Please Don’t Touch the Picture Tube

It was found on the edges of a wispy signal, the fuzzy smell of ozone and cigarettes. The soft, ticklish layer of crinkly static begging you to touch the picture-hot tube. Tweak(!) the crooked sticks and tinfoil art—reach up, up, up into the local atmosphere and beg for the sweet grace of a clear picture. Hold(!) and become the antenna, be the conduit for the diffident signal. Don’t move. This broadcast is nearly over. The next time you turn the knob, the picture will be piped in straight, tentacles invading every house, signals mainlined from there to here. Cable TV. Cable TV. Nothing left in the ether but old times and memories.


If there was an easier way to spend a Friday evening than drinking and smoking dope, I wouldn’t have been interested at the time. I was willing to put the work in. Danny was there. Music was on the TV—beautiful, glorious music videos morning to night, broken volume on the second-hand set turned loud and distorted. We made fun of New Wave pop/synth bands and smoked crappy Mexican brick-weed we bought by the nickel bag. Dan drank Jack Daniels from a pint bottle while I sipped St. Pauli Girl, feeling decadent. It was always that way with Danny: liquor to my beer, bigger bong hits than mine. If a little of something got you buzzed, Dan wanted all of it.

It was Friday, and my mom was at work. She was always working—three cocktail jobs while she studied for her real estate license. She’d left my old man cold, no job experience and no higher education, and she was fighting to establish a career and a decent life for me and my sister. Meanwhile, I had no qualms about taking advantage of her late nights to throw down like a wannabe rockstar. It was time to get lit.

Fucking MTV, man. Fucking M. Fucking T. Fucking V. Teenage dreams manifest. Spontaneously generated from high school heaven itself, it became the hook our teenage years were hung upon. Sesame Street governed our childhood. Shitty sitcoms played to our adolescence. MTV was the first thing we watched on cable TV, and it rocked us into adulthood.

Locked in a bubble, just us and Martha Quinn and Pat Benatar, Danny and I were laughing at nothing when the doorbell sounded. We looked at each other with dilated pupils, surprised eyes, and then burst out laughing at each other’s stupid faces. The bell rang again, and this time, someone knocked. I felt the bubble dissolving. The knocking grew louder.

“Beet! Open the door, man!” More knocking. “C’mon! It’s fucking cold out here!” Beet was my mom’s Marine Corps Vietnam vet boyfriend. Her vagabond, rugby-playing, working-on-the-railroad boyfriend. Bill. Not Bill—Beet.

“Beet! Yo!” the voice called. I opened the door.

“Not here,” I said. There were two of them. They looked familiar—probably guys on the rugby team. The one doing the knocking opened up a wide smile, which pushed him off balance a little. He was obviously hammered, and he sized me up with unfocused eyes. He pointed a finger in my direction, tracing a Jackson Pollock path all around me.

“The kid!” he said. “It’s the kid!” He looked at his companion for confirmation.

“The kid!” The other guy nodded. “Carrie’s kid.”

“Yes! Carrie! That’s . . .” He lost his train of thought for a moment. He was a big guy with dark, thick hair and a gnarly beard that grew from the collar of his shirt to just below his eyeballs. It was snowing, and the flakes lay cautiously on his head and shoulders. “Um . . .” He leaned around me and yelled through the door “. . . Beet!”

“He’s not here, man.” I was getting cold. I could hear 38 Special playing in the background. So caught up in you, little girl . . .

The man smiled again and produced a bottle, a fifth of rum, from somewhere in his coat. “Here, have some!” He thrust the bottle in my hands and gently pushed his way into the house. The other guy followed him silently.

“Beet!” Beard Guy yelled when he stepped inside. “Hey,” he said, when he noticed Danny sitting on the couch. “What’s up?”

Dan immediately changed into an adult. It was fascinating to watch. Any time he had to interact with anyone older, he would suddenly become about twenty-five or twenty-six. He was fifteen but he could drive a car around and no one ever questioned him. He had an account at Kreston’s Liquor on Concord Avenue—they never carded him.

“Hey man. What are you guys up to?”

“Oh, you know . . . this and . . . here, give him that.” Beard swiped the bottle out of my hand and handed it to Danny, who took a long swig. “Ha! That’s it!” He took the bottle back and drank the rum like it was water and he had just played a hard game on a hot day. He handed the bottle to his nondescript companion, whose features blended in with his surroundings so much that I kept forgetting he was there. “Hey,” Beard asked Dan, “you seen Beet?” I rolled my eyes.

