“Complaints Through a Mustache” by Judson Merrill

I walk around, looking for things to happen. Sometimes, the only thing I find is the free bin full of Village Voices. That is not so bad. There is a lot to read in just one issue. As a sort of bonus, there is sometimes a classified ad aimed right at me. I have bought a set of plates and called a woman to see if I was the one she saw buying a coffee and wearing a cute scarf.

My greatest success with the back pages of the Village Voice was an ad for a support group for minor celebrities. Just the day before, Jerry had told me I was a celebrity and I had laughed. But the ad said, in all capital letters, “Recognized too often? Not enough? In Television-America many of us have been given a taste of celebrity. It can be an illuminating or oppressive experience. It changes our lives. It can often be hard to return to non-televised life. We’re a group that won’t reach for the remote and will never talk to the producers at VH1.” After that the classified ad told me what telephone number I could call to learn more.

During the part of my life when I was on television, strangers would sometimes recognize me on the street and it made me nervous. The strangers expected me to be a very exciting person. I thought maybe that qualified as an “oppressive experience.” I called the telephone number and learned more from the recorded voice that answered the phone. The voice told me an address and a meeting time: 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays in the West Village.

During my first meeting with the support group for minor celebrities I met with five other minor celebrities in a coffee shop. We sat in a corner and three times one of us was recognized. Much of the discussion was spent on the futility of holding an anonymous meeting in a coffee shop in the West Village.

The five other people in my support group for minor celebrities found near-fame in various ways. One man and one woman had been stars in reality television programs several years before. Traci had won small amounts of money and respect by nearly having sex with seven different men in front of security cameras. The man, Rudy, had earned thousands of dollars eating insects and building yurts that withstood gale-force winds. I felt sympathy for Rudy because I was a celebrity for similar reasons.

Biff had been a substitute weatherman on a national news program. He told people about winds and partly sunnies when the chief weatherman was sick or hungover. One day Biff accidentally called a hurricane a motherfucker on the air. He was not asked to be a substitute weatherman again. “That’s the way the wind blows in show business,” he said and he meant for us all to laugh. Biff was the one who organized the group and ran the classified ad in the Village Voice.

I had the most respect for how Jonathan became famous. He did it while I was away. That meeting was the first time I saw him but only a few people ever saw Jonathan, even when he was famous. He was famous on the sly. When no one was looking. For five months, Jonathan moved around Manhattan and shat in prominent urinals. Lincoln Center. City Hall. Empire State Building. MoMA. I think that’s brilliant in a crazy sort of brilliance. Eventually, the news crews learned about Jonathan’s secret urinal shits. He became a sensation. One day he was caught shitting in the urinal at the New York Stock Exchange and New York State decided he was crazy. He had mandatory counseling and he voluntarily attended Biff’s support group for minor celebrities.

Lorraine was the beautiful minor celebrity in the group. She had a tiny smile that made me want to stand up and then sit back down and be confused. She was also the one that I thought actually had a good reason to want support. She was minorly famous because of a man she used to date. He was a sweet man with no talent. His name was Steve. He wanted to write musicals but was bad with lyrics. And music. One day he decided he should snort cocaine up his nose. In a way, he was right because he got better with lyrics. He snorted some more cocaine up his nose and even got better with music. Then he wrote a great musical that everyone has heard of but I cannot name because of the confidentiality of the support group for minor celebrities. On opening night, to celebrate his great musical, Steve snorted enough cocaine to kill a man. Which it did.

Many people had invested millions of dollars in Steve’s musical. It was a family musical.

The investors did not want their family musical to be written by Steve Who Snorted Cocaine Up His Nose And Died. They told everyone they knew, and some journalists who were strangers, that Steve’s brain had exploded mysteriously and tragically. They paid Lorraine many dollars to confirm this story. Lorraine was not to mention that Steve had been high and mean during the last year of his life.

