The oil companies saw record profits. The carbon-choked sky, invisible to the eye, trapped the rays of the sun. The summers were hotter. The winters were colder. The moisture of the earth erratically moved, and storms increased.
On the highway strewn with bodies of animals pushed over the land by raging fires, people in vehicles, boxed behind windshields and viewing the world through glass, passed enclosed occupants unreal to each other. Jobs had scattered to the winds. The economy had dried up. People in vehicles gunning motors made loud sounds against each other on the littered road, and corporate profits soared.
An unseen dust had fallen on the land. Stymied men and women, disconnected and divided, rushed with cell phones held in hand. Over the airways, fewer and fewer choices of voices promoted war more and more. War on the land. War on the people. And in the color-coded programming endlessly repeated no one ever heard support for the dwindling voices of dissent, or ever saw a single coffin. As the land was transformed, so were the people.
Somewhere a tower stood over a desert.
No one ever knew what went on inside.
The phone returned to the cradle and beeped. Having just gotten through talking to his mother, the image of the rocking cradle in “Intolerance” came to Phil Stein's mind. “Endlessly rocks the cradle”—“And the cradle will rock.” Strange to think that the Van Halen song referred to a silent film. Stranger if it didn't. Phil decided to Google it.
No confirmation there.
None from YouTube, either.
This of course distracted from the soreness of his ear, still ringing from the phone. The conversation with his mother had not gone particularly well. Pinpointing precisely where and how it all went wrong proved impossible. A lot of it though had to do with his decision to not watch TV. To Phil, TV was a usurper, stealing from his parents’ house, and all the houses around.
Now the conversation was on rerun. He had tried to explain what he perceived as the exciting fantasy of ecstatic subservience. How to catch a monkey's attention, how to sell junk. Largely it was done with lies against women. Lies against women gave powerless people the illusory feeling of power in exchange for the money for which they slaved. Every reinforcement of the message pushed screamed that in order to be successful as a human being, a woman needed to dehumanize herself, degrade herself, comply with the exciting fantasy of ecstatic subservience. This manipulated the viewer's brain to secrete a little juice. That was the drug that the viewer got off on.
“Broken people,” Phil said, “go through the motions rotted inside out. A woman who can't get enough money to be a successful slave, as seen on TV, enables the machine of her own enslavement. Watching TV, we”—he made sure to say that word—“accept it as normal. But when you go without it for six months or a year, when you cut the cord, from the outside looking in you clearly see the lie it is. The death of the external lie is the birth of the internal truth.”
She said something after that. He couldn't quite remember what. Whatever it was, it didn't hold him back. He didn’t have to say anything. He could have stopped. But that wouldn’t have accurately reflected who he honestly was. No, he didn’t need to impress his mom, even if he sometimes didn’t mind it. He went ahead with what he had to say never even thinking it would impress his mom at all, but rather letting a groove play out in spite of possible head trips.
“The solution is to not confuse doing what fulfills with what merely pays the bills. If you make your life your work, and you hate the work you do, then you do abase yourself. And if you abase yourself, then you want someone else to be abased. The wheel of life spins into a circle of death.”
He had paused here, hoping his mother would have something to say. She didn't.
“There’s value in any work which has nothing to do with money. Vitality comes from within, but because it is not a thing which can be sold, the false external voice provided by images of things sold through television conflicts with the true internal voice of humanity in each person. The result is a world of lies. Lies against women, lies against life. Vitality substitutes of external validation run the world into the ground.”
None of it had gone over well. How could Phil possibly have known? She hadn't said anything. He thought she might have been fuming on the other end, but there was just no way to know. He figured she could always articulate. Carefully, like he was doing. It was a subject he had given much attention. None of his diatribe took too long to say. Only about as long as a couple of commercials. Why wasn't his mom sick of listening to those? Why couldn't she see that those were the things from which to take offense?
