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It starts with a man walking back from the kitchen to his couch, a bowl of dry cereal in his hand, his other hand in the bowl, fingering out a bite or two. It’s not that he doesn’t have milk, just that he could hear the opening credits—his own sultry sly voice—and suddenly didn’t have time for milk anymore. Again. This is maybe four years after production stopped, the Show already looped into the afterlife of syndication. And this man, this man with the dry cereal pinched halfway to his mouth, is none other than Mr. Rod Serling, no suit, no tie, but still, him, alone enough this evening to forego milk altogether, just sit back on the couch and try to resist touching his hair when he sees himself on the television set, touching it as if to fix it.
This evening, however, he only makes it halfway across the living room.
He lowers his hand from his mouth, doesn’t chew the cereal because it’s dry, would crunch, and he has to hear.
Someone on the porch?
In the moment before he moves to the door, the bowl of cereal balanced on the tall back cushion of the couch, he notes the curtains over the front window, open, and pictures somebody hunched over there, watching him watch the Show. He wonders what kind of thrill that would be—wonders if he would do that himself, and what the difference would be between watching himself on television and watching himself watching himself on television—and like that another Episode flashes across his mind, of a man stepping into a public bathroom, getting caught in the continually diminishing reflection of the mirrors to either side of him, until the reflection breaks down and, at five-eighths of an inch tall, he becomes someone else, someone independent of himself, smiling.
They had a good run, though. Even without touching on every possible script. He’s learned to tell himself these things, anyway.
In two steps, then, he’s at the door, is stepping out onto the wooden porch, into the twilit night. No one; nobody. Not even the neighbors, standing on their porches too, waiting for the aliens to land or not land. For a man to run silent down the street, his jacket on fire.
But—the sound, the noise, that distinctive shuffle of leather on wood planks.
Mr. Rod Serling closes the door, locks it, and only then does it register: leather. Leather soles. Dress shoes.
He looks to the side as he approaches his dry cereal, trying to build a man up from the bottom, from a pair of shoes, but can’t, so just looks back once to the door, then across the room, to the Show, the cereal crunching now in his inner ear, his socked feet crossed on the coffee table.
Every night should be like this, he thinks. A good night.
He smiles, covers it with his cereal hand, and finds himself looking at the front window again, lowering his brow suggestively, comparing it and the television screen. One is color, though, the other washed out black and white. But maybe there are more colors, right? More than just red and green and whatever that third one is . . . indigo?
He draws the curtains in his mind, sparing himself the indignity or rising to actually do it, as if he were scared, and then makes himself look back to the Show. It’s just now starting—he’s just now tilting his head forward, into the camera, asking the audience a question, all his weight already on the balls of his feet, so he can open his body up, step aside, let the Episode unfold, only, only—
The actors behind him, they’re not in a living room or a laboratory or a spaceship, or scrabbling around in the rubble of a lost world, they’re at Plymouth Rock. Not in the studio’s estimation of Pilgrim garb, either, but in Viking leather, their flatboat bobbing in the shallows behind them.
One of the History Episodes. One of the ones that doesn’t make the audience question where they’re going, but where they’re from. One of the episodes that pulls the figurative carpet out from under their figurative selves.
And the actors, Mr. Rod Serling almost recognizes them, almost remembers them from other shows, side bits in movies, guest appearances, commercials, but can’t quite attach a name to them, or anything said out in the parking lot, about cigarettes or weather or life or the Show, even, what an honor it is, etc.
That’s not what makes him sit up, though, Mr. Rod Serling. There are lots of names he already can’t remember. What makes him sit up, lowering his feet to the ground, his cereal spilling into the cushions, forgotten, buried in the ash of a thousand cigarettes, is the question he’s asking at least five years ago: What if somebody got there before Columbus?
The emphasis on ‘before,’ too, it’s perfect, just how Mr. Rod Serling would have said it, if he’d ever said it, but the thing is, he never had.
This episode had never been written, shot, aired, thought of.
Yet there he was, leading the audience into it.
On his couch, Mr. Rod Serling leans forward, across the coffee table, to touch the screen, but then, at the last instant, doesn’t.
During the commercial break, Rod Serling watches the rest of the episode then walks upstairs as if through a fog, sits on his bed in his slippers with his eyes narrowed at the floor, trying to remember having ever said those words.
