By George Addison
There was nothing else to do. He had nowhere to be, no one to see, no tasks left to be marked as complete in his wire-bound, school-issued day planner. He was halfway through his sophomore year of college. College was his identity, for the time being. He worked, though when asked, he skirted the topic, revealing nothing .He wasn’t ashamed of his job; it simply held no meaning for him. The idea of an entry-level, dead-end job defining others’ perception of him was repulsive. It made his insides squirm with discomfort and angst. In conversations, he orbited around his studies. He spoke of his class schedule, his opinions of his professors, his intended major, and the ways in which he would change the world after graduation. He wanted people to understand that he was different, he was substantial, and he was not like everyone or anyone else.
It was Sunday, the Sabbath day. He had no intention of attending Mass with the masses. He observed his own Sabbath. Today, he would visit his mother, satisfying his familial obligation while blissfully accomplishing nothing else.
The doorbell seemed to ring a little too loudly and the apartment door opened too quickly. Compulsory hugs were exchanged, followed by the unceremonious shedding of shoes as the young man strode toward the sofa. Dropping into the elbow of the L-shaped sofa, he was pleased to find the television already on. There would be no need to exert effort by reaching for the remote sitting on the coffee table. If it was to be his Sabbath, he would strictly observe the obligation to rest.
On the screen is a woman against a white background. She is nondescript. There are tears in her eyes. She is telling America how worried she is about her sister. The screen flashes and now a camera slowly, painfully, pans across a garbage dump. A few seconds lapse before it is clear to the young man that this is not a garbage dump; this is the woman’s home. In shock, lips parted in disbelief, he sees that the woman hasn’t thrown a single thing away in over twenty-years. Then he is straining forward, aghast at the items the host is finding rotting in the kitchen. A twenty-year old chicken carcass causes a guttural reaction in one person who has volunteered to help sort out the mess. The television show is profiting on the attempt to help people with hoarding issue. It’s invasive and degrading, but he is fascinated.
Suddenly, the young man becomes aware that his television viewing is usurping more of his energy than he had intention to expend. Coming out of his screen-induced haze, he realizes that he is straining to hear the dialogue over the sound of a vacuum running in an adjacent room. Looking to the other end of the couch, he finds that his mother has left her seat. The vacuum cuts off and his mother emerges, briskly crosses the living room in search of cleaning supplies under the kitchen sink. He watches her mechanical and hurried movements. Out pops the all-purpose cleaner, the rags, and the bucket. Systematically, almost robotically, she places the items in the bucket and, without a word, skitters into the other room.
Usually his mother cleans on Saturdays. The evidence that she has kept to this routine surrounds him. Books sit, neatly arranged, dust-free, on twin bookshelves perfectly spaced on either side of the television console. He sees that the bucket she uses to clean the fish tank is drying in the corner of the kitchen. The throw blanket which rests on the couch behind his head smells freshly laundered.
The show breaks for a commercial about coffee or some other meaningless product and he is left to observe his mother. He laughs to himself. It is clear that the television show has inspired some urge to clean in her. It’s like watching a sheep. The slightest movement on the part of one and soon the entire herd is bolting across the fields. He never knew his mother to be particularly strong of mind, but the ease with which five minutes of a television show had influenced her was surprising. He’d always known that his high intelligence was a gift from his father. It was a gift he found himself very grateful for as he watched his mother disappear into her bedroom with a spray-bottle of window cleaner in hand. How glad he was that he was not a sheep. He was more intelligent, certainly, more philosophical and introspective. He was above the influence.
Though his mother was a sheep, he did not dislike her for it. He admired her in a way. She had had to be a sheep, it was her survival tactic. Had she not been a sheep her children would have been left undefended in a world of wolves. She divorced his father when he was only five, but the memories from the “old house” were as fresh in his memory as the smell of the blanket behind his head. It was the typical story of the drunk and his lost family. It could have been a Lifetime movie. The controlling husband who drinks too much and becomes violent; the desperate calls for help which go unheeded; finally a frenzied escape, all as if it were part of a script. The movie ends there, but life doesn’t. In real life, the movie begins to replay, now starring the son as the male lead. He had no intention of being like his father.
The aftermath of the escape left his mother with three children to rear alone, having no education or work experience of her own. She had to keep to a routine, up, work, school, feed the kids, and wash the kids, then sleep. If she didn’t lose herself and check things off her daily list, they would all have been lost. The price she paid to be free of a bad marriage was her identity. He had no intention of being like his mother.
The change in the intangible static snaps him back to the present. He had zoned out through the entirety of the last segment; it’s time for another commercial break. He heads to the kitchen to find a snack. He’s not hungry, but it’s a commercial and something needs to occupy his attention for the next three minutes. The vacuum has maintained its silence and the only noise he is aware of is the sound of a sponge against some hard surface on the other side of the wall which divides the kitchen from the bathroom. The only voice he hears is a woman extolling the “rich aroma and smooth taste” of the latest brand of coffee. The fridge is nearly empty, nothing appeals to him. He heads back into the living room and resumes his position.
When the show returns, so does his philosopher’s mind. These people are also sheep. Their habits may be in contrast to his mother’s, but their motivation is the same. When they felt a void in their lives, they filled it with what they saw on television. The woman now being profiled compulsively purchases items from the home-shopping shows. Her house is full of multiples of items which she doesn’t even use. She doesn’t even realize that she has bought three of the same purse until the television host prompts her to open two boxes which had been delivered to her home the previous day. She didn’t just decide that she needed a purple leather purse, or three. She saw them on television and picked up the phone without thinking.
The sheep on television were following the other television sheep. They bought things on the home-shopping network, that’s where they found all of this junk. They bought things they saw others owning, they bought things which represented other things, they bought things to replace what they imagined they were lacking. None of this struck him as original. If it were original there wouldn’t be enough material for a marathon showing on television.
His thoughts are completely absorbed in this train of thought. He is only half watching the show. He snaps back just in time for yet another commercial. It is the same one he heard from the kitchen on the last break. He wonders how many times this commercial will play. On the screen, a woman in pajamas sips her morning coffee, looking blissful and refreshed.
After lying on his mother’s sofa for another couple of hours, he feels that his respite is complete. The sun is setting on his Sabbath.
He bids farewell to his mother and leaves her apartment. He crosses the parking lot. The cold winds of March are not a hindrance, but refreshing and inspiring. He settles into the driver’s seat of his Civic, recognizing the automobile as a symbol of American freedom and independence. He drives away feeling as clear as the sky, knowing his options are as open as that same sky. When he gets home, he will use his renewed energy to begin writing the term paper that he has been putting off. First he needs a boost, a supplement to his ambition. He smiles; sublimely pleased with himself as he pulls into the parking lot of Starbucks in search of a rich aroma and smooth taste.