excerpt: The Whole
The Whole is due out from MTV Books in early 2005.
It happened in the heartland.
Little Bobby Peterson was digging a hole. A deep hole, for he was an ambitious boy.
He pushed his shovel into the sand, and edged it out—full. He emptied the load into the sandbox—a six-by-six foot hole that his father had dug and bordered with wood, and filled with sand purchased from Home Depot. Beyond, in the green grass, the boy’s toy dump trucks, cement mixers, cranes, and tractors were parked in neat rows, awaiting their use—as if the child meant to reconstruct the worksite just as faithfully as the toy makers had reconstructed the rigs. He pushed the earthmover into his deepening hole, and with a load of damp sand, circled the truck in the air—and blew through his lips in an engine sound.
And, it was then that he looked down, and replaced the rig, and picked up his red, plastic shovel, and prodded at his hole, because, it seemed, the hole was growing—all by itself. The sand funneling inwards, Bobby peered puzzledly at the depression. It was a peculiar hole, this hole. And rising from his crossed legs onto his bent knees, Bobby leaned back, lifted his eyebrows and tilted his head. What chicanery is this? And he had meant to simply look up, to call his mother, to question her on this bizarre, and possibly frightening development. And yet, instead, his head jerked upwards and he saw the sun, and when he opened his mouth it was to scream—for the hole had suddenly enlarged, taking him. It engulfed him—sucked him down like a spider down the drain. And Bobby’s dog, Rupert, he saw it, and he barked—and because he was a loyal dog (a Benji mutt rescued from the pound), he ran to the boy who screamed, whose arms flimmered in the air—shovel in hand. And then the dog, he went too—for that hole had grown. Yawping, crying, he scrabbled at the sinking ground—trying to pull away from a circumference that was ever increasing.
And so, as the dog barked and the boy screamed in the sinking sand of the sandbox, Bobby’s mother, Jane, she abandoned her wicker basket. On the laundry line, bed linens remained—white and crackling in the summer sun and summer breeze. One damp sheet slid out from under its clothespins, and fell to the springy grass—as the mother walked, then ran towards her child. From the sideyard to the backyard, she rounded the corner.
And there was the hole. And there was Bobby, in the middle of it—half in, half out. His arms waved. And as his mother ran, she saw her son slide from view, and the wooden borders of the sandbox slide in over him. She screamed, as the lawn joined the sandbox in the hole. And still, the hole widening, she ran towards her child. And then the hole took her, too. And all trace of them disappeared. The three. Boy, dog, mom. And there followed a moment of silence as dad, in the workshop, looked up from the lumber on his saw table. And he wondered if maybe he had heard something through the sawing. And he took the pencil out from behind his ear and placed it on the counter. And he walked out of the workshop, calling—
“Jane? Jane? Bobby? Rupert? Jane?”
And just as he closed the door to the workshop—the hole took him, and it. And they were gone.
And as the hole neared the house, sister Bethany listened to bubbly rock music and talked on the phone. She lay on the bed, her legs lilting behind her as she lolled this way and that—until she felt a shudder. Then she stood and went to the window. And she saw it. And she dropped the phone, and screaming, just as her brother and mother had screamed, she fled her room—teenage legs hurling her down the hall. On either side of her, framed pictures and flower vases were falling—shattering. And the house was tipping—like, onto its side—and she ran towards the front door, to get there before...before
She didn’t understand it—
But jeez, before the house sinks into the ground!
So, still screaming, she bounded down the stairs, through the living room—and into the foyer. And she reached for the door handle. And she turned—pushed the brass lever. And the front door opened—
And she stood there on the threshold as the house bucked and rolled—and she clutched at the coat pegs fixed to the wall. And the front door, which once opened onto a green lawn and a red Chevy and a yellow Ford Explorer, now, as the house pitched back, opened onto blue sky and a few scattered clouds. And then, that open door slammed shut—yanked by an angry gravity. A vengeful gravity—that took the girl and the house with it.
