Television Without Pity by Michael Laemmle

 

 

Television Worth Watching

by Michael Ray Laemmle

 

    

 

                 

I'm the type of guy whose father used to beat the living shit out of the family dog.  It sounds rough, but don't be too terribly shocked or indignant, it wasn't all that bad.  For crying out loud it's not like he beat us kids—just Rex, or Sparky, or Oscar, or Barney—we never had one dog for very long.  But it's not as if my father beat them to death.  He just gave them, as he put it, "a good ass-kicking."  What that dog needs is a good ass-kicking, he used to tell us.  Who knows?  Maybe all an animal understands sometimes is a good ass-kicking.  My father didn't hate animals, he wasn't sadistic or brutal.  He just got sick and tired of being the only one willing to clean up their dog messes in the back yard.  He used to say, "Sure we can get a dog, but I'm not going to be the one stuck cleaning up dog shit all the time.  I'm not signing onto that."  So us kids would make up a schedule carefully written on notebook paper.  We showed it to him.  See, we said, Daryl cleans up dog mess on Mondays, Wednesdays belong to Robert, Sally on Fridays and myself on Sunday, the Lord's Day.  After church I was to come home and clean up dog mess.  What's the big deal?  Take a little garden shovel, slide it under the stool—hopefully it's good and dry—lift it into a paper or plastic bag, dispose of in the nearest receptacle.  Take your church clothes off first, Mom would say, because of the dirt.  It could get all over your Sunday best.  It was a different time back then.  Instead of training the dog to just crap in some corner of the yard nobody used we let it do its business all over the place.  Then we'd scamper around cleaning it up, at least theoretically, running all over the place searching out piles of turd like it was Easter Egg Season.  Pet training techniques were different then, knowledge was scarce, the Internet had not been invented.  We could have kept our dog in a kennel, let him out when he needed to go potty, then lead him to a corner at the edge of our property, patting him on the head when we approved of where he made his mess.  But we didn't know any better.  We used to rub their noses in their own pool of urine when they peed in the house, beat them about the haunches with a rolled up newspaper—but outside it was fair game, drop your dookie at leisure, willy-nilly in the grass.  We treated goddamn animals better than we treated people.  That's what my Dad used to tell us.  "You treat goddamn animals better than you treat a person."  Then he'd beat the shit out of our pets for awhile.  In retrospect I'm glad he did it, though at the time I wept with terror, impotency, fright and confusion.  If he hadn't delivered a pretty sound beating to our pets I never would have been able to write this story.  Suffice to say we kids never stuck to our dog mess schedule.  Somebody got lazy first, usually by the second week, then everybody followed suit.  Dog shit piles up real quick, we learned.  Eventually Dad steps in some, then all Hell breaks loose.       

            But it was always the same cycle, again and again.  We'd ask for a dog, Dad would say yes if we cleaned up its crap.  We made up our schedule and presented it while Dad was watching television.  Dad wouldn't mute it, he'd just take our schedule in hand, glance his eyes over it, hand it back, then go back to watching some crime drama, a bad science fiction film, a news program.  We'll go to the pound this weekend, he'd say, or find an ad in the paper from somebody giving away pups.  There was no further discussion.  Maybe that's why our schedule system never worked.  We never came up with an enforcement mechanism.  Dad didn't really try to impose one, not while cable was on, and cable was always on.  We were too poor to have weekly allowances— perks were few and far between— so there was little incentive to keep scooping up turds.  Dad couldn't say, "I'm taking your allowances away!"  There was only, "I'm not going to clean up its shit."  Dad, if he was going to make ultimatums prior to us getting a dog, probably should have enforced them, or known by the seventh or eighth time we couldn't be trusted to hold up our end of the bargain.  But he always gave in.  Why is still a mystery—did it have to do with the programming he watched?  Did it cloud his judgment?  Did the television push him into some kind of meditative state that made him more amiable, or make the realities of pet ownership seem obscure and distant?  This was the old days and basic cable was much less varied.  No History Channel, no Discovery, no Animal Planet.  HBO was terrible. All it aired were reruns of the Police Academy series.  Sometimes they would play the original Rambo movie: First Blood.  Rambo was a Vietnam Veteran.  He had come back from the Jungle and didn't have a place to call home.  He wandered from town to town, a drifter.  He had to kill a few small town cops before he got the respect he deserved.  This was how an entire generation was introduced to the complexities of the Vietnam War, its social ramifications for the folks back home.  My family even had a dog named Rambo, a real mutt with "behavioral irregularities."  He used to chew through the screen door, gnawed holes in all our patio furniture, chewed on the cable wires—that might be why Dad kicked his ass a lot.  Gave him a full strength kick right in the gut once—I watched it in horror.  He almost died from internal organ complications.  The veterinarian said Rambo had suffered kidney trauma.  Must have been from all the screen door he ate, Mom said, or our garden hose, sharp bits of which we found in his stool.  The vet looked at us all suspiciously.  She may have thought otherwise.  Maybe she knew somebody had kicked the shit out of old Rambo, a full-on punt kick, tried and true. 

