As he pulled up to a customer’s mailbox and began fingering letters for another delivery, Darryl heard the chime that signaled a new text message. It was the thirteenth message he had received since his last package stop. Without checking the sender, Darryl was still ninety-nine percent certain all thirteen were from his mother.
Darryl had created a monster. At first, he thought that texting had saved his job, if not his life. Mom used to call him several times a day to drone on about problems with her knees, back, bowels, toenails, house, car, friends, neighbors and any other object or being that may have crossed her path. While it was forbidden for letter carriers to talk on cell phones while they drove, it seemed to Darryl like this was his only option. If he stopped every time Mom called, he would never finish his route. If he ignored the phone during the day, Mom’s complaints would shift to him—why he never answered her calls, why he failed to visit more often, or why he had no marital prospects.
One ninety-degree afternoon, Darryl drove from box to box to box in a mesmerizing rhythm while his mother narrated the fascinating saga of how somebody from her church had changed all her air filters. Lulled into a hypnotic trance, he had failed to check his mirror before pulling away from a mailbox and almost collided with a speeding Hummer. Had the Hummer’s driver not demonstrated some nifty reflexes, postal inspectors would have pulled Darryl’s phone records, seen that he was on a call during the accident, and fired him.
After the close call, Darryl had stopped the truck, interrupted his mother and told her of the near calamity. He would not answer her calls anymore while he worked, but that he did have an alternative. On his next day off, Darryl bought a phone with the largest keyboard that he could find, signed his mother up for cell service, and made the four-hour drive to her house. Mom resisted the new technology at first, but when Darryl held firm on his new policy, Mom gave texting a try and began typing one sentence messages a few times a day. When Darryl stopped the truck to deliver a package, he would read his mother’s text and send a quick reply. Everybody was happy. Mom could communicate freely with her only child, and Darryl could focus on driving and delivering mail.
Now, though, Mom could text almost as fast as she could speak. The sentences became paragraphs, and the paragraphs became chapters, until once again, Darryl’s delivery times began to lag. It did not help that Darryl had inherited his father’s fat sausage-link fingers instead of his mother’s long, tapered digits that were like organic styluses.
Darryl received three more texts before he had to get out for a large parcel. After he had carried the box to the customer’s porch, he scanned the sixteen texts that Mom had sent him. According to the gist, the niece of Mom’s bridge partner Ethel was still willing to go out with Darryl, and she had a great personality.
Darryl punched in his typical response: “No thanks, but I appreciate the thought.” Before he had discovered the predictive text feature on his messaging app, it would take Darryl two full minutes, after correcting all of his errors, to peck out this insubstantial message. The phrase, though, had become such a staple of their dialogue that the phone anticipated its use. The word “No” immediately appeared as one of the three options at the top of the text box whenever he responded to his mother. After he tapped the word “No,” the word “thanks” popped up as an option. The pattern continued, and Darryl could now complete the sentence, punctuation and all, in only nine taps.
As Darryl started the truck and continued his rounds, his phone resumed its incessant chiming. Twenty minutes later, after Darryl had delivered the next large parcel, Mom had written a serial novella that required ninety seconds to skim but could be summarized in two words: “Why not?” By the time Darryl had sent off his explanation, even with the use of the handy predictive text function, he was running fifteen minutes behind schedule. He would have to skip half his lunch to avoid management ire when he returned to the post office.
At home that evening, exhausted from hustling between parcel stops, Darryl collapsed onto his leather recliner and pulled out his phone. He went to his favorite search engine and typed in “more extensive predictive text.” He needed an application that did not just predict words, but sentences, maybe even whole paragraphs. While Mom would have loved to see originality and thoughtfulness in his texts, what she craved more than anything was bulk. She wanted visual evidence that Darryl was putting forth the effort that a mother deserved from her son. His father had died when Darryl was six, leaving mother and son a paltry life insurance policy along with thousands in credit card debt. For many years, Mom had worked two full time jobs and still somehow managed to be home for him after school. The least he could do for her now was to send her multi-sentence texts.
Darryl scanned the search results. A couple of links promised faster and more accurate predictive text, though not for smart phone messaging applications. The rest of the results were merely related to predictive text—what it is, how to turn it on and off, and humorous text predictions.
As Darryl began to despair of finding a solution, an ad popped up on his phone screen. His index finger was about to close out the ad when the words caught his attention. “IS PREDICTIVE TEXT TOO SLOW FOR YOU? TRY AUTOTEXT!” Darryl smiled. Smart phones never ceased to amaze him. It was as if the whole world was watching his every keystroke so it could reply with a sales pitch. This disturbed some people, but for Darryl, this technology was often helpful and in the present case, entirely apt.
