Possessed by the Remote
and assailed by wandering thoughts sustained by imaginary flights
by Richard Rupnarain
Guyana Journal, July 2007
Mrs. Fazila Rahman was one of those women who, convinced that TV wasted valuable time and contributed nothing positive to the development of people, stayed as far away as possible from the tube. Her belief in the deleterious effects of TV had to do more with the fact that she was a social worker and much of her work centered on dealing with cases of violent behavior, in both adults and children alike, deviations she believed had a direct correlation to the television viewing habits of dysfunctional families. And she had the statistics and experience to support her case.
She would tell you, without reference to notes, and with a plethora of readily available references, that before children start their schooling they will have seen an average of eighty thousand murders and a hundred thousand sundry acts of violence. She will quote instances to prove that children and young adults have the tendency to imitate what they see on television and when parents point out that they allow their children to watch only cartoons she would she would raise her eyebrows and shake her hand with a finger pointing upward, and say, Oh no! Cartoons are not innocuous; they bombard children with a higher percentage of violence than prime time shows; make them less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others; and more fearful of the world around them. Her exclamation point was always the threat of juvenile delinquency. The people who spend valuable time watching these shows, she would say, are more likely to bring harm to others and therefore more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for criminal acts as adults.
Mrs. Rahman also had a statistic to decry everything she had an aversion to, including violent music lyrics and video games. When parents attempt to defend themselves by saying that they monitor their childrens viewing habits and allow them to play video games only she is always quick to point out that video games may be more harmful than violent television because they are interactive, very engrossing, and that they require the player to identify with the aggressor. She would also quote studies to show how violent lyrics increased aggression-related thoughts and emotions in listeners.
Mrs. Rahmans crusade against violence on TV took to new heights one windy Saturday night in July after she had seen her children safely tucked into bed. Her husband had been away on work related assignment and as her custom was, she would tuck the children in and then retire to her washroom to get ready for bed. Her pre-sleep routine was the same since she became a mother, and she stuck to it steadfastly, with cultic legalism, as if any deviation would bring about some troubling results. She would swab her arms, legs and face with a damp rag or if she felt real sweaty she would take a shower. Then she would begin the routine of rubbing skin cream into her pores and then aggressively brushing the knots out of her hair as though she was getting ready for an important engagement. After that she would retire for a few minutes to her desk to pay any outstanding bills and to review her appointment book. That completed she would grab a novel, lie propped up in her side of the bed with the covers up to her waist and in that position she would read until she was overpowered by slumber.
That Saturday night she grabbed a psychological thriller and strained to keep her eyes opened in the book. For one thing her husband was away and she wanted to make sure she was up until she saw her childrens bedroom lights go off. But the real reason she tried to delay sleeping until she could no longer stay awake was because she was a little bit afraid of being alone.
The Rahmans had recently moved into the neighborhood, a new development with single-family brick houses, and during the past week they had received several phone calls advising them to be careful because there had been a spate of burglaries in their sub-division. Evidently the calls were made to the other residents as well because many of them had the decorative glass door replaced with all-wooden doors to prevent anyone from peeking inside the house. The more fearful of the newcomers had steel bars installed over the basement windows and the affluent had already signed up for burglar alarms and 24-hour monitoring service. The Rahmans did not go for the alarm system even though the equipment and installation was free and they were only being charged for the monitoring service. The reason for their apprehension was that they felt the alarm company was using deceitful practices in order to sell their product. The very day they moved into their new home they received a visit from a rough looking and stout white man with week-old stubble on his chin. The man literally forced his way into the house and kept looking around, specifically at the windows, perhaps to see if any other alarm salesman had beaten him to the house, and having not seen any wires or sensors connected to the windows and doors he hastily introduced himself as an alarm salesman and began to inform them of a series of burglaries that took place recently in the neighborhood. Mister Rahman had asked him how he knew about the burglaries and he said he kept in touch with the regional police. Convinced that the salesman was a charlatan who preyed on the gullibility of the new residents and also not wanting to get into any contract based on dubious information, Mister Rahman explained that they had just moved in a week ago and that they had much more urgent things to take care and that in time they would consider an alarm but not right away. The salesman made them feel that they were making a terrible mistake to ignore the safety of their home and family, after being warned, and that he hoped they would not suffer the fate of the other newcomers. This made Fazila anxious and at that point she would have signed the papers if she had her way, but Mr. Rahman knew it was a sales ploy and summarily dismissed the salesman. From the very next day the Rahmans would come home from work only to be greeted with fearful messages of burglaries and rapes stacked on their answering machine. The gentle female voice that left the messages gave only brief information on the break-ins and she left a number to call if anyone wanted more information. Mister Rahman decided to call the number and his skepticism was confirmed when he got an answering service. When he checked with the regional police if the stated cases were reported they told him they had logged no such reports.
