The Shopping Channel
“It’s six times sharper than a standard blade. Look, it can even cut through this old shoe.”
“In just six minutes you can target fat and build muscle. With the Body Fit Pro(TM) you can throw away those expensive gym memberships.”
“Did you know you can get full life insurance coverage for less than the price of your daily cup of coffee?”
The light from the TV changes erratically as Michael clicks his way through the shopping channels. Another typical night spent endlessly clicking, basking in the light of the adverts but never buying. He derives great enjoyment from scoffing at the junk, laughing at the ridiculous demonstrations and shaking his head at the unscrupulous sales people. “What kind of loser buys this stuff?” he thinks to himself as he flips from the Super Blender(TM) to the Eggfriend(TM) to the Ab-master(TM).
On screen, the presenter sidles in between the male and female model pointing out the mechanics of the awkward abdominal machine. The blue suited man pokes the corresponding enhanced anatomy, but the models never once break their strange fake smiles. They just endlessly twist back and forth. The presenter with his slick back hair and fluorescent teeth turns away from the demonstration and looking down the barrel of the camera says: “You certainly could use this at home, Michael.”
Michael’s eyelids peel back and his eyeballs bulge forward. They have his attention.
“Look at you sitting there in a grey hoody covered in chip crumbs, you don’t think you could do with a little daily exercise?” The presenter smirks slightly.
Michael checks himself and indeed he is wearing his faithful grey sweatshirt. In defiance, he flaps the grey jumper like a towel and resting miscellaneous crumbs go flying everywhere.
“Got a few crumbs on the floor? You need the I-clean(TM); the self-guided vacuum. It cleans while you relax!”
Disbelief now galvanises into reality and enough is enough. After a short search, Michael grabs the remote and points it at the screen like a gun.
“Never lose your remote again with the Telebuddy(TM). Conveniently keep all your gadgets in the one place.”
Michael fires the red button. Nothing happens. He presses the off button several more times but the presenter just keeps blathering on. He tries a different channel, a different input and the mute but with no result. In fact, the TV presenter is becoming louder: “CONSTANTLY CHANGING YOUR BATTERIES? THE CHARGE FAST(TM) CAN SAVE YOU HUNDREDS IN REPLACEMENT COSTS. IT COMES IN AA AND AAA.”
Michael's fear outweighs his usual apathy and he attempts to switch the TV off at the point. Yet the presenter still continues. “I REALLY THINK YOU SHOULD BUY ONE OF OUR FANTASTIC PRODUCTS.”
Abandoning all reason in the face of such bizarre circumstances he begins yelling back at the ever upbeat presenter. “THEY’RE ALL CRAP, NOW GET OFF MY TV!!”
The presenter still smiling says “Well I guess nothing can convince you.”
The TV switches itself off. Michael is left standing next to the blank screen and in the middle of a dark room. The adrenaline continues to surge and sweat begins to form on his brow. His apartment is completely silent. He holds his breath in the shock of the instant stillness. Suddenly the quiet is met with two sounds. The water on his brow almost turns to ice as his skin turns cold. His front door creaks open, followed by heavy footsteps.
“Only 6 easy payments of $59.99.”
The TV is alive again, drowning out the noise of the footsteps. Michael peaks around the corner and catches a silhouette in the hallway. The light from the TV is only enough to illuminate edges but in their hand, reflecting most of the light, is the bonus cleaver from the Chef’s Collection(TM).
“If only you had purchased the stainless steel knife set. It’s perfect for slicing through pesky home intruders.”
The tone from the set is measured. Less a taunt, more just a statement of fact. He turns to his bedroom. Thinking if he can just barricade himself inside and call the police he might be fine. At the door, aroused in panic his fingers stiffen, he can’t get a handle on the knob. The footsteps from the hallway are becoming louder against the sound of the presenter. He finally manages to wrap his hands around the handle, but even using all of his strength; he can’t make it budge.
“With the Body Fit Pro(TM) you could’ve had biceps that would’ve ripped right through that door. And in just six minutes a day.”
