Channel Surfingby Thomas Shane
Back when Kate and I were still together, we did not watch TV on Sunday nights as a rule, unless there was something special on that we wanted to see and that at the same time might have been considered in some way educational for the kids. But the fact is, even on public television, programs that fit that description were few and far between, then as now, and often as not they would end up being too hard for the kids to follow or, when all is said and done, just too adult. Take that British series, the original "House of Cards," about the ruthless prime minister who plots and murders his way into power. That was a perfect example of how hard it could be to guess right, but we got hooked on it anyway so we stayed with it. The main character is a monster, all right, but he is also basically pretty darn funny, and the kids seemed to understand this, more or less, or at least they didn't take the whole thing too seriously. And they probably did learn something because in a way, even with the sex and violence, it was a little like watching a Shakespeare play—like Richard the Third, if you've ever seen it—right down to the way Ian Richardson, who plays the main character, would talk directly to the audience from time to time, which does tend to pull the viewer in, even make you feel like an accomplice almost, which the kids thought was neat.
Still, since we were trying to be the kind of parents who made more than a token effort not to use a word like "special" unless that's what we meant, special, it is true, most Sundays we really did not watch TV. But then one Saturday—this was in 1995, the spring of 1995—I went to the video store and brought back two videos. One, Duck Soup, was a one-day rental for some reason, but we ended up only watching half of it on the first try, because after watching the current release that I'd also rented it got to be too late even for a Saturday night. Since there was no point in renting videos you didn't watch, which was a waste, Kate and I talked it over as we were getting ready for bed and jointly decided to allow for an exception this once. What we agreed to was, we would all watch the rest of Duck Soup on Sunday, right after supper, and immediately afterward, while the kids were enjoying a little quiet time before heading to bed, I would take the movies back.
So here it was, Sunday night, and supper was over and the kitchen was all cleaned up and Duck Soup was loaded in the VCR and everybody had taken their places in the family room (Kate, Mike, and Jess on the couch, myself in my recliner), and it felt like a special occasion, whether it really was or not.
I had the remote, and as soon as everybody was settled I turned the TV on. There happened to be a movie on Channel 7 when I tuned in, and just out of curiosity, before pushing play, we watched that for a minute. I recognized it from the description in the TV listings in the paper. It was a movie called Hot Shots, which is a parody of Top Gun, if you know it, a hit movie from the 80's, starring Tom Cruise, about a couple of cocky young fighter pilots being put through their paces in an elite naval training school. At the point where we tuned into this Hot Shots a slinky torch singer, lying on top of a piano in a bar full of flyboys, was rendering the Gershwin standard "The Man I Love" with breathy motel-lounge ardor. This looked like it might become kind of a sexy scene at first, but then the singer starts to inch across the top of the piano with this snaky sideways sort of motion and when her knees reach the edge she doesn't stop, she just keeps inching along, and it's the kind of thing where you know she's going to fall off, and you wait for it, and then she does fall off, and part of the gag is the way everybody in the room ignores this, for the most part, including the singer, who doesn't miss a beat, she just rolls over and keeps on singing while crawling along on the floor. Well, this made us all laugh hard, and the kids laughed the hardest, in Jess's case even to the point of sliding down off the couch and onto the floor herself. Despite the fact that the scene is played strictly for laughs, the actress who played the singer, whoever she was, was actually quite attractive, plus she had on this clingy red dress that was slit way up the side, and there was some décolletage as well, if I remember, so naturally my tendency was to keep on watching even after she'd picked herself up off the floor and begun to make the rounds of the room, flirting with the bar patrons, mussing their hair and so forth, until Kate interjected that perhaps we'd better watch the rest of our movie, Duck Soup, then get the kids off to bed, tomorrow being a school day and all, which was my cue to press play.
