I’m motionless. A corpulent middle-aged statue. A ceremonial prop.
Caramel-speckled autumn leaves skitter amongst my feet, palmately lobed, withered and crackling. Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), veined bare, broad, and flat. Dozens and dozens of whirling dervishes chase each other around the yard, stirred by a stiff breeze: delicate, captivating, and chaotic. I watch a gaggle of migrating geese soar over a crowd of loblolly pines. Nestled among the pines, the star-shaped leaves of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) bleed red.
I keep my attention on the sweetgum’s bright colors. Since my accident, I’ve developed a graduate-level knowledge of arboriculture thanks to the Nature Channel. Naming the trees helps pass the time as day turns to dusk, the sun sagging behind the pines. I shift from one foot to the other as pins and needles by the thousands prick the soles of my feet. The more I stand, the less pliant my legs become.
I’ve tilted my head sideways twenty degrees to optimize my position between satellite 91W GALAXY 17 (G-17) and the low-noise block converter (LNB), which extends from the slate-gray parabolic satellite dish mounted on my rear deck. The LNB connects to the end of the LNB feed arm and receives a low-level microwave signal from a satellite twenty-two thousand miles from Earth. I remain fixed between the LNB feed arm and outer space, my attention focused on the sweetgum. It’s only when the sash on the kitchen window slides open that my concentration breaks. My daughter pokes her head out. She’s eleven, and needy.
“Dad, Mom wants you to cook dinner.”
“Okay,” I say. “Give me a minute.”
I watch my daughter’s head disappear and wait for the window to close. Disengaging from satellite G-17 can be tricky. I’ve learned to manage the effects of interrupting the low-level microwave signal from space, but I prefer that my daughter doesn’t see me stumbling across the yard clutching my head. The first disengagements were a disaster – the bouts of extreme nausea and vertigo, the skull-splitting migraines, and the roar of blood pumping in my ears. But I’ve learned to manage.
For weeks, I’ve been downloading DirecTV’s satellite signal straight into my brain. No contract, no TV, no receiver needed. To be fair, I’m stealing information, but I doubt DirecTV will notice. If they did, how would they bill a customer for covert pilfering?
My connection with the satellite began not long after I fell from a ladder while painting a barn the weekend before last. Not a horrific fall. Eight feet at most, landing headfirst on the grass. I was woozy, but brushed myself off and went about my day. Later that night, I developed an unbearable headache. By morning the headache intensified, and so had my devotion to the living room couch. The following Friday night I received an ultimatum from my wife: back to work or make a doctor’s appointment. I had the weekend to decide. Early Monday morning, I drove myself to a local urgent care facility. I left eighty-five dollars poorer, bearing the diagnosis of a severe concussion. The doctor’s parting advice: “Rest your brain.”
How does a satellite signal from outer space enter someone’s brain?
Many words come to mind. Strange. Atypical. Peculiar. Uncommon. If you have a penchant for religion and you define a miracle as an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs, then I guess you could say I’ve experienced a miracle, though I don’t care for the word “miracle” or the religious undertones. For now, I’m calling my experience with the satellite a gift, but I’m sure a reasonable and scientific explanation exists. The particulars are still well beyond my understanding, but I can tell you how it began.
I was puttering around the house during my concussive week off when I stepped between the DirecTV dish and the Southern sky. The fog inside my head vanished, and in an instant, I transformed – something I can only describe as an intellectual euphoria. Not unlike an immersive trip I once had with a magic truffle called Psilocybe galindoi. Now, I’m no genius, but I know microwave signals can affect a human brain in various ways. So, I put two and two together and realized DirecTV’s satellite signal had penetrated my skull, improved my concussion, and left me with two hundred channels of DirecTV programming and a head full of knowledge.
I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in days. My wife’s sitting at the kitchen table and my daughter’s standing in the hallway with the DirecTV remote in her hand. Both keep an eye on the rare and curious man I have become. And both smile. I’ve never felt more needed in my entire life. Take tonight, for example. An ordinary Wednesday night. I’ve already tackled my daughter’s sixth-grade homework and satisfied my wife sexually in ways I never imagined possible before the accident.
I preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and grab butternut squash, broccoli, pancetta and parmigiana from the fridge. With a free elbow, I jimmy the faucet and rinse the broccoli. On a cutting board, I split the cleaned broccoli into thirds, removing the lower stems. I cut and dice the pancetta and toss the orecchiette into a salted pot. Once the oven preheats, I toss a handful of green pumpkin seeds on a sheet tray to toast. Tonight’s meal is Orecchiette with Pancetta, Pumpkin, and Broccoli Rabe. The whole dish takes me an hour to prepare. Two months ago, I couldn’t boil water.
“Amazing,” my wife says as she once again buries her fork deep into the bowl of pasta. Across the table, my daughter nods in agreement, a smidge of parmigiana sauce clinging to her chin.
“I’m glad.” I clean and load the dishwasher as they eat. I nibble, but I’m not hungry.
There are advantages and disadvantages to having access to near-limitless amounts of DirecTV programming. I have become an expert in cooking thanks to the Food Network, and an expert in home repair thanks to Rehab Addict and a host of other home-improvement programs.
Along the way I have worked out shortcuts to help me manage, finding most of the hacks through trial and error. The most important is that the receiver inside the house needs to be on the channel of the task I’m attempting. When I cook, the TV needs to be on channel 169, the Food Network. Keeping the receiver on one channel helps me focus. Otherwise, it’s pandemonium inside my head.
Of course, the law woven into the fabric of the universe that nothing is ever added without subtracting and vice versa is the most obvious downside. The abundance of useless information on DirecTV contends for the limited space inside my head. It’s overwhelming and parasitic, the data replacing a little piece of the old me by the day. Sure, sex with my wife has never been better, and my daughter thinks I’m a genius, but the person whom I’ve been the last fifty years is being replaced bit by bit.
