“I’m not sure what’s going on here,” Mark Nipple muttered, holding the television remote in one hand and the user manual — instructions in five different languages — in the other. The English text was about as useful to him as the Japanese.
“Here, let me do it,” his wife Anita commanded, more resigned than demanding, wiping a gray puff of hair from her eyes and reaching for the black, candy-bar-shaped device that Mark held. She was undaunted by the flashing LED lights and the multiple keypads with their microscopic buttons, but Nipple was confident that she’d be as stymied as he. Yet in no time the TV screen lit up like some alternate universe come to life, canned laughter spilling like a waterfall into the room.
“Wow. Great,” Nipple marveled, the compliment amounting to relief. Did he really give a shit? Ever since Aubrey left home to pursue life on the road with his band, Mark had had the growing suspicion that his life had become so much unfocused clutter, that the family home was nothing but a warehouse. This wasn’t how the “empty nest” was supposed to be. It was supposed to be “liberating.” He remembered all those years of driving kids around and then, once they got their licenses, letting them use his car. It wasn’t exactly that he didn’t feel “needed” or “useful” any longer, but here was Anita using the same hectoring tone of authority she’d gotten used to using on the children, on him. When had she become so competent, so efficient? He remembered her maxing credit cards, overdrawing bank accounts, missing flights, back when they were in their twenties...
Nipple considered the way people morph with age into their parents or some fantasy they’ve always had of themselves. Take their spinster neighbor Sandy, who at the age of sixty had acquired a dog and spent endless hours talking to it as if it were a child. Of course, people who talk to their pets are really talking to themselves, but some of the conversations Sandy had with her sheltie sounded downright abusive. Mark could visualize the puppy’s ears sagging into his face as Sandy berated Vincent for urinating on the carpet, questioning his intentions and upbringing, threatening punishment. Was that how her parents treated her as a child?
“Where did you get the idea it was OK to pee on my living room carpet?” The windows were open and the Nipples could hear her raised voice. “Huh? Are you going to answer me? Where did you get the idea you could pee anywhere you want to? I ought to kick you out of this house.”
“You want to watch this?” Anita asked. It was a re-run of a Friends episode that they’d seen several times already — with Aubrey and Samantha, Nipple reflected, before Sam went out to California and Aubrey hit the road.
“Not really, but sure, why not?”
“I’ve seen it before.” Anita walked away toward the kitchen, leaving her husband wondering which button to push on the remote to turn the television off. He had a vision of his mother-in-law, dead two decades now, trundling out of the room.