by, Neil Carter
It was cold. The cold that bites. My crew and I were in the south end of town replacing steel gas lines on houses. This particular house was mostly burnt down. A split-level at the dead end of a cul de sac. For two full days I saw smoke trails seeping from the piles of blackened wood. The smell of scorched fiberglass wafted out through a sunken pit of debris making it almost impossible to leave my face uncovered. It had sleeted in the early hours of the morning, giving the blackened remains a shimmering gloss. Like the ocean at night.
“What’s the point of running all this plastic if the whole front of the house is blown out,”
I asked my crew.
“Cuz the gas company pays for it,” said my foreman Jerry.
I didn’t overthink his answer. Physical work was done best in a quick and compartmentalized fashion. Going into the body and doing the work. Trance-like. And that’s what I did. I marched through the muck field up to the riser and thrusted my shovel head into the frozen dirt, not letting up until the steel buzzed up through the wooden shaft into my palms.
“Looks like it's nineties straight out,” I said.
“Go head and cut it,” said Jerry.
Every-time I ever cut into steel with a reciprocating saw I was terrified. Most of the men that did this sort of work did it reflexively. It was a birthright — encoded in them from past generations of working men. Fastidious, simple, concrete men who worked fearlessly. Some even recklessly. I’d heard stories of electrocution, combustion, asphyxiation and accidental laceration. I’d often play an image in my mind before each cut. A gruesome vignette of a dull sawzall blade snapping against the steel and ricocheting into my neck like a bullet, sending me back into the grass. There I’d lay, dying quietly, in some stranger’s grass as my crew circled around me, each of them wearing a soft shock as I drowned in a gargle of blood. My last blinking images of this world being weathered lawn ornaments. Toads in overalls. Little foxes with straw hats. Smiling down at me. Holding back laughter. Because the truth was out. I never knew what the hell I was doing all along.
Once the steel was cut, I exhaled my relief and unearthed the severed piece of pipe below the shut off valve. The yellow plastic piping was already pre measured and cut from the truck, so I began sharpening one of the ends into a point. Lying on my stomach, I dangled upside down in the hole and slid the sharpened end into the opening of the steel that still extended outward and with a hammering motion I shoved the pipe through the steel tube toward the street where the gas main was buried. With every push, gray dirt from the edge of the hole above me broke loose and sprinkled down my neck, into my face. Some of it got in my mouth. I spit it out the best I could and kept pushing. In the summer, the feeling of dirt on my skin relaxed me, especially when I’d sweat. But in the dead of winter like this, it felt like being buried alive. My pipe hit the bell hole where Jerry was waiting with the plastic welder.
“Electrofusion!” he said.
With an inverted sit-up, l lifted myself above ground.
“Thought it wasn’t gonna go for a second there,” I said, standing and shaking the dirt from my coveralls.
I siphoned a long breath before walking back toward the truck for my water. On my way, I noticed an object lying at the base of an uprooted tree stump in the grassy verge by the street. It was a large, black cherry stained, mid century wood paneled TV console with a small crack in the upper left corner of the glass. My eyes stuck to it as I stepped over the curb and into the street.
“Look at that,” I said to no one in particular.
Jerry looked at it, smiled and acknowledged it before turning back to his welder.
"Oh yeah. Thing’s prolly older than me,” he said.
I stopped and studied it closely for a moment. “My older brother and I used to have one that looked just like that in our room,” I said.
“Is that right?” asked Jerry, not interested.
“Same color wood and everything,” I said.
We finished up so I took a moment to study the debris in the yard while sipping more water. Broken panels of particle board. Remnants of magazines and picture frames. Burnt Christmas wreaths and tiny glass figurines. Tassels from some type of curtain or carpet.
“Let’s hit it,” said Jerry, waving me to the truck. “Yo. Let’s go!”
I heard his words but zoned out. I hadn’t slept well for close to two weeks. You could see it on my skin. Cold air paired with no sleep had caused a drastic decrease in the blood flow under my eyes. I leaned into my shovel to take the weight off of my legs. I felt my knees aching and locking into the leg bones. My body was off. It had had no time for the vessels or ligaments to recoil with restorative sleep. And it was very visibly starting to affect my attention span and the quality of my work.
“Daryl! Let’s go home,” said Jerry.