As I slot the last plate into the dishwasher, my wife whispers in my ear. “I’m in the mood for something different tomorrow night.” For weeks, we’ve been having sex two and three times a day. She favors cuckold porn the most, so when she sets the TV on her favorite channel, I act as if I am a different person. I guess that’s the point, but part of me wishes things would go back to normal. Even if normal means I’m a little less useful to everyone.
The microwave signal traveling from outer space reaches Earth and vibrates my skull. In the dark, I watch the outlines of my wife and daughter glide behind the blinds, single-dimensional silhouettes moving from room to room. Neither takes a moment to stop and look outside. After some time, my wife fades from an upstairs window and reappears in the kitchen. She opens the sliding door to the back deck and tells me our daughter’s ready for bed. I disengage from the satellite and head back inside to tuck her in.
“Tell me a story,” my daughter says, punching channel 138 into the TV remote. I have two seasons worth of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child inside my head. I rattle off “The Snow Queen” and “Robinita Hood” until she falls asleep with a smile.
I just want to lie beside her, but what she needs from me comes from somewhere else. I’m only spending three hours a day inside the house. I do my best to make sure I’m able to tuck my daughter in at night.
“She asleep?” my wife asks as I gently close her bedroom door.
“Before I finished ‘Robinita’,” I say.
Before I’ve made it halfway down the hall, my wife smirks. “My turn,” A Real Sex marathon is on channel 244. Last night, she told me I was a much better lover. The “better” part disturbs me. An hour later, she falls asleep after her third orgasm. I’ve noticed that since the sessions began, her orgasms have increased — but the number of times she’s told me she loved me has not. She has offered me a brief reprieve, though. After finishing, I grab a hat and coat and head outside to position myself between G-17 and the starry sky.
I have become accustomed to spending my nights alone in the dark. Late night TV is the worst: Pinpoint Weather, Bissell Revolution, and Pet Pro infomercials waxing on about the best deep-cleaning system for pet messes. Of course, I can’t forget the Copper Chef. I ordered two sets of the convenient and versatile non-stick square pans the other day. I stay outside until the sun rises.
Eight hours downloading DirecTV is enough to get me through the morning. No one’s awake when I slide in through the back door. I pack my daughter’s lunch and get her clothes ready for school. My wife sneaks past as I make my signature peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. She looks happier than ever.
After I drop my daughter off at school, I stop at the local Farm & Garden in Taylorsville. I try buying my groceries for two easy payments of $19.99. The clerk behind the counter glares me into a corner but says nothing. I follow with, but wait, there’s more! The clerk, Hugo M. according to his name tag, threatens to call the sheriff if I don’t leave. So I do, glimpsing an infomercial on a small television stuck between the cigarette display and the smokeless tobacco. I feel there may never be an escape as I leave the store discouraged.
On the way home, I realize I have left my groceries behind, but decide it’s not worth going back. Instead, I sleep away my day.
When I wake up, my wife’s sponging off the kitchen table while my daughter spreads out her homework as if fanning out a deck of playing cards. The TV remote is in her hand. There is no asking. They both just assume. Since I’ve slept away my afternoon, I have a limited reserve of the History Channel and Science of Stupid in my head. I’m little more than an ordinary man.
“Let me know when you’re done,” she says.
My daughter’s sixth-grade homework takes me over two hours to finish. She peers over my shoulder from time to time, rapping the table with her knuckles again and again before disappearing to FaceTime a friend.
“What’s taking so long?” she says.
I don’t tell either one of them I haven’t been outside all day. The added time it takes me to do her homework means my wife has to cook dinner. I don’t think she’s happy about it, judging from the cold bowl of soup slid my way as I work through the last of my daughter’s history homework. I don’t mind. I feel a part of the family when we are all together.
That evening the DirecTV signal gets fuzzy before a Complete Signal Lost message flashes on the screen. A festering mass of thunderstorms from the Caribbean is skirting up the East Coast, disrupting G-17’s signal with torrential rain. The weather has given me an official pardon, and I feel a tremendous relief. My wife’s sitting on the couch, shopping on her iPad.
“Looks like I will be inside tonight,” I say.
“Looks like it,” she says. Her face is bathed in the glow of the Apple device, backlighting a wispy grimace that slides across her face.
We sit in silence as the rain lessens into a softening cacophony of broken patter on the roof. Every few minutes her eyes leave the iPad to check the status of the satellite. No signal (error code 8001) continues to flash on the screen. I trace my fingers over the back of her neck long enough to draw out an easy moan.
“Maybe it’s best this way,” I say. “Let life return to normal.”
The signal flits back and forth between receiving a signal and connection lost, pitching the living room between alternating levels of dim and darkness. I feel as if I’m in a strobe-lit dream and I know it’s only a matter of time before the satellite reconnects.
“That feels good,” she says.
We kiss. The way we did before the accident.
“I’ll be right back,” she says with a smile, leaving me with a glint of promise and the lingering taste of her tongue on mine. A few minutes later she tip-toes down the stairs wearing an incredible smile. I smile back. In her hands, a dark bundle. She leans into me, placing a kiss on my forehead.
“Here, you will need this,” she says.
I gather the dark bundle into my hands. It’s my raincoat. Before I can speak, she guides me to my feet, sliding the raincoat over one shoulder and then the other before escorting me to the back door and out into the rain.
Several feet away, the sweetgums bleed red, but I can’t find them in the dark.
R. E. Hengsterman is a Pushcart-nominated writer, film photographer and flawed human who deconstructs the human experience through images and words. When not engaged in self-flagellation he’s often writing beneath the Carolina blue sky. More of his work can be found at https://www.robhengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.