            Violence begets violence.  Long after I had witnessed my father's punt kick I myself took Rambo into the back shed and boxed him around a little bit.  He kept trying to escape but I held his shivering body tightly in my arms.  I'd pet him, make him feel secure, scratch his head and calm him down—he was a big dog, could be pretty mean too, but he was scared just the same, you bet.  He'd stop shaking and whimpering, relax, start to pant and salivate, trusting me again.  Then I'd box him around a little more.  This went on through several cycles.  I was so very angry with him.  See, I thought he'd eaten one of my G.I. Joe action figures, Snake Eyes—he was a collector's item, a skilled ninja trained in the lethal use of a variety of weapons—he had a Kung-Fu grip.  He battled Cobra Commander's forces and was a sworn enemy of tyranny.  I knew Snake Eyes couldn't have gotten up and walked away on his own two feet.  That's why I thought Rambo must have eaten him, the way he ate everything else.  Weeks later I found Snake Eyes underneath the family couch.  Mom was vacuuming, moving around the furniture, and I saw him laying there embedded in the plush carpet.  He was situated just so as to be out of reach of my child's arms.  A wave of guilty nausea rippled through me.  I wanted to apologize to Rambo, but how does one say sorry to an animal?  What sense does it make?  About as much as taking one's vengeance out on one, to be sure.  Eventually Dad took Rambo to a dog farm, up in the mountains.  Could we visit him sometimes?  No we can't.  Ten years passed before I suspected Dad had put Rambo to sleep.  And by that I mean murdered him—peacefully of course, clinically.  The veterinarian's professional hand was involved in some way, or so I suspect.  I never asked Dad if he'd murdered Rambo, even when I became a father myself. 

            "Mom," I once asked, though, during a phone call to my mother, "did Dad actually take Rambo to a dog farm?" 

            "I don't know," Mom said, "I just don't know." 

            "Sounds pretty unlikely to me." 

            "Well he never told me anything different, I think there was a dog farm up in the Jemez.  Dad did know some people who operated one."

            "Really?  I was sure Dad had Rambo murdered." 

            "I honestly don't know what happened to Rambo, honey." 

            "Mom," I said, tears all of a sudden bursting from my eyes in a torrent, unexpected, unannounced—"Mom—," I sobbed, sniffling, snot pouring from my nostrils, "I used to box Rambo around real good, Mom—I thought he ate Snake Eyes."

              

Years later my kids and I packed into the living room, turned the lights down low.  Never had a night of television been so worth watching.  Where's Mom?  In the kitchen making popcorn.  Smell its rich buttery topping?  Hear the percussive sound of a thousand airy combustions lightly tapping against the kettle?  Taste the saliva squirting into your mouth as your mind anticipates flavor, softness, crunch, deliciousness?  Life is good, we share its goodness.  Who wants soda?  We all did.  Who wants the generic soda I saved twenty-two cents a can on?  Nobody.  I'll drink the cheap stuff, give my kids the name-brand cola in the pantry.  They sure do love that name-brand cola.  Where's your mother with that popcorn?  Yes it's name-brand popcorn—I bought it from a Boy Scout who wouldn't dare trade in generics.  It's time for our program.  What's on TV tonight?  Family programming, it's the family hour.  Don't you see the credits?  Can't you read who wrote the episode?  Who did sound, wardrobe, lighting and makeup?  This is the show, we are its guests, we are invited to partake of its sacrament, ritual, Eucharist.  Every time we laugh or cry we're saying Amen.  The family that prays together stays together.  Where do prayers go as they float up into the night?  Do they have volume and become trapped in our rooms like a gas, or slip through our ceilings like a ghost, like those quantum particles that pass through Earth every day?  Does the wind tear them apart, scatter them over fields, over neighborhoods?  Do shattered bits of them land like snowflakes on the shoulders of men, women and children we do not know?  Do they smile for reasons they're not aware of?  Do the prayer-particles seep through their clothes, their pores, travel through their circulatory system, become lodged in their heart or brains, compacted into the fatty buildup which cakes the lining of their arteries?  Could they cause a stroke, or induce euphoric feelings of brotherhood?  Yes, yes—watching television is some kind of religious ritual—not an original thought by any means, but poignant all the same.  We are a family of man, a network of individuals, connected to one another through shared meanings, meaning is the domain of religion.  Want to know your father?  Know him through television.  Nobody gets to the father except through it. 