And finally...after the driveway and what remained of the landscaped yards, the white picket fence, it too crumbled—and succumbed. And there was, then, a welling up around the fringe of the hole—and the Earth, it seemed to burp. And where there had once been a family and a house, there was now no more than a pit. A pit of churned, brownish-red earth—and only the occasional tree branch, brick, or strip of vinyl siding. Uniformly nothing.
And a few minutes later, the summer songs of birds returned, but a sadness imbued them, for a sadness imbued all. To see the ribbons of dust that spired up to the white sun was to know that this was no hour of serenade. Just lamentation. Paa-uu-eeeee, paa-uu-eeeee, whistled the Black-bellied Plover—
Now, several years ago, the lass who would become our girl, Thing, disembarked from her New Jersey homestead, waving forever good-bye to the strangers she called parents. One hour later, opting for a room in the city over the rigors of college, the lone 18 year-old stepped out of her U-Haul, and into her East Village share.
With those rather small features that some might associate with fashion models (others, fetal alcohol syndrome) and that straight blonde hair and baby fatt that belies flavored lip-gloss and Wonderbread, the girl was attractivish, in an at-one-with-middle-America kind of way. And thus, it was then, in her first incarnation—a young stylist who had chanced into regularity at MTV—that John Reed (just stylish, a poet and chess player) took up co-habitation with the plump wage earner.
Some time later, there was acrimony. And, as she had continued to gain weight, upon greeting her at some stranger’s party, John gleefully puffed up his cheeks, as if to say—
My, aren’t we a blowfish?
But to John’s disgust, she rented out that second bedroom (his erstwhile office) to someone who paid his share of the rent—and, flush with this windfall, she went to fatt camp, and underwent liposuction, and breast augmentation, and bought an entirely new wardrobe. And although she had no friends or lovers, she was admired intensely by the guys at the deli. And as she lost weight—fatt camp taught her to survive on a diet of radishes—even more so. Yes, perhaps she was alone. Yes, perhaps she was lonely. Yes, perhaps she did lead a sad, miserly life, which, for that matter, she experienced only partially—as the radish diet, while it subtracted the pounds, added a permanent state of bewilderment. But, despite the mistakes she made as a result of malnutrition, she worked hard in the way that only the deeply lonely can work hard. And, because of the goofy, malnourished, lonely things she said, she was funny. And, with all that malnourishment, and all that lonely time in front of the mirror with a make-up kit, and all that time under the knife—she looked damn good. So Viacom (MTV) hired her more and more. And in that capacity, she was enlisted to play a part in the MTV Spring Break festivities in South Beach. And, tanning for a week before she left, the lonely, malnourished girl showed all she could of her freshly formed figure—sporting a thong bikini upon arrival. And when the fourth “Thing for a Day” contestant dropped out of the newt-eating challenge, a cameraman named Otto asked if that stylist girl wouldn’t do, as she was a pretty good white girl, and that was what they needed. And when word came down that the freelancer was eligible to enter the contest, our young, thonged prospect was consulted. And she readily agreed to do her part with the amphibian (or so it would seem), and then they were live—nationwide.
Verne, a blond linebacker from Tulane University, swallowed his newt easily, and thereupon, burped. Cora, from Puerto Rico via Brooklyn, had more trouble—but she did get the critter down, and make an awfully funny face in the process. Jerome, a black, red-haired, dreadlocked surfer, reveled in the procedure—he chewed, opened his mouth, and stuck out his tongue.
Objectively, Jerome looked like he’d be hard to beat, and when our petite, pink stylist came to the microphone, the few screaming collegiates in the crowd courageous enough to bankroll the unlikely aspirant were getting odds of 20 to 1.
Frankly, few were surprised when the stylist begged off partaking of the live snack.
“I’m sorry, I thought you meant a little piece of paper—maybe with some writing on it.”
All were confused, until Otto, cameraman, called out from behind his camera—“A note! She thought it was a note!”