The problem in Phil's mind was, ultimately, his being an escape artist. Escaping the lie of the dead machine through the evolving art of self-expression led to the ill-faulting condition of self-awareness. Largely it was writing movie reviews for The Freethinker that he had to thank. Naturally, his love of movies began well before that, but once he started getting published in the little paper, with his name right there, right there next to his picture, Phil saw movies in a whole new light. In fact, Phil thought, he studied film the way Houdini studied locks.
What he had evolved into was a freelance subversive. He saw his reviews as themselves art, art which opposed War on Women, War on Minorities, War on Nature, War on Life. All of which jarred people. People didn't want to be saved. They went to church to escape that. They watched TV to go to church. They wanted to be on TV. They want to be inside it. Only by joining TV could they finally be real.
What Phil saw, outside the box, was that powerlessness caused fear, fear caused hate, and those who hated life supported war. The fact that the machinery made to destroy, and the machinery made to rebuild, in order that machinery made to destroy might be contracted again, was all owned by the same hidden few, went entirely unknown by the majority, it seemed, all the people transformed by television into servants, servants used as pawns, fodder, peasants on whose deaths to profit. These would be the people, programmed to believe in teams, programmed to believe in patriotism, that life is not really life, that the real life happens after they die and join TV. Lie and deny, lie and deny, lie and deny. All of the distraction, all of the divisive nonissues, all of the dumbing down, all of the threatening color-coded powerlessness keeping people paralyzed with fear. All pushed through the tube. And never could happen without it.
Phil’s mother didn't want to hear about it. His father didn't want to hear about it.
“You build up an immunity to it,” his father once said.
“Americans watch on average over four and a half hours of TV every day. Geez Dad, what do you think would happen to a person exposed to four and a half hours of Nazi propaganda every day? Where was the magical immunity to propaganda in the 30s?”
“That was a different time in a different place.”
“Yeah, they do it better now.”
“Oh, come on.”
“They sure do. Neurologists say that disturbing images bypass the part of the brain that uses reason.”
“How many neurologists do you know?”
Phil’s dad had a point. Phil didn't know any neurologists. Not a single one. He had to rely on the printed word, mere theory advanced by science. He hadn't seen it on TV. It hadn’t come from the mouth of God.
He looked outside from his upstairs window and saw his landlord coming home. She had left a message on his machine saying that she wanted help with something later. He would give her some time to settle in and go over in a while. Phil’s mind wandered as he pondered:
Where is my mind? In my body.
Where is my body? In this room.
Where is this room? In this house.
Where is this house? In this town.
Where is this town? In this county.
Where is this county? In this state.
Where is this state? In this country.
Where is this country? In this hemisphere.
Where is this hemisphere? In this planet.
Where is this planet? In this solar system.
Where is this solar system? In this galaxy.
Where is this galaxy? In this universe.
Where is this universe? In my mind.
It was Friday, the day before the summer solstice, sometime after four o'clock, and people were leaving work early for the weekend. A coastal college town of 13,000, nestled in a reeking bay, Carata held its fair share of people playing dress-up in order to appear professional, and about as many dressing down in order to appear otherwise. Whereas the former, with their indoor grow-ops, liked to look less liberal than they were, and maybe even knew, the latter conservatively catered to customers of their own, more motivated by money than they wished to admit, and perhaps themselves ever realized. Together the two formed a symbiotic relationship in which the mix worked well, with most people falling somewhere in the middle, like the wide polluted bay separating Carata at the north from the larger sister city of Egeria at the south. Carata was the side of the bay that inhaled the bulk of the fog and held it. Egeria, doing its own thing on the other, produced pulp mill smoke stack stink and held the county's major mall.
