The New York Times
The Big Question: A Novel of Reality Television by the Author of Confessions of a Dangerous Mindby Chuck Barris
From the revolutionary mind of television's legendary mad genius, a story of money, sex, greed, revenge, murder -- and reality TV
The year is 2012, and as the Most Famous Television Producer in the World is walking down a wintry New York City block, he's accosted by a homeless-looking cripple who, like everyone else, insists he has the formula for the/b>… See more details below
From the revolutionary mind of television's legendary mad genius, a story of money, sex, greed, revenge, murder -- and reality TV
The year is 2012, and as the Most Famous Television Producer in the World is walking down a wintry New York City block, he's accosted by a homeless-looking cripple who, like everyone else, insists he has the formula for the greatest TV show of all time. As it turns out, he does: Contestants will compete for one hundred million dollars. If they win, they're rich. If they lose, they face immediate on-camera execution.
As the Producer begins scheming to steal the idea and revive his fading career, The Big Question introduces the extraordinary characters who will ultimately become the show's contestants -- a brilliantly rendered, Dickensian cast that includes the seventy-something Vera Bundle, with a taste for scotch and encyclopedias; Arthur Durch, a convicted sex offender-turned-relationship therapist; Retta Mae Wagons, a sixteen-year-old prostitute with an IQ of 170 and an ex-con-turned-Muslim fundamentalist boyfriend who doesn't appreciate her; Billy Constable, the Kentucky rube who gets off a bus in New York and promptly finds himself in trouble with the Mob; and Father Brady, the devout Catholic priest with a mortifying secret to hide at any cost. As the first episode is broadcast live in front of millions, the audience, the cast, and the crew behind the scenes do the unthinkable: they sit and watch, rapt and glassy-eyed, as the final contestant left on stage meets an unimaginable fate.
To say The Big Question is a novel of greed and immorality would be putting it lightly. But to read this book without laughing out loud at every page would be impossible. This is more than just a funny book, though. With uncanny precision and razor-sharp wit, the inimitable Chuck Barris reveals the inconceivable lengths to which people will go for those priceless fifteen minutes, the fascination we have with the little black box in our homes -- and the horrifying deeds done in the name of entertainment.
The New York Times
Barris, 77, was the genius behind The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show, all hits in the 1960s and 1970s. Critics hated him for lowering the nation's IQ (like we needed help there), but he made millions and paved the way for today's reality-TV mania. Barris recently talked about taste, reality TV and the meaning of Imus over hot dogs at the Friars Club in New York.
FORBES: Experts said The Gong Show was the worst television show ever. What do you say to that?
Barris (laughing):What do I say to that? The way I look at television critics is that they're criticizing some-thing that's free. How much can the criticism count? When you get it for nothing, you'll watch whatever you want to watch.
Are reality shows meaner now than they used to be? Just look at Simon Cowell on American Idol.
Oh, yeah! I think the whole reality business is too mean. These are mean-spirited shows now. The people get into it, and the viewers count on that. The thing I was always accused of, by Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes no less, was running my contestants through an emotional roller coaster. These people were having fun, they were having the time of their lives--at least until we did Three's a Crowd.
That one did you in with the networks?
No doubt. We had three guys onstage and we brought out theirsecretaries, who would answer a bunch of questions, stuff like "How many times a month does he take you for lunch?" Then we'd bring out the wives and ask them the same questions. That kind of thing. They ended up hitting each other on one occasion, which to me was appall-ing, but it was the start of what's his name-- Jerry Springer.
Why did The Gong Show end?
We were doing it five days a week, and I guess I started to think it was getting boring so I ratcheted up the en-ergy and ratcheted us right off the air. If somebody else was the host of that show, it would still be on the air. I liken what I did in a weird way to Imus. When Imus said what he said, that was a suicide statement. It was almost like the guy really didn't want to do the show anymore, a way of showing he thought the show was getting boring.
You think The Big Question could ever air, live executions and all?
I think it could, under certain circumstances, if laws were changed and suicide were legally acceptable. And if the networks or syndicators could give away $100 million every so often. If all that were at all possible, it would get a huge audience. Huge!
Bad things happen to good people. Good things happen to bad people. This is a truism, and it is an unattractive, sardonic worldview, the pessimist's view, embraced by a line of writers from Jonathan Swift to Mark Twain to the re-cently departed Kurt Vonnegut. Somewhere in the back of that line of writers, with his arms raised as if to clap, is Chuck Barris, the 1960s and '70s game show icon.
Barris invented spontaneous television in the 1960s with his unscripted daytime game shows The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game. He later stepped in front of the camera, with increasing ferocity, for his third hit, the cult fave The Gong Show. Few shows since Gong's syndication run in the late 1970s have ever been as funny. (It still enjoys frequent viewing on YouTube.) Barris eventually couldn't withstand the abuse from critics. They blamed him for lowering the nation's IQ. Who could take that kind of pressure without a good amount of cocaine and a nervous breakdown? Barris couldn't, so he withdrew from television two decades ago to write.
To write slowly, it turned out. The new novel The Big Question ($25, Simon & Schuster, 2007) is Bar-ris' second book in 14 years and his fourth novel. I count as fictional large chunks of Barris' 1982 autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which tells of his TV years and reveals for the first time that he had a side gig as a freelance CIA assassin. People have debated whether Barris made up the hit man part. He doesn't talk about it. It's hard to take these kinds of things too seriously, especially from a joker like Barris.
The Big Question takes up a subject Barris knows more about: TV game shows. But it doesn't take up the game-show subject for very long. The year is 2012, and a pathetic cripple named Chuck Barris (that's the self-loathing, not the autobiographical part) foists on a famous TV producer an outrageous concept for a new game show. The pitch: Contestants must answer a frighteningly hard question for a chance to win $100 million. Get it wrong, and they get a lethal injection in their arm, on air, live.