Still, having moved into a newly developed sub-division, where neighbors were still strangers, and where a community atmosphere was still in its infancy, Fazila Rahman preferred to have her husband at home, especially during the night. This was the first time that he had been away since they moved into their new home, and it felt different, scarier, more disconcerting than any other time. There were sounds to which she was not yet accustomed, some scary, like the ventilation flaps that kept slapping against duct housings, and creaking sounds, like someone walking inside a house with loose flooring (these later turned out to be the sounds of expanding joints and popping nails). There was the constantly gusting wind that blew unhindered, there being no trees as yet, and which howled menacingly as it moved in and out of pockets between the red brick houses. There was the unfamiliar sound of dogs not barking, something to which she was accustomed to in her old neighborhood and while annoying it made her feel safe to know someone or something was keeping watch. But here most if not all the families she had seen so far were young couples starting out and for whom cats and dogs were either luxuries or responsibilities they could do without at this stage of their lives.
To allay her fears Fazila kept the outside lights on and had sensor lights installed above the front and rear doors. She even pushed a chair up under the front door lock and fastened a piece of 2x2 pine into the tracks of the rear sliding door for reinforcement.
It was approaching midnight and her eyes were becoming heavy. She dropped the novel to the side of the bed, turned off the bedroom lights and dragged her way to the front windows for a final look at the neighborhood. The streets were empty. And dark. The utility company had not yet switched on the streetlights. And in the absence of trees and grass and fixtures on lawns such as statues and fountains and planters, that comes with time, the neighborhood seemed bare, almost like a ghost town. A gentle breeze was sweeping bits and pieces of garbage along the street and Fazila almost expected to see a ball of tumbleweed to come rolling across the street just like it always does in creepy movies. She made her way to the windows at the rear of the bedroom and drew the curtains. She was a bit disconcerted that the builders had not installed fencing as part of the cost of the property and that strangers, supposedly construction workers, were traversing the area between the houses frequently as though it was a public thoroughfare. But all was quiet and she, assured that everything was in good order so far as her eyes and ears could tell, returned to her bed, kicked off her slippers, and pulled the covers over her head, leaving just a peephole to allow her to breathe and to see the door. She had always felt uneasy to sleep with her back towards a door, and besides if anyone were to come in she wanted to be in a state of alacrity. She reached up and turned off the nightlights and within seconds was fast asleep.
Her welcome slumber did not last for long. She could not say for how long she had fallen asleep because she did not want to turn over to see the digital clock on the nightstand behind her. But judging from her state of drowsiness she figured she might have just fallen into a deep sleep when she was aroused by a strange, guttural voice that said in a Clint Eastwood kind of drawl, Dont move or Ill shoot! Fear gripped her as never before and her mind simply went blank. She did not hear anything else, not that the voice did not say anything else, but just that she had gone into a state of mild shock and had regressed into that little girl who when scared would run under her bed and hide. At first she thought it was a dream. Then she opened her eyes, slowly, just barely, and when she saw a strange bluish light had invaded her bedroom, she closed her eyes tighter and beads of cold sweat began to form all over her body. Someone or something was in the room; but who?
She had been in a similar position to this once before in her life. It was the day after her best friends uncle had been killed in an accident in Guyana when a Defence Force truck T-boned his car. She had just moved to Toronto at the time of the accident and was staying with a friend of her aunt, whom she called Auntie, in her apartment in Markham. The night after the accident victim was pronounced dead, having suffered irreparable internal organ damage. Several broken ribs had punctured his lungs. That night, unaware that the man had died, she had gotten up from her bed for a glass of water and just as she was about to enter the kitchen she noticed that a glow was coming from the kitchen. It was not the glow from the nightlight, which dispersed a dull yellow hue, but a strange looking bluish sort of radiance. She had slowed her approach and then stopped dead in her tracks when she heard the creaking sound of a rocking chair coming from the vicinity of the kitchen. She turned around and looked at the spot in the living room where the old rocking chair was normally stationed and noticed it was not there. But who could have moved it? Maybe her aunt had gotten up and went for a cup of tea, something she was wont to do whenever insomnia attacked.
Auntie Bibi, she had called out. Is that you in the kitchen? There was no answer.
Are you ok? There was no answer. The rocking sound had begun again. The hairs on her body began to stand straight and she felt goose pimples popping up over her arms and legs. Suddenly the place felt cold. But she had gone too far to turn back. The adrenaline pumped and she took a bold step into the doorway of the kitchen and there she saw him the man who had died. She didnt know he was dead.