Boos followed. A splash of beer arched across the contest area. Our stylist’s bikini top was dampened. Her chest heaved—expanded with the cool shock of the Amstel. The crowd quieted. The contest-announcer coaxed—
“C’mon, just hold the little guy. I know you can eat’im.”
Our stylist took the squirming hors d’oeuvre by the midsection, between her thumb and forefinger. The contest-announcer turned to the crowd—
“They all want you to eat it. Don’t they?”
The crowd chanted, “Eat it.”
Our girl eyeballed the striped newt, dangled it above her dainty nose-tip, lowered the struggler into her open mouth, closed her mouth, swallowed—and then the gag reflex kicked in. And, seeing as how that gag reflex had been well practiced since fatt camp (a weakness for B.L.T.s left few alternatives), that newt went flying into the crowd as if it had been shot from a canon. And one of our stylist’s breasts, packed so tightly into its bikini triangle—it too blasted off, leaving that baby-faced blondie scrambling for coverage, and the crowd in an enraptured apoplexy. Someone squealed—
“The newt broke in half!”
The contest-announcer turned to the judges—
“Does that count?”
The judges conferred, reviewed the rules—there was nothing to say that once you swallowed the newt you weren’t allowed to projectile vomit it. The question was—did newt hit bottom? That is, had it been, however briefly, stomached?
“Let’s go,” said the announcer, “to the videotape!”
The videotape was gone to, and it sure looked as if that newt had made it all the way down. And our girl’s newt-swallow was declared good. And the Applause-O-Meter measured applause levels for each of the contestants—and our girl was triumphant. She was MTV’s “Thing of the Day,” and had won the right to star in several spots that would help to promote the conglomerate’s exhaustive coverage of people drinking on the beach.
“You’re the Thing, girl,” the contest-announcer told her.
And it was not 10 minutes later that, right there and then, in thong, microphone in hand, our girl interviewed a pair of reckless fashion models (desperate—no surgery, noses too big) who had composed a little ditty about the youth bonanza—
Woodstock was hip and Lollapalooza was hot
But here at South Beach, MTV rocks!
This was accompanied by some swagger and shaking of their own thonged bodies. And thus did the world see the birth of the “Singa-Thinga-Thong” spot—which fed and grew to include every genus of singing, shaking maniac. Exalted by glorious resurrection in broadcasts from Boston (St. Patrick’s Day) and New Orleans (Mardi Gras), the Singa-Thinga-Thong spot became something of a staple for the network. A dependable dalliance, they called it. And thus, also, was the birth of “Thing” herself.
Like many artists, great and slight, Thing’s sense of direction was not navigated so much by map as by intuition. Sometimes she’d have the whimsy to get out of a taxi four blocks too early, only to discover that she was standing in front of that shop where she had seen that dress she had thought of buying at the end of last month, when unhappily, her 10,000 dollars a month had run out. (And look, coincidence of coincidences, now she had the money!) Strictly speaking, Thing was so very sensitive that it did not take a thought at all, but the mere echo of a thought to inspire her to action. Her wants were virtually pre-verbal—an infant’s craving for that stuff out of reach. And as for her discovery by MTV, it was quite fitting—as, ever since grade school, she had wanted to be a star. And not—no, no—just any star. Not just some Hepburn or Monroe. She had to be more. She had to be the most. That was all she wanted. The only little thing. And aside from that, she had no particular loyalty to anything—not this ethic or that revolution.
