Give a Little to Get a Lot: excerpt #3 from a work-in-progress (note: contains swear words)

“You’ll love her song,” I said.

“I hope so,” Ross said.  “Otherwise, I’d have to give you an unbelievably stern look.”

He sat on a brown metal folding chair in Central Studio Number One, my only studio.  I sat on the brown metal folding chair to his left.  Both chairs had brown padded seats—luxury for everyone.  The cherry-red keytar sat on a brown metal card table in front of us.  There was no scenery, just a bare gray cinderblock wall behind the table.

He wore another expensive-looking shiny blue suit.  I wore my best green polo shirt and my best jeans.  I didn’t shine.

“You ready, Thea?” I shouted to my left.

The door to Frequent Zoom Deluxe Dressing Room Number One flew open, my only dressing room.  Nothing very deluxe about it, unless you counted the adjective “deluxe.”  After a few moments, Thea walked out.  No, she shuffled out, slowly and laboriously, staring straight ahead at her keytar.  Halfway to the card table, she stopped, panted a few times slowly and laboriously, and resumed her journey.

Her poufy gray wig had bulky, yellow plastic curlers, probably more curlers that hair.  Her giant brown glasses, larger than even her regular glasses, sat at the tip of her nose.  Her face sported a thousand pounds of makeup, including nine hundred pounds of lipstick and a few fake warts.  Her faded blue housedress sagged under the weight of her pendulous, basketball-sized fake boobs.  Her brown cardigan had several gaping moth holes.  Her beige stockings bunched up around her bloated white sneakers.  You could say she looked like a bingo drag queen.

I myself looked calm, but inside I was furious.  I hadn’t known she would come out like that.  Ross mustn’t have known, either, but I didn’t know how he felt; his face betrayed no emotion.

She strapped on her keytar and turned her gaze toward us.

“Hi, I’m Bonnie Donovic, and I have a rill important song fer yinz to hear,” she announced in a raspy old woman’s voice made worse by a thick Pittsburgh accent, the most grating regional accent ever, like a redneck cat coughing up a steel-wool hairball.

Thea cleared her throat.  She paused.  She started playing her keytar while bellowing off-key, even more off-key that she did in her apartment.

Da national debt / Of da USA / Has grown so big / It can roon our day // We gotta fix da debt / Inn ’at’s a fact / Tell them cake-eaters in Warshington / We’re ready to act // It wohn be easy / ’At’s another fact / But we’ll have so much more / When we give somethin’ back // Give a little / To git a lot / Doin’ ahr share / Now ’at’s rill hot // Give a little / To git a lot / So ahr kids’ll have / What we all got / Innay dohn even hafta redd up their rooms // Give a little / To git a lot / Give a little / To git a lot / Give a little / To git a lot

The performance ended.

“Now ’at was worth three thahsand dollars, woodin joo agree, Ross baby?” Thea asked, staying in character.

Ross baby didn’t say anything.

“Heck, I oughta git dat jest fer lookin’ so young,” she told him.  “In case you haven’t figgered it aht, I ain’t actually thirty-seven years old.  I’m actually forty-eight.  I’m darn prahd to say not too many parts of me flap arahnd in da wind.”

Ross baby didn’t say anything.

“The feisty granny look is big this year,” I blurted.  “Actually, it’s always been big.  Feisty granny characters always do well in advertising.  They have the reputation of always telling the truth.”

Ross looked interested.

“Cute girls may provide eye-candy, but feisty grannies provide mind-candy, and you need plenty of mind-candy if you want to convince hipsters we need to reduce the debt,” I told him.  “Plus even the most cynical hipsters love their grandmothers.  We all love our grandmothers.  Put that love in your ad, and you’ll score big.  You said it yourself—the best ads hit you right here.”  I tapped my heart with my right index finger.

“You pay attention to what I say?” he asked.  “I don’t pay attention to what I say.”

Good—a humorous remark.

“And Thea’s, or should I say Bonnie’s, rather unique voice would make your ad stand out from the other ten trillion ads on the Net,” I said.

“I suppose,” Ross said.

“But hey, I provide more than one menu option.  It would take Thea just a few minutes to transform herself back into a nerd, then sing the song again for—”

“No, that’s all right.”

“You sure?”

“You heard da man,” Thea said.  “He loves feisty grannies.  Ain’t dat right, Ross baby?”

Ross sort of grinned.

“I knew it!  No one kin resist my charm!”

A long pause ensued.

“So,” I said to Ross, “when will—”

“Taffy helped write my song,” Thea said.

“Really?” Ross asked.

“Uh-huh.  Da song woulda sucked withaht his valuable input, excuse da language.”

