There were two kinds of days for Herb Wilks, bad and not bad.
He never worked up the courage to say he had a good day. There was certainly no chance in hell he would ever have a great day. If loneliness were a crime, Herb would be incarcerated for life like his twin brother, Stu, but that’s another story altogether.
Marriage didn’t solve his loneliness problem. In fact, it may have made it even worse. He and Jennifer were both introverted and avoidant, glorified housemates. He slept on one end of the house, she on the other, each with separate beds, separate bathrooms, and separate televisions. They came together on Wednesday nights for a home-cooked meal they would make together, less the chit-chat, taking it back to their own rooms for a quiet supper.
As he arrived to his wing of the abode, he laid the bowl of chili on top of his cheap veneered TV tray, feeling alone and pondering what his tomorrow might be like… if there was one.
It was a little ridiculous, the investment that I just made, Herb thought to himself, the way that he reeled me in was cold, calculated, and just gnawed me all the way to the bone. What kind of idiot goes in for the kill that way? Only the smartest ones, they prey upon your vulnerabilities to meet their quota to get some big-fat year-end bonus. It must be nice…meanwhile, I’m over here trying to figure out a way to please my unhappy wife and improve my home without lifting a finger.
He looked in the rearview mirror of his beat-up ’94 Subaru wagon and read the name of the imported gizmo that he had just purchased. In oversized black block typeset letters,
C I R T C E L E R E T S I M
Reading the mirror image of anything was difficult, especially while in motion, and his dyslexia did not help out matters one bit. MISTER ELECTRIC was the name of the overnight gadget sensation that had quickly begun its ascent to the top of all of the consumer household appliance reports. He debated on if he should turn around and return it, but remained up for doing just about anything to make his Jennifer happy.
“Hmph… as if you could call such a thing an appliance,” he mumbled to himself.
The demonstration in the store was over the top and just like something sure to flop on one of the late-night episodes of the Home Shopping Network. He rarely purchased from them but made it a regular habit on each Tuesday and Thursday night to watch from 10PM-12AM as a way to decompress from his struggles. The way that he typically gauged if such a project was a success was several months after the product would first debut. He knew the pattern. All too well, he knew the pattern. First, they would start with the price cuts, taking off ten cents a week for the first little while, and then, before too long, they would go to having "buy two for the price of one" deals, and ultimately shipping them off to the big-box and dollar stores for the bottom-feeding, as seen on TV aisle.
It had been a tough stretch for the Wilks household. His gave up drinking, smoking, and other illicit activities over the course of the past three years, and this was the only way that he seemed to be able to cope healthily. Well, maybe it wasn’t that healthy, watching stupid television. Truth be told, the time-wasting programming was nothing more than permanent, glorified advertisements. Still, it was better than the former havoc wreaked on him from the booze, cigarettes, and other unmentionable substances he once took in.
The box was not large. Half of the sales pitch centered around MISTER ELECTRIC’s “discrete manipulation techniques and its scrupulous energy management abilities.”
"It is sure to cut the electric bill in half," the sales promoter promised.
Maybe it was the stupid, glued-on mustache that left Herb so aggravated. He struggled to get past the hairpiece early in the demonstration but opted to do so eventually. The type was all too common in this business…the flimsy, brown hair, perfectly parted down the middle, probably horsehair at best.
How ironic, horsehair glued down with product exclusively sourced from the same horse. This bozo's in the wrong line of sales… he ought to be selling a horse.
He couldn’t help from wisecracking in his mind while he watched the artful maneuvers of the man. He tried dodging the aisle. These salesman types had gotten more conniving and duplicitous in their efforts. Navy blue shirt and khaki pants, just like all of the rest of the employees in the store--only, they didn’t work there. They probably solicited their way in by promising the manager and a few of his goons a few freebies, using the age-old snake oil salesman techniques. It always seemed to work so well.