To her, all these cultures and identities, which the world so treasured, they were no more than eggshells—while we ourselves were more prone to scrambling. Indeed, it was by attempting to preserve the eggshell (culture, identity) that world suffering was brought about—for the eggshell was a refuge inherently doomed. As a species, we were overly sentimental about language and religion, and all those other trappings of life that we found so extraordinary—which were really just rote and mundane. Honestly, nobody cared one whit for any of these allegiances, except in the respect that if it was all they knew, why then, it had to be good. But Thing, she sensed the truth—that assimilation was our friend, and that humankind had to embrace the leveling of tradition. And yes, it was nice that it so happened that it was precisely her own cultural milieu that was the most powerful—and the one doing the leveling. But even if that circumstance was a relief (which had, possibly, saved her, on the way to stardom, a little time and effort here and there), she was nonetheless convinced that had she been an Ethiopian, or any other ilk of underprivileged person, she would have found a way to be leading exactly the same life she was leading now. It was simply inconceivable that her good fortune could have anything to do with luck—as anyone would tell you that you made your own luck. Why, that was a medical fact! Her psychiatrist had told her. And her psychiatrist would know, as her psychiatrist was rather lucky, well, quite fortunate herself. By will power alone—the sheer force of positive thinking—had Thing achieved the correct socialization and taste. No, no, no, not by chance, but by hard work was she in perfect sync with the global standard—which might even be an intergalactic standard, as she had often heard it called “universal.” And by that, this guiding principle of the universal (and yes, she was absolutely self-assured in this conviction), anything deemed weird or abnormal, or even just weak or secondary—well, it would have to be forgotten. She knew (and she knew she was right, too) that only if we were to aspire to utter homogeny might we expect peace and harmony—and that conversely, to aspire to individualism, we might expect trouble.
Suffice it to say, Thing understood television.
Not to be misconstrued—Thing didn’t consciously understand it, and television was terrific, and none of that homogenization was to create any unity, or movement, or any such dark and foreboding thing, but rather, a crowd, an audience—a happy-go-lucky assortment of good scrambled eggs. A world of swaying spectators. Of course, to avoid any variety of unfortunate mêlée, they’d have to be just different and isolated enough to, somewhat, resent each other’s company. A certain level of autonomy (if not actual individualism, which was fine, in groups) had to be encouraged. Nothing too genuine, obviously (authentic emotions tend people towards outbursts of emotion), but just bits and pieces from so many sources that it could never add up to a whole—just a confused kind of medley that might mask as a whole, and be insecure and envious enough to be threatened by other confused kind of medleys—thereby preventing any ill-advised collusion. The ideal thing was to promote autonomy without identity, to make people just separate enough to have their own separate “interests” that kept them from assembling—that kept them, for the most part, alone, suspended in a state of perpetual yearning in front of their own separate computers or televisions. And even then, when they did get together (and they would too, because, like so many of God’s creatures, they had that irrepressible drive to flock, herd, and swarm), it’d be over something delightfully peripheral—like music, or sports. Nothing that could really matter, to any sane person, one way or the other...
There were high points.
Among the 162 minutes of Thing’s 62 spots (37 aired), there were moments when she attained, if not true perfection in the sublime, true perfection in the burlesque—
These were the good things, and dubbed so, “the good things,” by her editors and producers. Here were the five shiningest examples of Thing’s accomplishments. These five things. Largely, with an accompaniment of maudlin musak, the quintet made up the best-of selects in Thing’s year-end, farewell tribute.
1. Swiss Alps, X-Games—April.
Freezing with snowboarders, Thing and her crew attempted to improve their ratings—
As it broke down, over Thing’s year on the air, she’d wear three thongs, one pair of pants (a mistake), and 37 bikini tops....
And it was on this occasion in the Swiss Alps that Thing’s fiddling-with-her-top reached a peak. It was as if, to her, the slippage of a strap or cup represented her flagging on-air popularity. Of all the types of bikini tops there were…well, she tried everything. And throughout, she commented, asked the camera—
“Or...lift and separate?”
The permutations were endless, and the team had not yet discovered the delicate balance—though this was to be that world-rocking instant when that balance was first struck, and Thing and her producers discovered what it was all about. For though she was right—the Thing was the cleavage—it was not merely the cleavage, nor even primarily the cleavage. It was, rather...
Thing in her thong bikini in the cold, well...her anatomy had the expected reaction. That is—her nipples hardened. And, in her silky white top (after this, all her tops were silky, and nearly all white), the situation was apparent. It mattered little what up, over, in or out Thing applied to herself, or, indeed, what wretched rhyme the poor snowboarders were attempting to execute—Thing’s stiffness was mesmerizing. At last, the ratings would soar.