What Carata had that Egeria lacked was a whole lot more of a laid-back feel. Nowhere was this more true among the active businesses in town, than at the Carata Co-op, which boasted a better selection of beer by far than all the liquor stores in town combined, and carried the seriously best bagels to be found in California, or New York, or anywhere in between, and therefore also the world. Those were made two blocks over at tiny little Das Bagels, and if those among the largely student population patronizing that store couldn't take the time to stand in line, or didn't want to burn the carbs walking or biking to or from the campus, they satisfied their munchies at Hola John's with a big bean burrito, or maybe a veggie wrap, probably prepared by a mellow chick from San Francisco, Seattle or LA, sporting dreadlocks or a crew cut, having emigrated to the area for the trees and weed.
In Carata there were people wanting to stay, and there were people wanting to get out. Forestry majors, marine biology majors, theater majors, people who majored in changing their major, people who minored in used book stores, used clothing stores, people trapped in roundabouts, people wanting to grow up and get a grow-op, in order to afford the food at the finer Japanese and vegetarian restaurants, and expensive hemp product places, and the ever- increasing number of houses rising up the hills, and to separate themselves from the street people on the quad, and hang with green-talkers pushing political aspirations in opposition to the logging sect religiously informed by faraway forest-rapers that environmentalists were the enemy. But for all its faults, in Carata, and indeed all Humbaba County, there could still be found more trees, more green, more vertical, more variety, than perhaps anywhere else imaginable, and the steady increase in people and steady loss of unique features were what frightened Phil and everyone else he knew the most.
Phil stepped out of the house to the sound of the highway buzzing below. The old Victorian where he rented a renovated attic studio apartment used to seem a better deal. He got the studio from his first-year physics professor in the professor’s last year. Professor Zauber had once been pictured in an issue of National Geographic. The article did not feature him alone, but the picture was memorable. To Phil, who may have had eidetic memory, Professor Zauber reminded him of an old man looking for the other half of a book of magic spells in the movie “Bed Knobs and Broomsticks,” and it was probably because of this association that Phil had always liked him, even though he never really did like physics. His actual landlord for the last couple of years was the professor's daughter, Dinah, only a few years older than Phil and very good-looking. He went around the back of the house where the professor caught rays in a secret garden.
Professor Zauber sat in a dark suit on a concrete bench that looked like marble with his back to Phil, busily at work with the device in his hands which Phil knew to be a calculator. It was something he had seen the professor doing many times. It was part of his routine.
The garden had seen better days. A thick profusion of dried bramble rose over a cracked gray fence like a wild array of barbed wire providing cover from the neighbors. The fence needed stain badly, but could not be reached because of the bramble. And if the bramble were removed, the fence would probably fall.
A back door was open. From a room inside the house came the sound of a commercial. Phil couldn’t help but hear it.
“‘Gettin’ By’ is brought to you by the folks at Mercy Mutual Savings and Loan.”
“Workin’ hard here at Mercy Mutual, you get to value the friends you make. Old Bill there, he knows every bend in the river, and like as not, probably got himself a good-sized trout just this mornin’. Bill, of course, has been known to exaggerate a time or two, size-wise.”
“Mercy Mutual Savings and Loan. Trust us, we're with you.”
A cold light came to Phil’s mind: Banks aren't people. No mercy. No trust. There is a monster here. The commercial is its claw. War is something orchestrated. Economic collapse is planned. War is something made. Like a pot of soup. War feeds lines of hungry banks. War feeds hungry investors. It's a pot of soup, cooked up, paying debt and making more. And in the nourishing soup of war is the stock of debt and death, the stock of dreams and blood. Because banks aren't people. And the monster is money. It is the water in which everyone swims, shits and breathes.
Professor Zauber tapped his calculator.
Before Phil could knock at the open door, Dinah appeared. She wore what looked to him like a mysterious smile. A surreptitious brushing together of his hands, designed to denote readiness for anything, as though he had just finished washing up from some task, and requiring also that he swipe them both, front and back, across his denim-clad thighs, hid a quick glance at his fly to see if it was open. It wasn't. Less consciously he quickly ran the back of an index finger under his nose, somehow another subtle indicator that he really was quite busy, but for her would make the time. Finding nothing on the back of his finger in the tenth of a second required, Phil dutifully prefaced and inquired, “I got your message. What’s up?”
