Archives for posts with tag: TV

IT’S BEEN A LONG WINTER IN WHICH NO ONE’S had a better idea than to keep up with the TV Movies that a few insomniacs churned out while the rest of us slept.

 

My favorite is Finger Torture, about a guy who, believing that his dreams have prepared him for torture, signs up to be a Scarecrow, which is someone who is hired to be tortured in place of someone who can’t take it. The idea is that the Scarecrow will either withstand the torture with a modicum of dignity intact or else determine that it’s excessive and lucidly deliver the information the torturer is after, rather than devolving into the histrionics of a Scared Crow, as those who melt under the torture they have been singled out for are called according to the TV Movie’s prologue.

 

I read Scared Crow as Sacred Cow until the narrator said it aloud.

 

“In those days of sudden, random torture,” concluded the narrator, “the Scarecrow business was unsurprisingly booming.”

 

The guy who volunteered to be a Scarecrow in the TV Movie claimed he’d had a series of dreams in which a duo broke into his room and removed his fingers joint by joint, night after night, each time more painful than the last because his fingers had regrown imperfectly in the interim, but also each time less traumatic than the last because he’d been conditioned to expect it.

 

“Finger Torture was the only thing I’d been made ready for,” he told the camera from behind a veil.

 

This struck a nerve with me because I had a similar experience, years before coming to Dodge City.

 

*****

DURING EVERY NIGHT OF THOSE YEARS, I slept alone in a rented room similar to the one I was tortured in once the dream began.

 

When it did, they turned on the lights I’d been sleeping under and pulled me up in bed, always the same two agents — a guy and a girl, in matching blue T-shirts and khaki work pants — stuffing my reading pillow under my back so I wouldn’t slump over when they let go of me.

 

Their method was to cut my fingers joint by joint, starting with the thumb of my left hand and working toward the pinky of my right. The guy sliced the pads of the fingertips with a serrated kitchen knife, then, once they bled out, the girl cut off the first joint with a pair of garden shears.

 

“Is the code a woman’s name? Is it Heather? Is the dial just a switch?” Every night, these three questions.

 

Without giving me a chance to respond, the guy slices the skin on all my second joints and the girl comes through with the shears. Then it’s on to my third joints, until all 30 are in a pile in my lap.

 

They spray the pile with a water bottle like it’s seeds they expect to grow.

 

This happened every night, and the pain I felt was real. It leeched all feeling from my days. If I’d been able to get out of bed and run away, either out of the dream or past them within the dream, I would have, but the pain was so acute it locked my knees under the sheets. I couldn’t even slide off the reading pillow.

 

So, as they cut me, I took to tunneling into my head, into a dream within the dream, which I perceived as a daydream since in the dream I didn’t know I was dreaming. The place I was trying to reach was the parking lot just through my door and down the single flight of stairs of the housing unit.

 

In the daydream, I push the door open with minimal noise and step onto the landing, where my neighbor is smoking, oblivious to the gasps coming from my room.

 

I feel like one member of a duo who’s left his partner behind — I know that someone is still being tortured in my bed, but it’s not me anymore.

 

Down the steps to the parking lot, under the mosquito-clogged light, past the outdoor laundry station and the pool with its deflated raft and the jammed vending machine, into a waiting car.

 

I buckle my seatbelt beside a hooded boss who asks, “Do you have it?”

 

I say “Yes,” and hold my hands out. The fingers fall off, painlessly, into his leather kit bag.

fingerbag

We cruise up a wide, empty boulevard to a bank deposit box, and I get out and dump the finger bag in.

 

“The balance is in your account,” whispers the boss through the car window, not letting me back in. “Soon you’ll be ready for L.A.”

 

He drives off.

 

The dream ends when I make it back to my room on foot, which can take until well past dawn. When I wake up in my bed, my fingers are swollen and throbbing, and my reading pillow is propped behind me.

 

*****

THESE DREAMS TOOK PLACE YEARS AGO, but the TV Movie makes me consider the possibility that I’ve never stopped having them, despite the memories of other dreams I often awake with now.

 

Decoy Dreams, I think.

 

As the credits roll, I start thinking about where to get a serrated kitchen knife and a pair of garden shears, and how to convey to Big Pharmakos my desire for him to cut my fingers slowly but ruthlessly one by one when I’m asleep tonight, so I can see if I still have it in me to leave my body and get in that car, cruise up the boulevard to the bank box.

