2nd place – Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction judged by Khanh Ha. Read his comments here.
Arriving by taxi, he’s impressed—distressed, actually—by the TV station’s majestic campus, located in a northern section of Chicago still dotted with green spaces. Studio buildings rise like mausoleums from trimmed lawns. Massive satellite dishes stand by to catapult his blood-drained face through the Midwest, should he somehow gather his nerve and go through with the interview.
But after the taxi drops him at the visitors’ entrance, he enters a less daunting corridor, reminiscent of warehouse spaces with cinder-block walls and polished cement floors. The plainness should calm him somewhat—nothing fancy, so maybe less is expected of Noontime Hour guests—except that his terror of a live performance cannot be calmed. Building for weeks now, it has infiltrated every twig of his nervous system. Even at night, bolting out of sleep, he’s been thinking he should will himself to die before he has to appear live.
He’s been instructed by e-mail to go the Green Room, where guests are accommodated until called. But right now, as usual, he has the irresistible urge to pee. He passes door after door, panicking, and it feels like the nightly dreams where he can’t find a men’s room or where the urinals he’s about to use morph into somebody’s posh velvet furniture.
Down the hall a handsome woman emerges from a doorway and offers a smile as they intersect. She’s fiftyish—about his daughter Lily’s age—Latina features, meticulously dressed and made-up. He recognizes her from somewhere.
“Excuse me—is there a men’s room . . . ?”
“A few doors behind you,” she says, her voice chirpy. “Where you headed?”
“Green Room—wherever that is.”
“You’re a show guest?” He nods. “Good then, the Green Room has its own john. Come—it’s just there.” She takes his arm and guides him toward a marked door a few yards further.
“Very kind,” he says. “You look—do I know you?”
“If you watch the lottery draw.”
Of course. Rosa somebody, the flirty, winking lottery lady who draws the numbers during the Noontime Hour program. He’d seen her a few times before agreeing to be interviewed, before icy dread kept him from watching the show any longer.
“Now I recognize you. You’re very good. Animated.”
“‘Animated!” she says, amused. “I like that. And what brings you here?”
“I’m supposed to be interviewed on Noontime Hour. I’m, uh, promoting a book. Written a long time ago.”
“Really? What’s your name? Do I know the book?”
“Oh, it’s just an old novel that suddenly people want to read. Breath of Love. My publisher keeps pushing for publicity, but to tell the truth I’m terrified to go on . . . ” He stops. Why is he telling her? It’s bad enough already. “I’m Charles Featheroff,” he says.
“That’s a nice author’s name. And you’ll be fine,” she assures him. “Just try to relax.” She leaves him at the Green Room with a gentle arm squeeze and one of her patented winks.
Try to relax. That’s what his daughter Lily keeps telling him. Easy for her to say, a motivational speaker and consultant when she has work. He’s always admired her natural courage and outgoingness—a benign version of her mother, whose outgoingness led her out of his bed and into another after nineteen years of marriage. Charles partly blamed himself for the breakup, even if Lily didn’t agree. He had circumscribed his life to accommodate his so-called glossophobia, the fear of speaking before a group. It didn’t make for a lot of fun at gatherings or for a dazzling career. Through high school he’d been so anxious, so flushed and sweaty when called on that he’d been sent to counselors and later even therapists before refusing to continue. He served two years as an Army grunt in Korea and got through college playing the taciturn, shell-shocked vet, bearded, burying himself in the humanities. In his one required speech class, the sympathetic young instructor—a doe-eyed theater type and, like many others at the time, an aspiring Beatnik—helped him cope by hand-holding and then sleeping with him for a semester. That unthinkably happy turn of events and its awful ending inspired his one novel.
He’s heard of Green Rooms with buffet tables and upscale amenities, but this one feels like there’s a carwash on the other side. Vinyl floors, couches with plastic upholstery, cheap coffee tables, and snack and drink machines. One table holds bottles of free water—the last thing he needs as a pee-er, but just what he craves to relieve the sawdust-dryness in his mouth. On the couches sit three people: a stout young woman with an eager face and two tote bags full of props; a weathered-looking guitarist, instrument on his lap; and a trim middle-aged woman. He nods to them, spots the bathroom door, and goes in.