Herb found himself in a daze, once again, These freaking sales guys have to meet their quotas... They have GOT to look their best, and trust me... their main demographic to reach is almost always the "mommas"…the women who wish their husband was more of a "mister fix-it" type.
I can hear Jennifer now…
'Oh, Herb, this MISTER ELECTRIC guy practically gave the thing to me (while he flirted with me and checked me out head to toe at least, half a dozen times.) The man in the store was so dexterous and helpful; I wish I could just take him home with me!'
Herb was fantastic at putting words in Jennifer’s mouth. He was convinced it was one of his strong suits, especially feeling that he could "read her mind" half of the time, and at least half of the time, he was right.
What was so special about the great Herb Wilks? He wasn’t bright and shiny like the MISTER ELECTRIC salesman.
His sense of humor had gone down the drain years ago, and the choices he made had earned him a permanent spot on "the couch" or at the very least, in his own separate bedroom away from Jennifer. He deserved it, too. In the past, he squandered every penny on bad habits. She would never divorce him. She would rather punish him just by being there. She was the source of her own worst self-sabotage.
As he continued down I-75, rush hour had cleared out, and it was well past the dinnertime slew of traffic. He worked on his speech to Jennifer speaking into the steering wheel.
How was HE going to justify such an expenditure?!
Maybe she’ll love me… or maybe, she’ll hate me. I’m either the biggest genius on this side of Wayne County or the biggest idiot. God only knows. This stupid thing had better prove me wrong.
Minutes of silence in the Subaru… only the dull hum of the overworked engine, the burning smell of its dated oil, and the occasional passing car or truck that was acting in blatant disregard of the Michigan State Driving Law Handbook…nothing else. He felt a sigh of relief… the moment of realization that the bank account was afloat at $8.92, and that MISTER ELECTRIC was in the back seat to reassure him that all would balance out after this purchase.
“Things would be different this time,” he told himself.
As he drew closer to home, he began to feel a little more confident in the purchase,
What the heck, the little gizmo might even bring us closer together, he thought.
Arriving home into the uneven and worn driveway, covered in aged oil spots and tire treads, he breathed in deep and tried to pull himself together as he approached the house. His clammy left hand trembling in fear, not because Jennifer would be overbearing, but because he himself still doubted the purchase. MISTER ELECTRIC was tucked under his right arm. He pushed the weathered front door open. Yes, there was the reassuring squeak of the door’s hinges, his feet raking across the WELCOME mat that had long overstayed its welcome, and the anxious feeling of justifying why he did it.
What had overcome him in the store?
Ten minutes before Herb would arrive, Jennifer was sitting at home. She had all but one lamp turned off in their modest north Detroit abode. The darkness of the room reassured her she was in her element as she clipped away at the coupons from the Detroit Daily Press. Money had been tight that year. Herb’s erratic behaviors, his unpredictable purchases, and his undeniably sweet gestures would often come right at the wrong time. He paid attention to the bank accounts, but would still act on impulse, and this, inevitably, would add tension to their paper-thin cohabitation arrangement. The decision to separate was on the tip of her tongue, but Herb always figured out a way to "pull a rabbit out of the hat" at the last minute. That was his specialty. Whether it was the smoke and mirrors maneuvers that he would frequently utilize with his own employer or not was unclear to either of them.
He never realizes the errors of his ways in the heat of the moment, she would tell herself.
Rationalize, rationalize, rationalize, justify.
He only had four tools that he would ever use when she told him that he was wrong. Three of them were the same. It might as well have been a Swiss army knife with three corkscrews and a broken off screwdriver. None of them worked on her. He never learned.
It was innately coded in his male programming, a problem as old as time, and yet, the solution was just ahead. No, not to separate, but rather to compromise, especially when it would be to their mutual benefit. She heard the sound of the car idling in the drive, one minute went by, two, then three.
He's not out there for another drag, is he? Masking the scent as best as he can... Febreze, cologne, mouthwash. I know the smell, she thought.