The televisions and newspapers said all great things about Steve and his musical. Lorraine became a famous griever. She had fallen out of love with Steve long ago but had to pretend for early morning television hosts. Even when I met her at Biff’s support group for minor celebrities she had to pretend to love and honor Steve. Not to us. We were anonymous. But to the two people who came to our table and offered their condolences. And once a year to the reporters who made their living writing Steve Memorials.

Lorraine really had a sad story but I was new, so when we went around in a circle for introductions, everyone liked mine the best. Here is what I told them, which is the truth.

I live in Sunset Park in Brooklyn and I have for years. Four years ago, that was normal and no one thought too much about it, including me. I rode the W train into Manhattan to my job, which was at a movie theater in Manhattan. We showed old movies and foreign movies and old foreign movies that no one else showed. It was my responsibility to sweep and tear tickets and talk to the crazy people who came in out of Manhattan to watch our movies.

To give the support group for minor celebrities a sense of my job, I told them about the man who came up to me after a movie and complained through his mustache.

“Could I speak to the manager?”

I said the manager wasn’t available because this man and his mustache sounded like crazy. Could I help him in any way?

“Yes.  Well.  While I was waiting on line outside someone brought out a bag of trash and opened the trash bay.”

It was Sal.

“And bad air got all over me.”

Bad air?

“It stuck to me.  It ruined the movie for me.”

It ruined the whole movie?

“Half the movie.”

It ruined the first half of the movie?

“No, just over all.”

Fifty percent less enjoyment because of the bad air?

“Yes.  Fifty percent less,” he confirmed.

I told him he should go to the box office and ask for half his money back.

This sort of thing went on for a few years and then I was told to use my vacation days. So I did. I took a vacation to the South Pacific.

For the final part of my vacation, I rode in a very small plane. It was so small the stewardess could not stand up. She would just lean across the aisle and ask me if I wanted a soda. I did not. Also, that plane was outfitted with an exploding wing.

Somehow—I do not know how, nobody does—the exploding wing was activated above the ocean. We crashed. The stewardess with the soda and the two pilots behind the maroon curtain all died. I lived because I washed up on a deserted island. It had a mountain and trees and a river and a wild dog-animal that I did not try to get a good look at. Mostly, I stayed on the beach. For months, I had sand in my pants. Finally, I took off my pants. After that, there was nothing to do.

I lived on that island for two years. Then I was rescued by a boat full of women being smuggled to Hawaii to be sold as slaves for sex. That was too bad for them, but two years is a long time and I was happy to get off the island. I did not even say good-bye to the dog-animal.

At this point, Traci and Biff and Rudy all said oh and that they remembered me from the news. Which is exactly right. When I got back is when I became a minor celebrity. People who work for newspapers and television stations enjoyed speaking with me. I would tell them about the island. They would shake their heads. It was terrific to be off the island.

Through the newspaper and television people I met Jerry. Jerry is a huge man. He works in publishing. We had lunch one day in Manhattan. It was amazing to order lunch. I had eaten nuts and bark for almost two years. Now a woman in a skirt was bringing me my own salad. Jerry was not at the lunch to enjoy the salad.

“How would you like to write your life story, kid?” The salad had real apples in it.

I told Jerry my life would be a dull thing to write about.

“Nonsense,” he said. “You’ve had some great adventures.”

I said as far as I could remember having my own salad delivered right to me was the greatest adventure of them all.

“Forget about the salad. I want to pay you to write about the island. Lots of money.”

A children’s story?

“No. No, not at all. Something real accurate. For adults. For curious adults.”


“Fuck. No, kid. Just a book about what it was like to be stranded on a fucking island for two years. You must have noticed that’s pretty big news.”

I told Jerry that when I was on my deserted island I kept a journal. There was not much to do and a journal was the best way to pass the time.

“That’s good,” Jerry said. “That’s even better. Extemporaneous. That’s great. You’ve got to let me read it, kid.”

It’s pretty dry, I said, but when he dropped me off at my hotel I gave it to him.

