Don't Touch That Dial
There’s this cartoon we used to get when I was little. Just barely. The trick was to angle the antennae just right. Even then there was a bit of static. I always got up early to watch it because of how bizarre and funny I found it.
There was this one episode where the scrawny little dog and the fat stupid cat are astronauts. The cat happens across a “history eraser” button. It’s so big, red and shiny he cannot resist pressing it. It resonated with me because I’m the same way.
I’ve since read that the term for that is “call of the void”. Like when you’re riding in a car with the window down and feel the inexplicable urge to toss your expensive phone out. Or when you’re on the edge of a cliff and the more fearful you are, the louder that nagging voice telling you to throw yourself off it becomes.
My dad jokes that I have poor self preservation instinct. There’s something to that. I’ve been skydiving, mountain climbing, eaten fugu and ridden damn near every rollercoaster in the Western hemisphere. My sister said it’s because of my cat. She read that there’s some parasite cats transfer to their owners that increases risk taking behavior.
So it doesn’t surprise me in retrospect that things turned out the way they did. I don’t really see how I could’ve anticipated it, either. It was just an old television. I was on my way to the aquatic center to swim some laps when I saw a sign that read “Yard Sale” and that little voice grabbed the wheel. Before I could process what had occurred, I was browsing through headless dolls, tattered “choose your own adventure” books and Atari games.
A lot of them were doubles of Pac Man. Who would buy this many? Who still plays Atari? I know some people are into retro games, but Atari games were like playing minimalist art. Blue square equals airplane. Green square equals tank. Smaller squares are bullets, lasers or whatever.
There was the Atari console itself, with the wood grain panel and multitude of silver switches on the front. No thanks. It was the television next to it that caught my eye. I’d never seen one like that until then. Where most old TVs enclose the picture tube in the box, this one was a box that resembled an old radio with the picture tube above it on a swivel mount. Sort of like a computer.
I couldn’t resist the styling. There was one oddity, though. No channel selector. I asked the middle aged, curly haired redhead manning the cash box about it. She joked that it was her grandfather’s and they only had one channel back then. I pressed the matter until she threw up her hands and admitted she’d never so much as touched it until today.
I scoured every inch of it, eventually finding what I figured for a brand. In Russian. The woman, evidently not one to abide looky-lous, asked if I was going to buy it or not. For $40? It was a tough decision but I was in love with the retro aesthetic and curious about who really made it and when, so I plunked down the cash and lugged the beast to my car.
Some clothing from the back seat wedged against it kept it from shifting about as I drove. Picture tubes are fragile and I didn’t expect that the woman from the yard sale would give me a refund if I brought it back in pieces. If it ever had a warranty, there was surely nobody left to honor it now.
Swimming was invigorating. Doing so regularly was my new years’ resolution and so far I’d honored it. My compulsive nature was helpful in that respect. The thing about exercise is that your body recoils from the idea of it but after you finish, you feel great and you’re glad you forced yourself to go through with it.
It’s also a great way to exhaust yourself. The hours I work are such that I have to go to sleep not much later than six in the evening. This is where the little voice is an impediment. If I’m not exhausted, it keeps urging me to get up. Not even do to anything specific. Just walk around, drink something, make a snack, use the bathroom. Over and over. The only way to prevent this is to tucker myself out before then. Hence the resolution to swim every day.
I couldn’t hit the hay without inspecting my new toy, though. A little web searching revealed it wouldn’t actually receive TV signals properly anymore without a digital converter box because nobody still broadcasts in analog. I began searching Amazon. In for a penny, in for a pound I figured.
On a whim I decided to turn it on and at least try to receive something. Or just verify that it still works. I plugged it in and flipped the power switch. Nothing. God damnit. She sold me a lemon. “I don’t know why I expected anything different”, I thought. I tried picking it up, intending to drive it straight back to her and demand a refund. But the case came loose in my hands.
That wasn’t something I could blame on her. Worries about damage vanished when I lifted the case away. Aside from the discovery that it was intended to be removable, the electronics inside were fascinating. Vacuum tubes! I knew about these. The precursor to transistors. And all manner of crude looking relays, wiring, resistors and dust. So much dust.
Without thinking, I blew hard and immediately regretted it. Dust billowed out of the case and all over me. Right up in my nostrils, in my hair. I was put out until I remembered I meant to shower anyway. I’d forgotten to bring shampoo with me to the pool so I still had chlorine in my hair.
I went and did that, then started cooking some Helper. That’s what I call Hamburger Helper without the Hamburger. Yeah, I know. That joke’s so fresh it has dice in the mirror. Whatever, my girlfriend still laughs at it every time. I wondered if I could pass this off as a gift for her. I could still fool around with it then but I’d also get brownie points.
She’s into old kitschy shit so with a little finesse I figured could probably swing it. But only if I could get the damn thing working. I studied the interior, now mostly free of dust. That’s when I spotted something resembling a breaker switch on the power supply, with a little piece of yellowed paper folded up under it.
I carefully withdrew the paper. It was as brittle as it looked and I didn’t want it to tear before I could read it. On the inside it said:
“To whomever should come into possession of this television: By no means attach the second circuit unless you wear the included eye protection and understand what that circuit is intended for. Neither should you activate the circuit which is presently installed. I have studied both at length, and paid a steep price for my curiosity. For your own sake, do not disregard what is written here.”
I disregarded it. Some long deceased fogey’s idea of a prank. There was no second circuit or “protective eyewear” inside. Either it never existed, someone else removed it or that curly haired woman from the yard sale sold them separately. No interest in any of that, to be frank. Just looking for a functional conversation piece. I flipped the breaker switch, ensured the set was plugged in, then powered it on.
