An unnamed narrator recalls his childhood; the first thing he remembers is that “the television was always too loud.” He mishears the words he can hear coming out of it, and the TV’s overwhelming, ever-present volume “distort[s and] fragment[s]” his own family’s conversations.
The narrator is unnerved by the quick passage of time and the dissolution of his memories, able to remember little but the television. He has one memory of a time “the reservation disappeared” during a game of playing pretend with this brother and sisters. His father, he remembers, stumbled drunk off the bottom step of the porch and “came back years later with diabetes and a pocketful of quarters.”
The dreamlike, highly stylistic atmosphere of this story is highlighted in the symbolic language and action in this passage. The metaphorical “disappearance” of both the reservation and the narrator’s father represent a disengagement or disassociation from memories of both.
The narrator and his brother have a shared memory of all of their siblings combining the scraps that dropped off their plates during dinner and then “scrap[ing] the food into their open mouths.” Their parents and sisters to this day insist that the memory is false, but the narrator and his brother “cannot deny the truth of [their] story.”
Again, the reliability of memory is called into question here. Memory is fickle, but the “truth” of memories can calibrate one’s entire life.
The narrator was ill as a child, and his family tells him stories of his seizures, during which his mother “wanted to believe” he was able to have visions of the future. The narrator recalls dancing to music frequently with his siblings and parents, “fighting waking nightmares” only to fall asleep into horrible dreams.
The narrator’s illness, a source of worry and pain, provided his mother with a mode of escapist thinking that allowed her to project a hope for visionary powers onto her son.
The narrator remembers “the summer of sniffing gas,” when he and his brother and sisters inhaled fumes from their family’s lawnmower and idle BIA vehicles. The narrator wonders “how much we remember of what hurts us most,” and wonders how a glimpse of bright sunlight might have distorted their family’s portrait—how it might have changed how they posed for the photograph.
The narrator here contemplates the effects of pain and happiness alike on how memory is encountered later in life.
The narrator remembers his father teaching him how to drive while describing the story of “the first television he ever saw,” and how he and his friends would walk again and again to the store window where it was perched just to stare at it. The narrator then remembers his own family’s television, its volume, and how “every emotion was measured by the half hour.” He describes his brother and sisters and parents as “open mouths,” and recalls that all they wanted was “to survive.”
Television and survival are intimately entwined throughout this story. TV provides an escape, a safe place, and a way to enter a realm of storytelling and imagination rather than remaining stagnant in an otherwise bleak reality. Television enabled this family’s survival, and the mythic place it still holds in the narrator’s memory is palpable from the story’s first lines to its last.