You go in expecting a rumpus satirizing the lengths reality TV contestants will go to get on air and the producer to keep the hysteria going, something a la Carl Hiassen in Midtown Manhattan. But early in the writing Barris got en-thralled in the lives of his characters and flitting back and forth in time explaining their motivations for wanting to get onto the show. The show doesn't come until very late in the book, and Barris forgot to turn it into a send-up. He forgot to stick the knife into the celebrity-addicted television industry as a former insider.
Instead we get a colorful ensemble building to a slow climax, a brew of foul people and bad situations getting worse. There are hookers, grifters, Swedish boxers, sex therapists, fallen priests and a guy named Jimmy Joel Jenks who just seems to be passing on through. There's a two-bit crook with big ears who loses his teeth in prison, a country rube who finds himself deeply in hock to the Mob, a hulking hoodlum-turned-imam who meets a violent end and not one but two people carried off to the swamps of New Jersey wrapped inside an area rug.
It's picaresque, a little hip, with indelible images, and I couldn't help feeling it was having trouble getting off the ground. But it did toward the end, the coda of which is lovely. Fans of Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard would like Bar-ris' novel. It doesn't have the laughs of Hiassen or the crackle of Leonard but comes close to offering that kind of rich, sardonic stew of human longing, greed and sex. Keep writing, Chuckie Baby.
Answer the quiz show's final question correctly, and you win $100 million; get it wrong, and you're executed on live television. The premise is as potentially gruesome and gripping as it is simple, but former Gong Showhost and self-proclaimed informant Barris (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) is more interested in the multiple sad-sack characters who provide myriad digressions than in plot. In 2011, a self-described octogenarian "cripple"�he's never named, but "the movie of the cripple's book, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, tanked"�is broke in New York, despite a TV heyday that included creating The Dating Game. He hopes to make a comeback by peddling his concept for "The Death Game" to a successful producer. As that plot unfolds, Barris introduces a welter of characters who are more like caricatures, among them widow Vera Bundle of Steubenville, Ohio, 77 and mourning her husband 50 years after his death; prostitute Retta Mae Wagons, the 170 IQ teenage daughter of a junkie; and Billy Constable, 19, late of Bowling Green, Ky., who has come to New York to seek his fortune. These three appear in the deadly broadcast that ends the book, but that's less the point than tuning in to the world according to Barris. (May)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Read an Excerpt
It happened on a bleak Friday afternoon in late November in the year 2011. That's when the hand shot out and grabbed him.
The assault took place during one of those cold spells that occur with regularity between Thanksgiving and Christmas. A blustery wind whipped around street corners and made life miserable. It was the kind of cold New Yorkers say goes right through you. The streets were filled with bundled-up shoppers in overcoats and scarves, executives wearing dark blue cashmere topcoats, tourists shivering in mackinaws, earmuffs, and Yankee baseball caps just purchased from street vendors.
The fingers that took hold of him were so strong he could feel the pressure through his fur-lined raincoat, sport coat, turtleneck sweater, and the two undershirts beneath. The man had been lost in thought walking along the east side of Madison Avenue when the attack took place. He experienced a thick feeling of terror grip his chest like an iron vise. He was sure he would soon be fighting for his life against a demented lunatic right there in the middle of the pavement. He could see tomorrow morning's Post headline:
PRODUCER ON UPPER EAST SIDE
The hand spun him around. As the producer came face-to-face with his assailant, he couldn't believe his eyes. The hand with the powerful grip belonged to a pathetic old cripple!
The producer was relieved.
He wouldn't have to physically defend himself against a crazed maniac after all. Quite the contrary. His assailant was powerless and disabled, old and sickly to boot. The geezer had to be in his eighties, guessed the producer. The old man's strong grip came from years of supporting himself on a crutch. He had been frightened by a lame, emaciated bum, frail and misshapen.
The cripple had a face full of liver spots. He hadn't shaved in days. His sparse beard was filthy. Crumbs of food were embedded in it. His lips were chapped, split in some places, with several sores on them. The old cripple's entire right side was tilted down toward the street. His right arm hung limply by his side. His right leg appeared to be almost useless. It was obvious he'd suffered a stroke. The cripple wore a seedy, weather-beaten fedora and a torn and stained overcoat worn more for protection than looks, like a turtle's carapace. The coat was held together by one button and several large safety pins. Portions of dirty socks protruded through the sides of his old, cracked shoes.
The producer's relief turned immediately to violent machismo. He pulled away from the filthy clutching fingers with a violent jerk. When he did, the old cripple stumbled backward one or two steps. Several passersby scowled at the man for being so arrogant and physical with someone so old and less fortunate than himself.
The cripple seemed unperturbed.
The producer was furious. Goddamn it, he thought, why do I always attract the lunatic fringe? Why does every panhandler follow me down the entire length of the street asking for money, waving his filthy paper cup in my face? How come every hobo carrying a billboard on his back shoves his flyers into my stomach and every pedestrian with the flu coughs and sneezes in my direction when he walks by? And why does every nitwit in Manhattan stop me to give me his god-awful television ideas? As sure as I'm standing here, this derelict has the best television show ever created by man.
"What do you think you're doing?" hissed the producer.
"Aren't you...aren't you the guy who -- ?"
"I'm not anyone you should be the least bit concerned about."
"But you are, aren't you? You're the famous -- "
The cripple slurred his words when he talked. Yellowish spittle gathered in the corners of his mouth and saliva drippings covered his chin. Nothing about the poor soul was the least bit appealing.
"I'm not famous."
"Yes, you are."
"Just go away, you son of a bitch, and leave me alone."
"Easy now, mister. There's no need for that kind of language. Show a little respect for your elders. Just tell me whether you are or are not the big-shot television producer who had all those game and reality shows on the air. The one I've been wanting to talk to for an entire year. No, more like praying to talk to. Well, come on, you are, aren't you?"
"I'm a television producer, but I'm not famous. Now go away."
"Ha! I knew you were famous and I know who you are. You're -- "
"Didn't I just tell you to go away? Where do you get off grabbing my shoulder, anybody's shoulder, you bent and misshapen piece of scheise."
"I must talk to you," said the cripple, immune to slurs. "I'm sure you won't believe your ears when I tell you what I'm going to tell you. Or your eyes when you see what I have to show you. You'll -- "
"You're not going to show me a damn thing. Now go away, do you hear?"