She never caught him slipping back into his old habits since his giving each of them up cold turkey, “hundreds” of days ago. Still, deep down, that trust factor was violated and could never be restored the way it once was.
The old idiom would race through her mind, the one that her mother would tell her when she was quite young.
Old habits die hard, Jennifer. Old habits die hard.
If he were off the wagon, whatever wagon it was, the booze wagon, the nicotine wagon, or worse, she would know. Undoubtedly, she would know. She heard the overworked door handle beginning to turn and saw the dim light of the room shine upon Herb’s worn-out face. It was unsure and unshaven, his hair sticking out in every direction, probably not combed for multiple days… the shirttail of his periwinkle blue Brooks Brothers shirt hanging out in the front and still partially tucked in in the back, and then something covered up under his right arm, a box no larger than what might house a pair of boots.
“WHAT A DAY, JENNIFER.”
He wiped his brow as if there were beads of sweat. That couldn’t be possible. Michigan past sundown this time of year was incapable of producing such results. Something was wearing away at him. She wasn’t going to acknowledge the box or ask. She wanted to see if he would pony up the information when he felt the time was appropriate. She liked to play with his mind a little bit. That feeling of making him wear the pants in the relationship, at least a few times a year… Usually only with her. She would never give him that chance elsewhere. She had no faith in him, and this had worn him ragged.
“Tell me why, Herb,” she mumbled.
He began to take his worn burgundy shoes off and place them precisely where they were supposed to go, in the lower right-hand corner of the hall closet.
“Oh, you know, just lots of difficult customers on the lot today. Bill is looking at cutting a few of the lower performing sales guys, and we’ve got a leak in the service house… poured right through onto my computer and all of my paperwork.”
“Serves you right for not filing it away in a safer place before you leave. Reckon some of that customer information is ‘sensitive’ anyway.”
"I don’t work in sales, Jennifer. No one off of the street just comes to visit the Parts and Service manager. It’s only the people that can afford repairs, and they rarely come inside anymore. Everything’s online or over text message these days.”
“Well, I guess that’s good. You can reprint the paperwork, right?”
“Yeah, so much for saving a tree…”
“You are no environmentalist. You wouldn’t be driving that ozone layer damaging hunk of junk parked in the driveway, otherwise. You know, you could just ride the bus.”
“Yeah, whatever. This discussion is over.”
“I’m going to the bedroom.”
He laid the MISTER ELECTRIC box on the nightstand. He was a little confused as to Jennifer’s lack of interest in it, but that was okay. After the grueling day, he was not thrilled to talk about the high-pressure sales pitch that he endured and all of the rationalizations as to why he went forward with purchasing it. He began to peel the tape from the top of the reinforced cardboard. Part of the paper had torn off, exposing the brown part of the box, which had an outer layer that was perfectly glossy white, less a couple of scuffs, up to that point. It always aggravated him. The way in which the boxes were made with cheap box tape and glued on paper…thin enough to always damage the label the second the box was opened… almost as if to try and void all chances for an accepted return at the store. The label on the back read: MADE IN CHINA.
Perhaps he was prejudiced because he worked in the automotive industry in a city that was long decaying in its loyalty to domestic manufacturing. Or, maybe it was the way that his father would so flippantly talk negatively about anything not made in the USA. Certainly not suitable for his young ears, and no matter how hard he tried to mute out the unnecessarily hateful words of his father, they still lingered. Herb’s mind wandered and wandered, especially when little things like this got his attention. He assumed the country of manufacture was indeed China even when he was still in the store, but he was aloof, and his eyes aglow like some kind of zombie waiting to feast on the spoils. It didn’t matter to him anyway. That was his old man’s problem, not his.