Everybody found Duck Soup to be every bit as funny and then some, of course. We picked up where we'd left off, just before that big musical production number where Groucho rallies the parliament of Freedonia to the cause of war. The whole thing is ridiculous and rousing and hysterical, for the benefit of anybody alive who hasn't seen it, and the kids laughed hard even though it's such an old movie—like all kids they were fans of the Three Stooges, so why not the Marx Brothers? Lunacy is lunacy. After the big production number, if you've forgotten, there follows the war itself with the miniaturized battle props, and the silliness in that country kitchen with the roof caving in, and Harpo getting trapped in the closet with the gunpowder and ammo, and everybody throwing fruit at Margaret Dumont for breaking into song, and we all laughed and enjoyed each and every little bit and every little gag as they piled up one after the other, and Mike, who is three years older than his sister, laughed especially hard, looking over at me from time to time so we could share a laugh, looking in each other's eyes.
When the movie was over, I hit rewind, which was what you did with a rental so it would be ready to go for whoever was going to rent it next, and while it was rewinding I used the remote just to see what else was on, for the fun of it. Hot Shots was still on, but I was curious to see what else was on, so I channel-surfed. There wasn't much on, though—we only had basic cable in those days. There were a couple of Sunday-night evangelical shows to zap through, and the shopping network, and the two C-SPANs, and the regular network programming, nothing good, a hockey game, and local news from Chicago, which is, what, 700 miles away or something like that, and over on the public broadcasting channels there was nothing, some old documentary footage about Hitler, a nature thing with phony hyped-up music—
Wait, stop. Kate wanted me to go back. Jess, who was 10, had never seen Hitler before.
I went back.
That's him, Kate said, with the mustache, the angry-looking one.
Was he a jerk? Jess wanted to know. She'd heard about him, she'd just never seen him.
He was worse than a jerk, I said, he was evil.
We sat and watched Hitler—the rise of Hitler—and we watched the German people lining up behind him, and all the straight-armed saluting and cheering.
Were you alive then? Jess asked.
No. Your mother and I were born after the war. After World War II.
Is there a monument to him somewhere? to Hitler? a tomb that people visit? Jess wanted to know these things, even though they seemed like odd questions for a 10-year-old to be asking, but maybe not, maybe she'd been thinking about Hitler on her own, even though she didn't know much about him.
No, I told her, there is none of that for Hitler.
How did he die?
He committed suicide in his bunker.
A bunker's like a bomb shelter, Kate pointed out.
His body was never found, I said.
Before we knew it, after just a few minutes, the documentary had gone, newsreel style, from the rise of Hitler to depicting the last days of the Reich, then without warning it switched to footage of the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, building up to it with shots of railroad tracks and smokestacks, and I started to realize that this had to be what it was really about—PBS had been doing a 50th anniversary series commemorating key battles and such from World War II; the liberation of Bergen-Belsen had to have occurred somewhere in the spring of 1945, just before the war ended—regardless, I hit the remote, and the next channel up was showing the Honeymooners.
Oh, this is a funny one, I said. It was the one where Ralph comes home from work with a suitcase somebody left on the bus by accident, and it turns out the suitcase is full of money, and that's what gets the ball rolling.
No, Kate said, go back. Jess has never seen any of this.
All right, I said. All right.
I went back to the documentary. The way it was edited, first, there are these shots of healthy-looking people waving to the troops. Healthy-looking people are lined up along the wire fence of the camp when the troops arrive, and many of them are managing to smile at the British troopers. Then the camera goes behind the fence. Now, you are in the camp proper. Here you see prisoners with shaved heads in striped prison jackets, and their legs are naked and they are like sticks, and these people have no expressions on their faces. Some of these prisoners are walking around with their heads down, as if they're intent on something, but they seem to be walking in circles. Others are just sitting with their mouths open and staring. Most people have seen these pictures before, or ones like them; if you look at them you will get the idea that hunger is enough to make a person insane if it goes that far. Some of the worst-off people in the film about Bergen-Belsen look like skeletons wrapped tightly in paper. When their eyes move, or their mouths, it startles you. One man, his eyes dart around like people's eyes always seem to do in the old newsreels, but it's just too lively on him. It made me wince.
The camera goes inside a barracks. You are shown starving people and corpses lying around together; naked dead bodies are lying around, hip bones protruding, sex organs hanging grotesquely, mouths gaping.