Upon their first viewing of this triumph, Thing’s producers would forge a couplet of their own—
Herein, herein, herein’s the tip.
Stiffen those, stiffen those, stiffen those nips!
As far as what lengths those producers would go to do just that—well, they’d go to great lengths. Extreme lengths...Any lengths.
2. Cancun, Cinco de Mayo—May.
Sand, litter, blue ocean, and the roasted hides of mealy fraternity brothers. And Thing, on the beach—doused in beer.
The emptied buckets clunked, tipped in the sand—and suds ran down her body as she squeezed her breasts together with her forearms. And the wet, white bikini top, it stuck—clung to her.
“Ewww—it’s chilly!” she shrieked.
Laughing their belly laughs, the beer boys nodded, delivered each other claps of congratulations, and thumped their meaty shoulders into other meaty shoulders.
And Thing was thrilled. Her wild, cold eyes apertures—rapturous of those enraptured. The zoom lens delivered her goose bumps to all of America. Shivering, giggling, this young Thing found herself surprised—elated by the dependability of her own physiology. She was just so fortunate, she thought (her eyes glowed with the blessing), so very fortunate that her plastic surgeon hadn’t severed any of those nerves that had turned out to be so crucial!
So, smiley, Thing’s glance fell to her own chest—while, likewise, beside her, equally smiley, and awed, the beer boys who had immersed her, they too watched, and waited....
3. The Grammys—May.
Thing was setting the scene—
“Fame, wealth, beauty, extraordinary talent—the atmosphere here is positively intoxic!”
This said, Thing’s breathy phrases abruptly expired—and the VJ took a moment to contemplate, not only on her own perplexity (for something, somewhere in what she’d said, she suspected, was amiss), but on her fascination with her own perplexity. Her own stupidity, well, at times, it was riveting—shaded by deeper meanings, perhaps, or even genius. And though the specifics of that genius, in this incidence, as in most others, were just slippery enough to elude her, nevertheless, she decided—it was impressive. Thus, she looked down to check that her nipples were still there. They were. Impressed with herself in that, too, she resumed—
“Here we be! The red carpet. Oh look, it’s Hugh!”
The aging publisher wore satin pajamas and dark glasses. A short hop behind him were six of his bunnies, and Thing primped and pursed her lips with rivalry. (The camera loved her collagen pout.) And, behind the sextet of fleshy mid-westerners (just moved to California!), there stumbled the target of Thing’s interview. Lecherous and impaired, Tommy Lee bobbled a cocktail in the crook of his claw.
Thing thrust up her microphoned hand like he was the teacher and she had to pee, “Ew, ew.” She panted—
“There he is! There he is!”
Startled by her own voice, Thing raised her eyebrows, looked to the camera lens, and remembered her dignity.
“His music is better than it sounds.”
Then she cleared her throat.
“Ehem, so, yes, there he is. That daaaarrling of drummers, adored, mostly, for his trouble with the three Ls—love, law, and Lee.”
Having successfully read the queue card, Thing checked to see what she was wearing (a white thong bikini), and adjusted the little there was of it—although to do so was to risk toppling over. In fact, any sudden movement raised that risk, as Thing, having chosen for the occasion extraordinarily high platform sneakers, was forced to take a rather unstable and suggestive posture—just to stand up. And, it being a windy, chilly afternoon, her bikini top (like her posture) commanded attention—and the tattooed and greasy rocker lowered his sunglasses, reached into his pocket, and offered Thing a lollipop. Through her 800-watt tan, she blushed with the attention, accepted the Blow Pop, and immediately regressed to five years old—sucking on the lolly so raptly that a stain of cherry-red juice fringed her lips.
“I’m musical, too,” she offered, shyly—
“I’ve always wanted to play the strumpet.”
