Warning Light

It was a cold Monday, and I would be late coming back to work. I’d been squeezing these appointments into my lunch hour when I could, because I knew Melinda could not possibly be there at that hour. She always took her lunch at 12. It’s a short drive to Lawrence Park from here: four traffic lights, but sometimes the lunch hour traffic backs up. Dr. Fumo knew I had to run back to work, so our sessions rarely lasted more than 40 minutes. Good thing, because most of the time I run out of material, and we spend the last five, ten minutes staring at one another.

I was tiring of the silly head games. She’d stare behind those big glasses that were like shiny puddles of rain, then look at the parking lot out the window, across from the K-mart. It was a corner office, and you could see around to the other side where the Madsen paint company had their home office. It’s a building jacketed with white marble; I wonder why the firm didn’t pick a building you could paint. I had the sense that Fumo didn’t trust me. Maybe men were enigmas to her. I wonder if she was onto me yet, if somewhere in these visits I had inadvertently let something slip. An offhand comment about something I’d seen, someone I’ve known. Had she been figuring out that these stories I’ve told her, the anecdotes about being shunned and bullied as a child, the hysterical family dramas of the father who couldn’t love me, the emotionally abusive mom–that these have been nothing but a game of pick up sticks, and had she, without my knowledge, been arranging them in a pattern that compromised me? Had she noticed that the pieces have one canny way of fitting, perhaps too easily, the fabrication so obvious could you only angle your point of view properly? Or had she caught on to the fact that some of the pieces can’t possibly be extracted without destroying the structure, and as a result, I must be making at least half of it up.

She sized me up, erect, pert in the armchair, her black pantsuit freshly cleaned and pressed. Her blouse was white and the top two buttons were open, revealing a hint of cleavage, but nothing to get too much of a rise out of. She was a little old for me. Ten years older, grew up in Havertown, her extended family still living nearby. She purchased a two bedroom condo in Wynnewood six years ago for $400K, and she was divorced. No children. She pushed back the hoop bracelets on her arm and looked at her silver watch. “I don’t know if there’s much more to be said.” She looked exasperated. When she leaned toward the Madsen building it’s exasperation. When she hearkened towards K-mart, it was more hopeful, like she was giving me a chance to redeem myself. Sometimes I think she should have given me something more. More compassion. At least be more perceptive. Wasn’t that her job? It’s like she was paid to hear me prattle on about my life, but money couldn’t buy her empathy.

I left the office, my neck red and itchy, wondering if progress would ever be made.

The afternoon was slow, and they didn’t really miss me being a little late. Still, it meant that I shouldn’t slide out five minutes ahead of Melinda at day’s end. I liked to beat her to the parking lot, so I could watch her exit the building. She worked on a different floor, for a different company. She’s a receptionist for an insurance agency. It’s a big regional office and they lease the first two floors of the four story office building. Below us is a title abstracting office and a doctor’s office. I had the bird’s eye view from the fourth floor lobby when I wanted it.

I was set to sneak out a little early, but my boss Gina’s office door was open and I could feel her eyes on me. I turned back to my cubicle like I had forgotten something important and waited. I went over to the coffee station and dumped the remains of my morning brew into the sink, which gave me the chance to slide past the front windows in perfect time to see Melinda angling her body against the wind as she rushed to her Mazda. It’s a 2004 Mazda 3, silver sedan. Alloy wheels, automatic transmission, charcoal interior, with in-dash CD audio and the six speaker with subwoofer option. She keeps her discs in the driver’s side tray and an oversized umbrella in the back seat. She bought the car from a dealer on Baltimore Pike in the winter of 2004. It’s six stoplights away from here, and you can make the distance in 13 minutes. She goes to Speedy Lube to get her oil changed, probably the one on Sproul Road, and she’s 200 miles overdue for the next change. I thought that would make a great conversation starter should we ever meet up again. But it’s hard to say you’ve noticed someone’s car needs an oil change without admitting that you’ve been peeking inside their windows. It appears we are no longer on speaking terms.