Uncle Rahim? she asked. There was no answer, just a smile.
How did you get here? There was no answer again, just another smile.
We heard you were in an accident in Guyana. Obviously it wasnt you. No answer.
Uncle Rahim! Uncle Rahim!
Then she realized that this man was an apparition. Even if it was uncle Rahim, how did he get here and how come he was in pajamas and bedroom slippers, ready for bed? She ran straight for her aunts bedroom and barged in without knocking.
Auntie Bibi, there is a man in the kitchen! she cried.
Auntie Bibi wiped her eyes and upon processing what she just heard she sprung up like a cobra about to strike.
A man? Who? Where? She jumped out of bed and pulled on her robe.
In the kitchen. Listen!
Listen for what?
The rocking chair! He is sitting in the rocking chair, smiling and rocking.
I dont hear any sound.
The sound had stopped.
Come, I saw him. I was going into the kitchen for a glass of water and I heard this rocking sound, then I saw him sitting in the rocking chair.
They walked up side-by-side, arms locked, cautiously, towards the kitchen. The rocking had stopped and in fact there was no rocking chair in the kitchen.
Girl, you just had a bad dream, Auntie Bibi whispered. Look, the rocking chair is right where it always is, right next to the sofa. Come let me make you a cup of warm milk. That will help you to sleep.
Fazila was sure that her eyes did not deceive her but on the other hand she knew it was impossible to prove what she saw and so she drank the glass of milk and returned to her bedroom and she fell asleep amid swirling thoughts of demons and hallucinations.
When news of the mans death reached them by telephone the next morning and when Fazila asked when it was that the man had passed away and was told that it was about 11 p.m. she became convinced that it was in fact the same man who had come to visit the night before. It made her feel brave enough to remind her aunt about the incident the night before and to see a possible connection.
What connection? her aunt asked.
Well, he died at about eleven and it was just before midnight that I went into the kitchen and saw him, she replied.
Are you saying you saw his spirit?
It must be something like that because I wasnt thinking about him. I dont know him well and I did not know he had died minutes before. And when I kept asking him questions he just smiled.
I guess he just wanted to say he was okay wherever he had gone to.
I dont know. Why did he choose to appear to me?
Why did he come to Toronto? He had never been here before. And how did he know where we lived? And why was he dressed in pajamas?
I dont know, auntie. All I know is that I am scared.
Look, you can sleep in my bedroom.
Up until that time Fazila had but nary an interest in subjects like ghosts and the afterlife. But after that incident she had done some research and assembled information that served little purpose other than making her more afraid. As she would later admit, prior to that confrontation with the person in the kitchen she was afraid only of humans. But now she had another category to compound her fears ghosts.
From her research she had learned, from a famous encyclopedia, that a ghost was deemed to be the soul or specter of a dead person who was believed to have inhabited the netherworld and was capable of returning to earth in some form. The incarnation may take the form of a living person or a vague likeness of the deceased. She also learned that many of the dead works she attended as a child were done to prevent the dead from coming back to haunt the living. This haunting resulted more from the dead feeling deserted by its friends or family or from the contemplation that its life was fruitless and meaningless. If the persons died a painful death, as in an accident, they tended to be more accepting of their fate than if they died unexpectedly, as in youth or in their sleep without having any symptoms of any illness. Those who died young and unexpectedly were in a state of confusion and some did not even know their bodies had died. Some appeared to be lost and so they clung to someone familiar. Others were often in a state of delusion, thinking that at any moment they will wake up and say they are waiting for something to happen or they are waiting on someone.
That was then, almost nine years since the apparition had appeared, and she had all but forgotten about the incident. But now something was emanating the same kind of bluish glow in her room. Was it the same uncle who died? If so, what does he want with her? And why would he want to shoot her? She came momentarily to her senses and realized the voice had stopped speaking. Why wasnt he saying anything else? She also noticed that the bluish light was no more. Where was he? Had he gone over to her childrens rooms? What should she do?
She was sweating drops and soon the mattress beneath her was soaked and began to feel cold to the touch. This made her worry even more. She had done her baccalaureate in social sciences and had taken some minor psychology courses and strangely, all the things she had learned about fear and anxiety came back to her in a flash. She remembered learning about the profound effects thoughts could have on the biochemistry of the body and mind. She had read of cases where people died in their sleep out of fear or even from a horrible nightmare. She was aware that uncontrolled fear could drive up very high levels of adrenaline in her blood stream and cause her to have a heart attack. And she had personally witnessed how fear and depressing emotions caused constrictions or contractions in some of her cases.
