It was Valentine’s Day. I made a dinner reservation at Milano just in case, and the needles from the Christmas tree were everywhere. I even found some in the bathtub. I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but neither does the fact that I got a birthday card from President Bush in the mail. The guy hasn’t been in office for years, not to mention I’m a Democrat. Anyway, the box that flashes, the People Meter or whatever they call it, it stopped flashing, so I contacted Richard. He’s the tech guy who comes out and tests the channels, makes sure all the data they track is getting recorded. He’s a Belsen man, through and through, proud to work for a ratings company that makes a science of linking advertisers with the right audience. Still not sure why they picked us, but it’s kind of flattering to be a Belsen Family Household, to know that our opinion carries some weight. We turn on the TV, plug our names into the box, and Belsen does the rest. So what if they track what shows I watch, how much bottled water I buy per month, how many times I went on WebMD to find out if that bump on my forearm was cancer or just a bump? Big deal. I’m an open book, nothing to hide. Wish that were true for Becca. Her light on the People Meter, it’s right next to mine, but it’s pretty hard to plug your name into the box when you’re living across town.
Anyway, I got off work at 4–that seismic retrofit on Folsom–and hurried back to the house. When Richard showed up, he had a guy with him. Buzz cut, a pair of Oakleys on backward–not very professional. I would have expected Richard to make him button his collar, especially with those tattoos on his neck. The guy seemed kind of gimpy, like he’d rolled his ankle playing basketball that morning and the swelling hadn’t gone down. He carried a cardboard box with handles, held it low like it weighed a ton, but it was empty. Richard didn’t introduce him, which was weird. I mean Richard and I, we’ve had some great conversations over the past couple years. I’d make coffee and we’d talk about the latest hit shows. We’d laugh about the purists who didn’t approve of how, when the powers that be adapt something from a book, they add all the gratuitous sex. Like these guys, the ones who dress up as Han Solo at Comic-Con, they really find all the T&A distasteful. Richard has a good sense of humor, real dry. He told me he used to own a landscaping company where he rented out goats to keep the weeds down, but there were complications. When I asked what happened, all he said was They ran away.
So Richard, he was acting kind of quiet, got right to work. Held the People Meter up to his face, stared at it like Shakespeare and that skull.
“It’s just a box, Richard,” I said. “It’s not going to tell you any secrets.”
He didn’t even look over. He inspected the box a little more, then told his assistant to go to the corner for coffee.
“I already made a pot,” I said, but Richard nodded and the guy limped out the front door, closed it real careful, like he was scared to make any noise.
Richard slid the entertainment center from the wall before I could help. He didn’t care about the dust. In fact, he said this one time on another call-out there was a dust bunny so big that when it rolled out onto the floor, the family Rottweiler had a panic attack and jumped onto the dining room table. Richard knows how to put a person at ease, which is kind of a lost art.
“You know my neighbor Tony?” I said. “The one I was telling you about who brings that black-light thing to check the bedspreads on all his business trips? He stepped in it bad this time. He put up a shed 6 inches from my fence. The thing is, we have an offset of 4 feet here. From the property line.”
Richard bent down on his hands and knees, sort of twisted so he could get at the plugs. It seemed like he didn’t want to get involved. I don’t blame him, really. Neighbor stuff can be a little tricky. Anyway, I told him to be careful of his back. I care about Richard. He’s one of the good ones.
“You know what?” I said. “Forget the coffee. I got a bottle of Lagavulin that Becca and I picked up a few years ago. That distillery tour on our fifth anniversary. The honeymoon, we went to Tahiti. Thought Scotland would be a nice follow-up.”
I couldn’t tell if Richard heard me. He was stuck behind the TV like a bear in a garbage can, his ass pointing straight up, so I went to the kitchen and swept the takeout containers aside, used the middle drawer to climb onto the counter, and pulled the bottle from the high cabinet where we keep all of Ryan’s old art projects from school. Ryan loves to draw, kind of does these mosaic things where all the little shapes add up to something bigger, something you can figure out. I always tell Ryan he’s got a gift, that not everyone can make things add up to something bigger.
Anyway, I poured three Lagavulins–even a couple fingers for Richard’s assistant–and brought them to the living room. Richard looked at his glass, got this sort of grin. He knew me well enough–when I say I’m bringing out the good stuff, I bring out the good stuff. But for some reason, maybe because it wasn’t just me and Richard this time, he let the glass sit there on the end table.
“So Tony’s new shed,” I told Richard. “When it rains, the water sheets off the roof into my vegetables. I mean, I don’t have a winter garden, but it dumps right there where I grow my tomatoes. You’d think a guy who hauls a black light with him from Sacramento to Saskatoon would know the offset, build a little farther from the fence. You’d figure he’d at least invest in some rain gutters.”
That’s when Richard’s assistant came back. I saw him look over at the Christmas tree. Something about him, he just didn’t want to be here. Way I see it, you don’t want to be here, then go. No one’s holding you back. Anyway, he kind of ruined the moment, made Richard and me feel uncomfortable.
“How’s your wife doing?” I said.
“She’s fine,” Richard said.
“You guys still fostering that kid?”
He grunted. One of the cords was giving him a hard time.
