Monday, January 16, 2006

The War Will Be Televised

For my fifteenth birthday my mom did something she had never done before, and told me what one of my presents was going to be. It wasn't like I believed in Santa Claus at fifteen so she wasn't exactly ruining Christmas. If you believe in Santa Clause when you're fifteen, I've got some land on the moon I want to sell you.

She took me shopping with a spend limit of $200. If you've been TV shopping lately, $200 doesn't get you too far.

I told her with a sinking heart that I didn't see one I wanted. I secretly wanted her to allow me the extra hundred for that 20 inch Sony flat screen beaut, but apparently it did not occur to her to kick in an extra hundred.

And I wasn't foolish enough to ask. She was pushing her mid-forties and had grown up poor, enough to believe that we (my father, and me) should not only respect the power of money, we should also respect that she controlled the flow of it, which uniformly meant that we weren't to press her for too much, too often.

"David Gregory Jones," she said, maybe sensing I was hoping for a sympathetic hundred being added to the stash she was allowing me to use to buy a TV..

The salesman, a portly guy with a nametag that read Jim, looked at us uninterestedly.

"Can you help us for a moment," she demanded of the man.

Portly Jim trudged over. She asked him all the questions Consumer Guide probably tells you to ask before you buy something. What's the most reliable brand? Is there a difference between Daewoo and Emerson? Why are these two televisions the same size but one costs more than the other?

Jim, round and sweaty, gave way under her merciless assault of flying questions. M'am, these days they're all pretty reliable. Just different brand names, M'am, but it looks like the same picture to me. The more expensive model has a game jack in the front where your cables can go if you're a gamer.

"Thank you," she said. He looked around for a bolt-hole, sensing things wouldn't get any easier. He found his escape, chasing after a young couple, away from this imperious un-shy woman. His fat legs pushed him through the TV section and I thought to myself, you're lucky you don't live with her.

"What about that one?" She pointed to one. The TV's were all tuned to a golf match. The sound was muted so it didn't drive customers and clerks nuts. On the screens, old men in peach shirts and golf shorts hit golf balls down grassy knolls followed by close-ups of sportscasters discussing the par. My mom pointed at the only television that was off.

I looked at the price tag. $240. I thought quickly. It was bigger than the $200 models, but not quite as big as the $300 models. I could either push for that extra hundred or put all my chips on this TV. She knew I wanted one of the bigger ones and this was her way of meeting me halfway. I also knew my mother would never meet me where I was, on the other side of $300. And if I played my hand and it irritated her, it was not beyond her to skip the TV and buy pants and shirts instead.

"I think I've fallen in love," I said.

She gave me wry look.

"I bet," she said.

When my mother beckoned the frightened Jim, who was lounging on the other side of the aisle avoiding customers, he said the TV was the last one left.

"You'll have to take the floor model," he said scratching his ear.

Mom was displeased.

"Our store has a 30-day return policy in addition to the warranty offered by the company," he offered.

She acquiesced after putting him to the question for a few more minutes. I thought privately that she was just enjoying herself at this point. Michael looked like he'd rather be anywhere but here while my mother fired questions at him like a member of the inquisition putting a torch under his bare feet.

"That'll just have to do, ... Jim," saying his name like she would look him up in the phone book if she discovered he had lied.

Without the packaging the TV fit in the back seat of the car.


Christmas came and went, the tree went up and the tree came down. Then it was New Years Eve and I got a little drunk for the first time with a few friends on a bottle of gin. I woke feeling salty and walked home on New Years day, which dawned cloudy and severely, bitterly cold.

I chewed on a mint before I went in the house, though it looked like my parent's had been doing a bit of celebrating. They were drinking black coffee in the kitchen, and both of them looked at me, sweaty and morose.

I went to my room and got out of my street clothes and into bed, naked except for a pair of boxers. I was chilly and hot all over. New Years Eve had been my first experience with drunkenness, New Year's itself my first experience with a hangover.

My dad woke me up in late afternoon, the sun's brightest hour, to tell me I had a phone call.

