The first purchase I ever made as a member of the working public was a cassette player. It was 1983, I was just about to turn fifteen, and I had a little brown envelope containing seventy-three dollars in cash that Carlo Petrucci handed me after my first week working at Pal Jack’s Pizza in Laurel. I was in Baltimore, visiting my grandmother, and we climbed into her turquoise Barracuda with sticky clear plastic seat covers embossed with little flowers that did absolutely nothing to stop those seat covers from clinging to your thighs like duct tape and headed up the street to Luskins.
Here’s a recording of my first reading of five little stories about falling in love with sound and electricity, to the accompaniment of digital sound and signal processing. I performed the pieces on Friday, 5 Sep 2014, as part of the Electro-Music 2014 Conference and Festival in Huguenot NY.
I was bumbling aimlessly in the finished basement of my friend’s house, noting that he, like almost everyone I knew, had an air hockey table there, while I lived in an old log house with a basement that looked more like, well, a basement, when he and several of our friends gathered around the console TV that presided over the room. They sat in thrall on the tangled mass of the gold and rust-colored shag carpet, watching something.
“What’s that?” I asked, standing behind the group.
What it was, at least on the surface, was a rerun of the 1975 made-for-television horror anthology, Trilogy of Terror, though it was more precisely the single most traumatic thing I would see in my young life until I later found my sister’s worn copy of Hollywood Babylon II and read about the Black Dahlia murder. It was more or less a singly ridiculous scene in which a wildly over-emoting Karen Black is menaced by a hyperactive magical Zuni fetish doll with a steak knife, and as I stood there behind the other boys with my hand on my hip, I was on the path to several years of sleepless nights.
“What’s that doll?” I asked, and was shushed by the group.
“It’s a magic doll from Africa,” snapped Kurt, a doughy, haughty kid who’d managed to see most films before we ever heard of them and have a well-developed opinion and spoilers to share. “Watch what happens.”
I did, and what happened was that Karen Black, playing “Amelia,” was alone in her apartment, having an endless phone call, then was in her bathrobe, and the magical chain slipped off the magic doll from Africa, and then—
“Turn it off!” I said, my eyebrows raised as the tiny doll started to chase Amelia around her apartment, sawing at her ankles with the steak knife. “Can we watch something else?”
“Shut up, Joe. This is cool!”
Like someone being electrocuted, I was rigid with fear, unable to look away from the TV or break that jittery current of fright that held me transfixed. With a bit of forethought, I might have recognized the camp elements of the piece, but I was nine and it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen.
“Please, Scott, will you just turn it off?”
“You can go home if you want, dork.”
I did not do this. I watched it all, standing behind my friends, with a hand over my mouth and occasionally over my eyes.
Back home, I could not shake the thought of that little chattering doll with the steak knife. I assumed that it would be confined to the floor, being little, so I tried to stay off the floor whenever possible. I had a desk and a bunk bed, and I became a circus athlete, leaping across the room from my bed to the top of my desk when I needed something. My mother would hear the thump of my landings and would come into the room.
“Joseph, it’s after eleven o’clock and you need to be in bed, not crashing around the room. Get back in bed and sleep, will you?”
I hopped down from the desk, deftly bounding from the ball of one foot onto the ladder to my bunk bed, limiting the possibility of doll attack, and climbed into bed. My mother switched off the light and I protested.
“Ma, don’t turn the light off, please! I want to read.”
“It’s too late for reading. Just go to sleep.”
The light went out, and she closed the door behind her. The doll roamed below, gibbering and waving his knife. Sleep became something I experienced as the result of nervous exhaustion well after midnight, and I did not sleep soundly for months, until I worked out that I could use the protective rail that kept me from falling out of my bunk bed as a remote control.
I’d pick up the rail, which was essentially just a long, skinny board, and would lean out over the void beyond the bunk bed, steadying myself by wedging both feet between the mattress and the wall, and hold the rail out in the darkness, my upper body in agony from the strain of leverage, and swing it against the wall until I hit the light switch and bathed myself in the security of full illumination. As a working strategy, it let me sleep properly at last, free of the magic doll from Africa, until one troublesome night.
I lifted the rail, got in position, swung it towards the switch in the dark, and my feet slipped free from where I’d wedged them in. The rail lurched forward, hitting the light switch like a hammer, and there was a brief flash of light, then a buzzing, crackling noise from the wall. In the darkness, I could see the flickers of sparks across the room, and I smelled smoke.
“Dad!” I yelled. “Dad! Dad! Fire! The house is on fire!”
I heard a thump from my parents’ room, then stomping footprints and my door swinging open. My dad reached for the light switch and found it in ruins.
“What the—Goddammit, Joe-B, what did you do?”
“I was trying to turn the light on and I slipped and now the house is on fire!”
