1991 was the year the cicadas hatched; after seventeen years of dormancy they took over the town, all red eyes and buzzing wings. We grew accustomed to it, treated it like just another noise to tune out. 1991 was also the year that the broadcasts started, apparently out of some basement in Dallas. They had a small but devoted following. One of those things that you would never know existed unless someone told you.
1991 was the year the cicadas hatched; after seventeen years of dormancy they took over the town, all red eyes and buzzing wings. They were a great deal of them in our part of the world, Jackson, Mississippi. They could be heard all hours of the day, buzzing and humming with energy. Someone told me that all the recording studios in Nashville had to shut down because the noise was so bad that they couldn’t hear the artists; I say good riddance. The buzz from the cicadas was constant, from the trailer parks in the south all the way to the country clubs in the north. We grew accustomed to it, treated it like just another noise to tune out.
1991 was also the year that the broadcasts started, apparently out of some basement in Dallas. They had a small but devoted following. One of those things that you would never know existed unless someone told you. I found out about it through some kids at church; they told me “this guy’s a revolutionary, Sundays at 11:30, you gotta go to channel 17, you know, the blank one.” And that’s what I did.
The broadcasts were pretty mundane, just some guy who looked like a bad Elvis impersonator, with these godawful sunglasses, talking about our society. He was maybe about 60, but he looked like he had some work done, skin stretched a little tight and teeth too straight. He was always pulling these weird tricks to get us to send him money, said he needed it for a more “long-term” project that was all too mysterious. I was 19 at the time, still living at home after some failed academic endeavors. Needless to say, I just couldn’t send him money, even if I had wanted to.
But I kept watching the broadcasts, mostly because we were kept inside and grew bored. The cicadas had a tendency to swarm.
It was a Sunday, 11:00 pm, half an hour to go before the broadcast. I had my TV set up, the antennas pointing the right way and the channel on 17. It was static right now, and the white noise was in perfect harmony with the cicadas. I waited, I hadn’t much to do, so I made myself some food. A stuffed flounder, it was one of the only seafoods I could stand. In Mississippi we had too much crawfish and shellfish, that by the third grade I was sick of it all. You have to wonder just how hungry the guy who ate the first lobster was, because, my god, those things are scary.
I decided to read the newspaper to pass the time. I sat down in my dad’s old armchair, the clock read 11:18 the display a harsh red light that left a lasting impression on my eyes. The news was uneventful; the usual bit about how Jackson’s in a recession, and poverty rates are at an all time high, and we’re losing jobs because our car manufacturing unit went under. None of this surprised me, as of late, Jackson’s crime rates had spiked, wages had dropped and it had become more unpleasant. Tourists wouldn’t even stop here anymore, they drove further down the road and spent their nights somewhere like Lacombe, where the town is a little more sweet. My dad said “the only people who spend time in Jackson, are the same people who are stuck here” and I think that’s still true.
The static changed in pitch, now a little higher. This always happened, and, in thirty seconds or so, the guy would appear. And that’s what he did.
He was wearing a black suit with white piping, and those horrible Elvis sunglasses. He sat, back straight looking right at his camera for about twenty seconds, only blinking twice. There was something quite mesmerising about him, like he was out of a dream, a character so wild and out of place that he couldn’t be bound by the earth. It wasn’t that he was charming, because he really wasn’t, but he certainly was interesting in a way that I could never describe. The man sat still and quiet, I could still hear the cicadas buzzing outside and the hum from the television as it grappled to keep the signal.
He cleared his throat abruptly, coughing into his hand and started to speak.
“Our society is meant to doom us, we are not focused on the people, we have a market society. We are slaves in our society, we are not serving human needs, we are not serving biology, we are serving a market”
Again, I found myself mesmerized; his voice was like something out of an old movie, with that distinct American accent. Only he didn’t rush himself like the actors in those movies, he took his time and the hurried medley of words became that of a drawl. He dropped his r’s, hit his t’s and took me back to another time. He went on with his speech and I kept staring at the fuzzy screen.
“We are disassociated and we are ghosts. The only real part of our lives is the animal part”
I was distracted by a tapping at my window. We had these big screen windows that stretched along the entire back wall, it’s very unsettling at night. The tapping was just a bug, not a cicada for once, but a moth, it was large enough to be a Sphinx, but I couldn’t be sure. I got up, closed the curtains and went back to the TV.
“We became human when we became aware of our actions. The first time we did something against instinct was when we became human”
The man was staring directly at the camera this entire time and it was hypnotising. I always said that I never took this guy seriously, and I don’t, but I definitely see how you could. His ideas were interesting, to say the least, a bit wacky in the way that you just want to know more. He was compelling and made you believe that there was a societal conspiracy against you, and that he understood. The signal began to cut out, making the man's words jump.
“Used to think...world was...this world was not our home...well...we were saying...it...wasn't, here… take some... we left the animal world...became man… take some ideas...take our life from us…”
That’s where the signal cut out completely, leaving nothing but hum of static. I watched it for a while, until the signal came back with a crackle, the man was back and looking down; he seemed to be contemplating something. A change from his usual steady eye contact, then his eyes met the camera again, clearer than ever.
“We are living in a mediated fantasy world” he said, voice deeper and his accent thicker. He then did his final bit, thanking his viewers, asking for money, and saying his goodbyes. The broadcast was over, the screen went back to salt and pepper, and life went on.
The kids from church were buzzing about the broadcast the next morning. Telling me about their thoughts, that this man was not a looney, but a man fighting for cultural equality. Someone who was going to take down capitalism and bring power back to the people. I didn’t see it, and I definitely didn’t buy into it like they did.
The broadcasts continued all summer, and really picked up a following; our whole church group was watching after two months. And every two weeks they sent off a chunk of their paychecks to the man. It may not seem like much, but Jackson is not a rich town, we do honest work and pay our bills, and there’s never much left over. That’s when I stopped watching; I saw the effects the broadcasts had on people, it was all they could talk about, and it was draining them, emotionally and financially.
The city began to change after that, some people moved away, presumably to Dallas. The crime rate spiked again, people started raiding the big grocery stores, banks and department stores. Probably in an act against our market society. People abandoned their houses, drove to live in Pulaski, a town 40 miles east who had a very hippy-ish outlook on life, they tended to the “biological needs” the man said we weren’t attending to.
Jackson is not what it was. Our automotive industry never recovered, the crime rate is still high, all the hotels went out of business because of the lack of tourists. Lacombe is now the place to go, the bayou seemed to be the biggest attraction for travellers. The majority of our population left around the same time that the cicadas laid their eggs and died. That was 17 years ago. They come back this year, a new batch of them, but still all the same. And I hope to God that the broadcasts don’t.