At the start of Day Five, Henry says, “Pass the sugar, honey.” I’m momentarily dazed, by his endearment as much as by the lights from the cameras and so even with all of Sam’s promptings to act natural, I just sit there, gaping. I mean, the Grip is the closest and he’s got a free hand. But no one moves until Henry says it again and I half-stand from my chair, the sleeve of my bathrobe dragging across the butter. Back home, we never had sticks of butter on the table, just those econo-sized tubs of margarine, but Sam, the Director, said our Country Crock would be a crock full of melted shit under the camera lights.
“Here you go,” I say, shoving the sugar bowl at Henry. “You bastard,” I add for the cameras. Sam calls this “giving good TV.”
The TV show was Henry’s idea. As was our open marriage. On cue, the cameras cut to Sonja as she comes straggling out of the hut, wearing only a black lacy bra and a pair of cotton boxers. Henry’s of course. The boxers, I mean. I’d recognize that frayed, droopy ass anywhere.
“Is that coffee I smell?” she says, her arms stretched wide as her mouth opens in a sleepy yawn, the tip of her tongue curled like a cat’s. “Mmm, mmm,” she says with a wiggle, giving gobs of good TV into the nearest camera, and it’s all I can do to keep from flinging my mug at her.
Sam says my bitterness plays well to the audience, the more bitter the better he says. If not for the children, I’d have moved out months ago. Now I can’t move anywhere – the network has airlifted us to some remote island. One Man, Two Women, Three Months to Make it Work, the show’s tagline reads. Aside from our hut that’s fully wired, our meals that are fully catered and our well that’s filled with bottled water each day for us to bucket out again, we’ve gone All-Native. Marriage Counseling, Island-Style, the promos shout. There are snakes and sand lice, pit toilets and infrequent showers. “The appearance of authenticity is crucial,” Sam says. There’s a verisimilitude clause in our contract, though clearly Sonja doesn’t know what “verisimilitude” means, the way she goes on and on when she and Henry slip off into the bushes at night. I mean, I’ve been married to the man for twenty years; I know what faking sounds like.
She makes it to Day 11 before I catch Her with the ice cubes. We’re not supposed to have those, and I’ve been dying out here without them. Our food is cooked for us but we can’t have anything with ice because if we were out here for real we’d have fire for cooking but no cold storage. Like that stops them from serving us cold cuts or eggs or salad or any number of other things any sane person would keep in the fridge. But no sorbet, no chilled white wine, no ice cubes for our fucking coffee. I have only ever liked my coffee iced, but I play my part, wake up late so I can choke it down lukewarm, cool as it gets in this tropical sun, and here she is in the storeroom behind the hut not just with ice cubes but ice cubes in a whiskey and water.
“Who’d you have to blow to get those, Bitch?” I never call her Penelope. Even off camera, I only call her Her, or She. Even to her kids. You, to her face. Bitch, when she’s pulling something like this, or when she sneaks into the trees to interrupt Henry and me, though I have to mutter it then because we have these roles to play. “Jesus, excuse the hell out of me,” she says, every damned time, like she just “stumbled” across us, and Henry is already clutching my wrist tight in the darkness, even before She sneaks up on us, like he knows She’s coming before I do and is preempting any outbursts. I know you can see the lines for the audio crew trailing into the bushes, you Bitch! And now the ice cubes.
She just smiles at me sweetly, and already I’m looking around the storeroom for a stick, a piece of shelving, one of those gallon cans of creamed corn, anything to hit her with, but then I realize we haven’t escaped. The cameras are right behind me. They’re quiet, those guys, and less than two weeks in I already forget they’re with us, even when I’m heading to the toilets to pick sand lice out of my crotch. Right now, in the dim storeroom, I have completely forgotten them, but suddenly I feel hot as the lighting crew squeezes in, and there’s this boom mic hovering overhead like some giant, expectant dick, and she’s still just smiling at me.