 

Because God knows my account could use a deposit.

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AFTER FAILING TO DISCOVER enough compelling reality around Dodge City to substantiate its claim of having always been a reality show, UNHOLY FAMILY resorts to a “new” script for its season finale, which we all know was actually written by Big Pharmakos back in 2011, when it wasn’t filmed because no one was into him yet.

 

Anyway, the finale’s on now and I’m watching it from the Hotel fitness center, where I retreated after storming away from a holiday dinner party.

 

The episode features a group of eight at Xmas dinner. They’re sitting around the table nursing scotch with their napkins piled on dirty plates. It’s Shep, a grandpa whose wife has died and left him with terminal esophageal cancer, Carlene, a single mother with a skyrocketing investment firm, her newborn Milo, who has one hand of all thumbs and no other hand, that baby’s Rilke critic older sister Rita, a 42-year-old test pilot named Marx with a sense of taste that only kicks in an hour after contact with food and drink, Marx’s wife Sue, who has swallowed enough Percocet to end things within the hour, Sue’s son from another marriage Devon, a world-class juggler, and Devon’s college roommate Sterns, who intends to study botany if his self-service app doesn’t take off, which all signs indicate that it will.

 

The conceit of the episode is that, now that the meal has been eaten and all the graces and toasts have been said and thanks duly given, each family member will draw a symbol on an index card representing who and what they currently are, and then put these cards into the hands of the UNHOLY FAMILY HOST, who will shuffle and hold them back out to the family members, who will each choose one in turn.

 

Whichever symbol each person chooses determines who and what they will be for the coming year, no questions asked. For example, if Shep, the grandpa with terminal esophageal cancer, chooses the symbol of Rita, the Rilke critic, he gets to be her for the rest of the year, no more impending doom, no more dead wife, just long slow days alone with the poems. And if Rita, the former Rilke critic, chooses the symbol of the newborn with only one hand, then that’s who she is, starting her clock back almost at zero, freeing up the newborn (assuming he’s able to pick a card at all) to pick the card of, say, Sterns, the college botanist and possible app-phenom. As for Sterns …

 

Anyway, that’s how it works.

 

Soon, all the cards have been chosen. Almost everyone is someone else. Marx, the test-pilot, chose the card of his Percocet-swallowing wife and died, while his wife became Carlene, the ultra-rich single mother, and left with one of the college boys, who chose his own card and thus remained himself for another year.

 

*****

AS I WATCH from the fitness center, I find this all moderately exciting, but it’s not what rivets me. What rivets me is an inconsistency in the numbers. All the characters remain onscreen, all eight as they accept their lots for the year to come, but there’s someone else behind them, a kind of fleshed shadow.

 

A woman in her late 40s with a shaved head just starting to show stubble.

 

I can’t place her … maybe I’ve never seen her before, or else she’s always been in the background of UNHOLY FAMILY, emerging from the overlap of the scripted characters, whispering secrets in the ear of the HOST.

 

When the eight scripted characters are led away, this woman lingers, staring out at me from the screen. I look around the fitness center to see if anyone else is here to confirm or deny what I’m seeing, but no one is. There used to be other people, but they must have left when the show ended … except it hasn’t ended. The camera lingers on this woman, leaning against the wall of the kitchen set as the staff clears the bones and gravy from the table and throws out the index cards that served as the basis of the episode.

 

I pedal my stationary bike faster in some attempt to escape her gaze, aware that I’m starting to freak out but unsure how to stop. I grip the handlebars and the screen tells me I’ve burned 104 calories.

 

I close my eyes to wipe sweat on my upper arm, then open them again. When I do, the woman on the screen holds up an index card, displaying a symbol I don’t have time to make sense of. Then she’s gone.

gymtv

UNHOLY FAMILY is over. A commercial for Giant Chinese comes on, then another.

 

I go back to my Room, get in the shower.

 

In the shower, I press my face against the tiles and try to remember the symbol she held up. I know that I saw it, even if it wasn’t long enough to read consciously. I feel the card inside me, face-down against my spine.

 

I start to obsess, yelling at myself for having blithely assumed she would hold it up longer. If only I knew for sure what she was trying to tell me, I’m thinking, my 2015  would be off to a very different start.

BEFORE WE GET TO LET OUR TV SHOWS ABSORB THE REST OF WHATEVER’S LOOSE IN US, a TV Movie commands our attention.

