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Authors: Marjorie Klein

Test Pattern

BOOK: Test Pattern
7.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub




For Joshua and Bennett.
The future is yours to see.



Title Page


1 CASSIE 1954








































About the Publisher


OM IS DANCING the tango in front of our new TV. Her silhouette dips and glides, slides flat as a shadow across the silvery screen. She’s one step behind Arthur Murray, who is demonstrating the Magic Steps That Open the Door to Popularity.

“Come on, dance with me,” she says to Dad. She grabs his hand, tries to pull him off the couch. He scrunches down, crosses his arms, shakes his head. Dad doesn’t believe in dancing.

Maybe he’s tired. He started moving the furniture as soon as he got home and saw the TV was here. Mom directed, pointing here, no here, no maybe it’d be better over there, until finally everything was lined up, TV on one wall, couch on the other, Naugahyde chairs parked so they’d face the TV, too. Now our living room looks like the Paramount Theater.

Dad’s still in his work clothes, his Dickies shirt smeared with dirt and stuff from the shipyard, hair all sticking out and sweaty. Mom couldn’t wait for him to change, just rushed us throughdinner so she wouldn’t miss
The Arthur Murray Party.
She’s so bossy about it, you’d think it was her very own TV.

It came this afternoon when we kids were playing kickball. “Yay!” we cheered as we spotted the delivery guy balancing the big box on his cart, then we jitterbugged behind him in a wacky parade up the sidewalk to our house. Mom waved him through the doorway, her hands all white from making biscuits. I wanted to die. She was wearing her ratty gray robe and those dead-squirrel slippers. Her hair was knotted in pincurls stuck to her head like snails.

The guy grabbed one corner of the box with a hairy fist and ripped off the side of the carton. There it was, our new TV, wobbling on pointy little feet like a dog that’s been bumped by a car. “Magnavox,” Mom whispered, reading the gold letters beneath a screen that shone silver as a nickel. The guy plunked the rabbit-ears antenna on top like a beanie, fiddled around with some wires and stuff, then plugged it in.

“Not much on right now,” he mumbled, flipping channels, wiggling and stretching the rabbit ears in every direction. Circles and lines appeared on the screen, faint and fuzzy at first, then clearer until he stood back, squinted, and said, “Pretty good picture.”

The test pattern stared back: a giant’s eye, round and square at the same time. “That’s all, folks,” the guy said before he snapped it off.

After he left, the kids stayed outside, quiet. Then Margaret asked, “Can we watch?”

“Go on home,” Mom said, shooing them off with her flour-stiff fingers. “Nothing’s on.”

“Come back later, okay?” I yelled as they straggled away. “Come back when it’s Howdy Doody time.”

“Never you mind,” Mom said so they couldn’t hear. “And keep it off till Dad gets home.” Sometimes she acts like I don’t count, like what I think doesn’t matter.

Soon as she went into the kitchen, I clicked on the TV. I couldn’t get much, just a bunch of snow, but the test pattern camein clear. Black-and-white. Bull’s-eye. Spider’s web. Round and spoked as a wheel. I stared. It seemed to breathe. I couldn’t get away. And then it spoke to me:
it said.
Hmmm hmmm,
grabbing my ears like the pattern grabbed my eyes.

I heard Mom talking. Far far away.

“Cassie, Cassie—
What is the matter with you?”

I stared into the eye of the test pattern. Saw me looking out at myself, looking in at myself. I couldn’t get away from me.

“Cassie!” Mom’s hands, big and warm as cats on my shoulders, turned me around to look at her. Her mouth moved around my name. I blinked like I just woke up.

“That’s enough,” she said with a frowny face, and switched the test pattern off. She didn’t turn the TV on again until after dinner when it was time to tango with Arthur Murray.

I CAN’T SLEEP. The house is still. Bony branches of the chinaberry tree clack witch fingers against my windowpane. Nights like this I’d stay warm in bed, but this night things have changed. There’s a TV in our living room, and I hear it calling to me.

I tiptoe barefoot down the stairs, creep into the darkened room. In the gloom, the couch seems alive. It cradles its cushions in its arms like fat babies. Deep shadows from the porch light shift and hide like small quick animals.

I change my mind, turn to go back upstairs. The TV stops me with its silvery face. I get that same loopy feeling I get on the Tilt-A-Whirl, like I just ate a handful of jumping beans. I touch the knob of the TV. My hand seems to belong to someone else. My fingers and toes prickle like they’ve fallen asleep, and my whole body freckles with electricity.

I hear its hum before I see it, the circle with spokes like a wheel. The blacks get blacker, the whites get whiter and then I see it clearly: the test pattern. It starts to spin, then whirs like a pin-wheel and sucks me into its eye. I’m inside a space that’s inside of me.

I hear voices. Music, weird music. Flash of red, flicker of green. Somebody—just my reflection, just me? Or …?

“What the bejesus do you think you’re doing?”

Yikes. It’s Dad.

And here comes Mom in that ruffly cap she wears over her pincurls at night, eyes all pooched with sleep. But her mouth is wide-awake. “Get your bee-hind upstairs. Are you out of your mind, watching the test pattern?”

“There’s nothing else on,” I mumble.

“Get to bed,” Dad says, and snaps off the TV.

