Because You're On Television, Dummy
rating: +19+x

A medium shot of a congregation of maybe seven or eight hundred people. Dissolve to a close up of the people in the front row, the camera panning left across their number. Heavy noise and banding, horizontal lines of color distort the features of the congregants. Bold yellow letters in curling typeface splash across the screen.

"The Father Sunday Hour"

Crowd shot again, this one from 3/4 view. Zoom in to single out a man on stage, tailored green suit, coifed hair. He is bathed in white light. Tall white cross behind him. Something about the cross isn't right, although banding makes it hard to see. The video quality is too low to see anything of his face beyond a broad smile with immaculate teeth, everything else being washed out in a thin tan fuzz.

Marlin cursed at the television set, rising slightly from the couch. He was wearing a pair of grey trousers – the clothes from earlier were gone, followed by a forty minute shower. In his right hand he held the remote, in the left, the evening’s second vodka tonic.

The new Panasonic VCR was supposed to stop this sort of stuff – Paul had explained something about double analog tracking. But it seemed as though the $900 machine had been a total waste. It was even a struggle to push the cassette into the supposedly top-of-the-line VCR, with the machine spitting it out each time until finally relenting. And now it seemed like it wasn't even playing the right tape.

Man, presumably Father Sunday: “Welcome, friends. It is so good to have you with us! From Macon, across Georgia, and soon broadcast across the world, we welcome you here.”

Zoom into his face. A burst of static reduces his features to a flurry of black and white lines.

“Fuck!” Marlin shouted, hurling the remote onto the couch. It bounced on the cushion before clattering to the floor. He would have it out with Paul tomorrow for hooking him up with a piece of trash like this.

Sunday: “Friends, how many of you here today have lost something? A loved one, struck down by illness, a car, a house, your job? How many?” He paces along the stage.

A murmur of agreement ripples through the congregation. The angle changes from a close up to a wide-angle shot of the congregation. A few seconds later, the static clears up.

Sunday: “Sometimes, it feels as though each of these individual burdens, these pains that we carry inside and out, it feels as though they are too much for a single soul to bear, isn’t that right? But we want that, we want to share in it!"

Another murmur of the crowd, this time soaked in static as the screen flickers.

Sunday: “Well, friends, I have some good news for you. You are not alone. You will have us and we will have you. We are a community of love, and we can overcome anything. The Sarkic word is life. It's about getting rid of the things that hold us back! Destroy them, if you have to!”

Since returning to his apartment in Buckhead, Marlin had formed a working theory of what had happened in that dingy, empty apartment. Some combination of stress, overwork, and nerves had led to some sort of lucid dream. Him being drugged was probably involved. Everything prior to his waking had been a dream, of that he was certain. The watch, the door, the trash – all were some sort of Freudian images that peppered dreams. The roaring had been the aftereffects of the drugs finally wearing off.

The flickering grows worse until the screen is entirely obscured by static. Close up of the altar, still difficult to make out. Sunday steps into the frame, his face blocked again by the video error.

A young black woman in a blue dress at the side of the stage. Sunday motions to her. Medium shot of the her joining him onstage. An offscreen organ plays a deep melody.

All the tape had to do was be normal – some standard broadcast of a church or whatever a “sarkic sermon” was. Even torture or murder would do.

So long as Marlin could process it, it would be confirmation enough that whatever had happened was in his head. But the video was refusing to play along. It drug back and forth, like a child telling a story. Leaving out details, hyperfocusing on others. He couldn’t get a handle on what it was supposed to be. It seemed to be dragging the VCR down with it.

Marlin felt vaguely nauseous. On his lap, he had a pad of paper and a pencil. So far, all he had written was "Father Sunday" and "shitty video." Now he added "faith healing hoodoo bullshit" in scratchy letters.

His grandfather had once taken him to a tent revival like this, somewhere outside Dothan. The preacher wore a bad toupee and a screaming woman had tried to grab him as she rolled on the floor. He had been a staunch atheist ever since.

The video is banded once again. Triple images of green, red, and blue separate, then converge, only to separate again. The congregant stands nervously.

Sunday: "What's your name, brother?"