A year ago she would have asked how his classes were going. Not that she cared. He knew that she didn't. This was simply the one and only subject that ever came up. A defense, really, to keep him at arm's length, remind him of his treadmill. But for the last year now the new subject was that of his gainful employ. Arm's-length, treadmill reminder. It simultaneously amused and annoyed Phil to know that, although she correctly detected as a matter of course his physical attraction to her, having less to do with her and more to do with his own sex drive, and no doubt would have detected it even if it wasn't there, simply from sheer habit, Dinah Zauber knew nothing of Phil Stein's war on Lies Against Women. Probably the complete lack of recognition in that regard augmented the nobility of his Quixotic quest. It wasn't like he expected in his honor anytime soon some great statue erected.
“Hi, Phil! Come on inside! Here, let me just turn down the TV. I usually leave it on for company.”
Relieves stress and boredom, too, I bet, Phil thought. By getting people jacked-up with fear and making them zone out. Outside the cool and shade of the house, he could see Professor Zauber through a window. With the TV down, the house seemed suddenly quiet. Shutting the door to the basement, Dinah asked if he would like some iced tea and he accepted, noticing on the counter nearby, behind a plug-in, a trickling rill, which cleverly recycled a small amount of water that continually and softly tumbled into a little basin through a fanciful ceramic mouth, and that next to this there was a box of tea, the brand name of which called unavoidably to mind the line from the commercial: “Pardon me, do you have any Expert Teas?”
Handing Phil a tall glass smiling, Dinah asked what movie he was going to review for the paper, and as they sat down at the table with potted plants on it next to the window where they could see the professor counting the angels Phil told her that he didn't know.
“I always read your reviews,” she said. By the way, I have an offer for you.”
Phil wondered if his face betrayed what he thought it did: Jack Nicholson's “I’m intrigued” expression during the interview in “The Shining.” And in fact he almost did say, “I'm intrigued,” but managed to not and instead showed interest merely blinking a couple of times with a one-sided wide-eyed close-lipped smile which Dinah didn't see, the TV being positioned behind him.
“You drive, don't you? You have a license, right?”
“Ah…yes…affirmative to both.”
“But you don't have a car?”
“Well, my offer to you is this: I have a car, with a box of DVDs inside that need to go to Las Vegas. If you take that box, and pick up a television waiting for me at the same place just shy of town—really easy to get to, and I’ll have the directions all printed out—if you pop down there tomorrow and come back up on Sunday, I'll pay your expenses at a hotel, pay for your gas, and your food, plus pay you a hundred dollars, and give you the car. To keep.
“You've seen that one I keep down in the garage, right? The one I sometimes park in front when I’m gone, to make it look like someone's home?”
“I don't think I've seen you do that before. You mean that old Pinto?”
“Yeah! It's a classic! First edition, or something. Now, I want to be up front with you right off. Just so you know I'm not hiding anything, the car has no insurance.”
“And you need to drive it tomorrow?”
“You know, I’ll bet half the people in town drive without insurance. Really, not having it actually just makes you drive more cautious. But it really is a classic. And you know what’s cool? Guess on what date the Pinto was first released or whatever.”
“I don't know.”
“September 11, 1970. Isn't that cool?”
“Yeah, that is kind of.”
“So what do you say?”
“I don't know. It's a long way out of my comfort zone to have to start paying car insurance now.”
“So don't get car insurance.”
“I don't know. I guess I think...not. Sorry,” he added, noting Dinah’s downcast eyes and pursed, twisting lips.
Show over, Phil downed his tea, thanked her, apologized again, said he had to get going, did, and on hitting the bracing sunshine immediately wished he could have said yes because it really would have helped to be able to look for jobs outside of Carata. But he couldn't. It just felt wrong. He didn't need the mercury outside the house to tell him how hot it was, either. Waving the professor goodbye, Phil ducked beneath the hanging garlands and went back around to the front of the house and headed up to the attic barely in time to catch the phone. It was his sister, Joyce.
