My mom had shown me that you could “divide” things into four “quarters” by drawing an “imaginary” line across the middle and another one up and down the middle. Where those two lines crossed was the “center”. She said it worked for things that were square or round. She liked doing things like that, thinking with lines and numbers, and writing them on a piece of paper.
So it worked for square things like the basement. When you walked down the stairs to the bottom and turned left, that was my quarter. It was perfect for me because I was left handed and liked to go that way anyway. It had my toys and the shelves my mom and dad made out of bricks and boards to put the toys when I wasn’t playing with them. They never did anything in that part of the basement. I could always play there whenever I wanted to. They called it “Cloob’s area”, though now they were calling it “Coop’s area” because of my new nickname.
At the bottom of the stairs, if you turned right and walked around the water heater and the furnace, that quarter was called the “laundry room”. It had big white washing machine and the big gray sinks, plus a “clothesline” for hanging wet clothes that came out of the washing machine. Actually I liked playing in that quarter of the basement too, because it had all three of those big metal things with knobs and buttons, though I knew I wasn’t supposed to press them. And the big metal things also had little blue flames hiding inside if you looked really close, and they would make different noises when they started working.
The washing machine made a lot of different noises if you waited long enough. After mom or dad turned the “dial”, it would make a whooshing water noise. Then it would stop and be quiet for a minute before you heard a clunk and then a noise like a car made when it was moving plus a water sloshing noise. Then if you waited longer, the noise would stop again for a minute, followed by another clunk. Then came the best part. It would go crazy with a louder car noise and even shake back and forth like it was going to explode, but it didn’t.
Now instead of turning left or right at the bottom of the stairs, if you kept walking straight past the center of the basement and then turned right, that was my dad’s quarter. It had a rug on the floor and his desk, special wood chair and shelves like in my quarter. Except his shelves had books instead of toys. He said his books were like my toys. They were what he played with and learned from. His quarter also had a small bed and a “bamboo screen” that hung from the ceiling by the side of the bed to make it darker if he wanted to sleep down there in the daytime. They called his quarter “the office”.
I played there too sometimes when dad was not home. I sat in his chair and made it spin around by pushing my foot against the desk. I counted how many circles I could spin before I came to a stop. I could do three sometimes but never four. I also liked going in the space under his desk because it was like a tiny secret cave that I was small enough to fit into. And I liked the bamboo screen, because it made dad’s quarter seem separate from the rest of the basement, like the water heater and furnace made the laundry room separate.
And what was left was the fourth quarter, which wasn’t really anything special. It did not have anything that gave it a name to talk about it like the other three. It just had a big white wood table with black metal legs, that mom and dad did “projects” on sometimes. Sometimes I would play there too, when I needed more space for what I was doing. Sometimes I could put a blanket over the table and turn it into a house or a cave that I could hide and play in. One time dad even turned it over and hung the blanket from the top of two legs so I could sit on it upside down and play Tom Sawyer on a raft on the river.
But today the fourth quarter got something new to make it special!
Dad came home from working and said he had a surprise in the trunk of the car. Mom and I came outside with him to see, she carrying David who didn’t walk or go any place by himself. The sky was gray and the air was cool and windy for the first time I could remember for a long time. But it felt tingly and good after all the warm air that wrapped around you and made your skin wet. Mom and I stood on either side of dad as he opened the trunk, David in her arms turning his head to look too.
It was a television. I gasped. I knew it was a television because Molly’s house had one and some other houses we went to had one too.
“Oh my god Eric”, mom said, sounding angry, “We can’t afford a television! What are you thinking? We can’t even pay all my hospital bills from the delivery!”
Dad was quiet and looked up at the sky but his face did not look happy. “Liz, I know that! The gal that manages the frat house I do work for said they were replacing this with a bigger model and I worked out a trade with her. I’m going to give her writing lessons. She’s a pretty good writer already but she wants to get better!”
“Do you have time to do that, with work on your dissertation and all your odd jobs?”
“Sure”, he said, the word just popped out of his mouth right after she asked the question without him thinking too much about it first.
Mom looked like she was thinking of more things to say, but then she looked at me and her eyes opened wide as if they were saying that maybe it was okay after all. I nodded.
“Where should we put it?” she asked, not looking or sounding angry anymore.
“Well”, dad did that thing where he pushed his lips together when he was thinking hard. “Maybe in the living room, or in the basement.”
“Not the living room”, she said with a quick laugh and blowing air out of her nose, “There’s no furniture in there to put it on, and I’m not having brick and board shelves in our living room. If we can’t afford any proper furniture I’d rather it stay empty!”