Congregant: "Marlin Wexler." She speaks in Marlin's voice.

Marlin choked on his vodka tonic. As he doubled over, coughing, the glass slipped from his fingers and shattered on the floor. He sputtered, feeling the tears flood his eyes.

It's the young woman, her eyes brimming with tears. She is no longer addressing the preacher, but facing the camera. Looking directly out.

Congregant: "I said, my name is Marlin Wexler."

Sunday: "And what do you have to confess, brother Marlin?" His face is still out of focus.

Congregant: "I've got a sickness inside of me, padre." The edges of her face warp as the video quality falls apart once again.

Sunday: "What's the sickness, brother?"

The video stops warping. Marlin stands onstage, wearing grey trousers and no top.

Marlin: "I pump poison into the world and tell myself it's not my fault, that if I didn't someone else would. Because I thought the reason I used to be unhappy was because I didn't have the things I wanted. And I'm too much a coward to ever stop. To ever confront what I've done. And now I am sitting alone in this empty apartment full of art I hate and hi-tech crap I never use. I hate my life and I hate myself."

Cut to the preacher, his face bathed in static.

Sunday: "Brother Marlin, we can help you." In the background, the voices of the audience echo his words. The video quality begins to degrade with each word until it was nearly unintelligible.

Sunday: "But first, you need to let us in. There's always room for you here. Just let us in."

Cut to black. Silence.

Marlin stared at the screen, feeling a pit opening inside of his chest. The television shifted, becoming a featureless grey box, then shifted back to a television again.

He shook his head. No, he decided. No, he had not seen that. It wasn't actually real. Another momentary break. Caused by too many pills or too much booze or stress or something. That was what had happened.

He would rewind the video and watch it from the start. Grabbing the remote, he hit stop. His thumb hovered over the rewind button.

Bloom into a field of colors. Silence replaced with the roar of static. Beneath the static come voices, several hundred thousand strong.

"Let us in!"

Marlin hurled the remote at the television. The plastic bounced off the the screen. He rushed forward, and with both hands grabbed the VCR. There was a popping sound as he yanked the device out from beneath the television, wires and all. The television tottered, then fell backwards, perching against the wall, static shining out to the ceiling.

Marlin smashed the VCR into the static. A loud as the glass shattered beneath the metal. For a split second, the static maintained even as the glass broke. Then, the screen was black and all was silent.

He looked at the VCR and hurled it to the floor. The video tape popped out, skidding across the tile. Marlin brought his foot down, crushing into the black plastic with a crunch. He raised his foot and stomped again. And again and again and again.

After a few seconds, the video was nothing but scattered shards of plastic and two spools of magnetic tape.

In the vastness of his empty apartment, Marlin was overcome with a wave of nausea.

The few days, Marlin was sitting alone in his office, waiting for Vadasz. He had barked at Paul to fix the shattered cassette, which he had done without question or comment, only a slight look of concern.

Jeanine had contacted Vadasz asking him to find any videos of a "sarkic" or "Father Sunday." Earlier Vadasz had called and said he had something. Marlin had told him they were meeting in his office, and if Vadasz didn't like it, he could fuck himself.

Marlin placed the repaired cassette into the VCR. It lay there, half in, half out, not yet pulled into the gears of the machine. He hadn't yet watched it again.

The seat was familiar, every angle and every point of pressure known from memory. But Marlin felt no relief in his leather chair behind the mahogany desk. All he could think about was the rolling feeling in his guts. Without thinking, he began to scratch at his neck.

He tried to remember that this too would pass. Either his television spoke to him, or he was insane. There was a comfort in the binary.

Finally, Vadasz entered. "You're late," Marlin grumbled.

"I'm well, thanks," Vadasz said, a tight smile on his face. "Anyway, for this guy, you should be grateful I showed up at all. This Sunday guy was - it's like he never existed."

"Did you find anything?" Marlin asked.

Vadasz shook his head. "Nothing," he said, "Even went door to door 'round Cabbagetown asking if anyone had recordings. Bupkis."

Marlin slumped in his chair. Vadasz leaned forward.

"No videos, but I can at least fill you in on some details. Free of charge, even."

