- Barry Hannah
- Open City/AAWW
- Sound Art/Dissonance
- Trance Poetics
They said to meet them at the teacup ride, so there I was. And there they were, no question about it. They were the only couple who didn’t have kids with them. Hell, they were kids themselves. His skin was baby pale. Her Mickey Mouse t-shirt was a size too big. I waited until their teacup, pink with a jazzy purple line across the middle, whirred to a stop in front of me.
“You the reporter?” he asked.
“Hop on,” he said. “We want to go again.”
It was a Wednesday afternoon, and there was no line, so I did what he said. The music started up, the Unbirthday song from the Alice movie. I was surprised I remembered it. The turntable rotated slowly, no big thing, but then the boy—really, he was a boy—started spinning the steering wheel in the middle of the cup and set us whirling. My stomach seized up. I was glad I’d passed on the continental breakfast at the Hampton Inn.
“We’re going pretty fast,” I shouted.
The girl slung her arms around the boy’s neck.
She said, “I told him, if we’re going to do this, let’s make it fun.”
If they could see me now, I thought. My professors, my supposed mentors, down in Miami—they all told me the same thing. You need to go to J-school after you graduate, then intern up in New York for a year or two, eat ramen, show you’re hungry, pay your dues. I thought they were all nuts. I’d been doing the Devil Wears Prada thing for a South Beach glossy all through college and muckraking for an artsy giveaway paper on the side, exposing the City Council’s unfair treatment of skateboarders, making the Girls Gone Wild guy face the tough questions. No one could explain what thirty grand worth of grad school was supposed to buy me, and as for interning, I was done working for free. So I moved back home to West Palm, thinking I’d write for the local paper. But the local paper wasn’t hiring, and there was no way I was going to live with my parents while I waited for somebody to make the leap to a bigger market or croak. Lucky for me, there was another game in town.
Little-known fact: all your favorite tabloids—the ones you hide under the toilet paper in the checkout line—come from South Florida. My college friends called from their one-bedroom railroad shares in the city to warn me: I could forget Conde Nast once I had that stain on my resume. My parents said they’d rather support me until I could find something “legitimate.” I didn’t care. I’d always had warm feelings about the gossip rags. Every winter of my childhood, my family went to Enquirer headquarters to see the world’s largest Christmas tree. It was our Rockefeller Center, except without the ice skating.
So I sent in my clips, and two weeks later, I was on the phone with a cousin of Wynona Judd, sniffing out the truth about her dangerous addiction to diet pills. A year after that, I was lurching down the perfectly manicured Bavarian streets of Fantasyland, closing in on the biggest scoop of my young career, trying not heave.
“You all right?” the girl asked. She was chubby but pretty, her blonde-streaked hair piled up on her head and spilling over her shoulders. Same dumpling face I’d seen in pictures of her brother. Her nose, like his, was slightly piggy, but in a cute way.
“She’s fine,” the boyfriend said. He had dishwater eyes and some light acne scars under a failed chin beard. Pickings must be slim up there, I thought.
“Maybe we should sit for a while,” the girl said.
“No, no,” I said. “This is your vacation. I’m just tagging along.”
“See?” the boy said. “The lady’s fine.” The lady. Shit. Part of the reason I’d been picked for this assignment was that I was only a few years older than them. To close the gap, I’d painted my nails pink, put my hair up in a ponytail, and thrown on an Ed Hardy hoodie—swag from a club opening I’d covered hoping to run into Lindsey Lohan. The skull on the back had a heart in its mouth, and I’d never even thought about wearing it until today. It seemed like I’d gone the extra mile for nothing, though. The girl and her boyfriend were treating me like an elder statesman. Maybe I could make that work for me. Too soon to tell.
It was decided we’d have lunch in Cinderella’s castle. According to the guidebook, it was the only restaurant in Fantasyland with table service. I didn’t say much on the walk over, just let the seventy-five-degree air settle my stomach and the mellow sunshine perk up my mind. January in Florida is glorious. Right about now my college friends were digging out their cars or slogging through the snow on their twenty-minute walk to the subway. Maybe today would be the day their editors let them have their own byline. Good luck to them.
“So how are you liking Florida?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s nice,” the girl said.
“It’s like minus twenty in Wasilla,” the boy said. “It fucking sucks.”
“My dad goes up to New Hampshire every winter to hunt.” I figured it couldn’t hurt to show off my red state cred. Of course, Florida wasn’t red anymore, and neither was New Hampshire, but close enough.