He opens his trousers and shorts and disposes of the small absorbent pad covering his leaky apparatus. He runs water in the sink to disguise the sound of his dribble into the toilet. It takes so long for so little. They’ll wonder what he’s doing in here, but the point is to not to wet his pants during the interview.
I got a prostate like an Idaho potatah. As he does almost every time he pees, he recalls Marlon Brando saying that line in “Last Tango in Paris,” But if the still youthful Brando character had a potato back then, his own prostate must be akin to a watermelon. His urologist regards it as such, urging him to have surgery, even at eighty. But no thanks. A little pad is one thing—he takes a fresh one from his briefcase—diapers are another, your certificate of superannuation.
Charles leaves the bathroom, takes a seat on the last empty couch, and pulls out the two sheets of notes he’s written and rewritten trying to anticipate the questions. He started the notes with just a few simple cues to trigger longer responses. “Just wing it!” Lily kept telling him. “You’re talking about your own book.” But he couldn’t imagine himself winging more than ten words without panicking and going blank—browning out.
For example, he would probably be asked why a novel published some fifty years ago is getting critical attention today. Long story! He’d have to explain how back then a professor in grad school helped get it published through a connection with a small indie press; how it was quickly out of print and forgotten, including by himself more or less, during a long career in back-room library technical services; how his daughter read it and showed it to a friend who showed it to a publishing friend, and blah blah blah. Well, he could hardly spew out all that information under pressure not to pause or pass out. So he’s jammed in more cues on top of cues until the notes look like a killing field of squashed flies.
From this mess he picks out one legible line and rehearses it. I’ve been told the book is the story of a generation, but it’s a generation I felt estranged from. He’s tried to memorize several such simple lines, but they melt away in his fears. Damn fears. Damn ridiculous fears. Every six-year-old now performs like an old pro in front of live cameras. How hard can it be? Why must he fear failure at this stage of life? Why should he care what anyone—
“. . . Do you have a dog?”
The woman with the tote bags is leaning at him from the adjacent sofa, awaiting his reply. He shakes his head, manages a smile, and returns to his notes.
“Maybe a friend of yours does. Children? Grandchildren?” She’s showing him a large paperback book, Crafting Pet Accessories, by Nora Lundgren, with a photo of a beaded dog collar on the cover. “I’ll be demonstrating some samples on the program. You’ll see how much fun it is. You can’t get this book in bookstores, but I can give you my website.”
“Sure. Okay,” he says. She pulls a card from her purse and hands it to him. “I’m Nora?” she says, chin out, waiting. “Charles,” he responds.
“You an author, too?”
“Just one old book. And I can barely remember writing it, so I have to . . . ” He gives his notes a shake and notices his hands are shaking, too.
“Oh, sorry. You’re not nervous, are you?” He shrugs. “Don’t be,” she says. “There’s really nothing to it, believe me. What’s the worst that can happen? There was one show, I locked my keys and all my craft stuff in the car, had to just blab away and make word pictures. Went fine.”
“Well . . . I’m not very good at—I’ve never been on television or live anything, so I need to just . . . ” He tries to wet his lips. Sandpaper. “I wonder if you might pass me one of those waters by you.”
Nora does so. He gulps at the contents, knowing he shouldn’t. About to return to his notes, he sees that the other woman in the room is looking at him.
“There’s a very simple pose for relaxing,” she says. She rises from the couch. “It’s called Standing Forward Fold.”
“No, no,” he says. “Thank you, but I—”
Nora puts a hand on his arm. “Really, it’s a good idea,” she says. “That’s the health lady Barbara Stiles.”
The woman acknowledges Nora and turns back to him, coming closer. “What you do,” she says, bending forward, “is hang your head, then fold your arms like this and let them hang, and gently swing them back and forth like a pendulum, gently, gently . . . you can swing the head, too, if it’s comfortable.”
“No, I’m afraid it’s too late for me,” he says.
