By Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2000 Augusten Burroughs
All rights reserved.
"You exposed your penis on national television, Max. What am I supposed to do?"
"I didn't expose it, Howard, it just sort of peeked out."
"It 'peeked out' during the Toys for Tots segment in front of twenty million viewers, many of whom were, not surprisingly, children. It's twenty-four hours later and we're still receiving faxes. The phone lines were so jammed last night that no one could get through to place orders. Plus I've got every mother in the country threatening child-abuse lawsuits."
Howard Toast, the executive producer of the Sellevision Retail Broadcasting Network, glared at the show host who was sitting in a black leather chair on the opposite side of his large glass desk. Behind Max and facing Howard, a bank of television monitors silently played live broadcasts of Sellevision, QVC, and the Home Shopping Network as well as broadcasts from the other three "B-class" networks.
Howard leaned forward and said quietly, "Jesus fucking Christ, Maxwell. This isn't the Playboy channel, it's Sellevision."
Max ran his fingers through his hair, a nervous habit. "Look, I was wearing a bathrobe, it was Slumber Sunday Sundown. We were all wearing bathrobes."
Howard's normally placid, waspy features contorted with frustration. A vein on his temple pulsed. "Max, the other hosts weren't naked under their bathrobes. It's just — well, there's no excuse — seven-year-old children and their mothers just should not know that you're uncircumcised." He took four Advil from the bottle on his desk and washed them down with cold coffee. "I mean, this could be worse than that Cuban raft-boy thing."
Max wiped his hands on his slacks. "Look, I'm sorry, it was an accident. I already told you, Miguel knocked my latte over onto my lap in the dressing room while he was doing my makeup. What was I supposed to do, wear soaking wet boxers? C'mon, man, I had less than four minutes before I had to go on air, I had no choice."
Howard straightened the stapler on his desk. "You should have borrowed Miguel's underwear," he said angrily.
"Miguel is Hispanic. He doesn't wear underwear. Besides, that's a disgusting thought, even if he did."
"Not as disgusting as showing your dick to families all across America while they're sitting down to eat dinner."
Max rolled his eyes. "Jesus, Howard, you make it sound like I did it on purpose. Like I'm some kind of exhibitionist or something."
Howard leaned back in his chair, sighed, and looked up at the ceiling. There was a silence between them, and Max glanced over at the executive golf-putting toy in the corner of the office. Howard leaned forward and placed both hands on the desk, palms up, like he had nothing left to offer. "Max, I'm very sorry this had to happen, but if I put you back on air, I'll lose my job, the station will be boycotted — as it is, you're just lucky your penis didn't make the cover of USA Today."
Max leaned in, blinking. "So what are you telling me? You're saying, what, that I'm fired? Is that what you're telling me?"
Howard nodded his head solemnly. "Yes, Max, I'm afraid we're going to have to let you go. There's no way we can let you back on the air after this, just no way."
Max's hands flew up. "I can't believe you're firing me over this."
"I'm sorry, Max, I really am. I've got a few friends over at QVC and the Home Shopping Network, I could give them a call, see if they're looking for anybody. But you might have to start off doing the overnight. And if worse comes to worst, there's always" — he shifted his gaze toward one of the television monitors that was currently displaying an electric egg scrambler — "the E-Z Shop Channel."
"I can't fucking believe this," Max said, slumping in his chair, letting his mouth fall open.
"Max, America's premier retail broadcasting network simply cannot be associated with a controversy of this ... magnitude."
"Oh, well, gee, I guess I should take that as a compliment," Max said sarcastically.
"It's not funny, Maxwell. It's sad, is what it is. It's very sad that you were so careless. You're a good host. But you crossed a line and, well, there are consequences."
Max left the office, mortified as security personnel accompanied him while he collected the possessions in his office, and then escorted him out of the building like a sex offender.
Peggy Jean Smythe sat in her office, reading an E-mail a viewer had sent her. Because of her high-profile time slots as a Sellevision host, she received dozens of E-mails each day. She normally responded with a standard forwarded thank-you letter. But if an E-mail was particularly flattering she would sometimes respond personally with one or two lines.
The reason viewers loved Peggy Jean was because they could relate to her. She often spoke of her three boys, "four if you count my hubby." She was a "working mom" and a good Christian woman who often hosted Jewelry of Faith programs, which featured crucifix cufflinks and Star of David money clips, both of which she presented with equal pride. She was attractive — blond hair worn in a short but full style, blue eyes, fair skin. Her roundish face seemed approachable and trustworthy. She was highly polished, yet friendly and accessible. Peggy Jean knew all of this to be true, because she had seen the consumer research. In fact, she had personally attended many of the focus groups.
"Peggy Jean, did you hear? About Max, I mean?" Amanda asked, standing in Peggy Jean's doorway.
