Photo: davy carren

I am a microwave-oven repairman here in America, but back in Russia I was a cellist, and not a bad one at that. Now? Now I ring the doorbells of strangers. They let me into the glory of their spacious homes. I wipe my grubby shoes on the doormat and politely greet them in my best broken-English accent. I sweep back my oleaginous locks from my forehead and step in to meet the day’s challenges.

I deal in magnetrons, high-voltage capacitors, waveguides, turntables, conductive mesh, and choke connections. Electromagnetic radiation’s got its perks, I guess, and people love convenience like they love their flag and their God and their country. I am only an interloper in the proceedings. And, I hope, one who dispenses at least a skosh of hope to blend in with the surroundings. The wallpaper may be weak with roses, but I am up to the task. Maillard reactions be damned; we are all roasting to a toasty finish here, dented refractions of each other, without or without the help of this dear non-ionizing radiation.

A suite by Bache to ease the mind of worry. The calm of repose is hard to come by here in The Land Of The Free. Four strings tuned to perfect fifths. It is balm for the anxious agony lurking just beneath my dopey countenance. Ah, my little viol. It was crafted for me by a rustic uncle (no luthier by a longshot) who specialized in woodwork and pottery. He dashed it off as a present for my coming of age, and from spruce scroll to end pin it still evokes such dreamy pastoral scenes of my youth that often I find myself brought to the brink of tears after holding it close after time away. I settle into my off hours like an eagle nesting and hiding out from trauma. Differences are asides to other matters. I have left meaning for others to decipher in the roundabout wilderness of my nights.

I woke early today. Earlier than most days. There was no sun to speak of, and the bleary scrum of a cloud-tattered sky hung low, almost suffocating, like a marine layer of smoke choking me to a fitful start. My spirits were as cold as my toes, and I drew myself a hot bath to take the pain of stressful and difficult dreams away. My head was an empty icebox: nothing stowed, nothing there to keep. My purfling was done for.

Those who concern themselves wholly with the act of attaining monetary wealth will never know the richness of my plight. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

Out into the rambling bifurcation of the world I go, caressing and jostling my battered Honda to a cranky start with a few delicate twists of the keys. I was made for the innocent terror of isolation, and the early morning streets often imbue me with the satisfaction of going it alone, of being a stranger in the oddest of landscapes: milk cows huddled behind barbwire, the vanishing tracks of timber trestles over narrow bridges, traffic signals flashing yellow, long straightaways of barren fields and grain elevators, crows gaping on the power lines, and the liquid flash of sun peeking over the horizon’s jagged discourteous mountains (so far yet so close) whose eyes have scars far longer than human history could ever imagine.

The 1st movement of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto invigorates me, even on the Honda’s horrible static-ridden speakers. The radio’s Dopplering in and out as I drive out into the pastures of less plenty, where the homes are larger and farther apart, and where the driveways cost more than an expensive new car. The Honda’s alignment veers left, making it a constant battle for me to keep the puttering thing on the proper side of the road. Whatever way you make your living, it is better to do so in honest contemplation of the universe’s wider scope. Again, something to keep telling myself as I plow forward on a grim Sunday morning.

Pleasant as ever, I reached my destination: a cavernous ranch-style homestead with a dramatic entryway, absurd wide eaves on its varying hip-roof lines, cathedral ceilings, sunken living rooms, and some pretty extensive landscaping. The chimney was nice enough, but the pink-and-gold shutters on the long-rectangular front windows were a bit gaudy for my taste. A real neo-eclectic disaster if you ask me. But nobody would be asking.

The Honda sputtered to a stop at the curb. I sat there with the windows down, quietly listening to what was left of the concerto. My memories began cuddling up to the present, not unpleasantly really, but I knew I’d need to quell any emotion if I were to proceed with the current undertaking. The work of a microwave-oven repairman is never done. I yawned and sighed and reached in the backseat for my tool belt and duffel bag of bundled parts. I had the very off-putting feeling of being seated directly above a fault line that would be rumbling to life very soon.

The steady drawl of a lawnmower was purring from a home across the street. A stunted palm squatted on a well-kept strip of grass that separated the curb from the sidewalk. Everything seemed pristine and had that just-born quality of newness and purity, or perhaps it was just an antiseptic glow. I remembered to button my shirt all the way up and donned my “Quality Care & Quantity Service” cap as I crawled from the car to the street, buckling my tool belt around me, and making sure my shoes were tied. I had a faint recollection of who it was that I was supposed to be.

The gruesome light of day blinded me as I stumbled along the slick faux-brick driveway, my duffel jangling, my eyes bleary, my shoes making the noise of a rubber sheath being pulled over a handful of dandelions. It was slow going. I eyed the marbled entryway with envy.