“The TV in Molly’s house is in the basement”, I said, trying to be helpful now that I was feeling a little less shy to speak to grown ups.
Mom and dad looked at me and then dad looked at her.
“Then the basement it is”, he said, “We can put it on the white table for now.”
“Just for right now!”, mom said, “I need every bit of that table top sometimes for my various projects, especially folding clothes.”
“I know that Liz, I use it too!” he said, “I’ll get boards and bricks at Fingerlee’s and we’ll put it back beyond Coop’s area against the west wall. You can watch while you are ironing or doing other chores in the basement.”
“That sounds good”, she said, “There is an outlet back there on that west wall. I don’t want a cord anywhere that Coop could trip on or David might try to touch or chew on.”
He nodded. “I’ll put the bricks for the shelves right in front of the outlet so it won’t be an attractive nuisance for the kids.”
The two of them really liked working together on stuff like this, their “projects”.
Dad lifted the TV out of the trunk, and I followed him, with mom holding David behind me. He carried it down into the basement and set it on the floor. He then grabbed either side of the white table and moved it over to the wall.
Mom called out, “Eric, let me help you with that!”
“No I’ve got it Liz”, he said grunting and groaning as he moved it against the wall. Then he put the TV on it and took the end of the cord with two shiny little metal things coming out of it and showed it to me.
“This uses electricity. It is very dangerous. Never touch this plug or the outlet I’m going to plug it into. Get your mom or me to help you. Okay?”
I felt a little scared so I did not say anything, but I nodded up and down really fast so they knew that I got it.
The thing looked very small sitting there on the big table, much smaller than the TV in Molly’s basement, which was in a wood box with legs. I watched that airplane story, “Sky King”, down in their basement that Molly really liked and watched with her dad too. We would sit on the shiny black “sofa” that squeaked when you sat on it. Her dad would push the buttons to make the pictures and sounds. She and I had also watched funny talking animals but her dad did not watch with us. Her mom did not like the TV and said that Molly should not watch it too much. I liked it and Molly did too. It seemed very different than everything else and very interesting. I was so excited there was one in our basement now too.
Dad leaned over in front of it to look close at the buttons on the front part.
“Liz. Coop,” dad said, “This works like the radio. You turn it on with this small knob and adjust the volume to make it louder or softer. Then you tune it to the station you want to watch with this bigger knob. You may have to move these antennas on top around until you get a better picture.” He pulled out two shiny silver sticks on the top of the TV. “At the frat house we got four channels… two, four, seven and nine.”
I heard the click as he turned the small knob, and the thing made a crackly noise and started to hum like the radio did. A voice from inside the thing was singing about getting your money back if you bought a car. Then there was a small square of light in the middle of the glass part in the front which got bigger to fill the whole glass part with a fuzzy picture with wiggly lines waving through it. It looked like small pictures of pretend cars moving toward a point in the center. Voices sang…
Roy O’Brien’s got them buying and buying
They come from many miles away
You’ll save yourself a lot of dollars, dollars
By driving out his way today
Dad moved the long silver sticks from side to side until the picture got less fuzzy and the wavy lines went away.
Now on the glass part, dad called it the “screen”, a woman and man inside a house were talking to each other. They both were angry and talking about someone else that the man liked. I thought her name was Mary because they kept saying that.
“This is channel two”, dad said, “Some sort of a soap opera I think.”
He turned the big knob and it clicked twice. There was a shiny gray car with a white stripe on the side and four people sitting at a long table behind it. Other people sitting behind them were yelling and cheering. The four people were each being asked to call out a number. Then one of them screamed and jumped up and down with her hands in the air and a man in dress up clothes and a tie came over and talked to her and walked her over to the car as she continued to scream.
“Game show on channel four”, dad said. “Looks like the lady won a car.” He turned the big knob three more clicks.
Some man with a white cowboy hat was shooting a gun at another man with a black cowboy hat, who was shooting at him too. I could see that dad was more interested in this one. The two men were moving around and trying to hide but still shooting at each other. Finally the man in the black hat stood up and the man in the white hat shot him. The man in the black hat put his hand over his chest, groaned, and fell over. His foot jerked and he stopped moving. The man in the white hat walked up to him and music started playing.
“Western on channel seven.”
“Eric”, mom said, “Is this appropriate for Cooper to be watching?”
“I’m just changing the channels Liz to make sure it works.”
“Well I’m not comfortable with Cooper or any kid watching shows like this!”