He pulled out the cardboard lining, and the plastic bubble wrapping around the product and began to examine it slowly. It was all white, and some kind of hearty plastic, shaped more like an action figure or an oversized nutcracker. At the bottom of the box was a small MISTER ELECTRIC fold-up ladder, the perfect companion for its size, not much wider than 3 tape measures side by side, and both durable and marginally pliable for compact storage. Fully extended, the miniature ladder would go ten feet.
The arms on the MISTER ELECTRIC unit could also extend an additional twelve inches outwards for the "hard to reach" places, extending like “rabbit ears” on an old television antenna. The model on display in the store appeared to be made of die-cast metal. He assumed the difference in his version of the model was related to the price. He only purchased the entry-level unit. $499 was hardly “entry-level” for anything as far as he was concerned. He was now convinced the longer that he thought about it, that Jennifer would be livid. MISTER ELECTRIC had no face, but its arms and legs could move fluidly.
The mechanics within the product were programmed to be “proactive” or “reactive.” He flipped the switch to proactive mode.
If only I could be that way sometimes, just flip a switch, Herb. You, too, can be proactive.”
He knew he was kidding himself. No other Wilks in the history of all Wilks that he ever heard about, seen, or even read in the family genealogies hinted at proactive tendencies. They all flew by the seat of their pants, and that was the way that they thrived. Why would HE be any different? If he were too proactive, he would never be able to even bite into a piece of fried chicken for fear of the chicken bone blocking his windpipe as he choked to death. The better way to live was to enjoy the fried chicken, expect a small chance of such an occurrence, and learn the Heimlich maneuver, right? The thoughts would only sometimes be in his own voice. Most of the time, they were more often in fictionalized versions of every other anxiety-inducing person in his life, depending on his mood. Naturally, he made sure the door to his bedroom was closed as if he was trying to hide something. He did this long before beginning the unboxing ritual.
He hoped that Jennifer would ask him point-blank what the box was when he came in, but there was only silence on the topic.
Mind games. Yes, of course, she’s smart enough to play them…much smarter than I could ever be… They are just thoughts… they are only my thoughts, and nothing else.”
He yanked the pull tab out of the back of MISTER ELECTRIC and expected something to happen instantaneously, much like a child unboxing a Talking Tina or a Giggling Larry. There was only silence. The demo unit in the store was not particularly verbose. Its only design was to quietly perform routine tasks on electricity where it was needed, nothing else. He glanced at a few examples listed on the side of the box. English must not have been the manufacturer's first language.
So typical, he thought.
The list of features read as per below. He attempted to read it as it was intended to be. Once again, dyslexia was certainly his enemy… compounded with the poorly translated English, it took a bit for him to digest the list.
CHANGES SBLUBTHGIL (CHANGES LIGHTBULBS)
SHUTS DEUSNU OFF FIXTURES (SHUTS OFF UNUSED ELECTRICAL FIXTURES)
MANAGES HOME REWOP DIRG (MANAGES HOME POWER GRID)
REPAIRS RISKS LACIRTCELE (REPAIRS ELECTRICAL RISKS)
DISCRETE AND YSAE SETUP TO (EASY TO SETUP AND DISCRETE)
WARNS OF ELECTRICAL SDRAZAH (WARNS OF ELECTRICAL HAZARDS)
STNEVERP ARC FLASHES (PREVENTS ARC FLASHES)
MAINTAINS INVENTORY TEMPERATURE OF (MAINTAINS INVENTORY OF TEMPERATURE)
NOTIFIES CONCERNS OWNER OF (NOTIFIES OWNER OF CONCERNS)
NOTIFIES AUTHORITIES FO ERIF WHEN OWNER FROM IS AWAY HOME (NOTIFIES
AUTHORITIES OF FIRE WHEN OWNER IS AWAY FROM HOME)
ELECTRICITY SEVAS UP TO 50% (SAVES ELECTRICITY UP TO 50%)
If they would just hire an anal-retentive type, they could brand and market this thing, ten times better. How embarrassing… even more embarrassing that some idiot like me would take the bait and buy this atrocity. Herbie, I guess we’ll await the verdict and grade it, after it goes to work. What would Edison or Tesla say about such a thing?
