Fiona Maazel

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Bruce Bollinger: Whose features do not impress on their own but which, in the aggregate, give the impression of a man who’s verged on disillusion with everything that matters; he’s calling it quits any day. Henceforth: Verge Face.
D.O.B. 9.4.62 SS# 202-64-1592

Bruce picked at a gristle of cheese welded to an oven mitt. He thought: Okay, Crystal, where are you? It’s Sunday, and I want to leave this house. I cannot baby-sit my wife. I love my wife, but today I can’t do it. How long before she starts crying? Has there ever been a wife who cries more than mine? If Crystal ever gets here, there will be no crying.
            He put his ear to the bedroom door. Rita was crying. And calling his name. He tiptoed to the kitchen and crouched behind the fridge. She called again. In doing so, she dwelled on the ew of Bruce so that his name toured the house until it found him. During their early courtship, this had been hot, the melody of the call a G-E progression that generally meant: Come here, lover boy. Now, the progression reversed, it meant simply: Come here, shithead.
Why? Because she was pregnant and it was not going well. Her uterus was loose, the upshot being four months in bed. One hundred twenty days. She’d only just started, and it was torture. As much for him as her. Just now, she’d dropped the TV remote. What did bed rest mean, exactly? Would she actually lose the baby from picking the remote off the floor? The baby would fall out? Why was it okay to walk to the bathroom? Here was an idea: Maybe she could grab the remote on her way.
            He checked his watch. He’d never taken interest in Rita’s friends until now. Now they marched in one after the other, bearing casseroles and pie. He and Rita were putting on weight at the same pace. Only Rita was not experiencing the same gastrointestinal distress. He wondered at her resilience. A hormonal thing? To mention it seemed ill-advised, but since Bruce frequently departed from his better sense, he let it be known he envied her. To which: You envy me? Get out. And close the door behind you.
            He’d been sleeping on the couch. Pregnancy can strain a marriage. A bad pregnancy can test your vows. Crystal was the day’s rescue. She was half an hour late.
He turned on the video camera and stormed the bedroom. 
            “Turn that thing off,” Rita said. “You know I hate that thing. I look awful.”
            “You’ll be glad for it later. Trust me.”
            She pulled the covers over her head. He deposited the camera on the floor. He’d been filming her pregnancy in snatches—when she wasn’t looking, as she slept—because his son’s ratcheting to life was too precious to ignore. Also, the tedium and stress of her venture was moving. Humane. An easy pregnancy would have been great, preferable to be sure, but without emotional content. At least not the kind Bruce was always wanting to capture on film. Normal people drafting their lives, and getting it wrong each time. Reality TV moved him to tears.
            He picked up the remote and got in bed. Hand on her belly, he imagined the life inside. A little boy, ready to stretch and grow and case the joint.
            She blew at her bangs. He loved that she still wore bangs. Blonde and wispy.
            “Just look at my fingers,” she said, and she began to cry.
            They were swollen. At this rate, her wedding ring would have to be cut off. No way was it sliding over her knuckle. Look at that knuckle!
            “It’s okay, baby. You get skinny fingers from changing diapers. I read that somewhere.”
            She thwumped him in the chest with a felt sack of herbs, because she had opinions about karma, chief among them that good karma could be bought for the price of a sack of herbs.
            “That stuff reeks,” he said. “Junior’s probably getting high and loving it. No, no, wait, I was just kidding, don’t cry again. I was just kidding! I’m sure the herbs and candles and quilt and rock fountain are all doing their job. Come on, honey, let’s see what’s on TV.”
            “I’m trying to read,” she said. “You took so long for the remote, I decided to read instead. It relaxes me.”
            He laughed. In the last few months, his wife had taken an interest in political philosophy. She was, perhaps, having an identity crisis hastened by the onslaught of progeny who tend to ask questions like: Do I have a penis? Does God exist? What is a libertarian? Rita did not know her leanings because she did not know what any of the parties stood for.
Today’s text was Carl Oglesby and his speech at the March on Washington in ’65. 
            “This is relaxing?” Bruce said. He skimmed the flap copy to see who the hell was Carl Oglesby.
            “It’s edifying,” she said. “I want to know things for when the baby comes.”
            “I hardly think he’ll be asking you about Carl Oglesby. At least not before age two.”
            She closed the book. He tried to free the remote from her hand, but she resisted. This was her kingdom, the bedroom TV; no way was she ceding control to him. She began with channel 2 and went from there.
