“Jade?” Jess tapped the bathroom door with her fingernails. Her wig was sweaty and askew from dancing all night. Jade opened the door, revealing a tear-streaked face with a black bruise underneath her right eye.
“No, I’m not okay! I’m getting arrested!” Jade roared, throwing lipstick in her canvas purse with unmitigated fury.
“I was drunk and I told Tom to punch me to see if I could feel it and he did! So I pepper sprayed him! Now campus security says they’re taking us both to the cops for assault! I FUCKING HATE MEN!” Jade’s blue eyes were dilated, tiny pinhole pupils darting around the room as she searched for her wallet.
“Wow…” Jess took off her wig and ran her fingers through her matted red hair.
“WHERE THE FUCK IS MY WALLET?! They said I needed my ID!” Her voice raised to a high pitch at the end of the sentence. Jade collapsed to the floor, sobbing. Jess glanced around the room, saw Jade’s “Little Mermaid” wallet sitting on top of her copy of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” on the bookshelf next to the bunk beds. She sat cross-legged on the floor next to Jade and handed her the wallet. Jade took the wallet and continued to sob. Jess patted her shoulder. She took off the Minnie Mouse ears.
The conference room at Coyote Studios was a rectangular box with a projection screen at one end and a glass wall at the other. The long, gray conference table was flanked by executives in dark, expensive suits. Emmy and Ben sat at one end near the glass wall, Henry stood behind a podium next to the screen. He buttoned a black suit jacket over his white shirt, which was tucked into his jeans. Henry clicked a tiny black remote to bring up a slide with “American Family’s” logo and the caption “Season 12… And Beyond!”. He cleared his throat.
“Ladies and Gentlemen” Henry started, clicking through slides of stills and charts. “For over a decade, ‘American Family’ has been breaking the rules of television with acerbic comedy that challenges the status quo. Our rabid fan base demanded return from cancellation twice and we revved up the innovative commentary in response. As networks are losing viewership to streaming services, ‘American Family’ is finding new audiences among binge-watching demographics. The 18-35 age group loops all eleven seasons on a 24 hour basis in addition to feeding nightly syndication ratings. The Coyote Network has gained over a billion dollars in revenue due to taking a chance on a big-dreaming kid from Connecticut. This guy right here…”
Henry got to a slide of himself sitting in a director’s chair at 26-years-old, when “American Family” debuted. His hair was slicked down in a 90’s boy-band Caesar cut, he wore a white button-down shirt with short sleeves and round wire-framed glasses. A hopeful goatee did not make his baby face look older, as he thought. His expression was that of a dog being told he’s a good boy, a grateful smile rounding his cheeks and earnest adoration lighting up his big brown happy puppy eyes.
“Ugh. Look at that haircut! No wonder you just wanted me to do the voices, huh?” A soft chuckle rippled across the conference room. Emmy clasped her hands under her chin and smiled at the warm memory. Ben gave Henry an encouraging thumbs up. On the other side of the glass wall, You Know Who walked by. She was wearing a light blue mini dress with three-quarter sleeves and a black collar around a plunging sweetheart neckline. Black gogo boots and a dark pixie cut completed this not-too-subtle cosplay. She stopped in the middle and gave Henry a Vulcan salute. He shook his head and smiled.
“So, the question remains, where to we go from here? On the cusp of our 200th episode, we have a multitude of paths on which to take the brand. In order to keep this revolutionary momentum going, we are going to have to go outside the realm of generic animated sitcoms and explore new territory within the genre. The ‘American Family’ team has proven that a rebellious attitude coupled with creative freedom can generate countless hours of superb content. Our head writer, Emmy Goldsmith has been steering this ship towards success with a brutally honest predilection for guidance and a keen eye for talent.” Emmy’s cheeks flushed as she smiled, embarrassed by the complement. The sexy Vulcan on the other side of the glass blew Henry a kiss.
“And her wife makes a kick ass rugelach if you’re interested.” Henry loved reminding the conservative network that signed his checks of the queer influence on his show. “My partner in crime, Ben Foster has collaborated on some of our most highly rated story lines and used his genius improvisation technique to develop characters who have made a significant impact on pop culture.” Ben leaned back in his chair with a pleased look on his face. The sexy Vulcan breathed on the glass and drew a Saturn shape in the fog.
“Which is why… I’m quitting the show.” Henry smiled, satisfied in the beat before the uproar throughout the conference room. Emmy and Ben looked at each other, confused. This was news to them.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Shouted one executive.
“You’re under contract!” Yelled another.
“You’ll never work in this town again, O’Connor!”