"Like I was saying, you'll want to hear what I have to say because...because..." The cripple suddenly stopped speaking and started coughing. Violently. The spasms turned his white face red as the poor man gasped for breath. The cripple's helpless coughing momentarily mesmerized the producer. It caused him to stare at the sick shell of a man and wonder when he would quit his awful hacking. Other pedestrians stopped walking and regarded the cripple as they passed. Eventually the cripple was able to get his coughing under control, and when he did he continued speaking as if nothing had happened. "...because it's important I speak with you. Very very very important. Three verys." The cripple cackled.
"I'm sure what you have to discuss is important," said the producer. "Every misfit walking the streets of this city always wants to talk to me about something important, usually some incredible television idea, the best ever created by man. Or the beggar wants money for something. Okay, okay, I'll give you a couple of dol -- "
"I don't want your goddamn money!" snapped the cripple, fuming. He took a deep breath. "God knows I can use it, but I don't want it. I didn't stop you to ask for money. I stopped you because I want to offer you something that I am sure will make you money. Tons of it. And some most assuredly for me too. I just want you to come to my room and hear what I have to say and see what I have to show you. I can explain everything...and...and you know...a picture is worth a thousand words, right? When I show you my video you'll see what I mean. I need you to come to my apartment because I don't want to take the video out into the street. You'll understand why when you see it. It's the most incredible television idea -- "
"See! Of course it's an incredible television idea. Didn't I tell you every miscreant on the street has an incredible television idea? It's always an incredible television idea. Not just a good television idea but an incredible television idea. Do you have any idea how many times I am approached with incredible television ideas in a given week?" The producer shook his head, taking a moment to think angry thoughts. "Besides, I don't develop television program ideas anymore, Bozo, especially someone else's television idea. I never did that. I only develop my own ideas. Besides, I quit the damn television business long ago, and -- "
"Not that long ago. Not really. What's it been? Five years?"
"Okay, ten. If it's been ten years, then it's time for you to get back into the fray." The cripple smiled.
"Don't you presume to tell me -- "
"You won't believe this idea of mine," continued the cripple. "You must hear what I have to explain to you and see what I have to show you in private. It's extremely important you see the videotape. It's also important that it be just the two of us. After you hear what I have to say and see the tape, you'll understand. I promise you, I absolutely promise you, you'll beg me to let you do my program idea posthaste. You're the one person alive who's smart enough to understand what I intend to show you and do something about it."
A passing ambulance's screaming siren momentarily stopped the two men's exchange. During the lull, the producer thought to himself, maybe this creep will go away peacefully if I just speak calmly and nicely to him.
"Look, old man," he said calmly and nicely, even trying to smile a bit, which was difficult, for the producer never smiled, "you've got the wrong guy. I don't have all the contacts with the networks and syndicators I used to have. I would have a hard time getting an idea of my own done these days. Believe me, that's true. Good-bye, old man."
The producer turned and started to walk away.
"That's bullshit," yelled the old cripple, limping after him.
Vera Bundle decided to make herself a cup of afternoon tea in the kitchen of her home in Steubenville, Ohio.
Steubenville's just across the Ohio-Pennsylvania border on the Ohio side, a bit west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and north of Wheeling, West Virginia. Like Pittsburgh, Steubenville's a steel town. They make a lot of it there. Or used to. They also have some fairly large paper mills in Steubenville and more whorehouses than most cities of comparable size. Steubenville's a gray, depressing city. Its population has been trending downward since 1980. Roughly twenty thousand people live there now.
Dean Martin grew up in Steubenville.
Vera Bundle did too.
Short and plump, Vera Bundle was in her midseventies and still relatively spry for her age. She was never seriously sick and had good color. Her hair was frizzy and naturally brown. She kept it cut short and worn in a pageboy. The bangs running across her forehead resembled dead weeds, making Vera appear even more dowdy than she was, which was seriously dowdy. Vera Bundle tended to wear plain, formless dresses, usually under an apron tied in the back. She always wore sensible shoes on her slightly large feet and favored small hats when she went out. Vera had a nice smile but didn't use it often. That's because Vera Bundle rarely had a lot to smile about.
Vera always wore a pair of granny spectacles that rested on the bridge of her red and veiny nose. The hundreds of tiny purple veins came from years of drinking "occasional" glasses of sherry and frequent shots of J&B scotch. She drank mostly out of boredom and more now than she had in the past. Even Vera noticed how her drinking had increased. She guessed it was due to her becoming more and more uninterested and listless about life. She often wondered why over the past few years a gray curtain seemed to have dropped down in front of her. Why, the first word she said every morning when she woke was "damn." Vera never used to wake up and say that. She used to be happy in the morning. It was the start of a brand-new day.
Now she said damn.
Vera missed her dear husband, Norville. More now than she had in the past. Perhaps that was the root of her unhappiness. Prolonged life without Norville -- it had been almost fifty years -- might very well be the cause of her depression. Well, it made sense, didn't it? For one thing, she and Norville had done so many things together. Their daily breakfast ritual, going to the movies, reading in bed before going to sleep. The simple life. It was so much fun. And Norville was so funny! He could make Vera Bundle laugh louder and longer than anyone else she knew. But for so long now, Norville had been just plain dead Norville, a pile of bones in a beat-up casket in the cold, hard ground out there in Memorial Park Cemetery.
"I know this is a touchy subject, Vera, but you haven't laughed or done much of anything since Norville passed," said her friend Esther Wigton over tea one afternoon at the Conrad Hotel. The Conrad was the only hotel in Steubenville that served high tea at four p.m. "Norville died fifty years ago, Vera. Isn't that time enough to mourn someone? You should have moved on years ago."
Vera sighed. She had heard that speech maybe a thousand times from Esther.
Vera Bundle was retired now. She used to teach geography at PS 13, the grammar school in downtown Steubenville. Vera knew she would miss teaching after she retired, but enough was enough. At her farewell lunch she told the crowd as much. Actually it wasn't exactly a crowd. Only four friends came to Vera's retirement party.