Even when I’m back in bed, the test pattern is still with me. Sharp and clear and real as a dream, it presses against my closed eyes.


ORENA’S IN THE kitchen pounding dough.
Bam, bam,
she punches away at the soft fleshy mound, flattens it with the rolling pin into a quivering blanket spread over the wooden board, blizzards it with flour. She wields the biscuit cutter like a circular sword, smashes its sharp edge repeatedly into the pale dough, deals the limp rounds into neat rows on the baking pan. She has done this every day since she married at twenty. She figures she will do it till she dies.

The screen door opens in a metallic whine, slaps shut. Here comes Cassie. “Mom!” she calls.

“What?” Lorena blots her sweating forehead with a dish towel, balls it up, throws it into the sink.

“Can we watch TV?”

“Not now.” Lorena can hear the crowd of kids jostling each other outside her front door, frenzied at the prospect of spending a half hour with a freckled puppet and a grown man who calls himself Buffalo Bob.

She dusts her palms as best as she can, then wipes them on her gray flannel robe, her anniversary gift from Pete, $2.99 on sale at Nachman’s he announced when he handed her the box. The gray slippers—real fur, he had said—well, those weren’t on sale but he bought them anyway.

“Mom, pleeeeze!” Cassie whines. “Everybody’s outside already.”

Well, too bad. Lorena shuffles out of the kitchen, her slippers making a
wshhht wshhht
sound. “Sorry, kids,” she says in her Nice Mommy voice. “Not today.”

“Well, then,
We’ve had the set a whole week already.” Cassie fixes her with a hateful glare. “I wish you were Mrs. Powell.” She storms out, slams the screen door behind her, yells, “I’m going to watch at the Powells'. They like kids.”

The Powells live across from them and have a TV, until now the only TV on the block unless you counted the MacDougals, an older couple who never invited anyone over to watch. Maybe Peggy Powell didn’t mind every kid in the neighborhood hanging out at her house, swarming like termites while she fixed dinner. They had to watch
had to watch
had to watch every puppet show that popped up on the screen. Well, Lorena wasn’t Peggy Powell, handing out Kool-Aid to those sticky-faced kids. She didn’t want them crammed into her living room, sucking on Tootsie Pops, putting their feet on the couch. That’s not why she got a television set.

The idea of owning one had once seemed a fantasy, like owning a box full of stars. Lorena had wanted her own TV since she first saw one, a mirage that shimmered from a circular screen on display in the window of Peninsula TV Sales. Soon afterward, her best friend Delia invited them over to watch on her brand-new set. Lorena had sat transfixed, mesmerized by its magic, spellbound in its glow. Pete practically had to drag her out the door before she’d leave Delia’s that night.

When they got home, she had lain awake, obsessed. She had tohave a TV. Captured like black-and-white butterflies inside that box, awaiting release with just the click of a knob, were all of her favorite stars: Bob Hope. Red Skelton. Jack Benny. Groucho. Uncle Miltie. And Lucille Ball—
Lucy, as Lorena likes to think of her. She knows if she could meet Lucy, they’d become the best of friends.

But seeing stars is not enough. Lorena wants to be one. The June Taylor dancers have triggered her fantasies of fame—for Lorena dances, too. The first time she watched the dancers open
The Jackie Gleason Show,
her methodical consumption of a Hershey bar slowed to a nibble. She studied each step of their kaleidoscopic choreography with a hunger, a passion, a desire so strong that it twisted into envy.

She could do that. She could do better than that. A mantra began inside her head: I
do that, I
do that, and she silently chanted it all the way home. It hummed on the edge of her consciousness until Saturday came once again, teasing her anew with the June Taylor dancers. After that, Saturday nights at Delia’s became a ritual. Fueled by frustration and hidden anger, Lorena’s mantra burned like a tiny flame that grew day by day, consuming her thoughts until little was left but desire.

Now that Lorena’s got her own TV, the June Taylor troupe seems to dance just for her. Hidden beneath the coffee table, her feet tap in secret mimicry when the desire to perform overwhelms her. As the camera rises high above the dancers to capture their divine precision, she just knows that if life had taken a different path, she could have been a petal of that unfolding flower.

Before television, her vicarious performances were limited to Saturday matinees at the movies. She would sit in the dark sharing popcorn with Delia and imagine herself mirroring the steps of Gene Kelly,
tappety tappety tap tap tap,
or descending a circular staircase on the arm of Fred Astaire. When the movie was over, the fantasy would end and she’d go home once again to real life.

Real life was once her fantasy life: a husband, a child, a home—all the things she wished for until she got her wish. After that, the fantasy faded into a predictable pattern of cooking, cleaning, shopping, and mending that promised to repeat eternally.

Not that she complains, oh, no. She could have done worse. Pete’s not a runaround like Delia’s ex-husband. Pete’s a family man, always on time for dinner, always expects those biscuits. Before they got the television set, he’d stop by the bar near the shipyard to watch TV after work, maybe down a Ballantine or two. But now that they’ve got the TV he comes straight home— stays home, too. After dinner he parks his work boots on the coffee table alongside his beer and pretzels, watches wrestling or the Pabst Blue Ribbon bouts. He’s a family man, yes, it’s true. But mostly he’s a company man.

BOOK: Test Pattern
7.36Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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