At this point, Mike said, That's enough. But we all still sat there in silence, watching, anyway.
The camera goes back outside, and now what you see is naked bodies piled up on each other, naked bodies stacked like cords of wood, pile after pile of chalk-white bodies all jumbled together, old men and young men and women and children and the corpse of a woman with naked breasts, her mouth open as if to scream. And the camera just keeps delving deeper into this business, but this was deep enough.
Enough, Kate finally said, and I said, Well, I agree, and switched the TV off.
I got up in silence and took out the video of Duck Soup and put it in its box and went into the hall and set the box on the bureau by the front door where the other video that I had rented, the current release, was already waiting. In just the time it took me to do this everybody else went their separate ways without a word. For my part, I went upstairs to the bathroom, treading heavily on the steps. Why did Kate have to insist on watching that? I was asking myself. Everybody had been in such a good mood, laughing together. We were in such a happy, lighthearted mood, all of us. Instead of that, I felt light in the head now, like I'd been knocked down and got up too fast. I'd only gone up to the bathroom to give myself something to do, and I wasn't really paying any attention to it, I was just going through the motions automatically. I should have said, No, I was thinking, I don't think we should watch this now. But it had snuck up on us. One minute it was only Hitler, the next minute it was those corpses.
There were two doors to the upstairs bathroom in that house, making it, technically, a one-and-a-half bath: toilet and sink, toilet and sink, a bath in between. One door was off the hallway, the other door connected with Kate's and my bedroom. There were two inside doors as well, enclosing the small bath area. I'd entered the bathroom from the hall and walked through to the second toilet, the one nearest our bedroom. The door to the bedroom was closed, but I'd left the other doors ajar. Like I said, I wasn't paying attention. This made it possible for Mike to steal in behind me while I was standing at the toilet and hide behind the inside door at my back, which was a little game of stealth he liked to play ever since he saw the movie Ace Ventura Pet Detective or maybe before that. I usually caught him at it before he could surprise me, that's how he liked the game to be—it was no good unless it was a little hard. I was lost in my own thoughts now, though. After I flushed the toilet, and ran the water over my fingers at the sink, I turned the light out, opened the door to the bedroom, and took a step across the doorsill. That's when Mike sprang out from behind his door, giggling.
You didn't see me? Mike, who was just a shadow in the dark, asked this of my back.
My skin was tingling—he'd really startled me—and my instinct was to lash out. I turned abruptly to face my son, but where I was standing, just barely inside the bedroom, there wasn't much room to maneuver, and when I turned, my shoulder slammed into a bookcase that had always been too close to the door there, and the bookcase creaked, and I swayed off balance, and a framed picture that had been on one of the shelves, our wedding picture, fell to the floor, and the glass in the frame shattered.
I heard it, the glass shattering, when it hit the floor, then heard it again in my mind in the dark silence that followed.
Mike had laughed when the picture hit the floor, a single, sharp yelp, then caught himself.
I didn't say anything until I knew I could control my voice. Get ready for bed, I finally told my son, who was in the last days of his childhood, I want you to get ready for bed now.
I did not like the sound of it, my own voice. It frightened me, the way it came out, too low-pitched, and the words too far apart.
Mike, who had been searching my eyes for reassurance, looked off to one side. I could tell he had done this, given up on trying to meet my eyes in the dark, even though I was purposely not looking directly at him. Then, saying nothing, he turned and left the bathroom the way he'd come in, through the hallway door.
Oh Christ, I thought, what have I done? Where Mike had been there was a vacuum now. It began immediately to fill up with tiny demons flying in a vortex, like sparks flying off a fire. It filled with screams. The floor opened, and there was no bottom to it.
A wave of nausea broke over me, subsided. Reclaiming my balance, I stood stone still, listened. I'm sorry, Mike, I said then, quietly, into the darkness. I had no idea where he was.
There was a pause, but Mike, who had stopped just outside the hallway door, had heard. I'm sorry too, Daddy, he said, equally quietly.
And that's how we left it, just our two voices, which nobody else could hear, apologizing, across a bottomless chasm, in the dark.