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--- A .W .  D E A N N U N T I S  

Our house is actually a clock. One of those really big ones you see in Europe on top of the town hall or maybe some castle, where the face of the clock is as big as a garage door and the gears are the size of trash cans. And even though we believe we own this monster-clock-house, my wife and I circle its base, gesturing to ourselves and amusing others on the hour.

After renting for years, Eleanor and I bought this house. Eleanor is a physically small person, and I am not. Eleanor bought a house, I bought something closer to a rabbit's warren. Though it is all the same building, my wife and I lived in different houses.

The inspector insisted the house was in good condition, but he must have looked only at Eleanor's house. In Eleanor's house things ran smoothly, in my house something always happened. In her house appliances always worked, appliances in my house cycled into continual sequential breakdown. Thus, after replacing a broken drive belt in the dryer, I discovered our perfectly running refrigerator frozen solid; freezer impacted with ice and glaciers flowing down the inside walls of the refrigerator, everything inside rock-hard. I promised myself I'd defrost the next day, and went to lock-up. A spring slipped in the front door, making it impossible to lock. I sat up late waiting for the locksmith. While waiting I set up the toaster to toast two pieces of bread and pressed the lever. Sitting in the living room minutes later the smell of smoke brought me back into the kitchen. Small flames licked just at the top of the toaster.

When the locksmith arrived he sniffed. "Geez, smells likes you had a fire in here."

"Do you know anything about toasters?" I said.

He shrugged. "They burn bread. Don't you like burned bread? You're a homeowner now, you can enjoy your burned bread under your own roof. A roof I'd suggest you refrain from burning down. Especially while I'm under it." He fixed the lock and stood to leave. He said, "A house is a cluster of interlocking systems. I'm surprised nobody bothered to tell you this secret. And you thought all you'd do is sign mortgage checks for thirty years. Enjoy your burned bread." He took my check and left.

I locked the door behind him and switched on the light in the dining room. The light flashed and then the first floor went dark. I recognized a suggestion and went upstairs to bed.

Before she left for work the next morning Eleanor asked, "How much is it going to cost?" I said it was a good thing nothing ever broke down in her house. She would save a lot of money that way. She could even become rich. "I am careful and I take care of things. So things take care of me. How would you like a nice steak and baked potato for dinner tonight? And I'll bring home a bottle of red wine." The possibility that she might prepare dinner that night charmed me into silence. Her smile hung in the air when she had gone.

I called my office for messages, let Tracy know I wouldn't be in. Then over the telephone I consulted a house psychologist. I said I thought I had an emergency and described what had been happening. She agreed to meet me at the house at three that afternoon. She said she suspected severe schizophrenia and possibly a nervous breakdown. "A house is like a pet," she hesitated and then said, "well, there are certain things we can do."

Her name was Cathy, she had a wonderful smile. She wore large glasses that gave her the look of a mischievous owl. In the breast pocket of her blouse she wore a plastic pen protector. Her blouse was tight, the pocket protector angled obliquely. She was tall and seemed a person who ought to be believed. I said, "My wife usually isn't home until after six."

She said, "We should probably start in the basement."

"We have plenty of time," I said, "start where you like."

She followed me down the steps. By the washing machine she brought out a small computer-like device with a cable and a kind of microphone attached to the end. She tapped keys on the small key pad, a small screen lighted, she tapped the key pad again, then took the microphone device into her other hand.

"A house is a complex of interlocking systems. This device reads what we like to call the relative unhappiness quotient of various systems. Once we identify their locations, some kind of rehabilitation can begin. We can plan for a better future." She held the microphone over the washer and then the dryer. "This device is collecting readings that I will download into the mainframe at my office. The measurements will take some time." Her skirt was snug, I enjoyed watching her move about. I liked her smile a lot.

I said, "I'd like to watch if you don't mind. Maybe I'll learn something."

She took measurements on walls, pipes, wires, the floor, everything that connected with anything. Connections of wood, metal, glass, rubber, plastic, linoleum, concrete or any hybrid thereof. She was patient and thorough. I followed her up the stairs when she finished. Watching her was improving my day. My confidence in Cathy grew, I felt optimistic.