            Ah, Mom, my wife, arrived with that freshly popped popcorn.  It tasted as delicious as it smelled.  We all sat around the tube munching the stuff, drinking soda.  Ice clanked against glasses, there was much fizzing.  I put my arm around my love, the mother of my children.  We kissed.  We were a family.  The program was about a pair of dogs.  The family had moved under some very hasty circumstances, from a small Midwestern town to a suburb in California.  The Company had moved and Dad had to move with them.  His job was at stake, the family's financial security at risk.  He was an aeronautical engineer, or some such middle-manager—maybe a football coach.  Regardless, he had to wear a suit to work.  It was moving day and all was in chaos.  Dad wanted to stick around and wait for the pets, but they couldn't wait any longer.  Awww, Dad, what the heck?  The kids were crying—they couldn't leave Scruffy and Ruff-Ruff, or whatever their names were.  Scruffy and Ruff would never leave any of us behind.  Can't we just wait a little while longer?  No, son, we can't.  See, sometimes this particular pair of dogs they owned would go missing for days, this being the Midwest.  There were lots of open spaces and a couple of adventurous canines could ramble round a week before coming back.  Dad said they'd have the neighbors keep an eye out, then when the dogs showed up they could be boxed up and shipped out to California.  In truth we the viewer knew what happened to the dogs.  They had chased after a rabbit who narrowly escaped.  But before ducking down into its hole the rabbit had led the dogs damn near two miles from the house.  In the thrill of the hunt they had lost the trail back home.  Temporarily of course, but time was of the essence.  They didn't make it back in time. 

            They came by later and saw the moving men though, packing up everything in the house.  The dogs barked, unknowing.  The movers, having not been notified their clients had dogs, chased them off.  Big bad movers.  Shaved heads, big muscles.  Fascists of a kind.  At least insensitive.  But what were they supposed to do?  They had a job that needed doing, and they were there to do it—they couldn't be scared off by a couple of mutts.  Two of the movers were white men, a third was American Indian.  The two white men were the ones who yelled and screamed.  The Indian chastised the other two for being so unkind towards animals—see, he had a kinship with beasts, soulful, or so one was given to understand.  It's funny how an American Indian can never be a bad guy in a family movie these days, never raise his voice in anger at an animal.  The dogs ran off, and doggone it if they weren't somehow going to make their way to California.  How they knew to go westward the movie didn't explain.  How they knew to go almost a thousand miles west was still less clear.  But they had many adventures along the way.  One of the dogs even got a snout full of porcupine quills, how about that?  They met an angry grizzly bear who later took them on as her own cubs.  She had lost hers to trappers and only had to satisfy her maternal instinct.  After many adventures together the dogs got away from her, but it wasn't sad because it was time.  There comes a natural stage of life when a mother grizzly sends her cubs off and doesn't expect them to turn back, or even to look over their shoulders sentimentally.  Go on, she said, I was your mother once but that has no bearing now.  Very wise, those bears.  Later the dogs came to be uncannily enslaved by the same trappers who had killed the grizzly's cubs.  They were cruel, but the dogs escaped.  One trapper fell into the water, another burned his hand on hot campfire coals.  It was all very slapstick.  Those trappers sure got theirs.  Why the hell trappers were out there in the middle of nowhere in the New Millennium is beyond me.  Maybe they just spliced some clips in from some other animal journey film, or an episode of The Man From Snowy River, deducing, probably correctly, that nobody would question the anachronistic footage, or wouldn't give a damn either way. 

