pocketed their electronics. Rather, they frowned, again, at their mother. Suddenly, each of their phones rang. Neither let their calls go to voicemail.

Nonetheless, Natalie was prepared. Having assumed that complete immersion in the real world would be too much to ask her children, she had researched Pokémon GO, Jurassic World Alive, and Pikmin Bloom Flowers. Whereas she’d rather her descendants: focus on collecting pinecones than trying to complete a pokedex, race across ball fields than battle dino teams, and visit the recycling center situated within the municipal dump than plant and harvest imaginary forbs, at least her choice of undertakings could combine her son and daughter’s adhesion to their smartphones with the real-world exercise.

Hours later, Natalie returned to her car. The park was less than two miles in length and one mile in width. As a bike riding youngster, the area’s lone drive, which ran up and down a small hill, had constituted a sufficient thrill for her. Her kids, contrariwise, had ignored the slope to remain absorbed in finding Mew and Bulbasaur, identifying Atrociraptors and Giganotosauruses, and locating elusive blue nectar.

Natalie suspected, although she had forgotten to point out their locations, that her young ones had found the public restrooms. After all, WAZE had mapped the park.

At dusk, Natalie removed her own cellphone from her car’s map compartment. Skipping lunch was one thing. Missing dinner was another. What was supposed to be a family outing had disintegrated into her having to wait and wait for her little gearheads.

When, at last, those descendants returned to her car, they were smiling. Although they hadn’t joined Natalie in watching a pickup match at the basketball court, petting a feral cat, or feeding crumbs to squirrels, they had found red nectar, a Spinosaurus and a Vulpix.

On the way home, those youths lambasted their mother over failing to take them to the park earlier. Community venues, they complained, were the best places to spend free time. Didn’t parents know that it was silly to spend hours and hours on the sofa attending only to electronics?

editors note:

Close but so, so, so, so far away. ~ Tyler Malone

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