“OUTRAGE!” Bellowed one particularly red-faced, balding executive in a black pin-striped three-piece suit.
“Simmer down, teapots.” Henry held up his hands to quell the chatter. “Here’s the thing… The name ‘Henry O’Connor’ is just a logo. I created the show, my name stays above it. You have a team capable of some astounding creative feats, you don’t need me! ‘American Family’ will continue to break ground as the normalcy-defying, pop-culture eviscerating, politically provoking, genre-challenging, wondrously wacky cartoon it’s always been. In fact, we have a chance to make it better by allowing these new creative minds to take the reigns.”
“Look, Henry…” Condescended an executive with thick, steely salt-and-pepper hair and a gray pin-striped three-piece suit. “I hate to break it to you, but in this industry, you’re middle-aged as fuck. People don’t just up and change careers at the height of the show’s popularity. What else could you possibly do besides this?”
“I have an idea for that, actually…” Henry grinned and looked around the room, everyone leaned towards him in anticipation. The sexy Vulcan pressed her tits against the glass and left a red kiss mark. “We’re bringing back ‘The Universe’…” His low, rumbling voice carried over the room, which was taken aback at the suggestion.
“That show from the 70’s?”
“Isn’t it a documentary?”
“It’s a space opera!”
“Like the Jetsons?”
“Kinda…” Henry continued. “I had lunch with astrophysicist Carl Sinclair-Tyler a few weeks ago and he expressed interest in hosting a revival of the classic space-themed docu-series, which will be updated with state-of-the-art animation and the latest data derived from NASA satellites. Market research shows an up-tick in search engine results for deep space exploration. We will delve into the possibilities of the future based on cutting edge research into theories of the past…”
Henry clicked through several slides of gorgeous deep space concept art, animated historical dramatizations and the popular internet scientist exploring distant galaxies on a stylistically beautiful spaceship. The entire room was impressed. The sexy Vulcan pretended to drop something, bent over so Henry got a face full of her cheeks, which she pressed against the glass. He was glad for the podium.
“Ahem… What we’re creating here is like walking on the fuckin’ moon. It’s never been done before. We have a chance to create a series that educates as well as entertains with top of the line technology and the most talented artists working together to create something… that means something. Something…” The sexy Vulcan gazed at Henry from the other side of the glass, her green eyes full of lusty pride…
“Beautiful…” Henry concluded. The executives let out a smattering of applause and dispersed. The sexy Vulcan was gone…
Jess drove Grandma’s 1994 Toyota Camry north along I-95 with Grandma in the passenger seat, Peppy shaking like a fuzzy little leaf on her lap. Grandma peered over her glasses at the screen on Jess’s phone.
“Just press the button on the side, type in 1-9-9-4 and press the little chat icon that looks like a cartoon speech bubble.” Jess tried to watch the road while instructing Grandma on how to read a text aloud to her. It was pouring rain.
“Okay, here we go…” Grandma started deciphering the phone like a cryptex. “One… Nine… Nine… Four. There we are! And now the little cartoon bubble thingy… Okay, I got it! Leena says ‘K’… Just the letter ‘K’? Since when did we forget how to talk to each other?”
“Oh…” Jess was disappointed.
“Were you expecting someone else?” Grandma asked, intrigued.
“Yeah, just my friend Linsey. I haven’t heard from her in a while.” Jess turned up the defroster.
“Just a friend?” Grandma pressed.
“You know I love you no matter what, right?” Grandma’s arthritic hand patted Jess’s shoulder.
“I know, it’s not like that. I’m just worried about her. Besides, I like someone else…”
“Why haven’t I met this person?” Grandma pushed Jess’s shoulder playfully.
“He… uh… Works a lot. But he’s doing some really amazing things…” Jess smiled to herself. Grandma allowed this annoying vagueness for now.
“Well, any man or woman would be lucky to have you, my beautiful grandbaby…”
Jess’s cousin Leena was sitting outside of the hospital smoking a menthol cigarette. Leena was Korean, adopted by Grandma’s only sister Rita. Her straight black hair was pulled back in a disheveled bun, her sharp, pretty Asian eyes were the epitome of weariness and her fingernails were chewed down to nubs. Her arms and legs were covered in ornate tattoos that drew sneers from older Koreans, which she relished in defiant glee. That rebellious spirit was nowhere to be found today. Leena was about ten years older than Jess, but being a spoiled only child made her kind of a nightmare in a crisis.
