Her Third TV [A Postmodern Fable]

While I felt this short story was an example of postmodernist* theory, I employed a literary device not typically used in contemporary literature—the fable—as it felt right for a story that provides a moral lesson at the end and gives readers a chance to laugh at the follies of human beings. However, fables are usually more concise. The original, unedited piece was published in the literary magazine Zaum: eleven, Copyright 2007.

*“Postmodernism is largely a reaction to the assumed certainty of scientific, or objective, efforts to explain reality. In essence, it stems from a recognition that reality is not simply mirrored in human understanding of it, but rather, is constructed as the mind tries to understand its own particular and personal reality . . . [as] reality only comes into being through our interpretations of what the world means to us individually” (PBS.org).

Maggie’s second TV had been her sleeping pill, a vacuum to clear her head—a placebo for the pressures in life.

She would set the timer, lie back on the couch, and disengage while listening to the numbing banter from an old episode of Lavern and Shirley. Then she bought the Dish, followed by her third TV. With over two hundred channels, including twenty-four hours of biographies and independent films, the TV no longer lulled her to sleep but became an integral part of her life. She relied on it as a source of anecdotes she could drop in the uncomfortable silences during client meetings—“Can you imagine, Ella Fitzgerald started out as a dancer, not a singer.” And when the “suits,” the male commercial real estate brokers she worked with, began the monthly sales meeting with “check that rack out,” as a young woman walked past the conference room window, it gave her the ammunition to create silence—“Have you seen the documentary Southern Comfort? It’s about a hillbilly female to male transsexual dying of ovarian cancer.”

It wasn’t that Maggie had been one of those kids raised on television. In fact, it was quite the opposite despite the fact she was born during the height of TV firsts—right after Zenith launched “lazy bones,” a hardwired remote control; and right before Admiral introduced their color television. That was because her parents didn’t own a TV. After all in the mid 50’s a brand new car, which provided transportation to work, cost only six hundred dollars more than a color television. Plus watching television wasn’t industrious. And there were cheaper and better forms of entertainment, her parents often told her. There was the swing set in the back yard; her new book, Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories; and when she got older, roller skates and a hand-me-down bicycle from her cousin.

During the summer, between junior high and high school, Maggie’s mother took Maggie and her brother every Saturday to the Oakland Museum to see their travel series. Maggie watched the screen, enthralled, as the guest speaker narrated how thrilling it was to speed across the vast emptiness of Australia’s Outback chasing hundred of kangaroos. After the film she joined the audience, predominately made up of seniors, and sang with gusto “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Boys.” And it was while attending the travel series that she first saw majestic snow covered mountains when they presented a documentary about a cross-country ski trip that followed the route taken by the Donner Party expedition. While she watched the skiers traversing in zigzag patterns down the steep slopes, she imagined herself skiing, creating spays of snow, as if her skis had white tail feathers. The travel series ended with the film Kon-Tiki, followed by a craft session which is when she made the balsa wood raft with large, white sails that sat on top of her pink dresser until she moved out of her parents’ house.

By the time a television became part of the furniture ensemble in her parents’ family room, Maggie was a senior in high school and in love. However, she had no time for TV. She wanted to spend as much time as possible with her boyfriend, a sailor stationed at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, who wanted to spend his off-duty hours kissing and fondling in his VW van. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and despite having joined the Navy because it conjured up images of exotic tropical locations, the reality was thousands of young men were coming home dismembered, mentally traumatized, or in body bags. On the day Maggie graduated from high school she wore a large red peace sign on top of her white mortarboard and an engagement ring on her left hand. Exactly one year and three days later she was married in a simple church service attended by a small group of family that included her mother who cried, but who also happily agreed with her father that at least their daughter wasn’t pregnant.

Owning a TV had been out of the question for the newlyweds. While the Navy immediately changed her husband’s status from single to married, deducting her dependent’s allotment from his paycheck, they neglected to send her the money. Maggie and her husband were strapped for cash. The most they could afford to rent was a semi-furnished apartment with matted wall-to-wall orange shag carpeting located in a blighted neighborhood off of Seventh Street in Long Beach, and on her birthday she had to call her parents collect from a pay phone up the street so they could wish her a happy birthday.

