Motes from 1996

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Some time after the hysterectomy, she asked her surgeon what was in the place where her uterus used to be. The answer was given with a grin: “You know those fabric-covered spring snakes that jump out of a joke can? Imagine one of those snakes is stuffed in a plastic bag along with an orange. Now reach into the bag and remove the orange. What’s in the place where the orange used to be?”

Molly remembered that exchange ten years later, when her daughter moved out of the bedroom in her home. Very little time passed after Laura left before Molly’s stuff had expanded, spring-snakelike, into the small space.

She felt a bit deserted at first. Laura had left home for the college dorm eight months earlier, true, but this time she was moving into an apartment across town (an unnecessary move), and she was dismantling her home room in the process. She and her three male roommates took two days to move from Molly’s to their new apartment, and when the process was complete, Molly didn’t have an address for them and they didn’t have a phone. Laura called Molly at work two days later, with a phone number and the statement that Molly was the first call Laura made. Molly’s relief informed her about how upset she’d been, and she felt better.

So she got her son Seth to help move her computer to the big old desk in what used to be Laura’s room. The desk had originally been Molly’s, acquired and refinished when she’d started her business. Then Molly dug the rocking chair out of the garage, and moved it in along with an old coffee table she’d loved all her life. Paperback books overflowed from her bedroom into what was becoming her study. When she moved the TV and her exercise bike, she knew she’d claimed the place.

She felt positively abandoned at last. One whole fledgling out of the nest, the other (already fourteen) well and temporarily occupied with a video game, she began to build her own room, and the possibilities seemed limitless. She felt wanton with quiet, restless with peace.

A few days later, while she was dusting and arranging treasures in her new room, it occurred to Molly that she was into “elective” lifetime. She’d had her babies, and raised them almost enough. She could do a bit more of what she wished to do, even if what she wished to do was raise herself. She’d recently concluded that her parents only made one significant mistake, but it was a big one. In their attempt to govern her body and its functions, they’d motivated her to exert self-control in inappropriate ways. She became a fussy eater, and later a closet binge indulger, all to assert her rights and to withdraw from their intrusion. Then the habit and nostalgia factors kicked in; the attitudes took on attractiveness through familiarity. Maybe now she could revisit that child, and do some tardy correction?

It further occurred to her, as she was reading about an intellectual character who felt that he was a student, an observer, of life, that although she had some contempt for spectators, she thought of herself as one of those very same intellectual life-observers. She considered how spectators sit around and get excited about the efforts and achievements of others, and she was stunned. This felt corny: first she’s thinking about nurturing the inner child, then of participating in life. It was almost embarrassing.

A week afterward, Seth left for summer with his father. Molly expected that her exhilarated relief at the prospect of a childless two months would be modified by the initial strangeness of his absence, and that expectation was realized, a little. But thirty-six hours after he left, when she was walking the dog on Saturday afternoon, her joy overtook her. Striding down a pedestrian pathway, running her right palm along a metal bannister that was alternately sun-warm and shade-cool under the dappling of June foliage, she realized that she was so happy she could shout. She felt strong in her body, alert in her mind, and unscheduled.

The following morning dawned lovely. It was clean and bright at 8 a.m., when Molly woke to the sunshine. She put sloppy sweats on herself and a leash on the dog, filled a thermos mug with coffee, and went for a walk till the mug needed refilling.

Home again at 8:30, she let the sun show her all the dust on the furniture and the dog hair in the corners. She wiped, swept, and ran the vacuum over the rugs.

By then her productivity was established. It was 9:15 and she had accomplished much. She rode that roll – went to her study and put an exercise tape in the VCR. She started the warm-up, pushing her hands into the air as she stepped from foot to foot, synchronous with the six lycraed bodies on the screen before her. Then the picture flashed bright green, twice, and went to black. The TV and VCR remained on, the audio worked fine, but there was no picture. Molly turned the TV off, but instead of going straight to luminous gray to dusty black, the screen showed a fast-shrinking circular rainbow. She waited a minute and turned the power on again: still no picture. Off again, with an imploding spectrum.

She was rattled, annoyed, and frustrated. She kept working the power switch, hoping that what started so suddenly would just stop. All she got from POWER ON was a strobing picture and then black.

After a number of tries, perhaps once the set had warmed up, the picture stopped strobing and began to behave. She completed her workout. But she was bothered about the odd functioning. The problem recurred every time she used that TV: on, strobe, off, on, strobe, off, ten more repetitions, and finally on.

Although her brother Charlie lived in the same town, each had a busy life and they didn’t meet as often as they’d like. But they had one of their rare dinners together the night after the TV started malfunctioning.

“So among other things, and almost in honor of Seth’s departure, my relatively new TV went bizarre yesterday,” she began with her wine.