In the dining room she held the device over glasses and china. "I can pick up smudges of discontent, sort of fingerprints on the crystal stem-ware of life."

In the kitchen she took considerable time making measurements at the refrigerator and dishwasher. "Unhappiness is an incomplete connection between two semi-autonomous but interlinked systems. Incompleteness persists all around us. Systems collect residual unhappiness, complex systems concentrate and amplify it. High levels of instability result in mechanical breakdown. This dishwasher, for example. Break-down is imminent. You might get a couple of days out of it, but that's all."

"Shouldn't we do something?" I asked.

"We are," she said. "We're taking measurements," I liked her smile more and more.

In the living room she spent a lot of time taking measurements over the couch and around the stereo system. "Do you play this system very loud?" she asked. When I said I didn't she seemed perplexed. "We should take measurements upstairs," she said.

"After you," I said. There were more stairs to the second floor than from the basement. My day continued to improve.

In the bathroom she said, "System stresses frequently collect in the plumbing. Had any trouble with your flush?" When I said I hadn't she seemed puzzled. "The principles of fluid dynamics raise fundamental questions about the membrane that separates organized from chaotic systems. Believe me," she said kneeling beside the toilet, "the movement of fluids through a house is a complex equalization of pressure and gravity. Plumbing is the system most vulnerable to sensitivity dependence on initial conditions. Just clog up a toilet with paper and flush."

I nodded. "Initial conditions are everything." I understood.

We went into the small guest room beside the bathroom that Eleanor uses as a study. Cathy took a number of measurements over and around the guest bed, tapped several keys in the key pad. "Knots of incoherence." She tapped more keys and casually asked, "Do you and your wife make love on this bed?"

"No," I said, unsure I'd given the correct answer.

Cathy shook her head. "Let's check the master bedroom."

She worked very carefully making measurements over our bed. When she finished taking readings over the rest of the furniture, she sat down on the edge of the bed. I sat down beside her.

"I'll know better after I've run the program but I'm getting elevated levels of discordance in several places. Several systems are critically close to avalanche breakdown, where one or more systems interlock destructively with other systems. If you don't mind my professional speculation, you don't use this bed for much more than sleeping." If there is a good response to that speculation, it did not come to mind. "We'll have to break up these nodules of incompletion one by one. So far your problems have been mere annoyances. But suppose your heater exploded or your washer overflowed or you dryer caught fire? Angry houses will kill." Her mouth was grim and hard-set. "What we're trying to avoid is nothing less than homicide by domicile."

I was convinced. She said, "I suggest we start in the guest room." She stood, I followed.

Beside the guest room bed she began to unbutton her blouse. "This will be only an initial treatment, a sort of patch." She removed her skirt. "Your house will need several treatments. Computer analysis will give us clearer direction." When she'd removed the rest of her clothes she laid down.

She looked up at me. "We should probably get started."

At one point she said, "Slow down." Later she said, "My work puts me at the center of points of energy transfer. Quanta of energy cascade into near-stable systems generating standing waves that block energy transference. By my generation of wave patterns out of phase with the standing wave, energy is released and energy levels leap to the previous stable state, thus permitting free energy transfer. I love my work." Later she said, "Hurry now." She was a person who knew what she was doing.

After we'd dressed she handed me her business card. "That's my emergency number. Next time a system breaks down, call me. Day or night. I need readings of systems in break-down state for a complete analysis. I'll be here as quickly as possible." I promised I'd keep her informed.

When Eleanor arrived home from work I told her I was getting a handle on the break-down problem. She said, "Good," and then she sighed and handed me a small paper bag. "Sorry about dinner," she said, "but work was so crazy." Inside the bag was a half-bagel and a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup. I smiled and shrugged. "Don't worry," I said, frustrated that there would be no nice steak and baked potato with red wine tonight, and then fixed a meal of pasta and jar pasta sauce. But nothing broke down that night until very late. Eleanor had already gone to bed. I put dishes into the dishwasher, added soap and turned it on. The machine went through the fill cycle but then stopped. I made sure I had done everything but the machine would not re-start. I called Cathy.