"I think forty-five years is plenty of teaching for one person," she told them.
The four friends nodded.
At the end of her short speech Vera thanked her friends for her going-away present. It was a Timex wristwatch they had all chipped in to buy her. "It's something I will always cherish," she said.
The four friends nodded.
Vera loved being retired. She finally had the time to concentrate on furthering her own education in her own way. It was something she had been doing part-time her entire life. Now she would be able to do it full-time. What that meant was she could study her Encyclopaedia Britannicas and National Geographics all day, all afternoon, and all night, if she so desired.
And she so desired.
Vera Bundle owned a complete set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, all twenty-five volumes. Vera's encyclopedia covers were made of imitation leather with gold-flecked borders. The twenty-five volumes were housed in a special custom-made bookcase that came with the set. It had taken Vera three years of saving from her bimonthly teaching paychecks and some of the money her husband Norville left her to purchase the set of encyclopedias complete with its own bookcase. It was an extravagance, but so what? Vera considered the investment the best she'd ever made. She adored her Encyclopaedia Britannicas.
Vera Bundle had her own special routine prior to perusing a volume of the Britannicas. First she made herself a cup of tea. She would pour the hot water into her cup, dip her tea bag once or twice (she didn't like her tea too strong), add quite a bit of milk and two heaping teaspoons of sugar, and stir. Every time Vera made a cup of tea -- every single time -- she thought of her late husband Norville. How he used to say, "I like my tea like I like my women, Vera, hot and sweet."
"Now you stop that, Norville Bundle," Vera would reply, pretending to be angry.
"Aw, I'm only teasing you, Vera baby," Norville always said, tickling her ribs with his index fingers, Vera wiggling around, trying to dodge his fingers but not trying to dodge his fingers. "Vera, you know you're the only one I've ever loved."
They'd joke around talking silly like that for a spell and then they'd hug and kiss...and...
God, she missed him.
After Vera Bundle finished stirring her tea, she added a shot glass, filled to the top, of J&B scotch. Vera never stirred the tea once the scotch was in the cup.
When her tea was prepared, Vera took two vanilla sugar wafers from the cookie tin in the cupboard and carried the tea and wafers on a small tray to her favorite armchair in the living room. She placed the tray on a tea table that was her mother's, and her mother's mother's before that, going back maybe a hundred years or so. Once in the armchair, Vera pulled the chain that turned on the floor lamp with the imitation Tiffany shade. Vera used a hundred-watt bulb in the lamp. In the past she'd used lesser-watt bulbs, but in the last five years her eyes had become worse and worse. Now she was forced to wear store-bought glasses for reading, and her lightbulbs had increased from forty watts to sixty watts to the present hundred watts.
When Vera needed to buy store-bought glasses with a higher magnification or if she were compelled to go to a one-hundred-and-fifty-watt bulb, she vowed she would make an appointment with Dr. Duane Carper, the cute young eye doctor in Wheeling. Vera's friend Esther Wigton constantly raved about Dr. Carper since seeing him a month ago. Vera was sure Esther had a crush on the eye doctor. When Vera was a young girl she could never have imagined a woman of sixty-plus years having a crush on anyone. She still couldn't imagine it. Women of her age and Esther's were much too old for those kinds of shenanigans. True, Esther Wigton was younger than she. Esther was in her midsixties. About the age Vera was when she met John. But Vera got over it real quick and Esther hadn't gotten over anything. In fact, she was still acting downright childish. An example of this had happened just the other day at the Inn of the Sixth Happiness Tea & Sandwich Shop.
Esther said to Vera, "God, Dr. Carper's sexy."
"My goodness, Esther, Dr. Carper must be half your age!" said Vera.
"What's age have to do with it? Duane's a man and I'm a woman, for God's sake."
"Now it's Duane, is it?"
"Oh, control yourself, Vera. I know how the subject of sex gets you all riled up."
"No, you control yourself, Esther," whispered Vera. "People at the other tables can hear you."
"Oh, Vera, for heaven's sake. You're such a prude. So someone overhears us. So what?"
"Yes, so what? What's wrong with getting a little at our age? Or at least dreaming about getting a little?"
"This entire conversation is absurd."
"It'll all stop being absurd, Vera, when you get the hots for some young man."
"Get the hots. Honestly, Esther."
Was that it? Had she gotten "the hots" for John?
"You'll see, Vera. You'll find yourself doing things you never imagined you would do in your life. That is, if you ever meet a younger man who gets your blood boiling."
"Honestly, Esther. Gets my blood boiling. You are something."
After making herself comfortable in her armchair, with a cup of tea sitting on the table beside her, Vera would take an encyclopedia from the bookcase, sniff its leather cover, then open the book and sniff the first page. She never tired of these delicious and familiar smells. After her sniffs, she usually examined the entire volume from cover to cover, riffling through its pages, lost in a wonderful world of facts and figures, historical data, exotic photographs, and maps and charts until something caught her eye. Then she would stop and read and read and read. She daydreamed of the faraway cities and countries she came across that she would never see, places with magical names like Al Jizah, Timbuktu, and Kilimanjaro.
"So much to read, so little time to do it," Vera often said aloud.
Along with her beloved Encyclopaedia Britannicas, Vera had a subscription to National Geographic dating back to 1941, the year Vera started elementary school. The subscription was a gift from her Uncle Conrad Finley. Uncle Conrad would tell Vera, "You'll get more out of one National Geographic than all the other textbooks you'll ever read."
Now, seventy years later, there were so many Geographics piled up in nice yellow stacks on her bedroom floor that sometimes she couldn't move around. Occasionally a handyman friend of hers had to come to the house and make passageways to allow Vera to walk to bed at night or to the bathroom when she had to go.
Vera would be the first to admit that even with her Encyclopaedia Britannicas and National Geographics, not a day went by when she wasn't deeply discouraged and lonely. The few friends Vera had believed that her inability to get over her husband Norville's passing was the reason behind Vera's depression. They begged her over and over again to go out and find a man.
