Toward the Forest I. Edvard Munch, 1897/c. 1913, color woodcut, from two woodblocks, one sawn into three pieces, in blue, green, and yellow beige on wove paper, The Epstein Family Collection © Munch Museum/Munch Ellingsen Group/ARS, NY 2009
I found my mom in bed one afternoon, limp and sprawled long like a tired thing. Her little TV was on. It was one of those small square kinds with bright-colored slots for red and yellow cables at the bottom.
There are some people at the door, I told her. The same people as last time. They asked for you.
You shouldn’t open the door for strangers, she said. She sighed and tilted her head to the left, giving her a better view of the screen. Her hair pressed against her cheek, sticky from sweat, some strands caught between her lips. I love this episode. It reminds me of when I was little like you, she said. She kept watching and smiled to herself. And I knew for the rest of the day she would only be silent.
The church people were still at the door when I went back into the living room. They had begun passing through the neighborhood and then our apartment complex the previous month. It was two or three of them, sometimes four. They were all women and all older than my parents.
My mom’s sleeping, I said. I was always supposed to say this or that my dad was in the shower, or not home if people called on the phone trying to get money.
The women looked at each other and the oldest one in front nodded to herself. She handed me a pamphlet and asked if I gave the last one to my mom like she told me to. I said I had. She looked over my shoulder at the living room and the big TV on and frowned, and then asked if I wanted to come to their church on Saturday.
I’ll ask my mom and dad, I said.
Of course. You’re a good boy for asking permission from your parents.
My grandma sometimes goes to church, too. Do you know her?
No, I don’t. It’s a small church so we know all the grandmas and their boys.
Her name’s Rosa.
That’s a nice name.
She lives close, maybe you’ve been to her house too.
It’s getting late. Remember to give that to your mom. We have to leave now, sisters, she said. And they turned all in one motion.
When they left I sat back down on the couch and watched TV. It was a Christmas special playing in June. A stop motion movie that came out when my parents were younger. My mom told me she watched it every Christmas when she was little. And she wanted me to watch it too, because the pictures were from such a long time ago that they would never get old.
I held the pamphlet for a little bit longer and sounded out the words next to the man with the beard on the cover. He reached out with one hand as he stepped through the backyard door of a big home. A different man was at the table in the kitchen; he looked upset and his hands were folded around his eyes and head.
It read: The Word will spread unto you when you hear His true name. He is near!
I looked around the house drawn on the pamphlet, at the bright windows and white walls, and then around our apartment. The brown living room carpet curled up where it met the hallway’s laminated flooring. The plastic showed beneath the carpet and you had to be careful there because sharp staples poked out. At that line, I’d spat cough syrup high onto the ceiling one night when I was sick, and it stayed purple in the shape of an elephant.
I went back to watching TV. It was at the part where it starts to snow, where Jack Frost manages to keep winter going for six more weeks.
My TV in the living room was bigger than the one my mom had in her bedroom. It had a huge, rounded back-end made of plastic, and an enormous glass screen. It was old even when we got it, and my dad liked telling me how it was circular that I had the TV. Not the shape, the fate, he said.
Two friends he used to sell dope with in high school watched big riots breaking out one day on TV. So they drove north into L.A., the city my mom grew up in, to bring back electronics for all their friends. My dad called them famous because they had been on the news for a few seconds carrying my TV. I never met them, but sometimes thanked them in my head when I was watching a good cartoon or movie and remembered their present.
I thought of them again when the TV stopped working. It cut out a few days after the church women came. Loud, grey static ripped across the screen. I jumped up, scared by the sound, and rushed to shut it off. I turned the TV on and off a few times and then unplugged it when that didn’t work.
Sometimes when my mom wasn’t having a quiet day and my dad worked at night, I’d get in her bed and share her TV. It only had bunny ears, so there weren’t as many channels but she knew the good ones and the schedules so that it was like having a big TV.
I knocked on her bedroom door and felt the place where the plywood chipped away. Everything was quiet on both sides. I opened the door fast through the first few inches where it creaked, and left it half-open.
