by: d. heidel
Let me tell you about one thing – the way that I’m constantly doing the dishes. I wash and, as I do, there seem to be more than I started with. And even when I’ve decided I’m halfway done, the dirty pile is still tilted and stacked like the shambled apartment complex of a children’s book that focuses more on the adventures of a mouse than it does on the struggles of the people working and eating and sleeping and repeating.
There’s a man on the TV screen that’s propped up just behind the last foothill of dishes. Well, there are several men (and women), joking about the ridiculosities of work life. But there – and there – when the camera pans, I catch sight of an actor who never speaks, who never cracks a joke, sitting in the third chair from the left. He has a wide, blank face. I can’t tell if I’ve seen him in anything where he may have played a role beyond Man In Front Row At Meeting. It seems that, at times, he’s looking at the camera, but the camera is moving so quickly that I can’t really tell. I’m sure that Man in Front Row At Meeting is not supposed to be looking at the camera, not supposed to be breaking the Fourth Wall. But there – he does it again! I’m sure of it.
I keep moving through the dishes. Another two plates, their pile of forks and knives go into the suds. I reach down, feel the tines prod my water-soft hands. Sea creatures move more slowly than we land dwellers move. Water necessitates that. If creatures moved as quickly beneath the water as creatures move above the water, their skins would surely peel back over time, exposing sinew and bone beneath the ravages of increased drag.
I am sorry I was gone for so long. Sometimes I black out. But I am back. And now I see that there are more dishes than ever. I knew a college boy once who spoke of the inevitability of inevitability. The myth of Sisyphus is of a man who is condemned to roll a huge boulder up a hill, have it roll back down, only to start rolling it back up.
B a c k u p .
And again, allow me to apologize for my absence. Sometimes I black out and know not where I’ve gone or what I’ve done. And now, I find myself here behind the dishes which have somehow multiplied in number and (somehow!) multiplied the filth upon themselves.
I think of flies when I am stuck at tasks like this. I think of flies and dreams about piles of shit.
I’m sure there’s something psychologically telling about that.
A psychological tell. A tell similar to what a bad poker player exhibits when he’s trying to conceal the fact that he’s holding nothing but a 3, 5, 9, and Jack in his hand.
I’m holding nothing in my own hand – you might as well know that. And that man on TV. He seems to have switched shows now. I’ve given up on the dishes and I’ve sunken myself into the couch out of sheer exhaustion. The Rockford Files is playing on my tube-style TV, lighting up this otherwise dark room in varying shades of blue. And there, between bits of conversation that James Garner is having with a client, the camera pans across a crowded diner. And there – there in the back – that man is sitting at a table by himself. He sits by himself and talks. What is it that they tell extras to mouth onset: watermelon, watermelon, watermelon…?
He’s there at a table, talking to himself about large, green-skinned, red-fleshed fruits.
I can catch him as the camera pans occasionally from James Garner to the waiter and then from James Garner to the door of the diner. The camera pans. It is the eye, the silent organ of the story-teller. James Garner speaks, emotes. His client sits there, shimmering late-‘70’s beauty. The waiter demonstrates a good-natured and unoffensively virile head of jet black hair. And the camera pans. Speaks the story without saying a word. It is the Great Eye. The pinnacle of the pyramid on a 1-dollar bill. A metaphorical seer. The author of all that is and all that will be. The eye pans and, again, I see the man. The man is there. The same man. The same extra. The same man in a show that aired thirty or forty years before the sitcom that I had also seen him in.
Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.
He sits at a table for one and talks to himself. Says a single word over and over again. The production crew didn’t catch that in editing – a single person should have nothing to say to himself.
But there he is, yammering away. Practicing the feel of one word in his mouth.
At one point (again), he looks to the camera. Breaks the Fourth Wall. And I am upset. I begin weeping. He wants a way out. He’s yearning for help – I can see it in the flash of his eyes.
