Monday, February 4, 2013

#67: "World Without Columbo" by Kim Church

~This story was previously published in Shenandoah (2004).

            After the hurricane, when our cable service was finally restored, we began picking up channels we hadn’t paid for.  It’s been months now and the company still hasn’t caught on.  My husband feels guilty, but I tell him to look at it this way: we’ve been given a gift, the best kind, one we didn’t expect or deserve, and we should make the most of it, especially since we know it can’t last forever.  The truth is, I don’t want to lose my Columbo reruns.  One of our new stations plays two Columbos every Monday morning and one on Thursdays, and I’ve been taping them all.
            I’ve always loved the show, the puzzle of it.  Every episode is an inverted mystery: early on, you witness a murder; you’re in on the murderer’s construction of an alibi.  The object isn’t to come up with who did it or how or why, but to pick out the flaw in the murderer’s deception, the telling clue.
            Columbo notices everything.  He has an eye for inconsistency and always zeroes in on the one detail, however small, that doesn’t fit the big picture.  The streak of shoe polish on the living room door.  The victim’s radio tuned to classical music instead of country-and-western.
             I had just started middle school when the series premiered in the fall of 1971.  It came on every third Sunday, part of the NBC Sunday Night Mystery lineup, and I watched with my father, the only thing we regularly did together.  Unlike his other shows, this one was quiet — no canned laughter, no gunfights, no screaming.  Even the music was understated, sometimes no more than a single piano note played over and over again, steadily building suspense. 
            My reason for watching was different than my father’s.  I wanted to learn to think like Columbo, to have the kind of mind that would always recognize what was important.  My father wanted to be entertained.  He went in for all the corny side plots involving Columbo’s unnamed basset hound, his sputtering French car, his rumpled raincoat with the half-smoked cigar in the pocket.  Columbo’s bumbling-cop routine cracked my father up.  Columbo could never leave a room only once; he always had to duck back in with — my father would call out in unison — “just one more question!”  Mostly my father liked Peter Falk.  “That’s actually Peter Falk’s raincoat,” he would say.  “That’s his own suit.  See those shoes?  He brought them from home.”  He would study Peter Falk’s face to figure out which of his eyes was glass.  That was the mark of a truly great actor, he believed, when you couldn’t tell which eye was glass. 
            My most reliable memories of my father have Columbo in them.  Sometimes my mother watched with us, but usually not, which was fine with me, because she was given to talking over the TV about things unrelated to the show.  Besides, I have plenty of other memories of her.
            In every episode, Columbo’s suspicion falls almost instantly on the murderer.  This isn’t a matter of intuition.  It’s that the murderers on the show are attention-seekers.  They always show up early in the investigation, feigning remorse, offering help, volunteering their alibis, confident they will outsmart Columbo.  It takes an arrogant person to commit murder, you have to believe.
            Columbo knows how to handle them.  He is unfailingly polite.  There is a gentle humanity about him that takes most murderers by surprise.  He can be sympathetic when sympathy is called for, as in the case of the aging dancer played by Janet Leigh, who couldn’t recall murdering her husband because a cerebral aneurysm had erased most of her short-term memory.
            Even when he is certain of his proof, Columbo tends to talk in hypotheticals rather than direct accusations.  Let’s suppose you’re the killer, he might say.  You could have walked to the garage, slipped in through a window you’d unlocked earlier, driven your car to Miss Welles’ apartment and returned before the concert.
            My husband gets impatient with these methods.  He hates Columbo’s pretend-forgetfulness and wants him to get on with things.  But you can’t fast-forward through the bumbling without missing something important.  That’s Columbo’s brilliance as an interrogator: he annoys his suspects into saying too much.  I’m having a little problem with my paperwork, he’ll say.  I’m confused about this detail, I wonder if you could help me.  Until finally there is the one detail that can’t be explained except by the truth.  There is, always, the thing that cannot be lied about.
              Frankly, my husband doesn’t care for the show at all.  He doesn’t understand why I would want to watch Columbo solve a crime when I already know the solution.  He especially doesn’t understand why I would want to watch reruns — why watch a crime be solved a second time, or a third?
            Still, on Monday and Thursday nights when we get home from work he’ll say to me, Let’s take our dinner into the den and watch your show, did you tape Columbo today?  This is his way of being generous.  We sit at the coffee table with our food, and when he’s finished eating, he stretches out on the floor in front of the TV, pretends to watch the show, and falls asleep.
Lately dinner is sandwiches or a can of soup, because neither of us likes to cook.  It took us a long time to figure this out about each other.  When we were first married we cooked together every night, complicated meals, and cleaned up the kitchen afterwards.
            In one Columbo, food is the weapon.  The murderer, a chef, uses a syringe to extract poison from a Japanese blowfish, then injects it into a wine bottle through the cork.
