Gabriel Granillo’s story is told from the perspective of an American talk show host. John Berger has a remark somewhere about zoo animals getting stared into invisibility. Granillo’s Ray Forte is that zoo animal. To make a living, Ray Forte needs people to look at him. Listen to him. He needs watchers and listeners, not readers. We don’t need him either. Perhaps this is why we can relate to him: neither of us needs anything from the other
On the other hand, since he’s a talk show host, he has that quintessential smugness of being. The Germans have a word for it, of course. Backpfeifengesicht. A face that is crying out a fist in it. All talk show hosts have them; it’s practically a job requirement. Just think of Kimmel. Your hands are already twitching, right? It’s only a matter of time before the man’s mirror throws a punch. Any jury will acquit. They have to acquit because the Texas defence fits: it needed punchin’, yor ‘onor.
Some stories can endure considerable changes in their elements and still retain their essence. But not this one, I think. It matters that the narrator is a male American talk show host in 21st century USA. The job is the gender is the place is the age is the story. The story’s people and the writing reminded me of Somerset Maugham’s world-weary fiction– unsentimental and cynical, but also, strangely thirsting for a chance to be surprised. I was.
— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine
We’ve all got our own thing. Our shticks. Jimmy’s got his god-awful chin. He’s really not that funny, but his team knows how to market a funny face. I see it on t-shirts and coffee mugs. I see it rolling past me on city buses. I see his chin on a billboard on the drive home from taping—god, I still call it taping. My drive home is a tapestry of tail lights flickering on as the sherbet sun dives into concrete riverbeds and waving palm trees, Jimmy’s chinny chin chin on one of those Lamar billboards, hovering like a pale half-moon. There’s even a donut shop a couple blocks from his studio that sells “Jimmy’s Chin,” an almond half-croissant with a drizzle of dark chocolate. It’s the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Sugary nonsense with no substance. Fitting.
Darcy’s got her voice, just deadpan and flat, but in a way that lets you know that she knows that she’s smarter than you. She wears glasses, too. Looks like my high school English teacher. But it’s her voice that’s made her career. She’s done a few animated features in between seasons, and I can always tell when it’s her, even if she’s a penguin or a plumber. She’s quick and deliciously witty, not afraid to go toe to toe with someone she finds abhorrent. She finds everyone abhorrent. Maybe that’s why the network is thinking about canceling her.
Nilson fancies himself a political commentator. Looks like one, too. He looks like a police sketch of Andy Rockaway—the later years when the bags under his eyes looked like bruises on an apple. He delivers his statements, I can’t in all fairness call them “jokes,” with an air of self-righteousness that makes me roll my eyes right out of my sockets. “Republicans, boo.” “Democrats, yay.” Just about every late-night host in this town has an impression of the president, that same nasally bite, the way they all make him say the same things. Everyone’s impression is bad but somehow Nilson’s is the worst. I feel embarrassed to let my wife, Marie, hear me catching up on what he’s talking about, so I watch it downstairs while she paints in the spare bedroom. But Nilson is apparently “leading the charge of talk show hosts standing up to the president,” so said the Times.
Me, I’ve got a dance, some atrocious, purposefully terrible version of the Running Man. It was a thing I used to do to make fun of my grandmother who never learned to dance, but the people love it. My fans love it. They beg for it as soon as I hit the stage at Studio C. They share it in gifs on social media. They get allusions to my wild arms and floppy brown hair tattooed on their bodies. They show these horrible homages to me with such pride, such wide-eyed glee on their little faces, and I just don’t understand it.
Sophie tucks a paper makeup bib underneath the collar of my dress shirt with her long, pink plastic fingernails. Her fingers are always cold to the touch, as if she’s just been holding a bag of frozen vegetables, and I shiver. “Sorry,” she says. “It’s always so damn cold in here.” Sophie’s been with hair and makeup for 20 years, longer than I’ve been here, back when Jerry Smith hosted Tonight. The King of Late Night. A god amongst men. Name a TV personality today that wasn’t at least somewhat inspired by Jerry’s cool charm. He breathed his jokes effortlessly, like the cigarette smoke he exhaled from behind his faux-oak desk. Comedians loved him. Celebrities loved him. The country—the world, it seemed—loved him. And he used to sit right here, right where I am sitting now, the same cracked leather chair, the same darkened room, sitting in the same orange glow from the light bulbs lining the same mirror with that warm stare. Always staring. Sophie has told me endless stories about Jerry confessing all kinds of things while she painted on his face. His affair, his divorce, his drinking, his kids, his new wife, his parents, his retirement. Before any of that became tabloid mythology, she heard it straight from the horse’s mouth. Something about staring at himself in the mirror, she once told me. It just brought it out of him. So most days I just look at my shoes and try not to say much of anything while she does my makeup. I feel like a child, in my little bib, staring at my little feet, getting ready to play make-believe with the stars.