“Aw, you flatter me,” I said, “but you know darn well I contributed just one line.  You wrote everything else.  You’re the main reason the song turned out the way it did.  Only you could have given that performance.”

“Can’t argue wit’ dat.”

“And Ross?  Could I tell you a secret?”

“Um, sure,” he answered.

“Well, Thea had come up with the feisty granny idea.”

“You tattletale,” she said with a smile.

“Yeah, sorry.  I know you wanted me to have sole credit because you’re such a nice person, but the whole world deserves to know about your wonderful creative ability.”  I looked at Ross.  “I told her you supported the nerd idea, and that I supported it too, but Thea, she couldn’t explain it; she simply thought a granny could promote debt reduction better—and not just any granny, but a feisty one.  Well, the more I thought about it, the more I realized she had a point.  Sometimes inspiration strikes from the most unexpected sources.”  I looked at Thea.  “You’ve always supported our free-market system, and thanks to you contributions here today, you’ll make it even stronger.  Good work.”

“Thanks.  Hope I dohn git a huge head from all dat praise.  I’ll hafta buy an extra-extra-extra-extra-extra-extra large Stillers cap.”

Ross laughed.

“Well, tell you what—if you give the same performance in the finished product as you did here, you’ll be able to afford that cap, because I’ll pay you the three thousand,” he told her.

“You serious?” I asked.

“Of course.  And I won’t even take the extra money out of your fee!”

“Well, isn’t that good news for both of us!” Thea exclaimed in her normal, non-Yinzer voice.

I laughed.  I don’t know why.

“So anyway,” Ross said, “before we can start shooting, you two have to sign some papers.  I know, I know, but my legal department insists.  They like to feel needed over there.  I’ll have the papers e-mailed to you by the end of the day.  Print them out, sign them, and mail them back to me as soon as possible.  We can’t let another minute go by without letting the young folks know their actions right now can lead to a brighter, more solvent future.”

He said goodbye to us and departed.

Thea still wore her costume and still had her keytar strapped around her neck.

“Not a bad guy for a one-percenter,” she said.  “You can hardly notice his pointy tail.”

“Fuck you,” I said angrily, the first time I’d ever said that to her.

“Excuse me, bro?”  She sounded surprised.

“Fuck you, and fuck your extreme makeover.”

“What extreme makeover?”

“Cut the crap.  If you didn’t want to appear in this video, you should have told me in the first place.  But no, you had to pull that stupid shit and almost ruin me.  Was that your intention, to ruin me?”

“No!  I would never want to do that.  I want to help you succeed.”

“Oh yeah?  Then why’d you turn into an old bag?”

“To protect my identity.   I did want to appear in this ad ’cause I do need the money.  But even if I did want to sell out, I—”

“People don’t sell out anymore.  They buy in.”

“Tuh-may-toe, tuh-maw-toe.  Anyway, even if I did want to whore myself, I didn’t want to associate the Thea brand with those right-wing bastards.  I still had some pride.  So I thought things would go a lot easier if I created a brand extension.  The Bonnie brand.  She’s my polar opposite, my dark half, the half that makes money.”

“Or she’s a smug, annoying political statement, like how no one could support debt reduction or austerity or whatever except for dumb old ladies.  You almost ruined me because you couldn’t resist telling Ross his economic philosophy sucked.”

“Well, it does, but as I said, I didn’t ruin you.”

“You almost did!  I know you don’t care about your future, but would it fucking kill you to care about mine?  Geez, I don’t even know if I want to work with you now.”

“Chill out, Taff.  You’re such a drama queen.  Of course I care about your future and about mine, too.  That’s why I transformed myself into Bonnie Donovic, to make sure our futures are successful.  You know darn well she has that certain something that appeals to the young viewer demographic, as you would put it in your sophisticated advertising terminology.  Ross loved her, that’s most important.”

“Or maybe he felt sorry for me, because you’d made a fool of yourself.”

“What difference does it make?  You’ll direct this video, and I’ll star in it.”

“Hooray.”

“Look, I’m sorry if my surprise performance upset you.  I know I should have clued you in beforehand, but frankly, if I had done that, it would have switched on my rational mind, and I would have lost the nerve to audition.  Then we would have lost the chance to become even more famous.”

 

We did the video at her place, with Thea in her Bonnie Donovic persona, complete with cherry-red keytar.  I used my vintage gear, namely a Nu-View NV-500 VHS camcorder, the height of Reagan-era technology: a boxy black behemoth I’d bought on eBay for way, way too much, but nostalgia doesn’t come cheap.

Hanging on the wall behind her to her left was a gold-colored, plastic bald eagle maybe a foot in diameter.  His wings were outstretched, and his head was bent down between his legs, apparently to nuzzle his junk.  She’d bought him for five bucks at a suburban garage sale years earlier—probably the right price, since he looked in good shape.  She’d named him Quincy.

