The patience placebo

My mother broke things that didn’t work. She destroyed them so she’d never have to bother with them again. She enjoyed it because it gave her a moment of power over an object she couldn’t understand and now couldn’t even use. When the TV remote acted up, my mother stomped on it until the only parts you could recognise were the batteries.

“What the hell is this?” my father asked.

“That was the TV remote,” she said.

“I said I’d fix it,” he sputtered.

My mother lit a cigarette.

“Sure,” she said, “but the TV would have died of natural causes long before that.”

“Nothing dies of natural causes in this house,” my father observed. “Why do you do this?”

“So we don’t sit around like idiots, shaking a remote.”

“But I would’ve fixed it—”

“You can still fix it,” she said. “On your own time.”

My mother’s abandon drove my father insane. He didn’t mind the money it cost to replace the broken remote. What he couldn’t understand was that she didn’t respond when challenged by the universe, as he did, always, regardless of the odds of victory or the timing of the battle. Fighting the universe gave him an opportunity to be patient and that’s what he really excelled at. Under normal circumstances, patience is a virtue. It helps when nothing else seems to. But my father’s patience was so boundless as to constitute a disability. He couldn’t give up on whatever he was trying to do, no matter what. He kept at it long after common sense had ruled out any chance of success. He kept at it because the real test was to keep at it, not to solve the actual problem. If he solved the problem, by some fluke, he complicated matters until there was something else he could be patient about.

I remember one weekend when he tried to fix the light in the living room. The job was supposed to be simple—replace the corroded fitting and be done with it. Things started out well. He replaced the fitting and the light worked. He was done.

“Now get down from there,” my mother urged.

My father took his time to give her a dirty look from up on his ladder.

“This was easy,” he mused.

“Sometimes it’s just like that,” she said. “Get down from there.”

“This wire looks suspect—”

“Come down here—”

He tugged the wire that ran from the light into the roof. The light went out, as did another one along the wall.

“See!” he said in triumph. “I told you.”

Within the next few minutes he managed to short out half of the wiring in the house. He spent most of the weekend swearing softly and standing on the ladder while my mother smoked cigarettes at him.

“Can you go away?” he said through gritted teeth. “I know what I’m doing.”

My mother regarded him darkly.

“When?” she asked.

“When what?”

“When can I call someone who actually knows what he’s doing.”

“Go away.”

My father took the Monday off so he could devote himself more fully to the faulty wiring but my mother had called an electrician behind his back. The man arrived and fixed the problem in a few minutes. My father was deflated but visibly relieved. He secretly admired the ease with which my mother viewed the world but he never admitted it.

“What should I do now?” he wondered.

“Leave things alone,” my mother said. “Go see what’s in the shed.”

In the garden was a shed in which my father kept things he’d rescued before my mother could totally destroy them. Now and then he spent the day holed up in this shed, being patient. Sometimes he got lucky—like a gambler—and managed to fix something that was in there. Those times extended his belief that success required suffering and that his way was the right way. He tried to get me interested in his tinkering but I always disappointed him.

“You’re just like your mother,” he once said.

To give me some spine my father made me do various chores around the yard. Every weekend I had to sweep the pavements around the pool, clean the pool itself, and mow the lawn. The lawnmower was an old thing. Like me, it didn’t want to mow the lawn. My father had worked on it many times but that had only made it more prone to cutting out. I sulked and I wanted to go and play with my friends.

“Be patient, dammit,” my father said and twiddled a few knobs.

“Why’s it hard to mow the lawn and hard to start the lawnmower?” I asked. “It doesn’t make sense.”

He gave the cord a pull but nothing happened.

“What do you mean, it doesn’t make sense?”

“Bad things are easy to get into, not hard. To fall out of a tree I just have to let go.”

He pulled the cord again and adjusted a valve.

“This isn’t a tree, goddammit! This is entropy.”

He started the mower and gave me a long look.

“What’s entropy?” I asked.

“The world’s like that,” he said and walked back into the house.

It shouldn’t be I thought as I struggled on. A few minutes later the lawnmower cut out again. In a fit of rage I pushed it into the pool. It sank to the bottom and sat there, looking suddenly smaller and surreal. A few bubbles and some oil began to rise to the surface.

My father, who must have been watching me, strode from the house with stiff legs, like someone on stilts. He was so angry he was calm. He shoved me into the pool. Then his anger broke free from somewhere inside him. He grabbed the scooping pole and began to prod me.

“You son of a bitch!” he cried.

My mother didn’t say anything about that. She knew it wouldn’t help to mess with my father at the height of his anger. That afternoon, while he swore and banged things in the shed where he tried to resurrect the lawnmower, she laughed.

“Did it feel good?” she asked.

A few weeks later the lawn had become rampant but my father still insisted that he’d somehow fix the lawnmower.

“I should’ve drowned that boy,” he remarked and gave me a sidelong glance.

“It’s a pity,” my mother said.

“That I didn’t?”

“That it wasn’t me. I would’ve killed that lawnmower good.”

My father returned to the shed without a word.

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