Danny shrugged his shoulders. “Nope. He’s not here, man.”

“Damn!” the guy said. “Beet!” He yelled in the direction of the stairs leading to the second floor. “Oh well. Oh shit!” He looked at our paraphernalia strewn about the coffee table: pipe, weed, lighter, ashtray, cigarettes, a magazine covered in seeds and stems, et cetera. He grabbed the pipe and tried to light it, but it was empty, just resin sizzling at the bottom of the bowl.

“Wow, that’s nice,” he said. “Got any more? No, wait . . .” He started patting his pockets. “I know I had something.” He dug around in his jeans and came up with a pill—a large tablet. “Nope, no weed, but . . . ta-da!”

Danny sat up. “What’s that?”

“Quaalude,” Beard said. “Good shit. I’ve only got one, though, I think.” He looked at the pipe in his hand, then at the pill in the other. Then, as though he was conducting a cold fusion experiment, he carefully inserted the pill into the bowl of the pipe. “Hell yeah! You guys ever smoke a ‘lude?”

“Uh . . . have you?” I asked. “Has anyone? Ever?”

“Shit, I’m down,” Dan said.

Beard turned the lighter up to max and torched the living shit out of the pipe, inhaling like a suffocating bear. When he breathed out, there was . . . nothing. Not one iota of smoke. We all looked at the pill and there was a slight scorching around the edges, but we might as well have tried to smoke a chunk of asbestos.

“I don’t know, man. Would’ve worked with some weed or something . . . Beet!” He gathered his coat around himself. Looking first at me and then at Danny, he said, “Hey, Carrie’s kid. Hey, friend. Tell Beet if he comes over late like this, he oughta be home, okay? Shit.” He grabbed his bottle of rum and took a huge swig as he made his way to the front door. “C’mon, you.” The Invisible Man materialized from the corner and followed him out into the snow.

I got up and locked the deadbolt. When I turned around, Danny had the pipe in his hand and was trying to free the pill. Beard had stuffed it in tight, and Dan was slapping it against the palm of his hand, trying to knock it loose. After two or three smacks, he held it in his hand.

“Yes! Ha! Check that out!” He held the pill up, large and oval, with burnt-toast edges. “You ever take a Quaalude before?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope, but we’re about to!” His glassy eyes smiled—red, blue and fiendish. He laid the pill on my mom’s coffee table and grabbed the almost-empty pint of Jack.

“What are you doing?”

“We need to crush it, and then we’ll snort it!” He lifted the bottle high and brought it down on the tablet.

“Wait—” The noise was loud and jarring, and I felt it in the back of my head, where my spine and my brain met. The channel changed, and I was lifted up and spun around, and I saw Dan from above, his dark hair blow-dried and feathered. I spun higher still, floating through the ceiling, and then the roof, and then high enough in the winter air, about level with the tireless streetlights, that I could see Danny’s house only two blocks from mine. A cold breeze pushed me that way, and I floated into his home. His mother was playing piano while his father sat in a chair watching TV, a laugh track playing harmony to the piano music’s melody. They were an incredibly musical family. His father had taught me clarinet years ago, in grade school, before I became too cool to play. Danny played the cello and the bass guitar, and both of his sisters were talented violinists. I floated through the floor to his room upstairs. It was a small room. There was a single bed with a comforter you would find wrapped around a sleeping child. His cream-colored bass sat on a stand, in the corner of the room. The rest of the available space was taken up by a drafting table. Instead of rock-and-roll posters and pin-up girls on his walls, there were maps. Maps of Chesapeake Bay, the Delmarva Peninsula, and the Brandywine River—all hand drawn by Danny, in intricate detail. He loved drawing them. Maps, music, and fishing were his passions. Until he learned how to get wasted. Then that was his passion. His future as a cartographer, as a professional musician—all of it lay before him, waiting eagerly. Until it didn’t. Until the channel changed to a new program.

“Hey”—Dan was snapping his fingers in my face—“you okay?” I was back on my couch, cold St. Pauli’s in hand. I’d had three now, and probably couldn’t handle many more. “Just What I Needed” by The Cars was playing, and Dan was holding the Quaalude up by his thumb and forefinger in front of him. “I couldn’t crush it. How about we flip for it? Winner gets to take it?”

“Man, why don’t we just forget about—”

Dan popped it in his mouth like a piece of popcorn and swallowed. “Ha! Too slow.”