Now the guitarist speaks up, in a country-inflected baritone. “Never too late, m’ friend.”
“Diet is so important, too,” says Barbara Stiles, still swinging her arms. “Come on, don’t you want to try this?” Charles resists, feeling ganged-up on, but he’s saved by a woman entering the room as if flung into it. She is short, with curly red hair and oversized glasses with purple frames. She carries a clipboard.
“Hi, everyone,” she says breathlessly. “Sorry not to get here earlier. I’m Carol, your Noontime PA—production assistant?—so I just want to make sure you’re all set to go. Any problems? Do you all have what you need?”
The others nod. Charles thinks, I am not “set to go.” What I need is to be somewhere else or vaporized.
“I don’t know if they told you, but our regular Green Room is being refurbished,” Carol says. “It’s kind of spare here, so, sorry about that, too.”
“Been in a hell of a lot worse,” the guitarist says with a gravelly laugh.
“Okay, good,” Carol says. She looks at her clipboard. “Now—Charles? Is that you?” He nods. “You were scheduled to go on after the healthy-eating segment—that’s Barbara, right? But her table still has to be—well anyway we had to reshuffle a bit. So you’ll be first guest, then the pet crafts—Nora?—then Barbara’s demo, and close with the music segment—Denny? Okay. Good with everyone?”
“Long’s you don’t cut me short,” says Denny.
“No, no, that’s blocked in. Mike’s a big fan of yours, you know.”
Charles figures she means Mike Gallagher, the long-time anchor of Noontime Hour and, he recalls faintly, an amateur rockabilly musician who sits in with performers around town. If Mike is doing the author segment, he was probably given Breath of Love just this morning, maybe with summary notes and a few generic questions: Why did you write the story? Can you tell us what it’s about, in a word, and why it’s catching on today? Charles has already answered such questions in several written e-mail interviews done to keep his editor and her publicist happy—except they aren’t the least bit happy with him. As fast as they’d set up “incredible ops” for radio and television appearances, he’d turn them down, claiming age, shyness, health, family crises, disposition—whatever he could say to put them off. He managed to get through a couple of phone interviews with genial newspaper critics, but declined a hard-won, major NPR slot that was to be taped in a studio. That, for his editor, was the last straw.
“Honestly? We’ve busted our butts pushing this book,” she told him. “We can understand your shyness, Charles, but really, we put ourselves on the line for you, opened an unbelievable window of publicity—which is about to slam shut if you can’t go one step of the way with us. And truthfully, my enthusiasm is starting to run thin.”
She is a force, his editor. She wants him to build his brand, his platform, work the bookstores, libraries, broadcast media, reviewing media, social media. Considering that she inherited his book from the elderly colleague who acquired it (and who subsequently retired), he appreciates her aggressiveness, even if he has to dodge it to survive. Meanwhile, the publicist plays the good cop, telling him how excited she is to get him this or that media slot, how absolutely marvelous he will be on it.
The more he declines, the more he can hear them saying, what the hell were we thinking, publishing this useless old fart? And so, finally having to say yes to something, he caved in on the next “op,” which was The Noontime Hour, a popular Chicago news-and-features show. It wasn’t exactly All Things Considered or Charlie Rose, but with a signal reaching as far as Wisconsin, Indiana, and Iowa it claimed up to 300,000 viewers—all watching for him to die on camera.
He feels the urge to pee again; but as Carol is leaving the Green Room he finds himself hurrying after her, calling her name. She stops. “Yes, Charles?”
“Just wanted to—I wondered if I’m allowed to take my notes in there?”
“Sure. As long as they fit on the table, in front of you.”
“Good. Good. But I need to look at them a bit more . . . Do I really need to go first?”
“Yeah, I’m afraid so. But you still have about twenty minutes before then.” In the pause that follows she sees the signs of panic. “Listen,” she says, touching his arm. Everyone seems to want to touch his arm today. “There’s nothing to worry about. Just think of it as a conversation. Like you’re having a drink with a friend, and he asks you about your book.”
“In front of three hundred thousand people.”
“Forget about them. Just have your little one-on-one talk. It’s only a few minutes.”
