Before reading, I recommend watching this old TV commercial to better understand the story:
Margaret gazed out the kitchen window, of what she could see anyways, most of it fogged and misted with fast-changing autumn. She opened the Venetian blinds just a smidge to allow some fresher air to circulate around the small Victorian house. There were the sounds of a gentle breeze blowing in spurts over the green Pennsylvania hills. In the distance, the clunking sound of the neighbor’s car as it coughed to life. Nature met with the sounds of man-made machines and Margaret clicked on the television, the telly, the tube– otherwise known in the scientific world as the cathode ray tube.
First, there was the initial and expected crackle and black and white fuzz as she turned the knob, followed by a quick pop as the signal intercepted. She wiped the counters despite the already brushed shine, she swept the floor, she folded the clean clothes; she performed her role with a mixture of pride and as of late tint of sadness as autumn closed in. The weather changed her moods, her conditions– always had, even since she was a small girl. She did find herself content enough with her family life; two boys and a girl and a reliable husband, a typical middle-class life. Her life was the epitome of the American dream; part of a healthy family unit and her husband George was a well-off enough miner that brought home enough bacon for the whole family, with some extra fat to spare as of late.
Lately she found herself trapped inside some sort of bubble of funk, wishing somehow for something more than what she had in front of her– even though the other voice would resound inside her louder, telling her that she was being ungrateful and appreciate the blessings she had in her life. A cold wind seeped, weeped through the window, sent a chill down her spine, and for a moment brought her back to reality– which for the moment was an empty kitchen with the distant chatter of children playing in the other room and blare of the TV set in front of her. A calendar posted on the fridge read October 1961. The TV show she was watching stopped and a commercial popped on, caught her attention.
The black and white commercial showed a family of five (much like the size of her own) dressed in their vacation beach outfits, looks of undeniable happiness glazed on their faces. Gosh, Margaret thought. That family looks really happy. Why are they so happy? Then: why can’t we be more like them? How can we become as fullfilled as they appear? She found herself realizing that it’d been some four years since they had taken a family vacation, given George’s hectic work schedule.
The voice of a male narrator that sounded like the summon of God himself came on with an authoritative voice, beginning the commercial,” Safeguard’s family album presents: the traveling family who traveled 60,000 miles on just one bar of soap!”
The man in the commercial, seemingly speaking to the omniscient narrator then said,” No, ONE KIND of soap!” then the authoritative narrator replied,”SAFEGUARD!”, an attempt to let known the product for sale once more. “COME ON, THE WHOLE FAMILY USED IT, THE BABY USED IT, THE TEENAGER USED IT, THE DEODORANT SOAP?!”
The narrator seemed excited about the soap, but as Margaret watched she didn’t notice that she had stopped what she was doing and had taken three steps closer to the tube, transfixed, sucked in. The smiles on the faces of the couple and the kids were perfectly flawless, even the health of the family seemed to permeate a majestic glow that cut through the black and the white. This is the quintessential family, Margaret thought. This is what my family needs to be. Maybe we even need to buy this soap to get onwards with our family vacation!
“Oh, this soap is more than that!,” claimed the man in the commercial. Then the mother, a classy-in-appearance brunette said,” Safeguard helps prevent diaper rash and prevent acne!” Everything was said with distinct cheerfulness without a micro-fiber of gloom. “YOU’RE KIDDING, I THOUGHT SAFEGUARD WAS A DEODORANT SOAP!,” retorts the male narrator.
The black and white husband maintains his smile and glances at his black and white wife, says, ” Remember when we saw that baseball game at Yankees stadium? Ha! Ninety degrees temperature!” , to which the wife replies,” And we were still fresh enough to take in China town!”
The commercial allows the camera person to back away from the still frame of the ever-smiling family and then confirms in the loudest voice of the commercial yet, ” SAFEGUARD, THE ONE DEODORANT YOUR FAMILY NEEDS!”