In my silence, Sophie will often fill the space with stories of her husband, Roger, her two girls, or Jerry. She’s one of the only people that uses his real last name, Schatzman. She even calls me by mine, Fonseca. Sometimes she hums songs I’ve never heard of. Today she’s so quiet, though, and the only sounds I can hear are the footsteps in the hallway and the electrical hum of the mirror’s lights. She dabs my face with her brush and takes a step back to observe her work. “Hmm,” she says and reaches for another brush from her plastic kit.
“Is something the matter, Sophie?” I ask.
“Oh, nothing,” she says. She bites her lip and continues painting my face. “Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. You’re just always humming or talking. Just wondered if you were doing OK.”
“Yeah, I’m good,” she says. “A lot on my mind I guess.”
We catch each other in the mirror for a moment. I see her dark brown eyes, her freckles strewn about her face like speckled paint, like one of Marie’s paintings. “Go on,” I say.
“It’s my dad.”
“As you know, he died a few weeks ago,” she says.
“Yes, terrible. Just awful. I’m so sorry.”
“And, well, me and my sister, we’re trying to figure out what to do with some of his things, and we’ve mostly got everything divvied up and arranged to be picked up. But see he’s got this piano. I mean, he’s had this thing since before we were born.”
“A piano? Like a grand piano?” I ask.
“Yeah. It’s this huge glossy white Steinway. Like, white white. It used to sit near the west-facing window in the living house, and every evening, the light from the sunset would catch the piano just right and engulf the whole place with a blinding light. He would mostly practice on weekends when we were kids. While Sarah and I drew on the kitchen table or played hopscotch on the sidewalk, he’d be sitting at that piano pressing down on those keys. As a kid, they always felt so heavy. I felt like I had to push down on them with so much force just to get any kind of noise out of them. I guess my hands and fingers wanted a gentler application.” She holds up her brush and smiles at me in the mirror. “But anyway, Sarah and I never learned, partly because we just weren’t that interested, but also because Dad was always kind of mean about being around his piano. I’m realizing that now. He’d get mad at us all the time for leaving sheet music out or not covering the keys or leaving our cups on top of it. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have been disciplined for doing something we weren’t supposed to do, but I think it turned us off from ever really wanting to be around that thing. Dad could be mean like that sometimes.
“Anyway, my kids don’t play. Sarah doesn’t play either, neither does her boyfriend. And both she and I don’t quite have the space. I mean, I suppose I could rearrange some stuff in my living room to make space for it, but still, moving it would be a pain. And expensive. On top of that, when Dad’s arthritis got really bad, he stopped playing and tuning the thing, so it was slightly out of tune. Not bad, but enough to make it sound wonky, even for an unskilled player like myself. So, not only would we have to move it, but we would also find someone to tune it.
“And, lastly, I’ll shut up after this I promise.”
“Quite the story, huh,” I joke.
“Hey, you asked.” Sophie chuckles. And then her eyes grow gentle. A softness weighs on top of her, and she sighs. “But anyway. That piano, no matter who plays it, will never sound like Dad again. Dad was never an amazing player by any means, but when he played, I could tell if he was struggling with a piece or feeling bothered or having fun or getting excited. I can still hear him playing in my dreams. For me, it was a way to understand him beyond his words, which he used very little. I could learn those same songs he played and I could play them myself, but it will never sound like him. Without him, the piano feels like a giant paperweight in our lives.”
The door swings open and Frank Wood slips in through the fluorescent-lit hallway with his clipboard and headset, talking. He’s our associate producer, and he’s always talking about something with someone. The man never stops.