“Jess! Thank GAWD you’re here! Can you talk to these people for me? For fucks sake, I can’t get them to give me a straight answer, it’s all just nonsense, I can’t take this anymore!” Leena screamed as Jess approached, slowly guiding Grandma by the hand while Peppy shuffled along on a pink leash. Jess corralled Leena into a one-armed hug.
“Good to see you too. How is she?”
“She’s dead!” Leena sobbed.
“What!?” Jess shouted. Then she heard a sound that made her think someone stepped on Peppy. It was Grandma. Her sobs were like someone kicking a puppy over and over again. Jess heard her make that sound the night she moved into Grandma’s house over a decade ago, the night Pop died. There was no worse sound in existence.
Peppy chose that moment to pinch a tiny poop on the sidewalk.
Irish funerals were known for being incredibly cathartic. The soaring folk music, heartfelt eulogies and vast legions of cousins awash in a sea of whiskey were designed for expelling grief. Since they were half Jewish, Jess’s family funerals lasted for eight days. Leena and Jess were in the third day of sitting Shiva for Aunt Rita in a bar called “The Tempest” in midtown Manhattan. Jess’s pale cheeks were bright red, cowlicks stuck out of her carefully pomaded braids and her new wire-rimmed frames were askew. Her black t-shirt and black leggings had mac and cheese stains and hung loose from two-day wear. Her black converse were hooked on the lowest rung of the bar stool to keep her from falling off the Earth. She pushed a shot of whiskey back towards Leena.
“No! No more shots for Jessica…” Jess put her head in her arms and tried to will the room to stop spinning.
“Pussy.” Leena said, knocking the shot back for herself. Leena was dressed in a flowy, off-the-shoulder black dress that showed off her tattoos. Her face was as red as Jess’s, but she had more practice maintaining her composure while wasted. Her shiny jet black hair was twisted up in a bun with wisps escaping around her temples. She had a large gold watch on her right wrist.
“I told ya I don’t drink, damnit!” Jess slurred. This policy had changed in the past few days, which were one long nauseous blur.
“You’ll drink to celebrate my mother’s life, ya silly cooze! Here!” Leena put another shot in front of Jess and lifted up a toast. Leena turned toward the crowd in the bar and cleared her throat. “Attention everyone! Let’s all have a drink for Mama, the greatest woman who ever lived! She adopted me from Korea and gave me this beautiful life in this city I love! She could be the sweetest, most loving, caring mama you ever met or she could be a royal cunt! She embodied the dichotomous nature of a powerful Gemini in Venus rising, an Irish Jew Warrior Priestess for the ages! The world will never be the same without her! To Mama! Cheers!” She knocked back the shot and took a bow. The handful of bar patrons applauded politely. Jess wondered how long she could keep her head buried in her arms on the bar without people thinking she was passed out. It felt so good to close her eyes.
“Gurl, you gotta wake up!” Leena pushed Jess’s shoulder, jostling her awake. “That story you sent me was pretty good. You should turn it into something I can send to my boss. Publishing isn’t as scary as you think…”
“Shhh! I told you it’s embarrassing. I don’t want people to know about it.”
“Oh, bullshit! I don’t buy that for one second, missy! Why the hell are you writing it if you don’t want anyone to read it?” Leena’s charm school posture held her in a rigid, cross-legged position on the bar stool that juxtaposed Jess’s drunken slump.
“I don’t know…”
“Yes you do.”
“No, I don’t!”
“Oh for fuck’s sake! How old are we? Spit it out, Jess! Why are you writing this story?!”
“Because I want to make him better!” Jess locked a desperate stare on Leena’s whiskey-ruddy face, shocked by her own admission. The floodgates were open. Tears started flowing down her red cheeks. “No one seems to appreciate how awesome Henry is. I want him to remake ‘The Universe’, I want him to feel like an artist, I want him to feel LOVED! Why does that make me feel like such a creep?!”
“Jessie… Is it possible that you want those things for yourself?” Leena’s acute stare seemed to peer into Jess’s soul.
“Yes…” Jess felt slightly more sober, still just as nauseated.
“And he is remaking ‘The Universe’, haven’t you heard?” Leena pulled up an article on her smartphone, showing the real Henry O’Connor sitting with astrophysicist Carl Sinclair-Tyler, discussing the revival of the series.
“What the fuck?” Jess took the phone and scrolled through the article, her drunken eyes softened and she smiled for the first time in a while. “How did he… I wrote that in my story and now he’s really doing it? Do you think he could be reading it?”
“Meh. Anything’s possible.” Leena took her phone back and checked her hair in the selfie camera.
“True dat…” Responded Jess while rubbing her eyes.
To Be Continued 10/1/18