By Alan Girling
I was sure that inside that box would be the biggest TV set in the whole world. From my spot on the arm of the chesterfield, I watched the two men unloading it off the truck. In those days, a new color TV was a huge deal. For me, it meant getting rid of the black and white on its wire stand and rollers, and no more going to Brady Lee's after school just to watch Monty Hall and Dark Shadows.
The men squeezed their way through the door and Dad greeted them with pats on the back. "In the corner next to the fireplace, boys."
My brother Stanley and I jumped and ran circles around them. "For crying out loud!" Dad yelled. "Didn't I tell you boys to stay on the chesterfield?" So we clambered back and started bouncing.
Months of talk led to this day. Dad was getting some success selling kitchenware. He said the TV would be a great addition to the household, a piece of fine furniture, a once in a lifetime deal. Not that he watched TV much, other than the news and Ed Sullivan. Years before, he'd catch a football game at every chance, if he wasn't playing himself, that is. It used to be his job, kicking goals for the Ti-Cats. After he cracked his knee, that was the end of that.
The men were shifting the box into place when Mom appeared at the door to the kitchen. She was wiping her hands on a dishcloth and standing stiffly like she always did when she came to check up on us. "Russ, no, not there." she said. "It's too close to the fireplace. The heat will ruin the wood."
"Where else do you suggest, dear?" Dad said. "I'm not going to rearrange the whole darn living room. Besides, now that we've got a color TV, when are we going to have a fireplace?"
The men laughed, and Dad grinned and winked at them. He gave a smile and a nod to Mom to let her know he was kidding, but she just shook her head and turned back to the kitchen.
A banner of tape stretched diagonally across the screen, "25 INCHES" written in bold letters, each letter a color of the rainbow. One of the men tore off the tape and attached the rabbit-ears while the other unraveled the electric cord. Dad stood with his arms folded, grinning and looking as satisfied as ever.
When it was ready, they turned a big knob and we waited almost a minute until the black turned to a dazzling blur of shifting orange and blue shapes. One man flipped through the twelve channels, getting the same.
"Aren't we gonna have Cablevision?" I asked. "I thought we'd be able to watch The Rat Patrol, like Brady Lee can on his TV."
"Sorry, boys. Cablevision costs money. You just get three more channels anyway."
"But they're the best ones!"
"There's plenty of American shows on our channels. Tell you what. You can stay up to watch Ed Sullivan Sunday night. The paper says Topo Gigio's on."
We loved Topo Gigio with his funny accent and big mouse ears, but Sunday was still two days off, and this was Friday night, the one night of the week Mom and Dad kept for themselves: hors d'oeuvres and wine in the living room with lots of adult talk. That's what they called, "having a fireplace."
"We can't wait that long!" Stanley said from the floor in front of the screen. "We want to watch tonight! Come on, Dad."
"We'll see. You're lucky it's not a school night."
The two men then came forward. One handed Dad a large, brown envelope.
"The manual and contract's inside," he said. "We'll let you play with the setup yourself. If you have any questions, call the service center."
When the men were gone, Dad dropped the envelope onto the chesterfield and shooed Stanley away. Then he hitched up his pants, squatted eye-level with the screen and began fiddling with the panel of knobs. I didn't expect much; he had little patience for technical stuff. Eventually, something like a picture began to appear on channel twelve. With the volume turned up, we listened to the sound. It was the ring-around-the-collar commercial. I thought about how it'd look in color. Dad reached for the rabbit ears.
"Hey, look," Stanley blurted. "The Big Show's on! Let's watch."
“Yeah, yeah, let's," I added. "Today's 'Creature from the Black Lagoon'!" It was a movie we'd seen a hundred and twelve times.
The image was stronger now, as good as our old TV. I could read the credits, hear the music, but still I hadn't seen any color. Dad said the movie was old and in black and white, that we'd have to wait for something in color. For ten minutes we watched until Mom called us for dinner.
I scooped my meatloaf, potatoes and peas into my mouth as fast as I could. But I knew we couldn't go anywhere until Mom and Dad were done. As usual, they weren't in any hurry.
"Just a few more adjustments and the set will be ready to go," Dad said. "Any good suggestions, dear? I'll leave tonight's schedule to you."
Mom looked down at her plate, shook her head slightly and looked up. She wore a flat but open expression. I knew that meant there was business to take care of first.
"I'd like to know if we can move it away from the fireplace, for one," she said.
"Well, you know, that might be difficult. I just assumed--"
"We can discuss it, can't we?" Mom's face was hardening now. This time, it didn't look like she was going to hold back. "This is my house, too, I live here, too. Come to think of it, I live here more than you do, all the time, in fact. So naturally I want to be comfortable and keep things nice. I do keep things nice, don't I? And that TV will not be nice for long with that heat right next to it. Or were you serious when you said we won't have fireplaces anymore?"