            That night I sat on the toilet, saying my prayers.  Don't worry, I wasn't taking a shit or anything.  The lid was down.  Why was I in the bathroom?  Well why not?  It's peaceful as hell, smells rather sterilized—if one keeps a good house—and nobody bothers you because they assume you're taking a shit.  Or flossing, I don't know.  I always assume somebody is taking a shit if they're in the bathroom—but for all I know they're popping whiteheads or praying like myself.  I prayed to Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Ghost.  I don't believe in any of that religious bunk, not really, but I still get a lot of satisfaction from prayer.  It just feels right, eh Jesus?  For better or worse, Jesus and gang have been internalized in my psyche as people requiring regular address, care, devotion, and attention.  Once in a while I think, Maybe, just maybe—Jesus, are you really out there?  Yes, a voice returns.  Jesus, is it really you? I say.  I'm not repeating myself, he says, and leaves.  Usually I never hear from him again.  Dear Jesus, I pray—knock, knock!—Are you in there, honey, I want to brush my teeth?  My wife.  "Yes I'm in here dammit!—use the kid's bathroom." 

            Seeing the film reminded about all the dogs I loved as a child, and the emptiness each one left in my heart after we got rid of them.  I want my prayers to reflect that emptiness.  Dear Jesus, remember to feed Barney the generic dry stuff, for some reason he likes that better than the expensive mush from a can.  Forgive him for jumping through the living room picture window when we came home from Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.  He just dove through.  Couldn't see it or something, not in all his excitement—he was glad we were home.  I can't remember if Dad gave him a pretty sound beating at the time—it's likely, but I can't remember.  Maybe when we'd all gone to bed he snuck out of his room and took him out back to the shed and gave him a real good ass-kicking.  Because Dad was real angry, that was certain.  "Goddamn dog," he said as he paced around the living room, "jumping through the goddamn window.  I ought to give that dog a good ass-kicking."  And Jesus please feed Oscar and Cindy.  They spent a lot of time inside our home on newspaper, enclosed within a little fort we made for them with cardboard.  It was pretty close to the kitchen.  The papers got all pissy and nasty from their feces.  Us kids didn't change those papers much.  In fact I never changed them once, and my day was Sunday.  "Smells like a goddamn kennel in here," Dad used to say, "treat a goddamn dog better than you treat a person."  And God bless little Maggie, our Chihuahua—seemed like she was always wearing that sanitary napkin that we rarely changed, and was always scraping her bleeding genitals along the carpet.  That dog was always in heat.  The rest of the family went to Seattle for two weeks, and Dad called us on the phone.  "Maggie ran away.  She may very well have been eaten by coyotes.  They could likely smell her menstrual blood."  We were skeptical though, because just weeks after we had gotten her Dad had said, "I'm always the one changing that menstrual pad, picking up her shit in the backyard—treat a goddamn animal better than you treat a human, that's what goes on around here.  One of these days I'm going to give that dog a good ass-kicking."                

            That night after I said my prayers from the toilet, I had a dream about an incident from my youth.  This was back when Dad had to run the cable for the living room television from my parents' bedroom down the hall past us kids' rooms into the receiver on the living room set.  There were three of us boys in my room, lots of horseplay.  We were always running out of it without thinking, our foot would slip so neatly under the cable cord, and we'd yank the hell out of it, pull it out of the living room television, bending the connector all out of shape, the TV picture immediately turning to loud, cacophonic snow.  Dad would often be watching a show and he'd always jump up from the couch in a paroxysm of fury.  If you kicked the cord you'd stop dead, frozen, darting your eyes down the hall toward the living room, straining your ear to hear if the television was on.  You'd hear Dad's angry footsteps marching across the floor—maybe you'd piss your pants—who knows, maybe you'd even go on ahead and crap 'em.  I don't know why we never taped the cord down.  Maybe it interfered with Mom's vacuuming.  Once I really kicked the cord out, man. I had been playing with Rambo, wrestling him for his chew toy.  He snagged it away and was running out of the room.  I followed giving chase—just like a tripwire man, every time—yank!  I stopped, frozen.  Dad shot up from the couch, I could hear it.  "Goddamnit," he shouted, "can't even watch a goddamn television show in this house."  He came around the corner, an angry giant filling the hallway, filled with unspeakable rage.  I pointed at Rambo, who was now peaking his head quizzically out the door of the bathroom, the chew toy hanging limply from his mouth, his eyes concerned, his eyebrows furrowed.  Funny how much personality dogs have, the range of emotion they are capable of displaying.  He wasn't terrified—yet.  But he should have been.  