Margaret stood in a paralyzed state as the commercial segued into another commercial and she found herself wishing to be that family and to somehow inhabit their happiness. Suddenly, there was a sound that broke her thoughts– a loud tap, the sound of a fist knocking on glass and her eyes darted back to the television screen and before Margaret could even conclude if she had fallen asleep on the couch and was dreaming or not she saw the family had reappeared with their black and white cheerfulness and they were speaking to her, seductively from inside the tube.
“Hello Margaret, would you like to step inside and join us?,” he invited. Her lips wouldn’t move to spell out a response and almost against her own will she found herself taking the husband’s hand and stepping into the portal of the TV. There was a contrast of two very distinct worlds– the colors of autumn and her moody overcast, which suddenly was uplifted as the smiles of the black and white family welcomed her with warm smiles. As she stepped into the new world, she gasped when she noticed that her skin and clothes were transforming from colored to black and white. The blue kitchen apron that she wore now chameleoned into a grey, her face into a pale white and at first she felt herself transformed temporarily and blending in with this happy family. The new air smelled of something ultra-sanitized to the point of olfactory numbness, similar to the smells of a hospital. She found herself in a tiny kitchen with one small door near a rug that suggested WELCOME.
The black and white woman put her hand gently on Margaret’s shoulder and pulled out a chair for her. “Oh, just have a seat, please be our guest,” the black and white wife perked. It struck Margaret that the entire family had put on their morning clothing and switched out of their bathing suits at record speed. The woman set a bowl of cereal in front of her. Suddenly, a loud authoritative male voice spoke; the voice of the commercial omnipotent commercial God. “START YOUR DAY RIGHT WITH NUTRITIOUS GRAIN FLAKES!,” he said.
Margaret felt slightly uncomfortable by the attention and hospitality. The black and white husband brought her a container of soap on top of a white towel and set it on the table. “SAFEGUARD, THE BETTER SOAP,” boomed the narrator from who-knows-where.
“Safeguard will make you clean,” said the black and white husband. The kids gathered around the table and stared and her creepily, as if expecting something. It made Margaret feel nervous, the way the eyes of these people burned into her skull. They all continued to stare at her and watch anxiously as Margaret gathered the strength to take her first bite; the Grain Flakes tasted like rubber cement and was dry on her lips like cotton.
“What is this?,” Margaret asked them. “How did I get here?” It was at this moment she noticed the TV in the corner of the room, which reflected a mirror image of the other dimension, Margaret’s dimension, which was her couch and coffee table and blue carpeting– the family’s TV looked into her house, the only thing in color in this black and white room. Margaret was in another dimension, gazing into the TV at her colored world.
Like a child planted in front of a television, Margaret was mesmerized, in a temporary conciousness of TV Land Zombia. “We’d love to make you happy just like us,” said the black and white wife. Suddenly, she had draped an apron over her dress as if she was prepared to cook. “Yes, we can make you happy, just like us,” affirmed the patriarchal black and white husband. “SAFEGUARD, THE BETTER SOAP,” commanded the domineering narrative voice from TV Land Abyss.
This has to be a dream, Margaret theorized to herself. I fell asleep on the couch and just need to wake up. She pinched herself twice and she felt pain on her forearm, even though she could not see the redness. The mild pain was genuine real, so clearly this wasn’t a dream.
Margaret felt a cold liquid on her scalp. “Hey!,” she cried out, startled. The black and white wife had squeezed some of the Safeguard soap onto her head. “One kind of soap!,” said the wife. “This will make you happy just like us Margaret!”
The black and white family gathered closer to her, the parents taking the soap and working it into her hair. The soap smelled akin to an ultra-sanitized hospital bed. She felt like it was killing all of the cells on her head. Margaret was increasingly becoming aware that there was something pretentious and fake of this family’s outer-appearance; their demeanor was naturally beginning to bring quivers of fear.
“SAFEGUARD, THE BETTER SOAP,” once again boomed the male narrator from TV Land Abyss.
