Whenever Pat and I are having an economically depressed year, I expect to juggle bill payments. I know that I will probably have some tense phone calls with doctors’ accountants. The boys’ hair will grow long because I will put off haircuts until they have to lift their bangs off of their foreheads to see their dinner. I know to anticipate various belt-tightening measures like forgoing new clothes and dinners out. I can predict that Pat will start clipping coupons out of the Sunday paper and announce after every grocery shopping how much he saved and who, in the check-out line, was impressed with his coupon system. But what surprises me every time is how much stuff breaks down and remains broken down because we can’t afford to fix it. It’s the cosmic sucker punch – just when we need our car, Internet, and cell phones the most, they will crap out on us and remain crapped out until our circumstances turn.
These days, the wipe board in our kitchen reads like a death toll of soldiers during wartime.
UNDERWEAR FOR SPENCE
I bear most of the disrepair with patience. However, when I have had to deal with several under-to-non-functioning items in a single day, I have been known to lose that patience. Recently, I spent one frustrating morning scotch-taping my reading glasses together so that I could work on our computer, which was so riddled with bugs and viruses that I could have composed and etched an entire poem in stone faster than I was managing to type one e-mail. That afternoon, I attempted to vacuum our wall-to-wall carpeting. “Attempted” is an accurate word in this case, since our bag-less, four-level, super-model of vacuum, bought during a good year, has never done much more than suck up a couple of slivers of dried shredded cheese, a ball of cat hair, and a thin layer of sand before moaning and belching it all out the back end. When this happens, I have to turn the vacuum around and endeavor to suck up the stuff the machine just spit out. This endless process of moving dirt around the house is a Sisyphean nightmare on a good day. On this particular day the vacuum bumped its game up a notch. It caught on a loose string of a rug, squealed like a piglet being slaughtered, spit out sparks, and emitted a burning smell, before shutting down completely with a dull snarl and a puff of smoke.
“The vacuum cleaner died again,” I reported to Pat in the kitchen. I reached up and wrote “NEW VACUME” on the wipe board. Pat looked, wiped it off, and respelled, “VACUUM”.
“I don’t give a shit how it’s spelled,” I said. “We need a new vacuum cleaner.”
“It’s just the belt,” said Pat. “I’ll get it repaired next week.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head vigorously. “We’re getting a new machine entirely. This one has NEVER worked. Never. We need a new vacuum. One that can actually suck up the filth this family creates on a daily basis.”
“A new vacuum is going to cost at least a hundred and fifty dollars.”
“I don’t care. This has got to be the fifth time we’ve taken it in. A belt is what? Five dollars? We’ve already sunk twenty-five dollars into this piece of crap. That’s a sixth of the price of a new machine. This machine is a loser. It’s worse than our toaster that only toasts on one side. When a machine is a loser, it’s an irredeemable dud. It’s not like a person who can want to get better and affect some massive change. It’s a hard, cold fact that something is deeply, unalterably wrong with our vacuum cleaner. And no amount of new belts is going to change that!”
“Look. Don’t worry about it,” said Pat, calmly, “I’ll take care of it. I’ll get the belt replaced and I’ll vacuum as soon as I bring it home.”
I wanted to scream, throw a bunch of stuff, and stomp around, except Murphy was in the next room and I wanted him to think of me as a tad further along than him on the maturity scale. A year’s worth of unmitigated hatred for the machine that had held so much bag-less promise constricted my throat as I seethed in the middle of the kitchen. I spun around, grabbed my coat from its hook in the hallway, opened the door, walked out, and slammed it with as much force as I could summon.
Breathing hard in the hallway, tears stinging my eyes, I paused because I didn’t know where to go. And in that pause, a breath really, I saw myself – wrung out, trembling, unable to chart a course. This was not the person I wanted to be, bested by broken eyeglasses, a slow computer, and a dud vacuum cleaner. Where was the fearless artist, devoted mother, and adventurous world traveler?
Nowhere. She was fiction.
I leaned against our door and slid down.