With that, Tommy Lee commandeered her microphone—and nudged her to a position very nearly beyond “title safety,” or, in other words, to an inauspicious location at the periphery of the frame. Even so, Thing, puddingified, wasn’t about to stop him. And just as if it were a serenade, she remained transfixed, as Tommy, who knew more or less what he was supposed to do, belted out his four lines—
You’re as hot
As a Malibu snot!
Sweet for the pickin’
And salty, for lickin’.
Then he retrieved the gift sucker (which evacuated Thing’s lips with a kerplop), and advanced on his next conquest, while Thing managed little more than a limp, damp look...and a sigh...
4. Los Angeles Courthouse—September.
Sadly, the anatomical formula was an unforgiving one, and after a few dozen spots, it was rather a tax on the imagination to find novel approaches to exploit that aspect of human physiology. How much swimming? How many pools and beach showers? How much cold water?
Accordingly, as the result of a dearth of ideas (and shaky ratings in the key consumer category “had 4+ pieces of chewing gum in the past week”), it was decided to divert attention to Thing’s back-side, the rationale being that this might prove as bounteous as her front-side—or, if not that, a divergence amusing enough to buy some time. And though they’d fairish success with the recipe (Howard, for example), interest was rapidly exhausted, and the backlash of the experiment was to put Thing in pants (she retained her bikini top) in an effort to class things up.
And so, in pants, outside the Los Angeles courthouse, amid throngs of newscasters, in that primordial war with ratings, Thing faced an unfamiliar challenge—to battle with all the other media flunkies for a few mortgage-paying words from an acquitted child molester.
Thing reported from the courthouse steps—
“At any moment, we expect pop star, Michael Jackson, who, the court has decided, isn’t so bad after all.”
The pedophilia, the pants. Thing knew it was a break, but she also knew it’d be a long bloody march from here to the news desk, and she elbowed her way to the front lines with Kong-like self-importance. She’d get something off that chalky Sambochio if she had to kill someone to do it.
Still...it was almost too much to ask when Jackson bounded down the steps and leapt into the media frenzy, hollering—
“Where’s Thing? I’ve got a song for Thing!”
And yet—despite her gleeful squeaks—Thing somehow knew that this was not how it was supposed to be. It was not that she was experienced in such matters, but when that barrel-chested Peter Pan hopped onto the roof of his personal ice-cream truck, which began to issue forth that candy, welcome-to-the-carnival tune—she had the sense that her peers at CNN would be unforthcoming with that key to clubroom.
We get sweaty riding rides.
We cuddle in our tidy whites.
It’s natural that boys get stinky.
We scratch our pits and sniff our pinkies.
For verse two, Jackson reached for Thing—to pull her up beside him on the roof of the ice-cream truck. She resisted—at first, quite casually, and then, quite pronouncedly, with flailing desperation. She was sure that he was going to say something he shouldn’t say—not on television—and she could already feel the weight of Public Opinion. But the other reporters, palms and probing fingers on bottom, they pushed her aloft—and, flashbulbs flashing, cameras humming, jingle music jingling, Jackson piped his second verse.
We giggle when we drink our juice.
We like it sweet and 90 proof.
Bear cubs wrestle, bear cubs grunt.
You think it’s wrong you’re ignorant.
Helpless to his charm, Thing tapped her foot, for even if it wasn’t, dead-on, the beginning of something she wanted, it was the beginning, dead-on, of something.
5. Death Row—December.
Though unrehearsed (no queue card), Thing knew very well to look directly into the camera, and to stress at least one word per sentence as she made her introduction—
“Talking about justice in America,” she said, by way of clarity—
“Here, in the United States, we aspire to a justice of integrity, one above reproach, of absolute purity and purity of intentions. And…we don’t care if we have to get our hands a little dirty to do it! If we want law and order, we’re gonna have to kick a few people around! Like...the lady with the scales, how’s she gonna know anyway?”
Thing muffled her microphone and leaned around the lens to the cameraman. Her voice still audible, she asked—
“I mean, Otto, justice is blind right?”