He looked sleepy, too, and it was obvious even to my tired mind that the phone had woken him.

I went downstairs, sheet wrapped around me.

"Hello," I said.

On the other end static and tinny voices conversed.

"Hello," again.

The voices got louder, murmuring not quite loud enough to make out what they were saying. It reminded me of talk-radio. I made out a few words here and there. Listen...Present Arms...Color...

The phone suddenly quit and all I heard was blurry dial tone.

I hung it up, looking though the kitchen window into the backyard at the toppling sun. It sent spikes through my eyes and I went back to my room blinking out afterimages.

I got into bed and turned on my new television. I'd had it since the beginning of December and some of the marvel had worn off. I flipped through the stations.

Every station was obscured by static. I punched through them all, but it was the same white rain, the same flakes of noise. I got out of bed, shivering because my room was cold. I checked the connections. The wires were all firmly screwed in between the wall and the television.

I got back into bed and turned my face in my pillow.

I woke in darkness and my new TV was on. I saw it was now just white. It was like a face made of pale skin. I turned my head back into my pillow and tried to sleep but finally, more awake than I wanted to be, I crawled from my covers to shut it off.

I hit the power button, jumping when it shocked my finger. The TV came to life. I sat on the floor before it, trying to figure out what the hell I should do. I felt terrible. My head was filled by the sound of a hammer, and the TV was pulsating white light in time with the hammer strokes in my skull. I had a whole drum circle in there, pounding away.

The phone rang. I heard it dimly, the sound coming from the downstairs kitchen. I wondered what time it was, and who could be calling at this time of night. It was one of those wall-mounts, and I very nearly tore it right off the wall. "Hello," I said into the receiver's wrong end, before switching it.

I heard static, climbing through the phone, getting louder and louder. I sat down on a kitchen chair and held the phone away from my ear, waiting to see if the static would change into something, sleepily wondering if the lines had gotten crossed somewhere. Maybe a car had crashed into a telephone pole.

I was about to hang up, when I heard a man's voice, seeming to come from a long distance. "I need a medic!" The voice screamed. The phone burst with static. I held the phone away from my ear. I heard it from a distance.

The voice screamed. I heard a couple whizzes and pops and cracks, then the phone went dead. I hung up.

It furiously rang, making me jump. I grabbed the phone. "Stop calling here," and I slammed the receiver into its berth, hard enough to shake the wall.

I still had a few days left of holiday vacation before school was back in session, and I planned on spending the time doing nothing but getting a lot of sleep; and eating. I planned to do a lot of eating with the rest of my vacation. I was on my third bowl of cereal watching TV in my room. The program was some show like the People's Court but it wasn't the People's court. It was the extreme version of the People's Court. If you're not familiar with the People's Court, it's the show where someone sues someone else, the case is played out on TV. The show draws you in because you're waiting for the judge to go ape-shit. This show promised more ape-shit, more bang.

An old guy in a white suit was suing another guy for being a shitty renter. The defendant looked like a rat. I was pretty sure he'd lose but I was mistaken. The man in the white suit, who had dangling mustaches the same pale white as his suit, lost when he couldn't provide the judge with paperwork showing rat-man had signed a lease. The judge attacked the old-guy, asking him why he'd come into his courtroom without having the proper paperwork? The old man didn't know. I didn't know. The rat-guy didn't know.

Case adjourned.

I flipped through the channels. The TV pulsed. The picture got queer. The edges of the screen ate the center. I got up and banged the TV.

Reception returned. The show had changed. I was not watching the People's Court Goes Extreme, or whatever, anymore. It looked like a documentary. The color was grainy, reflecting the material's age. The colors mingled and flickered at times like a bad print.

It was a war onscreen.

It was death onscreen.

A boy in green fatigues ran from a ditch when gunfire exploded, carving his face with bullets. The boy flapped in the air, bird-like, before falling into the no man's land beneath the camera's eye.

I tried to look down beneath the camera lens, wondering at the man's fate. For the extremel, cheap look of the movie, the special effects were gritty and realistic.