Mom, I said. Mom, the TV stopped working. I tried turning it off and on. Do you want to watch yours with me? She didn’t answer. The room was hot, and lopsided gushes of warm air pushed from the window above her bed to the door. A foot stuck out from beneath a mound of blankets and the sheets ribboned over her body. During her quiet days the bed was her favorite place to be and she could stay there a whole week. But sometimes she got a bunch of energy fast and might be there less time.
Peeking around the door, I saw the little TV was messing up, too. She didn’t like the volume loud unless I was in bed next to her, so I heard the static on her TV buzzing quiet like a whisper. I turned it off and closed the door behind me. I’ll come back and sleep in here with you if I can’t fix mine, I said. Okay?
Our TV was connected to the neighbors’ apartment. We shared a wire with the two guys next door, Jesse and Alex. Jesse liked wearing bright shirts and earrings when they went out on weekends and his parents didn’t know they lived together. One day Jesse climbed up on a ladder with my dad and they drilled a hole above our door. Then they connected a metal square and brought a wire through our house into the TV. They were sharing lots of new cartoons with us, my dad told me. And it wouldn’t cost any money.
I rang their doorbell and saw the same booklet with the picture of the man tucked into the doorframe. It dropped to the mat when Alex opened the door. Hey there, Illan, he said without noticing the booklet.
My TV stopped working and I don’t know how to fix it, I said.
Yeah, I think so. There aren’t any cartoons playing; it’s just static. Do you know what’s wrong?
Sounds like the cable cut out.
My mom’s isn’t working either.
How’s she doing? Jesse told me she was supposed to come over for dinner last week.
She’s tired today, but it’s okay she’s in her room.
He looked at me longer before answering again. Alright, do you want to come in? I’ll check to see if our’s is working and then maybe it’s not the cable that’s broken, he said, I was about to make a sandwich or something if you’re hungry.
Their apartment was a mirror of ours. The walls and hallways unfolded in the same place for the same distances, but everything on the opposite side. The details made it different. Their carpet was pale-blue instead of brown and didn’t peel up at the edges. They also had a smaller table in the kitchen and Jesse liked stacking cookbooks and spices that he never used on the shelves so that it seemed like that part of their home could be on a TV cook show or in a movie when you first saw it. Alex made a sandwich and coffee for himself and the same for me, except orange juice instead of coffee and extra mayonnaise on the bread. He asked about my grandma and my dad. He’s at work, I said. And he said Jesse was at work too, that he had to work more since Alex lost his job. But he had an interview next week and hoped he could start again soon.
I feel bad I can’t help with money, Alex said. And I get bored here with nothing to do all day. Mostly it just gets lonely.
Why don’t you watch TV?
I do sometimes. I’m just not as much of a fan as I hear you are.
When I finished my juice he went to check on their TV. The furniture was arranged differently in their living room and I could see the TV from the kitchen. He switched it on and a woman appeared on the screen talking about the news.
It’s working here, he said. And it worked a few hours ago. It must be the wire that goes into your apartment. He kept flipping through the channels and they all worked like normal. I’ll ask Jesse about it when he comes home tonight, he’s the one who knows about the TV. Alex flipped across a cartoon channel and then switched back when he saw me bounce up in my seat. You can watch for a little bit here, but your mom might worry if you don’t go back soon, he said.
I sat down at the couch with another cup of juice. It was leather and felt cooler than the fabric on the couch in my apartment. I explained how the show worked to Alex, how the detectives had to find clues and how it always ended up being the same bad guy with a new plot. Alex nodded along and I warned him when there would be a twist and when things were exactly as they seemed. Pretty soon he stopped asking questions and was asleep by the time the show ended, but he woke up when the theme song began playing through the credits. Another episode was up next.
Ok, Illan. I think it’s time for you to get going.
I don’t think my mom would mind. She said she likes you guys.
But I’m sure she would want you home with her. He reached for the remote and I knew he was serious.
Okay. I’ll be in my living room if Jesse thinks he can fix the cable today.
We’ll let you know. Say hi to your parents for me.