"Oh?" Marlin asked. Vadasz had never offered any information for free. Something about this must have caught his attention.

"Yeah, guy owned a television station, little small-time deal out in Macon, but used to it broadcast his sermons he did here."

"Couldn't you get names, addresses, something from there, then?"

"Burned down three years ago," Vadasz said with a shrug, "And the silverfish already got to the records."

Marlin grunted noncommittally.

"But the big thing, the big thing with this Father Sunday character, it's how he vanished."


"In '79, he straight-up disappears. From what I can tell, there was another preacher - Randal Deloach - who decided to attempt an honest-to-god exorcism of Sunday and his entire congregation during a Sunday service. Things got ugly, four people were hospitalized, one died. Sunday hasn't been seen since then. Ministry collapsed. Apparently he was cooking the books - in way that was, hm, unbecoming even for a small-time televangelist. There's something like five warrants out for his arrest."

Marlin paused a moment. "Is that it?"

Vadasz chuckled, "'Wow, thanks Vadasz! I appreciate the effort that it took to acquire this information and the fact that you offered it up to me for free.'"

Marlin stared. "Is that it?"

Vadasz's smile vanished. "You want my advice?"

Marlin shook his head. "Of course not," he said.

"Stay away from this," Vadasz began, ignoring Marlin, "I've found a lot of things for a lot of people, a lot of awful things. With this one, I have a feeling, and it's one I've had before. And when I had this feeling, those times ended very badly for the people who hired me to look."

"So, the information's gratis, but the advice is what costs you?"

"Marlin," Vadasz said, "I'm serious. Just walk away from this. I get a bad feeling. I've got some stuff that'll be ready in two or three weeks. Gruesome stuff. You'll love it." There was a note in his voice that Marlin had never heard before. Almost like pleading.

For a moment, they sat together in silence.

"I need you to watch something with me," Marlin said.

Vadasz sighed. "I don't watch the tapes."

"No," Marlin said, "You're watching this with me. You're f-" He felt a tremor in his chest, but shook it off. Nothing would stop this moment. "You're watching with me, end of discussion. Now put it in."

Vadasz shrugged. He moved to the VCR and pushed the tape in before slumping back into the small chair opposite Marlin's own. "I refuse to watch," he mumbled, turning his head. Marlin could see that he was peeking from the side of his face.

The church from earlier. Same young woman sobbing, same preacher comforting her. She speaks in her own voice. There's something else different, though. The cadence is off. Shots change from Marlin's memory.

The healing is done. Next up is an Asian teenager walking with a limp.

Marlin stared at the screen.

"That's wrong," he said.

"Marlin," Vadasz said, rising from the chair, "Have you considered maybe taking some vacation time? Or seeing a therapist? You're a good client, and I'd hate to see you crack."

"No, goddamit!" Marlin started, "This isn't-"

Vadasz cut him off.

"I'll see myself out," he said, making his way to the door.

Marlin made to stand up, to intercept him. Suddenly, he felt like throwing up. He feel back down in his chair.

After Vadasz closed the door behind him, Marlin fell to his knees and vomited into his trashcan.

As he laid there on his knees, the sound of the service continued from the TV, interrupted only by Marlin's rattling breath. He stayed on the floor.

It had been three weeks since the meeting with Vadasz. A few new tapes, mostly from freelancers and junkies had come through. It wasn't anything that would blaze trails, but it would provide content to keep his subscribers happy. The meeting next week with the investors seemed impossibly remote.

The rattling in Marlin's breath had gotten worse. After a week, was a hacking cough. Jeannine had insisted that he see a doctor. The tests had come back negative for bronchitis, TB, any of the standard suspects.

After another round of tests, the doctors had found the issue. Marlin couldn't pronounce the bacteria, but apparently it was quite rare, normally only found in people with severely compromised immune systems.

The doctor had lowered his voice when he mentioned it, quickly recommending a third battery of tests to see if - his voice had trailed off.

Marlin had refused, point blank. He wasn't a junkie, and he sure as shit wasn't a degenerate. He was a man who came from nothing and built himself a god-damn empire. He told the doctor where and how he could shove his implications.

