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Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Robert Moore.
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Return to lately 2009.
our small large world without answers
september 1, 2009
Usually I just glide, the worse thing I have to face being my continued disappointment with how difficult it's become in America these days to get a truly great pickle (sandwiches are so important in life, and what's a good sandwich without a great pickle?)
But these past two months, Mary and I have had so many things go wrong it's hard not to believe something supernatural is going on.
When you finally realize there's a pattern to recent events, you look back over the past to see when that pattern started.
To me, it was in June, when Mary and I came out of the local Kroger supermarket, with a cart full of purchases.
There was a family outside the automatically sliding exit doors, sitting on foldable chairs around a card table, a couple of large white coolers on the sidewalk by the slanted wooden legs of their chairs.
They were selling floats.
A float is a glass filled with vanilla ice cream, then topped-off with root beer or Coke. It's actually a pretty good drink.
I never carry cash. We pay for everything with checks.
But this particular morning, we were stopping by the post office to ship some review copies of my new short story collection, Remove the Eyes, overseas, and at the last minute I put a ten dollar bill in my pants pocket. I figured if the total postage cost less than ten dollars, it would just be quicker and easier paying in cash.
It turned out the postage cost more than that. I wrote a check.
So for the first time in years, I have money in my pocket. A ten dollar bill. And for the first time ever, there's a family outside a store we're exiting, selling ice cream floats. For exactly ten dollars.
What a coincidence.
I decided to buy a float. I felt I was destined to, by the coincidence.
Even though the root beer had been in a white Styrofoam container with ice, and of course the ice cream was cold, the float itself, in its combination of ingredients, was unpleasantly warm, sucked up the straw. Still, this was a family obviously in need, probably because of the recent economic downturn, so I didn't mind turning over my ten dollar bill.
Now, what interests me here, is that I performed an act of kindness, yet my "gut feel" is that that act of kindness set in motion the long series of disasters Mary and I then went through. Why would an act of kindness result in so much bad? I don't know. But it's an interesting question.
When Mary and I got home, Mary in the passenger seat holding the float so it didn't slosh, our garage door wouldn't open. We're in the car in our driveway, on a hot Texas afternoon, tired from shopping, car loaded with perishable food like ice cream and seafood, and the roll-up garage door will not budge.
So we have to carry three weeks' worth of food through our front door, through the downstairs, to the kitchen.
Once all the food is unloaded, I walk through the utility room, where our clothes washer and dryer are, to the garage, to see if I can spot anything obvious that would cause the garage door to malfunction. Not surprisingly, I can't.
I walk back to the utility room and shut the door to the garage as I always do, and as I do so, the brass doorknob in my hand feels funny.
I look at the doorknob.
It has sunk into the door.
For whatever reason, the doorknob of the inside door leading to the garage, the only other way of getting into the garage, has also broken.
That means that we are effectively locked out of our own garage.
We can't get into the garage to get the phone number on the sticker the garage door repairman stuck to the interior side of our garage door last time it malfunctioned, years ago, and even if we did have the number, since both the garage door itself and the door in the utility room leading to the garage from the inside are no longer working, there would be no way he could get into the garage to fix the problem.
It was really a "check" and "checkmate" moment.
Fortunately, although almost all our tools were in the garage, we did have a screwdriver in a drawer by our side-by-side.
After fifteen minutes on my haunches, I was able to disassemble the doorknob from inside, and pull its brass mechanism out, piece by pretty piece, until the doorknob itself gave up, and we were able to swing open the door. Stepping out into our empty garage, I wrote down the repairman's telephone number from the long-ago sticker, we called him, he came out, and installed a new spring for $350.
A few nights later, I got a blue screen of death on my computer.
If you've never experienced a blue screen before (and I hope you haven't), it's a dark blue screen with bone-colored paragraphs basically telling you you're fucked. Your pc is no longer working.
I've seen a lot of blue screens in my time on earth, and although all of them meticulously list, in a series of parentheses, specific error codes, lots of letters and numbers, especially zeroes, these error codes mean nothing to any of the technicians at Dell.
When I called the Dell service line in June, the customer service representative was unable to do anything other than reboot my operating system, which meant I lost all my files. But supposedly it fixed my problem.