He closed the door behind me. It was darker now and I went to lean over the balcony where the sun was mostly set. Our front doors shared a landing on the top floor of a two-story apartment unit. The center of the apartment complex was a patch of yellowed grass with an oval space of asphalt and benches. To one corner was a little room that had the washer and dryer we all shared. And at the other corner, some sunken pieces of wood from when I tried to plant a bean garden for a science project. I wondered if we would ever pull the wood out or just let it keep sinking until it was buried in the ground, and then I heard creaking from a door behind me and the other neighbor came outside.
Antonio, she said. Antonio is that you? It was too long this time, honey. I wanted you back so bad. Don’t leave me again for those people. She limped toward me and I saw her cheeks and nose were shiny and wet. Where were you this time?
They even told me to pray, the women from the church and I didn’t believe them, but I’ve been doing it. She pulled the same little booklet from her back pocket and waved it in front of her. When she was almost to the balcony, she stopped.
Illan. You’re not him, she said. Why are you making noise out here like you’re him?
Our TV is broken. I was just trying to see if it’s the wires.
You shouldn’t be outside, it’s getting late.
I’m sorry Ms. Morgan. I’m not Antonio.
Ms. Morgan’s door was directly across from ours. She was old and had stomach problems and a son my dad’s age that still lived with her. Every few months he went missing and she would go around the neighborhood asking if anyone had seen him. Usually he came back in a couple weeks with grey skin and long lines in his face, but he’d been missing since New Year’s and people said that he wasn’t coming back this time. She ignored them and went looking most weekends, asking everyone at all his regular spots if they’d heard anything.
Well you’re being real loud out here. Don’t you know I need to sleep early?
I do. I’m sorry. I was going in right now.
I’m sick. You especially should respect that. And to make it worse I’ve got no son right now. Do you know how that feels to a mom?
More than sad, she said. It hurts me worse than the pain in my stomach. And every day. She squeezed the pamphlet tighter and threw it at her feet and it made a quiet scraping sound against the ground. She took a step forward like she wanted to stomp on it. But her limp shifted her body sideways so that she fell into the wall and her foot missed the pamphlet. She didn’t try again. Her chest and shoulders shook. She folded her hands around her eyes and began to cry.
Go inside! Go inside right now, she said.
Ok, Ms. Morgan. I walked around her scared with my head down and heard her crying in little coughs and short breaths. And before the door closed behind me she said, I just wanted you to be him.
Our apartment was hot and the sun came through the blinds in that way where everything was still lit but seemed to be getting dark from the corners. I didn’t watch TV during this time of day. The channels started playing big shows for parents and wouldn’t have my cartoons or movies until the morning.
I went into my mom’s room. The sheets were bunched up and knotted at her waist. I couldn’t fix our TVs, I said, maybe we can tomorrow. I pulled the sheets up and untwisted them to make space before lying down next to her. And I felt her breath in my ear at each moment. It tickled all the way down to my shoulder and my arm, and sometimes I thought she was whispering a word I couldn’t understand. I focused on the sound in her breath, and I kept listening until it became dark.
In the morning I tried changing the way the bunny ears pointed. Sometimes they picked up a signal, but the people and cartoons on the screen were hard to make out. They were blurs of static and triangles that bumped into other triangles and other squares. Sometimes their shapes overlapped into one, and sometimes the static tore them to pieces. Only the sounds came out as anything I could recognize, one square laughing or yelling at another square. I turned her TV off and went into the living room.
My big TV still wasn’t working either. Right now I was supposed to be watching the early morning channel, where they had cartoons from a long time ago. Some were cartoons from before my parents were even kids.
I made a bowl of cereal and ate it on the carpet with the TV in front of me like I normally would, but kept it turned off. I saw our whole living room bent and reflected in black, and I looked small at the center of it. It wasn’t like watching a cartoon though. It wasn’t even like watching a movie with real people. I took the remote and kept eating with the static on and something about it was nice for a moment. But soon it turned scary again and I turned it off.
My dad should have been home and he wasn’t so he probably would be working another shift. I put my bowl in the sink and decided to try again to fix the TV. I looked behind the stand it was on and traced all the cables but they crossed and made confusing paths. Instead, I just followed the one that brought TV in from Jesse and Alex’s apartment. It went out tight where my dad had pinned it against the corner between the wall and the floor. Then it crawled up and out to the landing.