Thing, for this misadventure in crime journalism (MJ had yielded the numbers), was back in her thong. She stood in front of a wall of ceramic-tiled bricks. And after some out-of-range discussion with her cameraman, Thing readjusted her microphone (and bikini strap), and delivered her lead-in—
“Capital punishment—cruel and fruitable, or, the ultimate in criminal detergent?” Turning her head, from 3/4 view to full-on, Thing proceeded gravely—
“Today, we interview three men on death row. Three men who are here, in this maximum-security facility, because they never had a chance! Or, dad-burned it, because they never pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps! These are men who are sentenced to die because they were never loved enough—or good enough—or hard-working enough to make anything of themselves! And…or…er…rather…these are savage and sociopathic men who never had the capital to form their own corporations!”
Thing scrunched up her eyes and mouth—because that didn’t quite seem to capture the mood of what she was saying, even if it did sort of sum up what she meant.
She looked to Otto for encouragement, or, maybe, reproach. But Otto, a longhaired, bearded and bellied type, tended to think everything was okay—always.
“Cool, cool,” he rasped.
Thing tilted her head, utterly baffled. She struggled for clarity. She knew that it was really just a question of mind over patter. And then...she suddenly gave up, or succeeded—and after sighing miserably at the confusion of it all, jiggled her breasts, widened her eyes, and smiled her porcelain-capped smile (a recent procedure).
That was the cut.
Then, Thing, her crew, the warden and his guards walked down one of the cement and glazed-brick hallways. Speaking into the microphone, which Thing held for him, the warden explained the preparations that he and his staff had made for her visit—
“We got’ar boys set up for’ya down’na wreck ’all. It’s ushu’lly no more than four at’a time down thair—but we maid’an e ception today.”
The warden was a roly-poly Texan (at home in his own state of the electric chair and good ol’ American barbeques) and he grinned from ear to ear—satisfied with his command of the situation. Soon, the procession turned a corner through two steel doors—entering a darkened room.
“I can’t see anything,” whispered Thing gleefully, into her crackling microphone—
“It’s way spooky in here.”
At that, an inmate ignited—swinging about a dozen flashlights this way and that. After a bit, the beams settled, illuminating the faces of individual prisoners—every one of them hard and mean.
Although Thing was unfazed by the dangerous detainees (she knew greater anxiety from the calorie count of a milkshake), the patriarchal warden assumed she was a shrinking violet—
“Oh,” he laughed, “honay, honay—don’chu worra. Tha’s jus’ fo’ ’fect. We got ova’ a hun’red ahmed g’ards in heah.”
As if on queue, the show began.
“Wee haa!” exclaimed the warden—
“Jus’ like Elvis in Jailhouse Rock!”
And Thing bestowed on him an empty smile, because he was yammering to her about some really ancient stuff that didn’t mean anything at all.
Elvis? Jailhouse what? Should someone look that up?
A single spotlight circled the room, coming to rest on an old man sitting on a balcony. He held a guitar pick, and lifted a worn acoustic onto his lap—and then, he began to rock, that is, to rock out. It was plugged in, that guitar, and the old man had his Fender weeping with Rock & Roll blues.
Thing was ebullient, and over the din, for the camera, she made her introduction of the prisoner—
“That shriveled guy, he must be ‘Uni the Pepperuni,’ convicted for criminal conspiracy and the murder of six bookbinders, or, I mean, uh,” Thing read her queue card, “bookmakers. He’s been battling his sentence, death by elocution in the electrolysis chair, for over 30 years.”
Drums, bass, the rec. room came alive with music, as the old man crooned his croon—
Bein’ rich gets all da larks.
Like suits made from da skin a sharks!
And bein’ poor gets all de lumps.
Like one-eyed broads who’s gots two stumps.
No wonder, as a caused by dat, I grows up ta be a rat.
A broader spotlight assumed duty, and behind Uni, a group of old men playing dominoes arose, and, barbershop quartetish, the four codgers leaned together to harmonize the chorus—
A rat, a rat, a caused by dat, I grows up ta be a rat.