“All right, all right, get Joey out there for a quick set, get ’em warmed up.” Frank puts his palm over the microphone of his headset and addresses Sophie. “How we doing?”
“Good, just about finished,” she says.
“Beautiful.” Frank takes his hand away from the mic and talks into it. “Let’s say about 10 minutes. I’ve got Ray and we’re headed over soon.”
“Hey, Frank,” I say.
“Who’s the guest tonight?”
“Who’s the guest tonight? What, you don’t know?”
I say nothing and stare at him in the mirror. He’s getting older, losing his hair, and drinking too much Miller High Life.
“You’re talking to Charles Whitman, former running back with the 49ers. He’s authored a new book called … ” Frank flips through his clipboard, the back of which reads Tonight with Ray Forte. There’s a silhouette of me dancing behind the words. I hate that thing. “Oh, here it is, The Dead of Night.”
“What kind of a book?”
“A best-seller. They’re turning the thing into a movie.” Frank smiles like he’s holding a cigar between his teeth as if the book being a best-seller is partly our success as well. I suppose he feels that by having Whitman on some of that success might come to us. We need it. Our ratings are down, according to the network. Our last meeting with the network heads consisted of various images of red, downward-facing arrows. We used to joke that our studio is called Studio C because we’re perfectly average. We’re not even that anymore.
“Genre, Frank,” I say.
“It’s some sort of thriller, I don’t know.”
“What should I ask him?”
“You didn’t go over this with your writers?”
“Maybe,” I say. “The writers’ room feels insane to me now. You know what they had me do, Frank? I had to dance for some video, a Ticky Tack or something.”
“That’s the way of the world now, I guess. Was it a good one?”
“A good what?” In the mirror I watch Frank shrug his shoulders.
“The thing. The video.”
“It was half past eight, and they had me recording this shit. We’re supposed to be writing a show, not filming a dance instructional. Maybe that’s why our ratings stink.”
“It’s easy content,” Frank says. “Even when you’re not on, you’ve got to be on. Know what I mean?”
I glance in the mirror at my newly made face, perfect and pristine. Sophie does good work. “Anyway, what should I ask this muscle-head-turned-massive-best-seller?”
Frank scratches his forehead. “Ask him about his leg injury. Did that make him want to write books or has this always been something he’s been curious about? Can’t be a running back if you can’t run, so how did breaking his leg feel? How’s this second half of his career shaping up? Ask him anything, just don’t call him a muscle-head, Ray.”
“From football to fiction, ladies and gentlemen,” I say to the mirror. I feel a weightlessness in my stomach. Some people call it butterflies. I don’t know what to call it, but it makes my mouth curl into an easy-there smile. It slides underneath my skin until it is everywhere and everything. “Please welcome, Mr. Charles Whitman.”
Sophie claps and smiles. “And we are done here, Mr. Fonseca. And thank you for listening to me earlier.”
“Of course, Sophie. Anytime.” I stand up and yank the bib out from underneath my collar and toss it aside. “And you know what, let me take care of the piano. I’ll have some men come over to your dad’s place tomorrow morning and move that thing for you.”
“Oh, Mr. Fonseca, please, you don’t have to, really.”
“No, no. It’s my pleasure. You mentioned that it was a little expensive, but don’t worry. I’ll take care of everything. I won’t take no for an answer. I can’t. Please.”
Sophie gives a weak smile and puts her brushes away in her kit, clicking it closed. I take Sophie’s silence as her response, and I hold my right hand over my heart, a gesture of gratitude I stole from Jerry.
Frank leans over my shoulder and says we’re on in five. We race out of hair and makeup and through the hallway, swarming with men and women talking into headsets, toward Studio C. The laughter, the crowd, is closer and louder until it is the only thing that matters.
The bits we planned during rehearsal just aren’t landing. I didn’t feel good about them then and I feel even worse about them after that hollow silence from the studio audience. My opening monologue was even worse. The only time I’d get a laugh was when I’d contort my body into odd shapes and obscene gestures, the only benefit of this lanky body with which I’ve been blessed. Even then it felt cheap. Like some catchphrase or curse word, something that elicits a laugh like an itch and then a scratch.
