Mildred Budwieser looked across the queen-sized bed at her husband. She was sitting up straight and he was slouching, which was bad for his back but he did it anyway, just to be contrary. It was Monday evening, and she was requesting help on the daily Buglecrossword.
“How many letters?” Ed stared straight ahead at the screen, where a family of four was approaching rapture over an improved version of a major brand of tacos. But he could not appreciate their ecstasy. He had had a bad day. That afternoon his boss of two weeks had mortified him by accusing him of being a dead white male. Not in so many words, but. And just twenty minutes ago, during “Jeopardy,” his wife of forty-one years had humiliated him by pointing out that Alaska was not a continent.
“Eight letters,” said Mildred with a yawn. “No—nine. Two words. The second letter is an O.”
He fondled the mute button. The marvels of the electronic age made it possible for him to bring the voices of complete strangers like Pat and Vanna into the privacy of the Budwieser bedroom. The voices, as well as—here he fingered the power button—the images. And he had the advantage. He could see and hear America’s Game, brought to him from the Sony Picture Studios; the stars of America’s Game could not see and hear him, already in his pajamas at 6:41 and the sun still up. He could see the glitter of their set; they could not see the downscale bedroom, decorated by Mildred in muddy browns and faded oranges and dull greens and furnished with garage-sale knickknacks. He could see them award prizes for luck and skill; they could not see him sitting up in bed and eating a huge dish of ice cream and strawberries, or Mildred alongside him, working on her crossword and inserting popcorn into a well-creamed face.
He could turn them on or shut them off with the flick of a button. They were dependent on his whim. Power!
He released the mute button.
“Here’s our next puzzle,” said Pat, coming alive. “The category is Thing.”
“Oh,” added Pat, laughing at his mistake. “It’s our jackpot round. We’ve added a prize to the Wheel, called Mexico. What’s that all about, Charlie?”
Invisible but exuberant Charlie announced a trip south of the border worth 8,937 big ones. “You and your guest will fly to Acapulco,” he promised in a confidential tone, “where you’ll enjoy a week’s vacation in a luxurious hacienda featuring tennis and golf every day and long romantic walks along the beach every evening.”
“Make it knitting during the day,” said Mildred drily, “and I start to get interested.”
Make it cliff diving, thought Ed.
“And make it crosswords at night.”
“Let’s stick to the long romantic walks,” he murmured. But he wasn’t thinking of Mildred. He was thinking of a possible señorita. A certain … Beatrice, perhaps?