I work for a mortgage company researching deeds and proofing contracts. I have a good eye for glitches and inconsistencies. I’m a Ps and Qs man. The brokers cleared their agreements of sale and contracts with me before closing. Mostly I was in the office or the courthouse. Not a front-end salesman, more of a back-office drone. Ever since the courthouse in Media put the deeds archives online I work mostly in the office; there’s less reason to roam.

Dr. Fumo once asked me what I thought was wrong with me.

“I thought that was your job. To diagnose the disease.”

“A misconception, Mr. Ruggles.” I stole the name from a local TV reporter. My fake occupation: assistant operations manager, Thornbury township. I knew she wouldn’t check up on me. She didn’t live anywhere near Thornbury township, and low-level assistants weren’t listed on the township website. You’d have to call to check up on me. Who checks facts anymore?

“Ultimately, therapy can only truly succeed when the patient takes ownership of his own problems, his own emotional work, to sort and redefine and discover the coping strategies that will work for him and only him.”

She was trying to sound intellectual. I knew better. Sure, she was bright. The pride of Manoa. It wasn’t far from there to Lawrence Park, professionally or intellectually. She was a suburban girl done good. A hard-earned Ph.D. in Psychology from Temple (the diploma hung on the wall). But she was a Catholic schoolgirl at heart. She was waiting for an answer. Expectant, in a demanding way. She was glancing at the Madsen building again and its unforgiving marble facade, sighing. Had to think fast.

“I guess I’m too sensitive,” I said, my eyes widening. Ever the goggle-eyed nutty Ruggles.

A quizzical face, waiting for more.

“And I hide my emotions too well. I don’t let on when people hurt me. I contain it. Like a bottle of soda. When you shake it up, the bubbles build up. Just a little twist, and it spews all over. I can’t control the direction anymore.”

She was buying the metaphorical gold. Emotional ejaculation. Delayed gratification? Re-channeled desire? Stress reactions? There were so many lanes to take, so many sessions to come. Kachink. Jackpot.

One thing she said stuck: she said I was the kind of person they call “highly sensitive persons, or HSPs”. She says HSPs have a tendency to notice everything, and that this can be an asset or a curse. I sat back in my chair in a gesture of relaxation. Her potted ferns needed water.

“Do HSPs bottle their emotions?”

“Sometimes. Like everybody does sometimes. If that is the case with yourself, then it works something like this: you bottle your emotions. They then blurt out in unforeseen and inappropriate behaviors. Because you have a hyper-awareness of your surroundings, you realize with extreme acuteness just how awkward these situations can be. How painful. At its most extreme, this can lead to borderline paranoia, even delusions, which heightens the tensions, the cycle of stress, fear, aggression. Especially when you can’t control it. I am not saying you are there yet, Tommy. It is, however, important to remember that people gifted with HSP ‘with-it-ness’ often forget that the rest of the world, or most people, do not sense or pay attention to half of what they see. You need to remind yourself of this. It is a first step toward reducing the anxiety you suffer from.”

I wondered if she’d think my friend Bobby McPherson was a highly sensitive person too.

Tuesday morning. The Pathfinder almost didn’t start. I had to grind the starter hard, flooding the engine. I had to wait. She whinnied then caught hold at last, and I was only three and a half minutes late getting onto the highway. Everyone on the road was stressed. A lot of cantankerous commuters with aggression–RRPs: road rage people.

At the work parking lot, I let the car idle while I thumbed through the car’s user manual. The radio newsreader said the wind chill was 10 degrees. Rough air shoved the car, pushing through the seams and seals around the windows. I dialed back the fan knob to medium speed, which kept a steady flow of warm air in the cabin. Would she shut me out again this morning? Would she wear shades? Would she even look at me? Would there be sunlight reflecting off her windshield, preventing me from getting a look at her? Would she put up a cold front? Was it a high- or low-pressure kind of day? I kept glancing at the rearview mirror through plumes of white exhaust coiling from the tailpipe like an elephant’s trunk.