“Well”, dad pushed his lips together thinking, “It is our history Liz, cowboys and the Wild West. Good versus evil!”
“This is people shooting people, and I don’t think it is appropriate for children. It encourages them to play with guns and I don’t think they should”, she said, “not even toy guns”. Then puffing her cheeks and blowing out air, “You know how I feel about this Eric!”
Dad pushed his lips together again while he was thinking. “Coop’s plastic soldiers have guns”, he said.
“Yes you’re right, and I’ve thought about that too”, she said, now looking at me, I could see in her eyes that she was thinking hard, “But I know Coop loves his soldiers, and they help him use his imagination, so I guess I compromise there. I’m just very uncomfortable having guns in the house, real or toy, or even TV programs about people shooting each other with guns.”
Dad was quiet and looked like he was thinking and did not look happy. “What about when the kids make guns out of their Tinker Toys? Are you going to not let them play with Tinker Toys?”
Mom had a fierce look in her eyes but she smiled. “I see that as different. That is their choice. I don’t like it, but it’s their choice. But a real gun, or a toy version of a real gun, is where I draw the line!”
He said nothing and looked away from her and back at the TV, turning the knob two more clicks.
The picture was more fuzzy, but there were three women lying on the floor next to each other moving their legs up and down at the same time while the woman in the middle told them what to do.
“Some sort of women’s exercise show on channel nine. This is the Canadian station from Windsor, across the river from Detroit.”
Mom nodded. “I’ll pick up a TV Guide at the A&P tomorrow”, she said. She looked at dad and smiled a happier smile this time. “You’ll go over to Fingerlee’s and buy the shelf stuff?”
He nodded with a happy smile as well. They were working together.
She looked down and her face got kind of sad and then she turned her eyes up to look at him. “Sweetheart… I’m sorry I snapped at you earlier when I thought you had bought this. I make myself crazy sometimes worrying about money. You did good here. Now some of my household chores might not be so mind numbingly boring!”
He nodded while she spoke but said nothing. David started moving and making loud noises in her arms. She held him up and sniffed his diaper and wrinkled her nose. “This one needs a fresh diaper”, she said, “Excuse me gentlemen, keep up the good work!” and she headed up the stairs.
Dad watched her go up the stairs so I did too. When she was gone he turned to the TV and turned the big knob so it clicked twice. The man with the white cowboy hat was riding a horse in the sand towards a mountain. Then there was more music and there were white words on the glass that moved upwards.
Dad stared at the glass pictures thinking.
“I’m looking forward to being able to watch the World Series games on this thing. I also like the Westerns, but your mom doesn’t care for them.”
He seemed more like a kid in that moment. Staring at a new toy and thinking what he could do with it.
“The World Series”, I said nodding, though I did not know what that was, but I had heard adults and older kids talk about it.
Still looking at the thing he said, “It’ll be your mom’s Yankees against probably the Milwaukee Braves.”
I got it. It was a baseball game. My dad knew a lot about baseball.
And those words “west” and “western”. I was thinking I got that too. It was some special place far away that you went to through the sky where there was sand instead of grass and men rode horses and shot guns at each other and there weren’t any fences. But some women, like my mom, didn’t like it. They liked the “east”. Grown ups were strange, talking about these far away places that were not here. Molly liked the “west” and I guess I liked it too.
Dad walked back over to his office and sat in his chair. The TV was still making sounds and pictures. A talking tiger was telling a woman with an apron in a kitchen to buy cereal. Then two kids were running across a kitchen floor and there were brown spots from their shoes but a woman cleaned it up and was happy. Then there were lots of shiny cars all in rows and one man stood in the middle and was talking to the sky. It all seemed so different and far away from what was outside our house or anywhere I’d ever been.
“Coop”, dad said from his chair at his desk. “You okay if we turn the TV off for now? I’ve got some papers to grade and it’s distracting!”
“You want to try turning it off yourself?”
I nodded again.
I approached the thing sitting there on top of the white table. Behind the voices and other sounds coming out of it I could hear a low hum somewhere behind those other sounds. Since dad said it “used electricity” and that was something to be careful for, I wasn’t sure what my fingers would feel when I touched the knob. But he said I could turn it off so I figured it would be okay, but still.
I touched the small knob just a little with one finger. If just felt like other plastic things I played with. Then I touched it with two fingers and turned the knob and the voices got louder, and I startled.
Dad laughed, “Wrong way. Turn it the other way to turn it off!”
I used my two fingers again and turned it the other way. There was a click and the voices and noises stopped, and then the hum stopped. The glass part went back to a small white square that got smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.