There were violet hydrangeas and some scruffy yet taut-stemmed roses meandering about below the side front-facing windows. Some sprinklers came on with a chip and a whir, and the manicured front lawn got wet. I wiped my shoes on a bright yellow mat below the front door, which was all frosted glass and polished oak with a brushed nickel knocker. My hands were perspiring some, and I nervously ran them through my hair, oily as ever, which didn’t really help, but it made me feel better about myself. I rang the doorbell and stood there, half-awake with my hands in my pockets, as a tinny version of a Chopin nocturne rang and echoed throughout the house’s chambers. Perhaps I was happy just then. Perhaps.

The kind of misery I tend to keep is its own best company.

We are all variations on a theme. The same features mugged together haphazardly on a whim and set in stone for age to take care of the rest. Sad figures of beauty, we are, and the subliminal escapades of our daily strife eat away at the façade of what we’re most egregiously attempting to show off for others. At some point the wet cement of our existence dries, and we wearily lag and moan through another week of saying hello and farewell to each other. I am not a very impressive example of what it means to be alive, but I do my part to keep the wheels in motion. I fix microwave ovens that have been misbehaving. I bring comfort and pleasure into people’s lives.

Some quick footsteps peppered the tile, and soon that thick ornate door opened to reveal a wool-sweatered individual who was groggy through his pleats and permanent-pressed visage, his eyes like empty saucers, his hair cropped infantry-man short. I promptly introduced myself as, “Igor, the one who was summoned to repair your microwave oven.” He jostled in his ironed threads, taking a moment to let his eyes inspect this specimen now hunched in his doorway.

“Sure.” He cracked his neck, awfully, and sighed as if for his life. “Come on in…Igor, is it?”

A whole scale of scattered quarter tones fell to the floor.

He thanked me for being on time as he led me through the grand and spacious hallway. “We’re doing some refining here, in these times. Instinctual, really, as it were. You from around here, Igor?”

I rankled, on the inside, and put on my best auto-pilot answers for him. “About a mile and four-fifths out. Not a bad drive. Where the shores meet the banks, out among the holier, harder-to-see grouses drumming on the air.”

“That’s nice. Not too bad. The kitchen’s this way.”

We hung a left past the living room that had a few long, low couches and a gas fireplace with tinted glass. It reminded me of brisk and crisp fall days, relaxed, hung dreamily in a state of thoughtlessness, perhaps with a glass of cognac for company and Brahms on the stereo. The word, “quietude” roamed around my head like a lost dog as I gazed into the capacious blank screen of a 55-inch Panasonic.

“Here we are. That’s the fritzed contraption over there. Damn thing. It just won’t heat up like it used to.”

We were standing on the brink of a most luxurious kitchen, replete with all the sundry wonders of modern cookware. Stainless steel abounded. The Formica counters were slick and spotless, as if they’d just been installed from a factory where they’d never been touched by human hands. Gleaming silver blenders and other accoutrements and kitchen aides were stowed above on sleek shelves that girded the shiny square middle: a detached stovetop/table with cutting boards and knives cleverly displayed on a side. The above-range microwave was relegated to a third-glance position in a corner of the outer cabinetry.

I noticed that it was a Panasonic full-size. “1600 watts. Not for the faint of heart.” I opened the door and had a gander inside. “You matched the TV.”

“We’re Panasonic people, I guess.”

I blurted out two quick laughs. It felt like the right thing to be doing.

The inside of the microwave was surprisingly free of grime and splats, the white walls and vents antiseptically clean. It had the look of a museum piece: never used; dusted nightly. I wondered when the last time the removable turntable had spun. I closed the door, softly, so as not to disturb the comfortable quiet that had descended on us.

“How long has it been…malfunctioning?” My words seemed like firecrackers in a vacuum.

His visage was one slow batch of tics as he glared at some apparently irksome matter in the western reaches of the abode. There couldn’t have been a fly or a cockroach within 100 yards of the place. It wouldn’t have been possible.

“Several years, now. I think. It is hard to tell. Maybe it never worked properly at all?”

He shifted his shoulders and leaned against the side counter’s edge across from me. I wanted to know something deeper about the circumstances of his existence, but I hedged my bets and made for nearer waters.

“Yes. One can never tell for sure such things, now can one?”

He was reconfiguring his position, smoothing his hands across the sleek countertop now, as if he were feeling it for the first time. Beneath a protruding forehead and some dreadfully thick eyebrows, his eyes were somewhere else, perhaps seeing a place where he’d rather be. “Well, I’ll leave you to it, Igor. If the need arises for my presence, please, do not fear to beckon me. I will either be nearby, or not too far off.”

I thanked him. He bowed slightly, and then made his way out of the kitchen.

All was peaceful and pristine.