Storming out of the office had made him feel in control for the first time since that kid's video.

Two days later, the sores started to show up on his arms, just below the wrist. Then they started to appear on his torso.

He wasn't a degenerate, he reminded himself.

Marlin rewound the video.

Father Sunday places the sickness back in the man, who goes from standing on two legs to sitting in a wheelchair. The tears zoom back into his eyes. The smile on Sunday's washed-out face is replaced with a concerned frown.

Every time, there was something different. People changed, colors changed, words changed. Whenever he watched it with others, the video would always revert to its basics, unchanged. Nothing strange. No Marlin, no murders. Just a staticky preacher healing the gullible.

Over the past four weeks, he had begun watching the tape over and over and over again during his free time. The demands from investors became distant as he watched the familiar scenes over and over again, trying to unlock their secret.

Vadasz had stopped returning his calls. Searching about the word "sarkic" had only turned up a few references to an early Christian heresy that seemed to have little relation to the manic holy rollers that flickered across his screen. Even Paul and Jeanine had begun looking at him sideways.

Marlin hit play.

Father Sunday: Brothers and sisters, we are gathered-
Close up of Sunday, his face hidden behind a flurry of static. His voice, too, completely unintelligible. In the background, congregants nod and jerk spasmodically.

Shot of congregants. The static lessens then fades altogether.

So here he was. Scouring the video of an Elmer Gantry type for clues about, well, something. Trying to even establish the outline of he was looking for. Seeing if the changes in each playthrough meant anything. If the video would speak to him again. If he could see himself in the flickering glow of the television once again.

Sunday: - and to remind us that we are not these bodies that imprison us! We are all radiant souls, untouched and untouchable by sin!

Over the past weeks, Marlin had memorized every contour of the video. The "miraculous" "healings", the hymns he did not recognize, the sermon with the allegory of the prophet who dressed in rags. He had tried to read meaning into the changes that each viewing wrought. There was no consistency he could tell of.

The video refused to divulge its secrets. So he watched it, again and again and again, scouring it for clues. He had lost track of the notebooks, filled first with notes, then abbreviations, then symbols of his own devising, then finally scribbles intelligible only to him.

Sunday: Join me in communion, won't you, brothers? Won't you, sisters?

Marlin did the final rail off the small hand mirror. It had been what? Three days since he slept? Possibly four. There was research to be done.

As the cocaine flowed into his veins, he felt more distant from sleep than ever. More distant from the nightmares of the static-voiced kid, of himself wearing a rubber mask, of the rattling cough that kept getting worse.

A closeup shot of Sunday's face. It's clear this time, but Marlin can't make out the details, somehow. It is warm and flowing with light.

Sunday: Won't you join us, Marlin?

Marlin looks up from the mirror. He lets the remote slide from his hand as he crawls on his knees towards the television set.

Sunday: We love you, Marlin. All of us do. But you have to let us in.

Marlin is in front of the television. Sunday reaches out from the set, his hand glowing glass. He holds forth a small piece of static, no bigger than a gumball. It seems to pulse and shimmer.

With a hunger he didn't know he had, Marlin stuffs the ball in his mouth. Once, when he was a teenager, he had been lost in the woods around Sand Mountain for a week. He had managed to catch a rabbit in a crude snare. Half-remembering some advice from his grandfather, he had eaten its liver first. The taste is the same.

Sunday: We give you all that we are, in bodily sickness and death. So that you may move past yourself and join us here. This is what the sarkic blessing can provide. Complete freedom. Overwhelming love.

Sunday: We love you, Marlin.

Marlin: I love you too.

Marlin started awake. The television set roared with static. This time, though, it felt calm. Sated.

He switched off the TV and went to bed. For the first time in weeks, he dreamt of nothing.

"As you, ah, as you can see from the handouts, CIVIL-TV has seen multiple periods of sustained growth over the past three years," Marlin said. It took all of his concentration to keep from shaking. Cold sweat plastered his shirt to his back.

In front of him sat a conference table's worth of bland men in suits. Opposite Marlin was a large screen TV playing a short informational package.

