The thermometer had broken, just at the commercial break. We’d been watching cartoon after cartoon all day long. That was how we used to spend our summers – in front of the TV – when we kids were being babysat by our teenage sister while not much actual babysitting was going on. She was, after all, a kid herself. I’m not sure where she was that day, but if memory serves me correctly, it was just three of us at home – me, an older sister, and a baby sister – when the thermometer incident happened. One of us had cracked it open. It doesn’t matter who, but there we were, each taking a turn at playing with the mercury inside.
I remember the thrill of seeing that ball of silver rolling about in my cupped palm. Even though I was standing still, it rolled about and would not stop, as if responding to the very beating of my heart. The real spellbinding moments came, however, whenever I touched the little bead for then it broke into several tinier beads which would collide gracefully into each other and then become one again, a single glowing silver drop. In the end we all took turns possessing this quicksilver magic, transferring the ball from one to the other, watching as every time it divided then reformed, becoming again as dense as the moon, as liquid as light, as wet as water. We’d never seen anything like it.
Even children have the desire to indulge in forbidden pleasures, I would guess, for hadn’t our mother warned us about broken thermometers, the possible poisoning touch of mercury? Or maybe that happened later. To be honest, I don’t really remember. What I do know is that we were aware of doing something not quite right and exulting in the pleasure of it, of watching the fission and fusion of an alien substance cradled in our palms.
And all the while, in the background, the commercials blared, promising wonders of another sort. In those days they tried to tantalize us children with easy bake ovens, tiny sleek hotwheels, the latest incarnations of Barbie, and many, many other toys, but we would largely ignore these temptations, and on that day we especially did. Only after the commercials had finished and the antics of Felix the Cat or Popeye or Kimba the White Lion (I no longer remember which) had captured our attention did we finally lose interest in the ever-quivering silver bead. What we ended up doing with it, I’m not sure, but since we were children and knew nothing about toxic waste disposal, my guess is that whoever was the last one playing with the bead let it roll into the kitchen trash and for the rest of that day its odorless vapors likely enhanced our cartoon fun.