I hunkered down to do the job, hoping for no interruptions. When I set myself to a task I prefer to work steadily to its completion.

I checked the interlocks first. There were three instead of the industry standard of two. I wasn’t too surprised, as most of these heavy-duty models had all the frills. Without the safety of interlocks these ovens would keep running with the door ajar, and if the door latch breaks the oven will seem to have gone kaput because of them. But, in this case, they were all in fine fettle.

Next I gave the automatic sensors a once over. This relatively new technological feature can suss out when food is sufficiently cooked by taking a measure of the steam in the oven. It denies the user that tactile and aural pleasure of setting a timer though, as the microwave automatically shuts off, guaranteeing that food will not be over- or under-cooked. In pressed-for-time times like ours, most manufacturers are adding automatic sensors to their models if they haven’t already. All was well with the sensors in this particular home.

I heard the TV thrum to life in the next room. At this point I realized that I’d never asked the man’s name who’d ushered me into the home. For some bashful reason, it had never occurred to me to ask. I told myself, “It does not matter. We are but strings of things hallucinating the twilight’s gleam.” I remained calm and composed, and went about my affairs.

The oven’s green-lit display was blinking 12:00 at me. Nobody had bothered to even set the time. This made me despondent, clubbed with a sudden sleepy horror that coughed through me like a wounded seal. But my preludes of grief were few. I lifted the oven from its perch and fuddled with the cord, just for show, though nobody was there to watch. I was intent on looking occupied with what most folks would consider trifles, and I was acutely aware of the fact that these upscale homes often came fully stocked with security cameras. The word “entropy” occurred to me in the phraseology of my lapsed consciousness, and then it imploded, placid and reposed, without a sound.

After checking to make sure all the connections were secure, I rotated the hefty contraption (again contemplating abstruse things such as the nature of gravity upon all objects and the word “newcomers” and what temperature would arrive this afternoon from the valley’s factories’ smokestacks) so the back was facing me. I spoke aloud, not much more than a wisp above pianissimo, “Let’s have us a gander at this here complexity.”

The volume on the TV in the next room went from forte to fortissimo, and I could hear the close muffled reverberations of a crowd, and then a syrupy baritone, low and forceful, enunciated in a slow sforzando, “Ladies and gentlemen, at this time we ask that you all please rise and direct your attention to the American flag for the playing of our National Anthem.”

I immediately stopped my fiddling, set the microwave down, and walked out to the living room. I was a man possessed, forced into a pose I had little taste for. There have been other times in my life when I’ve felt the fetters of compulsion strain upon me like this, when I’ve kowtowed to making myself appear to care or believe in something just for show, because the negative consequences of me not doing so were much more terrible than any self-inflicted inner-suffering I might have to endure for partaking in the said events. But this here sort of jingoistic hand-over-the-heart fervor, well, that was something I knew beyond all kin of doubt could land me in a chokehold of regret if I failed to act accordingly with the moral standards of the society in which I had been so inclined to live within.

I stood at the edge of the living-room’s carpet, took my hat off, and placed it over my heart. The man in charge of this home was lounging on his sofa chair with a bag of chips in his lap, sipping a bottle of beer, and not paying much mind to the events taking place on that giant screen in front of him. I felt that I was doing something symbolically pure and proper, and I was hoping that it all would be over soon.

I am Igor. I come from a land so far away. Peace and horror coexist so unevenly in the breaking light of dawn’s last call, here, in this place that has adopted me into its glaring manifest destiny. I am not so gallant anymore. My Sundays were once obsolete, filled with contrapuntal textures and the scent of hay and pipe smoke. I am Igor, and the style brisé of my time here is cracked and holy, and I am standing at attention, riveted, or so it would seem, to an Anacreontic song waving bravely unfit from one octave all the way to one fifth. And I am a complete fake, seeking attention that I find deplorable to have. Do not judge me but begrudged; and if so, then, well, let all the eagles devour me bald and well-seen from seas that don’t shine so well to each other anymore. I am only as abstract you as will let me be. I will stand here, obeying all of your laws, from the mountains to the prairies, from the steppes to the plains, from the garbage dumps and lead pipes and over-crowded jails and the slums and the mega-churches and the swallows in the polluted ravine and the SUV exhaust and coal-poisoned waters and the corrupt cops and the paid-off congress and the disharmony of a disjointed union pulled apart by its own selfish momentum. We are all the same in the low-grade swoon of our petty differences.

I am Igor. I am a microwave-oven repairman from Russia. I stand here in a façade of respect for something that I understand all too well for my own good. I do this as a small gesture, I hope, of reassurance in times of harrowing divisions and troubled sleep. This, this is all that I can do. To be free in this land that is supposedly of it too. And I shall do it as well as I possibly can.

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