But of course it hadn't, since I now had a new blue screen of death.
I called Dell.
The hardware technician had me run a couple of tests, where you repeatedly tap the same "f" key as the computer restarts (and isn't "f" such an appropriate first letter for these exercises?) , and determined from that it wasn't a hardware problem.
So he switched me over to their software department.
I had a hardware warranty in place, but software issues aren't covered under the warranty. To get Dell to fix my blue screen problem, I'd have to spend another $250. The software guy assured me that if I spent that money, he would definitely fix my problem. "The blue screen you are seeing is not a true blue screen. It is a false blue screen a malicious virus has put up on your computer. I guarantee I will get rid of that, and I will also make your computer run faster."
Okay. So I allowed him to charge $250 to my credit card, but with the understanding that if he didn't fix the problem, I'd get a full credit for the charge.
He went into this mode where he can remotely access my computer, with my permission. I sat in my chair, passively watching as he moved the little white arrow all over my screen, opening and closing programs, for what purpose I had no idea, me doubting he would be successful, wondering if this, instead, is the true tiny death. Not the petit mort of orgasm, as the French say, but the petit mort of watching someone you don't know try, from a remote location, to recover your crucial files.
The French, they are so optimistic!
After a while, the little white arrow went on the Internet to different virus-cleaning sites, downloading software, running it.
After an hour of holding the phone against my hot right ear, the moving-by-itself white arrow was not able to solve my problem. I got the blue screen again. The Dell technician changed his tune. Now he was saying the blue screen wasn't a fake blue screen, but was in fact a true blue screen informing me there was a corruption in my registry he couldn't fix.
So what about his guarantee he could fix my problem?
I told him I wanted a refund of the $250.
"I can do that for you, sir, but are you aware that with this software protection you can also use it to protect other family members for this same low price?"
"Oh, so in other words, for just $250 you can not only mislead me, you can mislead all the other members of my family?"
Anyway, I got the refund.
Dell is awful when it comes to customer service. Absolutely awful. Michael Dell should be ashamed of himself. He has a great product, but his support for that product is terrible.
So I had to buy a new computer. I decided to stay with Dell, only because their pc's usually are pretty good, until they break down. And I decided to get the hardware warranty again, just in case something did go wrong with a physical component.
A lot has changed since I last ordered a Dell computer.
Now, the only keyboard and mouse I could find were for gamers.
Mary and I haven't played video games since the eighties, when our thumbs got old, but I really didn't have a choice. I ordered the gamers' keyboard and mouse.
So I have a mouse that is studded like an Easter ham with all kinds of silver buttons, none of which I'm ever going to use, and the functions of which I don't know.
My keyboard has black rubber keys that are impossible to read until the computer is turned on, after which the keys light up in medium blue. It may surprise you to learn that blue on black is actually still harder to read than black on white.
I approved the Dell order, giving my credit card information.
I got a call from Dell. My credit card had been declined.
Impossible. We pay off the balance each month, and have a $15,000 credit line.
I gave another credit card number.
That, too, was declined.
Mary and I looked at each other. What is going on?
I called the credit card company.
It turns out, in this down-turned economy, the credit card companies are being especially cautious, in case a card is stolen. If you spend an amount outside what you normally spend (and certainly, we don't normally spend $3,000 on a purchase), the credit card company automatically declines the charge, until they hear from the card holder.
Once they heard from me, they allowed the charge to go through.
My new pc was supposed to arrive in a week. After I ordered it, I got an email from Dell saying it would take two weeks. I depend on my pc for my consulting business and my writing, so that was a huge blow. A few days later, I received an email saying it would actually take three weeks.
I called Dell to find out what the problem was. The Dell guy, of course, had no idea. I might as well have asked one of the trees in our backyard. Instead of just saying he didn't know what was causing the delay, he did what a lot of people who are never going to have any contact with you again, ever, in this life do. He simply repeated the obvious.
"Why is my computer delayed by two weeks?"
"Well, I see here sir that it was originally scheduled to arrive on this date, but now that arrival has been pushed back two weeks."
"But why was it pushed back two weeks?"