I shot them handheld to make it seem even more like the pseudo home video Ross had wanted, keeping the camerawork just steady enough to prevent seasickness.  No crew, only me.  She nailed her performance in one take—if anything, her singing and keytar playing had more energy, and her faux Pittsburgh accent sounded even more grating.

 

That night at Frequent Zoom, I downloaded the analogue video into my digital computer.  No widescreen—I kept the picture in its original Eighties 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  I adjusted the color to make it look a little faded.  I added the pictorial fuzziness that VHS tapes develop after constant playing.  I included jenkins.com at the end, white letters on a black background.  Below that, in smaller letters, I put COPYRIGHT © 2013 THE JENKINS INSTITUTE.

Voilà: sixty seconds of sheer perfection.

I e-mailed the video to Ross.

Copyright © 2014 by David V. Matthews

Give a Little to Get a Lot: excerpt #2 from a work-in-progress

Please see the previous posting for excerpt #1.

“Five hundred, huh?” Thea asked.

“Not bad for a minute’s work,” I said.

Thea was the nerdiest female musician I knew.  Actually the only nerdy female musician I knew.  We sat at a table in the Guessed Room coffeehouse on the North Side.  She wore a different pair of large, squarish black glasses.  Her white T-shirt had the word DAYDREAM on it in black-outlined letters printed across an oval that had an orange sunrise or sunset in it, with each letter containing little, black-outlined clouds.  Her grayish-green skirt had a crinkly, pink lace hem that brushed her knees.  Her pale-green cardigan had a swirling-leaf design on the front with what looked like actual fake pearls in the leaves.  Her purple hi-top sneakers matched the new highlights in her hair.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Well, for starters, five hundred bucks?  I could earn more holding a yard sale, if I could find a yard.”

“But this is your first digital PSA.  We all have to start somewhere.”

“How much are you earning for this video?  A lot more than five hundred, I’ll bet.”

“Let’s just say my amount’s commensurate with my experience.  I’ve directed PSAs for years.  I know how to brainwash the masses.  And anyway, I know you can use the money, whatever the amount.  Everyone can use a little money, dagnabbit.”

“Yeah, but here’s my other problem: I’d feel unclean working for a bunch of right-wing Republicans.”

“The institute is bipartisan.”

“Well, technically.  Some Democrats belong to it, but it’s controlled by right-wing Republicans.  You know who founded it?”

“No.”

“Dwight Jenkins, a local right-wing zillionaire.  He made his fortune exploiting the less fortunate by running payday-loan centers in poor neighborhoods, among other shady activities.”

“Where’d you hear this?”

“I read it in YoPittsburgh Weekly.”

“Such a reputable source.  Did you read that before going to the she-male escort ads?”

“Taf-fee!”

“All right, all right, sorry for the she-male phobia or whatever, but you have to admit, The New York Times doesn’t print ads like that.”

“So?  That doesn’t mean it tells the truth about everything, either.  And why are we talking about those ads, anyway?  Oh, yeah—you wanted to draw attention away from the fact that your compadre works for a rich scumbag who wants to impose austerity measures on this country under the guise of debt reduction.”

“Austerity measures?”

“You know, slashing government spending and raising taxes.  Countries such as Britain, Ireland, Spain, and Greece have done this, and they’ve had the same results: galloping inflation, high unemployment, and increased poverty.  A government needs to spend money in order to stimulate its economy, to bring in increased tax revenues to pay off its debt.  Not that the one-percent cares.  Financial markets love it when we save money by screwing the ninety-nine percent one-hundred percent of the time.”

“That Occupy crap’s so Two-Thousand-and-Eleven,” I said in a bored voice.

“Yeah, time to move onto the next fad, right?” Thea asked.  “Income inequality is so boring.”

My income inequality is so boring.  I really need this project, Thea.  I’m barely hanging on by my fingernails, and they’re not even manicured.  And you’re not doing any better.  Do you even have healthcare?  Maybe if you get lucky, you’ll be able to afford half an aspirin after you start panhandling a few years from now.”

“What makes you think I haven’t started panhandling already?”

“ ’Cause you obviously still shop at the best thrift stores.  It takes money to look like a homeless new-wave librarian.”

Thea laughed her usual pantomime laugh, her face going through the motions but the sound on mute.  However, this time I could sense I’d pissed her off a little.  Time to soothe her hurt widdle feelings.

“I don’t want you to go broke,” I said.  “Take care of yourself first, Thea.  You can save the ninety-nine percent from capitalist oppression another time, like during your lunch break or something.”

Thea sipped her coffee.

