We know what we’re good for. Trucks of peach cocktail crash, spill syrup from cans. You don’t slip, you clean up. Boys know to nick the tire from a rope swing and hustle to the Forebay, glug to Jay-Z and Alan Jackson and maybe get some ass. Old folk double down and get fond. It’s something like the bottom of a tank top brought up for sweat. One kid might search for Big Lem’s BBQ Shack Rap on YouTube, 0 hits, and sling it on there himself. We’re anti-weather and pro-smoking. Not so prone to fools. Which is why we don’t much talk about the summer of the game show, when Delbert Cray and his yahoos moved into the condemned hotel, built a set in the ballroom, and just about boiled the sense in our heads.
He showed up in March outside of Safeway. Like where you might sell baked goods, but all he had was a stool and a TV tray full of questionnaires. If you filled one out, you got a complimentary flashlight, which he pulled from a black duffel bag under the TV tray. Cray was a skinny dude with an apple face, blonde hair in a Jew-boy ‘fro he kept pretty neat. Every day he wore high-tops and neon suspenders, not just bright but glowing off a real gas.
He didn’t bark you over. Just sat there until you wandered by and picked up a questionnaire. Then he asked if you were good at anything. Well, sure. Plenty. “Think me up a list of five things,” he said. “Like toss out the iffy shit and give me five keepers.” And people put down the questionnaires and thought. Bryan Colby said paintball, Kristina Saiz said cooking salmon. Mr. Diaz recited a poem in Spanish. Blue Dave had to rub his hat on his face and say he’d be right back, but when he came out of the store he walked right up to Cray and said shaving. “Smooth as fucking flint,” he said. Cray said that was fine. “It’s easy now,” he said. “I’m with a new media company called Local On. We’re starting a series of television shows in small communities all over the country. Local-On.com. What we do is provide straight up, high gloss entertainment that involves people in the community.”
To his credit, Blue Dave gave a real squint. “You out of San Francisco or something?”
“No hippie shit,” Cray said. “No politics. Stuff people like: talk shows, game shows, singing.”
“Who’s paying for it?”
“Well, the overhead’s pretty low. All the shows are broadcast on the internet. I mean that’s the It now. High res, watch in your bathtub.”
“And what,” Blue Dave said, “we pay to go on?”
“No, sir. We pay you. Or, I mean, you win what you win. And what happens is local businesses pay for a few commercials. Get their product at your face. And we hire up local kids to be key grips and whatnot, show ‘em round the in and out, and pretty soon it transmigrates”—he made a mill wheel motion with his hands—“into being all you. We move out and you’ve got yourself a nifty little local TV station. High as tech gets.”
Blue Dave clasped his hands behind his head and smacked his lips. “Goodness of your hearts,” he said.
Cray smiled. “This day and age, we’ve got the tools to get back neighborly. For a while it was all about watching people on the beach, and that was cool. But why not the biology teacher? Can’t she sing?” He raised his eyebrows. “Can’t she fucking sing? And that sandwich shop downtown, can’t it make a sandwich? Why should we watch some schmuck between shows on ABC try to sell us seven-calorie birdfeed, when you could be going downtown and eating some local-ass roast beef? What’s your name, sir?”
“David,” Blue Dave said.
“David, let me be straight. This town of yours is paying us. Real money. They’re setting us up in that old hotel on Mason Street. What we’re selling them is revenue recirculation, people walking to shops they live by instead of driving to God knows where. People talking to the people next to them.”
“And paying taxes.”
Cray laughed. “Well, I’d imagine that’s how they’re paying us. I mean, to be straight with you, it’s like you’ve already signed up.”
Blue Dave huffed and took a questionnaire. He saw that it didn’t ask for his social security number, or even his phone number, which surprised him. He read a few questions. “How long can I hold my breath underwater? Can I drive a stick? Am I allergic to nickel?”
“It’s all there,” Cray said. He reached into his duffel bag and handed Blue Dave a flashlight. “You can fill it out online if you want.”