"I know it's Friday night, dear, of course. I just thought, it's a special occasion, this TV, and we don't want to deprive the boys, I mean, we can have our fireplace tomorrow or anytime, and sure, we can discuss the layout of the living room. You're a lot better at those things than I am."
"Am I? Or do you just not want to be bothered thinking about such trifles? Perhaps you'd rather have your live-in woman take care of it."
"Oh, come on, Joan! You know that's not fair. Here we are with a brand new color TV, a once in a lifetime deal. We should be feeling proud and enjoying it, but instead . . . well, all I can say Joan is thanks, thanks a whole lot!"
"Half-price is still too much to pay for colors I can see looking out the window or at the members of my family. And a lot more clearly, I might add. But it's your money, Russ, it's your money. You have your TV, your home entertainment, but I need to get out in the world and--"
Dad flung his napkin down onto his food, stood up, almost knocking his chair over, and turned to leave. I'd seen him do this before, whenever Mom complained about something, which was happening a lot recently. He got to the doorway of the living room and stopped, his fists clenched. I thought he might punch the wall or something.
"You can't let it alone, can you, Joan? I'll say it for the last time. No wife of mine has to work. Got that? But I'm not going to discuss it, not now, and certainly not in front of the boys."
Before she could answer, Dad disappeared. We heard the front door slam, then the rasp and sputter of the car.
"Go watch the new TV, boys," she said. "I've got dishes to do."
Her eyes looked tired, beyond the doings of the day. Even as Stanley and I got up, she stayed with the plates and leftovers. With a softness that broke the strain in her face, she said: "Sorry you boys had to hear that."
"That's okay," I said, feeling relieved and a little bit bad about being in the way. But I was free to run and switch on the TV, so that's what I did.
Stanley and I lay sprawled on the carpet watching The Big Show, the glow of the screen filling the darkened room. Dad walked in, holding a small yellow bag from Beaver Hardware. I didn't know what was in it, but I guessed he had to have something to do after storming out. He tossed the bag on the chesterfield, then stood towering behind us. I kept my eyes on the TV. I wanted to watch Daktari, see the African game reserve adventures of animal doctor, Marsh Tracy, and the cross-eyed lion, Clarence.
Dad sat down on the chesterfield with a thud.
"What's on, boys?" he asked. The colorless Creature (bright, reptilian green in my mind) battled the scientists who would soon kill him. When I looked back at Dad, I saw he was holding up a small sheaf of paper and squinting, trying to read in the faint light. The brown envelope from the deliverymen lay on his lap.
"Creature from the Black Lagoon," I said. "It's ending."
The colors in the commercials were a dazzling blur and when Daktari started, we saw Clarence staring at us with kaleidoscopic eyes, his coat and mane a fuzzy, cheddar orange.
"Fix the color, Dad," I said, but got no reply.
"And the eyes!" Stanley said.
Dad sighed and muttered something hard, like a word we weren't supposed to hear. He pulled himself up and walked to the kitchen, the papers scrunched tightly in his hand.
"They're supposed to be that way," I told Stanley. Dad now stood hulking and shadowy in the doorway, backlit against the glow from the kitchen.
"Can't you fix the color, Dad?" I asked.
On the TV, a jeep roared through the jungle, bearing down on us. The image suddenly vibrated, then split into two, a cross-eyed view of the world. Identical jeeps roared at us out of the trees, then drove right through each other like ghosts. Clarence reappeared, clear and whole, only his eyes askew. We laughed.
But Dad didn't answer or move from the doorway. I heard Mom's voice from the kitchen.
"Russ, come back in here," she said.
"Bastards! Goddamn fucking bastards!" he said, this time plenty loud enough.
"Russell!" my mother yelled.
I looked over at Stanley, but he was caught up in the show. Two of these words I'd heard before, but not the one in the middle. It sounded worse. I didn't feel like laughing anymore.
I stared at the TV for an hour. The show ended with everybody gathered around Dr. Tracy and Clarence, celebrating their defeat of the ivory poachers. Then Mom hurried into the room, turned on all the table lamps, hustling us upstairs to bed, "off we go, off we go now," not asking us how we liked the new TV, not even telling us to brush our teeth. But it was okay. I never minded early bedtimes because I got to hide under the covers and listen to old radio dramas on my crystal radio set. Tonight was "The Shadow" with another story where the invisible Lamont Cranston saves Margot Lane from the bad guys. Anyway, something was wrong with the new TV, something about it being there.