I gestured to the Scotch, but Richard’s guy, he wouldn’t respond. Just stared straight ahead with two cups of scalding coffee in his hands.
“You know, that’s something special,” I told Richard. “My wife’s family, they had a foster kid. Gabriella. She was a couple years older than Becca. They shared a room. The kid went on to win a Grammy or a Golden Globe–one of those awards–for film editing. Supposedly, it’s a boys’ club. Film editing, that is. So the fact she made her mark is testimony to the love the family must have given her. Makes a difference.”
Richard backed out from behind the entertainment center kind of stiff, then gestured to his assistant, who coiled the cord around the People Meter and put it in the box.
“That runoff, it’s tearing up my garden,” I said. “I asked Tony what the heck he was thinking, but all I got was this excuse and that excuse–the kids are playing two sports at once, his wife threw a big party for his 35th, and the caterer was taking him to small-claims court. Bottom line, looks like I’m gonna have to take matters into my own hands.”
That’s when Richard told me he’d need to see my laptop. Richard’s a good guy, but he just wasn’t himself.
“It should take a couple minutes to uninstall,” he said. “Then we’re done.”
“Is everything all right?” I said. I couldn’t tell if Richard was all right.
“Listen, Ken …” Richard said, but that was it.
I led him to the kitchen table. There were some old flowers in a vase that I hadn’t noticed smelled kind of moldy. With this big job–the one over on Folsom–some of the household stuff … let’s just say it escaped me. I dumped the water in the toilet.
“The gutters, they’re already cut. I’m not about to use brackets,” I said. “Hell, it’s not even my shed. I’m just going to hammer the damn things in. They’re kind of wobbly. I was hoping you could hold the other end.”
Richard didn’t agree to help but didn’t say no either. He sat down at my laptop and started tap-tap–tapping.
“You’re running slow,” he said.
“Story of my life,” I said.
“You’ve got malware,” Richard said.
“I’d play dumb, say it’s not from visiting those suspicious websites, but you guys already know about all that. Nothing escapes the data-mongers at Belsen, right?”
Richard started pulling up pages I didn’t know existed. He wasn’t himself, but he overhauled my computer anyway.
“Guess I shouldn’t have visited Jussipussi.com,” I said.
This got a laugh. Finally.
“For the record,” I told Richard, “Jussipussi is a brand of bread products. In Finland.”
Next thing you know, Richard and I are up on ladders. It was one of those streaky sunsets you only get in winter, the kind that bounces off the stucco and turns everything orange. I saw Tony’s mother snooping next door, but when I waved she disappeared from the window. Must’ve been watching the kids while Tony and Vanessa went out for Valentine’s Day. Who knows, maybe they took our table at Milano. The one in the corner where Becca and I like to relax with some Sangiovese.
“You have a garden?” I asked Richard.
“No time,” he said.
“I used to be that way,” I said. “But I was at a party and this guy was going on and on about how, when the shit hits the fan, it’s going to be impossible to survive without the internet. Made me think. We’re getting far away from the basics, Richard. The middlemen have middlemen these days.”
“You’re right,” Richard said. “But I still don’t have the time.”
The gutters were easy enough. Nice and pliable so they wouldn’t crack when I drove the nail in. I figured one every 18 inches or so.
“Becca, she’s on board,” I said. “She makes me plant six kinds of tomatoes. Non-GMO. You know, the heirlooms. We laugh we’ll have enough sauce to live through Dawn of the Dead and Red Dawn.”
Richard smiled. I had a hunch he was a fan of Red Dawn. The first time we met, when he came over to do the install, we talked about how weird it is that a country this big hasn’t been invaded by foreigners. Then he said Unless Canadians count, and that’s when I knew he was all right. Actually, we both admitted that Canadians, they’re some of the best comedians around, but we still went along with the joke.
Richard took the hammer, started to nail his end of the gutter. The assistant came out, asked if there was a broom for the pine needles. He seemed more at ease, like maybe he’d reconsidered the Scotch. I told him to check the pantry.
When I turned back to Richard, I couldn’t really see him anymore. He was only 10 feet away, but the sun had gone low. A shadow crept over, a little wider than both of us, and there were no wires anywhere. That’s when it hit me. I was going to miss having my data collected. Someone wanting to know how many bottles of wine I buy per month, if I still drive a Subaru or watch shows where they hunt for Bigfoot. It would be different now. I could plant only one kind of tomato if I wanted, maybe even those white cherry tomatoes they Frankenstein in a lab somewhere. I could toss out that damn birdbath, the one in the shape of a cat wearing a sombrero. There wouldn’t be a thing to stop me, really. I could do that trick I always wanted to do where I invite the Jehovah’s Witnesses inside, sit them down at the kitchen table, and give them a fake Scientology test, see who blinks first. Becca used to say Go for it, there’s nothing holding you back. Funny how she’d say that, encourage me to chase whatever I wanted, especially on account of what she ended up doing.
Richard got the last nail in. The gutter wasn’t perfect, but good enough for union work. There was something I needed to say to Richard, so I did.
“Rain or shine, when the light flashed, I always plugged my name into the box.”
He wanted to ask, I could tell. He wanted to know why I didn’t report any changes to the household. It was Belsen policy, to report household changes.
If Richard asked, I would have told him.
Tales From an Uncertain Future