"I can see here that there has been a delay. According to my records, your computer was initially scheduled for delivery in one week, but that will now be in three weeks instead."
Okay. I had been thinking about getting even more hard drive, so maybe there was an upside to this. "So, Dell hasn't even started to work on my computer yet?"
"That is true. Right now, your computer is in PP status, which means 'pre-production' status. You can still make changes to your order, if you wish. Once your computer goes into IP status, which is 'in production' status, then you cannot make any changes to your order."
"How long does it take in IP status before it ships?"
"Oh, once it goes into IP status, it ships within twenty-four hours."
"Okay. So since it's still in PP status, can I substitute a larger hard drive?"
"Well, actually, I am showing it as IP status, so no, you could not make that change."
"I thought you just said it was in PP status."
"It is in IP status now."
"So does that mean it'll ship within 24 hours?"
"Well no, it is scheduled to ship in three weeks."
Then our TV stopped working.
It's a Samsung 52 inch HD LCD.
When we pressed the power button, instead of the TV coming on, it made a series of clicking sounds, trying, but failing, to turn on.
We finally did get it to turn on, after it clicked for a few minutes, but then we realized it probably wasn't safe to turn it off.
I called Sears, because we had paid $700 for a five-year warranty.
The Sears customer service rep said it was the power board. It needed replacing. The capacitors had evidently blown.
As Sears typically does, they first mail the replacement part to us, then once we have it, a technician arrives to install the part.
We should get the replacement part in the mail that Thursday. The technician would come out the following Monday.
Wednesday evening we got a call from Sears. The replacement part wouldn't ship until the following Monday. So we had to bump the technician's visit to fix the TV back to the following Thursday.
Monday we got another call from Sears. The part we needed, the power board, was on 'back order'. They had no idea when it would be shipped. "Keep calling us back every week or so, to see if we have an update."
God, that's a discouraging sentence.
After all kinds of contradictory information about my computer and when it would ship, it finally arrived.
And our power board for the TV arrived. I called to set up a new appointment to have the power board installed.
A Sears technician arrived.
We had been leaving the TV on 24 hours a day, so we wouldn't lose the ability to watch TV (since Mary's stroke she can no longer read, so having a TV is a big deal).
But because we had the TV on 24 hours a day, and it was in our bedroom, that meant we never, ever got a good night's sleep. There'd be the constant fluctuation in light and dark from scene changes on the TV. We put a large cardboard sheet Mary uses to cut out patterns in front of the screen, but it didn't really help that much. We even tried leaving the TV on the Encore Mysteries channel, which features a lot of film noir movies, which tend to be darker than most films, but every once in a while there'd be a beach scene, and our eyeballs would pop open at 2:30 in the a.m. Damn you, Masquerade starring Rob Lowe!
So by the time the Sears TV guy arrived, we were both hollow-eyed.
He was a short, slight middle-aged man with a moustache.
"Should I turn off the TV?"
"Yeah. Good idea."
I clicked it off, after a week of having it constantly on.
He stared back up at the TV on the wall. "I can't remove it from the wall."
"I'm only trained in servicing TVs that are free-standing. I don't know how to remove a TV that's mounted to the wall."
He couldn't have told us that before we turned off the TV?
So he left. I called Sears again. After being switched around from one department to another over the course of an hour, I was assured a Sears technician would arrive the next morning who knew how to remove a TV from a wall mount, replace the defective part, and put the TV back up on the wall.
In the meantime, we had no TV at all.
We started playing a lot of UNO. Mary beat me every game.
The next morning, our front doorbell rings. It's the same small guy from the other day!
"Oh, yeah, you're the couple with the wall-mounted TV."
Well, it turns out he does know how to remove a TV from the wall. But he'll need my help doing so. So suddenly I'm part of the Sears technician team.
But then it turns out he can't remove the TV, because it requires a special screwdriver he doesn't have. (The wall mount is screwed in place, for security reasons, with screws that have a dimple in the middle.)
It's eight-thirty in the morning. He tells us he'll service a couple of other customers, then come back at two o'clock and fix our TV.
He gets here after five.
And we do get the TV fixed.
