Fiction Inferno: The literary magazine that burns you up

The Age of Television

Martin Phipps


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was a respected academic one day and an outcast the next! It was like that commercial where this guy, he's, like, dreaming he's rich and famous—and then, like—he wakes up! That ad for Microsoft Virtual Sexslave 6.0, the "program that means you never have to wake up," that's the one. But then, I don't know, something happened, I don't know: I started to cry. I was in my office, in the B Wing of the Vanna White Building, watching the latest batch of student video-essays for my graduate seminar, Special Studies in American Sitcom: 1995-2000, when I looked out my window. There was a crow in that tree that's out there, I'm not sure what kind it is, orange or bonsai—something like that—and the crow, or whatever it was, made that chirpy noise it makes, you know what I mean, kind of like koo-kee-tee-chee, like it's so happy it has to sing about it. But the terrible thing was that this time that tiny brown crow sounded like it was speaking. It seemed to say, in its high little voice: why-why-why! And that was when I put my face in my hands and broke down. "I don't know!" I shouted at the bird, and banged on the window. I guess I was being, like, majorly loud, because there was a bunch of students on some sidewalk benches down below, studying, and they looked up from their wrist-viewers and stared at me. Then one thing followed another. A paid leave, a pat on the back by the slightly tongue-tied dean—these things are always kind of embarrassing—it's like suddenly you're in a tense scene from As the World Turns!—and then a whispered recommendation from a colleague as I was on my way out to my car. This colleague knew this place, she said, where they, like, try to make you feel better using these, like, ancient mystical disciplines. "Kind of like on Little House on the Prairie," she said.

So I took the disk she gave me and popped it into the side of my wrist-viewer and a 30-second ad for the place played out. It turned out to be in that place up north, some country, can't remember the name: it was in a big old house and there were a lot of trees and some grassy places—fields, right?—and a beach and a lot of people outside walking—I'm not sure where—and not any TVs around that I could see. It was kind of a chilling, Indian-Jones-going-into-the-Temple-of-Doom-type feeling, but at the same time, it was, like, wow, maybe, you know, I don't know, maybe, like, I could, you know, like, maybe, go there? I don't know.

"I don't know," I said.

"Yeah, I don't know," she said.

"But, maybe, I don't know, you know, maybe, if?"

"Yeah, if."

"Yeah. Kay."


So, like, then I went home to my apartment and turned on all my TVs and clipped my multi remote on my hip and walked around watching. Then I got tired of watching standing up, so I sat down and watched: and then I fell asleep and then I woke up and watched: NBA, NFL, NHL, PGA, a bit of Wimbledon, then some episodes of Name that Body Part, starring Pat Sajack IV—"eyebrow" was the tricky one: nobody got that one—and some old Seinfeldss and X-Filess, and then it was time to eat. I ate a McCain's Eight-Inch-Deep-Crust-"Pizzalicious"-Meal over the sink and drank three Cokes. It was, like, kind of, I don't know, after that: I got, like, I had to do something, or, you know, I'd start to feel bad. So I got out my virtual reality kit and picked through the disks: Chloe, Lisette, Candy and Jill were getting kind of dull, even in radical-perversity mode—sodomy and whips-and-chains and whatnot—so I decided to try out the couple under-age tapes I'd bought. I popped Bianca, the fifteen-year-old Moroccan bellydancer, into the head-mount, put the head-mount over my head and keyed the auto-stop timer for one hour, and sat down on the sofa. Quick as just, like, anything, there was brown jiggling Bianca in a virtual Marrakesh hotel-bar. I raped and killed Bianca and then the timer went off and the neuro-simulation stopped and I was, like, back in the living room again. Well, that was a lot of fun, sure, but, like, I don't know, it was just, like, not totally as fun as it used to be. I threw Bianca in the box with Chloe, Lisette, Candy and Jill and then just sat there and—I don't know how to say this—I started to seriously cry. They put me in the hospital soon after and drugged me up pretty heavily. But when they let me out again I was no better, and I couldn't face going back to work. I was afraid I'd see that brown crow again and have to listen to it ask me that terrifying question.