"I thought this afternoon's treatment would have taken care of that," she said. "False alarms will cost you." I assured her that this was not a false alarm. She said she'd be right over.

Minutes later she knocked quietly at the front door. "Show me," she said walking past me toward the kitchen. She did not stop to take off her coat.

At the dishwasher she brought out a device that resembled the other, but was larger and different. After tapping the key pad several times she attached a cable to the dishwasher and another to a glass full of water. "Water is the perfect conductor of feed-back. This explains how it is that unhappiness in one part of the world generates unhappiness in others." She tapped more keys, paused and then tapped more keys.

"Your mechanical systems are out of phase with your plumbing system. You've got serious sequential convergence problems," she said. "I'm going to need your help." She tapped more keys and then leaned forward over the dishwasher. She lifted her coat and then her skirt over her back. Over her shoulder she said, "Let me know when you're ready." When I said I was ready she tapped more keys on the key pad. "Hurry," she said. Then she said, "Harder." When I responded she tapped more keys on the key pad. "To the left," she said. I adjusted. "More," she said, and I complied. Then she said, "Harder," and then, "Hurry," which I did. "Now," she said. With a loud clank the dishwasher suddenly began to work. When she'd caught her breath she tapped more keys, then disconnected the wires.

"You shouldn't have any more problems for awhile." She twisted the wires around the device. "Wait until the dishwasher cycles through before you go to bed tonight just to make sure." Her beeper went off. She took it from her pocket and glanced at the display. "Got to run. I'll call as soon as I download this data and finish the analysis." She smiled and then she was gone. I liked that smile more and more. The dishwasher worked properly and then I went upstairs. Eleanor snored contentedly.

Nothing else broke down. Days later as she was leaving for work Eleanor offered to make fettuccine Alfredo for dinner. I told her I looked forward to it. Cathy called me at my office just before lunch. We agreed to meet at the house and an hour later she knocked at the door.

She walked in with a rolled chart in her right hand. "C'mon and take a look," she said over her shoulder. She unrolled the chart on the dining room table, leaned over it with her hands on her hips smiling. The chart contained circles of various sizes and different primary colors. Dominated by a large yellow circle, there were several small red circles, three of them were inside the yellow circle, several more small green circles and one very small blue circle. Inside and outside the circles in small neat printing were numbers and formulas and symbols and words like "living" and "dining" and "sitting." And criss-crossing everywhere were thin black lines.

"The computer has tracked the emission patterns of various sub-atomic particles. By correlating the distribution of gravatinos and gluons, and combining this with a map of leptron concentrations, we're able to chart the probability of weak-force dissipation. Without a consistent transfer of the weak force, things fall apart. Thus, in the red areas the weak force has reversed polarity, while in the blue the dissipation has reached maximum efficiency according to Planck's constant and the inverse ratio of baryon-to-meson accumulation. But this only gives us the momentary relationships. To calculate the temporal evolution we track tachyon particles for possible FTL signaling. That's what the lines and the numbers are about. They indicate temporal fields through which weak-force accumulations shift. It traces a sort of time-tunnel through which the weak-force fields are advancing temporally."

I said, "Isn't that something. Who would have thought?"

Cathy grinned proudly, her owlish glasses glinted in the weak light. "Advances in quantum theory have made all of this possible. We're lucky to be living in this century."

"So where should we start?" I asked. I had to look away.

"There are serious rifts in the front room upstairs, the bathroom, and in the basement. We should take care of those today. I'll come back to take measurements and see how the pattern re-alignments are progressing. We'll go from there."

"Fine," I said.

Chart in one hand and device in the other she led the way up the stairs. I liked following her. The first room was the master bedroom. She put the chart on the bed and turned on another device, one I hadn't seen before. She held it over the bed and studied the screen, then referred to the chart. She put the device on the bureau, rolled up the chart and began to unbutton her blouse. "Readings are all as I expected." When she'd undressed she laid across the width of the bed. "Wait," she said and brought out a compass. "We need to align across the earth's gravitational field." When she found the correct position we aligned.