After tidying up the back of the box truck I strapped the old Zenith console next to our generator with winch straps. Cory, my crew mate, took notice of it as he stepped over me to rack a spade on the wall mount.
“Watchu gon’ do with that?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“You know they was cookin’ meth in there right?”
“Were they?” I said, still tightening the straps.
“Probably still got some meth residue on it. Better watch out for that.”
“He could use a little snort. Looks like he’s fixin’ to keel over,” said Jerry as he tossed in a stack of safety cones at my feet. “You drive the truck back Cory. I don’t think he’s
gonna make it.”
Leaving the neighborhood, the houses looked identical to me. They all had the same single level architecture with the same flat yellow turf in front. There were college football flags and landscaping orbs at every corner. Cursive font welcome mats at each door. A sharp contrast from the hell down the street. I slumped into my seat and watched the mirror in silence as Cory drove us. I thought about the occupants of all of these houses and what they must think about the catastrophe. The conversations they’d have for weeks to come while fetching the mail, stopping during their morning jogs, walking their dogs. Gawking and speculating:
“You know that’s Tonya’s niece who lived down there. Her and her boyfriend and Tonya. And they had a baby in there too bless his little heart. They’re not married. Tony went down to check on em’ after church but wan’t nobody home. Tony thinks the gas leaked or sumpthin. Sump’n must’ve sparked it. I don’t think the baby was home, thank the lord. Or at least I hope not. They ain’t been back since the fire.”
“Yeah I seen’t a fire truck up the road. They was there for a good three r’s. Watched the whole thing. They had to back down the road here. I’s afraid they’d roll off into the storm drain. I don’t know if it was drugs or what. Whole front half is just gone."
I watched them all appear. Standing at the curb in their bathrobes and windbreakers, fogging the air. Their eyes trained in the same direction — talking without looking at one another. Swaying ghoulishly. Barely moving at all. I caught my reflection in the side mirror and noticed a patch of blood in the white part of my eye. Ghouls.
Preston Radio and TV repair was an ordinary building wedged into one of the countless strip malls on the west end of town. It was one of those places that never looked open but had managed to survive forty hard years. Even with GPS, my eyes did not pick out the faded hand painted lettering on the side of the red brick building facing an empty gravel lot. I sat there in my car for a moment debating on whether or not to go in. The anxiety around entering small, forgotten places was something I wrestled with from time to time. Be it comic book and record shops or antique malls. I didn’t like the awkward creaking of floor boards or the business owners watching you shop. And there’s buyer's guilt. I always had the obligation to buy something. Even if it’s something I didn’t want.
The interior of the shop was deceptively large. There were high ceilings and row after row of tagged radios, record consoles, speakers and televisions from years past. Behind the empty counter I could see a dim work room and a large farm table lit by a single orange light bulb. On it laid an assortment of electronic components — capacitors, resistors and glass tubes. Somewhere in the dark the shape of a man shuffled around in a closet before stepping into the light and tilting his head back to look through his glasses at me. I stood there at the counter, basking in awkwardness while cradling my Zenith.
“Hello there. What can I do for you?” asked the old man.
He was maybe 70 but one of the lucky few that got to keep a full head of hair.
“Anything you can do for this?” I asked, edging the heavy box over the lip of the counter.
The old man adjusted his glasses, looked at it, then smiled.
“Sure. Sure,” he said. “What’s the story with here?”
“I found it on the job. Something about it just grabbed me. So yeah, I just picked it up and threw it on the truck. If it’s too far gone I understand but I thought what the hell, you
“No, no. It’s not too far at all. I’m Gary,” said Gary, extending his hand. “So you like these old CRTs huh?”
“Yeah, I guess so. My brother and I had one just like it in our bedroom when we were little.”
“Come on back here. I want to show you something,” he said.
I was hesitant to step behind the counter, but Gary lifted the counter panel, and I followed him through the threshold of the work room. Toward the back corner there was an open floor access to some cellar stairs.
“I’ve been working on this for a while,” said Gary. “Watch your head. Close the door
behind you and hold on to the rail as you come down.”
I paused at the top of the stairs and looked down into the dark beyond the old man. I felt the grip of the fabricated steel steps sinking into my boot soles.
“You’re not gonna chop me up and turn me into clothes are you?” I asked.