            Dad got a real firm grip on his collar and hauled Rambo out of the bathroom, lifted him up into the air, choking him, hanging him really.  Dad must have been made real strong from anger—Rambo wasn't small.  He hung in Dad's hands, his hind feet trying to gain purchase on the ground, his nails scraping across the linoleum floor of the bathroom, silenced as they swished desperately across the hallway's shag carpet.  It was all whimpers and shrieking cries, the forgotten chew toy laying on the floor.  I followed Dad and dog, sobbing.  Dad yanked him through the living room out to the back door.  My brothers and sister popped out of their rooms to see what was going on.  Dad wrenched open the door and kicked the aluminum storm door with an unholy racket while struggling with Rambo, who was trying to wrestle and twist out of his grip.  Propping the door open against his leg he heaved Rambo out the door using the collar as some kind of launching mechanism, pulling the dog's large body up and away in a sort of bowling toss—you could almost feel Rambo's spinal cord severing with a snap somewhere along the vertebrae.  Rambo slid across the concrete of the back porch.  As he tried to steady himself on all fours, Dad ran up behind him and gave him a full swinging pendulum kick right between his hind legs, across the broad belly.  Rambo screamed, yes screamed in shock and pain, went ass over elbow up through the air and landed—slam!—hard on his side.  In panic he scrambled to his feet and scampered off, limping, whimpering, tail between his legs in a dismal fright.  I was hysterical.  I could hardly be consoled.  Dad pointed to me with a dismissive finger and told Mom to take me to my room and quiet me down.  She grabbed me by the hand.  The last thing I saw was Dad kneeling down beside the TV, reaching his arms around it to take care of business.  He pulled out the cable connector and examined the metal tip, all bent to hell.  I don't know what program Dad had been viewing that night, but I tell you, it must have been television worth watching. 

            In my dream of the incident Dad the angry giant comes around the corner, grabs Rambo by the collar, me by the hand, and drags us both squirming down the hall.  But this time he drags us to the front door, kicks it as hard as he can, and it explodes in a cloud of sawdust and splinters.  We all three rush through the doorway into a gorgeous sunny meadow of rolling hills, blue skies and beautiful thick grass, well-trimmed and plush.  Dad's not angry, he's laughing!  Imagine my relief.  We're all skipping!  Our hair is bouncing up and down on our heads!  Rambo is leaping and running, his tongue wagging, his eyes all bright and shiny—he's barking with joy!  Dad and I have Frisbees in our hands all of a sudden, an endless supply. We throw them ahead of us as we run. Rambo dances around our legs, so very fast, before shooting ahead to leap through the air and catch them.  Then another Frisbee, then another.  Pretty soon we all fall into a pile on the grass, rolling around, giggling, catching our breath.  After awhile we recuperate and a full-size, well-muscled man comes strolling up to us.  He has nun-chucks in his utility belt, a dagger stored in a sheath on his chest, an automatic handgun in a holster at his hip.  "Look Dad!"  I shout, "It's Snake Eyes, it's really him."  Dad gets up and shakes his hand.  Pleased to meet you Snake Eyes, I've heard a lot about you.  "Golly Snake Eyes, whatcha doin' here?"  Snake Eyes says he came to teach me a valuable lesson.  He kneels down and puts his hand around my shoulders, looks me in the eye—I ascertain it as one of those man-to-man moments.  He tells me that pets are a big responsibility, they take a lot of love and care.  That if I feel like I'm responsible enough to deserve a pet, it means I have to clean up after them, particularly the shit, especially if it's a big dog like Rambo here, because big dogs have big shits and it's a real pain in the ass cleaning it off the sole of your shoe with a stick—or, God forbid, off Mom's shag carpet after you track it all over the house.  See, he says, a cat's instincts drive it to bury its own waste, so you never have to worry about stepping in a big steaming pile of it, but a dog will just take a shit whenever and wherever it pleases him—if it's not properly trained.  So pick up those shits and everything will be all right, kid, and he punches me playfully across the jaw.  "Thanks, Snake Eyes, now I know!"  Snake Eyes stands up and rests his clenched fists on his hips and bellows out a deep, hearty laugh that carries booming across the valley.  And knowing is half the battle, he says, knowing is half the battle.    

 

 

**

 

Michael Ray Laemmle was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico; home of the atomic bomb. After a decade-long sojourn in Seattle, New York, and other unsavory corners of the globe, he will now spend the larger part of the year in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he works as a multimedia artist.

 

 

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