"At my age?" she often replied. "What a thought."
Vera hadn't lived with another man in fifty years. Maybe she should have looked for a husband right away like everyone told her to do. She was only twenty-seven back then, still young and good-looking, not all fat and dumpy the way she was now.
Heck, she thought, even in my sixties when I met John, I was still a fine-looking lady.
Daniel Patrick Brady was born in a row house on Stoneway Lane across the Philadelphia city line in a suburb called Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. All the houses on Stoneway Lane had slate roofs, stone sidings, steps of stone, and little windows. Brady attended Bala Grammar School, which went as far as the sixth grade. It was there his schoolmates first called him DP.
In the fall the so-called varsity football team of little Bala Grammar School played St. Matthias Catholic. St. Matt's was a large, gray building with a massive bell tower over the impressive wooden doors of its main entrance. St. Matt's went as far as the eighth grade; consequently, the Catholic boys were two years older and much bigger than the Bala school twerps. With this advantage, the parochial school creamed the secular kids every year on the rocky field adjacent to the school. And by embarrassing scores too, like 84-0.
One evening at the dinner table, after a St. Matt's-Bala football game, a young and bruised DP Brady asked his father whether he could continue his next two years of school at St. Matthias instead of the public junior high school.
"Why?" asked his father, a muscular, short-tempered, unsympathetic man named Flynn Brady. DP's father owned a small appliance business in West Philadelphia. Flynn Brady wasn't an easy man to live with. He didn't involve himself with family problems. Just yelled a lot and drank a lot. "Those Catholic boys beat the shit out of you guys again?" he asked.
"Language," said DP's mother, a frail, short, thin, flat, sickly woman who tended to wear a lot of black.
"We're Catholics, aren't we?" asked Daniel Patrick. "So why can't I go to a Catholic school?"
"All this because of a football game." Flynn Brady shook his head. "Don't worry, you'll fill out. Right now you take after your mother, but you'll fill out. Now shut up and eat your dinner," said DP's father, pointing a long finger with a dirty fingernail at the kid's food. DP's father was not very understanding.
Turning to his mother, DP asked, "We're good Catholics, aren't we?"
"Of course we are," snapped DP's father. He sat at the head of the table, his suit coat hanging from the back of his chair, his shirt collar open, his tie pulled down a notch or two, and his suspenders dangling by the sides of his pants.
"We don't go to church every Sunday," said his twelve-year-old son. "I don't, and I don't see the two of you going very much."
"I'm tired on Sundays," muttered DP's father, not enjoying his son's interrogation. "I work hard during the week, and -- "
"We're not very good Catholics," said DP's mother softly.
"Jesus Christ, Emma..." snorted Flynn Brady.
"Well, we're not. God knows we're going to pay for it too."
"Why, if we're Catholic," asked young DP, "am I going to Bala Grammar School and not St. Matthias?"
"Answer him, Mother," ordered Flynn Brady.
"I have nothing to say," said Emma Brady.
DP's father said, "They expect a yearly contribution to the church fund if your kid goes to St. Matt's, that's why."
"That's not true," sighed DP's mother.
DP's father shook his head.
DP wasn't always sure why his father shook his head. Discouraged? Disappointed? Something his mother said?
"I want to go to St. Matthias," said the boy.
And so he did, completing his seventh and eighth grades there. And then on to high school at St. Joseph Prep School, not far from St. Matthias. It was at St. Joe Prep that Daniel Patrick Brady began his Jesuit education. When DP graduated from St. Joseph Prep School, he continued to stay in the neighborhood, entering St. Joseph College, a few blocks away.
DP Brady loved St. Joe. He lived with three classmates in a small apartment not far from school on City Line Avenue. He worked lunch and dinner behind the cash register in the college cafeteria to pay for some of his tuition expenses. Young DP Brady hadn't "filled out" yet, as his father had promised, and though he couldn't make any varsity team, DP was one of the school's most popular students.
Senior year, he became the basketball team's mascot.
St. Joe was a big-time basketball power and its mascot was a hawk. Being the hawk mascot called for someone with a lot of nervous and frenetic energy, more important than agility and athletic prowess. If you were chosen as the school's hawk, you were awarded a full scholarship for your senior year along with a hawk costume, and were required to run around flapping the hawk's wings for the entire game. The hawk was allowed to rest during halftime. Many tried out for the honored position, but only one was chosen.
Daniel Patrick Brady was chosen.
As the St. Joe hawk, DP traveled with the basketball team to Madison Square Garden for the National Invitation Basketball Tournament.
At the beginning of his senior year, DP Brady received a scholarship from the Jesuit Society of Philadelphia that would cover his senior year's tuition. The society was investing in DP because they saw in him the makings of a profound Jesuit priest. Under Daniel Patrick Brady's photo in the St. Joseph College yearbook it said: "A born leader."
During DP's last year at St. Joseph, he decided to become a priest. But not a Jesuit priest. A priest of the Catholic church. DP's father wasn't thrilled. His appliance business was growing and he was hoping his son would join him after he finished his education.
DP's father was convinced this religious thing of his son's would blow over like a nasty summer heat wave when DP was handed his diploma. Flynn Brady had already painted a sign saying BRADY & SON as a surprise graduation present for Daniel Patrick and bought him a nice Bulova wristwatch. DP accepted the watch but not the sign, and consequently the BRADY & SON unveiling on the roof of the store never happened.
It broke Flynn Brady's heart.
He stored the sign in the basement of his appliance store.
Daniel Patrick Brady was accepted at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary on Lancaster Avenue and City Line, again not far from the family's row house on Stoneway Lane. St. Charles Borromeo resembled Versailles. The seminary was an impressive collection of immaculate white stone buildings surrounded by a high black wrought-iron gate. St. Charles Borromeo stretched across acres and acres of well-kept formal gardens and hundreds of healthy and well-kept oak and maple trees.
Young Brady was one of one hundred students to enter the seminary. In one of the books he was given to study was written:
The Lord has sworn, and he will not repent:
"You are a priest forever..."
