Masters of Despair
Some dally with despair, taking the occasional quick plunge but shaking it off and resuming their daily lives, shot through with hope. Others plod from day to day in quiet resignation. But a few souls have mastered the country of despair. They map its thickets and cul-de-sacs with practiced hand, needing to draw no contours, for the country of despair is a country without relief.
Dissolve out on boilerplate announcement. Cut to band playing theme, Gloomy Sunday. Bring up volume. Cue at-home photos of each contestant. Swirl photos. Dissolve to title sequence, lower band volume, 23 seconds. Fade to white, then slam to close-up on host. Pull back, reveal backdrop curtains, host’s table, three empty podiums, close-up on smiling host waving at the audience, pull back to reveal audience grinning, waving their baseball caps, close-up on two audience members holding sign “We Love the Masters!” Fast pull-back to POV of audience watching stage as the three contestants enter stage left.
— I’m your host, Rab McGramma, and welcome to Masters of Despair, where contestants question the land of null and void. Tonight I want you to give a big welcome to our three guests. First, there’s Laura Pelzer, from Waumontak, Minnesota. Third-grade teacher and mother of two, Laura joins us tonight for the first time. (Pan audience applauding.) Next, please welcome Mitch Nevasink, import-export CEO from the Five Rivers reservation in northeast Oregon. (Close-up on Laura and Mitch looking resolute.) And finally, welcome back Kennet Cabot. (Applause.) Kennet, you’re coming back for the FIFTH time to defend (flash number) your winnings of Ten THOUSAND Dollars! (Applause.) Contestants: Are You Ready to Play?
— (Laura) I sure am, Rab!
— (Mitch) You betcha! (Laughter)
— (Kennet nods, looks resolute)
— (Follow talking heads for next seven minutes to commercial break.) Then let me explain the rules of our game. I’ll present a scenario contributed by an audience member, categorized and vetted by licensed Socratic practitioners. Then I’ll give you the answer. The first contestant to press the buzzer and ask the question that produces that answer wins the full amount you wager. Should you wager more than you possess, bondsmen are standing by to assist you at the conclusion of tonight’s game. (Cut to backstage bondsmen grinning with eager anticipation.) Okay, LET’S PLAY OUR GAME! (Cue trumpets)
Contestants, for our first round, you may wager up to five thousand dollars. Schools of philosophy — write your wagers on one side of the card, and your question on the other side — and remember, you can lose more than you wager if you violate any canonical tenets! Here’s the answer (drumroll): This noun describes a person who believes that you create the meaning of your life. (Pause). A person who believes that you create the meaning of your life. Laura Pelzer hit the buzzer first, okay, Laura!
— (holds up card) What is an existentialist?
— And for FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS, that is correct! Kennet, you chose (close-up on card) What’s a nihilist, and Mitch, you asked, What is a fatalist? Kennet, you’re going to have to stretch to keep up with Laura! (Cut to Kennet grinning gamely.) Okay, let’s play Rooounnd Two! Contestants, it is your job, as Masters of Despair (cue theme music) to make a question for the following scenario. Close your eyes and picture, if you will, hundreds of people sitting in back-to-back rows of plastic chairs in a giant, grimy, cream and green waiting room. Each person’s lap holds an oddly-shaped package, a nearly hollow void bounded by well-defined edges. Each person is looking directly at the package. The answer is: (drumroll) The images on their minds’s eyes is best described by this phrase. Mitch!
— Zip. I mean, (holds up card) Are they looking at nothing at all?
— Mitch, I am so sorry. That’s incorrect. Laura!
— Rab, I went with (steadi-cam on card) Are they looking at some conjured, remembered scene?
— Judges, what do you — Laura, I’m sorry, the judges don’t accept your answer. Kennet!
— Well, Rab, are they looking at (close-up on card) a screen on which a series of disemboweling memories is projected?
— CORRECT!!! (Mass applause). Well, Kennet’s shown us why he keeps coming back. Contestants, what did you wager? (Flashing numbers.) Mitch, you lost $500; Laura, you only wagered $125 — very cautious, Laura! — and Kennet, you won ... $1700! Bringing your total to ELEVEN Thousand Seven HUNDRED Dollars! (Applause) Sorry Mitch and Laura ... but in our next round you’ll have a chance to double your money if you guess the correct question. Ready, contestants? Rooounnd Three! Close your eyes again — both eyes, Mitch! — and picture those people in that large, much-stained waiting room, each holding that oddly-shaped package. For double your money, the answer is: (drumroll) the package’s contents can best be described in this phrase. Kennet!
— Rab, does the package contain the sum of all human suffering?
— Kennet, I’m sorry, but that answer is INCORRECT. Mitch!
— It is full of impotence. (Intercut close-up of Rab and Mitch.)
— Mitch, remember you have to phrase your response as a question. Laura!
— Is the package full of futility and baseless devouring hope?
— Judges? (Pause, quick cut to band playing theme.) Laura, the judges have decided to TRIPLE your wager for your inclusion of “devouring” to particularize the package’s contents. Contestants, what did you wager? Mitch, I’m afraid your current balance is negative FIFTEEN hundred DOLLARS. Kennet, you lost ... SIX thousand, which means you still have five THOUSAND seven HUNDRED dollars; and Laura ... will the audience please stand up and applaud the daring of this contestant who is now ahead of our champion Kennet Cabot with a total of FOURTEEN thousand eight hundred TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! And now, to close this round, your best despairing response is …?
Pan audience applauding. Quick cut to each contestant, close-up as each responds:
— (Kennet) It’s all pointless, puppets dancing over a backlit bridge.
— (Mitch) This is the reward of all effort in an entropic world.
— (Laura) Something awful in its flatness will come to counterbalance this seeming flicker of pleasure.
— We’ll be back in three minutes, when our three contestants will face the category (drumroll) Hues of Paralysis. Don’t change that channel!
Dolly back on full sweep of audience applauding. Volume up on theme. Cut to commercial.
ANNA MOCKLER’s novel, The Rat Hunt Boys, appears Spring 2016 from Unbearables/ Autonomedia. She was born in New York and has lived all over the country, where she performed the traditional jobs of a writer: insulation contractor, factory worker, office temp, waitress, printer, cabdriver, restoration ecologist, and English adjunct. She lives in Brooklyn.