 

We are watching it in the room behind the room where it was filmed. Some of the stars are present.

 

It’s about a woman whose husband is killed In The Pacific during WWII behind the opening credits. With the help of a flash forward, she finishes the 20th century without him. She’s ready for that to be it, except for a connection she happens to develop with the owner of a Pacific restaurant in Dodge City, whose sister, we find out, still lives In The Pacific.

 

“Would you do a thing for me?” she asks the owner of this restaurant, suddenly alive to the idea that something is still possible before she dies. “Would you see if your sister might be willing to seek out his grave and put a flower on it, and photograph that flower for me? I’ve never been able to go there in body … but maybe in spirit it’s not too late.”

 

The restaurant owner says she will do this thing. The next time we see the woman — whose name, we learn at this point, is Mrs. Else — dining at the restaurant, the owner reports that her sister has begun researching the grave’s location, and will soon find it.

 

Time passes in a normal vein.

 

After more of it is gone, Mrs. Else returns to the restaurant and is given the surprise she was hoping for: a manila folder labeled GRAVE FOTOS. The restaurant owner says her sister is overjoyed at the service she was able to provide and refuses to accept any money, which Mrs. Else hadn’t thought to offer, realizing now that she should have.

 

She takes the folder to the cafe next door, not wanting to be in the restaurant when she opens it. “Okay now … okay now … ” she huffs, undoing the clasp. She pulls the photos out and leaves them facedown on the table for a moment, looking around to make sure no one she knows is nearby.

 

Then she turns them over, ready for the fact of his grave to land on her face.

 

The first photo shows a young Pacific woman with onyx earrings with her arm around Mrs. Else’s husband, who looks to be in his mid-40’s, still very handsome, very fit. The caption: GRAVE, NORTHWEST VIEW.

 

The second photo shows this Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband holding hands and looking at the sunset over a harbor full of yachts. The caption: GRAVE AT SUNSET.

 

The third shows the Pacific woman and Mrs. Else’s husband in a convertible in front of a club with palm trees and a velvet rope. The caption: GRAVE WITH PALM TREES AND VELVET ROPE.

 

The fourth through seventh photos are too much. She throws them in the trash along with her coffee cup and muffin wrapper, walks half a block toward her car, then turns around and re-enters the cafe, taking one long breath before pulling them out of the trash and stuffing them into her coat pocket despite their being clotted in coffee grounds.

 

They’re so heavy she can barely walk. She has to sit on a bench halfway to her car, wondering if she’ll ever stand again.

 

*****

AT HOME, she reaches inside her pocket and finds only coffee grounds. She pushes farther in than she imagines the pocket goes, so deep into the coffee grounds she thinks I’m touching its root

 

Down there she finds the seven photos.

 

She washes them one by one in the sink, wearing thick rubber gloves, and hangs them on a clothesline in the basement, like she’s developing them.

 

SHE SLEEPS FOR SEVENTEEN HOURS HAVING PRAYED TO SLEEP FOR TWENTY-FOUR.

 

She returns to the basement, still wearing the coffee grounds coat, which she understands has become her uniform. The photos are all the same, her husband looking happier in them than she can remember his ever having looked in reality.

 

That’s right, she lets herself think. The place I knew him in was reality. This is … another thing.

 

*****

SHE RESOLVES never to return to the restaurant, but finds herself unable to do anything else. Time peels off her so fast she’s afraid her life will end without even one final experience.

 

So she goes back.

 

Everyone in the restaurant seems happy but not surprised to see her, like no unusual span of time has passed. She orders a Pacific Plate and tries to eat as much of it as she can before the owner comes out of the kitchen to ask how she liked the pictures.

 

“Can I talk to your sister?” she hears herself asking in a gulped, babyish voice, her hand deep in the coffee grounds in her pocket.

 

She’s in the lot behind the restaurant, holding the owner’s cell phone away from her ear.

 

“You like pictures of grave?” the sister asks, in an accent that sounds like she’s used to speaking but not reading English.

 

Mrs. Else means to spew anger, but instead says, “Yes … they’ve been a huge solace to me. Could you send more?”

 

“You want me send more?”

 

“Yes,” confirms Mrs. Else, and begins to wait.

 

It doesn’t take long: another period of peeling-off time.