“That’s cool, I guess,” the boy said.
“He’s not into hunting,” the girl said. “I go with my brother sometimes.”
“So what are you into?” I asked the boy.
“Are you in a band?”
“He wants to be on a reality show,” the girl said.
The boy’s cheeks went pink. “Like Making the Band,” he said. “But metal.”
“Cool!” I tried to sound chipper, maybe overdid it.
“Do you know any reality show people?” the girl asked.
“No, sorry. I don’t.”
The girl frowned. “We thought you might.”
People make all kinds of assumptions. They assume I make it all up. I tell them every story is double sourced. But don’t you pay your sources? Sometimes, I tell them, but does that necessarily make them any less reliable than “White House insiders” or, my personal favorite, “people close to the situation”? You think people close to the situation don’t have their own agendas?
They think I write about aliens and Elvis sightings. I tell them they’re confusing two different papers that happen to be put out by the same publisher. It’s like saying, “Oh, you work for Newsweek? Got any quick and easy recipes for veal scallopine?”
They think all my co-workers are creeps in trench coats who get off on rifling through people’s trash. There are some characters, I won’t deny it. Jesse wears leisure suits and alligator shoes and sings “Danny Boy” at nursing homes on the weekends. Kirk has Love and Hate tattooed across his knuckles and votes for Lyndon LaRouche. There’s Terry, the redneck building manager, who chases gators off the front lawn with a golf cart and a shotgun. And Ruben, the sixty-five-year-old mail boy, who was a doctor in Cuba before the revolution. The copy desk is made up of aging hippies who never stuck at the daily papers. I think one of them played guitar for the Quicksilver Messenger Service. The editors are mostly Brits who were lured here in the eighties because a lifetime of London winters can make Florida seem like Shangri La. They still act like they got stranded on safari.
OK, maybe that’s a lot of characters for one office. But the rest of us—we’re as normal as it gets. Some of us got sick of writing catalog copy for Office Depot. Some of us wanted to work in an office where it’s okay to wear shorts and flip-flops. Some of us have kids in school and don’t have the luxury of being snooty about what kind of company we do payroll for.
Me? Just living the dream, I guess.
Cinderella’s Royal Table was like a German beer hall but very bright and very clean. We were greeted at the door by Cinderella herself and a couple of other girls in gowns, Snow White and one I thought might be Belle from Beauty and the Beast. The guys at work had told me about the Magic Kingdom’s network of underground tunnels, which they said the Disney workers used for drug-fueled orgies. The character actors modified their enormous costumes to make multiple entry fast and easy. Snow White’s dwarves were the ringleaders, and while the brass had known for years about their underworld, they couldn’t do anything about it because it’s so hard to find little people who know how to work a parade. At first, I thought the guys were hazing me, but they dug up some old newspaper clippings that at least confirmed the existence of the tunnels. Kirk said he was writing a screenplay about it. So, while the girl and her boyfriend got their picture taken with Cinderella and friends, I checked the characters out for signs of debauchery. Had Belle been running around on the Beast, taking it doggy style from Goofy? Was Snow White doing blow off the Queen’s magic mirror? To my disappointment, I couldn’t spot a single lipstick smudge or hair out of place.
“I’m afraid your job is making you coarse.” So said my mom in that quivering tone of hers last Sunday at dinner. Hard to disagree at times like this.
The Fairy Tale Lunch was prix fixe. Judging from the menu, Cinderella was going through an ethnic identity crisis. The appetizer was a “surprise castle speciality,” after which we had our choice of ham and turkey focaccia (ham and turkey?), pork tenderloin with couscous, pasta al pomadoro for the vegetarians, and Major Domo’s Favorite Pie. Was Major Domo even a character in the movie? I couldn’t remember, but I assumed his favorite pie was shepherd’s or pot.
We examined our menus in silence for a while. I noticed a grim look on the boy’s face.
“Thirty-six bucks for lunch?” he said.
“That includes the photos,” the girl said.
Jesus. To hear them talk, you’d think we hadn’t paid for their plane tickets, hotel, rental car, weekend park passes.
“Lunch is on me,” I said. “I’ve got the company card for the weekend.”
Not exactly true. I’d be using my own card, then submitting receipts and hoping I got reimbursed before the bill came due.
The boy shook his head. “Just so people can see a picture of the baby. Don’t all babies look the same anyway?”