The beam of the flashlights then abandoned the geriatric songsters, and located a lank, young prisoner, surrounded by lawyers and reporters and other hangers-on.
Quickly, Thing ducked her face in front of the camera—
“Oh, that must be ‘Little Stevie,’ who, after his middle-America crime spree of two years ago, has been waging his own battle in the courts—to have his death sentence carried out.”
By the time Thing had finished her introduction, Little Stevie was singing—
Myself, I have no reservations,
For in a swap of situations,
I’d have no cause for hesitation.
(No remorse or contemplation.)
I’d gas you till asphyxiation—
And, revel in your fibrillations!
Several prisoners, made up to look like lawyers and reporters, shook their pens and pencils—and provided the chorus.
Your fibrillations, fibrillations,
Revel in your fibrillations!
The spotlights dropped. And Otto turned to Thing, who informed her television audience—
“I’m presuming that we’ll next hear from ‘The Smiler,’ the final subject of our death row interviews. He killed a bunch of nuns.”
A soft luminosity diffused a balcony cell, where a spongy middle-aged man with a Prince-Charming haircut frolicked with a feminine black man in his early 20s. They were sharing some drugs. When a spotlight brightened the spongy white man, he began his song with a shrug of the shoulders—
Death row isn’t really bad,
If you’re one of us junkie fags.
We happen to like a little kick in the pants.
We happen to like a little tragic romance.
And then the spotlight was down again...until a group of bathing-suited drag queens appeared—all reclining in outdoor lounge chairs. The chorus, abruptly set aglow under the blue haze of tanning lamps, lowered sunglasses and gay porn magazines to versify—
Happen to like a little kick in the pants.
Happen to like a little tragic romance.
And with the fading of the ultra-violet lamps, and the slowing beat of the drum, Thing was right on time with her wrap-up—looking into the camera, she awkwardly snapped her fingers and bopped her hairy blonde head.
Let me be the first to admit that as a result of my various entanglements with Thing (John Reed), not only do I deeply identify with her—I totally despise her. And while perhaps my attitudes may seem magnified by my own peculiar associations with her, I firmly believe that nearly all of us, to some degree, share in that emotional macropsia. She was our girl on TV. A girl we knew, and a girl we did not know. A famous woman, and a not-so-famous woman. An enthralling and likable woman, and an insipid and detestable woman. An attractive woman, and unattractive woman. That was her appeal. Any man might look at her and say—she’s good enough. And any woman might look at her and say—I can be better. She was all things. And nothing. The smartest of the dumb people and the dumbest of the smart. The prettiest of the homely and the homeliest of the pretty. The commonest of the glamorous and the glamorest of the common. And that was her, the girl on the Singa-Thinga-Thong spots—the best among the worst asses, and the worst among the best. She was all question, and no future. A potential with no prospects. She was our own forever baby girl. Big-eyed and smiling, and adored and whining, and petulant and annoying. That was her, on the television—just as she had been when she was two years old, sitting on her rump, too young to stand on her own, and reaching out to us, up to us, to lift her...to carry her away.
It was a perfect, perfect world, and Thing loved it. That is, until her ratings plummeted, her show was dropped, and her thriving turned to starving. One karaoke night at Junno’s, there was that ghastly incident when someone asked her if she was that model on that feminine hygiene commercial. Shortly thereafter, not to let suffering get the better of her, or go unapplied, Thing began to take herself seriously, and she stopped wearing her thong to nightclubs and parties (she’d always been tasteful about it, enlisting the services of a cloak, if the situation so warranted), and started introducing herself as a video journalist. She’d point out—
“You know, it’s an interesting thing, as a matter for the record, that I’ve always been a journalist, and that I’m working on some freelance projects, and I expect to have a holiday special quite soon, and, and...”
John Reed's novels include A Still Small Voice (Delacorte 2000) and Snowball's Chance, which will be published by Roof Books this September. He lives in Manhattan.