When we compare notes, what we do admit is that Cray never lied. The city had indeed found him, not the other way around. There was some kind of thumbtack in our socks that year. Maybe because the Parade of Lights got rained out. All the rain, in fact, which cast a smell of rotten cranberries over most of winter. Truth was, people were putting more allspice in the persimmon cookies, paying their gas bills a little later, and—at the same meeting they finally approved the skatepark—voting 5 to 4 for Delbert Cray’s Local-On.com Local Entertainment Empowerment Service.
Local On started with green tarp and scaffolding. It’s actually pretty fun to walk under scaffolding. You hold your coffee tighter and feel important. Maybe wish for nifty sunglasses. But when you talk about scaffolding over ham salad and coleslaw, you frown. Susan White and Kathy Morse, in a booth at the Blueberry Twist after Thursday tennis, set about agreeing with each other.
“It’s just there’s a way things go,” Susan said. “Isn’t there?”
Kathy nodded twice. “The whole thing’s a little screwy.”
“Why do we need some YouTube channel to come in and—it’s like renting a circus to organize the prom. We’re plenty good at helping ourselves.”
“Exactly,” Kathy said. “The irony of the thing, of course, being that the community radio station is already right there next to the hotel. And they do a terrific job. That interview show.”
“Their antenna’s already on the hotel!” Susan said, widening her eyes emphatically.
“Pierce and his friend might get a show,” Kathy said. She spread butter onto a roll. “They talked to the lady. They want to play local emotional bands.”
“Emo,” Susan said.
“It’s not called emotional.”
Kathy shrugged. “I’m still a jam in the park girl. Ladybugs, you know. Bare feet.”
“It’s like goth but not as medieval,” Susan said. “Reynard sent me a mixed CD for my birthday.”
“Isn’t he a little old for emo?”
“He’s not a fan. But he explained it.”
Susan had DJ-ed last year’s Safe Grad Night, an event held at the local gym where high school seniors could party after graduation: swim, climb the rockwall, have pie eating contests, all an alternative to quarry kegs and car crashes. Kathy, president of the school board, did most of the Night’s behind-the-scenes work. When it came to the fun, however, she counted on Susan to steer. A lot of us did. Susan White was not just the librarian. She also organized tennis tournaments, invited national dance troupes, ran a model sailboat club, acted in plays, convinced people to actually watch plays, and spearheaded a First Mondays Nature Walk, correctly surmising that an Art Walk wouldn’t exactly fly. Susan’s son, Reynard, worked for a punk label in Oakland. For her birthday, he’d wrapped her mixed CD in a T-shirt that read HIPSTER MOM OF THE YEAR. With her son gone and the house to herself, we always saw Susan on the bustle, and we liked when she winked at us.
Kathy’s husband, Avery, sat down. He shook his hands dry. “Fan of what?” he said, tucking a napkin into his collar.
“Well, certainly not Delbert Cray’s television nonsense,” Kathy said.
Avery reached over Kathy’s lap and took half her biscuit. “I put down tennis,” he said. He chomped and grinned. “Aced ‘em all today, that’s for damn sure. Even you, Susan!”
“You filled one out?” Susan asked.
“Everybody filled one out,” Avery said.
“Don’t you remember,” Kathy said to him, “when the State Theatre started showing movies again—you remember this—and we took Pierce to see Honey I Shrunk The Kids because they’d been promoting it for weeks? New renovation. And then they couldn’t get the projector working and wouldn’t let us inside—left a bunch of kids crying out there in the heat—and we had to drive over to El Rio to see that reindeer movie?”
“Wait, what heat? That was a Christmas movie.”
“I didn’t fill one out,” Susan said quietly. She reached into her tennis bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper. “I’ve been carrying it around with me.”
Avery set down his biscuit. “Let me see that,” he said, taking the paper. He unfolded it and frowned. “It’s blank?”
Susan shrugged. She cut a piece of ham but didn’t eat it.
Under the table, Avery touched Kathy’s knee. Kathy clapped. “You’re one of the most talented people I know,” she said. “You’re like the bubbles in the water!” She pointed at her hair. “You are, for one, responsible for the beautiful color of this hair, which has led Avery to tell me things he’s never told me.”
“Honey wheat,” Avery said.