I heard quiet footsteps outside my door. My door opened. My mother poked in and took one look at what I was watching and retreated. I heard her mumbling to herself when she walked away, about violence and television.

The camera followed an unknowable path through smoky hills. A boy strut into the picture. He turned to the camera. "Harrison get your ass in gear. Tell old man that we're taking heavy losses. up here."

I heard a boy's voice. "We're taking heavy losses, alpha zero company fifty-one to base Old man. Officer is down. Repeat. Officer down. Waiting for orders."

"I'm getting nothing Sarge," the camera said.

The boy known as the Sarge cursed. "Leave it, Harrison. Get your gear together and follow me."

Harrison followed the Sarge through the smoke, the camera jittering as flashes lit the black sky. The night tore open and what looked like a lightning bolt ripped through the sky. The Sarge toppled over. The Sarge's face was burned clean, no nose, no eyes, just the smoking surface of a scallop, wet white and yellow.

Harrison left the body and the camera moved quickly. I guessed Harrison must be running. He jumped over a small crater, the camera moving wildly. I briefly glimpsed burning skeletons tangled together in the crater, covered in fine red dust.

Then he rounded a hillside, and faces swam through the black smoke. I got a good look at the horizon. It was filled with blazing white lights that must have been huge artillery. The faces greeted Harrison. They were weary faces, blackened by shoe polish. Their eyes were haunted.

The TV shut off. I turned it back on. There was a commercial for something called the Astronaut Blender. Apparently it could blend not only food, but also wood and metal. The narrator said the blades would stay sharp and to prove it he churned a chunk of metal into metal fiber and then threw in an apple.

It was true. All this can be yours, plus a smaller version of the Astronaut Blender called the Martian blender. Churn iron fillings into hazardous dust and then throw in a couple lemons and make lemonade.

I didn't tell anyone because it sounded too nuts. How was I going to? I got a new television for Christmas and sometimes the phone rings and I watched a movie and I think I was really watching a war. Isn't that something?

In late January my folks left for the weekend. They drove to Omaha, Nebraska, to stay at a hotel and be romantic. Stuff you don't want to imagine your parents doing.

They went up under pretense of going to the Omaha zoo, of course.

I stayed up late, watched an old Kung Fu flick called Legend Of The Flying Guillotine.

Saturday night the phone rang loud and clear. I knew it wasn't my parents because I had just talked to them an hour earlier and it sounded like things were getting pretty hot and heavy at the 'zoo' in Omaha.

I had wanted to say, "Pretty nice zoo," or "How're the animals?" but I refrained.
I took the phone from the wall. As soon as the receiver lifted, it screamed bloody murder in static. I hung it up quick and ran upstairs and flipped on my Television.

Yes. This was really happening. The phone must be trying to communicate this was on. I sat back and watched.

A rough sign stuck in the earth read West Camp Division with a misty yellow arrow pointing, I guessed, West. Harrison went in that direction. He passed dirty soot-stained tents on all sides, descending into a sort of man-made ravine. It was dark. It started raining. Drops fell like silver darts and every so often his hand would wipe the camera lens, like he was wiping the rain from his eyes.

He passed boys in uniform. I didn't recognize the uniforms but something told me they were not in a military history book. He stopped and saluted someone, before continuing his march through the camp.

Someone yelled, "down," and the world went topsy-turvy. Harrison lay down in the wormy mud and he pulled out a cigarette, stuck it in his mouth, and lit it. It was so real I thought I could smell it.

He peeled the mud from his eyes.

A boy, about my age helped him up. "False Alarm Harrison," he said. His smile twitched.

"Carr," Harrison said, taking the hand.

Carr led Harrison to a tent. Inside the tent there was a cloud of smoke, and the canvas was discolored as if the tobacco had left its mark, like graffiti. Two kids played cards, both wearing the same unrecognizable uniforms. The kids were spattered with mud and both smoked while they dealt hands of poker.