“My mouth is so dry. I can hardly speak.”
“You sound fine to me. And there’ll be water there. Really, you’ll be great. Gotta go—I’ll come get you when they’re ready.”
He returns to the Green Room and goes to the bathroom again, horrified by what he sees in the mirror: a beaky snow owl caught in the headlights. Would anyone believe he was once broodingly handsome, irresistible to the fairest, sexiest young instructor on campus?
Coming back into the waiting room he sees the show’s anchor, Michael Gallagher, standing over Denny and excitedly talking guitars with him. “Really looking forward to hearing you,” Gallagher tells him. “And you, and you,” he says consecutively to Nora and Barbara. “Better get back.” He nods uncertainly at Charles on the way out. Had he even gotten the book in his hands? Does he even have a list of questions?
It occurs to Charles that he still has an option. He can get up, walk out, and tell his publisher to do whatever the hell it wants. But the truth is, he needs the book to keep selling. So far, with about thirteen thousand copies shipped—a spectacular start for a reissued novel by a no-name—he figures he’s earned about $20,000. For this he can mainly thank a gushing review in The New York Times, a purely providential “find” by a staff critic enamored of the book’s time period and “emotional authenticity.” Other good reviews followed, and his publisher thinks that with a lot of quick hustling by “Team Featheroff”—which now includes a rights agent—the hardcover and then its paperback could make $75,000 in sales, more in subsidiary rights, with a fair possibility of scoring a film option. “You don’t throw away a hundred grand,” is the carrot his editor thrusts at him.
And she is right. He cannot discard any means of cushioning Lily from the trials of the coming years. His only child has already spent half her life between the rock and hard place—abandoned by her partner, heartbroken by a venomous son who calls only to hiss at her, and now edging into a caregiver role as Charles heads toward decrepitude still embroiled in his own trials. But Lily, believing to have failed with the two other men in her life, has made Charles her special project, so much so that he has to hold her off, not easy, since he happily let her occupy the studio apartment in the basement of the house where she was raised—the bungalow he himself has lived in since he was married. So there she is, keeping an eye on him. When he isn’t home, she checks in on the mobile she taught him to use.
Today he told her not to call until after the interview. In fact she wanted to postpone a consulting job to drive him to the studios and be with him through the ordeal. He wouldn’t hear of it; how would he bear the look in her eyes when he let her down, kerplunk, after all she’d invested in his belated literary emergence—all she’s meant to him since the day she was born? Lily was always daddy’s girl, with her curly black locks—now going gray—her little songs, her brave cartwheels on spindly limbs. She was his burst of excitement after a day of numbing detail, his ally and emotional prop at the end of his marriage. When laid off from high school teaching, she cobbled a new career rather than find work elsewhere and leave him by himself. Her brief joy at giving him a grandson was sabotaged by her partner, who stormed off to Florida in a psychotic fit and, over the next years, handed his son a perfect template of victimization. As Lily struggled to make ends meet and keep the kid out of trouble, Charles had to beg her to accept what little help he could offer.
He would never have shown her Breath of Love, his novel, because he couldn’t be sure how she would relate to the small secret it held, just as he’d worried about his wife’s reaction should she read the book—though, true to form, she’d shown no interest in seeing a copy or discovering any relics of his former life. But Lily wasted no time when the Internet gave her the tools some years ago; she dug up the title online and managed to buy a used copy rather than put Charles on the spot. And when she read it, marveling, sometimes weeping, at its poignance, she discovered why she had been named Lily and felt it to be an act of transferred love.
“Okay, Charles, we’re ready to roll,” says Carol as she returns to the Green Room. Charles is still trying to make sense of his notes, shocked that the twenty-minute interval has expired.
He rises unsteadily. “Maybe I should hit the john one more time.”
“Okay, but real fast. We have to be there in two minutes.”
In the bathroom, nothing happens, though he feels an urge. Carol knocks on the door. “Coming,” he says, and flushes the toilet, runs the sink, before exiting.