“And just last week, last Monday, Pierce was talking about when Reynard would babysit him and you would play piano for them. How you and Reynard were probably the first people to get him into music.”
“It’s not about what you can do,” Susan said. “It’s about what you’re good at.”
The Blueberry Twist had no TV, but it did have a pinball machine near the front, tucked next to the racks of real estate catalogs and classified booklets. Multi-level carousels of jam sat on each table. Every Saturday, Shopping Cart Charlie came in and asked for three salt shakers. Corned beef hash and three salt shakers. The rest of the week he sat on the steps of the post office and ate what looked like cat food, though we never got a good look, and certainly we never asked.
“It’s a lousy idea,” Avery said finally. He cut a boiled egg in half. “It’s a God-awful, incipit idea.”
“You should be the first one on it,” Kathy said to Susan. She leaned in. “You should see how much the cannery donated to the prize pot.”
“It’s for young people,” Susan said, snapping the sweatband on her wrist.
“Look, they haven’t even said how it works,” Avery said.
“I sent Reynard their website,” Susan said. “He said if I get on the show then he’ll post a link on his blog. A lot of people read his blog. He posts songs and people go there to get the songs.”
Kathy spooned some coleslaw onto Susan’s plate. “We’ll probably have to mail order you a dress. I can’t imagine anybody in this town has what we’ll need.”
But Avery was right. Local On kept mum on details. We guessed, sure. Plenty of rumors whiffed around, from the hardware store to the cereal aisle. New shifts gabbed with the shifts getting off. Dentists theorized uninterrupted. Lifeguards at the YMCA put a thoughtful finger on their sunblock. All five Lackey brothers smoked pot in the bathroom of the cineplex, argued and boasted and glanced at the smoke alarm. When Joey Worton got a package from New Zealand, the clerks at the post office took a blood pact, opened the box, suspiciously fingered the scuba flippers within, and made Worton fill out an extra form. Lucas Dapling tried to convince Lily Xiong to give him a blowjob. “That’s not a talent,” Lily said. She was across the room, naked except for Lucas’s Jeff Gordon hat. She tried to look at her eyes in the mirror and avoid the forehead zits. She’d read somewhere that people generally just look at your eyes. “It might not even be a talent kind of show,” Lucas said, lying on the bed. He jerked off into the pillow a little. Lily snorted. “What is it, a blowjob show?”
Even way out in the almond groves, we got distracted, dropped a handful. In the Pioneer Museum, which no one ever visited, we didn’t answer the phone. We watched van after van pull up to the hotel, unload cameras and tile, floodlights and ladders. Sweat began to camp in our brains. Had they really just driven an antique Bentley into the lobby? Did that van really say LIMITED EDITION DINOSAUR BONES?
Then one day, like rice field smoke, the words spread: “First of August.” And then: “Email. If you signed up, check your email.”
Hell in a handbasket, was it ever on! We got the most expensive haircuts of our lives. We tap-danced in the tool shed. Blue Dave filled his sink with aftershave and dunked his face. Avery yanked out all his heirloom tomatoes and polished them with a rag and a bottle of olive oil. Mr. Diaz dabbed hair gel on the corners of his mustache and rolled his R’s. Yahoo, Gmail, Hotmail, AOL: hundreds of technical supporters sighed when they heard our zip-code. “It’s working,” they said. “All the servers are working. Yes. If you had a message, you’d see it.” If you dropped our hearts from the bridge that month, they would convulse to shore of their own volition. If you asked us something urgent, you might be asked to come again.
Susan White was wearing oven mitts when the phone rang. She set her pan of baked peppers on the counter. But this made her nervous about burnt linoleum, so she grabbed the pan and dumped the peppers onto a plate, toed open the oven, and tossed the pan back inside. “Coming!” she shouted. The phone continued to ring. Where was it? By the TV? No, in the bathroom.
She sat on the toilet and answered. They asked if she was Mrs. White. No one had called her that since her husband died. It threw her off.
“Are you there?” they asked.
“Susan,” she said.
“Susan, this is Delbert Cray from Local On. I know this is short notice, and I know it’s not how we said, but these servers, fuck, these servers. Uh, you good to go?”
