Quality Time (Passage)


(The following is an excerpt from Heroes in the Dark in which the main character, Steven Frederickson, spends a typical evening with his family)

Mr. Frederickson walked to the living room and sat in his usual spot on the couch. Steven followed him in and sat at the other end. Mrs. Frederickson joined them intermittently.

An hour of their lives burned away imperceptibly like the wax of a candle, never to be regained. The pizza arrived, sparking a brief hiatus, until they again burrowed their rears back into the cushy couches, securely bedding down at their usual positions with paper plates full of pizza in hand.

“I tell ya,” said Mr. Frederickson, “the weekend gets better every time. Sometimes you can’t take another hour in the office. I’m glad you’re back here with us for a little while. I hope you’re enjoyin’ it. Sometimes I envy you,” he said with wry grin and sidelong glance.

“Yeah, thank you for letting me uh … letting me stay here.”

“Oh you’re more than welcome, Steven,” said Mr. Frederickson. “We love havin’ you here. How’d the interview go?”

“Uh … it was okay. We’ll see.”

“I’m sure you did great, Steven. And if not, there’s no rush. You’ve got a good job now. So how ‘bout them Dragons?”

“They seem alright this year. Sukut’s what, batting .640?”

“Yeah, ain’t that somethin’? I remember when he was still in college. Nobody thought much of him then.” For a few minutes they commented on a man whom neither had met nor would ever meet.

“Yeah, well, what really matters is that we’ll beat the Cougars this year.”

“Yeah, I think we will. We snagged way more yards than them in the preseason.”

“Oh yeah. And uh … and did you see that three pointer competition with Carey and Montes? Each of them were swishing like ninety percent, easy. It was ridiculous.”

“I saw something about that on the news. Pretty impressive. Let’s hope they can hold out in the end game scenarios. Not like last season. Hah, you remember. Let’s hope it’s not like last season. I think twelve of our fifteen losses were lost in the second half. I’ll tell you what I did see though: Wells and Prileszky playin’ D like mad men. Combined with Robertson and Hope: Those boys are really something on the ice.”

“Hmm, yeah. I don’t know. A lot of people seemed mad when we when we got Davies in the draft. But he and Knutson get birdies all the time. And sometimes eagles. I saw the stats. I uh … think it was a great decision on Coach Ludwig’s part.”

“Yeah, definitely. I was actually wondering about Ludwig when he first came on. I mean, I really liked Evans’ style, but he’s working out alright. He doesn’t have quite the same chemistry with the guys, it seems like. I suppose he can build that over time. I like him now.”

“Yeah, I like him. Wagner’s good too, though. For um … for the Cougars.”

“He sure is. Lots of experience. But we’ve got ‘em this year.”

His father emitted a long sigh. He reclined to the greatest angle that would still allow a comfortable view of the television. In his right hand he raised the remote, clicker, changer. He wielded his mace, scepter, sword. The old man, the master of his domain, the one ultimately responsible for what his family would absorb that evening, fiddled with the deceptively small device in his hand. The remote, which doubled as a small tablet, contained power much beyond its size. It was action at a distance. From the thrown rock to the firearm, from the shouting voice to the remote control—through it, without a word, Mr. Frederickson commanded the bright, centerpiece screen that so entranced his household.

The varied but remarkably similar sounds of channel surfing filled the room—teleprompted pontification, explosions, stadium crowds, and laughs. The humans in the room spoke no words and willingly supplanted their right to expression with this noise. After a time the channel surfing slowed. Even when confronted with 170 channel choices and an exhaustive list of streaming movies, entertainment can elude a man. More out of the desire to end the search than any real interest, the remote commander ceased his surfing on a crime investigation program.

“We found the body like this.”

“My God, what do you think happened?”

“After our tests, it appears that the killer raped her first. He then took a knife and cut off her ears, her nose, her fingers, and her toes.”

“Ears, nose, fingers, and toes. The Nursery Killer is at it again.”

“That’s not all. After he cut off the charms for his necklace, he dowsed her in gasoline and lit her on fire. And I think she was still alive.”

Steven and his father marveled at the fantastic reproduction of a raped, mutilated, burned corpse. The camera dwelt on the young, dead woman for several moments so that the viewer could soak up the image. The detectives encountered similarly mangled corpses over the next fifteen minutes. The television program guided Steven and his father through a whirlwind of crime and human corruption, transforming them into voyeurs of barbarism. In the last two minutes of the show, the detectives found and shot the killer.

“Wow, that was intense,” said Mr. Frederickson. “This guy might even be worse than the one we saw last week,” he said, referring to a previous episode of the same program. “Remember that? The guy who chopped ‘em up and ran ‘em through the meat grinder?”

“Yeah,” replied Steven, semi-attentively. “Pretty crazy.”

Presently, Mrs. Frederickson entered the room. She had been Skype-ing in the kitchen. One of the family tablets was wirelessly charging on the side table. Steven lifted it up and logged in to Facebook. A virtual friend had posted a link to a snowboarding video. Steven watched. In the video a young man dropped from a helicopter and flew down the face of a mountain. A wake of snow followed him. This is awesome, Steven thought. I’d better repost. He pinned the video on his own Facebook page. Steven had never snowboarded.

Mr. Frederickson switched the channel to a news station. An attractive blonde read to them.

“Three Peace Corps volunteers were killed in Tajikistan today.”

Steven’s mother handed new plates of pizza and bubbly soda drinks to him and to his father. They ate.

“The names will be released and the families notified as soon as the bodies can be confirmed.”

“Isn’t that um … isn’t that what Scott did?” asked Steven.

“What’s that, honey?”

“Wasn’t cousin Scott in the Peace Corps?” Steven had remembered incorrectly. His cousin Scott served four years in the Marines. After his final deployment, he had returned to the United States for only three months. He couldn’t stay. The itch pulled him abroad again. He had committed to a long-term mission trip in Africa where he now worked at an AIDS hospital.

“I thought he was in the Marine Corps,” Steven’s mother replied.

“No, he wasn’t in the Marines,” Mr. Frederickson interjected. “I know he went to Europe for a while with some nonprofit.” None of this was true. “Maybe that’s what you’re thinking of, Steven.”

“Um … maybe. I thought he was in some kind of corps. But maybe not.”

“We can ask Bonnie the next time we see her,” his mother concluded.

Steven had last seen his aunt three years before. He predicted another three years might pass until he would see her again.

Outside, the sun arced downward and passed under the horizon. Darkness fell. Almost nothing changed in the living room. The temperature and the humidity never fluctuated for a moment. Their positions remained constant. The glow from the flat screen on the wall seemed to increase in luminance, and the light danced on their faces. Cushioned seats formed a semicircle around the family altar. Their god seemed to require so little from them: Only time. In return it helped them to forget their failures, to laugh, and to let go. Every day, they piled their minutes on the altar and burned them in obedient worship—hundreds of minutes each day. The smell of the incense pleased their god.

Pizza changed to ice cream changed to popcorn. Mr. Frederickson shoved handfuls of the buttery morsels into his mouth. They watched a comedy. Steven left them once it was finished.

In His Room (Passage)→