“Mess ’em up,” the guitarist calls to him. The other two raise fists of encouragement. But as Charles heads down the corridor toward the set, the words dead man walking shoot through his brain and spine and ganglia until he can barely feel his legs. He puts a hand to the wall to brace himself .
“You all right, Charles?”
“Take a deep breath.”
He does so and wills himself forward, all the way to the foyer of the set—of the execution chamber—curtained off from the cameras. He hears meteorologist Anna somebody giving the weather, and then Gallagher’s voice:
“When we return for today’s book chat, we’ll be talking to local author Charles Featheroff, whose only novel has been making waves some half century after he wrote it.”
“Four minutes,” someone says, and Charles is ushered to the platform where Gallagher is seated at a small glass table, holding a copy of Breath of Love. The lights are blinding. Charles is seated and miked. He fits the two pages of notes, barely, next to a water glass. Another PA takes the briefcase and puts it under the chair. “All set,” she says. “Stay in this position, speak normally.”
Charles takes a drink. “My mouth is very dry,” he says to Gallagher.
“My God,” Gallagher says, looking into his face, “I didn’t realize it was you in the Green Room. I am so sorry. When I read your book I kept imagining a young author. A bearded dude.”
“You read it?”
“I sure did. Couldn’t put it down. That whole era—man, you had me living in it. And that ending . . . . I wish we had an hour to talk.”
“I’m pretty damn nervous. My first television. I can hardly breathe.”
“Hey, we’re just gonna have an easy chat, the two of us,” Gallagher says, leaning in closer. He taps the book. “About this. It’s all good. Short, too. My kind of read.”
The PA holds her arm up, drops it.
“Oh, poor Dad, he looks like he’s been gutted,” says Lily as Charles and the book are introduced. She has timed her workshop lunch break so she can watch Noontime in the client’s executive lounge. Her father appears bigger than life on the sixty-inch screen, his anxiety coming through in high definition. Three organization officers watch with her as they eat sandwiches; Lily is too tensed to start hers.
“Hey, motivator, didn’t you get him motivated?” kids one of the officers, a genial African-American woman named Pam, seated close to her.
“Right,” Lily says. “How about a medal for getting him this far?”
—So tell me Charles—there’s usually some true events that prompt a love story like this. It seems very personal to me. What happened?
— . . . What happened?
“He’s buying time,” Lily murmurs as Charles pauses and takes a long drink of water. “He’s going blank. Oh, god.”
—I mean, wasn’t the story prompted by real events? I know you served in Korea, but was there really a Lily? . . . An instructor who took you under her wing, so to speak? . . . Or would you rather not say?
–Uh, yes. . . . There was a Lily. Only that wasn’t her real name. I didn’t want to, you know.
“But it’s your real name,” Pam whispers to Lily.
“A matter of luck,” Pam won’t understand what luck she means: that she ended up with a name she adores, partly thanks to her mother not knowing its source—not until after leaving Charles.
—You didn’t want to what, Charles? To identify her?
–No. Well, maybe. I’m not sure. To spare the family. But she, it didn’t matter. She wasn’t there. I mean to feel one way or another.”
–Then, that part is true? By the time the book came out, this person had actually, uh . . . I don’t want to be a spoiler here.
–Well, life already does that, doesn’t it. You could, uh, I guess you could say the book is about how things get spoiled. Partly about that. How happiness gets taken from us.
–But did the real person you call Lily, the one who helped you overcome certain fears—
–I only overcame them with her. For her. Once she was gone . . . I think they’re still pretty much with me. Sorry to say.
–So she actually did what the book says? To herself?
–You’re asking did that sweet, beautiful, free spirit . . . did she go off and die alone in some miserable hole in Rome? Yes, the real Lily took her life there. It . . . . “Whoa,” Pam says. “Name doesn’t sound so lucky to me.”
–Okay, let’s leave it to your readers find out why. I can see it’s hard for you to talk about.
–I don’t know, I didn’t expect . . . . I mean, it used to be, back when I kept thinking it was somehow my fault.
–You still think about her today?
–Well, I’m doing so right now. Oh, hell. . . . I wasn’t going to get into . . . I’m sorry.