“What? Go where?”
“Can you, being Susan White, make Susan White appear on our initial episode of Keepers?”
Susan put the phone to her chest. She looked at the toilet paper and unrolled it a little.
“That’s the show?” she said finally. “I mean thank you. Yes.”
“Boom. Sweet. Hey, thank you. Okay, let’s talk logistics.”
“Should I get something to write with?”
“Negatory. No writing. Keep it in the hush puppy. Secret! Builds hoo-ha. Like, the name of the show, right?”
“Except you don’t know that. Everything I’m about to tell you, you don’t know.”
And Susan White, DJ of Safe Grad Night and leading lady in most all of the Birdcage Community Theatre’s productions—especially the ones with singing, had no problem being coy, even a smidgen aloof. That’s why we didn’t suspect anything when she walked out of Safeway with a bottle of peroxide and a bottle of champagne. No extra suspecting, anyhow. How could we suspect Susan White when Carla Fowler was kicking little kids off the swing set in a bikini, trying to swing in arcs of feet high as field goals? When Abe Werter was drinking bee pollen and carrot juice? He took us outside The Boss, wiped the burger grease off his apron, and showed us a half-dead cardinal he’d stashed away in a fry box. He scooped it out, cupped it in one hand. Squeezed. Opened his hand. “Glitter,” he said.
Sirs and babes, we had our thoughts in a twitch. Nothing was looked at; it was sized up. Will this help me snag the nod? Is my dream hot enough? Bless her heart, but we had no room in ours for Susan White.
So she prepped alone. Sat in her living room, practicing scales on a Casio. Wrapped her neck in scarves and recited from Streetcar Named Desire. She cancelled lunch dates. Not that we noticed. Kathy shuffled her plan to buy Susan a dress fatally down her to-do list. With our heads pent up, tennis was a grim affair, and Susan’s absence didn’t even ping. She stamped books without recommending any. Bought her coffee with less and less chat, then started to carry a thermos. Meanwhile, the fervor about our Local On debut spilled beyond town. One night on Gmail Chat, Reynard (the only person she’d told) let her know that the story had hit Gawker.com.
Hi Reynard!! she chatted back. What’s Gawker.com???
it’s like this gossip website. usually it’s just for stuff in new york.
Whoa! Looks like we hit the big time. =)
haha yeah. u guys are local-on’s first like whole town thing. i think they’ve only done neighborhood stuff b4.
So if I mess it up they’re out of business huh??? >=)
lol you’re not gunna mess up mom!! you rock!!
Susan tapped a space on her keyboard without any keys. She smiled. Reynard explained how he was trying to get a ride up from the Bay Area to see her perform, but he wasn’t sure.
anywayz i will watch you on their live feed thing if i can’t. hey if u win you can pay for me to take a train up there hahahha 😉
Susan watched Reynard’s emoticon turn right-side up and burst into yellow, a full cartoon wink. She wanted to ask him how he’d done that, but she didn’t. They chatted, then he had to leave for a gig. He signed off. For a few minutes, Susan sat there highlighting the text of the chat. Clicking it off and highlighting again.
That night, she practiced harder than ever. We all heard her. One thing we didn’t understand was why she turned on every faucet and ceiling fan in the house. We chalked it up to nerves. Like the rest of us, we figured, Susan White just couldn’t wait for the game show.
On the first day of August, the tarp didn’t part until sundown. Though no announcement had been made of tickets, we were lined up and ready. Most of us believed the contestants wouldn’t be picked until show time. Nobody wanted to babysit, so we saddled our elderly with the babies and tried to explain how they could watch us on the computer screen. No, you don’t need to put a CD in. Just click Refresh and wait until you see us. Outside the hotel, the air was rusty. Hot wind and orange light. It smelled of burnt banana pudding. We mulled, gnawed toothpicks, and waited for the doors of the condemned hotel to beckon us into our obedience to applause cues, or—please!—into the chairs or buzzers or contraptional doohinkees of sweet competition itself.