Static at first. But it gradually cleared up. It took me several seconds to accept what it was showing me. I saw myself, standing just where I was right then, looking at the television. In fuzzy black and white, but it was unmistakable. Especially since waving my own arms about caused the black and white version of me on the picture tube to do the same.
I immediately looked for a camera. Judging by what the picture tube displayed, it ought to have been behind me, looking down at an angle. Nothing there. I got up on a chair to be absolutely sure. Cameras get real small these days. But however close I looked there was simply no camera.
When I looked back, the picture tube depicted me walking down the street outside. How it had gone from what appeared to be a live feed to a recording wasn’t clear. Even less so given that stuff began happening that I have no memory of. Special effects, I assumed. Surreal shit. Like as I walked past a brick wall, it peeled away. Like the brick texture was just wallpaper. Underneath it was what looked to be rusted metal stained with some kind of black residue.
He just kept going. And the longer I watched, the more weird shit happened. A bus went by, but made entirely of rusted metal covered in blotchy patches of that sticky looking black substance. Emitting thick black smoke. As he passed a manhole, thick black goo bubbled up from the holes in it, soon lifting the manhole cover entirely and flooding the street.
It began to rain. You can guess what fell instead of water. He became absolutely drenched in it. I looked away. Hidden camera show? Some kind of prank? Those topped the list of possibilities so far as I was concerned. I resumed searching for cameras. When I still found nothing I resolved to drive back to the yard sale and demand answers. Only, on the way, a strange thing happened.
As I drove, I suddenly realized I was not actually in the car. I was looking at myself driving my car. On the picture tube. I leapt to my feet, heart racing. What the fuck was that? I had just been in my car, driving it, a few seconds ago. The transition was so smooth I couldn’t even pinpoint when it occurred.
I began pacing and sweating. The note. The note! I retrieved it and read over it again. It offered no clues. Nothing useful to me at all. Only a warning I’d already violated. Vonnie! I’m not sure what I thought my girlfriend could do to help but I badly wanted comfort just then. I went to the phone and began dialing.
Some time while I was doing that, I realized I was in fact watching myself dial the phone on the television. I shot up out of the chair, shouted at it and swept the entire thing off the table. It collapsed to the floor with a resounding crash, the picture tube shattering into shards of glass and phosphor.
It took me a minute to catch my breath. Wiping my brow, I put on my jacket and headed for my car. It was a short drive to the pub, and I decided not to have more than a small drink as I didn’t want to stay late and couldn’t afford a DUI. I ordered a nice dark locally sourced microbrew. As I sucked some of the foam from the top of the beer, do you know what happened?
I expect you do. How? I wish I knew. After all, I saw the television fall to the floor and shatter. Yet there it was in front of me. On the picture tube I saw myself savoring the beer. Why? Why why why? I pulled at my hair. Was there some sort of time limit? No, that couldn’t be it. The past few times it happened, it was at very different intervals. What, then?
I tried simply sitting and watching it. As before, the me on the screen went on to do things I have no memory of. All the while, the world around him gradually growing corrupted. Some sort of black, opaque syrup always intruding into the scene in more and more ways. The scenery always falling apart, like a stage set, to reveal the dirty rusted metal underneath.
Eventually, all of it fell away. The me on the screen by this point caked in the sticky black crud, walking along like nothing’s the matter. He came across a bawling woman, also covered in black residue. He kneeled as if to console her. Then lifted her to her feet by her hair, withdrew a knife from his jacket pocket, and cut her throat from ear to ear.
I choked. Because I’d just seen myself do something unconscionable. But also because he turned and was now making direct eye contact. I turned away. Out of the corner of my eye I could see him rush the screen, gesturing as if trying to maintain my interest. I threw a blanket over the television, reasoning that I apparently couldn’t destroy it, and tried to get some sleep.
I did, too. It looked quite restful on the picture tube. I buried my face in my hands and struggled not to cry. How could this be happening? Was I losing my mind? I unplugged the television and was not at all surprised when that made no difference. It didn’t have to hide anymore. Didn’t have to pretend.
I tried everything you can imagine. Then the really desperate stuff. I rapidly lost count of the suicide attempts. Every time I just wound up in that chair, watching myself pull the trigger or leap from the roof in black and white. Then I’d get up and start walking. You know what happened after that.
Well, that’s not quite true. I haven’t told you all of it yet. What I eventually worked out is that it wanted me to just sit and watch. All the way through, without leaving. As I now understood there was no other choice, I obliged.
The little black and white me walked along as before. The scenery began to peel, crumble and dissolve revealing rusted, grimy metal beneath it. And that filthy black shit. Soon every pretense of reality was gone and he walked through a decaying metal replica of a town. No windows or doors on the buildings. Even the sky appeared to be a grungy metal dome overhead, with metal clouds suspended by chains.
The rain started. I could see now that it came from spouts in the underside of the clouds, and hoses coiled around the chains they hung from. There was some semblance of logic to this world, but it collapsed if you thought about it too hard.
The bus went by, belching thick black smoke. I watched myself, coated head to toe in the oily fluid, approaching the crying woman. I found myself wanting to warn her. But what would that accomplish? As before, he lifted her by the hair and slit her throat ear to ear. Then he turned her around so I could see her face.
Vonnie. I went cold. He released her, and she collapsed in a heap. Then he approached the screen, step by step, until life sized. He simply stared, and I stared back. I still don’t know how the transitions occur so smoothly. All I know is that when I looked away, we’d switched places.