Jerry loved my journal. He loved it more than I did. I just thought I had been passing the time. Jerry thought I had been crafting a masterpiece.

“It’s true. It’s raw. It’s a crackler. A real crackler.”

I spent four months with Jerry talking about the book he made out of my journal. Later, we signed copies in bookstores. Jerry continued to call my journal a crackler. Sometimes five or six times in one conversation. Jerry was very focused. This made him very good at his job and millions of people bought and read my journal. I became rich. Sometimes I would get fan letters telling me what a great journal my journal was. It resonated with people. I am not sure why. I think it’s dry. Here is a sample:

Day 407. I woke up an hour ago. It is hot this morning. As hot as yesterday. Hotter than the day before. Today I will eat one of the prickly melons and the rest of the fish from yesterday.

I do not think I would pay $24.95 to read it. I can’t say for sure because Jerry gave me thirty copies to give to friends and family. I have no friends or family. I use my 30 books to hold up some shelves I made for my new apartment in Sunset Park. I had to find a new apartment because the state had decided I was dead and an embarrassed Armenian man had moved into my old room. Other things have changed, too. The W does not even run express to Brooklyn anymore. It strands me in downtown Manhattan.

One thing about living on a deserted island for two years: I got used to prickly melons and fish halves. Even with shelves made out of books and without the W train, my new apartment with a bay window is real luxury. It is like the cave I never had on the deserted island. I slept in a tree for two years. Like a cave entrance might, my big bay window lets in a lot of light and a lot of grit from the buses on the street.  If I leave for a few days there is always a thin black layer on everything when I get back. That means it is time to dust. Dusting can fill many hours.

At this point I was sort of rambling and Biff wrapped up my check-in by nodding and thanking me.

Traci said, “That’s wild, man. That’s, like, the worst thing. That really puts things in perspective, you know?”

Actually, no. My things had been put somewhere that was the opposite of perspective. That was sort of my biggest problem.

“Yup,” Lorraine said and she looked at me and smiled. I stood up and sat down and was a little confused but decided I would keep going to the support group for minor celebrities until I figured out how to ask Lorraine on a date.

At the third meeting Biff was feeling very low. He said he still wanted to be a weatherman and asked us if we wouldn’t mind if he made up a weather report and told it to us. I was worried that I would forget it was made up weather and become confused. Biff looked very low and no one stopped him from saying his fake weather.

Biff looked out the window of the coffee shop a long time and then he said, “It is night.” That was accurate.

I was looking at Lorraine. That was why I had gone to the support group for minor celebrities. She looked at me and made sad eyes. She felt sorry for Biff and his bad weather.

“Late tonight, there’ll be a 90% chance of dawn.”

I thought that sounded a little low. I wondered if Biff knew something.

Lorraine smiled through her sad face and I realized I was getting confused by Biff’s fake weather after all. I smiled back at Lorraine. Jonathan excused himself to go shit in the urinal.

After the group was done talking about being minor celebrities, I found Lorraine on the street corner and asked her if she wanted to do something. She said that would be nice. I thought so, too. I almost never did anything.

“What did you have in mind?”

I wasn’t really sure.

“Did you want to get a drink?”


“Really?” Lorraine had a pretty laugh.

I told her Jerry had taught me shuffleboard.

“I don’t even know where you go to play shuffleboard.”

Coney Island.

“At this time of night?”

I really did not know. We compromised. We got a drink in a sports bar. Both of us hated the sports bar. It was loud and smelled like tee shirts. We enjoyed hating it together.

“I remember you. I mean, from when they found you and everything.” Lorraine had to lean over and yell because of the sports noise. I could feel her words. They were hot and against my ear. I could have listened to her all night.

I told Lorraine I didn’t remember her from Steve dying.

“You were on your island, I think.”

I told Lorraine that I could not believe how eventful my night was. Just three hours before I had been in Brooklyn collecting grit in my hair.