So, I don't know, I went to the place. Got a plane, road a shuttle-bus, paid the lady at the counter in the foyer of the big country house the twenty thousand dollars the program cost, and then there I was. In the program. I was given a room, as part of my program, and a meal of soup with cut-up things and parts of a bird that was cooked—I asked if it was brown crow and they said no, it was something or other I can't remember now. So I ate that and drank some white drink and asked for TV.

This was when I was told there was no television. And I was, like, what? And they said there was no television and there'd be no television, for as long as the program lasted, which was for I can't remember how long but it was quite some time, so I said, like, what? And then they said that instead we would be doing the other things that they said I would be doing which I can't remember all the names of, but they were, like, majorly ancient mystical disciplines. I was told to go to sleep and get up when my alarm rang and get washed and dressed and come down to eat with everybody else. What about virtual sex, I asked, but they said there'd be no virtual sex, for all the whole I don't remember how long the program lasted for, period.

So I got into bed and tried to sleep without TV. I guess I must've screamed, like, really loud for a long time because they had to come in and calm me down and someone had to hold my hand and talk to me and tell me to stop hitting my head on the wall and then there was a doctor who gave me an injection and patted my head and said, don't worry, you're just beginning, and I screamed "What? I don't know what you mean! beginning what?"

I fell asleep. I woke up. There was no TV. I screamed. They came and calmed me down. I got dressed and went downstairs with everybody else and sat at a table and tried to eat and there was no TV and I started to scream. They calmed me down and I ate and then we all got up and went, like, outside, into the grassy place, and they told us, now we're going to go for a walk, and I said, like a virtual walk—like Virtual Adventurer in the Wilds of Africa 6.5? And they said no, this would be an actual walk, and we would have to walk by ourselves, each of us, and a woman beside me began to cry and grab my arm and I held her hand and said, it's okay, don't worry, this is one of their ancient mystical disciplines and it's going to make us better. And then we started to walk and we went in under the trees and there were no TVs there and I started to scream and they had to calm me down. We walked under the trees. We walked. We were, like, under so many trees. And they were like—like, these trees, I don't know, but they were like—and it was so—and then, okay, then we were leaving. But then I thought, oh no, where's the TV, and they tried to calm me down but I hurt myself and they had to get a doctor and then I was back in my room. I was back in my room, my room.

After that, they had to tie me onto the bed and someone had to watch me so they wouldn't have to keep throwing away blood-stained sheets. "Can I have TV," I asked, and they said no, and I said "give me TV," and then they had to give me an injection and I slept.

I woke up. No TV. I stared at the top wall—that wall above your head, the whatyamacallit wall up there. They let me loose. They took me downstairs. Everyone was practising ancient mystical disciplines using old books. "You'll learn what they are doing soon," they said. First you should go into the garden. So they took me to the garden, which is a soothing place for the soul, and I sat on a bench without a TV beside it and screamed till they calmed me down. They made me look at all the flowers, which were, like, um, well some were red and others were, um, other colours I can't remember now…and then I screamed for TV. That's enough for now, they said, and I went inside where there was no TV and I said, I just want TV, and fell on my knees and started to cry. No, they said. So I banged my head on the floor until the world was full of horrible colours, as if there were a garden floating in the air, a terrible virtual garden. Then everything went black.

And now here I am again. I'm back. It's good to be back. I'm so glad to be, like—here. The dean bought me a brand-new big-screen for my office as a welcome-back present and a whole bunch of videos of old episodes of Wheel of Fortune, from the 1990s, those great old classics of yesteryear that stir the heart with their, like, deep spiritual meanings.

That tiny brown crow—or whatever it is—stupid bird names, I hate them!—keeps trying to talk to me. But I'm not afraid anymore. "Why-why-why!" it says. "Who-who-who!" it sings.

But I don't listen anymore. I just turn up the volume on the Wheel of Fortune, and sit back and watch it spin, and stare at smiling Vanna White, who says nothing, and never sings.



© 2001 Martin Phipps

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