“You’d be surprised,” I said. “Suri looked kind of Asian almost, so that got people talking. And Shiloh made this face like she knew who her parents were, like she was thinking, ‘That’s right. I am the most fabulous baby in the world.’ People go nuts for that stuff.”
The boy screwed up his face. “So her brother’s supposed to be like Brad Pitt now?”
The girl shot him a dirty look. “This tanning salon in LA paid him a thousand bucks to go to their opening,” she told me. She sounded proud.
“Can you believe that?” the boy said. “They didn’t even win.”
I turned to the girl. “You must be bummed.”
“Come on,” I said. “Your brother could’ve been the Vice President’s son-in-law. Kind of a big deal.”
The boy snorted. “You think he wanted to marry her?”
That got my spidey sense tingling.
Before he could answer, our serving wench appeared with the “surprise castle specialty,” a platter of prosciutto, mozzarella, and fruit. What, I thought, no egg rolls and baba ganoush? She hung around to take our orders. The boy saw the family next to us laying waste to a plate of chicken strips and mini hot dogs, but the wench explained that only children under ten could order off the kid’s menu. She sounded genuinely broken up about it.
By the time she left, I knew the moment had slipped away, but I had to at least try to get it back. That’s the job. I thought I might have better luck with the girl.
“So did your brother want to get married?” I asked her.
“What difference does it make now?” she said. “I’m just glad it’s over.”
“Yeah, who needs that shit?” the boy said. “Everyone thinks they know us. We’re hicks, we’re druggies, we’re Nazis. They think, ‘Oh, she made the choice to run, so they’re all fair game.’ But we didn’t choose shit.”
“I know,” I said. “I get it.”
The boy looked at me. For a second, he seemed to bare his teeth.
“No,” he said. “You don’t.”
Thing is, I wasn’t just feeding him a reporter’s line. I really did get it, if “it” was the feeling of being misunderstood by a mass of people who don’t even know you, the apprehension that some of them might even want to hurt you for whatever half-baked reason. Just last week, my boyfriend, Les, was in Costa Rica shooting a wedding, the quarterback and the supermodel. Les had permission from a neighbor to use their balcony, but do you think that mattered to the happy couple? Once their bodyguards spotted him, they chased him back to his van. And since that clearly wasn’t enough, they shot out the rear window while he was driving away. The bullet missed his head by an inch. The shattered glass left scars all over his neck and shoulders.
Get the message? A guy who runs around in tights in front of millions of people every Sunday and a woman who makes a living posing for magazine covers in her panties—their privacy is worth more than a human life. Never mind they’ll probably end up selling their whole wedding album to People a month from now. If those goons had turned Les’s head into salsa, there’d be pundits lined up on every channel to say he had it coming.
Don’t expect to hear this rant from Les, though. He just laughed it off. He’s never happier than when he’s hanging upside down from the skids of a helicopter above some Tuscan villa or rappelling down a cliff in Malibu. As a kid, he dreamed of shooting for National Geographic, but being a paparazzo pays better, and it’s taken him everywhere he ever wanted to go. I think ending up with a guy like Les was exactly what my parents were worried about when I took this job.
They were probably scared for my safety, too. People forget there was another terrorist attack in America just a few months after 9/11. One of our graphic designers opened a package addressed to Jennifer Lopez and got a face full of anthrax. That was before my time, but I’m told he was a sweet guy who got a kick out of Photoshopping his friends and family, using his son as the model for Batboy, freezing his mother-in-law in a block of ice. Now he’s fucking dead. And Ruben the mail boy, who delivered the package, nearly bit it, too, before his doctor figured out what was wrong with him. Years went by without a peep out of the government or the so-called mainstream media about any of this. Then some schizo scientist in Maryland killed himself, and the Feds decided it was him. Ruben still thinks it was Castro.
So, yeah, I could relate to a couple of kids who felt like there was a self-righteous mob out to get them. But they weren’t making it easy. As we polished off our dessert (blueberry cobbler for me and the girl, a “chocolate cream cheese buckle” for the boyfriend), I thought about what I could do to draw them out. If I was writing a profile for Esquire or Vanity Fair, I’d take them to the Hall of Presidents, try to score some irony points, show off how clever I could be. But this wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about them, really. It was about the photos they’d brought with them.
The boy stared down at the gooey remains of his buckle. “This isn’t what I thought it was going to be like.” The girl just fiddled with her cell phone.
“Maybe we should talk business,” I said, “so you guys can have fun the rest of the day.”