-- PSALM 110:4
DP Brady turned himself into a dedicated seminarian.
He graduated from St. Charles Borromeo with honors.
In 1999, when Billy Constable was eight years old, he walked over to the Bowling Green, Kentucky, fairgrounds, where the annual county fair was in progress. Billy roamed around watching the rides and listening to the calliope music. He was mesmerized by the Ferris wheel, the merry-go-round, the flying saucers, the loop-the-loop, and the many exciting booths.
All of a sudden something stopped Billy Constable dead in his tracks. It was the big hunting knife he noticed hanging above what turned out to be a very large roulette wheel. Billy didn't know the first thing about roulette wheels or that the knife was a prize. All he knew was he wanted that hunting knife more than life itself.
Little Billy walked up to the man behind the roulette wheel counter and said, "Can I buy that there knife for fifty cent?"
Billy held up his half-dollar to show the man.
"No you can't, sonny, you can't buy it. But you can try and win it with your half-dollar."
"How do I do that?"
"What you do is give me your fifty-cent piece and I'll give you a chip. You put the chip on your favorite number on that there board over there. I spin this here wheel and when the wheel stops spinnin' an' the little rubber arrow ends up pointin' at your number you get to keep that big ol' huntin' knife."
"And if it don't end up pointin' at my number?"
"You lose your fifty-cent piece."
"I wouldn't want a do that. A fifty-cent piece's a lotta money," said Billy.
"Yeah, it is. Your ma and pa know you're wanderin' around this park wavin' a fifty-cent piece around, sonny?"
"Nope. But they don't much care what I do. An' my house ain't that far away. So should I give you my fifty-cent piece?"
"Don't know what to tell you, sonny."
"It's the last fifty-cent piece I have from all the dollars I made mowin' lawns this week."
"How many dollars you make?"
"Three dollar. An' sixty cent too. I bought myself some things yesterday. This is all I have left, this here fifty-cent piece. But I want that there knife real bad."
"Don't know what to tell you, sonny."
"They don't make fifty-cent pieces no more," said little Billy.
"Someone give this to me. He said keep it for good luck."
"So you gonna keep it?"
"No. I'm gonna put it on number twenty-two."
"Okay, give me your fifty-cent piece, sonny, and I'll give you this blue chip. You go over there an' put the chip on the number twenty-two. See where the numbers are?"
"Yeah, I see 'em," said Billy.
Some grown-up people were standing around the numbers, not paying much attention to an eight-year-old kid with a blue chip. The grown-up people were too busy concentrating on the serious business of choosing their own numbers. Billy wiggled into where he could put his chip on number twenty-two.
When everybody had their bets down, the man spun the big roulette wheel. Billy shut his eyes, put his dirty hands over them, and held his breath until he heard the wheel come to a stop. When Billy opened his eyes, he saw the rubber arrow pointing directly at number twenty-two. The man behind the counter grinned from ear to ear, reached up and grabbed the big, scary-looking hunting knife, and handed it to Billy.
The knife measured about ten inches from the top of the handle to the tip of the blade. It came complete with a leather holster with a loop on the back that Billy could slide his belt through. Billy Constable strutted around town wearing that knife, the holster banging against his hip, for weeks and weeks. He even slept with it belted around the waist of his jammies.
When Billy Constable was eight years old he was a good-looking kid. Unfortunately, he wasn't nearly as good-looking when he grew up. For one thing, Billy's chin stopped growing. Also his freckles disappeared and he began losing his mop of dusty brown hair. He didn't gain any weight. He just grew. Billy became tall and skinny and almost bald and chinless and bony and shy and introverted and I don't know what else.
One day in late December 2011, Billy Constable turned nineteen and decided to leave his home in Bowling Green, Kentucky. "I'm gonna seek my fortune in New York City," he told his parents the night before he left. Billy's mother said just about the same thing his father had said, which was basically, "That's nice."
Billy couldn't explain why he picked New York City or why he decided to leave home so close to Christmas. He just did. Billy's folks didn't care where he went or what he did when he got there. Ma and Pa Constable never gave a good goddamn what any of their nine kids did. They weren't what you'd call loving or caring parents. They never beat their kids but they never hugged them, either. They just never paid them any attention.
So Billy Constable grabbed a Greyhound bus heading north. It was raining when Billy boarded the bus. It rained all that day and well into the night. The constant rain would have driven Billy crazy and the ride would have bored him to death if he wasn't sitting next to a young stranger who seemed friendly.
Billy Constable was seated by the window. The stranger, who was one of the last to board the bus, sat next to him on the aisle.
They didn't know it yet, but the stranger and Billy Constable were the same age, easygoing, and fun to be around. They were skinny as sticks with maybe a total of two hundred and fifty pounds between them. Both were from the South, heading north to start anew. Both were young and hadn't done much with their lives so far. And neither one of the boys was afraid to risk some of his loose change on various wagers. This last trait quickly endeared them to each other.
But that's where the similarities ended.
The stranger was outgoing and extroverted. Billy Constable was shy and mostly kept to himself. The stranger had lots of red hair. Billy was going bald. The stranger was dressed like a country bumpkin. He wore a leather porkpie hat and a torn denim jacket and jeans. His T-shirt advertised the John Deere Company. His jeans were cut so high above his ankles you could see his skin over the tops of his socks. Billy had on his best (and only) sport coat, tie, and dress shirt. Stuff he wore to church.
"You from Bowling Green?" asked the young stranger shortly after they were seated.
"Yep. You too?" asked Billy, looking out his window even though the bus was still in the terminal.
"No. I'm from Knoxville. Hitched a ride to Bowling Green. What's your name?"
"Name's Billy. Billy Constable. What's yours?"
"Jimmy Joel Jenks," he told Billy's back. "Where you headin', Billy?"
"New York City," he answered, still staring out the window. Billy preferred to look out his window rather than into the stranger's eyes. Billy didn't like to look into a stranger's eyes. In fact, Billy didn't like to look into anybody's eyes. Not at first. "Where you goin', Jimmy Joel?" he asked the window.
"Anywhere that suits me."