And that’s when I know they’ll cut this from the show. Strict conditions: no ice, no booze. Cat fights are fine – “cat fights are great TV,” thank you very much Sam – but we have an environment to maintain. And an illusion. The cameras aren’t supposed to be here. The audience is supposed to forget about them, same as we do. But if I go for her now, our big industrial can-opener arcing in the air, I know the Grip or one of the lighting guys will jump in, not to stop the fight but just to prevent anything that might cut the show short: a medevac, hospitalization, murder. Not that a murder or a lawsuit wouldn’t make great TV, too, and by the end of all this we might still have one of those, a sequel of sorts, anything to keep the dollars coming. But in the meantime we have a contract to fulfill, a full three months on this damned island, and I didn’t agree to come out here and spend all this time screwing Henry, dodging those damned kids, playing sweet-and-dumb against Her “mousy housewife” routine, just to walk away with a broken contract and no cash. Whatever else she might believe.
So I play my role. I salvage the scene. I loosen another button on my knotted gingham shirt, a slutty Mary Ann on the island, and I turn to the cameras to wink at the crew. I say my line again: “Who’d you have to blow to get one of those?” I ooze the words. They are born from honey. She’s peering at me now, her hand to her brow against the glare of the lights in that small dark space. Then I add, “Because I’ll blow whoever it takes, if it means a good drink.”
A few guys in the crew chuckle into their fists, their heads turned
away from the boom mics. Way off around the house, down under the shade
of some shoreline palms trees, I hear a man’s voice shout something – it
sounds like “Hot damn” – and I realize the AD, Fred, is peeking around
the storeroom door, an earbud in his ear, scribbling something into a
notepad. And just like that, I’ve turned this shitty little island
adventure into a contest.
“I said Dutch angle, not Dutch Apple, you insubordinate ape!” Jesus Christ, it’s Day 33 already and this poor excuse for an AD still can’t follow simple directions. All I’m trying to do is bring a bit of artistry to this chickenshit program. Lord of the Lies or whatever the hell they’re calling it. And God knows where he found the fucking pie in the first place (cakes aren’t in our clause), and since he’s spent the last week or so stalking that chick Sonja and playing Peeping Fred, well, I wouldn’t really want to ingest anything he’s given me, anyway, you know?
Truth be told, we haven’t even shot much lately because my staff has been busy trying to take her up on her oh-so-generous offer for over a month. Roughly a quarter of our budget has been spent on Flaming Volcanos for fellatios, which means I can’t afford to do anything too fancy here. I’ve had to sit back and watch Henry boast around with exposed chest hair like King Douchebag, “the Casanova of the pseudo Caribbean,” while Penelope bitches and moans about how marriage is a crock of dung. Don’t I know it! He’s a chauvinist and she’s a prude. The two never mix well.
My first wife divorced me after eleven years and two kids. She rang me through the wringer until there was almost nothing left to call my own. I had to sell my equipment and scrounge around for jobs like a weasel. And even after all of that, I still showed some respect to her, unlike Sonja and her pronoun game. What the fuck is that? Annoying and psychopathic, that’s all.
No matter how hard it got between us, we never cheated on each other. And we’d never do some pathetic reality show garbage and exploit ourselves. Still, a couple years later and I still wonder how Agatha that rangy-bitch is doing.
We’re over a month in and I’m not sure we have anything worthwhile. Just a bunch of screaming and obscenities, broken bottles and tans. We all look like fried chickens, man. Hell, I’m not even sure what the point is, you know? I mean, I studied at NYU; I wrote papers on Hitchcock and Scorsese and Bergman. I learned the ins-and-outs of mise-en-scène and diegetic/non-diegetic sound. All of that just to wind up here. It’s hilarious. But hey, that’s what the American people want, right? Serling and Vonnegut would vomit in their graves if they knew. Submitted for your approval: three train-wreck sex fiends and a hack director going through a midlife crisis.
And you wanna talk about predicaments? The other day Sonja comes up to me all seductively, as if I’d even explore her well-charted caverns at this point. Maybe a few years ago, when—well, not anymore. Anyway, she sits and hands me a beer dripping with broken ice cubes. She puts her hand on the fading Led Zeppelin tattoo on my thigh and says,
“Hey, Sam. Listen. Keep this between us, okay?”
I don’t agree, but she keeps going.
“So, I’ve made a deal with one of the judges that if I win this thing, I’ll give him 5% of the earnings. This stays between us, remember. Seeing as how you’re in charge of making us look exciting and all, I figure I should make the same sort of deal with you. How would you like to get a bonus for making me look better than Henry and Penelope? Catch them off guard and cast them in a bad light, right? Vote for me, America! He’s not a cuckold, after all; I’m the victim.”
