The Five Trillion Faces of Television
Television had arms and legs and a flat bright face capable of putting out any combination of three hundred seven thousand, two hundred pixels. Each pixel had the potential to be any of sixteen million, five-hundred eighty-one thousand, three hundred seventy-five colors, sixty times a second.
(His old friend Calculator, always making useless observations, would have told him that the number of possible faces Television could make was five trillion, ninety-three billion, seven hundred ninety-eight million, four hundred thousand in total--but Calculator was dead. Trampled by a stampede of gazelles the previous summer.)
The men in Television's family had a problem nobody could solve. They kept themselves inside and when they had to get through doorways they turned sideways. Some of the unluckier of them, like his oldest brother Peter, spent all day faces to the ground, unable to move.
Television was lucky.
Television’s head was just right, and though he felt guilty for his high-definition deficiency, he was grateful his head was light enough to keep on his shoulders. People would kill for a face like his. He could show any image, reduced to a native resolution of six hundred forty by four eighty, in full color. If he’d done any thinking about what a blessing this was, he might have become a rich and powerful man. Instead, Television took what life gave him. He made tenuous connections, like with his coworkers at the storage building. He engaged in terse conversation with a woman called Lamp who worked the register at Capital Video.
The face he most often made was a neutral gray, same as when he slept. He slept most nights, it was cheaper than going out and he saved on electricity. When Television slept, he dreamed of many events - foremost of which seemed always to be making it with Lamp, even though the only time he felt attracted to her was in the dream. When he saw her at the video store, with her knobby knees and ovoid wooden chest, he found himself wanting to display a picture of disgust (the one he’d chosen was of an old and warty looking toaster man who had two fingers down his bread-slots, chrome glistening with tears) but he looked away, pretending he’d done so because her face gave off too many Watts.
When he came home from Capital Video, he slid the tape into his slot and sat wonderingly as his face made hundreds of thousands of wondrous images in a row. He forgot about his strange dream-lust for Lamp, and the way his subconscious seemed intent on viewing her plug. After the video had played through, and his face was numb with static and glowing dully in the dark, Television lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, where the ghosts of his faces danced. Then he would fall asleep, and this was when he dreamed of the perfect combination.
The perfect combination.
In the dream, he understood everything about it - there was one face he could make in any situation that would help him achieve the desired outcome. One combination of color, of pixels in or out of order.
It wasn’t something he understood while conscious, because when he woke up his head was all muzzy and there was still a static charge built up between his speaker and his buttons that would shock him when he adjusted his antenna. By then he had forgotten all about it. If he had managed to remember his dreams about the perfect combination, it’s possible that he would have messed around trying to find it, and might have been doing that instead of going to the Post Office on Thursday afternoon.
He went there to mail a letter to the woman of his dreams, a beautiful big-bodied black nymphette named Refrigerator. He wasn’t sure what kind of love letters Refrigerator liked, because she’d never responded to his previous attempts. Television wasn’t even sure she remembered him from high school, but he had a good feeling about this next letter. Here is what it said:
“My dearest Refrigerator, I hope this letter finds you well and in good health. Since my last letter I've been lucky. On Monday I woke up and found a newspaper on my doorstep, even though I don’t get the newspaper. The Sun Times.The day before I had been downtown and encountered a tall blender-headed man wearing a full-bodied bib yelling, ‘Sun Time! Sun Time! Sun Time man, Sun Time son!’ and I considered giving him the fifty cents for a copy. Lucky that I did not! On Tuesday my gas was supposed to be shut off, but they must not have noticed, because it wasn’t until last night that I ran out of hot oil. I think the luckiest I’ve been so far is me right now, writing these words. I imagine you reading them, smiling, perhaps even giving your expansion valve a quick tickle. But I am not writing to be presumptuous.
I am writing, my glad lass, because today I love you. Again.
On the back of the single sheet of triple-folded paper inside of the envelope was a list of the ways Television had been lucky since his last letter. The last item on the list was, ‘Lucky to mail this letter to such a splendid gal.’
And so Television walked to the Post Office, which was full of men in business suits who all seemed to have some variation of facsimile device resting on their shoulders. Television didn’t get along well with these types, so he kept to the back of the line and tried not to display any of his dislike faces. He held his letter between thumb and forefinger. There was a box to drop it in, but he needed a stamp, and only had a plastic card to pay with instead of the coins he needed for the stamp machine. He didn’t like putting coins in the machine anyway.
It made him feel dirty.
He was waiting like this when the door busted open and a thick muscular sort of man came through, waving what looked like a gun in the air. His head was an elongated radio with two large speakers on either side.
“GET ON THE FLOOR AND PUT YOUR MONEY ON THE COUNTER,” the man with the boombox face boomed. His speakers pulsed behind the pantyhose. He had no screen, and Television supposed having one way to look had forced the man to adopt the personality others must always have assumed he had. Rather sad. The other people in the post office began to drop, trying to comply with the boombox’s nonsensical demands. They started pulling money from their pockets.
Television stood. He wasn’t sure what he thought about the situation, except for that he was slightly annoyed that he might not get to mail the letter.
“Do you mean, instead,” his speakers pulsed, “That we should put our money on the counter and then get on the floor?”
The robber seemed confused, and stepped forward as if to strike Television, so Television sat down. The robber looked to the others.
“DO WHAT HE SAID. GET UP SLOW AND PUT YOUR MONEY ON THE COUNTER. THEN GET DOWN AND PUT YOUR HANDS BEHIND YOUR BACK WHERE I CAN SEE THEM.”
Television got up again. He was the only one standing, and the robber turned toward him.
