A Simple Mistake





William Anderson is at the foot of the stairs, commanding the air in the den. The wife is standing almost at attention. His boy is by the stereo console, rapt. There is an air of secrecy – necromancy much beyond the capability of anyone contracted to install stereo speakers – bi-amping a set of high end audiophile equipment.

Someone with the money to purchase this quality of gear should be able to wire it together. A twelve year old could do it.

‘Stand back Yancy – Phil’s doing dad a big favor here, I don’t want you getting your nose in it and ruining it.’

‘No – it’s OK. Let the kid stay – I’ll keep him out of your hair. He can hold a tool or two. How about that? Can you do that kid?’

A muffled -’k’. And something in the boy’s eye. Something he can’t gauge.

‘He’ll just bother you. I’ll make him stay in his room. ‘

‘You know what? I could use some help. I could use someone to hold some things.’

The look in Anderson’s eyes betrays his desire to stop this from happening.

Phil decides to push – to test the water. What could be so important? He pops the clasps on the front of the tool kit. Grabs a pair of pliers, a wire stripper, and a roll of tape, holds them up.

‘Yancy, c’mon over.’

The child turns his head away from his father – turns so that the only thing he can see is the tools – a man holding tools.

‘You know what? When you’re doing work, you can do it alone, or you can do it with somebody else. I get it – sometimes guys like to do the work alone. Me – I like to have someone help. It makes it go faster. Right? I like work, but if you share it and it goes faster, then – well – that’s what fun is I figure. Here, kid – hold onto this for me. I’ll tell you when I need it – OK?’

Yancy utters a broken syllable. It doesn’t work. His throat is dry. He swallows, hunches his shoulders – gets it the next time – “OK.”

‘Ok kid – here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to run wire from the back of these guys – the speakers – on the floor behind the desk to that rack of audio equipment.’

The kid follows his gaze, his hands as they point first to the wire, then to the speakers – glued to his purpose – following the motion – obedient. Subservient.

‘Have you done anything like this before?’

He means helping, but in the instant now knows he will be satisfied with the more general no – the universal one. No – I’ve never helped my dad with anything in my life. He doesn’t know anything about me.

‘Well, how about this; everything has a plan. Have they taught you that? When your mom goes to the store she has a plan. When your dad cuts the lawn he has a plan? Have they told you about plans? Our plan starts with checking the tools to make sure we have everything we need. You hold the lid open on the toolbox, OK? I’m going to point out the tools I brought and make sure I have everything.’

‘Dad says doctors and lawyers don’t do their own dirty work – they have others do it for them.’

‘I see.’

He feels the eyes of the man, the owner of the building he works in and recalls their conversation in the food court last week. The asking for a favor.

‘Well kid – no matter what you do, and especially if you do really important things, like being a surgeon say – you have to make plans, you have to plan how you’re going to fix someone or something. Right?’

‘Yeah. I guess so.’

The man turns and walks away into the next room.

‘Here – take this.’ He hands the boy a measuring tape.

‘Here’s how my plan works – we measure the run of the wires, cut them, terminate the ends and then connect everything up. Sounds easy, right?’

‘I guess.’

‘Alright – first let’s make sure we have everything we need to do the job.’

He lists the tools, wire strippers, tape measure, pliers, cutters. phillips driver. The boy holds each tool and places them on the carpet in order – careful – reverent.

‘Do you get into arguments with your dad? Your mom?’

‘Not really.’

‘These are called banana jacks – they go into the holes in the back of those speakers – and these are called fork terminals – these go on the back of the amplifier. In this case your dads’ equipment has screw terminals back there to hold the wires. We measured and cut two wire runs. Let’s terminate the ends. On one end of each there will be banana plugs and on the other we’ll install fork terminals. How many of each are we going to need?’

The boy responds by picking up the right amount of terminators and begins to drop them with the tools.

‘What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?’

‘Not much’.

‘Does your dad yell at you?’

‘Yeah, sometimes.’

‘How’s your plan kid? Are you doing any planning?’

‘My dad says I’m going to go to university and be a lawyer.’