“Or you don’t have to keep the money the right-wingers pay you,” I added.  “You can donate it to some progressive cause.  Or you can buy a vial of Lady Gaga’s sweat.  Whatever you like.”

Thea sipped her coffee again.

“Tell Ross I want a thousand dollars,” she said.

“A thousand?”

“No, tell him I want two thousand, and if he doesn’t agree to that, bargain him down to one.  I know he has a bottomless budget.  Why would his one-percenter bosses skimp on promoting their toxic agenda?  And anyway, he’s your friend, and friends stick up for each other.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

“Attaboy.”

“By the way, he had wanted someone much younger than you, so I told him you were around my age.”

Thea stared at me.

“Hey, any number’s around any other number if you use a wide enough range,” I said.

“Thanks for the math lesson,” she said a little icily.

“Aw, come on, Thea.  I massaged the facts because I wanted you to star in this video.”

“How flattering, I guess.  But he’ll find out my real age sooner or later.”

“Hopefully later, after you’ve dazzled him with your keytar wizardry.  You do plan to play the keytar in this video, right?”

Thea grinned her crooked grin.

Two days later, I sat on the edge of the unmade futon in her combination bedroom, living room, kitchen, and recording studio.  She’d written her song already; I’d asked to preview and critique it before she played it for Ross.  She stood before me, a cherry-red keytar slung around her neck.

“Nice keytar,” I said.  “Where’d you get it?”

“On eBay,” she replied.

“For how much?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Just curious.  How much did it cost?”

“I could afford it, don’t worry.”

Years earlier, I had asked how things were going in her marriage.  “Just fine, don’t worry,” she’d said in the same soothing tone.

She had obviously paid way too much for that instrument.  No wonder she had such precarious finances.  No wonder she lived in a dinky apartment on the Slopes, the vertiginous hills overlooking the South Side, the hip Pittsburgh neighborhood known for its tattoo places, bars, and tattooed drunks.

She started fiddling with the buttons on her keytar’s imitation guitar neck.

“By the way, I saw something interesting this morning on the YoPittsburgh blog,” she said.  “Greece’s unemployment rate has hit twenty-six-point-eight percent, the highest in Europe.”

“Uh-huh,” I said.

“Spain’s unemployment rate is only twenty-six-point-six percent.”

“Uh-huh.”

Thea looked at me.  She frowned.

“This song could help devastate America’s economy,” she said.

“Well, we won’t know till you start singing, now, will we?” I asked.

She glared at me.  Then she started playing a brisk march, her fingers bouncing on the keytar’s keyboard.  After a few seconds, she started singing in the off-key, sweet, adorable, girlish way Ross had wanted, tentatively at first, then with more confidence as the song progressed:

The national debt / Of the USA / Has grown so big / It can ruin our day // We gotta fix the debt / And that’s a fact / Tell Washington / We’re ready to act // It won’t be easy / That’s another fact / But we’ll have so much more / When we give something back // Give up a little / To get a lot / Doing our share / Now that’s real hot // Give up a little / To get a lot / So our kids’ll have / What we all got // Give up a little / To get a lot / Give up a little / To get a lot / Give up a little / To get a lot

Her performance ended.

“Wow, Thea,” I said as I clapped with enthusiasm.

“Thanks,” she said.

“What a great song.  It conveys its message almost perfectly.”

“Almost?”

“Um…in the chorus, could you change ‘Give up a little’ to ‘Give a little’?  Giving up something has negative connotations.  Plus ‘Give up a little’ also sounds like you’re telling people to submit to defeat.”

She looked down at her keytar for a moment.

“All right, I’ll change that line,” she said.

“Don’t be so glum,” I said.  “Change it to ‘Give a little,’ and the video will go viral for sure.”

“Right.  Have you talked with Ross about my two grand?”

 

“Sorry, but no,” Ross had told me over beers the previous night at an upscale bar in downtown Pittsburgh.

“She said she’d also accept a thousand,” I’d said.

“Well, she’ll have to accept it from someone else.  Tell her I definitely can’t go over five hundred, ’cause my budget’s tighter than my fine, fine ass.”

“You mean your cheap, cheap ass.  Come on, she deserves more money.”

“Are you banging her?”

“No!  She’s a friend, and I want to help her out.”

“Hmm.”  He ran his fingers up and down the side of his beer mug.  “All right, I’ll pay her fifteen-hundred more.  I’ll just pay you fifteen-hundred less.”

 

“Yeah, I talked with him last night,” I told Thea.  “He said he’ll get back to you.”

“Meaning he said no,” she said.

“Meaning he’ll get back to you.  You should have a more positive attitude.”

More massaging of the facts—he would get back to her when he paid her that chump-change amount, five hundred dollars.  At least he’d paid for my beers.