Desperately he pulls the door back and forth. The violence of his movement is in opposition to the quiet tik tak of the latch bolt against the barrel.
“It’s a real shame you didn’t take up that life insurance. Your loved ones would’ve been protected. Well if you had any.”
Now jittering, Michael slides down the door whilst tears slide down his face. “I’ll take it! I’ll take it all! Please, just let me live!” he screams out to the presenter. In a final attempt to save himself, he extracts his credit card and holds out in front of himself like a protective charm. He opens his eyes. There is no one standing over him, the TV is operating quietly, and his front door is closed.
Michael quietly sits back down on the couch and studies the advert for some sign of irregularity. Maybe it was just too much MSG in the Chinese, he thinks. The phone number continues to flash enticingly for the Ab-master(TM). Well, it couldn’t hurt to try and lose a few, he convinces himself. He picks up the phone and places an order through a kind lady on the other end of the line. The slick presenter suddenly stops his demonstration and catches him eye to eye.
“That was the right choice Michael.”
Michael’s stomach lurches so tight he won’t need his new Ab-master(TM) for at least a month.
All yours for just 16 raised digits
Remember time sensitive
Tick tick tick
Tuesday shoe day
Christmas must haves
On and on
Glass in hand
Struggling to pay minimum monthly
Harry glanced sideways at her in the mirror, then up at the clock, it reads 14:32, the makeup girl continues daubing pancake across his forehead as he does, “I`m on in thirty,” he says, “can`t it wait?”
Suzy shrugs, “Marie says he wants to see you ASAP;” she disappears before he tries to argue with her.
“We`ll have to finish when I get back Babs.” He sighs, then thinks, not another bloody pep talk.
Barbara reaches to remove the tissues poking from the collar of his shirt and he bats her hands away, “Leave them,” he snaps, sees the hurt look on her face and says, “Sorry Babs, I`m having a bad day.”
Bad day, he thinks, try bad year, make that three bad years. He takes the toupee from the manikin head, carefully arranging it to cover the bald crown of his head, Barbara helps him tease it into place, “Thanks Babs,” he says, “be right back, so don’t you go changing presenters on me?” this brings a smile to her face.
He breezes past Marie, the station manager`s secretary with a quick “Hello,” knocks thrice on the door, then, with the familiarity of decades opens it before he`s bade enter. “You wanted to see me Massa....” he starts, the smile on his face evaporating as he senses tension in the air.
Alan is standing by one of the windows, hands clasped behind his back, staring out into the staff car-park, heat shimmering off the cars as they bake under the Florida sun. “Alan?” the word is filled with anxiety, some intuition telling him why he`s been summoned, “Alan, everything okay?” he hears the plaintive note in his voice, is disgusted by it.
On a muted T.V. Melissa is doing her, Oh my God I don’t believe it, routine.
“Sit down Harry,” his friend of more than thirty years says; he still hasn’t turned around.
Harry, “I`ll stand if it`s all the same to you?”
Finally Alan turns, he looks like he`s aged a decade since Harry`d seen him less than two hours ago, he says nothing, not wanting to be the one to start this unavoidable conversation.
“Say it aint so Alan?” Harry says, forcing a smile onto his lips, "Say it aint so?" In times of crisis he always retreats to jocularity as a defence mechanism, still Alan says nothing.
The silence overwhelms him and Harry blurts, “Christ Alan, I`m hitting my targets, aren’t I hitting my targets?” the pleading note in his voice grates in his own ears.
“Targets are for newbs Harry, you know that. You should be doing double, triple even; corporate aren’t happy.”
“Fuck corporate, we were up eighteen percent in the last quarter, what do they want blood?”
“They were expecting twenty five,” Alan said.
Harry gaped at him, “And I`m the sacrificial lamb am I? Because we didn’t hit twenty five, fuck em Alan, fuck them, what do they know; have they ever tried selling in a recession? They don’t know shit.”
“You`re underperforming,” Alan said, “You should be doing triple the sales you`re making and you know it.”