Yellow numbers across a blue background. The numbers are not technically lying. There had been bumps in subscribers after scandalous or salacious programming had made the news. However, they are carefully selected to avoid showing the numbers as they stagnated or declined between each bump.

One of the investors leaned back in his chair. "Marlin, in all honesty," he said, "if you're not smart enough to make money with porn and murder, why should any of us take a chance with you?"

Marlin nodded for a second or two before answering. "Well, ah, your investment will allow, uhm," he began.

The numbers vanish. Text across black background. The words are all of the colors.

"Let us in."

The words grow larger until they move past the confines of the screen.

None of the investors looked at the screen. Their eyes were fixed on Marlin as he quaked and began to retch.

"Your, uhrm, your investment will allow us to, hm, expand into commercial markets across Europe and Asia, which, ah, is the real, is the real profit center for programming, -gramming like, uhm, CIVIL-TV's."

Marlin leans forward and vomits on the conference table. Thick chunks of dark-red viscera pour from his mouth, connected to his lips with strands of viscous drool. He tries to scream for help, make some motion for the men to save him, but they don't see him as they leaf through the projections.

As they read, they shake their heads and, as one, get up to leave.

Marlin clambered over the table, the slick flesh pulverized beneath his knees and hands. He grabbed the nearest investor by the necktie and pulled the man's face close to his. With a wet growl, he jammed his thumb into the boring man's eye.

For a split second, there was pure stillness as he pulped the investor's eyeball.

Then, the man screamed. And the room exploded.

Shouting, clamoring, wrestling Marlin to the ground. Punches and kicks came from all directions. The weight of one of the chairs slammed onto his neck again and again as the men's blows stopped being about defense and became a frenzy.

Marlin could taste nothing but blood. He animal screams, trying to fight the men off to inflict more violence.

As the shadows crowded his vision, he looked up at the big screen television mounted to the wall.

Marlin stands before the investors, swaying slightly. He looks dazed, his eyes glassy.

One of the investors waved a hand. "For chrissakes," the man muttered, "What a waste of time." He stood up to leave. After a moment, the other investors followed him.

As the last chance for solvency filed out of the room, all Marlin could do was stare at the static of the big screen, watching himself be beaten to death again and again and again.

The next week was an ellipse. Autopilot on old habits that had seen Marlin through the end of his world before. Coke. Booze. Hookers. Pills. Debasing himself, paying others to debase themselves.

It had never made him feel better, but it had at least distracted. Now, though, his mind kept replaying the past month. Sunday, the kid, the video, his own death on tape. Over and over and over again.

He had smashed all three of his televisions. Refused to go out to bars or even liquor stores, just ordered everything delivered. For fear that he might see another screen, see himself bleeding out, laughing with a mouth full of his own blood.

The coughing never stopped. The chills and fever got worse. The two times he had slept, he awoke to find a few more teeth rocking in their gums, ready to be plucked out. The sores had spread and seemed to become infected. He had covered the mirrors in his apartment as well.

Jeanine and Paul had tried to get him to come down to the office, sober up and get things worked out. He had turned them down again and again, spitting every vileness he could compose.

This evening, Vadasz had tried to visit him and talk him down. He said Jeanine and Paul had asked him to visit. Marlin had let him in, but just stared at the freelancer. After a few minutes of awkward stammering, Vadasz had excused himself.

When he left, the freelancer paused at the door. "I'm sorry, Marlin," he said as he shut the door.

The alleyway was dark. Marlin couldn't remember the last three hours at all, but every part of his body hurt. His consciousness had a gloss of some obscure combination of booze and pills.

He tried to lift himself to his feet, only to feel agony bloom in his left arm. With a grunt, he collapsed.

Looking down at his torn sleeve, he saw the wrist bent at an unnatural angle. He gave a stupid laugh.

"Took a lil' fall, I think," he said to the empty alleyway, trying to sound like he was amused. He pushed himself up with his right arm and staggered to his feet.

Lurching towards the street, all Marlin could do was try to remain upright. Perhaps a passing wino would take pity and stab him to death. Otherwise, there was only more to do.

