Two quick knocks were answered from behind the large oak door by a curt, “Come.” Anderson Hill took a deep breath and turned the steel knob. The sensation of walking the plank struck him as he entered and saw the Pacific Ocean stretched across the horizon just beyond the windows that filled the furthest wall. He struggled to focus on what he had practiced as he approached the enormous desk where his boss sat shuffling through a small stack of papers.
“Sir, I have the footage for the latest episode. But it is… a bit different.”
James Vandenbaugh did not enjoy unnecessary preambles. The direct approach was Anderson’s only hope of coming away from this with his job. As Mr. Vandenbaugh looked up from the document he had been reading he removed his glasses and glared at the man who had just told him the one thing he had never let happen during his tenure as Producer. His blue-grey eyes seemed to darken like the ocean with a storm on the horizon. One finger rose and lightly stroked his temple. He studied Anderson for a moment letting silence fill the space between them.
Anderson held up the disc that he carried in his left hand.
“It might make more sense if I show you…” He tried to sound confident, but still it came out like a half-question.
Vandenbaugh took a small remote out of the top drawer and pressed a button. Anderson watched as a screen slid down from a cleverly hidden slit in the ceiling to his left. A shelf that held a few books and awards rolled back into the wall like an eyelid sliding into place revealing a small multimedia center.
Anderson walked over and began to feed the disk into the appropriate machine. He took advantage of this sudden opportunity to explain out from under the piercing stare of his boss.
“We just finished shooting episode 2.4. The switch for this episode is a grandma from San Diego and a prostitute from Las Vegas.”
Vandenbaugh did not attempt to hide his irritation when he interrupted. He began looking through a presentation as he lectured Anderson.
“Our lawyers explained the contract thoroughly to her before she signed! She was fully aware of the risks involved and is legally obligated to follow through. Just tell that old bag that she had plenty of time to prepare herself to do everything her counterpart does.”
“Actually, sir, the issue is not with Mrs. Blakely. She is enjoying her time in Las Vegas. We have some great footage of her playing blackjack and the photo shoot for her cards would have been a huge hit. She even made cookies for some of the pimps. They have kind of adopted her as their ‘nana’.”
Vandenbaugh huffed and leveled his gaze at Anderson again.
“Well then what the hell is it?”
“It’s Stacy. Our prostitute. She had a hard time dealing with the switch. We have seen this before, but not to this degree. When we switched the vegan with the slaughterhouse worker he threw up several times and tried to quit. Luckily our contract is iron-clad and the penalties are severe. With a little reason and reminder of what’s at stake, they all finish. But this is different.”
“What could be so hard about living as a grandma for a week?”
“Would you be so kind as to press play?”
Vandenbaugh snatched up the remote and mashed the tiny triangle button. The screen lit up and a series of scenes began to play. The first showed a tall brunette wearing a smile that did not make it hard to believe she was good at her job. She sat in chair as various men and women transformed her into a grandma using all the best effects Hollywood had to offer. In the next scene she looked 60 years older. She sat on a bench at the edge of a playground. Children periodically approached her for hugs. One little girl even drug her over to the swing set to be pushed while her parents giggled in the background. Scene after scene rolled by with her distributing cookies or sitting in church.
Impatience came quickly to the man who was not accustomed to waiting for the things he wanted.
“Is there a point to all this?”
“Yes sir. We’re almost there. As you know, our show has been a huge hit for the humor that the switches inevitably bring. The numbers show that our audience loves laughing at the participants and we coach each participant to keep the final interview light-hearted for just that reason. This episode would end on a different note. It is very powerful and I think we should try it.”
Vandenbaugh clenched his jaw and waited to hear the catch.
Anderson nodded to the screen and said, “Ah. Here is comes.”
The footage was suddenly bouncing wildly and when it stopped Vandenbaugh saw that the cameraman had been running. The shot was a wide angle of a kitchen, presumably from the house in which the participant had been living. The white linoleum floor was at least a couple decades old, but clean. Flowery curtains covered the windows behind the sink.
The “grandma” was crouched in the corner. She looked half ready to attack and half terrified. A woman in street clothes was standing a few feet away with her hands up to show that she meant her no harm. Vandenbaugh recognized her as one of the make-up girls. She was not supposed to be in any of the shots.
There were no microphones in place, but the grandma shouted “No!” loud enough to be picked up by the camera. Anderson began to explain as the scene rolled on.