A little after eight, still not quite dark, the tarp rustled and Delbert Cray walked out of the hotel. He carried his duffel bag and was flanked by two husky black women wearing cowboy hats. They were dressed in white cocktail dresses. Cray looked just like the tarp except brighter, electrified. He wore a lime green blazer, unbuttoned, with a green polo underneath, a huge plastic rose tucked in the breast pocket. He craned his neck and saw how far the line went. He clucked and reached into his bag, pulling out a bullhorn.
“Sorry about the tarp,” he blared. “We’ve had some site issues. I don’t even know how to fucking spell asbestos. But the important thing! The important thing is that we’re here and we’re ready for your—your very own—debut episode of Keepers!”
We cheered. Keepers! It felt dramatic.
“Now, just single-up the file there. That’s right. We’ve got your names on our list. If you filled out a questionnaire, you’ve got a helluva seat. One thing we do fucking right by is our seats.”
Squawks of protest rose from those who hadn’t filled out questionnaires but who’d been hoping just to watch. Cray compromised with the whiners by wheeling out an enormous monitor, so they could sit outside and watch. Some people had their laptops and watched the online feed. Others passed around red cups. People went next door to the radio station and asked if they could use the microwave. Maybe some of them got bored and went swimming, who knows?
All we knew was the gasp we made inside the hotel. Mr. Delbert Cray had not scrimped an inch. That ballroom was slick as shit. New chandeliers and gussied up wood. Spotlights that darted around like little kids. He’d replaced the parquet floor with carpet and banks of cushy recliners, all replete with cup holders. In back were the refreshment tables: platters of cheese puffs and cold cuts, bottles of local brews in deepfreeze vats. The room smelled like paint varnish and shampoo. People with intense eyebrows ran around, adjusting things and taking us by the elbow. We didn’t recognize any of them. They asked us to turn off our cell phones. In the corners were bearded men in tuxedos, each playing a different instrument: stand-up bass, fiddle, slide guitar. They played the melodies of pop country hits. We couldn’t find the drummer. Above us, a balcony jutted out, rimmed by flashbulbs and labeled in blue neon: !!! J E E P E R S K E E P ER S !!! We couldn’t remember whether the balcony was new or not.
We milled around glugging brews. Made cracker sandwiches. Gave our last wheezes of speculation. Then, after one particularly hearty twang, the band fell silent. The chandeliers flickered and dimmed. We hustled to our recliners. Tapped our feet. Delbert Cray emerged from the balcony curtain. When the lights hit him, we applauded.
“Locals!” he cried. “Locals and viewers all over the world! Welcome to the inaugural episode of Jeepers Keepers!”
Canned piano jingles started up. We whistled and kept clapping. Cray stepped back and the curtain rose to show a pretty homey looking talk show setup, desk and a couch. The backdrop, we saw, was a mural of the whole town: almond groves, schoolyards, supermarkets. We squinted and looked for our houses.
Cray sat down at the desk. “Let me introduce our contestants. First up, you know him by the color of his spirit, the drawl of his whiskey epiphanies, and the photos of his ex-girlfriend he’ll show you after last call: Blue Dave!”
We laughed and applauded as Blue Dave sprinted out in a tracksuit, slapping his cheeks and throwing fake jabs. We didn’t mind Cray making fun of Dave. We actually liked him better for doing it: made him seem less smarmy and more in the family.
“Next,” Cray said. “She’s smart as a whip and sweet as whipped cream. You’ve seen her washing cars to raise money for 4-H, and you’ve maybe wanted to see a little more: Lily Xiong!”
Lily wore a mini-skirt and a black cardigan. She waved. In the audience, Lucas Dapling high-fived his best friend.
“And, batting cleanup, the kind of gal you want to run the fireworks, the one who finally convinced you to stop drinking bottled water, a woman who seems to plant an apple tree in all of us: Susan White!”
This time our applause made a sneak attack: the tentative, initial Whoa, then the heavy cavalry of Yeah! Hell yeah! Avery swallowed his gum and grabbed Kathy’s arm. Kathy unbuttoned the top button of her shirt and whispered “Well!” Watching with his friends in an Oakland living room, Reynard hoisted a PBR.
Susan, for her part, walked calmly onto the set in white culottes. She blew a kiss to the camera.