When Maggie finally found a job as a receptionist at a real estate brokerage, the Navy got around to sending six months worth of allotment checks. She and her husband celebrated by splurging on dinner out, a movie, phone service, and two ten speed bicycles, which they rode to the beach on weekends. Every Saturday and Sunday morning the newlyweds made tuna fish sandwiches, which went in the cooler he strapped to the rack at back of his bike; and in the basket attached to her front handlebars she placed the beach bag with a transistor radio so he could listen to the game, two beach towels, sunscreen, and the National Geographic that she read from cover to cover.

Maggie’s first TV, her husband rented from the commissary on base for seventeen dollars a month. But after only watching a month of Saturday Night Movies together, her husband received orders to ship out for Vietnam. His job, picking up downed pilot in a helicopter off the coast of Vietnam illuminated by the rockets’ red glare from the numerous bombs bursting, was very dangerous. She cried all the way to the ship where they hugged, kissed, and promised to write weekly. When she returned to their empty apartment she consoled herself with a night of back-to-back I Love Lucy episodes. It didn’t matter that their TV was black and white; she was catching up on years of missed programming. For months she watched Donna Reed, Father Knows Best, and Leave I to Beaver while eating dinner on a TV tray. Then when the shows finally became reruns, she began going out after work for dinner and drinks with her coworkers. There was very little time for writing.

When Maggie’s husband finally came home the TV had not been on for over six months, and it had been exactly one year and five months since he shipped out. Their first night together he changed into pajamas in the bathroom; and she put on a long nightgown in the walk in closet of the new apartment she had moved into while he was away. That night and for a month of nights afterwards they both slept restlessly, as neither one of them was accustomed to having company. In the evenings when they returned home from work, she was disappointed he didn’t want to talk about the places he had visited, nor did he want to discuss his war experiences. Instead the TV was always on. The quiet, which had filled their apartment for so long was replaced with Monday night football, Thursday night boxing, Saturday collegiate competitions, and Sunday’s sunup to sundown cavalcade of sports programing. She on the other hand didn’t have time to watch TV. Now that her husband was home her working hours at the real estate office had been augmented with grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, and pressing his navy whites.

Six month later, his enlistment period ended and Maggie and her husband celebrated with dinner out; three beers with three whiskey chasers for him; and a strawberry margarita for her. That’s when she enthusiastically laid out the plans she had been making while he was gone—plans that would let them catch up to peers unaffected by the inconveniences of war, like their friends who now owned homes and were working on their 2.3 children.

Their first TV, which had gone back to the commissary, was not replaced; her plan, which was now their plan, did not allow time for television watching. In addition to working over forty hours a week, Maggie went to school at night studying for her real estate license; and her husband worked as a painter during the day, and took side jobs in the evenings and on weekends. Every penny they earned went into savings. After what seemed like an eternity, they signed a mortgage and moved into the house they would own in thirty year, a house with worn hardwood floors, leaky plumbing, and walls that needed painting. Now her husband’s side jobs were replaced with do-it-yourself-home-projects.

However, before the plaster in their bedroom was patched, or the yellowing walls received a fresh coat of Mission Beige paint to cover where the prior owner’s pictures had once hung, her husband bought himself a brand new colored television, one that came with an imitation walnut and brass stand for free. Now Maggie was the only one in their household who was never home before dark, who didn’t sit around in the evenings and on weekends drinking beer, and the only one who did not know who shot JR. It didn’t take long before her husband’s impassioned “throw the damn ball” drowning out the sports announcer, was not the only yelling going on. With a stack of files from her office under her arm, she stood on the old bare floorboards and became one of the angry characters from one of the nighttime soap operas she never had time to watch. Eventually as the files and responsibilities became heavier her volume increased, until their house fell silent, except for the intermittent slamming of doors. In exactly twenty-six months since the day they moved in, his color television sat silently in the living room reflecting a distorted view of their new living room furniture.