When Darryl proceeded to the corresponding website, he read a more extensive description of the application’s features:
Do you have fat fingers and little time? Then try Autotext! Autotext uses a revolutionary algorithm to analyze an entire history of texts with an individual to predict sentences, entries, and even entire conversations! The application allows for easy editing of the suggested responses, and even has a fully automatic mode. And it’s absolutely free! Try it today!
It sounded too good to be true, but as long as he did not have to provide any personal information or credit card numbers, Darryl figured he had nothing to lose. He clicked the button to download the program, and then he installed the application on his phone. When the process was complete, a capital “A” had joined the clock, wi-fi, and battery icons at the top of his phone screen.
Darryl swiped down on the icons and tapped the “Autotext” option in the drop down box. A splash screen appeared featuring an attractive middle-aged woman who was delighted by what she was reading on her phone. Underneath the image was the program’s name with a smiling emoji in place of the “o.”
Once the application loaded, two options appeared on the screen. Darryl touched “Autotext Contacts,” and his contact list appeared. Just to the left of each name was a small checkbox. Darryl scrolled through the alphabet until he reached “Mom,” tapped the box to the left of her name, and touched the “Save” option at the top of the screen. Back at the original menu, Darryl selected “Edit Contact Settings.” When he selected this option, the only contact that now came up was his mother. Darryl tapped on her name, and two options appeared: “Review texts before sending” and “Fully automated replies.” He selected the first option and again hit the “Save” button at the top of the screen.
When Darryl returned to the main menu, he searched for more information about the program. Surely its creators had devised an “About” page so they could introduce themselves and their brilliant application to the world. Where was the “Contact Us” or “Help” option? How could he purchase the deluxe version when he became annoyed with the limitations of this freeware? Darryl, however, could find none of these staples anywhere on the site. The selfless inventors apparently wanted no credit or payment for their masterpiece and felt that the application’s operation was self-explanatory.
Darryl got up from the recliner, walked into his narrow galley kitchen, and placed his phone on the dark green laminate countertop. He had just started the noodles for macaroni and cheese when his phone chimed. Eager to test his new application, Darryl hoped it was his mother.
After he had cut off a sizable chunk of Velveeta, he put it in a saucepan, and turned the heat on low. As the cheese food slowly melted, Darryl picked up the phone and read the text from his mother:
I’m sure that there’s a skunk living under my deck. I smell it twice a day. Once in the early morning, right before the sun comes up, and then again in the evening. At night, they go out to find food and get together with other skunks to do skunk things. Then, after gallivanting around all night long, it crawls back under my deck to sleep it off. I’m sure it’s down there right now, snoring away. On your next day off, you’ve got to come down here and do something about it. I think I may be allergic. My sinuses are acting up. My medicine is not working. I just want to breathe, Darryl, I just want to BREATHE! If this doesn’t get better soon, I’m going to have to go to the drug store and get those pills that they keep behind the counter because some people use them to make speed. At least that’s what Ed told me. And Dr. Carpenter said those pills were not good for my blood pressure, but I don’t care! If I can’t breathe, what difference will high blood pressure make?
Darryl set his phone down on the counter. While he waited for Autotext to respond, he alternated between stirring the Velveeta and the noodles—with separate spoons, of course—to keep his ingredients from sticking to the bottom of the pans.
As the minutes passed, Darryl began to wonder if his new app was a dud. He saw no indication whatsoever that the program was formulating a response. His phone seemed to be at rest. Just as Darryl was about to give up and start his own handcrafted replay, his phone sung to him: “Autoteeeeext!”
Darryl bobbled his phone and barely controlled the device before it landed in the boiling water with his noodles. Autotext’s announcement was a three-syllable mellifluous harmony that could have been excerpted from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Darryl looked at his phone screen. Below his mother’s gargantuan text, he saw a new entry highlighted in a blue box. At the top of the screen were three buttons: “Send,” “Try Again,” and “Exit.” Darryl read the words that Autotext had crafted:
I’m sorry to hear about the skunk, Mom. I’m sure that must be very unpleasant for you. I won’t be able to make it over there on my day off, but I do have a solution for you. They sell skunk repellent at the home improvement store. Just call up Jimmy from across the street, give him some money, and I’m sure he would be happy to buy it and spread it for you. I know how tough it is when your sinuses are clogged, Mom, but please just stick with the sinus medication you’ve got. I know you want to breathe, but I want to keep you healthy and around as long as possible. Love you!