She could not allow fear to get the better of her. She had a responsibility for the protection of her children and preferred to know that she died protecting them. After all, what would society think of her if they read the news of a woman who was asleep while her children were being murdered? She tugged at the sheet to expand her periphery and she opened her eyelids a tenth of a millimeter, enough for a clearer look at her surroundings. There was no one in direct line of sight and she shifted for a panoramic view. No one was there. She looked at the television set. It was off and appeared to be in the exact same position as it always was. She looked behind her. There was no one. The door was cracked just as she left it. She jumped up, turned on all the lights and opened the door swiftly, like detectives would do to surprise their suspects, and barged out shouting, Whos there! No one answered. She raced for her childrens bedrooms. They were sound asleep. She pulled the covers from them to make sure they were not stabbed and after she was assured they were alive and well she closed the doors and made her way cautiously down the stairs. From atop the stairs she noticed the front door was still locked and that the chair was still braced against the door. If an intruder had come in it could not have been through the front door. She flipped the light switch on and the living room came to life. Nothing appeared to have been moved. There were no footprints on the recently cleaned laminate flooring. She moved stealthily to the laundry room and then she opened the door to the garage. No one was there. She grabbed a 3-iron from an old golf set her husband had left in the garage and went down into the basement. Maybe the intruder entered through a basement window. One of the windows had a casing large enough to allow an average built person to squeeze through. She flipped the light switch on and heard no sound so she went down and straightaway cast her glance at the window. It was locked and the little blind was fully drawn. After prowling around and satisfying herself that everything was intact she went back to the main floor and examined the rear door. The 2x2 pine was still firmly embedded in the sliding door tracks. Then she began to get really worried. She had heard the voice of a man threatening to shoot her if she moved. She had seen the glow of light in her room. Was she going crazy? Was she imagining things? Fear has a way of playing tricks on the mind. Was she, in the absence of her husband, bringing to life imaginary fears?
Relieved but confused, she returned to her bedroom and to her book. But she could not concentrate on the book. So she decided to see what was on the television. She reached over to her husbands nightstand where he kept the remote. It was not there. She looked at the floor to see if it had fallen but it was not here. She checked under the skirting of the bed. No luck. She got up from the bed and checked around but could not find it. She returned to her bed and immediately felt something hard against her ankle. It was the remote control. It was caught between the two teddy bears that sat guard at the bottom end of the mattress. She figured one of the kids must have been watching television on her bed and had left it on the bed sheet and when she came and pulled the covers over her it must have slid to the foot of the bed. She pressed the power button on. The light flashed and soon a bluish hue came into the room. The channel was set at WTBS where an old black and white Western was playing. The movie appeared to be near the end because she saw two gunslingers squaring off against each other in the dusty street of an old gold-mining town. The one backing her said, Say yer prayers before I send ya to Boothill, sheriff. The other one, presumably the sheriff, squinted his eyes, whether to avoid the glare of a brilliant sunshine or to keep the blowing dust out, it was hard to say. The sheriff did not respond. They slapped leather and no one appeared to have been hit. But the sheriffs gun was smoking. Presently, the lawbreaker smiled, coughed once, his eyes rapidly turning glassy, and he began to crumple like an empty duffel bag, the unprocessed darkish brown juices from chewed tobacco leaking from the sides of his mouth and blood oozing from his chest as the gun fell from his lifeless fingers. Then the sheriff spoke. Take him away and bury him behind Lawsons plot, he ordered his deputy. Some retired gunslingers crawled out from their hiding places to assist the deputy.
It then occurred to Fazila that she had heard that voice before. It was the sheriffs voice. It was the same voice that had sent her into terror an hour earlier. The credits began to roll and so did her powers of reason. Half an hour later she had solved the mystery. She must have accidentally depressed the power switch on the remote control and turned the TV on. Then her feet must have depressed it later, after the sheriff had said, Dont move or I will shoot! To prove her theory conclusively, and to allay her fears about superstitions and such like things, she went over to her daughters room and woke her up.
Honey she said, sorry to bother you, but tell me, were you watching TV in my room?
Am, she replied, clearly annoyed that she was being roused to answer such a stupid question, yes, I always watch TV from your bed when I am done with my homework.
Tell me, do you remember what you were watching last?
I dont remember. Oh, yes, it was Shawshank Redemption.
What channel was it on, do you remember?
WTBS. Mom, please, cant this wait, I want to sleep.
Okay honey, thats all, you go back to bed.
She breathed a sigh of relief. She wasnt crazy after all. It wasnt an intruder, human or ghost, it was a movie star, on TV. Darn TV, she muttered in disgust. She returned to her bed, it still being too early to rise, but she kept the lights on, just in case, and that night, with fear giving way to anger, she renewed her resolve to step up the campaign against TV-violence.