All three sat down on the couch next to Cray’s desk. In our seats we mimicked them. They crossed their legs and so did we. Cray shuffled papers. He reached under the desk and handed what looked like video game controllers to the three contestants.
“First round,” he said. “Question one.”
The backdrop pixelated into a picture of an old baseball team. Cray pointed at the picture. “What year did your local baseball team, the Peach Cans, play their last game as a semi-professional baseball team?”
Blue Dave thumbed a button and beeped in. “’57. October of ‘57.”
The slide guitar whanged and the set bulbs flashed. “Bingo!” Cray yelled. “That’s a keeper!” We cheered.
The baseball team dissolved into a picture of a Native American in a business suit. “Why did Ishi,” Cray said, “the so-called ‘Last Wild Indian,’ descend in 1917 from the hills into your town?”
Susan thumbed. “He was starving.”
“A keeper to Susan!” Cray yelled.
As the first round progressed, we began to feel a little embarrassed. Not all of us, not the fifth grade teachers or the folks from the Chamber of Commerce, but the bulk of us. We had no earthly clue about the most common strain of local wildflower, the details of the dam’s construction, which year Bret Harte had visited. Blue Dave got a lot of them, Susan a few, and Lily looked mighty pretty, but when Cray said “Nobody? Nobody?” and the slide guitar played a minor chord, we felt relieved.
Round Two, that’s when the trouble hit. First, a sepia picture of an old Union Pacific rail worker blurred onto the backdrop. “How many times does a conductor honk when he drives his train through town?” Cray asked.
“Enough to make me take an Aspirin?” Blue Dave said. We laughed. Lily shrugged, and Susan started to say something but shook her head.
“Okay,” Cray said. “New round.”
The picture faded into full color, and the rail worker became John Turner, an actual conductor, still driving, living in a trailer near the fish hatchery with his wife, Sylvia.
“How many times does John honk to let Sylvia know he’s home?” Cray asked.
Startled, we looked around. Neither John nor Sylvia were in the audience.
Lily thumbed a button. “Three and a half,” she said. “Like honk! honk! duh-honk!” She looked out at us. We were silent. “My grandparents live down the street from them,” she said.
The bulbs flashed. “Lily’s on the board!” Cray said. “One keeper to Ms. Xiong.”
Next came a picture of Shopping Cart Charlie. Except it wasn’t just a picture, it was a streaming video. We shifted around in our recliners. We recognized some of the trucks that pulled up to the post office, some of the overalls that got out.
“What does Shopping Cart Charlie eat every day on the steps of the post office?”
The fiddler yawned. We scratched and scratched our jeans. Inside their vats, the local beers were exactly twenty-nine degrees.
Finally Susan thumbed. “Well, cat food, I guess. Pretty sure it’s cat food.”
“Keepers!” Cray bellowed. “You’re catching up to Blue Boy, Susan! You’re catching up!”
In Oakland, Reynard’s friends laughed. “Cat food?” they asked. Reynard got another beer. “I never thought it was cat food,” he said. “People say it’s cat food. I don’t know, dude. I mean, they must have the inside scoop or whatever.” His friends whooped. “Inside scoop!” they said. “Okay,” Reynard said.
All three contestants knew the answers. What could they do but give them? We knew the answers too, especially when we began to see ourselves on the backdrop. Pictures Cray shouldn’t have had: locker rooms, late night kitchens. We flitted glances. Blushed and glared. “Did you send him that?” Bryan Colby whispered to his wife. Onscreen he was in the forest, peeing onto a raccoon carcass with his paintball buddies. “You think I’ve seen that?” his wife whispered back.
“What other animals has Bryan Colby killed so as to piss on them?” Cray asked. Blue Dave mumbled something. “You have to beep!” Cray yelled.
“Dogs, cats and a turtle,” Blue Dave said.
“Okay, that’s a keeper,” Cray said. “But you still have to beep.”