“What do you mean, ‘bizarre?’”

She gave him the details. He wasn’t the handyman their father or even Molly’s exes were, but Charlie had helped her with all sorts of home matters since she’d become single. And she’d never met a man who didn’t have an opinion about car or appliance repair.

“Are you sure it’s the TV and not the VCR?” Charlie sipped his Jack Daniels and buttered a piece of sourdough.

“Easy,” Molly answered. “The problem started when I was using both, but I’ve since checked the TV alone. Repeatedly.”

“Well, Moll, I think you need professional help. I hope you unplugged the set.”

Her look told him she hadn’t.

“It sure sounds like an electrical problem. You probably have a short somewhere. You need to unplug the set before you have a fire in your walls.”

Molly helped herself to a piece of bread and considered. She adored her house and took extra care of it, with purchases like quake insurance and a monitored alarm; the worst event would be a fire. But she somehow knew the house wasn’t in danger. If electronics have souls (an impossible but recurring idea), then the soul of her TV was giving her a signal that the aberration was no big deal. She respected her brother but was sure that this time his advice could be disregarded.

“I’ll bet I dislodged a bit of dust when I was cleaning,” she said, “and it landed somewhere crucial and just needs to be dislodged again. I kept telling myself it would clear up yesterday. Now I’m figuring it will clear tomorrow.”

Charlie turned a bit sideways in his seat, rested his left forearm on the table, and leaned toward her with a serious look. “Maybe we should run back to your house and unplug the set now. You really don’t know what can happen.”

The waiter arrived at that moment. By the time Charlie had decided what type of oysters he’d start with, he’d turned his attention away from Molly’s TV. She saw no reason to bring him back to the subject. They talked instead about their parents, music, his marriage and her kids, and Molly didn’t think about her TV again until she returned home, found its quirk unchanged, and opted not to unplug it.

There was a family-owned electronics store in the shopping neighborhood near Molly’s house. Among the bookstores, the espresso and juice bars, the cheese, wine, and produce shops, was sandwiched an independent seller of TVs, VCRs, and the like. The place had almost no parking, but it matched the lowest prices available in malls, and it contained a real repair department that took up half its area. Molly had purchased her TV and VCR there. She and Seth had walked there four years back with their smallest TV, after Seth had experimented with a magnet on its screen. The man on the repair side fixed the set with speed, humor, and courtesy (and of course a degausser). He’d refused payment, requiring instead that Seth make him a promise about segregating magnets from cathode ray tubes.

Molly had a meeting near home the Wednesday after she saw Charlie. She walked by the TV store afterwards, at least thirty minutes earlier than normal. She paused. She had neither the TV nor an appointment, but she had time and nothing to lose.

The place was about to close. Molly sensed a couple of men far back in the sales side, and found three people in the repair department. There was a middle-aged man involved in a how-to-prevent-it-from-happening-again discussion with a confused-looking woman customer. And there was an old guy sitting at a little table against the far side wall, aimlessly fingering a small component while he paid attention to a talk show on a nearby TV. The woman customer seemed determined to learn by repeating the repairman’s words, incorrectly to my ears: “So you’re saying that I shouldn’t…No? Then I don’t get it.” The man was transmitting every body sign of impatience, and Molly knew he wouldn’t be ready to talk to her any time soon. In fact, he appeared to be subtly escorting the woman to the door, and Molly wouldn’t be surprised if he walked away from work as soon as he got rid of her.

The old man continued to watch TV. He looked like an employee, but Molly wasn’t sure. She stood there. A half minute or so passed. He put down whatever he’d had in his hand, pushed back his chair, slowly unbent to a stand, and shuffled toward her. She expected the worst when he didn’t meet her eyes.

“What is it?” she thought she heard.

She described the problem quickly, and simply asked if it could be dust.

“Gotta bring it in,” he grumbled, holding gnarled hands up a bit, palms facing her.

“I know I should bring it in. I was just passing by and thought…”

“Gotta bring it in,” this time with a bit of emphasis on the last word.

He still hadn’t met her eyes, but gazed steadily and emptily straight ahead in the general direction of her throat, so she did the natural thing; she turned away from him without another word. She left the store unsurprised but a little disappointed. Molly collected anecdotes about the charms of small businesses, and she’d wanted to add another for that store.

She used her TV that evening. She went through the developing ritual of the power switch. Then and over the next few days, she tried to determine whether the number of on-strobe-off cycles was about the same each time, before she obtained a steady picture. No. She tried cycling quickly and cycling slowly: no perceptible difference. The only things she could conclude were that the problem was in the TV, and that the picture steadied after the set warmed up. The only things she could guess were that the situation was neither serious nor dangerous.

And the only other thing to report is this: Molly was not surprised when, six days after the aberration began, it disappeared forever.

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