Don’t Adjust Your Set

—Do you feel pain? 

Suddenly walls stood in four sided rooms that opened into each other with wide, door-less frames.  The only light burst from the television and baked the walls and the towel around my waist.  I stood in the dampness of the moment, just out of the bath and anxious to see any updates on the screen. 

I was aching for a singular tragedy.  It had not occurred in quite some years and I figured time was coming…for someone; a murdered monarch in some once great nation, a favorite son of a wealthy family kidnapped, or maybe just the “accidental” overdose of a tragic artist well revered for her illumination of the human condition.

The news was a cycle of repetition those days.  When it had been regurgitated and received by the most eyes and ears deemed possible by the technicians in the control rooms a break was assigned—clever commercials produced by captains of industry to reach out into our homes to invite us to enjoy their products.  We, the eager capitalists, paying for the wire to connect us to the information.  Paying to have people suggest we spend more to get more.

When just the news was not enough, heads started popping up.  At first, they were a welcome change.  The wildflower whose seed fell from the wind into our yards and brightened up the lawn as they matured.  Insight was fed into the wire instead of just the observation of news happening.  Then heads started multiplying.  Permutations became obscene and they took over like raging weeds battling each other for the best spot in the light.  The cacophony became a success.  We took sides.  I really think this guy is the smartest man on television.  You prefer the guy on the other channel because he seems to be more grounded.  This one’s an entertainer, that one’s a fink.  I dig them all and I have my favorites.

A single man or woman would sit staring out at you with mighty pen in hand, the source of all authority, and spill a compiled list of viewpoints deemed necessary for cable subscribers, for us.

—Do you feel pain?

I watched the news channels every chance I could.  I hungered for a substance that never seemed to arrive.  The news was the same.  Somewhere a man clung to a tree in raging flood waters that stopped rising but rushed furiously.  A crew in a helicopter, there for the rescue, arrives just in time for the crew in the helicopter who catches it on film.  The man in the tree would be a boy tomorrow.  The next day the boy would be a woman in a tree in the raging floodwater. 

Somewhere a commendable rescue of a little girl caught in a tree just above raging, muddy water was being captured in the minds of only those present.  I would never see this.  I would never anxiously anticipate the moment of triumph.  No camera crew had arrived.  She silently shuffled into her future as a memory told by her family when they gathered at Easter or when she sat with her parents and they watched the rescue of some lucky civilian from the torrent rapids flowing around the tree, seeming almost to run right through the tree itself.

News1; gone to commercial.

The first four seconds of the erectile dysfunction commercial are always the most painful.  I watched the couple run on the beach. 

She ran her fingers through his hair. 

He shot baskets at the court with his friends, all of them quietly part of the same conspiracy; to defy nature’s urge to keep them from pleasure. 

The name of the pill crawled up the screen like a slow erection and stopped right in the center.  It held and then faded as the man sat on the couch, “Tonight, I’ll be ready…” 

The woman in his life creeps up behind him in slow motion.  Bends down to get close to his ear.  She puts her finger on his shoulder and whispers in his ear. 

The man turns to her, turns back to the audience, “…for her.”

The station cuts into the stream of advertisements to remind you, “Up next on American Truth, Truth takes on President Rimmel and his willingness to go against the wishes of the American nation regarding the U.A.F.  Join me, Harvey Mitberg, on American Truth, right after the Jones Show.”  The station has played Harvey Mitberg saying that at every commercial break from four hours ago.  The Jones Show is News1’s most popular show with ratings higher than every other cable news show.

The light in the bathroom flickers.  It reminds me, because I was not thinking about it, of the cold tiles that line up in the straightest pattern from the floor to the middle of the wall.  They are white and have memories.  They have reflected the passing hours with a weakness.  The light that could bring me or you into view on one of those tiles would have to be so bright that a million suns would seem a trifle.  And so, in the night when a million suns reveal themselves across the dome and I sit in the warm water in the cast iron bathtub under the window with curtains drawn it is true; I cannot see myself and I cannot see you. 

The tub full of hot water creates the vapor that hits the walls and slides down the tiles in slow rain drops like soothing perspiration.  In there I sit with Silence who hides everywhere, invisible; listening on the closed toilet seat, behind a mask of steam in the mirror, or traveling a circuit around the rim of the tub. 

Silence cannot participate in the clamoring city of thought that rises of its own design—here a new tower that the memories of the day will call home…at least, for a while…there, the park where thunderous birds beating their breasts flock to statues of ancient names I’ll never see again.