There was Mr. Diaz awkwardly strumming, butchering Guantanamera in front of his class. “How many chords does Julian Diaz actually know?” Cray asked, and Lily merely echoed our heads when she answered “Zero.” When one of the Lackey’s girlfriends appeared onscreen with a different Lackey, a fight broke out in the back of the ballroom. When Marina Rawling’s dead mother appeared in her nightgown, taking off her wig and rubbing aloe vera under her eyes, Marina got up and ran for the exit. She pounded on the door, but one of Cray’s people hit it with his elbow and it gave. None of the doors were locked. We remembered our old folks watching the show online, and thought to call them, warn them, urge them to turn off their monitors, their computers, flip every switch, but then we remembered all the others watching, all the unknown gawkers, each and every asshole browsing in the bathtub. We jammed our hands into our pockets and sat still.
Up on the backdrop was Big Lem’s BBQ Shack Rap. It was pathetic, corn-fed and low-fi. Big Lem looked like the worst kind of fool: funny instead of fun. Cray asked how many views the Shack Rap had garnered on YouTube. Blue Dave guessed thirteen, but he was wrong. Susan buzzed. “None,” she said weakly. “Before now.”
In the audience, Big Lem’s face was red as anything he’d ever cooked.
When Blue Dave himself showed up on the backdrop—passed out on his living room floor, beers and Kraft singles and no lights, Animal Planet on the TV—he jolted up from the couch and leapt onto Cray’s desk. He kicked over Cray’s microphone. The two black women ran onstage to restrain him. Lily put her head between her knees. Susan folded her hands in her lap.
Cray laughed as the women dragged Blue Dave offstage. One of their cowboy hats fell off. Cray looked directly at the camera. “What a real bunch we’ve got!” he said.
Some of us began to boo and throw stuff. A bottle broke a bulb. One of the Es fell off the logo. Cray held up his hands. “Hold your horses! We’re just in time for the last round.”
Lucas Dapling stood on his recliner. “Lily!” he yelled. “This is fucked!”
Lily curled her lip and stared down from the balcony. “You’re a baby, Lucas. You’ve got zits.”
Lucas gawked at her, mouth open, barked a single laugh and sat down. He put his jacket on, popped the collar, and sank deep into the recliner.
Lily walked over to Cray. “Gimme the camera,” she said. Cray motioned up at the roof and a suspended camera wobbled down to Lily’s face. “Yo YouTube!” she shouted at the camera. “I hope you’re having a good day.”
And she began to dance. Rap music filled the ballroom. Lily snaked her hips, ran her nails down her body. She didn’t look at us. The camera careened and circled, captured her from every angle, and she followed the lens with her eyes like a skeet shooter.
“Register now,” Cray said to a different camera. “After Ms. Xiong, Susan White will perform, and then you can vote on your favorite. But you have to click right below this video to register.”
Since we couldn’t vote, we just watched as Lily stripped off her cardigan, then her mini-skirt, and moved around inside of her own body like molasses. Hands waving above her head, she stood on the couch in nothing but red underwear, swishing her hair back and forth. Some of us realized we’d actually be able to see better if we were watching online, and then we bit our lips and looked down, as if the others might’ve heard us think that.
One last chorus rumbled through—Lily rubbed the cardigan between her legs—and the rap song faded out. Lily slumped down in the couch and pulled her skirt on, breathing heavy.
Since there was only one computer, Reynard’s friends had to take turns registering. Some of them got on their iPhones and did it from there. Reynard sat slumped on his own couch, resting his head on a fist. “Did you know that girl?” his friends asked. “She was like, five,” Reynard said. “She’s fucking hot,” his friends said. “I used to lifeguard her,” Reynard said. “Those puffy arm things, she used to float around on those.” “Damn dude,” his friends said, and they made sympathetic noises as they waited to vote.
“Thank you, Ms. Xiong,” Cray said. “Now, that was great, and I’m not one to play favorites”—he winked at the camera—“but I woke up from something when I first heard Susan White sing. Susan, would you do us the honor?”
Susan stood and smoothed her culottes. Cray handed her a pair of headphones and she put them on.
“See those boys down there?” Cray said. “Just tell ‘em when you’re set.”
Susan nodded. She tapped her feet and counted off.