Copyright © 2014 by David V. Matthews

Give a Little to Get a Lot: an excerpt from a work-in-progress

“I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but I found your Gangnam Sty ad, well, rather inspirational,” Ross told me.

“Inspirational?  I really haven’t heard that one before,” I said.

“Well, it was.  Don’t get me wrong, the ad was funny, but the pigs, well, they had more to offer than just humor.  I loved their enthusiasm, their lack of self-consciousness, their utter belief in their talent.  They wouldn’t let anything stop them from expressing themselves.  Well, I myself hadn’t danced in years, but watching those pigs on my computer at work inspired me so much that I downloaded the original Gangnam Style song, cranked the volume up to eleven-point-five, and busted a move right there in my office, the door wide open, not caring if anyone saw me.”

“Hmm.  Did you dance like Kevin Bacon?”

We both laughed.

Rossiter Harrington Burke III and I had been best buds in college.  After we’d graduated in 1998, he moved to Manhattan to work at whatever job he could find at his family’s company, Burke Financial.  I stayed in Pittsburgh to start my own company, Frequent Zoom Productions.  We lost touch—not a word from him until 2013, when he sent me a brief e-mail saying he had moved back to my city a month earlier, had heard about my media empire, and now wanted us to get together as soon as possible to catch up on old times.  He also wanted to discuss an off-the-record, on the QT, and very hush-hush project he thought I’d be perfect for, just perfect, because I was a real cutie myself, ha ha ha.

Thus, we were inside my office at the Frequent Zoom headquarters on Pittsburgh’s North Side.  My office had a bare cement floor and white pasteboard walls and no windows.  I sat behind the rickety brown metal table I used as a desk.  At least I’d covered the tabletop with classy-looking, dark wood-grain Con-Tact paper.  Ross sat across from me on the brown metal folding chair with the brown padded seat, because as my guest, he deserved the utmost in luxury.

“So anyway,” he said, “you must be wondering why I moved back.”

“You have a pierogi fetish?” I asked.

“Well, that, and I have a new job, a great new job.  Of course, my old job wasn’t bad, either.  Did you know I worked for Burke for fifteen years?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I did.  I started out as an associate investment management business strategist, then rose through the ranks to become a senior investment management business strategist.  I created communications materials for the head honchos at Burke regarding the advantages and disadvantages of potential investment opportunities involving clients’ money.  I liked what I did, because I’ve always liked communicating, of course, but after fifteen years, I wanted to change things up a little.  So I started looking at job listings on the Internet.  I had no idea I’d find the perfect job here in Pittsburgh, my old stomping grounds.  I’m now the executive director of public and media relations for the Jenkins Institute.”

“Never heard of them.”

“They’re a new, local, bipartisan think-tank that wants to improve America’s long-term economic outlook by curbing deficit spending and by encouraging individual investment in the free market.”

“Sounds exciting,” I deadpanned.

“It’s a lot more exciting than you think,” he said, sounding sincere.  “I truly enjoy doing all I can to help make sure America remains an economic superpower, because future generations, well, they deserve to live an affluent lifestyle, too.  No, an even more affluent lifestyle.  I consider it a top priority to reduce, if not eliminate, the government’s tide of red ink so we can bring about the economic empowerment of young folks.”

Young folks.  We were both thirty-seven, but he still had a smooth, unlined face surrounded by a nimbus of thick, dirty-blonde hair.  His wardrobe had changed since the last time I’d seen him, though.  We used to wear jeans and rock music T-shirts in college, but now he looked very economically-empowered in his expensive-looking blue suit.  If I had known how he would dress, I would have worn something better than an Asgard Viper T-shirt, an anemic green hoodie with its hood down, and baggy jeans.  Well, I would have worn something better and shinier.  Everything about him shined, including the red-white-and-blue American flag pin attached to his lapel.  He was the first person I’d ever known who wore an American flag pin.

“So anyway, Taffy, I’d like the institute to release a digital video, our first one ever,” Ross continued.  “It would be a public-service announcement about a minute long, aimed at hip young folks, specifically teens and twentysomethings.  What I have in mind is a cute, young, nerdy girl in her late teens, early twenties, the stereotypical nerd with huge glasses and tacky clothes—the perfect girl for our target audience.  Nerds are hip right now, plus people will listen to her because she looks smart.  She would sing a song, solo, while playing an instrument, an acoustic guitar or a keyboard or something, maybe even a ukulele.  That instrument’s hip right now, too.  Anyway, in the song, she would encourage young folks to encourage their elected officials to tackle the federal deficit.  She wouldn’t offer any specific proposals, just encouragement to get involved and maybe make a few sacrifices, for the good of the country of course, before we plunge off the fiscal cliff.  And after she sings her little song, we cut to a black screen with our website address on it in white letters: jenkins.com.  And below that, in smaller letters, copyright 2013 the Jenkins Institute.”

