Friday, 6 January 2017


Mission: Absurd

The voice over the line instructed me to remove the front panel of the motherboard. I was crouched in somebody else’s house disarming the security system. There was African art, from somewhere, some region of that big continent, masks and fabric hangings up on the walls of the home office. The dusty bookshelves held works of philosophy interspersed with multiple biographies of the major theological figures in recorded human history. Prophets and thinkers side by each. My knees were getting sore. I jimmied the plastic plate away from its base and peered at a network of solid state circuitry and a battery pack encased in green cello wrap, a miniature brick of six low voltage batteries.

‘Done,’ I replied. ‘What’s the next step?’

I’ve been acquainted with our neighbour Forest about 25 years. He used to zip around town shifting the gears of a Jaguar. His back garden was always elaborately landscaped and maintained, some sort of Oriental Zen aesthetic of ornate, albeit compressed meandering paths and meditation nooks. Forest doesn’t drive anymore and his yard now resembles the neglected grounds of a ruined temple. He shuffles with a cane. His hands shake. He is losing his eyesight. Through it all, he’s always had cool hair, a little long, a little Dylanesque. His rock ‘n’ roll locks are grey now.

As far as I know, Forest has always lived alone. He has a sister in town and they go out for breakfast or lunch a couple of times a week; she can’t see anymore either. Forest and I have compared notes on the nature of existence, fence staining, shrub pruning, bird feeding, football and hockey. Sometimes I shovel Forest’s walk because his snow removal crew is a family of Seventh Day Adventists and they will not work on a Saturday whatever the weather. Forest likes me, he thinks I’m clear-headed, logical and not prone to panic; we don’t know each other that well.

Of late I’ve been acting as Forest’s secretary. Once a week or so at a time mutually convenient to him I cut through the cedars growing along the property line and pull up a chair at his kitchen table. I read his correspondence to him. I write out cheques for him to sign. I put stamps on envelopes. Ann and I buy him backup batteries and light bulbs to add to his cache of backup batteries and light bulbs. Over the holidays I brought him a couple of containers of Ann’s exquisite and proper home cooking.

‘There should be two wires, a red one and a black one.’

For a single, goofily delirious instant I am a suave, high octane celluloid hero acting bemused, nervous and confident in the greatest heist flick ever filmed. No! I am a genuine secret agent whose very existence, my entire life, will be denied by the Canadian government should I get caught.

‘I see them.’

Forest’s home security network has its flaws, Ann and I often receive calls to investigate his property as we’re the designated backups. One sensor in particular is persnickety. He bought the system from a company that no longer exists, absorbed by a rival. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve changed all the batteries, reset the motherboard, pressed the STATUS button twice. There have been futile service visits to his residence.

All of this insurance policy modest discount technology comes with a price when it malfunctions: BEEP. BEEP. A couple of years ago Ann and I had a carbon monoxide detector installed in our home during a renovation. One day it went off. BEEP. BEEP. My first thought was to just disconnect the damn thing. And then I said to Ann, ‘If they find our bodies gnawed on by cats and the alarm dangling from the ceiling, well, that would be embarrassing.’ I knew Forest’s house was secure but the BEEPs were driving him into a realm beyond madness.

Our first phone call to the alarm company was straightforward once I explained to Forest that the phone number was prominently displayed on a decal on his front door. We were told to simply unplug the adaptor extending from the motherboard in his office from the wall socket. The second step was easy too: remove the batteries from the keypad unit at the front door where the sticker was adhered. We scheduled a service call. I went home through the cedars.

Within half an hour Forest phoned me. The BEEPing had recommenced. I said, ‘There must be a failsafe somewhere.’ He wondered why they hadn’t informed us of that. I said, ‘What the hell would an untrained kid in a call centre know about an alarm system his employer hadn’t even manufactured?’ It was also possible that the call centre was unexclusive, a call centre for many different businesses. I went back through the cedars to my neighbour’s house. Once again I dialed the company’s toll-free number to somewhere and handed the handset to Forest.

Our furnace crapped out a couple of years ago. As I stood in Forest’s kitchen I remembered Ann, exasperated, in our kitchen on the phone with Sears which was being represented by a very polite lady in the Philippines: ‘No, I won’t schedule an appointment for next Monday. You don’t understand. It’s January in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We have no heat.’ When Forest’s second call was answered with the proviso that it could be monitored for training purposes, he was transferred to sales. I listened to his patience dwindle and his ire rise: ‘No, I’m not interested in a system upgrade now. I have a problem in this moment that needs solving. No, I’m not interested. You are not listening to me. I have an immediate problem that requires an immediate solution. No, I cannot wait until the service call tomorrow. Are you not hearing me?’

And wasn’t this deaf discourse our modern, social world in a sound byte? Two people talking at cross purposes about the same topic and each one insisting they be heard over the other? Forest eventually got a techie on the line. As he returned his handset to me he wondered if he’d been rude. Merely frustrated, I assured him. Just like most of us.

‘Disconnect the red wire and the black wire.’

Done. Mission finally accomplished.

No comments:

Post a Comment