Watt miracle is this?

© Bryan Zepp Jamieson

December 11, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, it was a Saturday, and my wife decided to sleep in. I was up, writing, and heard her alarm going off. She keeps the alarm in the living room, where it’s harder for her to reach out and just slap it off. I went into the bedroom, where she gave me a sleepy glower and said, “Go and slap that goddamn thing off, would you?” When it comes to alarm clocks, she’s just a little ray of sunshine.

So I did, and immediately became aware of a fairly loud electric hum. Or buzz.

The house is nearly 120 years old, and we updated a fair bit of the wiring when we moved in twenty years ago so we could plug in our computers and color TVs and whatnot without burning the place down. The electrics in the place dated from the 30s and 40s, and there was a fair bit of dodgy amateur work that had to be removed. But the front part of the living room hadn’t been done. There was only one outlet there, and it powered the CO alarm and a single lamp.

Still, a loud electric buzz was cause for alarm, even if I couldn’t immediately see any reason for it. I walked back, listening carefully. The sound was coming from the very front of the “mud room” area, the area in a corner behind the front door that had corner shelving and was our designated junk shelf area; it’s where various tools and stuff for the car and discarded tape players that we were too lazy to haul to the junkyard and such-like live.

The sound was definitely coming from there.

I pondered this. I was pretty sure no wiring went through that section of wall. There were no outlets. And it was definitely electrical, and not insects or some other type of weird vibration.

Maybe it’s from outside, I thought. Maybe one of my neighbors found out I liked Dennis Kucinich, or one of my beta readers finished my book and decided a large bomb in front of my house was the best way to put me out of everyone’s misery. Or maybe we were being attacked by six-foot termites. I resolved, once the mystery was solved, to lead a less interesting life.

From outside the sound was barely audible, and clearly coming from inside. Right, I thought. It’s something on those shelves.

I started pulling objects out and examining them. Tool set, rolls of duct tape, half-empty bottles of Gorilla glue were examined and acquitted of humming. Finally, I pulled out an old cassette tape portable player that had been languishing there for years. It was humming. Quite loudly.

I looked at the buttons on the top. “Play” was depressed. I pressed the stop button, and the humming promptly ceased. I considered going back to the six-foot termite or mad-beta-reader theories. They seemed less whimsical. I pressed play. The humming resumed. There was no tape in the machine. It was fairly grimy, not surprising since it had been sitting there for at least five years. Perhaps longer. We got our first CD player back in the eighties sometime, and I couldn’t recall playing a cassette tape in at least 15 years.

“One of the cats must have turned it on,” my wife suggested. Well, they do get into everything, and often conspire with the dog to knock down items we don’t want chewed or eaten, so he can chew or eat them. I pressed the buttons. They were dusty and sticky, and it took quite a bit of effort to press them. A cat would have to step right on the button to depress it.

I put the player back where it had lived and peered in. There was less than an inch clearance between the buttons and the shelf above. No cat could do that. The dog, maybe, but I couldn’t think of any reason why he would.

I looked at the batteries. Given that they had to be at least five years old, they were in astonishingly good shape and (obviously) still held a charge. I was impressed, and consigned the incident to “life’s little mysteries.”

This weekend, our phone started messing up. The phone was one of those Radio Shack wireless jobbies, one of a set of two we got back about six years ago. The phones worked flawlessly, and suited our needs perfectly. But then one of them died, about three months ago. My wife was chatting with her sister and washing dishes, phone cradled between ear and shoulder. She reached for something, and the phone went in the soapy water.

We were going to just toss it out, but my wife noted that the battery pack would still take a charge when it was in the cradle, and I have a bad habit of leaving my phone off the cradle, and the batteries run down. That’s when you get the little supine birdie with “X”es for eyes lying pitifully in the green screen. It’s all very sad. Spare charged batteries, I reasoned, would be a good thing. So we kept the phone in its cradle, and the spare batteries did come in handy a couple of times. We adjusted to there being just the one wireless phone (we also have a wired job in the living room for when the power goes out) and life went on. My wife learned not to combine phone calls and dish washing.

It worked well until this past weekend. Beginning Friday, the phone would ring, the screen would flash “Incoming call,” but before caller ID could come up, the screen would go dark and the call would terminate. We had seen that before—people call, and at the last moment change their minds for whatever reason and hang up.

But then Saturday evening, one of our neighbors tried to call us, couldn’t, and reported that instead of ringing, there was a crackling noise on the phone. My wife checked. Crackle, crackle, we couldn’t call out. Somewhat mysteriously, our DSL, part of the same line, was working just fine. I browsed my provider’s website. Live on-line help had just closed for the night, and I didn’t see any point in leaving a message. So I browsed to see what might be causing the crackling. Water in the gray box on the outside of the house seemed to be a leading possibility, and we had had a lot of rain in the previous week. I recalled a friend in LA who would have fits after heavy rainfalls because her phone would be so static-ridden as to be practically unusable. I resolved to check the box the next morning.

On a whim, I checked the “dead” phone. In its cradle, it would light up when there was an incoming call, but if you tried answering, it had remained resolutely silent. I knew this because I kept forgetting it was dead and would pick it up if a call came in and I was right next to it. Now, that phone was making the same crackling noise as the good one. That was the first noise it had made in three months. I raised my eyebrows, and decided to check again in the morning.

The next morning, when I pressed the button on the dead phone, I got a dial tone. I tested it by calling a business I knew was closed, so as to not disturb anyone, and got their answering machine. OK. The dead phone is back to life. Weird. After several months. Double weird. And it was probably what caused the static. It’s still a little bit squirrelly, but it works. Both phones do. Every so often, it still dumps an incoming call, so I keep it close to hand, but it works.

There’s only one rational explanation for all this. I’m magic.

Since I’m magic, I’m cashing in. Send your small appliances such as phones or VCRs or cassette tape players and $500 in small, unmarked bills, and I will stick the devices off in some remote corner, forget they are there, and have them mysteriously come to life anywhere from three months to ten years later. If you want to attach holy or supernatural implications to all this, feel free, but you didn’t hear it from me. I suspect the dog and/or our brand of dish soap has something to do with it.

Eventually, I’ll see your device, say, “What the hell is this?” and press play.

Sorry. No refunds. I’m magic. I’m not crazy.



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