“Mom and Dad are worried about you. They've been talking about how much you've changed. They blame the Ivory Tower.”
“What a buncha fuckin’ shit. All because of TV?”
“That, and you really freaked Mom out with all the ‘social conscience’ you've been getting into.”
“What did she say about that?”
“To be honest, I didn't really get that part. You know, you're not in Berkeley and it's not the 60s.”
“What's that supposed to mean?”
“What was it you said to her?”
“All I said was, social conscience is no different from social consciousness—that it's the consciousness with which one is to some extent born and which one may through experience develop, free of dogma, free from external constraint, the awareness of the ultimate sameness which every human being shares—and that this consciousness, this awareness, this intelligence which we have as children, and lose through the divisive pollutants of imposed structure, is simply another name for conscience. Conscience is intelligence. When you're conscious, you have a conscience. Those who do not behave with the social conscience which promotes equality for all, those whose dogma promotes advantage for some, at the expense of the rest, do not behave with intelligence. That's one big reason why right wingers really are just so dumb. It's dumb to be literal-minded, dumb to fall for all of the obvious tricks, dumb to support the tiny white minority that screws them figuratively—if they were really getting screwed, that would just be sex poorly done. But the problem is, the right-wing drug of greed, the stupidity of external validation, uses up the world faster than the world can replenish itself. The right-winger’s face is an addict’s face. Nary a tooth left in the head. And the only thought left in that wasted porous brain screams, When do I get my next hit? When do I get my next hit? while they try their very best to screw everything up for everyone else so they can say, ‘See? Not having us doesn't work.’ That's why don't watch TV. It's all owned by right-winger corporations. Read, write, workout, do something useful. As if the fate of the world depended on it. Because it does. It absolutely does.”
Phil paused. He wasn't sure if she was still there. After a long moment she spoke.
“Yeah, but still. You overreact to everything. God, you're exhausting. I have to go.”
So. TV transformed her, too.
Everywhere he looked, the transformation was taking place. Everyone's place was being taken. Bodies snatched. Monsters made. It was completely insane.
A definition of insanity: Repeating the same actions, expecting different results. It was often said, and to no new result that anyone ever saw. To Phil, whose eventual double-major in English and anthropology over the course of a lengthy education resulted in, among other things, occasional drywall installation, the insanity of repetition proved particularly acute. It was not the repetition of measuring, cutting, lifting, nailing, measuring, cutting, lifting, nailing, but the repetition of characters in roles from previous episodes of his life. If it was insane for the individual to repeat the same actions expecting new results, then the same was true of life, always repeating itself as though something new would occur.
Wall after wall went up. A labyrinth of walls arose. Limiting, confining, inexorably boxing in. Oh, he couldn't wait for the contract for some new TV station to come. He couldn't wait to help build some new addition to the university. Or a new bank, perhaps. Where new flights of stairs went up, Phil was there, railing. He had stayed sufficiently out of the workforce, in his education, sufficiently long enough to become a show without an audience, a program never aired. And the people who were part of the show that was on acted as though they viewed him in the same conventional light. No one could be expected to see the big picture. They were too busy being transformed.
A knock at the door interrupted his thoughts. It was Dinah, there to sweeten the pot. She had her hair fixed loosely up, as though wadded in the grip of an invisible hand, so that she looked a little bit like Britt Eklund, and a light sheen of summer's heat glowed from the hint of cleavage revealed, her front-facing up-top buttocks advertising fertility.
“How about if I forego July rent?”
“Okay,” he said. She certainly did have a way about her, and goddam that cleavage glowed. Out of the comfort zone, but, okay then. Briskly he nodded, giving himself over to the journey’s unexpected call, trusting in and not fearing the universe. “Yes.”
STAY TUNED FOR MORE OF THE TOWER
4, 5, 6, and 7!