The author of all that is and all that will be, the Great Eye, does not allow him out. The Great Eye only looks at him occasionally and then pans back to James Garner.
The camera now fades in on a shadowy antagonist loading a gun. The face is cloaked in darkness. The hands are illuminated by a shaft of light. That is all that the author would have us know.
I wonder where the ominpresent extra is? The camera has lost track of him. I close my eyes and when I reopen them, there is an infomercial about a slicing and dicing food processor. The blades are diamond-etched. I can lose weight, eat delicious food, prepare seven-course meals in minutes. And it can be mine for three easy installments of $89.99. There is a man in the audience who, amongst the other oohing and aahing spectators, looks familiar…
It’s enough. I turn off the TV.
I am feverish, I know. And so I go to bed without brushing my teeth. Pull the sheets up to my chin as I shiver and sweat.
How can I tell you these things? How can I admit to you that I’ve seen the same man upstage or skulking in the wings of so many sets? How can I explain that he’s been the same person over the course of forty or more years’ worth of TV shows, broadcasts, Johnny Carson episodes, James Corden screenings, Twilight Zone alleyways, Chuck broadcasts, Blackish episodes, WandaVision screenings, Nightcrawler alleyways, Penny Dreadful broadcasts, episodes, screenings, alleyways, broadcasts. The sets of Universal host so many bodies, crews, extras. The food comes in on stainless carts in the early morning, the director yawps a ‘hey, listen up!’ and gives direction, cameras roll, the afternoon sun is hot, makeup conceals the sweat, the crew is sent home, paychecks are sent out.
He’s been there. Speaking about groundfruit. Tasting a single word rolled through his mouth over and over and over again. He looks to the camera occasionally. Occasionally, too, he touches his right cheek. And he is there in black-and-white, in Technicolor, in WarnerColor, in 4K HD. He is there.
How can I admit to this type of insanity?
The sun is coming up now and I walk down to the now-silent TV. I push the button. There is a blink of static across the screen and a soft pop. Nothing more. I push the button again. Silence. I run my palm across the cool glass of the screen. I feel tendrils of static speaking to my own flesh. Nothing more. Nothing more.
The sun is slanting through the yellow-curtained window, low on the horizon. The author shows a man seated now, running his thumb over the nearly-perfect edge of a kitchen knife, wrapping it in newspaper, and tucking it into the wasteband of his too-tight sweatpants. His face is obscured in shadow. Always in shadow. But, in relief, you can tell his jaw is moving. Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon.
It’s late again. And again, there is work to be done at the kitchen sink. I turn the TV on and it’s a late episode of Happy Days. At Arnold’s Restaurant, they’re chewing and chatting and Ron Howard is looking youthful as ever.
I focus on Ron Howard’s hair.
And on the dishes that are smudging my fingertips now with congealed beef grease. Not enough soap in the sink. My fingertips feel like something other than fingertips. The tighter I grip, the more things slip. The grease has, I’m sure, filled up the ridges and troughs of my fingertips. Everything feels slick, muted, as if my fingertips (and only my fingertips) were drunk, high on a low dose of morphine.
I look away from Ron Howard’s hair. And there, behind him, is the same extra. Mouthing watermelon again. Again, sitting by himself in front of a basket of french fries, his hand encircling an otherwise-untouched milk shake.
He turns to me now. His eyes are slightly out-of-focus since the camera is trained on Ron Howard. But I can tell he is looking directly at me.
It’s not a threat. Not even a warning. He is pleading with me. Pleading for me to pull him through the screen, to lay him on a bed with clean sheets, to allow this all to end. He continues to stare, plead silently. His empty hand reaches up to the basket of french fries, closes around about fifty french fries and inconspicuously mashes them into a ball of potato-matter. That hand mashes and mashes, the fingers pulling more french fries into the ball when the starchy mass has been mashed down enough to accommodate them.
He stares. And I stare. And I know I will never reach him. And he, too, knows that he will never be reached.
And so, here I will end this.