"Hey, lookit' what the cat drug in," one of the boys said. His left eye was a gaping black hole.

"Michaels," Harrison said.

"Thought we lost you partner," the other said. His face had a serious look to it, like he commonly delivered sermons.

"No, but the Sarge, he got burned."

"That's what we heard," Carr piped in.

"He got burned bad. His face looked like a bowl of mashed potatoes, hold the gravy."

"Sore luck." Michaels said. "But I didn't like the bastard anyway. He thought he was too hard."

"Pretty soon we're going to be all that's left," the boy with the too-serious face said. "Just us. Then we're going to be gone." He wiped some of the mud from his face.

"Stop being so Goddamn depressing, Delaware," Michaels said. "You're going to make me cough up my lunch of canned salmon patty, because when I get sad I puke fish in remorse."

Carr giggled, but stopped when he caught sight of Delaware's face.

"You havin' one of them feelings," he asked.

Delaware nodded, face whitening under all the mud. "I feel like one's coming is what I feel," he said. He scratched his eye. "We gotta' get ready."

"Damn it," Michaels said. "Well boys, Delaware's always right. This a big one?"

Delaware shrugged. "They're all the big ones, if you can get killed."

"Hey Harrison you lose your rifle?" Michaels reached into a grey badly-dented locker, retrieved one, and gave it to him. The gun looked old. It didn't seem familiar, not that I was too up on guns. It had designs running down it. On the barrel someone had painted little white triangles, three really close together, a space, and then three more.

"Who's gun?" Harrison's voice sounded young. As young as these other soldiers, at least.

"It was Brunstein's gun. Found it two days ago when you were off with Alpha Zero company."

"You find Brunstein?"

"Pieces of him."

"Who's in charge of Alpha Zero?" Carr interrupted.

"Steamboat," Harrison answered.

"Oh shit," Carr groaned. "Figures that would be my fucking luck."

"Steamboat's not so bad," Michaels said. "At least he's yellow, and not like the Sarge was." 'Okay now you all know what to do, boys, kill for freedom, die for vengeance', he mimicked.

Carr laughed a sharp bark. "True fucking right." He clapped Michaels on the back.

Harrison followed them out of the tent. Delaware led. Delaware had a look on his face of deep concentration. He stared into the distance.

There was a glare of white. A roaring sound that came from all directions at once. Something stirred, malevolent in the sky. There. It landed a short distance away.

"Shit," Carr groaned. "That's it for us. Let's hear your last words, boys."

The thing walked like a man but it wasn't a man. The camp burst into motion. Boys waiting in dark beside their tents, now came alive, shouting. The figure hopped from leg to leg, an ugly unman-like thing, shambling toward to the boys.

With every group of boys there was one that was weaponless like Delaware. The boy-soldiers in those groups screamed the name of their weaponless boys, like fans at a football game cheering on their teams. The weaponless boys had names taken from cities. Topeka. Houston. Chattanooga.

The thing screamed a scream filled with sweet rot.

It danced some aimless jig.

"This is a bad one," Delaware said. "I think it's going to smoke us."

"I'll smoke it first," Michaels said. He grinned, his vacant eye winking.

He ran up to it, firing. The gun sparked when it was fired, sounded more like a drum than a regular gun. The thing continued to dance, even as flower blossoms of blood broke across its wide torso, punching holes in its skin. Michael screamed a battle-cry. The thing picked him up, still dancing, and wrenched him apart. Michael's pink as chewing gum insides popped out, throwing pieces of vertabrae.

Delaware put his hands over his temples, eyes and nose shooting blood. Then all the rest of the boys opened fire. Some who had fastened rudimentary bayonets on their rifles ran the thing through, even as it still danced, blood spraying from its many bullet holes and slices and stab wounds. It lashed at the boys, but was concentrating more on its dance which was growing more complicated by the second.

"Minnesota's down," someone screamed. The boy known as Minnesota was on his knees. His face was covered in thick red blood, his features indistinguishable. His head exploded.

The three other members of Minnesota's "unit" went down right afterwards and didn't rise.