Ten minutes later, he says them aloud as best he can recall them, and hits ‘before’ just the same, but can no longer tease apart influence and memory—whether he’s saying it like that because he just heard himself say it like that, or if he’s saying it like that because he practiced it in his office one morning, looking into a hand mirror held down in the deep drawer he was supposed to keep files in.
He doesn’t even know the name of the episode—1492?—or its season.
And then the commercial break is over and it’s morning, and he’s driving to the studio, pulling up to the gate. The security guard recognizes him of course, acts scared like he presumably always used to, then holds Mr. Rod Serling up longer than Mr. Rod Serling really wants to be held up, only delivering his one important line as Mr. Rod Serling is pulling away: “You barely missed him.”
The clutch goes back in; the car rolls back, the brake lights flaring.
“Mr. Albright,” the security guard flashes, like a question. When Mr. Rod Serling doesn’t disagree, the security guard explains how Mr. Albright was shooting all night, just left ten minutes ago.
Mr. Rod Serling jots down the address the guard gives him and goes there, and by the size of the house it’s obvious Mr. Albright is a director, a producer—that, in all likelihood, the Show was what made him too. Meaning they should have that to share.
“Rod Rod Rod,” he says, at the door, stepping aside, and Mr. Rod Serling walks in, taking his sunglasses off just as he steps over the threshold, a private superstition, but, all the same, one that’s never let him down.
The conversation starts out casual, just talk about the old days—how many takes it took to get that little girl to quit crying that time, how the star they brought in had to be fed each line, word by word—but then Mr. Rod Serling leans back into the chair he’s in, both hands holding the armrests.
Mr. Albright’s wearing a kimono and sunglasses, of course. Drink in hand.
Mr. Rod Serling asks him if he saw the Episode last night, and Mr. Albright says—in his shrugging, distracted way—“Not last night, no.”
It’s funny, true, maybe even clever, and more importantly, it gives Mr. Rod Serling a chance to smile, like none of this matters. The cuticles around his fingernails are bone white, though. He shrugs as if just compelled to finish the query, now, says it was that one about the Indians, he guesses, and when Mr. Albright tips his head back, spanning the distance between his chin and nose with the thumb and forefinger of one hand, Mr. Rod Serling sketches it for him: the one where the Indian’s chasing a deer through the woods, missing it with arrow after arrow, until he’s lost, bursting out of the woods onto a beach. Only there’s Vikings there, tasting the sand. The Indian and the Vikings lock eyes, and, after a great chase, the Vikings haul the Indian onto their flatboat, where a Franciscan priest—“Bede?” Mr. Rod Serling suggests—where a Franciscan priest with absolute marbles for eyes tells the Indian—”
“In English, he says this?” Mr. Albright interrupts.
Yes. In English this priest tells the Indian of these white skins in their boats, and then, as a parting gift, the Vikings give the Indian a primitive black powder gun, the barrel scrimshawed with Chinese ideograms, and tell him there, there, on the beach, stand guard, shoot the first white man that steps out of his boat, and the Indian nods, his mouth in a frown already, and then stands there with the gun he knows how to use now for hours and hours, until he’s still enough that the deer he was chasing steps lightly out onto the sand.
The Indian smiles, lowers his gun, and—Mr. Rod Serling is watching Mr. Albright now, for a flicker of recognition—says that that’s when he, Mr. Rod Serling steps in, the gun going off well behind him, to keep the censors happy. But we all know what the Indian chose to shoot: dinner.
“Beautiful,” Mr. Albright says.
“I know,” Mr. Rod Serling says back. “What season was that, though?”
“You don’t remember?”
“That was when I was dating that—”
Mr. Albright smiles, nods, doesn’t make him finish.
“Maybe the third,” he says.
“But you remember it?”
He looks down to Mr. Rod Serling, then.
“You wrote it, didn’t you?”
Nod, nod, yes. Of course.
In his car minutes later, half an hour late for a fake lunch, Mr. Rod Serling looks back to Mr. Albright’s front door and sees, in the glass around the door, a wash of red silk, a dragon sinuous up one side, the man in it watching.