He flipped on the Home Shopping Network. It was time for his usual de-stressing ritual. He placed the small twelve and a half-inch figure to the right of his nightstand. There was a hint of wonder in his imagination.
What would be the little “guy’s” first project?
He laid at just the right 140-degree angle in the tan-colored easy chair with only the television lighting up the room, the remote across his bare barrel chest, and a bowl of unfinished chili to his right on the TV tray. The television was trying to sell the perfect pillow top mattress for those that sleep exclusively in recliners.
Perfect way to slow me down, he thought.
Slowly…slowly, he drifted into a deep sleep. He always placed his television on a two-hour sleep timer.
He awoke rather suddenly. The television was off so it must have already been two hours. He turned to the nightstand and went to click on the lamp. Something was missing… MISTER ELECTRIC.
He would grade “his” effectiveness in the morning. It wasn’t a big deal. It might even get him a step closer to being “out of the doghouse” if the gadget performed all of the promised repairs. He rolled over and dozed back off for a while longer. He began DREAMING of the demonstration again in the store. Evaluating and re-evaluating over and over again if it was the right choice. His thoughts were even racing in his dream.
MISTER ELECTRIC is undoubtedly practical, but is he necessary? What would Jennifer say?
TASK 1: REPLACE LIGHT BULBS IN HOUSE... FORTY-THREE STEPS…. JUST ENOUGH SPACE TO SLIDE UNDER THE DOOR… ENTERING DINING ROOM… ENTERING DINING ROOM... REROUTING… REROUTING… MUST COLLECT LIGHT BULB… MUST COLLECT LIGHT BULB… STORED IN THE CUPBOARD... TWENTY FOUR STEPS TO THE LEFT… DOOR IS OPEN... COLLECTING LIGHT BULBS FROM TOP SHELF... COLLECTING… CARRYING THEM BACK TO DINING ROOM… BACK TO DINING ROOM... EXTENDING LADDER… EXTENDING… 3 MINUTES GO BY… LIGHTBULB REPLACED... TASK COMPLETE...
In her own bedroom, Jennifer was sound asleep. She was dreaming of something fantastic. Perhaps the most magical kind of dream, taking a relaxing vacation in the mountains, away from the smog of Detroit, and no bills of any kind to repay.
Something awakened her, what was it? Maybe Herb was just having another night of insomnia and at the fridge for a midnight snack, or perhaps, it was just a tree rustling outside, or even just one of the middle of the night “house sounds” that everyone comes to know over time. She deliberated on if she should get up to investigate any further, but instead rolled over and assumed that Herb would take care of it if it were an actual threat. He would let her know if it was. They didn’t live in the best neighborhood, but they didn’t live in the worst one either.
One of the mandatory requirements for a “MISTER ELECTRIC ready” house was access related. A hole into the walls had to be cut out, not so different from what a mouse in an old cartoon would have perhaps burrowed through. If it weren’t, he would begin to make the precision cuts himself. He was equipped with all the tools he needed inside of his small plastic body. Once the hole was cut, he could finagle his way through from there, assuming that there was working power. He would then be able to leech off of it while going through if he started to lose his charge. His legs were fluid. He moved gracefully through the house as if on wheels, always balanced wheels. There was never a free-willed thought that ran through his mind, only the task at hand, and what it would take to complete the task. There was an electrical issue near the coffee pot in the kitchen.