I brought a chair to the landing and stood on it trying to see into the roof’s overhang. Even with pillows it wasn’t tall enough for me to see or reach. So I rang their door again to ask for help. I waited longer and Alex didn’t answer this time and I rang again, and then I heard a big movement coming up the stairs. The railing of the balcony rattled lightly from all the commotion and a bunch of voices mixed together.
There were more church people this time and they looked like an army marching in bright, flowery dresses and tan-colored tights. The oldest one was at the front again. She stopped suddenly when she saw me and the rest immediately did the same and turned quiet.
Hello again young man, she said. What are you doing on that chair? You could fall.
My TVs broken. I was just trying to see the wires. She looked up into the space where the wires hung down against the wall and then she looked behind her at the other women.
It’s a good break from a tool used for so many bad things, she said.
Sometimes they teach about it at our church for the children’s lesson. That’s why we came back, to see if you’ve talked to your parents about coming to church this weekend.
I haven’t asked them yet. I can later.
You told us that last time.
Sorry, my mom’s been sleeping.
What’s your name, young man?
Illan, I said.
A Latin name.
That’s a nice name, she said. My name is Sister Davis. Now Illan, if your mom is in bed can we come inside for a little bit and talk to you about our church? A lot of little boys and girls think it’s fun.
I knew from my parents not to let strangers into the house. And I wondered if this many people who I had seen before counted as strangers. The pillows I was standing on were becoming hot from the sun and I hopped down onto the doormat to think about her question. I was nervous, but I told her yes, they could come in for a little bit. Our front door was old and sagged in at the hinge so that you could hear it slide across the floor when it opened, and all the women crowded in behind me. One of them brought in the chair and set it down for the oldest one and the rest stayed standing. I sat on the couch.
Sister Davis asked again about my mom, if she ever took me to church. I told her that she didn’t because the weekend was the time she was the most quiet and stayed the longest in bed. And what about your dad?
He’s in bed normal times. Only after long shifts he’ll sleep in the day.
But does he take you to church?
He says my grandma’s church is just stories.
The women that were standing began whispering to each other. Sister Davis turned and spoke quietly to one and then said, And he thinks the stories on TV are better for you?
I just watch cartoons mostly. Do you watch big shows?
Not shows like what your parents probably watch. I see the news sometimes, but you can only handle so much of that. The only good things on TV are channels with preachers— do you know what stories preachers tell? Nice ones. Like about the man on that paper.
She pointed to the booklet on the floor by the couch. I told her I wasn’t really sure who he was. That he looked familiar maybe. She was surprised, but said she might have guessed it. She told me about him and everything he did before he died, and how I needed to know who he was when I heard him coming because he would save us all.
Save me from what?
From being lost.
Like Ms. Morgan’s son. He’s lost too.
Sister Morgan. And her son will come back. But it will because of him, our lord. Anything can be made better by him.
Can he fix my TV? Or my mom’s TV. I think her’s is most important because she watches more than I do. And she shows me what’s the best stuff to watch.
I’m sure he could, but he would want to make you better in other ways. All we have to do is pray. She folded her hands together and bowed her head to show me. Then she said, I want to teach you how to pray. All of us do. When you pray you’re saved forever. And the other women nodded and murmured in agreement.
I was nervous. I don’t know, I said. Maybe I should ask my mom first. Can you bring people when you pray?
You don’t need anyone’s permission. That’s why it’s so good. But you can bring anyone you want. Anyone you want to save. Get her, we can wait.
I got up from the couch and went to her room. It was hot again when I opened the door and I heard the women over my shoulder beginning to talk to each other. The room was brighter now and the blinds were pulled up just a little. The blankets were folded to the bottom of the bed and my mom was staring at the TV.
There was still static, but not as much and I could make out the characters and scenes. The Christmas special was on rerun again. It was at the part where Jack Frost first decides he wants to come down and live like a person. My mom looked at me and back to the TV, and put her hand down on the empty side of the bed where I liked to sit. I didn’t tell her about the people from church. I closed the door behind me and got into bed next to her.
I love this movie, is all she said.
Julian Robles is a writer in New York City and contributing editor for We Do Culture.