Fact is, you’ve likely seen her. We’ve seen the view counts. Description is just opinion, like how all those people posted follow-up videos after they saw her sing. And we’ve watched your follow-up videos. We’ve seen the laptops make your faces glow and heard the air conditioners in the background. And you know what? We agree with everything you said, all the wows and damn girls. But what you didn’t see was how we forgot to swallow. In the video, you can’t really hear how we suspended our breath to give her all the room’s air. Hell, it was just a country ballad, really. But Susan sang the lights out of it. Her voice was lonelier than sand. She wore those headphones and sang with her eyes closed.
After she took off the headphones, Reynard got up and closed the computer. His friends sat around with their faces down. They picked at the carpet. “Man,” they said.
Reynard shook his head. “Country music,” he said.
They didn’t have to watch the ceremony to know that Susan won. Back in the ballroom, Cray stood on his desk to applaud her. Lily put her head in Susan’s chest and Susan stroked her hair, hugged her tight. Then Lily let go and motioned Susan toward the front of the balcony stage. Susan watched us hoot and holler. Kathy stomped and beamed while Avery fired finger pistols. Susan put her hands to her mouth and nodded at us.
We never saw her again.
“Congratulations!” Cray yelled over the applause. “You’ve won Local On’s Dream Migration Grand Prize.” He reached under the desk and gave Susan a flashlight and some sunglasses. “Starting today, Local On will use the prize money we’ve collected from this terrific community to route you anywhere you want in the world. Route you and root you. Susan White!” We cheered even louder. “Susan White!” he screamed. “Where do you want to go?”
She looked at us, then she cupped her hand around Cray’s ear and whispered. Cray looked surprised, but he recovered. He squeezed her hand and turned to the camera. “Jeepers Keepers,” he said. “Brought to you by—” and the cameras turned for the first time to us. We stared up at them. Though we weren’t sure if it was okay to clap for ourselves, we clapped. We couldn’t stop.
Not everybody waited outside after the show, so what actually went down is a bit disputed. Truth: Susan never came out. A few of us cornered Cray walking to a van. His jacket was off. His ‘fro looked more scraggly than it had onstage, and his makeup was kind of dripping.
“Where’s Susan?” we asked. “We want to take her out. Celebrate.”
“She’s gone,” Cray said.
“Come on, Cray. It’s our game show. What did you do with her?”
“She won what she won.”
“What is this Willy Wonka shit?” we said. “We love Susan, and we’re glad she won, but we do have a few things to say about your fucking agenda.”
“Agenda?” Cray said. “I like skydiving. I like beautiful women who taste like soap. I like walking up and down the street at night looking for change. What the fuck is an agenda? I’m a service provider. Besides, you’re famous now.”
“Who cares!” we cried. “You made us look like fools!”
“You guys are reeling in subscribers,” Cray said. “What you should be worried about is producing content, not yelling at me.” He scratched his ‘fro. “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna give you the password to the stat counter. You’ll be able to track everybody who watches you. Match IPs with maps. You can zoom in and say that house, that house right there has been watching me sing.”
We formed a barricade between him and the van. “It was Susan who sang.”
He massaged his shoulder. “Well—it’s always Susan, isn’t it?”
Far as we know, Cray tried to shove a few of us out of the way, and all we did was shove right back. Of course, that’s not what his lawyers said. Plenty of national media outlets covered the lawsuit, owing to our newfangled digital infamy, but we changed the channel on those. Clicked somewhere else.
Cray stacked a tower of cinderblocks outside the hotel, claimed the hotel was his until the city coughed up for hospital bills. He also tried to charge us for the cameras he’d left, said that in the eyes of the law we were still renting them.
We get by like always. When we’re too tired to cook, we go to Subway. They show us each step of the sandwich. We ask for the meal, so we can munch chips on the drive home. We wonder about Susan. Even Kathy doesn’t know. Her emails bounce. Reynard won’t tell us anything, won’t visit for Christmas. Doesn’t he still have friends here? Sure as hell we’re friends, we think, driving. Mostly we cruise straight home, slashing down shortcuts, avoiding the stoplight near the cannery. But we do keep the windows open, keep an ear out for calls. Once in a while, there are people we need to see.
Photo by Sam Klein
Spectacular. So full of imagination, wit, and voice.