“Would you PLEASE turn down the sound!” Cliff Turner lowered the book he had been reading in exasperation and glanced at the doorway linking the living room and the TV room. He flinched as another crescendo of canned laughter drowned out the sounds of music from the 1960s and 1970s. He was listening to a Peggy Lee song on an FM station’s golden oldies program. Turner enjoyed the music because the songs had lyrics that could be remembered. But Peggy was fighting a losing battle to be heard over the TV noise from the other room. So was he in controlling his temper.
Turner grimaced. The cackling seemed undiminished. He put down his novel, a convoluted mystery about religious intrigue, medieval secrets, and murder. He didn’t really understand the plot, but since the book had been on the best-seller list for 97 weeks, he decided he should read it to have water cooler chatter if nothing else.
He didn’t need to see his wife. Ellen’s image was locked in his mind: frizzy red hair and too-tight toreador pants. She would be lolling on the couch, transfixed by the new 55-inch, flat screen TV he couldn’t afford but had bought at her insistence. He imagined her lips curling in laughter as she watched one of her favorite programs, a vapid comedy about dissatisfied housewives who lived in a cookie-cutter neighborhood of expensive homes. Shaking his head, Turner took a sip from the scotch and water at his elbow.
The offending laughter vanished suddenly as his wife turned the sound off during a commercial. The radio re-asserted itself. “Is that all there is?” Peggy crooned in a sultry voice.
Is that all there is…? His thoughts drifted back to graduation at the University of Michigan. Turner had sat in the warm spring sun, lost in a mammoth stadium that swallowed up 4,000 black-gowned optimists like himself. He had reveled in the realization he was leaving behind books and exams and stultifying lectures. Look out, world! Little Cliffy is about to shake things up and leave tracks with his waffle-stompers!
What a laugh! Instead, he had wound up shuffling mortgage applications in a bank. Along the way, he had accumulated a shrewish wife, ungrateful offspring who called only when they wanted money, and a liver marinated in alcohol. “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee persisted, undaunted at not receiving an answer. “If that’s all there is, then let’s keep dancing.” Yes, Turner realized to his dismay. That is all there is. My boss is dropping hints about early retirement, and I can’t keep dancing any longer.
He glanced at the bookcase flanked by twin tower speakers. Perhaps he should put on the earphones his wife had bought for him after their last go-around about loudness. Nuts! He wasn’t going to wear them. They made him feel claustrophobic, his head trapped between two plastic vises. The earphones didn’t work that well anyway.
He slid a bookmark between the pages, rose, walked down the hallway to the garage, and opened a dusty trunk. From it he removed a .38 caliber pistol. He had bought the gun for protection against burglars but it had freaked out his wife and she had banished it to the garage. But he kept it—loaded. Turner clicked off the safety, and walked back into the house. He entered the TV room, ignored by his wife who was engrossed in her program. Standing behind her, he thrust the pistol into carmine curls and pulled the trigger.
“Would you PLEASE turn down the volume!”
Ellen Turner tore her eyes from the TV screen and glanced at the doorway leading to the living room. “You don’t have to bellow,” she yelled back.
Where was that damned TV controller? Ah, there it was, half hidden under magazines on the coffee table. She picked it up and grudgingly nudged the volume control one vertical bar lower.
She shot her husband a “there…are you satisfied now?” glare even though he couldn’t see it. She didn’t want to miss any of the action. The show was a hilarious drama about bored suburban housewives whose picture-perfect lives unwound in a constantly exciting fashion. Wouldn’t it be great to have neighbors like that, rather than the snotty Simpsons on one side and old Mrs. Anson with hearing loss on the other? She reached for another chocolate left over from Christmas, stifling guilt. Why couldn’t her husband go read in the bedroom if he wanted quiet? He didn’t expect her to watch TV on the dinky 36-inch TV in there, did he? And what about the earphones she had bought him? He had tried them once and now they gathered dust.
A commercial for a purple pill began, and she hit the mute button. From the next room, she heard the faint strains of a Peggy Lee standard: “Is that all there is?” Ellen imagined her husband in his usual pose, slumped in a lounger reading, light from the lamp behind him glinting off his tiny gold glasses and bald head. She sighed.
“Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee pouted, the rhetorical question more sensuous than serious. The commercial ended, but Ellen, deep in thought, didn’t notice. Her frustration morphed into desperation. Yes, that is all there is—and all there’s likely to be. I can expect twenty more years or so of being bored and criticized and harassed.