“You’ve got a funny way of being charming,” Lorraine said. I thought it was a good thing to say.  “I think my mother read your book and loved it and gave it to me.”

It was a journal.

“I think I read it.”

It was dry.

“I think I remember that. I’m not sure I read the whole thing. I’m sorry.”

I told Lorraine about how I wasn’t sure why people read it but I thought Jerry had a lot to do with it. Then we yelled a conversation about how it is good and bad to not work at all. I asked if she spent any of her time dusting grit.

“I have air conditioning. My windows are never open.”

That sounded interesting.

“Would you like to go to my apartment and see it?”

I said I would, but Lorraine was already shaking her head.

“That’s feeble, huh? ‘Come back to my place. I’ll show you my air conditioning.’”

I told Lorraine I would love to see her air conditioning. Which did not take very long. It was like a microwave in the window. Lorraine made us drinks, then she kissed me. I almost stopped her to call Jerry and tell him I was having my most exciting adventure of all. But then Lorraine touched my face and her hand was a good size and smelled like coconut. I did not stop her to call anybody.

I spent the night at her apartment in Gramercy. Lorraine was very soft and she got even softer when she slept. In the morning I woke up first and I walked to a deli to buy us things to eat. When I got back, she pretended to wake up and eat a bialy but she was so soft I knew she was still mostly asleep.

“Let’s go play shuffleboard,” she said when she was awake all the way. We rode the not-W train to Coney Island and played shuffleboard. Lorraine was very good and she won six times. I accused her of being a professional who was hustling me out of shuffleboard wins. We kissed right on the train back to Manhattan and an old woman sneezed at us and we did not care.

I saw Lorraine four more times that week. Every time she would call me in my new apartment in Brooklyn. When Lorraine called she would say, “Hey,” then she would ask me what I was doing.

We both knew I was waiting for her to call.

“Do you have plans for later tonight?”

One of the things we talked about the most was how neither of us ever had any plans.

“Come over. Rent a movie.”

I am not good at renting a movie. I cannot remember if I was good before my deserted island time. Now, I am terrible. I missed too many years of movies. I believe the back of all the boxes. I was not around when the movie was in theaters. I cannot remember if all the critics really did agree. I rent anything. Lorraine learned this quickly. I do not know why she kept sending me to rent the movie.

“What is this?” she asked when I showed up on Tuesday night.

It was a movie.

“It looks terrible.”

We sat very close together on Lorraine’s couch to mock the terrible movie.

We did not leave her apartment because she was afraid we would see a reporter or a theater investor that she knew. Then I would have to walk behind her and pretend I did not know how soft she was when she slept. Lorraine did not like the idea of that.

“Steve’s insane fans. People who didn’t even know his name when he was alive and they can’t stand the idea of me moving on. I tried to date this director about six months after he died. Steve’s fan club found out and began a letter writing campaign denouncing me for disparaging his memory. Can you believe that? A letter writing campaign! He was a prick, anyway, the director.”

The next morning, while she was just awake, Lorraine said, “It’s Wednesday. Do you want to go to group with me?”

I was not sure if our kissing might violate one of Biff’s bylaws.

“Bylaws,” Lorraine laughed. “I don’t think Biff is overly concerned with bylaws. I’ve been going for almost a year. No problems. Just a chance to talk.”

We played backgammon most of the day and then we walked to the coffee shop.  From outside we could see Biff and the other minor celebrities through the window. They horseshoed around a laptop, having a serious conversation. When Lorraine and I walked inside, Rudy closed the computer and they all stopped their serious conversation. They did this so they could frown at us and then look away. No one talked.

Lorraine did not like that sort of thing.

“What’s going on?”

No one said anything. We sat down. Biff tried to get us started.

“Let’s get started,” he said.

I also did not know why no one would look at us. No one would even check-in.

“What’s going on?” Lorraine asked again.

Jonathan, who didn’t care because he had his crazy brilliance, told us.

“There’s a picture of you two on the Internet.”