“You can stay happy with us forever, Margaret,” suggested the black and white wife. “Doesn’t that just sound fantastic? We’ll lather you with Safeguard Soap once every half-hour and feed you Grain Flakes forever. In our world, you’ll be able to stay ageless and we’ll keep you safe. Safeguard soap will keep you young Margaret. Safeguard brings infinite beauty, keeps your skin looking wonderful, is best for any family–“
“My family.” The words slipped out of Margaret’s mouth without her realizing it. If this wasn’t a dream, how could she escape this place? Would she be able to see her family again? Or was this just a vivid dream?
Outside, she could hear birds chirping. Either blue jays or robins. That was it– maybe she could simply walk out the door and make the way back to her house!
She pushed the family’s hands and Safeguard soap aside and ran to the front door. When she opened it, her jaw dropped, an elevator in a free fall without cables.
“Margaret, you cannot leave!,” the wife pleaded. The wide smiles remained on her face despite the sentiment of desperation buried in her voice. “Safeguard is the better soap, the key to happiness! You won’t find happiness outside these doors! Soon, you’ll learn to appreciate our family and the comforts the product provides!,” beamed the black and white wife.
Margaret gazed out the door opening, where there was only white noise; nothing, and then eternal black. “There’s nothing out there, Margaret!,” said the black and white father. “It’s only safe here in our house, where we are surrounded by superior products and happiness. Can’t you see? Won’t you appreciate this, Margaret?”
“SAFEGUARD, THE SUPERIOR SOAP,” boomed the narrator from TV Land Abyss.
It was at that moment that Margaret began to panic. “I don’t care about your soap!,” she yelled. ” I want to get back to my family! Now, let me go!”
Suddenly, the walls began to shake furiously like a seismic earthquake. The black and whites continued to smile and stare at Margaret like an examined lab rat. Clearly, they were superior lab rats, having conquered the Rat Race, emerging as victors concealed, cloked in forever-comfort. A chunk of dry wall came crashing to the ground, nearly knocking Margaret on the head. She dropped down in the fetal position behind the couch, covering her heard with her hands.
“YOU WILL NEVER SPEAK IN NEGATION OF SAFEGUARD, THE SUPERIOR SOAP,” boomed the narrative voice angrily. “THERE IS NO SOAP ABOVE SAFEGUARD.”
“If you’ll just follow along with us, you’ll be happy,” said the wife. “You’ll be able to fit right in with our family and you can stay with us forever Margaret.” The black and white kids jumped up and down with uncontainable jubilance. The earthquake stopped after the wife squirted more soap into Margaret’s hair. “Repeat after me,” instructed the wife. “Safeguard, the superior soap.”
Margaret glanced at the color TV in horror and noticed that her husband had arrived home from work. His suitcase was dropped at the front doormat and he was pacing around the room calling for someone, a worried look on his face. There was no audio on the color TV. Margaret placed her hands on the TV, wanting desperately to get back to the other side. She felt only a cold TV screen; vacant, empty, mocking her inner-voice to the core.
“Oh, we should turn up the volume for her honey,” the husband suggested. Smiling widely, the wife gracefully stepped across the living room and grabbed a remote, pressed the volume upwards.
“Margaret!,” she heard her husband’s voice call out through the house. Painfully, she watched. Tears swelled up in her eyes. She watched him rush outside, then run back inside and dial the police on the phone. Suddenly the TV changed to a black and white commercial for Safeguard soap, like the ultimate insult. The rest of the family smiled. Wider. Wider. They poured soap onto her head and she fell to the carpet and cried.
“Safeguard Soap works better for everybody, Margaret!,” beamed the black and white wife. “Ha! Even for Margaret!,” added the black and white husband.
After the commercial, it segued back to the birds’ eye view of her house. Where was the camera recording this? Margaret wondered. it appeared as if it were attached and angled from her ceiling.