I was reluctant to switch off the Pathfinder, reluctant to expose myself to the cold, the whipping wind. The dingy brick pile where I worked was uninviting. I was searching for something in the user manual. The news reader delivered the day’s headlines with gravity and an air of suspense. A man exploded himself in the Middle East. Fires in Baghdad. The Republicans filibustering a global warming bill. A bridge collapse in Wyoming, killing dozens. The usual traffic backups on the metropolitan choke points: jackknifed trailers, car fires, bridge volume. The news was nothing that touched me. It was wallpaper to me. It didn’t really impact this situation, this parking lot, the gusts of wind on the car. It was nothing I wanted to touch. Most of it was God awful sad, and I wondered why I felt a need to stay in touch with it. I couldn’t not know what was happening around me. Call it the Fumo effect; I was second guessing everything. My mannerisms. My speech. My verbal tics, like my tendency to say “you know” a lot. Using “you” when I really meant me, or Ruggles.

Below the car stereo, an indicator light the color of orangeade caught my attention. I was surprised that I hadn’t noticed; it was glowing already when I glanced over at it–the icon of a genderless body, a circle for a head, stick body, an inflated airbag in its face, and a large X with the number 2 underneath. It could have meant a lot of things: a dysfunctional passenger airbag, or an electrical malfunction. Why the X 2? Did it mean the second airbag or two airbags? One crash test dummy or two? Two passengers cancelled out?

My Pathfinder was new. I bought it the same week I got my shoulder-length hair cut. Take it all, I told her, I’m sick of blow-drying it. I wanted to feel the hair close to my scalp. The stylist seized my hair, plowed through it with the humming clippers, her hard fingernails pecking through like crows scavenging a field of brittle cornstalks.

Some mornings Melinda arrived before me and I wouldn’t see it until already hunting the rows for an open space. I knew she could see me if she chose to, for each day, although we never talked anymore, I made myself conspicuous. She would wait in her car, listening to the radio or talking on her cell phone, her enormous sunglasses hiding her eyes, her car engine percolating softly, and I would walk past, never able to catch her glance behind her shades, my own eyes occluded behind small circular shades so that, if she wanted to look over, she couldn’t read my expression. The harsh glare of morning sun would careen off her windshield, allowing only a glimpse of her outline, the profile of her face and the small movements of her shoulders and neck, her thumbs sliding off the steering wheel. I would always look with ultimate discretion. Most people would never have noticed that I was even looking. Except in Melinda’s case, I feared her. With her, it was as if I could feel the laser pulse of her gaze when she eyed me. Of all people, she could see through me. And though she pretended to ignore, to be involved with her conversations, or fixing her hair in the vanity mirror, I felt the presence, the pull, the with-it-ness of being near.

Usually, in this game of chicken, I was the one to leave the car first. Not wanting to be entirely inconspicuous, inappropriately inconspicuous if you will. I wanted to be seen, for her to notice me, to be unavoidably obvious but not confrontational, if only for the few seconds it took to walk past her car. I wanted her to see me as if it had all been an accident, so I almost never looked over (how gauche), pretending not to notice, my neck encased in a block of floating ice. My ears stayed alert and I had good peripheral vision. There are ways to keep track even when you’re acting oblivious. I needed to know what she was listening to, whom she spoke to, and these unanswered mysteries perplexed me.

I stared hard at the orangeade glow, switched off the car, dropped the keys in my coat pocket. The warm spurts of air cut off. You could feel the cold out there, knocking. I tossed my cell phone into the leather bag, but the zipper caught on a tiny black thread and wouldn’t close completely. I struggled with it, my fingers stiff from the cold.

Through the passenger window a quicksilver shape slunk into a spot a couple spaces away. Her blessed form manifested at last. Forget the zipper. Always look discreetly, never stare, never attempting to lock in, confront, annoy, or affront. I felt it again, the laser beam eyes spying me for a second, maybe two, then watched her head shrug it off. The initial and sudden gravitational pull of our bodies was just as suddenly broken apart. A wave crashing through you, crest succeeded by trough. She got out and walked into the building, my eyes following all the way.