 

She’s back home with the next manila folder, likewise labeled GRAVE FOTOS, without even a #2 to distinguish it.

 

She sets the oven timer for three minutes: this is how long she’ll allow herself to believe that they might be photos of an actual grave. She pictures the grave, alone in its cemetery, the name of her husband and the year of his death etched into it.

 

When the timer goes off, she opens the folder and fans out the photos on the table, flipping them all at once like a hand of cards: seven more images of the Pacific sister and her husband in various chic locations, this time holding a baby who looks exactly half-Pacific. It wears a bib that says RYAN in embroidered calligraphy.

 

Is it my son or grandson? is what Mrs. Else falls asleep at the table thinking, the oven timer still going off.

 

*****

“Who is Ryan?” she shouts into the phone behind the restaurant the next day, wearing her coffee grounds coat, certain that things have gone too far.

 

“Ryan? I thought you husband name Frederick,” says the owner’s sister, groggy due to the time difference, the confusion in her voice hard to discredit.

 

Mrs. Else shuffles through a series of possible utterances, arriving at, “Just stop seeing him, ok? Stop whatever you two are doing.”

 

The sister sounds confused again. “You want me stop visiting grave? He tell me he no see you many years … he say hi from grave. He say if I no visit, he no be real. He go back to sleep.”

 

Mrs. Else sits down beside the dumpster as the busboy heaves out a leaking sack of trash.

 

She looks at its trail across the asphalt and at the cell phone, still connected to the Pacific in her hand, and puts it back to her ear. “No,” she says. “No, that’s okay. You keep visiting his grave, just … just make sure he doesn’t go back to sleep.”

 

The sister makes a sound like she’s nodding.

 

Then Mrs. Else, though she knows she’ll regret it, can’t keep from asking, “But Ryan? Can’t I talk to Ryan for one minute?”

 

“Who Ryan?” repeats the sister. “I thought you husband name Frederick.”

 

Mrs. Else hangs up just as the busboy turns from the dumpster to start back toward the kitchen. He puts his cigarette in his trash-wet hand and helps her up with the other.

 

ON THE DRIVE HOME, she receives a text message on her own cell phone, which she always leaves in the glove compartment. She pulls over at a bus stop and opens it. From an unlisted number, it reads:

 

“just so u no, u have 2 b mothr b4 u can b grndmothr.”

 

She buries the phone in a crack in the wall in her basement and lies down under a sawhorse.

 

Still wearing her coat, she starts to hear a voice whispering out of the coffee grounds.

 

“Ryan?” she whispers back. “Ryan? Is that you?”

 

She wants to shout but is afraid of obscuring its voice with her own, so she lies very flat, easing into a fuzzy bath of end credits.

I’m happy to report that I’ve gotten up the energy to make the trip downtown to where a TV is on. Down here they’re flipping channels like they’re flipping burgers, which is to say … that they are flipping them.

“It’s a travel show, a family show, a show about problems,” claims a narrative voice.

I settle in, unwrapping what may be a lozenge from what must be a wrapper. Some image of a church spire in Krakow, two church spires, passes through me and out the window.

The show starts in with a report about a family — two gals (mom, girl) and two guys (dad, boy) — that’s gone to the remotest province of Uzbekistan on a two week summer break. It has its time there, then returns.

It seems to take a while for the show to convey this. I’ve already eaten several courses by this point.

What happened to this family, it transpires, is that a third child (and fifth member) has entered its midst, returning to Connecticut with them at summer’s end. A feral, sloth-eyed, uncontainable steppe-child, a child not at all of a type they’ve encountered before, not even in lapse or reverie. A child that’s barely a child, barely countable within the species of which this family has long considered itself a definitive part.

And not an orphan, the show continues, neither a stowaway nor any otherwise adopted child. A fresh child, a biological, regular-made one. Somehow sewn into the family unbeknownst (it’s claimed) to any of them. Whether the father had any involvement in the insemination is unknown to the show’s narrator, and even whether the mother delivered the child cannot be determined. “All that’s known,” concludes the narrator, “is that this steppe-child is as much a member of this family as is any other member, indeed, as much a member as any individual can truthfully ever be said to be a member of anything.”

A red-band trailer slasher flick image of the steppe-child’s face, caked in dust and weeds and what looks like pollen, grinning with dagger-teeth and nostrils flared like a Barcelona bull, flashes across the screen.

