By the time I had my second cup of coffee, I had received reports of two household fatalities. My wife told me the doorbell was dead and my son told me a goldfish was missing.
I dealt with the doorbell first. I thought my chances of reviving it were much greater than resurrecting Rudolph, the missing goldfish.
The doorbell is temperamental. There are certain days, usually rainy days, when it doesn't want to work.
I was worried about the spotty performance of the bell. So I took a step beyond my usual remedy of tightening any visible screws. I ventured into the realm of doorbell theory.
After plowing through the doorbell sections in two books, "The Way Things Work" by David Macaulay, and "The New York Times Season-by-Season Guide to Home Maintenance" by John Warde, I came up with the following understanding of what goes on.
When you press the doorbell button it sends electricity from a transformer along wires to the bell. The juice collaborates with a magnet and spring to excite a hammer to strike a bell. Or as Peter, Paul and Mary might sing: If you have a hammer, and if you have a bell, and if you've got a juiced up electromagnet, then you've got a working doorbell. All over this land.
The Warde book also told me how to test the inner workings of my doorbell. This sounded risky. To me, checking the inner workings of a household device is like going to the doctor for tests. You can't be sure what the examination will turn up.
But I felt lucky, so I pushed ahead. I checked the current, or the flow of the juice in the doorbell, by carefully removing the button from the front door frame, leaving the doorbell wires attached to the terminals in the button. Using my circuit tester, a device that looks like a tiny two-legged jellyfish with a bulb for a head, I connected the "legs" to terminals in the doorbell button.
The light in the head of the jellyfish did not go on. This was good. The dark bulb meant that the transformer was doing its job of taking high-powered household electricity and toning it down to the mild-mannered juice that doorbells prefer, juice too weak to light the bulb.
If the circuit tester light had gone on, it would have meant I had too much juice in the doorbell. It would have been a sign that I had a faulty transformer. And a transformer gone bad, the book said, was a fire hazard.
Heartened by news that I wasn't going to burn down the house by ringing the doorbell, I began searching for the transformer. The books made the transformer sound like the brain of the doorbell, making connections and speeding messages to distant parts. I was curious what a doorbell cerebellum looked like.
I found it in the basement, attached to a rafter. It was resting in a black metal box, and when I removed the lid I did so gingerly, both out of caution and some vague sense of reverence. Everything was where it should be, at least according to the diagrams in the books. The thick wires connected to the household current, the glass fuses, the bright metal transformer, the thin wires running out of the black box, upward to button and bell. The workings were dusty, but brains get that way.
I closed the lid, walked upstairs following the thin wires that ran to the bell. I spotted what I thought was the problem. The wires were loosely connected to the terminals on the bell. Feeling gleeful and powerful, I tightened the loose wires. A minute later when I pushed the doorbell button, the bell responded with a clarion call. Proud and still somewhat mystified by my work, I rang it second time.
Having revived the doorbell, I turned my attention to Rudolph, the missing fish. I summoned my 7-year-old son. As we searched the fish bowl, my son and I knew that if we found the fish, it wouldn't be wiggling. We spotted Rudolph's head at the bottom of the bowl.
There were no tears. A few years ago the death of a goldfish was a cause of grief. Now it stirred curiosity. What did death look like? What were we going to do with the remains? We decided to plant Rudolph in the garden next to the sunflower. He would be good fertilizer.
I have become accustomed to discussing death. The kids have forced it on me. They bring the subject up at unusual times in unconventional ways. One sunny day, for instance, when the 7-year-old and I were driving along the expressway, he turned to me. "Dad," he said, "I love this car so much. And when you die I am going to think of you every time I drive it."
I told him I still had some time left, still had a little juice left in my wires. The next time he brings the subject up, I might tell him when my time comes, he can plant me near some sunflowers, just like Rudolph.