Obligations

Image of Will Dean

Will Dean

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My mother is a worrier, and my father doesn't say much. Sometimes I worry that I am too similar to them, but I rarely talk about it.
In elementary school there was a poster on the wall that read “What is popular isn't always right, and what is right isn't always popular.” I have tried to live this maxim out in my life, but it is difficult. When I was younger it was easier, because I was very unpopular, but in my heart I knew I was right.
At night I listened to music and imagined they were singing to me. No one in my family had much musical talent so – out of embarrassment – we rarely listened to music together. The one exception was listening to '50s Christmas music during the Christmas season. We would light a fire in the fireplace and sit around the living room, listening to bland crooners sing about holy things. No one liked it, but we had signed a contract with a CD club to do this once a year. My parents had signed the contract without reading it, because the same set of circumstances (credit check, glossy pamphlets in the mail) had led them to own their house and we all enjoyed living there, so why not?
When my siblings and I turned 13, a man from the CD club came to the house and gave us a test to determine what kind of music we would receive for the rest of our lives. My brother was assigned the new genre of rap-rock. This is still a topic of much hilarity at family gatherings, but my brother is defiantly proud of it. I was assigned music that was unpopular due to bad luck, not experimentation or ideals. My sister was assigned top 40 dance hits that were popular three years ago. In addition to the CDs, we have full rights to listen to the music on other current and future platforms. My brother has satellite radio, and I listen to streams on select websites, while my sister can listen to broadcast radio during off-peak hours. We all signed contracts.
Our parents hated all of our music, especially my brother's. But they understood the importance of contractual obligations. They bought us all headphones.
My family gathers for our Christmas music obligation every year, despite how far we must travel and our many difficulties with arranging child and pet care. We do not receive time off work for this contractual obligation, so we all must perform our tasks remotely. Last year, I mixed up one of my CDs, which were forwarded to my parent's home for this period, with one of my parent's holiday compilations, and despite (or perhaps, because of) the repeated use of horn instruments it went unnoticed. We were all so engrossed with our remote work (my parents had joined a website that paid them to make comforting phone calls to other people in my generation) that the CD played through three times without any of us noticing. I finally realized and while cursing, replaced the CD. We spent the night taking turns anxiously looking out the window, but no one appeared on the stoop to remind us of our obligations.
The man from the CD club does not like me anymore. I have not kept up with my side of our bargain. I bought the album of a female pop singer from a website that allowed me to pick my own username, something that could be completely disconnected from my identity. I should not have trusted the website. Everyone knows the internet is actually a large scam to get all of our credit card numbers in one place where they will all become jumbled together and we will need to apply for another one. I signed a contract with the credit card company, but, as is the tradition in my family, I did not read it. When I have done something wrong they call me to remind me of my obligations, as do the people from the government.
Several months ago, the man from the CD club knocked on the front door of the house where I live. I suppose it was only a matter of time. The phone calls had grown more numerous in the preceding weeks, but I still harbored a vestigial feeling that my home was somehow off limits, and that even though they possessed my address (even down to the apartment number) the man from the CD club would not come here, in person. The man from the CD club rang all the doorbells, waking my neighbor who works the night shift. She successfully impressed on the man from the CD club that it was not a preferable idea to hang out on our stoop ringing all of our bells.
The man from the CD club will be back.
I worry that the man from the CD club is pressuring my family to get me to keep our bargain, but none of us have time to call each other. We all decided after Christmas to get new phone numbers, but the process is long and difficult. Our current phones are too busy with reminder calls to be used to exchange updates on our plans. Our pasts keep following us around, like a pack of angry dogs to whom we owe money.
I can no longer keep up with my obligations, so I never tell anyone where I live. I meet friends at intersections at least two miles from my home and I never order delivery food. My friends tell me our efforts will not work, that even if my family can dodge the men from the CD club there are other, worse things out there, mostly on the internet. Although I know most things are bad ideas I often forget to think things through and end up worse off than I was before. I worry about this, but I do not yet feel safe talking about it.
I ran into the man from the CD club yesterday at the supermarket. He harangued me for not answering my phone when he called. I lied and told him I had changed my number. He told me he recognized my voicemail greeting, and he had a family – just like mine – and I made his job harder than it had to be. He had bargains of his own to fulfill and when one person does not keep up with their contractual obligations the whole basis of our society is undermined. I nodded and told him I understood. I said, “I do not want to threaten you or your livelihood.”
I read an article that said CD clubs were “a dying breed,” and I, for one, hope the end comes soon. The article called them “archaic and predatory,” and implied they will soon be replaced by something newer, better, and simpler. One of our local politicians has promised, repeatedly, to do something about the onerous CD club terms that we all live under. When pressed, the local politician reminds us all that the economy is good and the CD clubs are part of the system in ways that the average person cannot even begin to realize. The phone calls do not stop, each day reminding me how I am failing to fulfill my side of the bargain.
When I walked home from the store I noticed the man from the CD club following me. He did not trust me any more than I trusted him. I sat in the park for several hours, waiting for him to leave. It was a cold afternoon – the sky was electric blue and the air sharp, but I had dressed warmly. When he did not leave I spent the night on a park bench, with my groceries as a pillow. The bread was ruined, but the frozen spinach has proved to still be good.
Upon waking, I found a note taped to my chest that read, “I am sorry, I did not realize you had nowhere to live. Please update our records when you have found new housing. Good Luck, Robert.” He had slipped a CD into my jacket pocket while I slept. I realized, I could now host people at my home again.
I was glad that my worry and fear had steered me on the right path again. I called my mother and we laughed about the situation, sharing our feelings in a flood of relief and happiness. We agreed that it ended in the best way possible.

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Image of towle
towle · ago
Frozen spinach doesn't get the recognition it deserves. Rachel Ray used to talk about its economy. It has a cameo in "Boys Don't Cry" but it's a symbol of how to make something with no natural shelf life into something almost permanent. Love "like a pack of angry dogs to whom we owe money."
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