She grabbed another chocolate, stripped away the paper wrapper and began chewing vigorously. I can’t go on like this! I won’t go on like this!
She rose from the couch, walked down the hallway to the garage, and glanced at her husband’s cluttered workbench. He can’t even keep his tools organized. What if I kept the kitchen like that? We’d never eat. She stopped. Now where had he put the gun she’d made him take out of the house? In the trunk! Yes, that’s where he’d put it! She lifted the dusty lid and removed the .38 caliber pistol her husband kept concealed under a folded blanket. He had shown her how to turn off the safety. She picked up the pistol and walked back into the house. Quietly, she walked up behind her husband, put the pistol next to the circle of reflected light on his bald spot, and squeezed the trigger.
“Would you PLEASE turn down the volume!” Cliff Turner’s angry voice cut through the peals of canned laughter drifting from the expensive new TV in the next room. He strained to hear the music he had turned on in self-defense.
“You don’t have to shout,” she shot back. “I live here, too!” Ellen hunted for the TV controller and lowered the volume. Would that satisfy him? Probably not. Nothing ever did.
Her eyes flicked back to the screen, but the show had gone to a commercial about a new car so striking in appearance that people stopped on the street to admire it. I missed the end of my show, she thought bitterly, and all because Cliff was unreasonable as usual.
She could picture her husband reading and her irritation morphed into scorn. Off in another world as usual. Oh, how I wish it were permanent! Ellen blinked and straightened on the couch. She reached over for another chocolate, picking one she knew concealed a red cherry. She tore off the paper and munched on the candy while she thought. Then she rose and hurried from the room.
Turner shook his head and slugged down some scotch. He resumed reading his novel.
“Inasubterraneanvaultsteepedinshadow…” The words fused into a string of unreadable letters, a code unto themselves.
Murder provides such a simple solution when you’re a writer, he thought. Not like in real life. All you need to do is have a character… His face hardened, the way it did when he told a dead-beat with a lousy credit rating that there was no way, no way, his mortgage application would be approved. He put down the book abruptly, flipped the lounger handle, and dream walked from the living room.
They met in the hallway leading to the garage, he coming from the kitchen, she from the TV room.
“Bathroom break?” he asked sarcastically. “Are you sure you can tear yourself away from the TV that long without missing something?”
She gestured toward the laundry area. “I wanted to make sure the dryer was turned off. Run out of scotch early tonight?” she continued. “We keep it in the kitchen, remember? Or have you stashed away a bottle or two in the garage in case Prohibition comes back?”
Turner hesitated and looked over her shoulder. “Just checking to make sure the side-yard door to the garage is locked.”
“What’s there to steal?” she needled, “thread-bare carpeting or worn curtains?”
“You got a new TV,” he said defensively.
“And you got that expensive lounger with the doodad that gives you massages,” she fired back.
They faced each other with wary disdain, gladiators battling in a familiar arena.
“Well, then,” Ellen said at last, unable to keep the disappointment from her voice. “I suppose we both found out what we wanted to know.”
Turner nodded and the corners of his mouth tightened. “I guess so.”
Ellen pushed past him, jerking back an arm to avoid contact, and returned to the TV room. She picked up the TV controller, turned off mute, and immersed herself again in lives more enjoyable than her own.
Turner wandered back to the living room and sank into the warm, yielding embrace of the leather lounger. Canned laughter rolled from the other room again. He cranked up the volume on the FM radio and glanced through the open doorway, hoping for a reaction. None came. Meanwhile, Peggy Lee had given way to Elvis Presley, who warned off potential defilers of his blue suede shoes. Turner debated: Should I mix a fourth scotch now or later? Prudence prevailed. Later... He sighed and resumed reading: “Bloodsplatteredthefriar’sblackrobe as…”
*Triptych (n.) A set of three associated literary works intended to be appreciated together.
Arthur Carey is a former newspaper reporter, editor, and journalism instructor who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and of UCLA. Carey is one of the founding members of the Fremont Area Writers branch of the California Writers Club. His fiction and humor have appeared in print and internet publications, including Whortleberry Press, Pedestal, Funny Times, Defenestration, Perihelion, Eclectic Flash, and Writers' Journal. His short stories, novellas, and novels are available at Amazon.com and Solstice Publishing.