The filter of Roy’s cigarette is just warming when the house-phone rings. It rings a second time, then a third, and he pulls his cellphone from the right pocket of his jeans. (No missed calls.) He lets the phone ring while he puts out his cigarette on the poured concrete patio. Crusssh crshhhhh and the red-brown embers extinguish.
He stands up and looks around with finished cigarette in hand. The wind carries smoke away from him. (Nothing out of the ordinary.) The rake that he’d left propped up against the aluminum siding has fallen to the ground but it seems a waste to pick it up. The cigarette butt is deposited into a flip-top trashcan a few feet from the door. It smells of stale ash.
The door slides with some difficulty to the right and back again. Dirt has built up inside the track and it no longer has the easy slide of its younger days. He pulls the heavy curtain across the door to hide the glass. This installation, he’s proud of; a metal tube that doesn’t sway with use. The curtain itself is a thick burgundy fabric with large, metal-trimmed holes to bear the rod. He could hardly remember the junk that had been there before. They had bought this house shortly after Jake was born and Shirley had done most of the decorating. She had good taste in color and texture but had bought from department stores, not noticing the decline in the quality of the products sold compared to what her parents had bought. The packaging was bright and touted this and that feature. But time and time again they would disappoint. The old window-dressing had plastic pulleys and dubious fabric clips that never stayed clipped. And the flimsy excuse for a curtain rod – never again, he had vowed.
The backyard now hidden from view, he sits down at the island, against his better judgement. Shirley has cleaned up all evidence of her breakfast, save the few cups of coffee warming in the glass carafe. He sits in silence, considers pouring himself a cup of coffee, but thinks better of it. His back aches from the pose he must use to stay aloft in the tiny stool. Breakfast sounds unappetizing.
The newspaper is still spread out on the countertop, open where Shirley had last read. Unsure whether he wants to read the paper, Roy instead rearranges the leaves, folding each section carefully and placing the finished portions atop one-another. He pushes them to his right, toward the garage door, and then changes his mind and pushes the stack to the left.
If Shirley were here, as most mornings since he had retired, she would be reading the paper in this chair. He would be sitting in the reclining chair sipping coffee and watching whatever TV she had put on when she awoke. She liked talk-shows with babbling faces, though she would always take care to state something she didn’t like about each of the personalities. If she were going out that day, she might prefer a local program. Traffic reports dotted light-news from around the buroughs; someone’s very-bad-days translated to forgettable ambiance.
In the days before the living room was dominated by the monolithic noisebox, he kept a radio on the kitchen counter, where the roads’ status came by recitation. The antenna, adjusted daily, never seemed to have the same effect on the sound quality, and, in the later years of its life, the thing broadcast more static than voice. It now lay in the garage, where he turned it on now and again when he felt lonely. It ran on batteries now, and though he hated the short lifespan of the electric-potential-cylinders, the portability was a boon. And yet, when was the last time he’d used it?
Roy rose from the stool, a new pain now shooting down his calf, and dropped himself into the armchair. He gazed blankly at the black television. The remote-control sat in its shadow, turned about forty degrees from its receiver. A power button near the top glowed dimly red.
He looked again at the television, noting a feeling of longing. (Every. Damn. Day.)
The living room was quiet and empty. Birds sang their usual song and people rushed by in their cars, but Roy noticed neither. All that was apparent to him was that the television was not on.
The smell of dead cigarette rose from his shirt.
Frustrated already, and the morning had barely begun; Roy rose from the chair with some difficulty (it, too, had grown soft) and wandered as slowly as possible back to the bedroom to use the toilet.
The bedroom door squeaks. (I should do that, too.)
After a moment of respite, he returns to the living room, aimless and unsatisfied. He is again aware of the television and the emptiness that hangs like a fog around the house. He remembers how he felt, after marrying his wife, that she was addicted to the thing; first the news, then talk-shows, then the soaps… which she would rarely watch with him in the house. All of which paled in comparison to the abominable home-shopping-networks. His son, too, took on the habit of watching hours per day if he were able, usually cartoons with castrato dialogue too saccharin to sink in. Some of the live-action movies were better; they’d had many contented evenings as father and son sharing a place and time, but all too soon he’d left the house, and Shirley filled the mornings and evenings with programs of her own choosing. Strangers narrated their lives day-in and day-out. He’d once often wished she’d make less noise (Shirley and Jake were always finding something to bicker about), but found himself regretting the sentiment. In their youth he’d found her warmth and friendliness like no other’s, her smile infectious, her eyes sparkling. He could still see her on their first date…
But he can’t focus on her face as the memory blurs and the television’s blackness throws him back into listlessness. Another unpleasant memory surfaces –
The orphanage he lived in when he had become self-aware and began to create memories. He’d never known another home before its walls. The nurses claimed he’d spent the better part of a year in a foster home, but he couldn’t remember. At Andrus, there was one room with a television, a large wood-lined room where the other children sat in tight clumps and stared rapt at the black-and-white flashing patterns. He hated the things they watched, always far-off places and well-dressed, clean people with overwrought ways of avoiding the truth. He hated sitting close-in, where another child would scoot into him in an effort to get a better picture. That inch made no difference to them, he thought, but it was an invasion of his consciousness. The little part of him that had left the orphanage to dance took a slap to the face, and he felt shame for ever forgetting himself: the frowning, dour, mulatto nothing-of-a-boy. Soon, he didn’t even bother. He hated Westerns. He hated game-shows. And he hated the memory of that television never turned off.
Roy tried to shake the memory from his mind. (The place is long-gone, and long-forgotten.) He sends a donation every year and leafs through the color brochures; always to inure, to steel himself against the past. But where he grew up is no longer there. The children have the same forced smiles, but there’s something less hungry about them.
In the kitchen, he bends down to open a cabinet and retreives a bag of potato chips he’d opened yesterday. A chipped white bowl becomes a serving dish tchikle tchikle and he refolds the bag and places it back where he found it. He returns to his armchair and places the chips to his right on a small table. Roy insists to himself that he will spend none of today watching television.