TASK 2: CUTTING HOLE IN WALL… CUTTING HOLE… in DISCRETE LOCATION… DISCRETE LOCATION… ANALYZING SIZE OF HOLE… ANALYZING… CLIMBING IN TO CONFIRM SPACE EFFICIENCIES… SPACE EFFICIENCIES… ANALYSIS COMPLETE… TASK COMPLETE…
TASK 3: CHECK ON ELECTRICAL ISSUE NEAR COFFEE POT… POTENTIAL RISK OF ARC FLASH… ARC FLASH… EXTENDING LADDER… EXTENDING… UNPLUGGING COFFEE POT… UNPLUGGING… UNSCREWING WALLPLATE… UNSCREWING… RESPLICING THE WIRES… RESPLICING… RESEATING UNIT… RESEATING… REPLACING COVER… PLUGGING IN COFFEE POT… TASK COMPLETE...
Jennifer always hated the gap under the doors. It felt like an invitation for the roaches, the geckos, and any and every other creepy crawler that roamed in freedom despite her disapproval. She despised them. Her default weapon of choice, the way in which she would keep them out, shoving a towel under the doorjamb. It worked well for the ones that were in other rooms, but it had no effect on the critters already residing in her room.
She was restless and awake in bed, her mind speeding by as if propelled by rocket fuel, How many live in here at any given time? Tens? Twenties? Fifties? Hundreds? Thousands...? Ugh… I feel like I have one crawling on me right now. We bug-bombed the place just last week, but I still feel uneasy.”
The room was dark, cool, and perhaps even a little damp in some places. The floor beneath had suffered water damage every time she took a shower. She didn’t know it yet, though. It was better off that way. They could not afford a plumber and both she and Herb had absolutely no chance in knowing how to deal with such a matter in the correct manner. The floor wasn’t to be damaged soon, so it was permissible to put off. However, the electrical outlet on the wall just opposite the shower was another story. MISTER ELECTRIC detected the anomaly and worked to enter the room to perform routine checkouts and repairs before it would be too late, and the shower or bathroom floor was electrified. The towel that she had wedged under the door was placed in such a way that MISTER ELECTRIC could not enter the way that it needed to in order to perform the repairs.
Jennifer’s alarm would go off at 5:57AM. She still used a traditional alarm clock. She was more confident of the power in the wall than of a smartphone. It could malfunction for any number of reasons or be programmed incorrectly as would sometimes be the case, and she didn’t want to assume that risk. She hated it when people would set their alarm to a round number like 5:30 or 6:00 or even 6:30.
There was some kind of satisfaction that she had in thinking that she had snuck a few extra minutes in after 5:30 or got up a little before 6:00. It was probably the same tactic that the great sales organizations of the modern era had tackled. $5.99 always sounded better than $6.00. $99 always sounded better than $100. $499 always sounded better than $500.
499… ugh… why the $499 example?
Herb had indeed purchased something for this amount. She noticed it on the online banking portal earlier in the day. In her futile attempts to get some rest overnight, she checked the account in her compulsion. It was a tax-free day again, so whatever it was, at least they got that little break on it. Still, curiosity had not gotten the better of her. She would wait until Herb explained it to her himself.
I’m not going to let myself be angry about this purchase. I will listen to his explanation before I jump to any conclusions.
Back to sleep for a few minutes longer. The 5:57AM bell would be ringing before she was ready.
REROUTING… REROUTING… FIFTY-EIGHT STEPS BACK TO POWER BOX… PREVENTATIVELY SHUTTING OFF ELECTRICAL POWER GRID TO BEDROOM 1... BEDROOM 1... SWITCHING OFF SLOT 14… SLOT 14… RISK HAS BEEN DIVERTED… RISK HAS BEEN DIVERTED… ADD TO SCHEDULER TO CHECK AND REPAIR WHEN DOOR TO BEDROOM 1 IS OPEN… WHEN BEDROOM 1 IS OPEN… TASK SCHEDULER PAUSING EVENT… RESCHEDULING…
Herb climbed out of bed. His curiosity had gotten the best of him. What was the little guy working on? Was he worth the investment? He walked through the house, trying not to flick too many lights on. Tiptoeing around in the middle of the night in his plaid-checkered boxer shorts, root-beer and fried chicken belly sticking out, hair disheveled…what wo