During the break, Frank waddles over to me, leans over my desk, and whispers in my ear. “You’re killing it, Ray. We’ll fill in some of that empty space with some audio from last week’s episode. And remember, his name is Charles Whitman. Not Chuck or Charlie, and not Whiteman. Charles Whitman.”
But I’m not listening to Frank. I’m thinking about a few things. I’m thinking about one of my first reviews when I took over Tonight. Some blowhard named Jonathan Fitzpatrick at the Times, among many other unflattering things, said I had the charisma of a weasel. He died some years ago. Lung cancer. I think about his words once a day, almost always during taping.
I’m also thinking about my days at The United States of Folly, a sketch comedy show for which I was a writer. Every week some celebrity would host the show, with a musical guest in between the hour. This particular week we had Al Feinstein hosting the show, a then LA congressman who had a little bit of acting experience, was incredibly charming, and willing to commit to all of the nonsense we threw his way. He had a face like a busk, with deep blue eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses, the perfect straight man. The musical guest that week was Aunt Lisa, some folk singer from Tennessee with a propensity for social commentary. Truth be told, she’s written one of my favorite songs, “An Ode to Bobby Silver,” but I don’t say that out loud on account of what she did during her set that night. In short: she pissed on a photo of the president. Live TV, hundreds of thousands of viewers. I stood in the wings and watched Aunt Lisa drop trou and crouch over the black-and-white photo, the crowd booing her to hell. Al came next to me and placed his arm on my shoulder, and we stood there and watched for a moment. I remember he had said to me, “This is how you destroy your career.”
Lastly, I’m thinking about the cigarette I’ll have when this whole thing is over. The network made me quit when I got the gig, but I have one or two every weekend. Maybe I’ll pair it with a glass of whiskey and take myself back to my university days, getting drunk off Jameson at dive bars in the Hills, walking home with a cigarette in my hand and the breeze at my back. During those days I lived in a studio apartment infested with roaches. I slept on a futon and wrote jokes and sketches underneath a desk lamp that turned piping hot after only a couple of minutes. I never thought I’d be here, underneath these studio lights, every joke written on cue cards behind cameras with red eyes, my producer counting down from five with his fingers, the studio audience silently salivating as they wait for my words. I have everything I’ve ever wanted: a wife, a home, a career. And yet I can’t help but feel as though at any moment it all could slip away.
“From football to fiction, ladies and gentlemen,” I say to the camera, “please welcome Mr. Charles Whitman.”
My face feels like it has melted off when I enter my house. The keypad beeps until I enter my four-digit password, 0612, my father’s birthday. He never understood what it is I do, the career I’ve made for myself. That’s not to say he wasn’t proud of me. He was, but in a way that any father might be proud of their son for accomplishing anything. Talk show host, high school teacher, car salesman. I could have been anything, so long as I wasn’t a bum in the Big City. He worked in a dairy factory in Ville, about 30 minutes west of Two Rivers, where I grew up. He’d come home smelling like the gas station, like the Bud Light he’d crush on the drive home. When he drank too much, he’d stay up watching TV while Mom snored in the other room. On occasion, I’d be right there with him. Sometimes we’d watch Jerry. I remember him in his slim-fitted suits and his cotton white hair, gleaming on the television. He’d stand at the foot of the stage like an exclamation point, like the American flag on the moon.
Dad once told me that a man is defined by the work that he does, and therefore if a man has no work, he has nothing of value. Dad’s idea of success was based on what’s tangible. You work hard and buy a nice house, get a good car, and start a nice family. How did we ever come to want success defined by that which is intangible? Our perception. Our legacy.
I shed my clothes until I am in my plaid boxers, shivering in the foyer, holding my face, surely bruised and blue by now. I reach up and feel my mask, the plastic nose guard the doctor placed on me after he reset my nose, after the punch. “Mr. Charles Whitman,” I mumble to myself. “Fucking muscle-head.”
My wife’s voice calls from her studio upstairs. “Honey, is that you?”
“Yes, darling,” I say.
“Are you in the kitchen?” she asks. “Could you bring us some more wine?”