            Columbo is married but you never see him with his wife, only the basset hound.  He’s always asking witnesses for food or coffee, or shaving in a public place, because his detective work leaves him no time for meals or grooming.  He drives with an expired license because he keeps forgetting to renew it.  He doesn’t carry a gun because he doesn’t have time for target practice.  The implication is, these are small matters anyway.
            Columbo is sometimes depressed.  It’s murder that does it, he says.  He wishes he didn’t understand murder so well.
            My husband doesn’t exactly snore when he sleeps, but he makes a clicking sound, ca, ca, the sound of a tiny flap in the back of his throat opening and closing.  Occasionally I will try and wake him.  Oh look, I’ll say, this is the one Jonathan Demme directed, or Steven Spielberg.  Wow, my husband will say, and he’ll blink a few times and try to keep his eyes open, but he never makes it to the end of the show.           
            Most Columbo murders are committed by men.  The only women who murder are overly ambitious career types (even poor Janet Leigh, who actually believed she could revive her dance career if her husband were out of the way), and in the end they are not only found out, like the men, but also punished with some cruel irony, like when the president of a cosmetics firm, played by Vera Miles, threw away her only jar of miracle cream, the very thing she had killed for, in the mistaken belief that it was the cause of her poison ivy rash. 
            Children almost never appear on Columbo, and the ones who do are not ordinary children but precocious and fascinating, like the little girl who lived in the Mensa house, and the boy who designed his own robot.
            My husband and I don’t have children.  We were afraid they would keep us from having interesting lives.
            On a recent episode Columbo was interviewing a witness named Goldie: middle-aged, bleached hair, sandpaper voice.  Over the years, she told Columbo, having no children, she and her husband had said everything two people could possibly say to each other.  We’re that close, she said.
            When my husband and I were first married we stayed up late every night, talking, smoking cigarettes, playing Scrabble, drinking wine.  As time went on, we talked and played and drank less, quit smoking for our health, went to bed earlier.  At one point, I don’t recall the year or whose idea it was, we started meeting with a therapist who rooted out some things we hadn’t talked about yet, so for a while we talked about those.
            By now we know everything about each other.  I know before he enters the house at night whether he’s had a good day at work.  I can tell from how fast he drives into the carport, how long he waits before pulling the parking brake, how hard his feet land on the steps.  He can read me, too.  We barely have to make eye contact.  As Goldie said, we’re that close.
            One night not long ago he asked if I still wanted to be married, if I wouldn’t be just as happy watching reruns by myself.  But I can no more imagine my life without him than I can imagine a world without Columbo.  I need the reassurance of him stretched out on the carpet, his clicking breath, the way he always looks surprised when I wake him up at the end of the show, as if he hadn’t really expected to fall asleep this time. 
            In both episodes last night the murderer killed more than one person: the original victim plus a witness.  During the second episode my husband got off the floor and climbed onto the sofa with me, gathered the afghan around him and put his head in my lap.  This was one of the few episodes in which Robert Culp (who is so often the murderer that I almost expected Columbo to say, What, you again?) appeared without glasses.  He usually wears wire-rims, and without them his eyes looked weak and strange.  It was disconcerting, Robert Culp’s blinking, this new weight in my lap.  I was secretly a little irritated at first.  But then I laid my hand on my husband’s head and, without thinking, began stroking his hair.  It’s thinner now, his hair, but still baby-fine, and so soft.  I had forgotten how soft.  Like sleep would feel if you could touch it.  Or love, even.

            This much is true: a hurricane hit Raleigh, and my husband and I ended up with an extra cable channel that played reruns of Columbo, my favorite show growing up.  For months, I taped the show and we watched over dinner. 
            Eventually, the cable company took our channel away.  There was nothing else worth watching on TV, so I spent more time listening to music.  Suzanne Vega — I listened to her a lot.  One of her songs got stuck in my head: “If your love were taken from me / every light that’s bright would soon go dim / it would be as dark as the world before Columbus.”  I sang it over and over, except I sang, “world without Columbo.” 
            Out of that mistake came a story title.  And out of that title, this story.


Kim Church’s debut novel, Byrd, will be published by Dzanc Books in 2014.  Her short fiction has appeared in Painted Bride Quarterly, Shenandoah, Mississippi Review, Prime Number Magazine, Flash Fiction Forward (Norton), The Great Books Foundation Short Story Omnibus, and other journals and anthologies.  She has received fiction grants from the North Carolina Arts Council and fellowships from the Millay Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Vermont Studio Center.  She lives with her husband, artist Anthony Ulinski, in Raleigh, North Carolina.  For more information, visit her website,, or her blog, 

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