I was about to add, “No rush,” but then the girl slid the phone across the table towards me. There on the screen was what I drove three-and-a-half hours for: her soon-to-be sister-in-law with the baby in her arms. Brisket. Baby Tic-tac. The guys at work had a bunch of names for the poor thing. I studied the screen for points of interest, but I had to admit the boy was right: aside from her bright blue eyes, the baby was just a baby like any other. It did seem kind of ridiculous that people would be willing to pay see her. Then again, was it any more ridiculous than dropping thirty-six bucks for a cartoon character to serve you lunch in a fake castle?
“So?” the boy said.
“I can give you three thousand,” I said.
“You didn’t say they were on your phone.”’
“We took a bunch with her camera. We can e-mail you those.”
He glanced over at the girl, and she looked down at her hands. I noticed for the first time her brother’s name tattooed across her wrist.
“Any with your brother?” I asked her.
“Yeah, but I have to check with him.”
“Fuck that,” the boy said.
I ignored him, kept my attention on the girl. “I can give you a lot more for those.”
She wouldn’t look me in the eye. “I don’t know.”
The boy slapped the table, made the plates jump. “God damn it, we talked about this.”
She didn’t answer, just folded her arms. The boy got up, and my shoulders tensed. I thought the situation was about to get ugly, but all he said was, “I’ve got to take a dump.” As he walked off, I saw the screw cap of a flask peeking out of the back pocket of his shorts.
Stay focused, I told myself. You’re close.
“Sorry about him,” the girl said.
“Don’t you think your brother would want everyone to see what a good dad he is?” I asked her.
“So how about three thousand now, and the rest when you get me some better shots?”
“Do you like your job?” she asked.
I blinked. Didn’t see that one coming. But I knew the answer.
“I love it.”
She smiled weakly. “You’re lucky. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
I had to laugh. “You’re seventeen, right? You’ve got time.”
When I really thought about it, though, what opportunities were there for a girl in podunk Alaska? Was she planning to go to college? If she had any business sense, she’d be taking her pictures to the other rags, trying to start a bidding war, instead of spilling her guts to me. Then again, her mother had just been busted for cooking meth, and her brother was shilling for a tanning salon. All in all, she wasn’t doing half bad.
Focus. Don’t let it get away.
“Girl,” I said, putting my hand over hers, “you’ve got nothing to worry about. You’re golden.”
Now that I’d gotten her to look at me, I made sure I held her gaze. “Totally. You’ve got a pretty face, a head on your shoulders. You can be whatever you want. All you need is a little help getting started.”
“What if I want to be like you?”
My eyebrow was up before I could stop it.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m not a psycho stalker or anything. It’s just the way you dress and everything is so cool.”
The way I dress? I’m a tank-top and cut-offs kind of girl, so it took me a second to figure out what she was talking about. I fingered the neck of my hoodie. “What, this? Do you want it?”
Her eyes widened. I swear they did. “Shut up. Are you serious?”
“Sure, why not? It can be part of the deal.”
“Oh my god, thank you!”
She was more excited about the hoodie than she was about the money. Weird, right?
“Don’t thank me,” I told her, my heart humming. “You drive a hard bargain.”
It’s a Small World was close by, so we decided to check it out. I told the girl how, on class trips, my friends and I used to drop acid before we rode the rides. Needless to say, she was impressed. Truth be told, though, all we ever did was joke about how rad it would be. We never actually went through with it. And now, sharing a slow-moving boat with the girl and her boyfriend, I could see what a bad idea it was. We drifted through one color-saturated scene after another of puppet children in native costumes trilling that earworm of a song. I couldn’t think of a worse place to trip.
To keep the relentless sing-song from shredding my brain, I focused on the puppets. I tried to work up some outrage about the cheery Aborigine with his giant boomerang, the Mexicans in their sombreros. And what about the girls? The can-can dancers? The geishas? (They looked like geishas anyway.) It’s a whore’s world after all.
Really, though, I was tired. I just wanted to get it over with, seal the deal, go home. I hadn’t seen Les since he checked out of the hospital. My garden was looking as lush as a rain forest when I left, but a day of neglect was all it took for the mealybugs to start getting ideas about the mango trees. The last Harry Potter book was waiting for me on my nightstand. I wanted to be a normal person again.
The boat started rocking as the boy stood up. He wobbled like he was trying to surf for the first time.
“Hey,” he said. “It’s true! You can see Russia from here!”
The few other people on the ride turned to stare at us from their boats.
“Oh my god.” The girl covered her face with her hand. “Sit down!”