The tires chirp on accident as he pulls away, and then on purpose at the first intersection, and now Mr. Rod Serling’s saying it to himself: I wrote it. Of course I wrote it.
That afternoon, his hair windblown from hours of thinking, Mr. Rod Serling pulls up to the studio gate again. The same security guard steps out, touching the brim of his hat in mock fatigue.
“Find him?” he asks.
Mr. Rod Serling nods, impatient, and says he wants to see the old set if he can, and the guard looks at his watch, winks, and says his shift’s over in five, four, three, . . .
Mr. Rod Serling noses his car into a visitor slot, hugs the walls all the way to the old studio, flinching at everything now, all the old Episodes rising around him, until, by the time he reaches the soundstage, he knows what he’s going to find: a working robot of himself. A Serling puppet on piano wire. A rubber mask molded from his face while he slept. An alien fungus he touched on a rail once, that grew into his own likeness. The twin brother he never knew he had, or the cousin he’d always shared clothes with growing up, only now the cousin had had plastic surgery, had had his voice box worked on.
Or, worse, the person he is now is the ghost, the soul that moved on, leaving the body behind after death, a husk, only Mr. Albright and crew reanimated it with ratings or cigarette smoke, put it through the paces.
When he opens the door, Mr. Rod Serling, it’s with a certain amount of apprehension.
The soundstage is dark, of course, and being used for something else now, but the general contours are the same, the emotional landscape, and Mr. Rod Serling smiles. Nostalgia. The hole knocked in the wall by some long-ago ladder is still there, even. It was where Merle the janitor used to drop stuff, on accident, when nobody was supposed to be looking, so he could come back for it later. It was also a tip jar, though, of sorts—coins in apology for spilling paint, then walking through it, all over the set. It was where Merle had put the pair of glasses from that first Episode, too, so he could harvest the arms later. Back before anybody knew there was going to be Memorabilia. But those glasses.
Instead of going to Props, to all the cardboard boxes in which he’s sure he’ll find himself, carved in wood—a skull, Yorick, decaying—he goes to the wall, the hole in the wall, and reaches in as far as he can, until his fingertips touch the glasses he thinks, but then he draws his hand back. He’d bleeding; the glass cut him.
He’s Mr. Rod Serling, though. Of course he reaches in again.
After the last commercial break, it’s night, and Mr. Rod Serling is a pair of socked feet in the kitchen, pouring dry cereal into another bowl, and the only thing different is that he’s wearing those shattered glasses. It makes navigating the kitchen hard, but he does it anyway, holding the bowl in the crook of his arm so he can ease them off his nose the slightest bit as he crosses the threshold from the kitchen to the living room, where he can already hear his voice.
What Episode tonight, right?
He smiles, not able to help already trying to place his monologue, attach it to a title, a season, an actor or actress, but then he stops again, halfway to the couch: the television set is off.
Through the cracked lenses he thinks he sees, for an impossible instant, the Indian from last night’s episode, standing with his Chinese gun and his Franciscan advice, all of America behind him, but then the figure is too dark. And doesn’t have a face.
Mr. Rod Serling drops his cereal. It arranges itself in a meaningful design around his feet, some of the flakes falling so far as the couch, even.
He is an alien, a clone, a robot, a puppet, a dead man.
And the Vikings, they were real Vikings.
He shakes his head no, please, that this is not a good night. Not at all.
Through the fractured glasses he can see the figure standing facing the open door has no face, and, worse, is there in total disregard.
But no. It’s not that he has no face, it’s that he has his back to the room. And he’s talking to somebody, through a camera, just there past the open door, recording all this, and it’s only then that Mr. Rod Serling looks to the man’s feet, his leather shoes.
It’s not so much what they’re made of that causes Mr. Rod Serling to start screaming, pleading, it’s the way the man is standing in them, with none of the weight on the blocky heels, so that, on cue, he can swivel to the side like a showman, sweeping his arm out to include all of this—not a dimension of sight or sound, but of mind.
A great man once wondered if he wasn’t just a butterfly dreaming he was a man. But perhaps it’s not like that. Perhaps butterflies simply dream of other butterflies. Of smaller and smaller butterflies.
Accept please the example of Mr. Rod Serling, dreamer, citizen of a place he knows all too well.
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