Then the thing shuddered, stopping its dance, movements herky-jerky. It looked like it bowed, in good humor. Close-up, the thing's face was fat and pockmarked. The features were brutish, like a pig's. It had big, yellow teeth that squatted in its mouth like rotted cemetery stones. Red roots climbed out of its belly button, the color of licorice, and wrapped under its groin into its lower back. These tubes were spraying blood. The thing convulsed, the face cracking, and then it was done. The thing died.

"Minnesota's down," someone called out.

"Kansas City's gone," someone else.

"Looks like Delaware's OK."

"Mississippi's a goner."

Delaware crouched, his hands covering his face.

"Delaware come back Delaware," Carr said.

"Michaels is dead," Delaware said.

"Gone to a better place," Harrison offered.

"There is no better place," Delaware retorted. His serious face looked on the verge of tears. "I just want to go home. DO YOU UNDERSTAND. I just want to go home?"

"We all do," Carr said.

"Yeah," Harrison said.

"Don't you know, I was just a kid who wore glasses back home. I lived a pretty good life. I got pretty good grades. I was a good kid. I wanted to be a biologist."

"You're not the only one with dreams," Carr said. "I had dreams too. Stop being a stupid sonofabitch."

Delaware rushed Carr. Harrison got between them. "We need to pack up our shit. It isn't safe here," Harrison said.

"You the new Sarge?" Carr asked. He spit.

"No," Harrison said.

That simple denial tore the strength out of Carr's limbs. Carr sat. After a second, Delaware and Harrison joined him.

Delaware looked straight at me through the screen. "I know you're there," he said. He spoke to the air. He nodded. Gone was the look of despair, and desperation - the face was serious and the eyes dark. "Do you hear me?" Delaware asked.

I looked around my room. I didn't say anything. (I'm not going to say a goddamn thing. This is too weird in spades).

"I hear you," I tried.

"Good," Delaware pursed his lips. He was a year or two older than I was. "I knew you saw it all. The death dancer. It is called a Trouble Stacy. There's a lot worse," he said frowning.

His face, close-up, had started becoming the face of the man he would be, serious mouth, serious eyes.

"I can't see you, but I feel you," Delaware said.

Carr smirked. "Me and Harrison can't see you either, but we know you're there if Delaware says."

"You were following me," Harrison said. "I felt that creepy feeling at the back of my neck. I knew there'd been a contact. I don't know why it chose to follow me."

"I bet it was there to follow the Sarge," Carr said. "You know. The dead hero." Carr smirked. He had a face of smirks, skin naturally dripped into it. Maybe to Carr a smirk was a smile. "Then it followed our little Harrison for lack of anything better to do. Maybe we should call you the New Not Dead Hero, Harrison, since we need a hero, to keep morale up."

Harrison made as if to punch Carr, who ducked, grinning broadly.

"Who's gonna' make sure we keep our shoes shined?" Carr lifted one boot, the pant leg fluttered, revealing a skinny ankle. He was wearing a faded New Balance tennis shoe, white with red stripes.

"The old man?" Harrison offered.

"Lotta' help the old man is," Carr spat.

I reached out and shut the TV off.

I turned it back on. It was back to its regularly scheduled programming. I lay back watching a crime movie. I refused to think about it. The movie was about a jewel thief. I had almost actually began to follow the story - when - the phone.

It rang like the end of the world. But I didn't want to think things like the end of the world. It was probably my mom, calling to make sure everything was okay before they went to bed.

I answered. I had a mental baseball bat ready to smack the phone into a million pieces, if it was some more freakishness.

"Is this David Jones?" The caller wanted to know.

"Yes," I said.

" David Gregory Jones."


The phone exploded into static, hard and jagged enough to surprise me into dropping the phone.

I heard my TV from all the way in the kitchen. There was a concussive boom coming from up there. Voices screamed. I went upstairs to look. The TV was no longer playing my movie about a failed diamond heist and the genius jewel thief who almost-pulled-it-off.