“This world sucks!” the boy screamed. “Fuck you, world! Think you’re so great? U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
The boat stopped. The music stopped. The waving children froze. A voice came over the loudspeaker.
“We will not be able to continue the ride until all visitors are safely seated inside their vehicle. Thank you for your cooperation.”
The boy grinned as he flopped back into his seat.
“Yeah!” he said. I could smell the booze on his breath. “That’s what I’m talking about.”
We walked back to the tram that would take us to the parking lot. The boy was ahead of us. At one of the gift shops he’d bought a dog leash made of stiff, straight cord so it looked like he was walking an invisible dog. The girl had her eye on him, but I couldn’t read her expression.
“So you guys had a good time?” I asked.
She stopped and took my hand. “Can I come with you? I don’t want to go back.”
I could tell she was serious. And why not? There was nothing wrong with her that a change of scene couldn’t fix. She could work at the mall, hit the clubs, start a shell collection. Renting out my guest room would do wonders for my bottom line. And the look on my parents' face when I introduced her to them? Priceless.
A sweet little fantasy. But then I got a better idea.
“I have a job for you,” I said.
The corners of the girl’s mouth twitched, like she wanted to smile but didn’t think she should. “A job?”
“Seriously. Go home. Talk to your brother. Talk to everybody. Keep your ears open. If you hear anything you think is interesting, just call my cell.”
A little self-serving, I’ll admit. But you should’ve seen the smile that lit up that girl’s face.
“You come up with some good stuff for me,” I told her, “you can make enough to go anywhere you want.”
“Will my name be in the magazine?”
I was about to assure her that we keep all our sources confidential when I caught the eagerness in her face.
“If you want,” I said.
The girl hugged me. Then she glanced over at her boyfriend who was still caught up with his new ghost dog. Leaning in close to my ear, she said, “They’re not getting married.”
My pulse jumped in my neck. “They’re not?”
She shook her head. “It’s over. Been over.”
There it was: breaking news. And not just for my magazine. The Huffington Post would be covering this. CNN. Leno. They’d all have to hold their noses and give us the credit. This was officially the best day of my career.
I looked at the girl, and she beamed back at me. She knew she’d done good. That nugget of information was worth thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, but she didn’t try to tease it or negotiate or shop around for the best deal. She gave it to me for nothing. Because I was her friend now. Maybe that didn’t bode well for her chances of getting out of Alaska. Anyway, I’d tell the bosses she demanded a fat check and I agreed. They’d be pissed I didn’t run it by them first but not so pissed they wouldn’t shell out for the exclusive.
See? Inside every yellow journalist there’s a heart of gold.
The girl waved as they screeched off in their rented Camaro. I waved back, but I was already calculating how fast I could haul my ass back the office. My car was miles away, somewhere in Nemo 17. Should I call in with the news, let the copy desk start working on it? No. I was the one who landed this story. I wanted to see my name on the byline. I wanted everyone—my parents, my professors, my old classmates—to see it. In my head, the details I’d coaxed out of the girl were coalescing into a headline. I started playing around with the words: SHOCKER…BITTER SPLIT…HEARTBREAK… SECRETS. How about FIGHT FOR THE BABY? Stop. Take a deep breath. Now move.
I checked my messages while I speed-walked to the car. The first was from my editor, wondering why the fuck I hadn’t checked in yet. Keep your pants on, I told him silently. This is worth the wait.
The second was from Les. He was hanging out at my place; I’d given him my spare key a couple of months ago. “Don’t be mad, baby, but I smoked all your pot. Remember, I’m in pain. And you always get the best shit.” I thought of the William Carlos Williams poem about the plums in the icebox and smiled.
The last message was from my mom. She wanted to know if Les was coming with me to family dinner this weekend. “If he is, I thought dad could do a barbeque. The weather’s supposed to be perfect, and I know Les likes to be outdoors.” I rolled my eyes. What was that supposed to mean? That Les wasn’t house-trained?
But then I thought about my new friend on her way back to Alaska, and I knew I’d tell my mom Les and I would both be there. I had a deadline in front of me, I’d probably have to work through the weekend, but I’d make it happen. These perfect Florida winters are a gift. Family, too. You’d have to be a fool to turn your nose up.
Daniel Browne's stories have appeared most recently in 40 Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial and The Pinch. He has also written nonfiction for The Oxford American, The Believer, The Bygone Bureau, and Identity Theory, among others. You can visit him at daniel-browne.tumblr.com.