            “Seen it,” he said of the vampire drama in syndication on three channels.
            “How do you know? It’s a commercial.”
            “I’ve seen them all.”
            “Where do you find the time?”
            “Such is the burden of the unemployed. What do you think I did all day while you were at work?”
            “I don’t know, look for a job?”
            This was not a pleasant topic. He was on thin ice. Before the Department of the Interior, he’d been unemployed for six months. The only career he wanted was one, if his track record was any kind of litmus, he had zero chance of getting. Errol Morris. Ken Burns. Michael Moore. They sucked. You know who didn’t suck? Or who might not suck if given the chance? Or who, if he sucked, would kill himself? Bruce. Bruce Bollinger, who sounded just imperious enough on the phone to get through to some producer who would shut him down immediately. Something like: Oh, Bruce Bollinger who wants production money, funding, yes, yes, a very important film, life-changing, I see, sounds great. No.
Bruce kept a notebook in his bag at all times. In it were sayings of spiritual value. A documentarian walks among the living, though he, himself, is dead.
             He used to refer to that one a lot; it helped with his day jobs. Working on set for TV shows imported from abroad and dubbed to fit. His last: chess-playing families who enacted their moves on a battlefield. His job? Cue the rooks!
After that, he seemed to catch sight, wherever he went, of a new television show on which contestants ate worms for money. Worms, millipedes, ants. In general, he tried to restrict his TV intake to offerings that did not question God’s wisdom in peopling the world with such as us, but sometimes stuff happens. The show had been on at the gym, on a screen right above the only elliptical trainer left. It was on at Best Buy, where he’d gone to peruse gadgets he could not afford. So there he was, eyeing the cameras, just him and the bug show that grossed millions. Where was the human side of this show? The intrigue? Every competition needed intrigue.
            Thus: an idea. A show in which there were, okay, trials of fortitude, though these would hardly be the point. Say the show was called “Trial by Liar.” Say you had one person who knew what the trial was but could lie about it, and another person who had to guess. Lying or not? The show would be about people having to figure each other out. They might live together for a week to this end. It could be moving. It could be a documentary series in the guise of something just stupid enough to sell. The Helix was out there doing basically the same thing, so why not Bruce?
            He spent three days drafting the proposal and first few episodes. Meetings were set. He flew to L.A. the next day. Chop, chop, Bruce. And when Rita said: What’s the rush? he went: Chop, chop, Rita. He had five minutes before the networks lost interest or stole the project.
            She said, “But you’ve been down this road before. Fly out there like a slave, get feted for a day, and then six months later no one has gotten back to you, yea or nay.”
            He was throwing socks in a duffel. “You need faith, Rita. This business is not for quitters.”
            She rolled her eyes. “Okay, but don’t cry on my shoulder when it falls to pieces.”
            He stood with boxers in hand. Said, “And the Oscar for Best Supporting Wife goes to…”
            “I just don’t want you to be disappointed.”
            He got to L.A., had his meetings, and it was exactly as Rita had said. Two months waiting by the phone and then an email from his agent: Sorry, but no.
            A documentarian drinks to excess.
            Bruce managed to keep the information to himself for two days before Rita broke him down. To her credit, she did not say, I told you so, just held his hand and said there would be other opportunities.
            A month later, watching a movie about boarding-school kids and their nasty parents, he heard tell of the carpe-diem spirit, which he took to mean: For the sake of “Trial by Liar,” you should collateral your house and take out a loan. He’d already promised Rita that, no matter what, he would not gamble to finance his projects. She thought he had a gambling problem, which he didn’t, though if he did, she got the idea from that one time at Atlantic City. On their honeymoon. She’d gone from slot to slot, betting nickels and dimes. He had nibbled her ear. They had pulled the handles together. He had just started prep on a film about people who fake their own deaths to escape the law. She’d thought it was a great idea. He’d needed to raise about 30k. He had two. They’d talked and laughed and she’d leaned over his shoulder at Black Jack and it was romantic and it was fun. Fun until it wasn’t. By night’s end, he was out nine thousand dollars, and she was online, ordering books that promised to attenuate addiction. It was impossible to pair these words—attenuate, addiction—but the books said otherwise. They said his problem, though he did not have a problem, was surmountable. But what did they know? His problem, if you could call it that, was that he just wasn’t very lucky. He never gambled without a project that needed funding in mind. That he always had a project was beside the point. 