“Sounds great.  Do you have a song already written?”

“No, I thought you could write it.  Or she could.  I’d prefer an amateur songwriter, or at least someone who can imitate one.  She should also be an amateur singer or at least imitate one, a very amateur singer, off-key but in a sweet, adorable, girlish way.  An amateur musician, too, if possible.  If she works out, I’ll pay her five hundred dollars.”

“Five hundred?”

“Hey, not bad for a minute’s work, plus you have to admit, Pittsburgh has low cost-of-living expenses.”

“True.”

“And speaking of expenses, I don’t want the video to look expensive.  Have it look like it cost a dollar ninety-nine.”

“You want it to look like a piece of crap?”

“No, no, of course not.  But I don’t want it to look slick, either—hipsters automatically distrust any media product that looks slick.  I want the video to look, well, as homemade as possible, like a home video.  Maybe you could shoot it on actual videotape with a vintage video camera for that Eighties nostalgia vibe?”

“Maybe.  I have some gear from that decade.”

“Fantastic!  Or if the gear doesn’t work, you can use computer effects to simulate that vibe.  Whatever you do, just have it look like a VHS tape that’s been played a million times.  Even viewers too young to remember VHS tapes will find the fake, cheap production values hilarious.  I want the campy and ironic angle, true, but I also want the inspirational quality that the Gangnam Sty ad had.  If that nerdy young girl can be a star, then anyone can.  But she has to have starlike qualities compared to other nerds.  The video’s success depends mostly—no, entirely—upon her.  She has to appeal to viewers right here.”  Ross pounded his heart with his fist.

Neither of us said anything for a few moments.

“I think I know the girl you want,” I told him.  “Her name’s Thea Kirshenbaum.  I’ve known her for years.  She’s done a lot of music for me.  She did the Gangnam Sty soundtrack.”

“No kidding!” Ross said.

“Uh-huh.  She’s a great singer-songwriter who can play almost any instrument.  Plus she’s the nerdiest girl in Pittsburgh.”

“Do you have a picture of her?”

“Sure.”  I rooted through the Everest-high stacks of bills, catalogues, DVDs, and other miscellanea on my desk for a few moments before finding what I wanted: a flier for a solo keytar concert Thea had given six months earlier at the Guessed Room Coffee in Lawrenceville.  I handed him the flier, and he peered intently at it.  It sported a black-and-white photo of her from the chest up in a Deaf Leper T-shirt and large, squarish black glasses.  Her shoulder-length dark hair had pink highlights that looked light gray in the photo.  She grinned her usual crooked grin.

“Hmm, not bad,” he said with pleasure.  “How old is she?”

“Twenty-five,” I said.

“Really.”

“Twenty-six?”

“Do I have to waterboard you for the correct answer, Taffy?”

“All right.  She’s around our age, but she looks as young as you do.”

“Maybe.  But I want a girl who’s actually young enough to appeal to our target audience.”

“Who cares about her age if she looks good?  Besides, we’re not talking about a supermodel here.  She’s a nerd, remember?”

“Right.  I think I should meet her first.”

“Sure, we can do that.  She can audition for you right here if you’d like.”

“Yeah, I’d like that.”  He placed the flier face-down on my desk.  “I didn’t mean to give you a hard time, Taffy, but I just need to make sure she’s the right nerd.  This is my first major project for the institute, and you get only one chance to make a great first impression.  I want this video to kick ass.”

“It will.  It’ll kick ass with a pair of steel-toed boots.”

“But we don’t want all the bruised ass to distract from the serious message about debt reduction.  Like I said, we want to inspire young folks to get involved, to take part in restoring America back to financial health.  It may sound clichéd, but young folks, well, they’re the future of this country.  I truly believe that.”

Copyright © 2013 by David V. Matthews

You Auto Cut to the Chase

I now present my entire book, Meltdown in the Cereal Aisle and Other Stories, as AutoSummarized in ten sentences by Word for Windows with punctuation slightly corrected by me:

“Right.”

“Meredith?”

“Meredith—”

“Meredith—”

“Meredith—”

“Right.”

“Meredith.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Copyright © 2013 by David V. Matthews

The Devil’s Dandruff (fiction)

“I was born and raised in West Aliquippa, a town north of Pittsburgh,” Pastor Blake Summers said.  “My dad worked at the town’s main employer, the J&L steel mill.  Everyone’s dad worked at the mill.  When my friends graduated from high school, they went to work in the mill.  When I graduated from high school, I went into rock music….You decide who made the better career choice.”