Peggy Jean turned dramatically in her chair to face the young woman. "Of course I heard, and I think it's exactly the right thing to do."
"You don't think it's a little too severe? I mean, just dropping him like that?" asked the associate producer.
Peggy Jean smiled the exact smile she often wore for viewers while hosting a vacuum-cleaner showcase or one of the monthly Easy Wear 18K Gold specials. She touched the lapel of her jacket. "Well, of course I'm sorry for Max, as I would be for any human being facing an adverse situation. But when God closes a door, Amanda, He opens a window." Peggy Jean looked up at the suspended ceiling. "He must have other plans in store for our Max." Then the smile was gone. "And now, Amanda, if you don't mind ... I have an awful lot to do."
Amanda shrugged. "Sure, I understand. I didn't mean to disturb you."
Peggy Jean returned her attention to the computer screen, listening to make sure Amanda actually had left. Then, almost biting the tip of her manicure, but stopping herself, Peggy Jean read the alarming E-mail for the third time:
Subject: Hi There!!
Hi Peggy Jean!
How exciting to be able to write you! I am a loyal Sellevision fan and have ordered everything from Crock Pots to jewelry. I am so pleased with the quality of the countless items I have purchased from Sellevision.
Peggy Jean, my ears always perk up when I hear your voice on Sellevision. You are my favorite host. You are so professional and friendly, and I just love your hair!!
Speaking of hair, I just want to tell you this, woman to woman: Peggy Jean, I have noticed many times in close-up pictures how very hairy your earlobes are. When I first noticed, it was a bit of a shock to see a beautiful earring on your ear, surrounded by all those hairs, which on my large-screen TV were each almost the size of a Vienna sausage!!
I wonder if you have considered using the Lady Songbird Waxing Hair Removal System that I have seen on Sellevision. It seems a painless, quick and easy way for you to be even more beautiful than you already are.
I bumped into (really!!) my friend Susan at the supermarket and we got to talking, you know, just catch-up stuff. Anyway, I mentioned Sellevision for some reason, I forget why. And before long, we were talking about the show and our favorite hosts and she said the very same thing I'm telling you now!!! Isn't that a hoot! (LOL) She said, "She's a very hairy lady." We both had a good chuckle out of it, but PLEASE understand it wasn't a chuckle AT you personally.
Well, I've talked on and on, so I'll stop here. May God bless you and your family. And you have my very best wishes.
Your friend, Zoe :)
Peggy Jean pulled a small key from the inside pocket of her fuchsia DKNY blazer and unlocked the file cabinet beneath her desk. The drawer contained emergency nylons, a spare pair of simple black pumps, a few sets of earrings that could easily coordinate with most any outfit, and her purse. She pulled out her purse and removed her compact, peering into the small mirror, angling her head as much to the side as she could. She didn't see any hairs. But then, this was a small mirror, held at a distance. It certainly wasn't a macro shot from Camera One.
If there were, in fact, long blond hairs on her earlobes that were so obvious on camera as to be the subject of a fan's E-mail, Peggy Jean knew she would have to have them removed before going on air at four P.M. Yet, whom could she ask? If she did, in fact, have the hairs, whomever she asked would surely gossip — mention to somebody else, "Peggy Jean has hairy earlobes" — and word could easily spread all the way to her executive producer, Howard. The idea of being called into the refined, forty-five-year-old's office and being verbally confronted about the earlobe hairs, having to explain that the situation had been remedied — well, it was just unthinkable.
Peggy Jean remembered there was a large magnifying mirror in makeup, and that it was illuminated by a ring of small, round bulbs. Surely makeup would be empty now, between the hosts' shift change. Instinctively, she reached for the tube of Lancôme moisturizer on her desk and squeezed a dime-sized dollop onto the back of her hand. Then she quickly rubbed her hands together until they were soft and fragrant. Feminine.
She placed her purse back into the file cabinet, locked it, and pocketed the key. Leaving her office, she turned left and continued down the hall, passing Trish Mission along the way.
"Peggy Jean, you look wonderful, I love that jacket," Trish said, gently taking the cuff of the blazer between her thumb and forefinger, admiring the softness of the fabric.
"Well, thank you, I'm glad you like it. This is the first time I've worn it in public. Took a little field trip to New York last Saturday with the hubby, and picked this up at Bloomingdale's."
Trish gave Peggy Jean a friendly nod. "Well, the color is just wonderful on you, it looks great with your eyes." And with that, Trish wished Peggy Jean good luck on that afternoon's Gem Fest and continued down the hall.
Was it Peggy Jean's imagination, or had Trish taken a quick look at her earlobes?