Margaret had been stuck inside this commercial nightmare for hours now and the happy facade the family emitted was still there. It made her sick, the glow that covered something truly dark, smiles laced on lame minds, happiness tied to nothing more elusive than the ultimatum and bottom line of a plastic product. Plasticity. She looked into the faces of the black and white family and saw actors and actress, all firm in their happiness since they had been bought and paid for to behave this way. Surface happiness, and beneath it a layer of hardened concrete, layer after layer of things as short-lived and mundane as Safeguard soap. These people had the mystery of life sucked right out of them for definite answers, their so-called tolerance for her was only to manipulate her and make her just like them, to force her into submission and material purpose. She no longer wanted to aspire for this kind of cheap imitation happiness for her own family; she only wanted to go home, to feel loved, to love, to get away from this twisted version of it. Margaret thought back to before her family and everyone else owned TV sets, back when neighbors would sit out on lawn chairs in the fresh summer air and talk about anything and everything while the kids laughed and chased each other around, did things like throw pinecones at each other. It seemed that the transition from that distant life to the life of gathering around a glowing TV screen all happened within the breath of a month and the blink of an eye. Now, instead of families walking the neighborhood and talking outside, there was only silence, the hum of the street lights, the containment of the neighborhood.
Not till now did this dawn on her, as she stole the Safeguard soap from the black and white wife’s hands, and then dumping every last drop onto the carpet, somehow redeemed herself. She could now see her husband on the reality side of the screen looking in at her, frantically trying to find a way inside the TV box to rescue her.
“Noooooooo!,” the black and white wife cried. “Safeguard is the better soap! You’re ruining it! ” She continued to allow the soap to ooze out drip by drip, and then thrust the plastic bottle into a corner of the room with a CLANK.
“Forget about your worthless soap! You are all insane!”
Margaret flipped the table upside down with fury and proceeded to destroy the house. China silverware and cutlery was thrown around the room. She broke the windows by throwing chairs around in a tornado whirlwind. She didn’t stop until she was out of breath and drenched in her own sweat, completely finished.
“STOP THAT, NOW! ,” boomed the narrator from TV Land Abyss. “SAFEGUARD IS QUALITY SOAP AND YOU ARE DIMINISHING IT’S NAME!”
The family’s smiles almost instantly transformed from plastic happiness to an ugliness that couldn’t be described in words and their perfectly white teeth changed to jagged yellow (or what was left of them) and their smooth, healthy shining skin metamorphized to a slimy, rough reptilian surface and the whites of their eyes glazed over to a fury red, and slowly they crept towards Margaret, cornering her into the now-demolished room. The lie of the perfect family was unmasked, something sinister revealed; nothing was for sale anymore.
“Von’t vou vunderstand, Vargaret! Vaccept vand voin vus vow!,” the black and white lizards croaked. ” LISTEN TO THEM OR THERE WILL BE CONSEQUENCES, MARGARET!,” boomed the narrator from TV Land Abyss.
On the other dimension of the TV, Margaret saw her husband banging on the glass, a look of glassed horror on his face as they closed in on her. There was nothing he could do.
“Vit vis vover vow, Vargaret,” hissed the black and white lizard husband. “Vwe vwill vestroy vou.”
As they crept closer, Margaret had an idea that occured to her and she quickly pulled out a small bottle of hand sanitizer she remembered was in her pocket. She unscrewed the dispensing lid and chucked gobs of liquid at the black and white lizards. Their soft mannequin hands had evolved razor-sharp claw; they could easily tear her apart.
“Clearflow, the better soap, you bastards!,” she screamed, and as the soap fell onto their face, they cringed and fell convulsing to the carpet below them.
The room shook with fury and the walls caved in as the narrator from TV Land Abyss cried that the advertisement was ruined and all hope was lost; that the eternal smile had now burned out and for a moment, maybe just one wasted TV Land second, there was a breath of truth.
Then everything in Margaret’s vision went black.
She awoke on the couch in her own house, surrounded by her family. She found the TV smashed and in pieces, a sledge hammer lying next to it; it was almost comical. Instead, they decided to go for a walk for the evening. As they were walking to the front door to escape to outside, there was a ring at the doorbell. Margaret gasped when she opened the door and saw two familiar ghostly pale faces, smeared in make-up and fake smiles. It was the black and whites and the wife held in her hands a canister of soap.
“Hi!,” she beamed. “We just moved in next door. Thought we’d be kind and invite our neighbors over for a house warming party and we’d love to show you this new product that we are using! What’s wrong? You look pale, Margaret! We’ll have a golly great time!”