That afternoon, after work, I thought of an excuse to drive by Melinda’s neighborhood. I picked up a cheap Zenith television, an old one, for 20 bucks at Goodwill, and took it to a repair shop three blocks from her apartment in Drexel Hill. There’s something wrong with it, I told the kid at the counter. Wavy lines. Can’t hold steady on a signal. He said he’d have his dad check it out. They’d be in touch.

I had very few clues as to what it was I said or did that made Melinda cut the dotted lines and rip me out of her life. Were my emails too cloying, too personal, too needy, too frequent? I had only wanted to help. Two years ago she was a wreck foundering in the stairwell, trying to hide it, when I approached (I typically take the elevator, which saves me five to ten seconds compared to the stairs, but that day I was scooting up the flights for exercise). I passed her, heard her breath catch a sob, then turned intuitively, without thinking what I was doing, and asked her what the matter was. She talked, I listened.

We met for coffee after that. Six times. She was going through a breakup. Depressed. On and off medication. She said I shouldn’t be telling you these things, I hardly know you. Her friends didn’t understand. Her family was unsympathetic. I was sympathetic. I listened more than I talked at first, because I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t want to say the wrong thing to make her turn away. By the fourth, fifth rendezvous, she talked less, and her body language was more distant, less needy. She didn’t look me in the eye anymore. I felt like we were going through the motions. That she was seeing me now from a sense of obligation. I had morphed from the compassionate stranger, a figure worthy of a biblical parable, into a needy, wonkish succubus. I tried to keep up communication through email, but she took longer to respond. The months wore on, the meetings stopped. Common courtesy eroded, leaving a callous, hard bedrock. She had a new boyfriend, or had reconciled with the old one–I wasn’t sure. Her confidence was back, wind in her sail.

Fumo always thought I was a loner. Not the case. I get along swimmingly with my co-workers. I am generally well liked. Never had a below satisfactory performance evaluation. I manage well enough. That Tuesday night, the day the warning light triggered on, I had dinner at Ruby Tuesdays with my friend Tony and his girlfriend Brenda. They’d been a couple for five years, three months. Tony was a chick magnet. He didn’t think. He talked, he looked, he glided, and the women flocked. Brenda was the one he kept. Carrying a pitcher of beer to our table, he’d make a remark to a blonde waiting at the bar, and you could tell from her smile that he’d said something perfectly unassuming and charming, and she would have bought him a drink just to hear something more. It helped that he was a good looking guy–butter rum eyes, olive skin, a square jaw, short messy black hair. Brenda tolerated all this. Why? He was innocent. He didn’t abuse his force. You couldn’t not like Tony. He and Brenda had an admirable relationship. They went to movies, they ate out, went to the Phillies games ten or twelve times a season. Sometimes they let me tag along.

“Why did you shave your head?” Tony asked.

“Needed a change. You don’t like it?”

He leaned over and rubbed my pate. “Brillo pad. I’m flashing on the jar heads in Full Metal Jacket.

Brenda excused herself and went to the restroom. How do you do it, I thought. The charm thing. It’s so easy for you. It’s like you don’t even try. Tony was not a Highly Sensitive Person, which didn’t make him insensitive, only extraordinarily suave. A Highly Suave person? A Highly Unassuming person? A Highly Sincere person? A highly charismatic person. He didn’t try to con you or fence you or hem you in. He took people at face value and dealt with it.

“Whatever happened to that girl you were dating from work?”

“I wouldn’t call it dating. More of a taking a friend out to lunch in a safely de-romanticized context.”

“She cut you out, didn’t she.”

“Nothing much came of it. We still see each other in and out, say hello. It’s cool.”

