talking again about Dad, how Dad wasn’t the guy his mom married, telling
me again about his dad’s face when she told him, halfway through that
day’s box of California’s finest chard, exactly who he was. But Artie
knew, even then, even as he was packed up and driven two blocks down the
street, stuffed in the back of the green and paneled Wagoneer with his
boxes, not even allowed a seat, he knew his mom was lying. The man holding
the position of Dad had a kind of blank and burned patch around the time
of Artie’s conception. He couldn’t say one way or the other whether or
not he’d slept with Artie’s mom back then. He couldn’t say whether or
not he even knew her then; he knew her now, sure, and yeah in recent years
they’d slept together more than once—or so he’d been told, it wasn’t exactly
clear, Dad’s life a kind of pieced-together quilt of half-finished grip
jobs, the stitching here and there burned through from cigarettes and
pipes, the cheap fabric—remnants, really—stained with whatever could be
had right then—but Dad would have it known that this stain here, or that
one there, that was 200 dollar a bottle whiskey, and that’s got to go
for something. But Artie’s actual dad’s face, that day, that face of so
many marketable features, went Easter Island and no matter how many movies
Artie’s brothers made, no matter how much they looked like him and how
that should call to mind some memory of what his father looked like on
any other day, Artie remembered only the monolith man: Artie understood
reverence and awe. And then they replaced him with that little Korean
girl two weeks later. Artie never got that, what the purpose was behind
“Too Tammy,” Artie slaps my hands, “we
may be gaudy, but we’re not Texas. This is California, honey.
I tell Artie I’m sorry, I’m nervous about
the new set, the new lighting scheme and I don’t want him to look all
washed out. “Ephram won’t even tell me what cels he’s going to use today,
he just keeps nodding his stupid head all slow in that way that drives
me fucking nuts, trying to put on like he’s stoned, saying it’s going
to ‘blow your freaking mind, man,’ when we all know he’s straighter
than anyone here.”
Artie says, “Satan: Ephram.” Artie loves
the voice-activated com system. He named it Satan. Satan can respond,
but Artie prefers that Satan wordlessly do his bidding. Two seconds later
Satan’s found Ephram.
“Visual Ambience.” Ephram’s all high-talking
when Satan tells him it’s Artie.
“Look here you sewer rat, when my makeup
girl asks you a question you answer it like it was God Almighty Herself
wanting to know–”
Ephram tries to interrupt, tries to head
“No, asslicker, I said listen.” And all
this with the sweetest smile at me. “I don’t know how you got this far
being as stupid as you are, but since we go live in twenty I’m going to
pretend we didn’t have this conversation, all right?”
Ephram says, Sure, sure, and makes a sound
like he’s about to respectfully beg off. I flutter my hands around my
face, hoping I’m doing a passable charade for Please Please Ask Him
About the Lights. Artie waves a hand, more a tiny flapping, actually,
twisting it in a small circle and showing me his index finger. I assume
this means I should keep it together a second: Just Wait. He’s
not done yet.
“I’m all set for sundown, Ephram.” He’s
no such thing, but I understand. Ephram sobs, I mean actually fucking
sobs. “That’s the default setting this time of year, right? Dollface here’s
just touched me final and I’m all sequined from hell to heaven, gonna
shine like the Star of Bethlehem, leading the wise and the wicked to my
blessed self. I will shine like the Star of Bethlehem, won’t I, Ephram?”
Got us a little silence here.
“Ephram on line, Artie.” Satan will confirm.
Artie likes that.
Quiet, so quiet like Artie was for two
months after his father left him at Dad’s house. I know.
Then: “Sunrise, Artie. Set for sunrise.”
And Artie, still one finger in the air, still sweet smiles, rains a little
hellfire through the com. So loud he doesn’t even need it.
“It was you and your supposed
genius that maintained this anachronism, son.” We could have gone digital,
but Ephram was a master of the old ways. “I don’t pretend to understand
the intricacies of your little world, and there’ll be monkeys fucking
in the Vatican before I stoop to learn them, so all I want to know here,
Ephram, is am I gonna shine like the damn fucking Star of Bethlehem or
am I gonna look like that whore you call your mother?”
“It’ll take me two hours to reset.” This
is where the printed word really doesn’t help at all. I’ve searched everywhere
trying to find some descriptive phrase to lift and place right here, but
sister, nobody’s written it yet, and I’m not even going to bother. I mean,
if Ephram was Japanese, he’d be stinking up the set with his intestines
right about now.
“You’ve got twenty—you’re got sixteen
Sounds like sobbing.
“Ephram on line, Artie.”
Lots and lots of sobbing.
Artie motions to me. I’m confused. He motions
again and I think I’m getting a cue. So I step up.
“I can do it,” I say.
Artie feigns shock and disbelief. There’s
some kind of gasp on the com.