At once, the dark alleyway was awash with a thin blue light. Marlin started and looked at the source. A small portable television, its screen shattered, laid on its side. Inside of it, he could see the scene of his own death once again.

He made it about three yards at a dead sprint towards the mouth of the alley before he tripped. He slammed facefirst into the asphalt.

The taste of blood was overtaken by the sensation of a loose tooth in his mouth. Without thinking, he spat it out, even as his vision still thrummed with pain.

For a moment, he simply laid on the ground. Then, slowly, he opened his eyes. A blue light, but not like the illumination of a television. Something brighter. Purer. More real.

He looked up.

The man is dressed in a simple suit and jacket. Marlin cannot make his face out, but he can feel the man smiling. The hairs on Marlin's arms stand up in the man's presence.

"Hello, Marlin," the man says, "I am Father Sunday. I have been looking for you."

As Marlin hears Father Sunday's voice, all staticky sweet, it's like a door unlocks. He can see Father Sunday's face now. It is not the face of a man. It is beauty and truth and in its infinite radiance, Marlin shrinks before it.

Sunday's face is visible for only a split second, but in that face, he sees the truth that red-faced revivalists and street crazies had grasped at. Once, he did not believe in such things, but now he knows it to be true.

This man, this god, was the way.

Some part of Marlin wanted to hate the thing before him. This thing that had sent him tumbling down to his world of ulcers and lesions and blood tests and doctors looking pensively at results. He wanted to be repelled by its unnatural beauty, by the way it should not exist in a world of schedules and deadlines and content.

But he could only feel warmth, the kind that sheared away flesh and reached to the bone. A deep and abiding love of something simple and pure and for him but shared with thousands or millions. He felt himself transcend his own desiccated and diseased flesh.

Closeup of the face of Father Sunday, veiled in static once more.

Sunday: I love you, Marlin. And for that, you are the one who will spread my word. My love will become known to the whole world through your works.

His voice is warm, but with an underlying electric hiss. The world seems to knit itself together around him.

Marlin tries to respond, to say something, but his voice fails him. He mouths half-formed prayers, silent and bloody, before the light-colored thing before him.

"I- I," he finally managed.

"Freeze, creep!" came a voice. The alleyway was flooded with light. Marlin looked to Father Sunday. The man was gone, along with the blue light of the screen.

An unseen pair of hands grabbed Marlin by the collar and dragged him roughly to his feet. An unexpected billyclub to the midsection knocked the air out of him, making the world bright with pain.

An unseen voice asked, "Is the guy?"

The voice of the hands around his collar responded. "Yeah, at least it looks like him. Under all the crap."

They shoved Marlin against a wall and his world opened into a new bloom of agony as the cuffs snapped around his broken wrists. He waited for them to read him his rights, to say him he's going down. Instead, they shoved him into an unmarked car.

In the car, he got a look at the two men. Both large and interchangeable, dressed in nondescript black suits. He wonders when they try to get him to confess.

One of the men pulled out a blocky cell phone. "Tell 'em we got the POI," he said.

"So, what am I being charged with?" Marlin croaked.

The men didn't respond.

It was a short drive before they stopped in an office in Vine City. They parked in an underground garage and dragged Marlin out.

It suddenly dawned on him that these men aren't police. He felt like he should care, should be surprised, but can't manage it.

A guard in a rent-a-cop suit sat in a small booth just next to a door. Next to the guard was a military rifle. He nodded at the two men and let them through.

Marlin doesn't see this. All of his attention is on the portable television behind the guard.

Ronald Reagan speaks on the television, his words muted by the glass of the guard station. Closeup of his opponent, Mondale. A chyron appears onscreen beneath his head. "Tonight - 8PM. Only on ABN!"

But in the light between the images, Marlin sees something more. He sees Father Sunday looking from behind the glass. Sunday no longer needs to appear before Marlin on the screen for Marlin to see him.

With him, Marlin can feel the gaze of Sunday's saints, all those congregants who dwell in perfection with him. He wants to join them. God, he wants to join them.

Marlin can tell Sunday had not abandoned him. He loved Marlin. And Marlin loved him.

The door slammed shut behind Marlin, but he could still feel Father Sunday's warm glass gaze upon him.

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