Delaware and Harrison and Carr were staring at me from the screen. I should get a tire iron or wrench. I decided to break the fucking picture-tube.

Carr laughed. "Is he back?" He asked.

"He's back," Delaware said.

"You're kinda' being drafted," Carr told me.

Harrison was looking at something. "Hey," he said, and pointed.

Delaware gasped. "We gotta' get out of here," he said.

I saw something big and red walking in the background. The sky was the same black smoke smear. Was there any sunlight there? What was that walker in the distance, big eyes like jagged tears, light bleeding through?

"Kid," Delaware said. "We were like you. Consider us your local recruiting center for Uncle Sam's secret army."

"Hurry up," Carr said. Carr sounded afraid, jittery.

"Kid, we're doing this so the good people of almighty Earth can sleep restful in their beds at night. How would you like these things crawling out of TVs, all over the place?"

I stared, mouth open wide enough to catch a really big fly.

"Welcome to Never-Never-Land, kid," Carr said. He sounded hysterical. "Hey 'Ware, Big red and testy is sniffing us out."

Delaware's serious face wrinkled in concentration. "It can't see us," he said. "Just don't shoot at it or anything." He went on: "Kid, we need you, here. I can't hold this camouflage in place forever, and pretty soon he's gonna' be up the hill and on us in a flash. We need some fresh faces here. Call it bad luck you happened to buy the old man's recruitment tool."

Carr shifted his hands nervously. Harrison was looking behind him at the big red thing now coming into view. "I don't think whatever the mental camouflage thing you're doing is working Delaware," Harrison said.

I got a good look at the red thing. "No," I said immediately.

"C'mon, kid, it's an adventure."

"We gotta' go NOW," Carr said.

"Alright, kid, you're answering no. We'll just come and get you. Old man's orders."

I turned off the television as the red thing, a giant the size of the Golden Gate bridge hammered its way into view. The power button zapped me a little when I pressed it.


Here's what I know.

1. I hate Christmas.

2. I hate television.

3. I've been drafted.

Everything seems normal on the surface to my mom and dad. But the phone keeps ringing in the middle of the night. My parents were a little surprised by how vehemently I "accidentally" broke my television. My mom turned around and spent $300 on a new one for me. It was a bigger television with better resolution, the whole nine yards. By the time I came home from school and discovered my new Sony wrapped with a huge red bow in my bedroom I had already begun to notice radios breaking into static. I think by the time she purchased the new TV, my mom's curling iron was beginning to talk.

I can't be around anything electrical.

I keep away from the phone. I have the television unplugged. I don't go to movies. I'm getting a weird reputation. The thing is, I know they're coming.

They will come, but I'm not sure how. I know it won't be like a TV program I can shut off. It will be me fighting and dying there. I keep saying goodbye to my parents when I say goodnight. I told them the other night I won't be celebrating Christmas anymore. I don't say what goes through my mind: I've been drafted. (Any day now).

(Any day now)


Blogger Sam Spid said...

Jesus, dude, that's pristine. Reined in, not too much information given away, playing nicely with generalised teenage paranoia, and all kinds of satirical to boot.

Are you happy with it?

3:46 AM  
Blogger sb said...

Thanks! I think I probably could have done a better job in hindsight, maybe bloated it out a bit, to give some background, put flesh on its bones, but it was a nice eye-opener, and learning experience. It's a child of my imagination and I can't hate it, but I don't exactly wanna' bring this kid around strangers, y'know.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Sam Spid said...

They would lynch you for hampering the war effort, maybe...

I've got proper feedback for the Secret Life Of A Lie one - will post tomorrow; I'm going backwards through 'em.

7:50 AM  
Blogger sb said...

Secret life of a lie has a ton of problems! Call me a one-minute edit-man. Knives in eyes that ..come out the back of the head?

A S L O A L, although I love the title and the idea of someone painting their skull with shoe polish, is going in the drawer for nevermore. Really transitional, wrote it in a couple hours here at work, sorta-thing.

Post some of your writing, Sam!

9:13 AM  

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