By “us” she means she and our 6-year-old tabby we named Robin. I can hear his little paws tapping around the hardwood floor. I like imagining Marie painting as Robin does figure eights around her legs. When I am away at Studio C, sometimes I think about Marie, what her day looks like: hovering over her laptop, selling her work to customers miles away, packing them up in large postal sleeves, driving down to the station, and shipping them out, maybe stopping for coffee afterward or finding a flower shop in some neighborhood nearby.
The wine is already open, with pieces of the cork floating around inside. She must have torn the cork in half again while trying to open the bottle. In the darkness, illuminated with a single distant light in the living room, I take a generous gulp of wine, feeling the bits of cork go down my throat, and I hear Marie click on the TV. My phone hasn’t stopped buzzing since I left the hospital. I grab a pack of peas from the freezer, leave my phone next to the ice tray, close the door, and listen upstairs.
“…when the former NFL player reached over Forte’s desk and assaulted the talk show host,” I hear a woman’s voice say on the TV.
Marie gasps, and then I hear her rushing down to find me. I think about the path she must traverse to come find me: out of her studio overflowing with acrylics and canvases and brushes, past the spare bedroom reserved, one day, for our child or children, past the guest bathroom decorated with sea glass we found in Livenport, past the hallway lined with photographs in frames of our parents and grandparents, our brothers and sisters, a topographical map of Katz Island, where I proposed to Marie, down the creaking wooden stairs, through the living room with our 60-inch flat screen and surround sound speakers, our many records and books and candles, always a candle burning, always vanilla. This little life we’ve built is so strange to me. I’ve lived here with her for eleven years and yet it still feels as though I’ve walked into something foreign, something I only understand out of necessity.
For a moment I imagine I am alone in a room where no one can find me, just me, the wine bottle in my left hand, the bag of frozen peas in my right, and the pain in my face slowly subsiding, and I am free, from the laughter, from the criticism, from the expectation to be something more than this.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Ray.” Marie stands at the doorway, her face curled up into a frown. “What happened?”
“Marie,” I say. “I think I’ve just ruined my career.”
Something about her standing there, silhouetted by the light from the living room at her back, makes me crumble to my knees and beg for forgiveness. Marie meets me on the floor and wraps her soft arms around me. She smells like paint and salt, and it makes me weep. I hug her closer and cry harder than I can remember.
Can’t sleep, my dreams are filled with vicious guard dogs ripping Frank apart and visions of myself falling into a bed of forest leaves, and so I am here, basking in the moonlit patio beside the master bedroom, where Marie makes little noises in her sleep, my lungs heavy with smoke, my throat tingling from the whiskey, and my face melting and melting away. I crush my third cigarette into the mouth of the glass ashtray, and already I’m working on my fourth, feeling the warmth of the small flame beneath my broken nose.
The stars. In the city, you can hardly make out but a few on any given night. The last time I’d seen them in full swing was during the heatwave two summers ago, when the grid went down. If we’re not looking up at those stars, we’re looking at the other ones on TV. Tonight there are no stars, nothing to see.
The empty glass in my hand calls for more whiskey, so I stumble through the house with my glass and my lit cigarette, down the stairs, and to the kitchen. While pouring myself another glass, I hear a humming. I know instantly that it is my phone, someone calling to tell me that my tenure at Tonight has ended. Time’s up. I open the freezer and find my phone vibrating in the ice tray, Frank’s name on the screen. I answer but say nothing.
“Ray, it’s Frank,” he says.
“I know it’s you, Frank. It says it’s you when you call.”
“Listen,” he says. I shove a fist into the refrigerator door, and the ice dispenser spits out two cubes which shatter on the floor. “Ray, what was that? Are you OK?”
“Yeah, I’m good, Frank. Just come out with it.”
“Listen, Ray. This whole thing has absolutely blown up.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean you have blown up. You’re the only thing anyone is talking about.”
“Jesus, the network is not going to like that.”
“Are you kidding me? They’re going to love it. We’ve got so much support now. Tickets for the rest of this year’s shows are completely booked. The waitlist, huge.”
“So I’m not getting fired?”
“My friend, if I were you, I’d start asking about a raise.”
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“I am saying there is a lot of potential here,” Frank says, annunciating every single word, making sure I understand, as if he’s talking to a child. “I am saying good job. I am saying, I will see you tomorrow, Mr. Forte. Oh, and Ray.”