            Was a loan gambling? Only if you weren’t 100 percent sure you’d pay it back on time. So, no: not gambling. “Trial by Liar” was going to make it. He went to the bank, and the rest was easy: a deal with a cable station that broadcast only to the East Coast but was seen in a million homes. As for Rita, she was on a need-to-know basis; that’s what a good marriage was about. He’d make the money back and use the profits to buy her peridot earrings.
            The show attracted notice. It was raw and depressing. Some of the people were crazy. Others were violent. There were fights and tears. And for Bruce: vindication. He was not making money, not yet, but he was pleased. There was room in the canon of documentary filmmaking for work such as this. Unhappy people engaged in the venture of character assessment, which is a venture of love.
In the meantime, though, he was running out of capital. The major networks had not called. Pepsi had not called. The interest rate on his loan was awesome, and his wife wanted a baby.
            Many nights over dinner he’d say the finances were prohibitive, to which she’d say: Oh come on, and woo him to bed. Which was, in the end, just fine. Those times together ranked as some of the best of their marriage, Rita being of the idea that the more explosive his orgasm, the smarter his sperm would be. She tried hard. She tried everything.
            Bruce, for his part, enjoyed what he could and sabotaged the rest. He’d been working with a laptop poised hotly on his groin. He’d started wearing briefs a size too small. And with each passing month, he began to think his efforts were paying off. That or there was something amiss on her end. Never mind. Their sex was great, she was not getting pregnant, he was safe.
But not for long, because Rita decided to do what most women her age do: Make appointments, get tests.
            The show got cancelled. Bruce was paid to give a few talks about underground programming, and used the fees to bankroll an online gambling bender that cost him one of two savings bonds, the other of which he used to shred his debt, which, it turned out, was impossible. There would be no money for a college fund or life insurance. There’d be no money for a crib. But still he said nothing. He spent his days in the park and came home to his wife stabbing herself in the gut with hormones. She braved the drugs and procedures and shots, and so there was just no telling her what he had done.
            The day she got pregnant was etched in his mind as the most confusing of his life. The panic was incredible. The joy unbridled. The effort it took to hide the panic almost life-threatening. The ease with which he took her in his arms and squeezed: wonderful. They were having a baby! He threw up in the bathroom. He had sworn never to tell her about the gambling and the loan, and then he told her everything. This meant the day she got pregnant became the most confusing of her life, too. Could she still trust her husband? Did she still love her husband? She was so angry, she threw up in the bathroom. He would have to get a job. Any job in any field. She’d take on extra work until maternity leave. They’d fire the cleaning lady and cut out the luxuries. It all seemed reasonable, and he swore to do exactly as told. But a job in any field? Was he supposed to janitor just because he was creative and creativity did not pay? Was he being punished for wanting more than the next guy? No, he was being punished for ruining their life. He promised to look for work the next day.
            He cruised the job sites online. He uploaded his resume and met the relevant parties and tried to be agreeable, though it never occurred to him actually to work in these places. A job in HR at a pharmaceutical company? A super for Curtis Building Management? Come on, he was a show runner! In most cases, he was not offered work, anyway, which was fine. He could say he tried and spend another day watching the vampire slayer on TV.
            The weeks passed. Rita would spot blood and cramp and spot some more. Spotting, gushing. Something was wrong. On the day she went to the hospital for surgery and was prescribed bed rest, Bruce was offered a position with the phone company, customer service. Only such was his rush to refuse the job, he’d forgotten to wipe the answering machine before Rita got home. They spoke for a while on the couch. She wasn’t feeling well. And she was worried. They’d consolidated their debt and cut way back, but to minimal effect. They weren’t saving money. And the baby was due in less than five months. She’d had her head on his shoulder when she noticed the 1 on the answering machine and went for it. Bruce did nothing. It was like watching a bottle of wine roll off the table. Not enough wherewithal to stop it but full knowledge that here was a disaster.
            They fought. She hemorrhaged. Two weeks later, the phone rang. “This is the Department of the Interior,” said some strange woman who seemed to know a lot about him, followed by a job offer and signing bonus. To do what, exactly? Footage consultant. Had he applied for a job there? He couldn’t remember. Never mind, there was no arguing at dinner, no discussion. Bruce simply accepted the job and started work. 


From Woke Up Lonely


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