A banging noise from downstairs woke me up. I heard murmuring voices and what sounded like groans. Slipping out into the hall, I quietly made my way down the stairs. Before I reached the living room, I stopped and sat down, snug against the wall and holding my knees close.
From the kitchen came a wracking sob and an occasional moaning, like something sparked by the sudden memory of a deep hurt. I had to struggle to imagine who was making these sounds, but I actually knew. Then heard my mother's calm tones.
"I just don't understand, Russell," she said. "I just don't understand how this could have happened. They said half-price, right?"
"The goddamn fine print," Dad said, his voice breaking. "It didn't apply to layaway plans, only cash up front!"
"It's bad, you know, but, but for you it's nothing new. And that's the horrible thing. It's not the money. That's not what's bad."
"I swear, in the morning, I'm going down there with the TV. I'm gonna make sure we don't pay them another fucking cent, and I'll get everything we paid back. I swear!"
"You can try. But you know what? I don't care, I just don't care. This is just the last of a bad lot, and so many, that camper trailer, that insurance swindle, the, the, trip to Disneyland we never got to take because of you and your stupid . . . not to mention all those months of low sales --"
"Damnit, Joan, I've been getting good commissions. Things have really turned around. That's why we got the TV."
"Those 'good' commissions are gone, Russ. Sunk, in your wonderful TV. Things look like they're turning around and you toss it in the trash. Heavens, even when it's good, it's bad!"
"Our TV, ours! You never objected!"
"I would have if I'd known about this, if you'd let me be part of your deals--"
"Christ almighty. Don't you think I work goddamn hard every day to provide for this family? Do you think I'd flush hard-earned money down the toilet if it meant any kind of hardship for you and the boys?"
There was anger in his voice but also a sinking, a pleading I'd never heard from him before. My mother paused before she spoke again.
"Maybe you weren't meant for this sort of life, Russell. You were meant for football. That's the man I married. The man who could kick one field goal after another, win games, the love of the fans. That's where you belong. Not selling pots and pans. Not playing the sales game. I'm sorry you smashed your knee, it was an accident, I know, and I love you no matter what you do, but you're not winning at this. You don't know how, so you're losing. Badly. And I'm so very tired."
"So I made a couple mistakes. I'm doing my job, I'm doing right by you. You have a roof over your head, who got you that? Two great boys, your bridge club. You can't say I'm a loser, Joan. I'm not a loser, I'm not!"
For a long while, I heard only a convulsive breathing coming from Dad, the occasional cough. Then the tap running, the clink of drinking glasses. I should hurry back, I thought, but I shivered and couldn’t move. I wanted to hear more, wanted an ending, a happy one. No angry tired mother. No angry loser father. No old black and white TV.
Then my mother said, "Tomorrow, return the TV, Russell. On Monday, I'm looking for work. That's final. Now I'm going to bed."
I ran to my room. Mom climbed the stairs, flushed the toilet, clicked her bedroom door shut. Dad didn't come up during the long minutes it took me to fall asleep.
In the morning at breakfast, before Dad came down, Mom told us. A mistake had been made; the company had sent the wrong TV; we'd have to wait until we could afford the right one. There was no telling how long. I stayed quiet, but Stanley made a fuss, and Mom scolded him for not appreciating how lucky he was to have such a good provider for a father.
We weren't allowed to see our Saturday morning cartoons for the two hours it took him to come downstairs. When he did, we watched from the chesterfield as he took out a roll of brown packing tape from the Beaver Hardware bag and began sealing the TV into the big box. It was strange, that tape, as if he knew he'd be needing it.
On Sunday, we stayed up to watch Topo Gigio on the old set. I wondered whether Topo was grey, pink, brown or maybe some crazy purple color. Dad came into the room to say he was sorry about the mix-up, but didn't stay to watch.
Eventually we got our new TV, but for a long time, I couldn't really put Dad into focus, or see him whole, like he'd been split in two and would dissolve at any moment into a ghostly haze. I guess there were other late night talks, maybe even other times he cried. Just not in front of the boys. He did keep selling his kitchen goods, though, and Mom started working as a boutique clerk and was even promoted to manager, which was when we got our new TV, big, in full color, and with Cablevision, too. Not that anyone would call it a fine piece of furniture. At least I didn't have to go to Brady Lee's house after school anymore, he even came to mine. Anyway, it was thanks to Dad because it was pretty much understood in the family that getting a new color TV came from his long and hard work, and he was very proud of that.
Alan Girling teaches college in Vancouver, Canada, and writes mainly poetry and fiction.
His work has appeared in journals and anthologies, heard on the radio, at many live
readings, even seen in local shop windows. In his spare time, he helps promote the written
word through his work with the Royal City Literary Arts Society in New Westminster, B.C.
"Daktari" is available in audio form here