I wished I could confide more in Tony, even seek his advice. But it was like asking Michael Jordan how to shoot a basketball. Tiger Woods could not teach me anything about a golf swing. Jimi Hendrix and guitars? Frank Sinatra and the art of owning a torch song? Some things can’t be taught, and some people can’t dance or carry a tune no matter how much advice or teaching you give them. Plus, if I really shared what was going on in my head, the planning and strategizing that I went through every day just to synchronize my schedule with hers to give myself the chance of catching one brief glimpse of her face each day, the embarrassment might well devastate the friendship. Would they really want to know a guy like that? Pathetic. Tommy Ruggles would have abandoned me.

What kept me up most nights, and what I couldn’t talk about with Tony or Dr. Fumo, was the agitating feeling of not knowing precisely why Melinda had disengaged from me. I felt we were starting to connect, that something was happening there. A recognition in her eyes. An appreciation for what I was trying to do. My sympathy for her. And then it stopped. It was as if somebody told her to stop seeing me. The suddenness of the drop-off made me think so. A jealous boyfriend? A suspicious parent or co-worker?

I remembered something she said one at our second meeting, a Starbucks on Baltimore Pike. She ordered a venti chai latte. I had a tall cafe verona, black. We split a raspberry scone, although I ended up eating most of it out of nervousness. The more I carved it with the plastic knife, the more it was reduced to pebbly crumbs. She just looked at the remains of it and winced. Her nails were painted a fresh peach. She was talking about being depressed, and how depression didn’t run in her family, so her parents didn’t get it. But she had a friend who’d been on Paxil, a girl who was really depressed, a cutter, suicidal. And that girl, who she didn’t name, had referred her to a therapist. As soon as I got back to the office, I wrote it all down.

When our coffee meetings ceased and desisted, it took me a month and two days to accept the new reality. I wondered whether she ever talked to her therapist about me. I didn’t know who the therapist was, only that it was a woman and her office was in Broomall. One afternoon when the workload was light, I correlated online directories against printed health management organization provider catalogs. The field was narrowed to four candidates: JoEllen Johnson, Ruth Zappola, Luann Michaels, and Nancy Fumo. That was as far as I could take it. I had to visit each one. Intuition told me it had to be Dr. Fumo. She had a receptive, big sisterly personality that the others lacked–an approachable authority figure who would play well with younger people. In the waiting room, the magazines skewed to younger women: Glamour, Elle, Cosmopolitan. I would often see troubled, anorexic teens, depressive college students, and frumpy youngish mothers in the waiting room. Confirmation came, you could say, by accident, though I think accidents aren’t ever random–it’s all about being in the position to see the action unfolding on arcs of the inevitable. I was coming out of the K-mart one Wednesday with arms full of toilet paper, when I looked over toward Dr. Fumo’s building. Melinda’s silver Mazda was out front.

At the next therapy session, Dr. Fumo mentioned my haircut too. Why cut it?

“Sometimes I get impulsive. I’ll do things I wouldn’t have done six months ago. People can change, can’t they?”

The frowny look again. Her round eyeglasses were set in oversized frames, her hair tinted with Clairol, her cheeks tinted liberally with pink rouge. She liked to sit cross-legged under the cool fluorescent light of her office, a wide window behind her looking out on the parking lot, a thin line of naked maple trees beyond. She typically wore white blouses and dark pants suits the color of wet tree bark, a yellow legal pad resting on her lap. When she jotted notes her silver bracelets jangled like tambourines.

I didn’t know how to explain the haircut. It didn’t seem all that important, actually. Some people change their wardrobe, grow a mustache, go on a diet. I bought a Pathfinder and cut my hair. Big deal. It didn’t mean anything, but there she sat in the black pants suit waiting for me to explain myself. Expectant. Demanding. I watched the sparrows out the window, making scissor cuts in the sky.

Trying to picture the scene. A wet, blustery day, Melinda sitting in Fumo’s office. She brings up Bob McPherson. How he gushes over her. He treats her nice, but it’s overkill. She’s run out of things to talk about. He caught her at a vulnerable time. He thinks he’s a better friend than he really is. She appreciates his interest, but he makes her nervous. He himself is always looking around, taking in situations, keeping his eyes on doors opening, cars parking. Fumo is reflecting, listening attentively, musing.She says you don’t have to communicate with him any longer if he makes you that nervous.