And I was too slow, in his world. I moved like a crab at the bottom of the ocean, picking small shots and beers and hits from a bong while he swam above, a great white shark, consuming everything he could find. It was fun—he was fun—and we called it “partying” until it became something else. Getting fucked up became a job for Danny, and he excelled in his new career. The promotions came quickly. Beer and wine to hard liquor. Jack to Everclear. Weed to pills. Pills to blow. Blow to . . .

The last video we watched that night, before passing out, was Van Halen’s “So This is Love.” Dan could imitate David Lee Roth’s vocals almost perfectly. He hit the high-pitched tremolo over and over as we cleaned up before my mom got home. The ‘lude hit Dan hard at one point, and he made less and less sense as his words slurred more and more. I helped him upstairs and pulled out the child’s trundle bed for him, and we both crashed, Dan mumbling something about fishing.

We woke the next sunny morning to the smell of alcohol and vomit. Danny’s face and hair were covered, and his head was stuck to the pillow. His bloodshot eyes didn’t want to talk about how close he had come to choking to death. If he had slept on his back instead of on his side, I would have woken up to find a deadweight memory of Dan. He laughed it off and helped me clean up before he went home. It was a practiced laugh, one that held a job in his workplace and would rise in rank along with him.

Death missed him that evening, but death is tenacious. Especially toward addicts and alcoholics. It stalks us. Death is always plotting, and fashions booby traps and lays ambushes on trails well-traveled by the unwary and most vulnerable.

After I graduated from high school, I fled town—fled dealers and debtors, fellow “partiers” and inmates locked into the circuitous life of using and waiting to use again. I gave myself to the military, tied myself to a different kind of danger. I tried to side-step the stalker, a juke-move. One day when I was home on leave, I dropped in at Dan’s parents’ house. He was living in the basement then, and Dan’s mother let me in without saying a word. It was about noon, but the basement was dark, and Danny was asleep on a mattress which lay on the floor. I sat down on a trunk he was using as a table and said his name. I said it again and his eyes cracked open. He nodded his head when he saw it was me and drew himself up, slowly. Before he was even upright, he reached down behind the mattress and pulled out a fifth of rum and took a long, thirsty pull on it. He offered it to me reluctantly and I declined, so he took another swig and put it away. We talked some. He told me he was a line cook at a restaurant in town. I asked if he was still playing music and still drawing maps. “I play some, man. But I haven’t drawn anything for a long, long time.” I tried to tell a few Marine stories, but it was obvious he wasn’t interested. I gave him my number and told him to call me, and I wasn’t surprised that he never did.

The last time I saw Danny, I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps and moved back home. His mother told me where he was living, so I looked him up. When he opened the door, Death stood behind him, winking at me from over his shoulder. Dan was a strange, drawn caricature of himself. His skin was yellow, with greenish highlights. His jaw was slack, and bones showed in his face I had never seen before. His blue eyes were gray and red, and they worked furiously to keep from meeting mine. Long, angry red lines ran from his forehead to his chin, picking up again along his neck and chest. Scratching was his job now. Scratching at his skin, scratching at an itch, scratching at a habit that held him in a murderous embrace. Dan moved at a shuffle, old before his time, barely swimming enough to keep water moving through his gills. No energy to feast on pills or booze or weed. Just the smack—a simple diet. Death sat in his apartment with him, ignoring the smell, watching music videos.

I couldn’t help Danny, as much as I loved him. No one could help him. He had to realize that he was losing his race—had to reach out for a shoulder to put his arm around. He needed to ask someone to help him change the channel. He never made it that far. It was midnight for Dan, and the national anthem was playing before the programming turned to snow.

I had my own stalker to contend with—always there, hounding me, riding me, lying in wait. Beating me, robbing me. Only one thing saved me from Dan’s fate: luck. Luck that the same shit that killed Dan held me just a little less firmly. Luck that I was able to juke and spin at just the right times to avoid the final tackle. And luck that I ran into the people I needed to help me when I was ready to reach for it. Danny and I were two soldiers on a battlefield—one catching a bullet and the other left wondering how they survived.


I watch the sky above my neighborhood sometimes, searching for a hint of the old network broadcasts. Before cable. Before MTV. I reach my hand into the air, up, up, up, and I can almost feel the old times there. Riding my bike. Playing ball at the park. Fishing with Danny. Sometimes I sniff out thrift stores and consignment shops around town, ones that have old vintage televisions for sale. If I’m lucky, they’ll have one turned on, flickering snow. I push through the soft layer of static electricity guarding the tube and touch it, and at that moment I always hear a near-perfect impersonation of David Lee Roth coming from the set’s tiny speaker. If I touch the antenna, sometimes the picture comes in as clear as a memory.