The audience chuckled.  Pastor Summers was speaking at a two-thousand-dollar-a-plate fundraising dinner for the Righteous Inheritors in September 2008.  The Righteous Inheritors were one of the newest and most influential conservative Christian groups in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

“After graduating from high school, I moved to America’s most glamorous city, heh heh, Los   Angeles, to become a rock musician,” he continued.   “Let’s skip over the years of struggle and get right to the fame and fortune, shall we?”

The audience chuckled.

“For those of you who don’t know, during the 1980s, I was in a Los Angeles band called Asgard Viper.”

Scattered applause from the audience.

“A few headbangers in the audience.  How nice.  Anyway, true fact, I came up with the name Asgard Viper.  You see, I liked reading comic books, and my favorite was Thor, about these Norse gods who lived in a kingdom called Asgard.  Needless to say, these were mythological gods, not like the real thing, God himself.”

Applause from the audience.

“I added the Viper part because I thought it sounded cool.”

Laughter from the audience.

“So, anyway, we released four albums from 1984 to ’89, all smashes.  Our singles always made the top-ten.  Our videos always played on MTV, back when it played videos.  And we had extremely successful tours.  We had once played in crummy bars to audiences of five people, but now we sold out entire stadiums.  We even sold out Three Rivers Stadium, our proudest achievement.”

Applause from the audience.

“So you’re Steelers fans, huh?  I knew I was among friends.”

Sustained applause from the audience.

“All right, thanks, but back to my story….By 1989, we had reached the height of our fame.  We had it all.  Correction—my bandmates had it all.  But as the lead singer, lead guitarist, and chief songwriter of the group, I had more.  I had more money, much more money; in retrospect, I have to say thank God for the Reagan tax cuts.”

Vigorous applause from the audience.

“I owned eight limos, a different one for each day of the week, Beatles-style.  Get it?”

Sparse laughter from the audience.

“I lived in a mansion, one of the largest ones in L.A.—twenty-four thousand square feet, plenty of room to party.  I had marble floors and gold chandeliers and a giant wine cellar.  I even had a Jacuzzi that could seat the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and their cousins.”

Laughter from the audience.

“Though the Jacuzzi tended to have groupies and strippers in it instead.  Sorry to disappoint you choir music aficionados.”

The pastor sipped his bottled water.

“So anyway, in 1989, our group’s latest album, Sticky Situation, had reached number one, our first and only album to do that.  Its lead single, ‘Babe University,’ had reached number one, our first and only song to do that.  I wrote that song, and I actually felt proud of its sleazy, sinful lyrics.  Today that song is G-rated compared to the other stuff on the radio, but back then, I wanted to bring the culture down to my level, so I wouldn’t feel lonely in leading a licentious lifestyle.”

Scattered laughter from the audience.

“In 1989, at the very height of our fame, or infamy, we were about to launch our latest and greatest world tour, complete with the latest and greatest lasers, more lasers than Floyd night at the planetarium.”

Scattered laughter from the audience.

“But then—”

Pause.

“—the Behind the Music stuff began.”

Pause.

“I’d like to quote a Biblical passage you might find familiar….‘Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?’ ”

Applause from the audience.

“Wait, there’s more.  ‘Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.’  First Corinthians, chapter six, verses nine and ten….Well, when I was a rock star, you couldn’t call me effeminate.  And you certainly couldn’t call me an abuser of mankind, if you know what I mean.  But otherwise, that passage from First Corinthians perfectly describes my behavior back then.  If I told you all the depraved things I’d done during the Nineteen-Eighties, we’d be here until the Twenty-Eighties, but since you have this hall only for tonight, I’ll try not to go into too much detail.”

The audience chuckled.

“But I have to tell you, as First Corinthians would put it, I was a drunkard.  A sloppy, obnoxious, puke-on-my-shoes-and-pass-out-cold drunkard.  It didn’t matter what I drank, as long as I could drink lots of it.  I guzzled enough booze every day to float ten Titanics and even more booze every night.  And of course, it wouldn’t be the Eighties without cocaine—oh, dear God, the cocaine.  Coke, the devil’s dandruff, made me energetic and confident at first.  Then it made me crazy and paranoid.  I had epic tantrums.  I got into fistfights with the other band members.  I got into fistfights with total strangers.  I kicked dogs—no, really, I kicked dogs, I’m sorry to say.  Any dog would do, though the small ones, like Chihuahuas, tended to cover more distance when I booted ’em, which filled me with a sense of accomplishment.”

Not a sound from the audience.

“And worst of all, I even seriously thought the Lord God himself envied my talent and wanted to steal my song ideas.  The Lord God himself.  I mean, really.  What would someone like him do with my dumb rock-and-roll songs?…Plus everyone knows God prefers country music anyway.”