"How will you know when you find a place that suits you?"
"Have any idea where that might be?"
"Don't know the answer to that question," replied Jimmy Joel Jenks, his warm smile wasted on the back of Billy's head. "You say you're goin' to New York City?"
"Reckon I'll go there too."
That's when Billy Constable turned from the window and faced Jimmy Joel Jenks. "Reckon you'll go there too?" he asked, his eyes all squinty with seriousness, which was what happened when Billy talked serious.
"Yeah. Why not?" said Jimmy Joel Jenks.
"You're goin' to New York City just 'cause I said I was goin' to New York City?"
"It's as good a reason as any."
During their rainy ride north, Billy Constable pocketed a little over a dollar of Jimmy Joel Jenks's loose change betting on raindrops. Billy chose one raindrop up at the top of their window and Jimmy Joel another. The winner was the one whose raindrop arrived at the bottom of the window first. Sometimes the boys got to yelling and rooting so hard for their raindrop they'd wake up other passengers who were sleeping. Or trying to. Some of the passengers would curse and say nasty things to the boys, but they continued betting on raindrops anyway.
"Lord Almighty, Billy," said Jimmy Joel Jenks when he was finally out of change. "How you always know which damn raindrop's goin' to get down to the bottom first?"
"Just lucky, I guess," answered Billy Constable.
It was snowing and very cold in Manhattan. There were Christmas decorations already on storefronts, Christmas trees on traffic islands, and wreaths on lampposts.
The boys split up at the main entrance to the Port Authority bus depot on Eighth Avenue. They understood they had been through a baptism of sorts, leaving home close to Christmas and coming to New York together like they did.
"Take care, Jimmy Joel, y'hear?" said Billy Constable.
"You take care a yourself too," said Jimmy Joel, the condensation coming out of both their mouths when they talked, as if they were smoking cigarettes.
They hugged each other fondly in parting, smacking each other's back.
Billy Constable checked into the McBurney YMCA at 125 West 14th Street. The room was cheap and clean. The next day he began pounding the streets looking for a job. When he wasn't looking for a job in the newspapers' want ads, he was drinking coffee and eating doughnuts in a corner coffee shop named Benny's Downtown Diner.
Eventually Billy found a position as a boxer. Not a prizefighter; Billy folded men's suits and packed the suits into boxes in a clothing factory's shipping department. He was taught how to fold the suits in a special way by another boxer, a black man named Luther something-or-other. Luther something-or-other showed Billy how to fold a suit so the suit could travel clear across the country and arrive at its destination without a single crease.
Soon after Billy was established as a boxer in the clothing factory, he found and rented a small one-room apartment in the basement of a West Village brownstone. The apartment had some furniture in it already, including a bed. The rent was reasonable.
Billy felt lucky.
Everything seemed to be falling into place easier than he'd expected. He had a decent job, money in his pocket, and a place to live. He had a new friend named Jimmy Joel Jenks.
And then Billy met Sonny Lieberman.
The cripple refused to let the producer get away. Not after finally finding the bastard and getting within speaking distance. He wasn't the least bit concerned that he was causing a disturbance, standing on Madison Avenue in the middle of the pavement with tons of shoppers about, yelling at this guy like he was. Hell, they could have been arguing in the Macy's Department Store front window for all he cared. The cripple was convinced the fate of his entire project rested in this man's hands, and he absolutely could not allow the lucky happenstance to fail.
"You still have programs on the air in reruns, don't you?" asked the cripple. "Plenty of them. You haven't been out of the business like you say you have. Your saying you've been out of business is unadulterated malarkey. All the network honchos and syndicators remember your name. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the network honchos and syndicators still know you personally. You still have clout. Plenty of it. So don't give me that crap about your contacts drying up."
The producer stopped walking. He had to. The cripple was limping after him, shouting his accusations, making an embarrassing scene. The producer hated embarrassing scenes.
The producer turned and said, "Look here, you ignorant fool, just -- "
"Hell, if it wasn't for your programs," shouted the cripple, "they wouldn't have anything to run on the Game Show Channel, would they? As I see it, you really haven't left the business at all. Your star hasn't diminished and neither has your pull. Not as much as you say."
"Listen," said the producer, unable to believe he was still having a conversation with this lowlife, "I left the business because I was sick of it. I'm still sick of it. My feelings haven't changed one iota."
"I beg to differ," sneered the cripple. "I don't think you left the business, as you call it, because you were sick of it. I think you left the business because you were able to put a zillion dollars in your pocket. I read all about your big killing in the trades." The cripple started coughing again. New spasms, more savage and more uncontrollable than before, turned the sorrowful old soul into someone more helpless and pitiful. His arms waved about like a puppet's. His back was hunched. Once again pedestrians watched as they walked by. The producer, his eyes riveted on the cripple, waited for what seemed like an eternity for the old fool to stop coughing.
When the cripple finally finished hacking, his hand shot out like a striking snake and stuffed a piece of paper into the producer's coat pocket. As soon as the paper was safely tucked away, the cripple quickly retracted his hand and smiled.
The producer was appalled. When he got home he would send the coat to the cleaners immediately. "Damn him," the producer said under his breath, feeling more and more queasy as he looked at the smiling bum's infected gums and yellow teeth, teeth that were still in his mouth.
"When you sold your company, how long were you contractually not allowed back into television?" asked the relentless cripple.
"Five years," mumbled the producer.
"It's 2011 now, so your banishment's over with. God, I have a toothache. Hurts like hell. Do you know a good dentist?" The cripple rubbed his left cheek. "So now you can come back to television, right? Could have come back years ago if you wanted to."
"Yes, I could have come back years ago," allowed the producer, "and no, I don't know a dentist."
"I don't have a phone in my room," explained the cripple. "But my name and the number of a pay phone down the hall are on the piece of paper I just put into your raincoat pocket."
The cripple coughed several times quite loudly but quickly recovered. The cripple seemed to understand that what little hope he had of the famous producer coming to see him depended upon stopping the coughing immediately.