“The house isn’t on fire—it’s just sparks.” He fumbled around on my desk, found the lamp there, and switched it on. “How the hell did you manage to do that?” he asked. The switch plate and the switch were smashed, and the rail to my bed was on the floor.
“I was turning the light on and I slipped and broke it.”
“What were you turning it on with?”
“The rail from my bed.”
“Why on earth were you turning it on with the rail from your bed?”
“I didn’t want to step on the floor.”
“I didn’t want to step on the floor.”
It’s not my fault. It’s that damn doll and Karen Black that did it.
“Kiddo, you are a piece of work,” he said, and went out to the garage to get tools and a replacement light switch. He installed it without shutting off the circuit breaker, taking care not to ground himself, screwed the assembly in, and cautioned me.
“I don’t have a switch plate, so be careful with this until I can go to the hardware store tomorrow. What’s on the floor, anyway?”
“It’s from that movie.”
He rolled his eyes, ever so subtly.
“You could have left, you know. No one made you watch that dumb thing.”
“I know, but I just couldn’t.”
“Like driving past an accident, I guess.”
“Get to sleep, Joe-B.”
“Would you leave the light on?”
He rolled his eyes, left the light on, and closed the door.
I leaned out, over the edge of the bed, scanned the room for dolls, and retreated to the safe harbor of my blanket, secure for at least one more night.
© 2013 Joe Belknap Wall
I grew up in the age that preceded the ubiquity of screens, and one of the absolute and unquestionable rules in our household was that there was to be no television in our rooms, ever. We were already wild-eyed radicals in that we’d pull out the TV guide from the Baltimore Sun at our Sunday dinners and each pick out our four hours per week of programs, at least before we finally wore my parents down and killed that experiment in utopian media regulation. I’d pick Lost In Space, Quark, and my other science fiction camp atrocities, my siblings would pick out their own indulgences, and it’d all be marked off in the book with a highlighter pen.
I chafed at the restriction, and my solution was to sneak out to the yard sales and buy old TV sets, then hide them nearby until the middle of the night, when I’d slip out and drag large wood-clad sets to the front yard, carefully attach them to a net, haul them up onto the porch roof, and push them in through my bedroom window. I’d hide each with great care, and I felt like a super-spy in the process, like I was getting away with something grand and noble.
Only thing was—my father could smell television.
Each of my illegal sets would be swiftly detected and my ability to watch Lucan and the delectably snarly Kevin Brophy from the privacy of the tiny embedded closet in the modern bunk bed my dad built himself would be taken from me, time and time again.
“Son, you know I’m going to know when you’ve got a TV.”
“How is what I’d like to know.”
“Eerie powers, Joe-B. Eerie powers.”
I read a lot, largely because there was no TV in my room, and I came to the conclusion that he was hearing the high-frequency whine of the flyback transformer, so with the next set, I carefully packed blankets and clothes around it until there was nothing but a screen exposed in the depths of my closet. Had I read more, I might have learned that insulating a TV set filled with vacuum tubes was not the best course of action, but we live and learn, and when I left it on one afternoon before heading downstairs to root through the National Geographics, I was again caught.
The smoke alarm shrilled, polyester smoke roiled, my father dashed by with a bucket, and then there was a bang from upstairs.
I suspected I was in trouble, but kept mum.
“Is there anything you want to tell me?” he asked, after stomping down the stairs, looking at me with his eyes narrowed and the loops in his handlebar mustache unwinding from sweat.
“About why there’s a burning DuMont in your closet?”
“There’s a burning DuMont in my closet?”
“It has been extinguished.”
I tried hiding the TVs in the basement, in the attic, in the shed where we kept the cracked corn and mash for the chickens, but he always found them.
Somewhere along the line, I dragged home a boat anchor of a shortwave radio, a black crackle-painted metal box of phasing drifty gorgeous chanting from the Vatican and smart-sounding Deutsche Welle broadcasts and strange farm drama from the BBC World Service and a whole lot of interesting noises that came ricocheting around the ionosphere, which my father approved of as a ham radio operator and a general radio enthusiast. I’d listen and I’d drift off with the monstrous thing warm by the bed like a fireplace with the little glowing coals of tubes showing through the perforated vents, lulled to sleep by the voice of the electromagnetic spectrum, and he never knew when I had a TV again.
Years later, he admitted that he did not, in fact, have eerie powers, but just a keen nose for the scent of hot, dusty vacuum tubes cooking in bakelite sockets, and couldn’t distinguish between the boat anchor shortwave and, say, a smart little turquoise plastic RCA set hidden not in the closet, but in the space behind the built-in drawers in my bed. By then, though, TV had lost its luster for me, so it was largely a hollow victory. The smart little turquoise plastic RCA set stayed cold more and more often, I read and I listened to strange propaganda in peculiar tongues instead, and the world came to me every night.
© 2013 Joe Belknap Wall