The facsimile men pleaded with Television with their hands for him to sit down, but they didn't understand. Television had to mail a letter, and if he couldn't do it today? He would have to wait another whole day. Postal employees had the rest of the day off after a robbery, didn’t they? What if he kept getting lucky? He could see himself opening the envelope and rewriting it all to include the day’s events. Maybe if he could get a stamp and drop it in the blue box before the mail truck left.
“Excuse me,” Television pulsed at the robber, “Do you have a stamp? I need a stamp for this letter.”
The robber backed away, still waving his pistol.
“YOU THERE, WITH THE GLOWING FACE. STOP TALKING TO ME. I HAVE THE GUN. NO STAMP.”
Television displayed consternation (which was a repeating loop of film that showed a microwave-headed man finding himself at a path's forked junction and raising his arms to grasp the sides of his head in mock horror), and took a step forward.
“Sir, since you have the gun and hold the power over us, could you ask and see if anyone else here has a stamp I could borrow?” The robber shook his head, his angry expression made one of incredulity by its movement.
“SOMEONE WITH A STAMP, GIVE THIS MAN A STAMP SO HE WILL SHUT UP. THEN PUT YOUR MONEY ON THE COUNTER AND GET BACK ON THE GROUND.”
Before he could move, the facsimile men were stuffing stamps into Television’s hand, all kinds. They rattled the phones on their heads and made their buttons buzz. Some shot heated paper bits with writing on them into the air. “Please don’t shoot,” printed on some, on others, “I have a job.” Television thought if any of the men had families, they'd have printed that instead.
The men shuffled toward the counter and started dumping piles of cash and coins there. The postal workers did the same, calling back for more when the collection appeared meager. Mail bags were brought forward, envelopes ripped open. Money rained down.
Television stood where he was. The robber turned to Television, motioning with his gun that he’d like him to go to the counter and drop some money, like the rest of the people had.
Television's face became an embarrassing ensemble of humorous mishaps culled from a video of bloopers.
“Oh, this is awkward, since I never carry cash.” He pulled out the plastic card, which made the boom box man jump, and held it out. “I only debit. I can tell you my PIN number so you can get to my bank account. I think there’s fourteen or fifteen dollars in there.”
The robber seemed to spend more time thinking. Then he waved his gun dismissively.
“KEEP THE CARD.”
Television put it back into his pocket. The others had gotten back onto the floor, and were crossing their arms behind their backs. The robber stepped forward and collected his bags of money. These he put by the door. Then he turned back to the shuddering mass and Television.
“I’M GOING TO KILL ONE OF YOU BEFORE I GO, SO THAT NEXT TIME I COME HERE I GET THE RESPECT I DESERVE. DOES ANY OF YOU WANT TO VOLUNTEER?”
None of the other men raised a hand, and neither did Television. What was working against him was the fact that he had never sat back down. The robber walked over to him and put the gun to his screen.
“HOW NICE OF YOU,” the boombox boomed.
The barrel of the gun touched Television’s glass and he felt it make a scratch. He almost protested, but then he realized something. Something that seemed important, even in relation to the fact that he hadn’t yet chosen even one of the stamps in his hand to peel off and stick onto his envelope to Refrigerator.
The realization was this: he was about to die.
The faces he made then were random, a compilation of all those faces he was saving up to use someday. A small mixer-headed girl on a swing set. A tree knocked down and sawed apart. Seven men jumping in the air all at the same time. A box with a latch on it. While he made these faces his mind tried to bring him back to his dream about the perfect combination, and being so flustered as he was with the realization that his letter might not get to Refrigerator and that even if it did he would be dead and couldn’t enjoy her assumed reception of it, he listened to what it said.
Here is what Television’s mind said: “There is a combination of pixels so perfect that will make this man want to keep us alive instead of killing us.” Since he’d never spent time trying to concoct the perfect combination, he was in a bad place. He’d have to throw something together, and hope.
“Would you wait one moment, sir?”
The robber cocked his gun. Television peeled a stamp apart. He affixed it to the corner of the envelope addressed to Refrigerator, all the while imagining different combinations of pixels. He chose one as the man was about to pull the trigger.
“I’M ABOUT TO PULL THE TRIGGER.” The robber's booming was hard to hear over the clacking and chattering of phones in carriages and buttons from the facsimile-headed men.
Television made a face - a woman’s torso, naked except for a pair of bright pink underwear.
“If you delay your putting a hole in my head,” Television said, “I can give you a peek at what goes on beneath the underwear.”
He was stalling, had in fact not been able to come up with any combination of pixels he would have considered perfect. This seemed to be working, but an even bigger problem loomed. The robber stepped back.
“YES I WOULD LIKE TO SEE UNDER THE PANTS.”
The bigger problem was this: Television didn’t know what went on beneath the underwear. He’d never been lucky enough to catch a glimpse of it. On his face, the underwear came off, but instead of whatever the robber had been expecting was a large blurry ball. “If you delay your putting a hole in my head for a little longer, I will unblur the ball.” The robber nodded.
“YES UNBLUR THE BALL I WANT TO SEE HER PLUG.”
Television considered. He could, perhaps, buy himself a little more time to make sure the perfect combination was extra perfect. He unblurred the ball. He displayed what he’d always imagined the female genitalia to look like, and waited. If he could delay the boombox-headed man a few seconds before he showed the perfect combination...
The robber paused, as if fogged with arousal, and then brought up the gun.
Television’s face shot outward, covering the robber in shards of glass and drops of color. The heads of the facsimile men rang shrilly and panicked, they reached to answer their own calls. Television fell to his knees.
As he died, he thought again of rewriting the letter. Instead of adding to all the lucky bits, he would tear it up and start new.
The new letter, the one Television would never write, went like this: “My dearest Refrigerator, I hope this finds you well. Regrettable that I won’t be able to join you for our first date. You see, my darling, I made it look too much like a squid.”