Millions of little ideas bustle anonymously up the scraping spires, across the midday traffic, through tunnels under the subconscious bays that connect to the vast ocean just out of sight.  The little ideas lead their quiet lives and die unassumingly and unnoticed in the periodicals that bring word of feeling and sensation.  “This just in…,” the voice moans, reading the text of the extra edition of The Body Times-Ledger, “…the body is submerged and wet in the bathtub.  The steam and water look to be relaxing for another half hour or so.  More updates to come.”

—The first four seconds of the erectile dysfunction commercial are always the most painful.

From one of the new tower’s windows comes the distant beckoning of something I said almost twelve hours ago.  “Remember me.  Remember me.” The voice yells as a man, leaning out of the window toward the sky, waves a banner of the things I said earlier.

In the bathtub, Silence always slips away.  The first moment or two all would be calm but then it just goes away—behind the mask of steam.  I dread the cold tile in the dry daylight.

—Do you feel pain?

The flickering of the bulb reminded me of this that moments ago I was in there.  I tried to entice the silence, to pull it in.  I lit a joint and smoked calmly in the tub until it got too small.  Until the paper at the tips of my fingers smoldered from a creamy white to a virtuous black that signified a well rolled cigarette.    I deepened my promise to relax.  I dropped down in the water so that my chin stopped just under the surface.     I heard the silence.  I heard it come in.  I knew it was there.  I could sense it waiting for me.  I wanted to catch it and keep it and train it to obey.  I showed it the back of my hand to ease it.  I let all sense of fear fall away.  I stood naked and without threat.  And then I began to beg.

It dropped behind the mask and my head became the city.  Crews got to work building the towers.  Cars tore through the streets.  Banners hung from every window.  I waited for it all to pass.

—Do you feel pain?

Ajax, Halliburton, Musselman’s, Alcoa, Welch’s. 

Merck, Bayer, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Genentech. 

Marlboro, Apple, Epic, Armani, Ferragamo. 

Delta Dental, Delta Airlines, Smith & Wesson, Glock, Steyr. 

The commercials went to News1.

The bombings were getting worse every week.  The death tolls held steady in the low 200’s but they came with greater frequency.  Souls left the earth before they learned to walk.  Milk spilled from the breasts of mothers and swirled in the aftermath with the pooling petrol and blood of the animals that were stabled at the market those afternoons.

Eight years now, this conflagration has raged.  The buildup to it was apparent to any eyes that saw it all come together.  Twenty years ago, when I was only nine, the nation of South Africa persuaded its neighboring countries to form an alliance they called U.A.F. (United African Freedom).  In time, their neighbors convinced their neighbors and so on, to join the U.A.F.  It took almost ten years for them to solidify their ranks to the nations south of 10˚ N longitude.  All those with territories north of 10˚ N, were split by tribal warfare and the border of the new nation, U.A.F., was 10˚ N across the sweep of the continent.

Fifteen years after the first alliance of South Africa with Lesotho, Swaziland, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Botswana, United African Freedom was on its way to becoming a superpower, the third one. 

Russia had already returned to communism, which it touted as a new, improved version built on lessons and mistakes learned from its previous stint at fascism and mass murder, and become the second superpower again.  The world stage was now set much like in the middle 20th century, plus or minus a few powerless nations here and there.

U.A.F. was up for another land grab in that fifteenth year and no one really wanted to stop them because of the benefits the members of it had achieved by coalescing with a whole, larger body.  Their stated goal, which was distributed from the bloated capital in Johannesburg, where organized crime ran operations side by side if not sometimes within the government of U.A.F., was to stretch its boundaries to the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.  This was 21st century manifest destiny.

As the effort to push this to fruition raged on, an eager extra-Africa world watched with mixed emotions on cable news and read in newspapers.  Every once in a while you could lean forward as though sitting at a sporting event in anticipation of the grand slam, of the hat trick, or the triple crown, when one or more country would give way and sign on with United African Freedom.  It was violent revolution on a continental scale but the world had suffered long with the African continent; unable to solve their hunger, disease, debt, and tribal genocide.  A united continent might eventually be a scary contender to reckon with but their strength would allow other nations to grow also.  ‘You’re only as strong as the weakest among you’, was a phrase people could do well to appreciate.

This played out on News1 between nattily dressed hosts of shows that bore the title of their own names:  Renaldo Hour, Source1 with Gil Carmel, Namir Element, and scores of others.  Accomplished men with degrees of knowledge sit in pantomime of the one true pundit who never will reveal himself. 

The first four seconds of the erectile dysfunction commercial are always the most painful.

The sewer rat at the bombsite sniffs curiously at the miasma of blood, milk, and petrol and thinks it safer to just walk away. 

appeared originally in Eight