But then our upstairs air-conditioning goes out.
We call an air-conditioning repairman.
He has to replace the outside motor. Six hundred dollars.
Water starts spewing from the cabinet under our sink.
Down on my knees, I open both oak doors.
There's a hole in our garbage disposal.
So we can't use our main kitchen sink anymore.
The next morning, we turn on our TV. It works!
We decide to celebrate getting the air-conditioning and TV fixed by doing our food shopping.
In good moods, we get in the car. I turn the ignition key. Nothing. Our car won't start.
Since it's almost the weekend, we decide to wait until Monday to get the car fixed.
In the midst of all this, we get our latest electric bill from TXU. $666.60. The mark of the beast in a utility bill?
Since we can't leave our home, we decide to at least water our lawn, something you can only do on certain days, at certain hours, here in north Texas. We set up the lawn sprinkler. Turn on the outside faucet. Nothing. The sprinkler normally shoots water about twenty feet up into the air. Now, just a little trail of water trickles out of the row of holes, like tears.
A section of our kitchen counter suddenly decides to buckle up away from the counter itself. Another expensive repair.
We lay down in our bed for our first good night's sleep since the TV problem started. Do you know what that's like, to be sleep-deprived for a couple of weeks, and then finally be able to close your eyes in total darkness, feeling the softness of the pillow against your left ear?
Except a short time after midnight, there was a beeping sound.
I woke up first. What the fuck is that?
I staggered barefoot out to our kitchen.
It was our security system.
All the square faces of the big money kitchen appliances watched from the shadows as the security system beeped again.
I leaned over the telephone-sized main module on our counter.
What the fuck?
I pressed the cherry red System Status Button.
A pleasant male voice, which actually doesn't sound that robotic.
"Time is one thirty-three a.m. Sensor three, back door, alarm. Sensor seven, bedroom window, alarm."
Well, we did have recent incidents where either Mary or myself accidently set off the alarm at those sites, we forgot the system was still armed, but why was our security monitor suddenly sharing this recent history with us?
I pressed the System Status button again, and it shut up.
Got back in bed.
Four hours later, the beep-beep-beep went off again.
"Time is five thirty-three a.m. Sensor three, back door, alarm. Sensor seven, bedroom window, alarm."
And it was like that all weekend. Sometimes it woke Mary up first, sometimes me. We took turns getting out of bed to tap the System Status button, to shut it up. It was like taking turns in the middle of the night to get up to feed a baby.
So Monday we had to call somebody to get the car fixed.
I absolutely hate bringing our car into a shop to get it fixed. For one thing, we only have one car. So that means we either have to sit in a boring cement block waiting room for hours, watching daytime TV shows we would never, ever watch, or we have to drop off the car, then arrange to have a taxi take us back home, and return us once the repair is done.
I got the idea in my head that in these modern times, there must be someone who comes out to your home and fixes your car in your own driveway, rather than you having to bring the car to their garage.
The thing was, at this point, after leaving the TV on all through the night, and getting up every four hours to punch down the security system beeps, we were both physically exhausted. I felt like I could fall asleep at any moment, except I couldn't.
So I went through all the yellow pages we had, not just the official AT&T yellow pages, but also the pretend yellow pages, to see if there were any mechanics who actually come out to your home, just like doctors used to do.
And I found one.
I called them eight o'clock Monday morning.
We had to pay a thirty-five dollar surcharge to have them come to us, but hey, at that point, I didn't care.
I expected the repairman to show up in a tow truck or large van, to be able to address any issue we had, but instead he pulled up to the curb in his own car.
Because we had had so many repairmen out to our humble home lately, and had to wait by the phone to find out when they would be coming out, I hadn't had a chance to mow our lawn in weeks.
The St. Augustine was four inches high, which meant that if our lawn went to an airport, it would immediately be approached by security personnel talking to their shoulders. Your lawn is the face you present to your neighborhood, it tells you something about the people inside, so I did feel a little embarrassed that ours was so shaggy. I didn't apologize for our lawn to the repair guy, but I did look around to see if any of our neighbors were outside.
The car repair guy was friendly and courteous. I told him our engine wouldn't turn over at all anymore, and the headlights were really dim. Which to me suggested an electrical problem, either the battery or the alternator.