“God, I think he’s crying. Get a grip, Daddy, please! Look at his eyes. Where is this coming from? He never cries.”
—You all right, Charles? I didn’t mean to . . . Why don’t you take a moment? I think our viewers see that this is an extremely emotional story. About finding and losing someone who—I don’t know, your soul mate, that first deep connection. It’s a sad song, in a way, about real people. I teared up myself to tell the truth. And I’m a doggone hard case.
“God bless you, Gallagher,” Lily sighs. “He’s covering for him.”
—So, Charles—you’re okay? Good. I have to ask you: You write this great book when you’re young, it gets published—now it’s headed for the bestseller lists— and as I understand it you never wrote anything again. This isn’t the usual pattern, is it?
—I don’t know. I didn’t have the so-called writing bug. I just had something I needed to tell. And then I didn’t have anything else worth writing about.
–Well that hasn’t stopped a whole lot of writers, has it? . . . We’re talking to local author Charles Featheroff, whose novel Breath of Love takes place between the Beat and Hippie generations, when Charles came back from the Korean war. A New York Times critic calls the book, quote, one of the most heart-tugging campus love stories to come out of that era, and I have to agree. A final question, Charles, before our time is up: Could this story have happened outside its time? Could it happen today?
“Come on, Dad—you don’t have to search your notes for the answer. What’s he doing?”
“He’s writing something on his notes.”
—I . . . I’ll have to go think about that.
“He’s showing the notes to Gallagher,” Pam observes. “Sort of strange.”
“No—I know that look. He’s has to pee. Oh, Dad.”
—Good enough, Charles—and it looks like we have to think about a break. Thank you so much for stopping by and sharing your feelings with us. When we come back . . .
“He’s getting out of the chair. Dad, you can’t . . . ”
“Man in a hurry,” says Pam as a pharmaceutical ad comes on. “He did great.”
“Well, that was different,” Gallagher tell Charles. “Strong stuff, though. Sorry I didn’t realize, you, uh . . . ”
“No, no, I appreciate . . . ” Charles shakes his hand quickly and heads off the set, briefcase held over his crotch. Gallagher motions for Carol, the PA, mouthing the words: men’s room.
“Very moving,” says Nora the pet-crafts guest as he hurries past her in the foyer. Carol shows him to the nearest men’s room and Charles races to the urinal for the slow process of relieving himself.
Back in the corridor he switches on his mobile. Two missed calls already from Lily and a text from his editor. The text says, Cheering you here. The crying bit was just marvelous. Today Show, here we come!
“Dad, I don’t want you to go through this anymore,” Lily tells him when he calls her back. “It was wonderfully affecting, but what are you going to do—cry every time?”
“It’s okay, sweetheart. Funny, I don’t know why it happened. The nervousness, I guess. My editor thinks it’s the big breakthrough.”
“Yeah, really. You’d actually do another show?”
“I don’t know. I did kind of get through this one.”
“With flying tears. Maybe the next time you can pee on camera.”
He laughs. “I’m moving up to diapers. It’s time.”
“That Depends, har har.
“Hardee har. And how is your day going?”
“Great. They love me.”
“Wonderful. I love you, too, Lily.”
“And I love my celebrity dad. Anyway, gotta get back. We’ll talk tonight
if you’re still talking to nobodies.”
“I’ll consider it,” he says, but she’s already off the line. He wonders if he should contact his editor to get that “Today Show” idea right out of her head. Does he need another hundred nights of cold sweat? Another now-ridiculous breakdown before a mass audience? He is inclined, as he leaves the studio building and breathes in the scent of mown grass, to embrace the life he has, Brobdingnagian prostate and all; to talk things over with Lily, see what she thinks about forfeiting the big bucks—the money arising, after all, from the tragedy of the other “Lily.” He invokes her real name: Madeline. Maddie, he called her Oh, Maddie.
Arthur Plotnik is the author of eight books, including Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and The Elements of Expression, a featured selections of the Book-of-the-Month-Club when published. An award-winning author also of articles, fiction, and poetry, he served as editorial director for the American Library Association. He lives in Chicago.