“I can,” and it’s all Broadway
now, “there’s nothing else to do. If numbnuts up there can’t do it, then
I have to. Callie!” Pretending to call to wardrobe. “Get the cream crepe
gown. No, the one with the gold stitched into the fabric.” Describing
what Artie’s already wearing.
“So, Ephram, we see how it is,” Artie gives
it cold like a meat locker, “we see who loves me. We see who loves only
“No, Artie, it’s not like that, I was just
trying to wow everyone... I was gonna–”
“Ephram, I said we were going to forget
this, and the Lord High Almighty has given me the divine ability to wipe
this from my memory, and it is already gone. Just see that you do not
give me reason to remember. Satan: Cut.” And Ephram didn’t even get to
thank Artie, or the Lord. Artie turns to me, “Oh go ahead, baby, give
me some of the sass. I suddenly feel just a little Texas.”
We sit and giggle and watch the clock,
waving Bobby the producer away, telling him we know Artie’s got to go
on, he’s got to set, but we want to play it out. Artie scrambles on stage
with only ten seconds to live and I can see from the side, up there past
the lights, a pale shiny oval of a lighting boy who didn’t have the strength
to even wipe the tears off his cheeks.
Today we introduce our Braille Farsi Bible
for Teens. We’ve got a whole new branch of our outreach program devoted
to blind children everywhere, and today we’re expanding into Persia. Artie
doesn’t think it’ll be all that successful in itself, but our core demographic’s
pretty damn scared of Arabs, so when we tell them we’re gonna neutralize
the heathens in the desert, put a stop to the jihad, they fucking just
hemorrhage cash for it. We found the core had a disproportionate fear
of blind Arabs, thinking they had less to live for and were further from
God’s word than normal Arabs, not being able to see it and all, and so
we were at a higher risk of suicide attacks from blind Christian-haters
than we were from the ones that could see. How they thought some kid lost
his eyes to a thousand hand-woven rugs before he was ten was going to
get to their houses to bomb their cars and sodomize their cats was a mystery
to us, but that Lord works in mysterious ways, and that Allah’s a bigger
mystery, so we weren’t going to bother with reason there, especially when
reason would close the core’s wallets to us. And we got the bibles free
from some other ministry who tried it for real and failed—they lost their
head and two cameramen while filming on location, and why they thought
they could actually go there and pull it off no one can figure, but anyway
they were branded heretics and found themselves scattered bit by bit to
the winds and sands—our only cost was to put new covers on them, and since
we do all our publishing in-house, it was pretty damn near negligible,
we just glued them right on the old ones. It costs us nothing to take
a couple of minutes to chat it up, and Bobby in promotions is from Iran—grew
up here, but still looks the part—so we just put his family up on stage
and saved a few bucks not having to contract out. They don’t speak a lick
of Farsi, but Bobby’s got his broken English down. Bobby Jr. didn’t do
a very good blind kid, but the actual number of people watching that would
know what a real blind kid would do is pretty small, and the percentage
of them that ever leave their houses, and then the percentage of those
that would interact with anyone, and the percentage of them that have
any kind of credibility brings the potential for flak to somewhere right
around zero. We thought our Swahili Bible would bring them in, but Kentucky’s
not nervous about the darkies in the deep deep jungle. Live and learn,
I guess. Our Voodoo Outreach proved surprisingly profitable. Damn shame
the X-Files got canceled.
Usually I’m on stage, but once we got through
the promo Artie took it all for himself. He’s going for the personal approach,
the one-on-one; we do it maybe once a week. Mostly our core wants to feel
like part of the gang, but we know there’s those out there that shy away,
even when it’s all on TV, they can’t put their hands on the screen because
they’re afraid that we’re going to laugh at them or something. I don’t
pretend to understand, but I know for a fact it’s true. Artie started
doing it personal when people wrote in and told us they just couldn’t
confess their sins with all those people up on stage. Artie tried to tell
them we’re not interested in confession, that they don’t have to tell
us anything, that it’s all between them and the Lord, but it didn’t help.
These folks got them a need for disclosure and they can’t do it with us
watching. They can only tell Artie—and they do. Damn, do they ever. The
letters people send in, the shit they confess to us on postcards… Used
to be I had a qualm or two about these people paying my salary, but I
got over that pretty quick. I have to stick around to freshen Artie’s
lipstick, make sure his lashes are secure, and do the closing song, else
I’d be home. I need sleep. I’ve been going constant for near a week and
I’m going to crash soon if I don’t stop. We’re off tomorrow, we do repeats
and special programming on Mondays, so I know at least I’ve got that coming.
Artie’s at the doctor all day, he won’t need me. Here at TLH he’s Jeannie
Crout, but at the doctor’s he’s just Artie Shrenkauer. Artie Shrenkauer
doesn’t wear makeup. And thank the Lord and Allah and Krishna and Buddha
and everybody for that. Don’t get me wrong, I love Artie. Artie kicks
ass. Artie kicks ass in more ways than a man could count, but a man needs
time to himself now and then. Time to sleep.