“You said you liked old TVs. Then you’ll love this. Come on,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
The heavy overhead door choked off the last sliver of light and my regret instantly set in. Not out of any sense of mortal danger. But more so a general dread towards the impending waste of time. I couldn’t help but think that by offering the small concession of my time and attention, I’d signed up for more than just a quick visit to a TV repair shop. When I reached the bottom of the steps I stood still in the harsh pitch black. It was a dark where you couldn’t see the back of your hand an inch from your face. A draft of cool air shot through my shirt. I drew a breath and stepped forward with my hands extended. Gary’s feet slid over the gravel and concrete as he searched for a breaker box.
“Here we are,” said Gary.
The breaker switch clicked at the end of the room. Two ceiling length metal shelves, both lined with repurposed television monitors of all varieties, lit up in unison. Beautiful dancing waves of light swirling to life. I walked into the center of the room to examine each screen. Pixelated neon white lines shifting and collapsing in random arrangements over fields of ambient black. A changing rhythm of white noise. There was a minute of silence before either of us spoke, transfixed in the center of the neon-soaked basement, watching a tide of changing shapes. I felt a tingling in my chest.
“What is all of this?” I asked.
Gary came shoulder to shoulder with me, staring up at the wall of screens with pride in eyes. “This… this is… raw entropy,” he said. “You see these old cathode-ray televisions get tossed away everyday. Probably all destined for a landfill, polluting up the ozone and what not. Now they live here. They get a second life.”
Gary walked over to one of the small monitors at eye level. “I draw these shapes using signals. See I can input two signals for X and Y deflections and create these shapes. They call them Lissajous shapes. Are you familiar with the Bodwich curve?”
My eyes cut over to Gary in a manner that seemed to answer his question.
“Right. Anyway, I use these old stereo amps to amplify the signal. It’s really something
“It’s great,” I said. “Really amazing work.”
Still entranced by the soft humming monitors, my lids became heavy and my jaw stretched into yawn.
“Something about these calms me down,” said Gary. “Looks like it calms you down too, huh. You could lie down and take a nap down here. Probably have some pretty wacky dreams too. Any who, let’s write you up a service ticket and get you on your way. Sure you got better things to do than to humor an old weirdo like me. You head on up and I’ll hit the lights.”
A week passed by and I’d slid back into a groove of work and everyday living. One afternoon, while walking back to my truck in the yard, I felt my front pocket vibrate. I wiped the excess pipe dope on my shirt and fished out my phone.
“We got you all put together Mr. Myers,” said Gary through the phone.
When I arrived at his shop I could see that he had already set the TV out on the counter for me. The wood and the glass were so shiny that they looked wet. I couldn’t believe it. No scuffs or signs of discoloration.
“Let’s test her out huh,” said Gary as he twisted the silver control panel knob. When I heard the knob click and saw the first images burning into the screen I was taken back. Six years old again with my older brother on Saturday night watching our dedicated lineup of shows. Pete and Pete. Ren and Stimpy. Are You Afraid of the Dark? Staples of 90s kid TV. There we were, swinging toy lightsabers and annoying whistling sound tubes at each other's heads during a commercial break. Our dark green carpet scattered with Jenga blocks and action figures. Batman and the Wolverine poking out of the sun roof of a teal and purple Tonka truck. Hot Wheels with reptile skin decals. And we were right there. Laughing and fighting in the dark. The smell of chlorine still clinging to our skin from a day at the pool. Back lit by the warm glow of our vintage 1960s Zenith television console. I could see my mother in the doorway, pretending to check on us but really just wanting to watch with us.
When I got back to my apartment that night I clicked on the box and laid down in bed facing the screen. There was no cable in the apartment so all that appeared on the screen was snow. But still, I slipped away into a deep happy sleep. Dreaming back to those nights. I dreamt a strange scene from a movie I watched during that period of my life. I’m unsure of what show or film it was from. But it was a fragment that I knew I wanted to hold on to. There was a black and white animated landscape with tall, swaying grass — a graveyard. And there were cartoon ghosts dancing among the headstones. I laid down in the soft grass, clearing away the branches and rocks. And I watched them dance.
Neil Carter is a writer from Louisville, Kentucky. He is passionate about creating stories from new angles and perspectives — zooming in on interesting facts that may have fallen through the cracks. Neil studied English at the University of Louisville.