"When you were driving, did the battery light come on?"
It's probably your battery, then."
We rolled the Honda CRV out onto the driveway, under the hot Texas sun. I immediately felt sweat popping on my scalp. He pulled out some cables, attached them to his battery and mine. Cranked the engine.
He was sitting behind the CRV's steering wheel, driver's side door open, one foot on the gas pedal, one foot on the driveway. "It's your battery."
His company was a small operation. The woman who answered the phone when I first called, I suspect, was his wife (although she did say, "Let me check with our repairman and call you back.")
But he seemed to know what he was doing. (The business card he handed me was professional. I noticed that on the back of the card they were also selling CDs and DVDs of Barack Obama's inaugural address, which I thought was nice.)
Because it was a small operation, though, there was a problem in how to pay him. He didn't accept credit cards. He could accept a check, but then he'd have to go to his bank to cash the check, in order to pay for the new battery we needed. Finally, I decided the easiest way to do this would be for all of us to go to Wal-Mart (he called, using my cell phone, to make sure they had the battery we needed in stock), since we could buy the battery at Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart also had an ATM where I could withdraw enough money to pay him in cash.
So he drove in his car, following Mary and me in our car.
We parked by Wal-Mart's automotive center. Mary and I went inside to the ATM, while he got our car ready.
Once we had the cash, I paid him $145, which to me was a bargain (as opposed to having to pay a tow truck to tow our car to a repair shop, then sit in a depressing wait area for a few hours.)
He kept our CRV's engine running while we sat inside, so we'd have air-conditioning, then we watched from the CRV's front seats as he pulled the battery out of our engine. The engine kept running, and the air conditioning kept working. Which was a revelation to both of us. I didn't realize your car could run without a battery. That seems to me like a body running without a heart. But apparently the battery is only necessary to start the engine.)
Ten minutes later, he came back with our new battery and installed it. I turned the engine off and on a few times, to make sure it worked, then that was that. I got out of the car to shake his hand. We'd definitely use him again.
After Mary and I got back home, we decided we might as well mow the lawn.
We still had a whole series of repairmen who needed to come out, to fix various electrical and plumbing problems I haven't bothered to mention that occurred during this two month siege, but we both felt great that at least our three major problems, TV, my computer, and our car, were back to normal.
I got about halfway through the left side of our lawn before the lawnmower died.
It would not restart.
It was dead.
We needed to buy a new mower.
So what caused this extraordinary sequence of events where one thing after another of ours broke?
We did feel it was way too many coincidences to just be chance. It did seem like we were being tested. Were we? Really? Who knows. But that's how it felt. It was not just the extraordinary number of things that suddenly stopped working, but the sequence. Just when we felt we had made an advance, something else would immediately go wrong. We fix the air conditioning. The car immediately stops working. We fix the car. The lawn mower immediately stops working. And on and on and on.
It was spooky.
And extremely frustrating.
Everything is relative, of course. The day will come, in our small large world without answers, although hopefully not for decades and decades, when we wish our only problems were broken cars and TVs and computers.
The day will come when we remember, with affection, these months when we were still strong, and beset.
My short story "In the Tunnels of the Agogs" is in the latest issue (number 55) of Dark Horizons, the official publication of the British Fantasy Society.
My short story "Hinky" will be appearing in 2010 in Title Goes Here.
My short story "Fleeing, on a Bicycle with Your Father, From the Living Dead," originally published in Midnight Street, will be appearing (probably this Fall) in the Permuted Press anthology The World is Dead.
The noted critic Mario Guslandi has given my new short story collection, Remove the Eyes, a very favorable review, for which I'm quite grateful. You can read the complete text of his review at Hell Notes. If you haven't ordered a copy of Remove the Eyes yet, this is the time.
Based on the huge success of this first volume of my short stories, I'll probably be releasing a second volume in 2010 which, in addition to eight other stories, will include my short novel, Kid.
If you like my writings, and I hope you do, maybe you'll like my musical tastes too. You can go over to Blip and listen to fourteen songs that I enjoy. More will be added as time goes on.
See you next month.