THEN it’s the next segment, which takes us to a family reunion somewhere in Michigan. I’ve had like thirty plates of food by this point. The reunion is at a lake house; the kids are playing with bottle rockets, the grown-ups drinking and talking. Everyone looks healthy in that pale, average way. It’s all going fine, until, around a family game of Monopoly on the last night, a shocking discovery is made: the discovery of intergenerations, shadow generations, people inextricable from the lineage but impossible to track down.

“What this means, for those of you just tuning in now,” summarizes the narrator, “is that this family has discovered a series of shadow-members between the generations, slid like — I don’t know what, but like something you slide — in between the established lines of paternity and maternity.”

I think what he’s saying is this:

Everyone who’d appeared to be a father is in fact a grandfather; same with mothers/grandmothers. IE, if I’m a kid, hanging out there in Michigan with my dad, it turns out that that guy’s actually my granddad, and some other guy I’ve never met and may never meet is actually my dad. And same for my “dad” (granddad): his supposed “dad” is in fact his granddad too, and his actual dad nowhere to be found. If I believe someone is my son, or daughter, it turns out they’re actually my grandson, or granddaughter — and my actual son, or actual daughter, is someone I don’t know.

Hence the secret generations, the breaks in lineage, the absent but necessary other progenitors and progeny.

This bit goes on for a while, the narrator and various interviewees trying to get clear on what happened.

THEN we get a guest appearance from Harrison Blake, seeker after the long-lost. These are rare and intense. Harrison, since way before my time in Dodge City, has been employed by the county to roam at large, on no fixed route or schedule, in search of the long-lost, those who’ve been missing so long there’s no real hope of ever finding them, those who, in most cases, were declared dead decades ago.

Harrison is paid a pittance, just enough to sustain a single oldster of his variety, to wander and wander, with his backpack, water bottle, sneakers, and   birch walking stick, the back roads, trails, neglected patches, and overgrown miles of track and cattle-path, in search of whatever he can find. I don’t think he’s ever found a human, but, from time to time, he stumbles past the headquarters of Dodge City Community TV (DCCTV), and, if they’re taping or running live, checks in with us all on-air.

So here he is now, holding up two rocks and a bag of dandelions, thistles, and sumac, explaining where and when he found them, how long he’s been carrying them, and what his thoughts so far consist of. He starts talking about a dream he had while sleeping in a patch of heather …

THEN, someone changes the channel to “Something Violent With People”:

“We’ve got a great evening lined up for you folks,” goes this new narrator, taking his stab at it. “Something Violent With People is followed tonight by a very-special encore presentation of Something Violent With Ghosts!”

A light cheer goes up from the tables around me. I see I’m eating a kind of ice cream cake, or pie a la mode.

Some knife things are up on screen: a man comes up behind another man in a gym locker room and stabs him in the spine. As the paramedics rush in, the man says, “I don’t know what comes over me sometimes. I just get these thoughts, out of nowhere, and I have to work so hard to restrain myself.”

“Can you give us an example?” asks the paramedic.

“Well, sure,” says the man, thinking. “Like, just now, I sort of fantasized about stabbing this other man in the locker room in the spine with my knife. I really felt myself on the verge of doing it. I came so close. I had to hold myself back by the skin of my teeth.”

The paramedics all look like they feel foolish now, having raced in to save a man supposedly stabbed in the spine when now they’re learning that the spine-stabber only thought of doing it, then held himself back by the skin of his teeth.

Then there’s a cut to a dingy street scene, late, under buzzing lights. A college kid is walking along with his headphones on when a masked man creeps up behind him, takes out his knife and an old-fashioned sharpener, and sets to work sharpening it. The college kid just stands there, bopping faintly along to his music. The masked man sharpens for what seems like five or six minutes, removing his glove to test the blade on his fingertip several times, before putting the sharpener back in its case and putting that case back in his backpack, and only then stabbing the college kid in the spine.

THEN a commercial break.

Then an ad for “Something Violent With Ghosts.” The first segment tonight looks to be about a man who’s strapped the brain of his enemy over his own brain, as a victory gesture, making of himself what the narrator terms “an amalgam of unrestrained proportion.”

The segment looks like it plans to center on the slippage that has started to occur with the strap, the ways in which the enemy-brain is starting to chafe.

Looking down at my ashtray, I remember why I came here, or at least what my coming here had to do with: Blut Branson, the biggest writer in town.