‘I see. Well – that sounds like their plan. Do you have one too?’

The boy smiles. Looks him in the eye. Not really.

‘Do you want to be part of their plan? Or your plan.’

Silence. The father is all over the room, in the walls, the air. His attitude and the societal division that keeps his place for him when no one is looking. It’s on both of them. Judgment and decision.

He takes a length of wire and lays it out from one speaker, across the back of the wall and lays the other end between a couple of components on the table – the ends sticking out and ready.

‘See what I did here? You do the same with that one. Doesn’t matter which end – just make it go from the speaker on that side, over the floor to the center of the table, where the other one is.’

‘We’re going to strip all the ends. Let me show you. I take the strippers, find the setting that matches the gauge of the wire we’re using. In this case I look for a twelve – see that hole there and the stamped label – that hole is for twelve gauge wire. Watch – I run the end of the wire through there, squeeze and pull and it strips off the insulation. Easy huh?‘

The boy nods his head.

‘Here – you can help.’

They strip the rest of the wires – the boy enthralled – wondering at the marvel of tools, experience, tasks and results.

‘What’s this?’

The man is standing over their shoulders – behind them. Neither of them saw him return.

‘We’ve got the wires stripped, ready to finish.’

‘I wanted it done sooner, we have to leave in ten.’

‘Ahh. Ok. I should be able to wrap it up.’

‘Let’s see – for this part, I need you to hold the pliers and a single fork terminal.’ They both watch the man leave, smile at each other.

‘If you look closely at the wire, you’ll see that one lead has marks on it. We’ll make sure we use the same lead for the positive side of both the speaker and the amplifier. On both sides.’

He begins to rush. The boy can feel the change.

‘Here’s your plan kid. Make little bits of it starting now. Do you make an allowance? Any money for doing things? You need some money no one knows about. You’ll know what for some day. Just find a way to keep your own money – not theirs.’

His hands are working quickly – moving behind the speaker boxes, making connections. Dropping tools, picking up others.

‘Think about your stuff. The stuff in your room. Where do you want to keep it. Think about that. Think about your books, your comics, your things. Sometimes it’s fun to just sit in your room, look at your favorite things and imagine where they will be in a while. Maybe a year. Try that some time. Write some things down. Some things you’d like to do some day. Don’t be afraid to change it – to make it different or bigger or smaller for that matter. Keep it to yourself and look at it once in a while. It will remind you of what you want to do next.’

At the back of the amplifier, twisting a screwdriver.

‘Ok. Let’s listen.’

He powers the unit up, selects the tuner – a local station – respectable volume and clarity. He takes a few steps back and listens – turning his head toward one speaker, then the other. He frowns, puzzled.

‘I wonder – what’s up with that?’


The boy can’t hear anything wrong.

He speaks to the air. Worried; the left side sounds very low.

‘It’s muffled. That shouldn’t be. It’s single channel while I test it out. The balance is centered.’

He looks behind one speaker, and then the other – checking the integrity of the connections. Leans over the amplifier – on hand down below, holding leads up and looking for the markings.

There – one of the cables has the polarity reversed – it’s a red connector but it’s on the negative lead and he’s obviously made a mistake in terminating the cable. He stands and thinks – at a loss to understand how this could happen. He’s so careful all the time. This is the mistake of a neophyte.

‘You all done? Time to go.’ The man is standing at the base of the stairs.

He looks at the boy – raises an eyebrow and leans back over the amplifier. He’ll just reverse the leads at this end and it will sound brilliant. No one will know the wires have the wrong colored terminator at the end. Except him and the boy.

All the words about planning. What the hell do they mean now?

He sees the look on the boy’s face. A challenge – all this talk. So what? He wants to go back and not fuck it up. He wants to explain what went wrong. But the man is at the steps insisting they come, there is no more time – quickly gather the tools. His tone of voice is an order, not a request.

And having made an error, he hasn’t a leg to stand on from the viewpoint of quality. He wants to say – no, stop and listen first. See how good this sounds. But the boy might think he’s just trying to show off now.

Now that he’s made a mistake and hidden it from everyone.