Darryl read the text again, and then a third time. It was amazing. The response firmly stated that he was not going to make the eight-hour round trip, yet it was still caring and sympathetic. And the idea about Jimmy was pure brilliance! Darryl tried to remember the last time he had referred to Jimmy in a text. It was months ago, and he had erased his messages several times since then. The app must have recovered those deleted texts and synthesized that information into its response.
Since Darryl could not imagine a better reply to Mom’s rant, he touched the “Send” button and sent the text on its way.
As he was pouring the noodles into a colander his phone chimed again. Darryl left the colander in the sink and looked at Mom’s next communication:
Why can’t you come? Are they forcing you to work your next day off? I know how that is, because after your dad died, there would be some days when I had to work sixteen hours a day for all seven days of the week. I would not have had the time to drive eight hours to take care of a very important problem for my mother. It would be nice not to have to call Jimmy, though. He’s got to go to school and football practice, and then his parents make him do his homework before he can do what I need him to. Sometimes it’s a couple of days or more before he can get to me. And Jimmy’s a good boy and does a good job, but I do feel like I have to pay him a little something for his time. You know, when you’re on Social Security, ten dollars matter. If you were able to come, you would save me that money, and I will also make a couple of those thick cheese sandwiches that you like.
Darryl winced as he finished reading this not-so-subtle tale of his mother’s sacrifice. When she really wanted something, Mom never failed to slide this razor-sharp stiletto between his ribs and into his heart. Now on his next day off, when he wanted to relax and read on his patio, waves of guilt would intrude on his serenity.
Darryl poured the drained noodles into the Velveeta and stirred until he had a gooey delight. Not bothering with a plate, he was scooping out his first bite when he again heard Queen’s imitators: “Autoteeeeext!” The reply had arrived much faster this time. The program must keep all of its previous analysis in a cache.
Darryl tapped his screen to read the entry. If Autotext could pull off this response, Darryl was going to make a call to Stockholm and nominate its author for a Nobel Prize.
I don’t have to work, Mom, but I do have a dentist appointment. I could cancel, but then I would have to wait three months for another appointment, and that’s a risk to my dental health. You’ve always taught me how important it is to take care of my teeth, and I thank you for that. As for the ten dollars, let me remind you that you have a considerable portfolio of stocks and bonds from the money you saved after working sixteen hour days. I admire you for that, and I encourage you to reward work ethic is our young people, which these days is lacking. I do love your cheese sandwiches, and I’ll take you up on your offer when I see you soon.
Darryl again stared at the screen in wonder. He had forgotten about that dentist appointment. Furthermore, the text was loving yet refused to cave into Mom’s emotional manipulation. And such bulk! He was about to send the perfect message on its way when he noticed the “Try Again” button and tapped it out of curiosity. This time, the app had another possible reply ready within three seconds.
I would come if I could, Mom, but I have a dentist appointment. If I have to reschedule, I won’t be in for a couple of months, and I’m concerned about gingivitis. As for the ten dollars, I will make it up to you the next time I come. I’ll take you out to that seafood restaurant you like, and then maybe we can go out for ice cream afterwards.
Darryl nodded when he finished reading this option. The message still had substance, but it was shorter and less likely to arouse suspicions. The text also played on Mom’s gingivitis phobia. Darryl had never sent or received the word “gingivitis” in a text, but the program must have inferred his mother’s fears from the fact that she flossed her teeth five times a day.
Darryl hit the “Send” button and looked at his macaroni and cheese. If he did not start eating it soon, the cheese would begin to cool and congeal. Its utter creaminess would be forever lost. He needed no further evidence that the wonder app could handle his mother. Darryl opened the Autotext app, selected “Edit Contact Settings,” and changed his mother to receive “Fully automated replies.” After muting his phone, Darryl put the phone in his pocket.
As he carried his macaroni and cheese to the table in his small dining nook and set the pan on an oven mitt, Darryl felt the vibration on his upper thigh. Darryl opened up the latest issue of a sports magazine and began to read. As the phone buzzed again, Darryl resisted the urge to check the conversation. Autotext had proven itself, and now he should enjoy his well-deserved peace. The heartfelt dialogue between mother and son would be there for him to peruse after he finished his dinner.
Seventeen days after Autotext had entered his life, Darryl sat across from his mother as she ate shrimp scampi. He had the whole weekend off so he could make the trip without burning up all of his free time. His mother’s constant groans of pleasure were distracting him from the enjoyment of his fried seafood platter.
“I get it, Mom,” said Darryl. “The food is good. I’m glad you like it, but is it necessary to moan with every bite?”