Laughter and applause from the audience.

“So anyway, in 1989, two days before our tour would start, my bandmates staged an intervention.  They gave me a choice: either go into rehab, or take a permanent hike.  You can guess what I did.  The record company put out an official press release saying I’d left the band due to that old favorite, quote, ‘creative differences,’ unquote.  But it was pretty much an open secret that the other band members had kicked me out because I was an addict who had grown way, way out of control.  But I didn’t care.  At least I had more time to party.  However, the more I partied, the worse I felt, and the worse I felt, the more I partied.  That’s what they call a vicious circle, as in circling the drain.  This went on and on.  I didn’t work, but I spent money like a maniac.  It didn’t take me long to lose all my money, just a year in fact, and when I did, I lost my so-called friends.  And as for the groupies and strippers, hah, they disappeared even faster.  No help from anyone to pay off my debts, and I had a lot of them.  I paid off whatever I could by selling my limos, my mansion, my guitars, and almost everything else I owned.  Buh-bye, Jacuzzi.  I moved to a squalid motel room outside of Hollywood, where I barely survived on record royalties, and I continued to party every night, alone.”

The pastor sipped his bottled water.

“Then one night in 1992…It was three A.M., and I was in my motel room, alone as usual. It was the hottest night of the year, and the air conditioner had broken, of course.  I was soaked with sweat as I lay on the floor naked, freaking out because I didn’t have any booze or coke, because I didn’t have a cent to buy booze or coke or food for that matter; I hadn’t eaten in two days.  I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have any friends or career.  I didn’t even have a guitar anymore.  I didn’t have anything.  Well, I kept freaking out, trying to think of a way to solve my problems.  Then it hit me.  I wouldn’t have any problems if I didn’t exist.  So I decided to end it all.  Sure, why not?  I was just a has-been.  No one would miss me.  Might as well get wasted with Satan for eternity.  But how would I commit suicide?  I didn’t have a gun.  I didn’t have any pills.  There wasn’t anything to hang myself from.  And the motel was one story, so I couldn’t jump.”

Pause.

“The razor blade.  I could slit my wrists with the razor blade I used to cut my coke.”

A gasp from the audience.

“I got up from the floor and picked up the razor blade from the nightstand.  I ran a hot bath and sat in it.  I held the razor blade with my right hand.  The blade pressed into my left wrist.  Remember, cut vertically, not horizontally, I thought….Okay, might as well take one last look around the bathroom, the last things I’d see on Earth.  I looked at the toilet, the sink, the bar of soap on the sink, the empty towel rack.  Then my eyes moved to the small framed picture hanging on the wall in front of me, to the side of the tub.  Someone must have wanted to class up the place.  The picture was this full-color drawing of a blurry desert landscape, lots of blinding sunlight, a few cacti, with some jagged cliffs in the background.  Typical motel art.  I must have seen it a thousand times.  But now, as I sat in the tub, about to open my vein, I…I kept looking at that picture.  The more I looked at it, the more something just, I don’t know how to put it, illuminated my mind.  It was like the sunshine went into my soul.  I wasn’t religious, but for the first time, I knew for sure God was speaking to me without saying any words.  God spoke to me for just a few seconds, but they were the best few seconds of my life.  He told me I had so much to give.  He told me not to throw away everything I had.  He told me to embrace his son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to help others embrace Jesus.  In short, he, God, told me to live….I didn‘t slit my wrists.  Instead, I placed the razor blade onto the edge of the tub.  Then I sat in the tub and cried for thirty minutes, tears of joy, because I knew I was born again.”

Sustained applause from the audience.

“The next day, God continued to look after me, because I received a royalty check in the mail.  First I got something to eat, then I escaped L.A.’s degeneracy by flying back to West Aliquippa.  I got clean at the Gateway Rehabilitation Center, started witnessing, and today, I’m the pastor of the Great Wonder Evangelical Church, the area’s biggest and best megachurch.”

Applause from the audience.

“I can honestly tell you I don’t miss the fame and fortune, because I feel blessed in infinite ways working as a servant of the Lord.  Great Wonder took a chance, hiring a former rock star like me with such a wild past.  But they knew I could perform my job, because I had sunshine in my soul.  Because I’d escaped a living hell and knew how to help other people escape.  I’m proof that anyone can receive the grace of God.  Anyone.”

Pause.

“Well, okay, the jury’s still out on Barack Hussein Obama.”

Extended laughter and rapturous applause from the audience.

Copyright © 2013 by David V. Matthews

(revised and expanded version posted on September 3, 2013) (and a few more alterations on September 13, 2013)