Maybe it’s my paranoia, Melinda replies. Been burned so many times before. Maybe he’s just a nice guy.

Fumo edges forward. Attractive women often face these difficulties, you know. You must know or learn soon how certain men, are after one thing. I do not want to over generalize, but it is undeniable that in our culture, men frequently use their power to overwhelm and manipulate women they perceive as being vulnerable. Save yourself the pain and aggravation. Understand how pretty girls like you are beset by constant attention from lonely, needy men, and that you must resist the flattery such attention brings. Recognize that your initial gravitation toward him was a form of seeking companionship from a father-type figure, a big brother, a mentor. Apparently your acquaintance has confused your need for something different, his need for romantic involvement. He can’t leave you alone.

She delivers these nuggets in a commanding, motherly voice with elongated droning vowels. After establishing a premise, she then goes into questions and answers, subtly teasing “the truth” from her patient through innuendo and leading questions that made it seem as if the answers were coming from her. And there’s no counsel to object, no judge to cry foul, objection sustained. Only a vulnerable, confused patient who must do the digging herself. The session concludes, she jots on the pad: “acknowledges the futility / must let go of the fantasy to make progress in other areas…” Always ending in an ellipsis.

“I want to tell you about a friend. Bob McPherson. He’s in love with a woman who no longer gives him the time of day. And he doesn’t know why. She works not far from here. Insurance company, I think.”

Dr. Fumo’s wrists stopped jangling, her gaze fixed on the legal pad.

“I’ve never seen the girl myself. But he, he’s obviously crazy about her.”

“How long were they dating?”

“I’m not sure you would call it dating. A month or two. I think they had lunch, coffee, that kind of thing. She works in his building.”

Fumo was nodding, writing furiously, her hand gripping the pen was tense, rigid the way a plastic doll holds something in its molded fingers.

“You snap your fingers like this–and someone excises you out of their life. Stops replying to your messages. Flatline. Picked off. Out. He, he’s really bothered about it. I don’t know what to tell him. I want to help. Bobby doesn’t open up to many. He’s a private person. A little odd that way. But he’s at his wits’ end, you know.”

“So he confided in you?”


“Why, do you think?”

“Probably because, like we’ve been saying, I notice things most others don’t. Bobby didn’t know why this Melinda girl stopped talking to him or why his messages weren’t responded to. I didn’t know what to tell him. I’m his friend, and I feel like I’m supposed to know, help him figure it out. But it’s not making any sense. For a while he blamed technology: changed email addresses, downed servers, faulty spam filters. But all attempts to circumvent the technological barriers met the same result. Silence. A chilling, flat-lining silence.”

Fumo was writing on the pad again, her lip curled, her eyes unwilling to take me on. I figured there’s no time but now to keep the full press on.

“Now, he waits in his car every day for her. It’s come down to this. What had been so promising, such a rush, an infusion of energy and desire for him…he’s sitting like a putz in a cold car in the dead of winter. He’s watching her walk into work. He knows he is a fool, he knows it looks creepy. What is he to do? What do I tell him? Are his feelings unfounded? He would love to know what this girl really thought about him. What am I, a mind reader? I have no clues? What would you do, Dr. Fumo?”

Fumo didn’t know which window to look at.

“Listen, I just like to help people. He’s a friend in need. I’m starting to worry about his mental health. If you could just give me a clue about why the girl stopped treating him nice, I’d be appreciative. I won’t tell him it’s coming from you. ”

“Maybe he’s the one who should be seeing a doctor. Maybe he’s the one with the real problems.”

She was looking at my hair. It was a hunch, unthinkable, but the thought wouldn’t let her go.

Melinda’s in her office, in the same upholstered chair I was sitting in. She hasn’t brought McPherson up in months. Fumo casually asks her how work is going. She says you know that shy, older guy who was taking an interest in me? He cut his hair, looks so different now. It used to be down to here, and now it’s radical. Ever seen Full Metal Jacket? The guy who blows his brains out in the men’s room.