Darryl’s mother swallowed what was in her mouth. “What? Am I not allowed to enjoy a good meal? When do I even eat real food anymore? I heat up soup, I make cheese sandwiches. If I eat anything after five o’clock, I wake up the next morning with terrible heartburn.”
“Yes, Mom, I’m aware of that.”
“And this is not just any meal,” continued Darryl’s mother. “I’m sitting here with my only son, who I rarely see, and who even more rarely takes me out for a nice lunch.”
Darryl wondered why he had said anything at all. He knew his mother better than he knew anyone else in the world, including himself. Any request to stop a certain behavior only exacerbated the problem. “You’re right, Mom,” Darryl said, too late. “I’m sorry.”
“And, you know,” said Mom, “I wouldn’t be so focused on the food if you talked to me more. I feel that we’ve been communicating better in the past two weeks than we ever have. I was really looking forward to talking to you like that in person today. Now, it’s like you’ve gone back to your old self.”
Darryl could not hold back a smile. All day while he was out on the route delivering mail, it seemed like his phone never stopped vibrating. Mom never once questioned how he was able to send such frequent and lengthy texts and still perform his job. For the first couple days of his new Autotext life, Darryl would skim the conversations during his breaks and after work, but as his trust in the program grew, his interest in the dialogue waned. Mom continued to spew words about life’s annoyances while Autotext responded with voluminous declarations of sympathy and love. After one long day, Darryl postponed the evening review until the following day. The next morning, when the number of texts had grown exponentially, Darryl decided that he could skip every other entry and still get the gist. By the end of the week, Darryl was ignoring the conversations completely.
“What is that grin about?” asked Darryl’s mother.
Darryl’s mind hurried to find a suitable explanation. “Just thinking about those text conversations, Mom,” he said. “They have been pretty great.”
Darryl’s mother reached across the table and grabbed his hand. “They’ve been better than great, Darryl. I’ll admit that for a while now, I’ve been feeling like you didn’t really want to talk to me, that you would just come to see me out of obligation.”
“Mom— ” Darryl tried to object, but his mother lifted up her other hand to silence him. “I’m not saying that’s what you meant. I’m saying that’s how I felt. But these last two weeks, everything has changed. I feel like I’ve got my son back.” She shook her head. “No, it’s more than that. It’s like now I’ve got the son that I never had.”
Darryl felt mixed emotions welling inside of him after hearing his mother’s declaration. He almost revealed that she had not been communicating with him but with unfeeling, analytical computer code. Maybe she loved an inanimate machine more than her actual flesh and blood. Then he saw tears welling in his mother’s eyes. She may annoy him, but she was still his mother and had always been there for him.
“You’re right, Mom,” he said. “I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep well last night, and I guess that’s made me a little cranky.”
“Have your sinuses been acting up?” asked his mother, blotting her eyes with a napkin.
“No, it’s not that. I just had a lot on my mind, that’s all.”
The comment appeared to brighten his mother’s mood. “Is it this new woman you’ve got your eye on?”
Momentarily shocked, Darryl popped half a hushpuppy in his mouth so he could think while he chewed. What woman? There was no woman, and there had not been a woman for a while. He swallowed his food. “You mean the one I texted about?”
“Of course I mean the one you texted about,” said Mom. “How else am I going to learn about what’s going on in my only son’s personal life?”
Darryl took a bite of fried flounder and touched the outline of the phone in his pocket. Autotext was now writing total fiction. It was one thing to make up excuses based on real data such as a dental appointment. It was a totally different thing to invent aspects of his life out of thin air.
As Darryl fumbled his way through a conversation about his “new woman,” he ate the rest of his fried seafood in small bites that gave him frequent opportunity to pause. He tried to keep his comments and description as vague as possible. He told his mother that things were just starting out and he did not want to boost hopes of an enduring relationship.
Darryl did not have a clue what this crazy Autotext app had said to Mom. The program was stealing the affections of his mother and making up lies about Darryl’s life. The once nifty piece of software would have to go.
After saying goodbye to his mother, Darryl had turned off his phone and driven the four hours back home. Now he walked in the front door, sat on his recliner and took his device out of his pocket. He had considered his situation more thoroughly during his drive and again resolved to delete Autotext from his life.
When his phone powered up, Darryl received fourteen new texts from his mother. If he did not act soon, Autotext would spout more lies and worm its way further into Mom’s heart. He opened his phone’s settings, from there went to the applications manager, and touched the Autotext logo with its sinister, smirking emoji. He tapped the “UNINSTALL” button. An option box popped up: “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?” Darryl had never been more certain of anything in his life.