“Don’t forget the face plate.”
The next evening’s crowd is so loud, so ready to see me in the face plate, so ready to laugh, I can hear their stirring from hair and makeup. I can feel their presence as Sophie dabs the end of her brush at my cheeks. When she reaches my nose she takes gentle jabs, but it stings nonetheless. My plastic face watches from the counter underneath the mirror.
“So that man just reaches over to you, pulls you by your tie, I loved that tie by the way, and punches you in the face, huh.”
“That’s pretty much it.”
“What did you say to him?”
“You didn’t watch it?”
“I’m not a big late-night fan.”
“You don’t like to admire your work?” I gesture to my face.
Sophie shakes her head no. “It’s just a job. What did you say to him?”
“I called him a muscle-head one too many times.”
“Once is one too many times to a former professional football player.” Sophie chuckles. “Why did you go and do a thing like that?”
My eyes find themselves in the mirror’s gaze, at myself underneath Sophie’s brushes, swallowed in orange light. “Because I felt trapped,” I say. “And he looked free.”
Frank comes in chewing gum, gnashing at it as if it’s the only thing containing his excitement. He snaps his fingers and points at me in the mirror. “How we doing, baby?”
“Swell,” I say.
“Good, ’cause we got to get moving. Now.”
“Now.” Frank snaps his fingers again.
“Can’t you get someone to do a set? Get Joey.”
“They don’t want Joey,” Frank says. “They want Ray. They want Ray Forte, baby.”
Sophie returns her brushes to her kit and steps aside, as she always does when her work is finished. “And we are done here, Mr. Fonseca.”
“Thank you, Sophie. Oh, how could I forget? Did the men move your piano this morning?”
“They did indeed, Mr. Fonseca.”
“Good, good. I’m glad it’s where it should be now.”
Frank opens the door to the hallway. I feel Studio C breathing through the labyrinth of people talking on headsets. Those butterflies appear like nitrous oxide, and I am giddy and dumb, knocking over vials and little glass jars of cosmetic supplies as I reach for my plastic face. I float to the door and strap it on. Behind me, Sophie stands alone in the warm darkness with her brushes. I turn back and say to her, “And please, call me Mr. Forte.”
Cameras and flashing lights swarm me after taping. I can barely make it out of the lot without running over some rabid fan or showbiz reporter trying to get a photograph of me in the mask. The radio says there’s been an accident on the Six, so take the streets.
Thirty minutes in, I’m still higher than the moon. But as I continue on, as downtown recedes on the horizon, I feel it all fall away like feathers. The mask feels warm against my face. I take it off and toss it on the passenger seat, letting the wind blow through my hair. Behind all that dirt and city stench I can still smell the ocean. I drive past city buses and police squads. I see drivers grimacing with the sun in their eyes, hands of all shapes and colors hanging outside opened windows. Shopping plazas and outlet malls. Haciendas with billowing smoke from cooks grilling marinated chicken outside in the evening sun. Men smoking cigarettes outside of liquor stores. Rows and rows of makeshift tents and cardboard houses with tarp roofs. People staring off into the distance or slapping themselves in the face or yelling at voices in their head.
On a street corner I see a white mass glimmering in the sun, so bright I need to block its light from my eyes with my hand. I drive closer but still can’t make out the shape, and its reflecting light seems brighter. I make a U-turn, stop the car in the bus lane, and flip on my hazards. The sun has dipped beneath the trees when I hit the crosswalk. Looking across the street, I finally make out the shape: a white piano standing among the bends in the sidewalk, with its black and white keys exposed. Beside one of its four legs there’s a sign, the back of a pizza box with grease stains and words scribbled in all caps. “Free, out of tune,” it says.
Nicole Eisenman’s art has the same fundamental elements as Gabriel’s story: la comédie humaine. It can’t be said we have come to a point where multiple births can be livestreamed. We have always been at that point. “Studio C” focused on the host, not what he hosted; Nicole Eisenman’s Multiple Birthing completes the story.
Author | GABRIEL GRANILLO
Gabriel Matthew Granillo is a writer and photographer. His works have appeared in both print and online journals including Flash Fiction Magazine, Timberline Review, Superstition Review, and others. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where he is an editor at Oni Press.