As if that’s not enough (and don’t get me wrong—I’m still considering it. The appearance of truthfulness is all that counts), just this morning, as I’m cleaning myself and applying ointments and shit, I hear footsteps in my hut. At first I yell out, you know, “Hey, is that you, Tom? Zack, have you heard from my son?” No answer. Then I look through the crack in the door and see Henry’s fucking bloodshot eye. Stoned or not, he was looking me up and down in my birthday suit. When we finally made eye contact, the bastard hauled ass faster than Ann Wilson at Weight Watchers. Seems if I’m not careful, I might relinquish my camera duties to share the spotlight.
Hey, I’m an actor. I get paid for this charade. I mean, my marriage was a scam to keep my parents off my back for years and now I’ve been doing Sonja for almost three months for the camera, but it’s Sam that keeps it all surging forward, hot and unrestrained. I give him great TV. I slither and roll my tan body over Sonja so that I’m the one that’s always in the best position for the camera. I never wear a shirt on set. I’ve been working my abs and my stellar ass makes Brad Pitt’s look like he should be doing an infomercial instead of the big screen.
I let Sam know I am watching him. I take my time. I mean, we’re all stuck on this island with nowhere to go for three months, right? It’s only a matter of playing the game. Soon, I see him checking me out in a whole new way and not just for the camera. That is around Day 50 or so. We haven’t quite hit two months when I get in behind him in the shower. Sam is the only one with his own shower. The rest of us are expected to bathe outside in one cold shower that barely pees on our heads. Takes a lifetime to get the shampoo out.
“I’ve been waiting for you,” he says. I take the soap and give him better than good TV. I give him fucking Cinemax. And we’ve been going at it ever since.
We’ve been working new locales to make it more dangerous and exciting. At first it is exclusively in Sam’s hut after everyone has passed out. Then we start to branch out and do it in places we’d filmed that day. Sometimes, behind the bushes where Sonja and I had just howled and screeched for hours to get just the right angle without exposing too much.
“Let’s take a shower outside,” Sam whispers. I am game for anything, but that is damn close to the women’s huts. He seems to enjoy pushing the limits and he is getting way more aggressive with me. After all, he is a director. I assume, it’s only a matter of time before we’re all bottoms for this guy.
All I remember is darkness, trickling water, the thrust of Sam inside me while I’m doing my best to keep quiet. And then the shock of the lights, the Grip with his mic right over our heads, all the bodies in the background and Sam’s goddamn nemesis, Fred, the AD, smirking and yelling ‘CUT’, as Sam shoves me away from him and we attempt to hide our faces and genitals.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet:
Julie Innis, originally from Cincinnati, now lives in New York. Her stories have been published in Post Road, Gargoyle, Blip, Fwriction: Review, JMWW, Connotation Press, Prick of the Spindle, Thunderclap!, and The Long Story, among others. She was the recipient of the 7th Glass Woman Prize for Fiction and was listed as a Top-25 finalist for Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from Ohio University and is currently on staff at One Story as a reader. “Three Squares a Day with Occasional Torture” is her first book.
Samuel Snoek-Brown has published in Ampersand Review, Fiction Circus, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Red Fez, Unshod Quills, and others. His fiction was shortlisted in the 2010 and 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom competitions, and an excerpt from his Civil War novel Hagridden appears in a special “pitch” issue of Sententia. He is a teacher, a writer, and the production editor for Jersey Devil Press. He lives in Portland, Oregon; online, he lives at.
Jordan Blum holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of an online literary/multimedia journal called The Bookends Review. He is a professional music journalist and writes for Delusions of Adequacy, Examiner, Popmatters, and Sea of Tranquility. His work has appeared or is forthcoming at The Lit Pub, Bong is Bard, Venture, Connotation Press, and Eunoia Review. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym of Neglected Spoon. When he’s not focused on any of that, he teaches English at various colleges, and during his free time, he likes to yell at strangers about how much Genesis sucked in the 1980s.
Meg Tuite‘s writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, 34th Parallel, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. She is the author of Domestic Apparition (2011) San Francisco Bay Press, Disparate Pathos (2012) Monkey Puzzle Press, Reverberations (2012) Deadly Chaps Press and has edited and co-authored The Exquisite Quartet Anthology-2011, stories from her monthly column, Exquisite Quartet published in Used Furniture Review. Her books can be purchased at http://www.megtuite.com. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.