The new television season has arrived, and my wife couldn’t be happier. She likes television. I tend to be in the vicinity, reading a book or doing a crossword puzzle. Her shows play in the background, inserting themselves into and out of my consciousness in much the same way that I probably reappear for her during commercial breaks. I used to see these daily programs as a confusing mass of unrelated entertainment. But I eventually began to notice a pattern. About ninety percent of the shows Maria watches fall into two categories: murder and home decorating.
The murder shows are among the most popular on television. They are always about a grisly and mysterious homicide that baffles the police force for about forty-five minutes, then is solved swiftly in the last quarter-hour, usually through the use of some computer technology that allows people to get any collection of data and information in less time than it takes me to say, “Oh, come on.” (I”m too tired to read by now and I’ve given up on the crossword puzzle, so I’m paying attention to the show, even though I don’t know what it’s about.)
“This is so ridiculous,” I say. “The detective asks for a list of the floor plans of all the houses in Chicago built between 1938 and 1954, and up they come. Or he says he wants the names of everyone who’s ever eaten a bagel, and bam, there’s the list, alphabetized and broken down according to plain, poppy, or sesame. I couldn’t find an itch that fast.”
“It’s television,” my wife explains, as if I didn’t know. I ask who they’re looking for. Usually, a woman has been killed and the police suspect her husband, but they don’t have enough evidence. The husband has been acting strangely unemotional since his wife’s death. Also, he made eighty-seven cell phone calls to the same number on the afternoon of the murder, was seen making out with another woman within hours of the funeral, and was deeply in debt and took out a life insurance policy on his wife just last Thursday. He avoids talking to his in-laws, and has trouble crying when being questioned by police or testifying at his trial. Within the first four minutes of these shows, Maria usually announces that she knows the husband did it, but she continues to watch anyway.
Sometimes, in a creative twist, it’s the husband who is murdered. For some reason, his wife is the last person anybody suspects. Maybe it’s because women aren’t as prone to violence, or because they seem less capable of the physical activities required for killing a man, hiding his body, and disposing of the evidence. Also, wives are better at crying. A woman can burst into tears at the drop of a hat; all she has to do is think of any Hallmark movie, certain McDonald’s commercials, or that time she did drop her hat and the bus ran over it. But women, at least the ones in television police dramas, are extremely sadistic. The problem is, they’re also patient, methodical, and much smarter than their idiot husbands. They do a lot of online research to find out just the right poison to slip into his root beer, one that won’t show up during the autopsy. A man kills his wife by grabbing a crowbar at the train station and chasing her with it. That’s why he’s targeted immediately, while the wife has to kill three husbands in six years before anyone suspects her.
“Why are the men always so stupid?” I ask.
“It’s television,” my wife explains again.
I look over and notice that she’s taking notes. This seems a little peculiar, but I dismiss it and return to my unfinished crossword puzzle. Maria glances over and comments on how hard these puzzles are and how unbelievably smart I am. Then she asks me how to spell strychnine. I like being helpful and I really like that my wife thinks I’m smart, so I spell it, even writing it down to show her. I also mention that cyanide may be harder to detect and has fewer antidotes, and ask her if she needs me to spell cyanide, too. She says, no, adding that she’s pretty familiar with that word, but jots down the phrase harder to detect, even underlining it twice. At this point I turn over and drift off to sleep as Maria watches one of her favorite home decorating shows. These usually involve some loud-mouthed, overly-critical design genius who walks into someone’s home and trashes the place, room by room. By the end of the show, the homeowners return to their transformed house and say “Oh, my God!” over and over and hug the design genius and say how much they can’t believe it. Again, I open my eyes to see my wife taking notes.
The next day, I’m bothered by paranoid thoughts that I can’t quite pin down. They nag at the edges of my mind, following me all the way to the hardware store, where my wife grabs a shovel, an enormous quantity of weed killer, and some paint swatches. I immediately become suspicious — I told you, I’m smarter than most men — and ask her what the paint swatches are for.
“Just thinking,” she says, evasively. But I’m on to her. She thinks I’m going to pull down all of that wallpaper in the kitchen, spend two days scraping and sanding, then paint the entire room, all while she’s out in the garden wasting time trying to get rid of a few weeds.
“You won’t get away with it,” I say.
“Get away with what?” she answers. Again, it’s her evasiveness that tips me off.
“Your little plot. I know what you’re up to, trying to trick me into starting another major project in the house. I keep telling you, we have to complete one thing before we start on another. Now here are your dumb paint swatches. I’m going outside to finish digging that gigantic hole you wanted in the backyard.”
“All right,” she says, knowing when she’s been outsmarted. “I’ll have a nice cold root beer waiting for you when you get back.”
As I dig the hole, an odd mix of thoughts wanders through my head. Mostly, I worry about my wife’s inability to be organized, to follow a plan, to get things done. I know she has me to take care of most of the thinking, but what if I weren’t here? What if something happened to me? How would she get by? I remind myself that we did just increase my life insurance policy, which helps me feel better (and, of course, that much smarter). “She’s probably in there right now,” I think, “watching one of those sappy Hallmark movies and crying her eyes out.”