The One That’s a Cautionary Episode

Unemployment was having a strange effect on Chase. He couldn’t remember, exactly, what being employed was like. He vaguely recalled better food, more time in an office, the park by his building where he could get really good chili from an illegal vendor on Wednesdays. He remembered the chili better than anything actually – it had quinoa in it, and peanut butter, and tasted so strange that whenever he read sci-fi novels afterwards, he couldn’t help but imagine whatever strange food the book was describing was Mars Attacks! Vegan Chili.

Another strange thing that unemployment was doing: he self-diagnosed himself with light agorophobia. Going out of his apartment (that he was rapidly moving towards being unable to afford) started as a mild annoyance, something that interrupted his marathons of the sci-fi parallel adventure show Sliders on DVD. Then, he stopped liking to take the train down to Chinatown to buy pirated copies of new movies, and he started ordering food from an online service that made it possible to purchase things without talking to anyone.

Without going outside or eating food he made himself, he familiarized himself with the lives of television show characters. Episode after episode of television could slosh over him like a warm tropical wave, and he never felt like anything bad could happen. He never lost his job, he had chosen this life. It was his chosen lot to add, via Amazon and other online big box retailers, huge swaths of television on DVD to his startlingly vast collection. When he finished with the top reviewed television of the most recent decade, he went backwards, starting with comedies and following with drama. He took more comfort from episodes he had seen before, and when he stopped being able to afford new DVDs, he rewatched episodes.

The shows went from warm waves to warm blankets. His stomach grew and seemed to flatten from the plates he rested there. He could watch episodes on mute, saying the lines for the characters, and then he would continue unfinished conversations while the television flickered towards the inevitable credits and production logos.

When he stopped affording outside food, he ordered freeze-dried vegetables and bags of rice and gallons of Kikkoman soy sauce. He turned on a camera to record the episodes to tapes so that he could sell his DVDs, and when he ran out of tapes, he used his old tape recorder to at least preserve the sound. He was finally forced to move, but he sold everything but his tapes and his rice cooker. He moved to a single bedroom in the worst part of town, installed two extra locks, found a television and some lawn furniture in the street and turned his life back on.

While he moved, he was outside for the first time, and he could hardly connect to the scenery around him. There were some great episodes of Scrubs when Dr. Elliot moved, and that classic episode of Friends when Ross was trying to get the sofa up the stairs into his apartment – but it always showed boxes in their old apartment, and then boxes in the new apartment – it seemed like television shows didn’t concern themselves with outside.

The Camdens never moved, and neither did the Brady Bunch. Lucy and Ricky moved and it killed the show. But Lily and Marshall from How I Met Your Mother, Dexter on Dexter, Ryan on the O.C. – they moved. In Ryan’s case, more than once. New shows depended on moving episodes, and old shows devoted themselves to the places they started. He thought he might be able to afford the Leave it to Beaver boxed set, now that he was paying less every month. He could see if the Beaver family ever moved.

One night, his building’s power went out in the middle of the day. His apartment was plunged into icy silence, his warm blanket of television reruns was ripped from him. Suddenly, he realized how thin his walls were, and he listened to the couple across the hall fight about whose turn it was to clean the sink. His next door neighbor was humming to himself, cooking something unappetizing, its fragrance seepingd through the wall, and the person he lived above was crying about something.

Chase turned on his tape recorder and listened to an episode of Frasier, finding solace for his jangled nerves with Dr. Crane’s smooth-as-velvet voice drowning out the horror of this building infested with people. Liz Lemon never heard her building residents in her apartment. Charlie Day only heard cats, which Chase would have liked – he liked Charlie, and always thought he had a folksy charm. Why couldn’t the world be more like television?

When he did finally take walks to make sure his legs didn’t atrophy, he was struck by how ugly everyone was, how plain their language, how unfunny and undramatic. People walked with their heads down, hardly talking to each other on trains, never discussing their private lives in public parks or in stage whispers in the library. Chase walked with his tape recordings of The Office pressed to his ear, picturing Jim’s “ain’t-this-wacky” smile and Creed’s withheld zaniness instead of looking at the world that passed him by.

Chase couldn’t afford his smaller place, so he moved from the apartment to a shelter, stopped qualifying for unemployment and started qualifying for food stamps. He didn’t have to watch the tapes or listen to them anymore, he could just close his eyes and start watching whole seasons worth of Cheers or MASH or Lost. He wondered what it would be like to have a job again. Could he ineffectively sell paper? Work in a lackadaiscal bar? Become a head-in-the-clouds doctor? Run a bowling alley and a law practice? He laughed. He didn’t know, and cared only remotely; he forgot as soon as he closed his eyes.

Why did he need a job? He didn’t want anything. He only needed the backs of his eyelids, his memory. He only needed to watch television.

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