“Naked?” Lorraine asked. Traci sighed.

“Nope,” Jonathan said. “Holding hands at Coney Island. E! picked up the whole story last night. You’re back on.”

I did not quite follow.

“Back on the box. Back on tv.”

Traci spoke. “They’re reporting Steve’s fans are planning a protest outside the theater this weekend.”

“Jesus,” Lorraine said.

I said that now Lorraine and I would really need their support.

“You don’t need anyone’s support now, island boy,” Rudy told me. Island Boy was not a usual nickname for me. “You’re on E!”

I looked at Biff because I thought some people were confused about the point of the support group for minor celebrities. He would not look at me. Instead he was whispering the weather to his latte.

“Lookit,” Traci said, “I don’t mean this in a threatening way. I just know that this is an honest space and I want to let you guys know how I’m feeling. Last night I called my agent and told her to call up the people at E! so that maybe I could do an interview since I know both of you guys. It’s not official yet, but I think you should know what a dark place this has brought me to, okay?”

I pointed out that Traci didn’t really know me since we had just met a few weeks ago.

“I don’t want to be on television,” Lorraine said. “Because of him,” she pointed at me, “or anyone else.”

“Traci,” Biff said, “you shouldn’t violate the confidentiality of the group. You two,” he said, turning to Lorraine and I, “shouldn’t be putting the group in this position. Minor fame is hard enough. Getting coverage because of what happens here… that puts us all in a tight spot.”

I was still not sure which tight spot that was. Just the same, I told the group I was sorry and that this was the most interesting my life had been in a long time.

“The box keeps it interesting,” Jonathan said.

I told them that being on television was not the adventure. Buying Lorraine bialys was the adventure.

“That is so romantic,” Traci said. “Maybe you and I should sleep together if Lo doesn’t want to be on TV.”

I said I wasn’t sure about that. Lorraine got up and left. I said an excuse and followed her outside.

She was standing on the street, watching a puddle.

I said we should go back to her apartment in Gramercy.

“I think I should go home alone tonight.”

Just then Biff came out of the coffee shop.

“I’m just trying to protect the group here,” he said. “I don’t think you can both stay.”

I told Biff I wasn’t sure what we had done wrong.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Lorraine said.

I tried to remember what I had said on our first date. It had been a funny way to be charming. Now seemed like a good time to be charming. Instead, I was back where I usually was.

“Did they even know who he was?” Lorraine asked Biff.

“No,” he said. “It was all about you. And an unidentified man.” Nobody remembered who I was anymore.

“I’ll just go,” Lorraine said. “I’ll have my manager issue a statement and I’ll just go. I’ve been wanting to get away anyway.”

I told Lorraine I could go with her. I told her I was ready to travel again. Civilization was alright but I was ready for more adventure. I was willing to risk some nights in trees, hiding from dog-animals, if she would be there to shout with me over the barking. Hot and against my ear. Nothing with Lorraine had been dull and boring yet.

“Dull and boring doesn’t sound so bad to me,” she said. “It’s the rest of it that’s just too much.”

“Do you have anyone to issue a release for you?” Biff asked me. “Someone will identify you sooner or later. Then this thing will really take off.”

Lorraine said, “I’ll call you when I get back.”

I tried changing the subject. I asked her if she was hungry.  I reached out and touched her stomach and she was less soft than I thought she might be. She said my name once and I was not sure what that meant but then she walked away and I was almost positive it meant good-bye.

Once we could not see her anymore, Biff spoke again.

“Seriously, though, I know a guy who’s very good, very discrete. Knows people without letting it get to him. Here.” Biff handed me a business card.

I left the support group for minor celebrities and rode the not-W train back to Brooklyn. I tried to focus on the positive. My pants were not full of sand and I could always wash the grit out of my hair in the shower. But I could not help wondering: if I was not there to touch her stomach and check, how soft Lorraine would be when she slept?

More fiction at Used Furniture.

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