Trish was one of the "emerging" hosts of Sellevision. Her growing popularity was propelling her from the overnight slot where new hosts were groomed — presenting a Fashion Clearance or various kitchen implements — to the spot she currently occupied that, although varying, included the occasional prime-time appearance, most notably her recent trip to London where she hosted a British Bonanza.
How soon before the aging (thirty-eightish) hostess with a possible superfluous hair condition was replaced by the much younger, more beautiful, and fully waxed Trish Mission? There was a prized-racehorse quality about Trish that unsettled Peggy Jean. Tall, blond, and ambitious, Trish seemed to be growing more and more successful out of sheer entitlement.
Makeup was, thankfully, empty. Peggy Jean walked directly over to the small round mirror that sat on one of the dressing tables. She pressed a button on the side that caused the bulbs to flicker momentarily, then illuminate. She peered at her reflection, moving her ear as close to the mirror as possible, using the gleaming Frosted Cappuccino–painted nail of her index finger to move the lobe into the light. There they were: tiny hairs, faint and almost unnoticeable unless one were actively looking for them in an illuminated magnifying mirror, as she was doing at that moment.
Amanda, having noticed the light, paused and stood in the doorway, watching Peggy Jean examine her ear. "Peggy Jean?" she asked, concerned. "Is something the matter with your ear?"
Heading west on I-92, Max drove mostly in the passing lane, averaging a speed of seventy miles per hour. His favorite CD — the original cast recording of Rent — sat unplayed in his five-CD changer. "Stupid, stupid, fuck, fuck," was the mantra he repeated aloud to himself as he headed toward the Woodlands Mall to see if he could obtain a certain Beanie Baby named Peanuts for his almost-seven-year-old niece. As much as the Woodlands Mall was the exact last place Max wanted to be (Jake's Joint, a bar, being the first), he simply had no choice. His niece's birthday was the day after tomorrow and he had been unsuccessful locating the elusive plush toy on the Internet. Now he was forced to shop the old-fashioned way: in person.
Don, the Good Morning Show host and father of a fourteen-year-old girl, had told Max that the Toys R Us at the Woodlands Mall had a very extensive Beanie Baby selection. "That," he had said to Max, "would be your best bet — and I'm saying this as the father of a girl who wouldn't speak to me for a full week after I gave her Snort the Bull with that little red tag cut off." After wishing Max good luck in his search, Don had warned "Oh, and whatever you do — don't cut that stupid little tag off. It's all about the tag."
WOODLANDS MALL, NEXT EXIT, read the sign. "To think, unemployed ... me?" Max said to the windshield. As he crossed over into the far-right lane, he resisted the temptation to aim the steering wheel into the cement guardrail, causing his top-heavy Ford Explorer to careen over the embankment, explode into flames, and kill him instantly. Instead, he decelerated down the exit ramp and wondered, What if I'm reduced to doing traffic reports? On radio?
At four in the afternoon on a Wednesday, the Toys R Us was thankfully empty. Cold, electronic renditions of children's songs played over the store's speakers: "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," "Old McDonald Had a Farm," even, oddly, "Kumbayah." Every few minutes, the Muzak was replaced with a loud chorus of children singing the haunting Toys R Us advertising jingle, "I don't want to grow up, I'm a Toys R Us Kid ..." The store, as vast as a warehouse, was piled to the ceilings with urinating dolls, bikes, puzzles, Lego sets, action figures, colorful balls, teddy bears implanted with microchips that enabled them to shake hands, Just Like Mommy cell phones, board games, plastic machine guns, two-pound bags of M&Ms, and inflatable pool creatures. Max stalked the aisles, looking for the Beanie Babies, never more thankful for his homosexuality and the child-free life that went along with it.
At the rear of the store, Max saw a huge display of Beanie Babies. Hundreds, maybe thousands, maybe millions of Beanie Babies to chose from. And all Max had to go on was a name: Peanut. No description, nothing. To locate Peanut, Max would have to examine the name on every single little red tag.
Unless he asked the little girl who was standing at the Beanie Baby display along with her mother. Who better to ask than a child?
"Excuse me," Max said, approaching the little girl and her mother. The little girl spun around to look at the stranger talking to her. "I bet you can help me. I'm looking for a particular Beanie Baby named —"
The little girl's scream could be heard throughout the store, possibly the state. It was the sound of raw terror, as if Max were a ragged, scotch-stained Barney holding a machete. "It's him, Mommy, it's him, it's the pee-pee man from last night, make him go away, make him go away," she cried, clinging to her mother and burying her face in the fabric of her mother's skirt.
"It's okay, sweetie, it's okay," the mother reassured. Then to Max, "I'm terribly sorry, she's not herself today — Madeline saw" — she whispered — "a man's penis on the television last night and it really upset her." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sellevision by Augusten Burroughs. Copyright © 2000 Augusten Burroughs. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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