I adjusted my ass in the seat. It sounded like a duck squawking. I looked at the clock.

“Are we taking this to overtime?”

She said it was time to go.

I called in sick on Tuesday. Couldn’t deal with the pressure. When the phone rang, I didn’t answer.

Another frosty Wednesday morning. I was waiting in the Pathfinder for her to arrive, my limbs feeling stiff and fat like a snowman. She was late. I stared at that amber warning light on the dash. It lights up when it detects a passenger in the front seat who isn’t wearing a safety belt. There was no passenger in my front seat. Only my black leather laptop bag. The car thinks it’s a person. My intent was not to catch up with her and say hello. It was not to be seen walking by. I was waiting for her to make the move, go in, disappear. For once, I sought to avoid contact. All day, I worked hard, stayed away from windows.

At 5, I drove straight home. In the mail slot was a thick envelope–a wedding invitation from Tony and Brenda printed on french vanilla creme paper. And a letter from Doctor Fumo’s office. She recommended I change therapists and provided names of three doctors I never heard of. Attached was a brochure for the University of Pennsylvania psych ward. The phone was flashing, a voicemail with another message from the TV repair shop about my Zenith.

“Mr. Ruggles. There’s nothing wrong with your television. You can pick it up tonight. We’re open ’til 8.”

“Tommy Ruggles doesn’t want his TV back!” I shouted to the walls. I nuked a frozen burrito, paced, then finally drove to Drexel Hill. Through the store window I saw the Zenith on the countertop, its power cord wound and tied, rabbit ears folded down.

“Your TV’s okay,” the man said, handing me the bill. "The tube’s in decent shape for its age, but you got no cable TV connector on here, and you got to keep in mind that it won’t pick up over-the-air broadcast signals anymore. The FCC’s mandated all digital channels now. You could rig a converter box to it, but your best bet is to just buy a new, digital-ready set. They’re not that expensive.

I lifted the TV and headed for the door, which was opening just in time. A delicate hand held it open for me–a dark wool coat, the blue cashmere scarf, the arch of her back, the length of hair so familiar, so remote. When she recognized me, she stopped. I tried to whisper hello, my throat so sandy that the words came out like a dog whine. My knees were putty, and the Zenith sank into my gut. Her face hardened to marble. I remembered: shrink night.

Fumo dimed me out. I could feel my face harden like quick-drying glue, my lips thickening. For the first time, I stared through Melinda with a hatred coiling from some dank reflecting pool inside me. You’ll never know me, and I’ll never know you, so let’s get back to our caves.

The TV sank lower in my arms. I wanted out. She was in the way. She stepped back and I muscled the thing outdoors. From the car I could see her gesticulating to the repairman.

I drove mindlessly to the parking lot at work, sat idling, thinking, waiting for something momentous to happen, for a wave to thunder over. Everything wrong I had done could never be undone. The Pathfinder’s heater blew warm air into the cabin. I didn’t have the radio on. I was staring at that amber warning light, the TV beside me on the seat. I kept looking over at the empty slots where her car would be. The lot was strange in the dark, painted with pools of white light. A police car pulled alongside. I looked at him. They’re coming for me now, I assumed. The cop glared for a long time at me then flicked his fingers. No, he just wants me to move along. I backed out, drove away.

I lugged the Zenith inside my apartment and set it down on the coffee table beside Tony’s wedding invitation. I spread the rabbit ears apart, plugged it in. Every notch in the dial brought the same thing: a gush of white noise and an electric hum. No signals. Nothing to tune in. They say, when you turn the brightness knob down all the way on a channel filled with static, that the little pops of light you see are particle echoes of the big bang.

I spent the night on the couch, squinting, counting random tics of light reaching from the beginning of time to my dark living room. Ten, fifteen per minute, sometimes more, sometimes a lot less. You never know what part of the screen they’re going to come from. It’s hard to keep a reliable count.

First published at Stoneslide Corrective, 2013