As his thumb was about to make contact with the button, Darryl’s phone rang. The caller ID said “Sexy Sandra,” and images of her curvaceous body came to him in an instant. Sandra was a real estate secretary at one of the offices on his mail route, and when he was first posted to his current assignment, she would flirt with Darryl when he walked inside for the daily exchange of letters. He had gotten her phone number, asked her for a drink, and she had accepted. The date, though, required more extensive interaction than some quick delivery banter, and they had each suffered through some long, awkward pauses. Sandra had given Darryl no further encouragement, and their conversation was now succinct and business-like when he dropped off the mail.
Darryl answered the call. “Hello?”
“Hi, Darryl, this is Sandra. “I’ve been waiting for you to call, but I got impatient.”
“You’ve been waiting for my call?” asked Darryl, confused.
“Well, yeah,” said Sandra. “You’ve been sending me all these interesting texts and I thought it’d be easier if we just talked.”
Darryl was about to ask about these mysterious texts when he stopped himself. He had figured it out. Autotext was telling his mother lies about a “new woman,” and now it was sending automated replies to a contact without approval. The app was hijackacking his life.
Darryl tried to play it cool and fake his way through the conversation. He deflected comments about the unknown texts and asked Sandra about her life in the six months since their drinks date.
As the dialogue began to wind down, Darryl, sensing a good vibe, took a chance and asked Sandra out to dinner. She accepted with an enthusiasm and suggested that she might also be open to an after-dinner nightcap.
“And keep those texts coming,” said Sandra, just before she hung up. “They really brighten my day.”
Darryl promised to do so, and they said goodbye. When his calling screen disappeared, he once again saw the text box with the question inside it: “Are you sure you want to uninstall Autotext?” Darryl felt like this was not just an automatic message generated whenever he wanted to delete a program. Now there seemed to be a living, breathing organism inside his phone that was talking directly to him. “So maybe I’m taking some unauthorized liberties,” Autotext seemed to say, “but do you really think you can do this without me? Do you really think someone like Sandra would date someone like you if it weren’t for my enhancements?”
Darryl’s thumb hovered above the “Yes” response to the text box’s question. Autotext may be able to woo Sandra with witty messages, but in person, Darryl would still have to do the heavy lifting. If he wanted to have a genuine relationship with Sandra, he would have to learn to communicate more effectively on his own.
A short film ran in Darryl’s mind, as if Autotext were playing its last card. He was setting mail on the countertop while Sandra sat behind her desk and talked on the phone. She wore an attractive but business-appropriate navy blue dress. From behind the deep “V” neck line of the dress peeked the top of a white camisole which covered all but the barest hint of Sandra’s cleavage. Darryl tried not to stare at the enticing area, but the almost imperceptible crevice screamed for his gaze.
Maybe he should not be so fast to cut ties with Autotext. Darryl canceled the delete for the moment. If nothing else, maybe he could learn something from how Autotext had reconnected him with Sandra. Darryl opened his recent message thread with Sandra and scrolled—and scrolled, and scrolled—until he reached Autotext’s initial offering: “Hi Sandra, this is Darryl. I’ve missed our talks in the office.” Sandra’s replies were terse at first, and Autotext moved slowly. It shared humorous stories of fictional events that Darryl had supposedly experienced while delivering mail. It invented juicy gossip about the secret lives of real estate agents. It discovered a shared love of reality television and debated the merits of various contestants competing for fame and fortune.
When Darryl finished reading the impressive exchange, he swiped on the Autotext icon. He selected “Edit Contact Settings” and gasped at the results. Where his mother had once stood alone, now Darryl could choose from anybody on his regular contact list. He tapped on a few of the names and found they were all set to let Autotext ride solo.
Darryl felt a sudden surge of anger at the program’s audacity, but there was also a twinge of curiosity. From his messages, he selected a thread with one of his co-workers, Neal. He only texted Neal for work-related reasons, but Autotext had begun a dialogue that involved Neal’s passion, cars. The application had also reached out to a cousin that Darryl had not talked to in years. It was even setting up a time to go bowling with an old high school buddy this weekend.
Darryl weighed the pros and cons. Yes, Autotext was taking on a life of his own, but it was also helping him get back into life. Darryl had always had problems connecting with people, and the application was facilitating that. Wasn’t that the reason for technology’s existence—to help its human owners achieve goals more easily than they could do on their own?
Darryl made his decision. He closed the messaging app and put the phone back in his pocket. He stood up and headed toward his bedroom, where he would select the perfect outfit for his date with Sexy Sandra.
Bio: I have previously published a story in the magazine Red Fez, and I continue to write stories that seek to entertain the reader and engage with issues in contemporary society.