When Maggie’s husband left it was a tearless good-bye without fights over this-is-mine, that-is-yours. He drove away in the GMC truck she had bought him with her first big commission check; and in the bed of the truck was his color TV strapped down along with the rest of the living room furniture. Years later she wonder why—but at the time furniture and a TV were too cumbersome for her new life snorkeling at Molokini Crater, climbing Aztec pyramids in Teotihuacan, and cruising the Caribbean. Plus when she wasn’t traveling, a fifty-hour workweek and Saturday nigh dates of dinner and dancing left no time for television watching. On the rare occasions when she had a free hour her weekly subscription to Newsweek kept her informed; her monthly subscription to the New Yorker kept her current; and the National Geographic kept her entertained.

Maggie’s second TV she purchased to fill the large empty space in the center of the built-in entertainment center located in the living room of her new condominium. She filled the space with a color Zenith, which she sometimes watched when a date came over for dinner and a movie. But most of her weekends were filled with winter skiing lessons and summer sailing classes; and soon she was zigzagging down the slopes of majestic, snow covered mountains, plumes of white snow flying off the back of her skis; or sailing a forty-five-footer with billowing white sails that reminded her of Kon-Tiki. In the empty spare bedroom of her new home were stacks of National Geographics, New Yorkers, and Newsweeks testifying to her belief that one day she would have time to read them. However, on the infrequent evenings when she was home, she developed a new habit of watching television. It began as a distraction, something to have on in the background as she caught up on housework and ironing. But when she realized that TV required no critical thinking skills, no decision-making, and no well-thought-out plans, instead allowing her to disengage from life’s pressures, she was hooked.

Then Maggie bought the Dish—not out of desire, but out of necessity. During a skiing expedition on an un-groomed mountain above Lake Tahoe she caught an edge and before she knew it she was tumbling down the steep mountainside. Instead of both of her ski boots releasing, as they should have considering the skis had been serviced the week before, one ski boot remained locked to the ski that twisted her leg like a wet dishrag breaking bones, stretching tendons, and ripping cartilage. She underwent four hours of surgery, and faced a long recuperation at home.

From the rented hospital bed in her living room Maggie watched TV—there wasn’t much else she could do as her leg was in a sling, suspended by lots of wires that were attached to the sturdy metal arm that came up and over the bed. For exactly sixty-two days a hired nurse came to bathe her, empty her bedpan, give her medication, and feed her. Friends and co-workers dropped in every once in a while, and her parents flew down twice for a weekend visit; but most of her time was spent watching television. At first she enjoyed watching travel shows, vicariously relishing the sunny beaches, turquoise waters, and breathtaking vistas. However, after a while the overtly enthusiastic narrators grated on her nerves. That is when she surfed channels and found solace in films and true-life stories without happy-ever-after endings.

Maggie bought her third TV after being back to work for a few months. With the rented hospital bed gone, she missed not being able to watch her programs while lying comfortably in bed. The third TV, a nineteen-inch model with a built-in VCR provided the only pictures in a room with bare walls, as she had never bothered to decorate—she had seldom been home long enough. Now when she wasn’t at work or at physical therapy, she spent all her time lying in bed watching TV. By the time she was out in the field showing vacant office space to clients, she had watched every biography at least twice and had seen so many independent films that she had a wealth of anecdotes she could use to kick start a stalled conversation; and when the “suits” she worked with ignored her, she enjoyed dropping attention getting, controversial tidbits she had picked up while watching her third TV.

Now on weekends Maggie let the phone calls go to the answering machine; she turned down the infrequent offers of dinner out, and spent hours watching television. Even her dinner was eaten on a TV tray while watching old episodes of the nighttime soap operas she had never seen before. Dallas or Dynasty provided the mind numbing entertainment she needed to chase away the nostalgic loneliness that often crept in leaving her parallelized to do anything. Then on a Sunday morning exactly six years, four months, and three days after her divorce had been final, while surfing channels she stopped to watch as the Oakland Raider’s quarterback took a hike and fell back into the pocket ready to throw the ball. As the opposition chipped away at the defense, the quarterback looked for a man to throw to, the ball precariously out away from his body and vulnerable to the impending rush of Denver Broncos. When the camera panned the field, zooming in on a Raider wide receiver standing alone in the end zone, she sat up and yelled, “Throw the damn thing!” Her voice echoed in the bare room, as she yelled again, “Throw the damn thing!” That’s when she had an epiphany. If she and her ex-husband would have purchased their third TV they could have lived happily ever after.