She said, "Right there", and "That's it", and "Harder" and "Slow down", and then "Hurry". I did what was necessary.

Afterward we lay on our stomachs panting like marathon runners. She clapped me on the shoulder saying, "That wasn't too hard. We'll lick this thing." I could only nod and smile. Then she stood.

"We'd better get going." She glanced at her watch. "Temporal continuity is critical." With the chart and the device she walked naked into the bathroom. From the bed I watched her spread the chart on the floor and then check her device. "This is the spot," she said, "right here." She stood in the corner of the shower.

I stood on weak knees and went to stand beside her. With attentive assistance we did what needed to be done. Immediately afterward she referred to her device for more readings. "Excellent," she said panting, strands of her dark hair lay sweat-plastered to her forehead.

"I need a break," I said, walked back to the bed and laid down.

Cathy checked her watch. "Eight minutes," she said.

"Would ten minutes be cutting things too close?"

"The displacement of large numbers of sub-atomic particles creates subtle shifts in the temporal field. By adhering to the appropriate rhythm we avoid leaks or tears in the temporal fabric. And we are engaged in major particle diplacements. We're moving sub-atomic universes. Besides, getting this last one right is critical to the efficiency of the previous two." She stretched her arms above her head. I became inspired. She checked her watch again and stood.

She carried the chart and device, I followed her down the stairs until we were in the basement. There she opened the chart on the floor and scrutinized the device. She stood between the washer and dryer and gas heater and said, "This is it." With another glance at her watch she said, "We'd better hurry."

Grasping the rafter overhead she stood with her feet wide apart. I needed more help which she patiently donated as I embraced her from behind. Again she glanced at her watch and said, "Hurry." I followed her direction until she said, "There, right there, just like that," and then "Hurry."

When we finished my legs were numb, I sat down on the floor with my back against the washing machine, panting. She stood leaning her folded arms on the top of the washing machine, her head resting on her arms. After a pause she switched on her device and checked her readings."Good work. We've made a great start. Now I've got to get going." She walked to the stairs. Without stopping she said, "I'll bring down your clothes."

She returned dressed and holding my clothes under her arm. I hadn't moved from in front of the washing machine. She set the clothes on the floor beside me and tousled my hair playfully. "Not as easy as it looks?" When I smiled weakly she said, "You'll get the hang of it. And we have a lot more to do." She brought out an appointment book. "I'll be back on Thursday. I'll meet you here at two." She scribbled saying, "Please call if you can't be here. And don't worry, I'll let myself out."

When finally I heard the front door close I began to dress. By the time Eleanor came home I had run another load of dishes and two loads of laundry and also had gone to the grocery store. I told her someone had been around to see about the break-down problem. I told her the representative had assured me everything would turn out. Eleanor smiled. "I told you so. You just worry about everything just to worry. You like to worry." She sighed then as she handed me a pizza box. "Work was so crazy," she said. The box was still very hot. I was grateful for that. I showered early, went to bed and slept dreamlessly.

Cathy arrived on Thursday carrying a new chart. When she'd laid it across the dining room table she said, "The house is now calmer and more open to your intentions. There is still a lot to do but energy is flowing, the organism is more relaxed. In no time this home will be purring in your lap."

I asked, "Where do we start?"

Studying the chart she said, "We'd better go back to the basement before we begin in the kitchen. After that, the stairway to the second floor. I'm getting resonant phase shift that's locking your house into a perpetual grumpiness. Gravity within this phase space extends a temporal echo which we do not feel from repetition, but the resonance in-phase is causing distortion from upper harmonic canceling. It's as if your house was half-asleep and determined not to wake up. We're dealing with this calmly. We don't want the house to become angry with you."

"No," I said, "that would be awful."

I followed her down into the basement. Before we finished she had said, "Again, harder," and "To the left." Afterward she took measurements and checked the chart.