“Deborah was coming to start the removal process of the make-up and body modifications when Stacey out. She would not let anybody touch her. Gus got a cameraman in there as soon as he could, but we were not really set up for this. Obviously we do not do closing interviews while the person in still ‘switched’ but we had no choice. We got Mike into make-up and over there as soon as we could.”
On the screen the scene changed again. Vandenbaugh recognized all the differences immediately. The kitchen was now washed in the warm light that only a professional crew could make look natural and the shot had the steady look of a camera that was mounted on a tripod. Microphones picked up the conversation between the director and Mike as they prepared for the interview that would later be edited out.
The grandma no longer looked ready to attack, but she still stood crouched in the corner. The smooth voice of the show’s host came floating in from off camera.
“Well Stacey. It looks like your not quite ready to take off your apron. Why don’t you tell us about your experience this week.”
“I… I don’t want to go back.”
Mike laughed a laugh intended to take the tension out of the situation. An amateur might try to explain to her that there wasn’t really an option, but Vandenbaugh knew Mike would not make that mistake. It was moments like these that made Mike worth every penny of his ridiculous salary.
“So you enjoyed your Switch? That’s great. What did you like about it?”
Tears began to fill Stacy’s eyes. There was a recognition in her eyes of what he was trying to do, but she continued anyway.
“Before this week I had forgotten what it means to be loved.”
“Oh, come now. I am sure you are very loved in your profession.”
Stacey spit out a laugh that had no joy in it.
“I am desired, but I am not loved. I am sought out for what I can do for them, not what they can give me. I deceived myself to avoid facing the truth, but this week has reminded me that what I have is not love.”
“Dressing up like someone you are not is not exactly facing the truth either though, is it?”
The question shook Stacy. Had they not had such powerful microphones they would not have captured the answer she whispered.
“Their love was real even if I am not.”
A quiet settled over the kitchen. After a minute of awkward silence Mike tried again.
“Think of the life you live. It’s filled with fun an excitement. You can’t possibly believe that sitting around baking and going to play Bingo is a better option than what you have in Vegas?
“Fun is great, but… It can’t reach into the parts of me that need it the most.
“Well what do you want to do?”
“I don’t know! I just… I can’t go back. I don’t want that life anymore.”
The scene sped up suddenly and Anderson looked back to see Mr. Vandenbaugh fast forwarding. He muttered something about emotional garbage and only needing the ending. The shot ran ahead. Mike entered the scene and helped Stacy to her feet. He put his arm around her and flashed his cool smile for the camera. They had taped the make-up team removing everything they had done a week earlier as she sat dazed. The last shot on the disk was of Stacey sitting in the chair with her legs pulled up to her chest. Great sobs shook her shoulders as she wept. Wrapped around her legs her hands held the apron she had been wearing in the kitchen.
Anderson watched the screen switch to black and turned back to Mr. Vandenbaugh.
“I know how it looks, but if we edit it right it could be a real tear jerker. I think people would watch it and stop to reexamine their lives. Kind of like those ‘help the needy’ shows.”
Vandenbaugh exploded in anger.
“No! No one wants to feel for our participants! It’s a circus act. They’re expected to entertain and be laughed at. Our numbers would take a hit, which would drop our ad revenue. I will not let that happen!”
Anderson took a step back at the outburst. He thrust his hands in his pockets, too afraid to speak. Vandenbaugh leaned back in his leather chair and rubbed his temple again.
“Here’s what we are going to do. Get the casting department to find a look-a-like and re-shoot the last interview. Script it out. Have her say ‘It was fun, but a bit boring’, ‘Can’t wait to get back to Sin City’, yada yada… Throw a few laughs in there.”
“Sir, Stacey will never go for that. She could sue.”
“Offer her the house, a new start. Tell her we want her to have the chance have ‘true love’. She’ll do it. I’m not gonna let one stupid whore ruin my show.”
Anderson turned and walked back to the door. As his hand grabbed the handle the “walking the plank” feeling returned. A feeling he had not felt in a long time pressed somewhere deep inside. He paused and focused on it until he realized that even though it was uncomfortable, he greatly missed it. After opening the door he turned one last time to look at the ocean. This time he decided to dive in.
Vandenbaugh looked up without a word.
“You’ll have to find someone else to talk to her. I quit.”
He turned and walked out knowing he needed to find something he never realized he lost.
Copyright © 2012 Adam Drake