“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 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.”
“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.”
“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