In the kitchen she embraced the refrigerator, said, "Now," and then later took measurements on the floor on her hands and knees.

On the stairway she held the handrail, later she took readings at both the top and the bottom of the stairs. When she had dressed she said, "Don't be discouraged, we're making progress."

Cathy returned to our house pathology sessions every three or four days for three weeks. Finally she seemed to be satisfied. "The relationship you share with this house is about to be transformed. The house has begun to like you. But we should be prepared for a relapse. Habits are hard to break, whether you're a human or a house. Eventually, the house will loose patience with you. That's the moment we're waiting for. Remember my number and call me as soon as there's any sign of break-down."

When Eleanor came home that evening she prepared a wonderful pork loin and asparagus hollandaise. I told her I thought I had the objects and disasters issue finally and completely resolved. She smiled as she opened a charming chardonney. Over coffee she invited me upstairs to bed. Before I went up I placed the dishes and soap carefully in the dishwasher, moved gently, and the dishwasher purred.

The house ran flawlessly for nearly three months, until one night in a rain storm the roof began to leak. I was watching our trash can roll into the street to be hit by a passing car when I heard dripping in the kitchen.

Cathy arrived panting. Her owl eyeglasses sparkled with rain, her eyes were large and hot. "We've got to get onto the roof!"

"It's raining," I said.

"That's why we've got to get up there," she said. "This is it!" Conflicting energies are gathered just under your roof. They've created a point of transfer, concentrated all of the resources on that one point."

The rain fell lightly as we climbed to just below the peak of the roof. When we'd undressed she spread a blanket on the roof, the blanket became immediately wet. "That's all right," she said when I pointed this out, "I just hate what tar and rough surfaces do to my skin."

Sometimes she said, "Go!" and for a while she muttered, "There now there, there now there," and then she said, "Yes!"

The rain had all but stopped when we finished. We wrapped up the blanket, made our way off the roof. In the kitchen she said, "Mind if I shower?" I said Eleanor was a very heavy sleeper so I thought it would be okay. Minutes later Cathy appeared dressed and towel-drying her hair. She smiled beautifully. She said, "So it ends!"

I said, "What?"

"Gradually the cascade of sub-atomic structures merging and breaking off draws off all residual energy that has been concentrating in temporal tide pools on the edges of phase space. A general purge results from the reformulation of structures. Eventually the concentration moves to the point farthest from the gravitational center of the structure. We had to be there at that moment. We had to be there to disrupt the resonance pattern once and for all." She kissed my cheek. As she left, over her shoulder she said, "My bill will be in the mail."

The next evening after dinner I told Eleanor I had finally taken care of the problem. She smiled, she seemed genuinely relieved. We made love under the dining room table with the lights turned on. And nothing broke down. For months on end things ran perfectly. The months have become years.

Shamelessly I have begun to neglect everything. I abuse appliances, mis-apply their finely segregated designs, I torment orderly storage. I pummel the appropriate operation and maintenance of every manipulable system. I have thrown out all the instruction books. Efficiency has lost its charm. Things must break down occasionally. I have thumbed Cathy's business card to near-obscurity. I walk past public phones and mutter her number. A crisis is demanded. A break-down fulfills the metaphor for my discontent, source and explanation for all that focuses my unhappiness. Women metaphorize organically, our house is a mischievous but adorable puppy. Mechanical metaphorizing is favored among men, the finely geared clockwork, the gears invisible but interlocking. A metaphor ought to count for something. Sub-atomic physics and phase-space and fluid dynamics and quantum electro-dynamics. A metaphor ought to count for something. Meanwhile, my clockwork must fall apart. Gravanometric readings indicate the pull in the fabric of time has widened, things refuse their ordained places. Eleanor is always very tired at the end of the evening, she fails to notice, the metaphors just don't excite her. I sit beside her as she sleeps and watch the clockwork gradually unwind while the evening breeze billows the curtain beside her pillow. I understand it is sometimes the case that the cure is worse than the disease.

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published in association with the |
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