One of my favorite stories by the late Ray Bradbury, master writer, is "The Small Assassin." A young mother who almost died in childbirth has an overwhelming belief that her newborn hates her and wants to kill her. No amount of soothing by her husband or reassurance by her doctor can rid her of this belief. Some incredible events take place, leading to a conclusion that, in my opinion, only Ray Bradbury could make so entertaining and so thoroughly believable. If you've never read the story, you should, so I won't give away any more details.
While I'm not a young mother, I've developed a similarly overwhelming belief that what is usually a normal part of life has become malevolent and has developed a sinister plot to kill me, or possibly to drive me to kill myself. I refer to an ordinary collection of household appliances that masks its hatred of me with bland exteriors of steel and plastic.
When we built the home we now occupy, 15 years ago, we installed top quality appliances. A wall-mounted double oven did everything any cook could ask of it and did it well. But just as we'd come to rely upon it completely, it burned one of its heating elements in half. The glass in one of the doors had to be replaced. Then the refrigerator, recessed in the wall, quietly began leaking water, unseen, so that it could seep under the tile floor. I've written about this before, so I'll be brief. Eighty percent of the house is floored with tile. Eighty percent of the house had its flooring ripped out, its cabinets and counters removed, its furnishings put in storage for four months while the house was virtually rebuilt, at a cost that must have brought the insurance company to tears.
When the house rebuild was complete and the appliances re-installed, the dishwasher promptly attacked with water and had to be replaced. The oven door window cracked again and had to be replaced. The clothes washer took to throwing its agitator off in mid-wash with a ghastly noise. The dryer joined in, giving off a death rattle. Repairs were made. Then the oven began turning on its multiple control lights, resetting its digital clock, and beeping repeatedly, usually in the middle of the night. We had a component replaced at great expense and bought an insurance policy, good for a year, in case it happened again. The oven was a model of dependability for just over a year, convincing me not to waste money on a policy renewal. Well rested by now, it resumed the attack, with loud and persistent beeping episodes at any hour. Want to bake something? Ready to pre-heat the oven? It would refuse to accept the chosen temperature, choosing its own instead. It might relent eventually, but then refuse to accept any change in time or temperature. We gradually shifted more cooking to the microwave, which kept burning out its interior light but at least still cooked, and we turned off the power at the breaker box to avoid the incessant beeping of the oven. Eventually we gave up and had the control unit rebuilt, again, at a cost you don't want to hear.
Meantime, the refrigerator had decided to renew its flank attack, leaking water silently and out of sight. But it overplayed its hand this time and was replaced. The new refrigerator does its job, so far, but it tells you more than you need to know, like a hypochondriac reciting symptoms, with bright digits that inform you of its inner workings every time you open the door, whether you want to know them or not. When it runs water to the ice maker, it does so with the loud swooshing of a fire hose being used at full force. Frozen cubes are tossed into the bin with the sound of a baseball thrown against the side of a barn, easily heard anywhere in the house. But we can put up with that if we can just keep the water going to make the ice and not under the tile floor.
This week it was the washer's turn. It began to spray water underneath, mimicking the previous refrigerator's attack on the tile. So we replaced both washer and dryer. The new appliances are incredibly complicated but efficient, so who knows what new atrocity they will commit? While waiting to find out, I have a recurring nightmare in which I awake to find all our appliances gathered around my bed, colored lights flashing, ice cubes slamming the wall. The oven's fickle glass doors peer blindly down at me while it turns itself on and off and beeps endlessly. I know that the appliances are going to either burn me to death, drown me, or drive me mad with the noise and the flashing lights. And I can't think of a suitable solution.
If only I could talk to Ray Bradbury.
Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."