"It takes me a while to get to the pay phone," said the cripple, trying to clear his throat. "This damn leg, you know." The cripple presented a paralyzed leg with a flourish of his left hand as if introducing a vaudeville act. "So let the phone ring. There's nobody on my floor during the day but me. They're all working." He took a deep breath, struggling to prevent another coughing attack. He inhaled deeply, gulping air like a drowning man. "Damn emphysema. Thank you, R. J. Reynolds and Company," he whispered.
When the cripple regained control of himself, he said as calmly as he could, "I never thought I'd find you. You're not listed in the phone book and I don't know anyone who knows where you live. You keep your life extremely private, don't you? Fate has brought us together so that we both can become rich and famous. In my case, rich and famous again. In your case, richer and more famous." The cripple gave a quick cackle, then said, "You've got to come to my apartment and let me show you my videotape." In desperation, the cripple grabbed a handful of the producer's overcoat and pleaded, "You've just got to."
The producer yanked his coat away from the cripple with such a burst of violence it caused the bum to almost fall once again, and his coughing to return, outbursts so explosive they made the cripple's eyes water and his nose run. Once again the cripple found himself spraying his revolting spittle about, this time more heavily than before. He tried to stop scattering phlegm by coughing into the crook of his arm. It helped.
The cripple's horrible hacking wasn't helping the producer's disposition. He considered the cripple the most revolting person he'd ever met. He wondered if this panhandler, coughing as violently as he was, might expire right there in front of him on Madison Avenue. He hoped so.
"Enough of this," hissed the producer. "Enough! I don't want to look at you or listen to you anymore. And blow your goddamn nose. Snot's running down your upper lip, for Christ sake."
The cripple was quite aware the producer had had about as much as he could take. He could only shrug his shoulders and say, "I'm pathetic, I know that. You think I don't know that? I know, but what can I do? As Popeye said, 'I yam what I yam.'" The cripple cackled.
The producer said nothing.
The cripple smiled, pulled a filthy handkerchief from an overcoat pocket, and blew his nose. Out of courtesy the cripple turned his head when he did. He blew his nose loudly. And while he was at it he hacked a glob of spit into the handkerchief for good measure. The cripple studied the spew to see if it was green, yellow, or white.
"My doctor told me to check out what I cough up. He said if my sputum was white, it was okay. If it was yellowish, he said it was not great but not real bad. If it was green, it was bad. Mine's yellow."
"I'm thrilled to hear that," said the producer.
The old cripple put the handkerchief back in his coat pocket.
"Handkerchiefs are revolting relics of bygone times," he commented. "They just don't make sense. Sneeze and cough into them, then put them back in your pocket only to sneeze and cough into them a few minutes later. Walk around with a collection of your entire day's snot in your pocket. On the other hand, one doesn't have to carry a handkerchief anymore, does one? They've got Kleenex now. But would you believe I can't afford Kleenex? I go through box after box. Doesn't pay. Better to carry a handkerchief. A footnote on my fall from grace. Can't even afford Kleenex anymore. You're absolutely sure you can't recommend a dentist?"
"Hey!" shouted the cripple, taking a few limps forward. "I know I'm not a very pleasant person to look at, let alone talk to. I also know you won't believe me when I tell you this, but I used to be respected and rich. That was many years ago. I'm eighty-one. Be eighty-two next June. Old age sucks. The only good thing about it is, it doesn't last very long. Me, I'm just about worn-out now, but back then, back in the sixties and seventies, I was hot as a pistol. Had more energy than ten of you combined. And enough money to live happily ever after. But times change. Things happen. Now I can't even afford Kleenex. Now I'm not worth a fart in a wind tunnel. Shit. Life's funny, isn't it? 'All the best days of life slip away first. Illness and dreary old age and pain sneak up, and the fierceness of harsh death snatches us away.' Virgil." The cripple shook his head despondently. "I can tell you my life story some other time. Virgil gave you the short version. As if you're interested in my life story."
The slovenly geezer started coughing again.
When he stopped, he said, "Listen, I've got to speak to you. You won't be sorry to hear what I have to say nor sorry to see what I have to show you. And more important, the timing is perfect. Perfect!"
"Perfect for what?"
"Perfect for making it happen."
"Making what happen?"
"Trust me, it will be worth it," said the cripple. "My father used to say never trust someone who says 'trust me.' But trust me."
The producer said nothing.
"Listen. That piece of paper I stuck in your coat pocket with my name and number on it? I carry it in case I drop dead. That way at least somebody will know who I am and they can notify my family. No. No. Just joking. I don't have any family left to telephone. I always carry the paper with my name and telephone number on it on the off chance I'll bump into you. You think you can force yourself to believe that? So please call me."
"I'll call you," said the producer, willing to say anything to get rid of the walking pestilence.
The cripple knew chances were slim that the producer would truly telephone. "I hope you do call," the cripple told the producer. "I hope you do. I hope you're not saying that just to, you know, just to get rid of me. I really hope you do call."
The cripple shifted his crutch into a more comfortable position under his left arm. He fixed his filthy hat so that it sat on his head more securely and, saying something the producer didn't hear, limped away.
"What?" yelled the producer to the departing cripple, surprising himself for wanting to prolong talking to the lowlife. "You said something. What did you just say?"
The cripple had gone only a short distance down the pavement. He turned and yelled back. "I said come see me before it's too late."
The producer said, "Before it's too late? Too late for what?"
But the cripple was gone, lost in a crowd of pedestrians.
That night the producer sat in his armchair ignoring the important investment documents he should have been studying. He could do nothing but think about the goddamn cripple. The old vagrant's last statement, "Before it's too late," played over and over in his head. Too late for what? The cripple is knowledgeable, thought the producer, and he does know about me. What if the guy does have a bizarre idea that's really good? What if...
Eventually the producer got out of his art deco armchair, walked across the long, wide living room of his luxury duplex apartment, opened the hall closet, and dug out the crumpled piece of paper from his raincoat pocket.
On the dirty piece of paper was scribbled:
Chuck Barris 212 555 5872
Copyright © 2007 by Chuck Barris
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