“Then give me something I can sell,” the whine is back in his voice, he tries to eliminate it, he fails. Harry gestures at the T.V. Mark, a handsome thirty five year old, is feeding vegetables into a blender, Melissa goggling in silent amazement. “Give me the Nutribullet,” he says, “I`ll sell the shit out of that, you know I will?”
“I can`t give it to you,” Alan says, “corporate would can you`n me both if I did.”
“Well how am I supposed to triple my targets when all you`ll give me is shit to sell, brass fucking Buddha’s, hello kitty dolls, how am I supposed to sell that crap to geriatrics, huh, tell me that? It can`t be done, gimme something I can sell.”
A treacherous memory surfaces; Joe Wiseman, old moanin Joe they used to call him; sitting at the far end of a bar, the day he got fired, bitching that it was all because they wouldn’t give him anything good to sell. “All they give me is crap; crap, crap and more crap,” he`d whined.
He remembered Alan snickering as he`d leaned towards him, remembered himself saying in a voice loud enough for everyone in the bar to hear, “There aint no such thing as shit merchandise, only shit salesmen,” the rest of the bar laughing loudly at his witty observation.
They found Joe`s body three days later in a motel north of Tallahassee, just off the I10, he`d washed down a jumbo pack of painkillers with two bottles of bourbon, at least it`d been the good kind.
Someone had quipped at the funeral, “At least he didn’t skimp on his last meal,” this`d raised a nervous chuckle from everyone. Had he felt sorry when he`d heard the news? He couldn’t remember, though he didn’t think he had; but now?
“I`m sorry Harry, I`ve got no choice, corporate is leaning on me.”
“No choice?” he snarled, angry now, “No choice? I built this place. It was nothing before we got here, you and me we made it what it is, or have you forgotten? This was a miserable little cable station twenty five years ago. He thumped his chest, “If it wasn’t for me it`d still be a dump, I put my soul into this place, and now, now I`m being thrown on the scrapheap, why? because I had a few bad months? Did you even try, did you; or are you just a corporate shill now, what`s the going rate for thirty pieces of silver these days, old friend, old buddy?”
He saw the injured look on his friends face, “A few bad months?” Alan said in a quiet voice, “Try a few bad years, your sales have been on the slide for almost four years, shit Toby`s outselling you, Toby for Christ’s sake. You think I haven’t been covering your ass, is that what you think? They wanted you canned six months ago, I said to them, Harry`s a good salesman, the old broads love him, he`ll turn it around, you`ll see; but you never did, you`ve left me no choice,” he pressed a button on his intercom, “send em in.”
As the door clicked open behind him, Harry felt lightheaded, his knees buckled slightly, and for a moment he thought he might collapse, but he pulled himself together, knowing what he`d see even before he turned around.
Two uniformed security guards stood in the doorway, they weren’t the handsome body-builder types you see in movies, just ordinary men, but younger and stronger than Harry; one of them, his name tag said Chris, grabbed him by the elbow.
“Get your fucking hands off me,” Harry snapped, jerking his arm free, “ I knew my way around this dump long before you dribbled out of your old man`s limp cock.”
The security guards looked enquiringly at Alan, who flapped a `Leave him` signal, with the fingers of one hand.
“Harry I`m sorry…”
Harry turned, “Fuck you Alan, fuck you, fuck corporate, fuck this shithole, I`m done with this place. I`m going on to better things, you`ll see, I`ll bury this fucking place,” and breathing hard, he whirled, stalking out of the office, security in tow.
Head up, he stormed past Marie without acknowledging her, one of the security men grabbing a box for Harry`s effects off her desk as they passed. Harry stoked his anger, feeding off it, wanted to be seen storming out, preferably punching walls as he went; not like Gary, fucking Gary, weeping like an emotionally incontinent teenager who`d just been stood up on her first date.
He would have succeeded, would have kept it together, if he hadn’t bumped into Suzy as she left the production office. “Oh sorry,” she said as they collided, her eyelids puffy and red, and when she saw who she`d bumped into, more tears welled in her eyes, turning them glassy as she clutched at his arm, “Oh Harry,” she said, “I`m so sorry.”