Mary stops when she hears the crowd noise. Dead tunes and bebop blast out of car speakers. Vendors shout Hot dogs! Gooballs! Wheatgrass! Fair trade soy lattes! Beneath it all, a bassline of exercise instructors shouting encouragement–one two three four!–thumps like a marching band over a distant hill. She sneaks a shot of bourbon, stuffs the flask back into her bag, and mutters into the tape recorder: “Mary Nichols, Entertainment Digest, Jack Kerouac interview.” Her voice is scratchy from nicotine, or the lack of it, and her head is fuzzy and tight. Too much caffeine, she thinks. Poor hangover management. She lights a Camel. The cool scrape feels good in her lungs, settles down into her head as she threads her way through the crowd. She knows about these people, the beatniks, hippies, grad students, and, most recently, bodybuilders and fitness freaks who are drawn to the old house and the man who means something very different to all of them.
As they get closer, Mary can’t help but feel the excitement of this day, the mystery of the announcement he’s been planning for the past few months. The exact nature of this proclamation has been kept secret, even to the media, but everybody has a theory. He is, after all, so much to so many. The beatniks and hippies are hoping for a tour, one last Kesey-style trip on the road. The fitness people are expecting some new contraption, diet, or exercise program. There are even rumors that he will be announcing a run for office. But Mary has her own theory: he is writing again.
She gets closer and the crowd tightens. She can smell funnel cakes and coffee and pot. It is like a combination of tailgate party, Buddhist sangha, county fair, and workout session. To her left, a group does circuit training on the fitness machine that bears his name. To her right, bushy headed kids play hacky sack. Old men read copies of On the Road and The Subterraneans, their heads bowed, silently reciting passages as if in prayer. They have closed off the street, and a stage is assembled along the fenceline of his mother’s house.
Mary pushes toward the security gate. Two men are sitting on the grass. They nudge one another and stand. Mary keeps her eyes down, reaches for her press pass.
“You gonna make contact?” the older guy asks. He’s wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt, baggy shorts, and expensive sandals. His salt-and-pepper beard is spotted with Starbucks foam. In his hand is a copy of Dharma Bums and a Wall Street Journal.
“What would he want,” says the other, a musclebound teenager in a too-small MegaFlex T-shirt, “with a fat-ass like this?”
Mary has dealt with fans before. “I’m with Entertainment Digest,” she says. “Maybe I can get some quotes after the interview?”
They give her a wide berth and Mary flashes her pass at the guards, signs in, and walks toward the door. The house could use a coat of paint and its shutters hang limply, like neckties on old men. She reminds herself again that the Kerouac interview is a plum assignment–a last chance, one she no longer deserves.
Cassady was on this porch, Mary thinks. Allen Ginsberg knocked on this door. “I’m a professional,” she says. “This is just another interview.” Then she catches a glimpse through the smudged window and her heart flutters like that of a teenage girl at a Justin Timberlake concert.
She hears the scrape of a chair, dishes being placed onto a counter. Finally, he’s there at the door and she sucks in her breath, too mortified at first to talk. But the face is friendly. The eyes are still that deep river brown–brooding is probably what she’ll call them in the piece. The smile is genuine.
“Mary Nichols?” he says.
All she can think is, “Kerouac Kerouac Kerouac…”
“You are Mary?”
Be professional, she tells herself. There’s no greater sin for an ED reporter. Untalented, you can get by. Unprofessional, you’ll never make it.
“Nice to meet you,” she says.
His grip is firm. Hers is slippery. He moves aside with a sweep of his well-muscled arm. The kitchen table is set for coffee and Mary drops into a chair, squeezing against the wall. The room is small and cramped, a museum piece of strawberry wallpaper, knick-knacks, and 1940s kitchen appliances. A window ledge is lined with Hummel dolls. The place smells of coffee and dust and cigarettes. Miles Davis wafts in from the living room. “Should I turn that down?” he asks.
She remembers the Mötley Crüe interview, the recording ruined when Tommy Lee wouldn’t turn off a Three Stooges movie in the background. “No, it’s great,” she says. “This is one of my favorite albums.” Good music to write to, she thinks. He is writing again. He has to be. The idea sends a little shimmer up her spine, makes her want to get home right away and work on her own manuscript.
He fixes coffee, careful to ask whether she wants sugar or cream, and then how many lumps of sugar. While his back is turned, Mary takes out her old copy of On the Road and then stuffs it back into the bag. The flask shines up at her. She pulls out the laptop. Professional.
His hands shake as he places orange coffee cups down on matching saucers. They sit for a moment in silence. Up close, the brown hair is dyed an unnatural deep mahogany. This is something she couldn’t see from the commercials or the gauzy press photos. His face is tanned and deeply lined, the skin pulled tight across his skull, not an ounce of fat. She makes a mental note that there’s a map analogy in there somewhere, highways and blue-routes crisscrossing the leathery skin. His teeth are an unearthly white, straight and large and perfectly shaped, like a row of gleaming tombstones. All those years on the road, all those books, and nobody said anything about brushing their teeth. None of them ever wrote a thing about flossing.
“Sorry about the house,” he says. “We’re expanding the place in Miami and this seemed like a good place to make the announcement.”
“It’s fine,” she says. “This is interesting.” She looks around, memorizing details. “Mamere’s house.”
He nods. Despite the hair and the teeth, he’s still attractive. She matches up the old man in the shiny sweatsuit with the black and white pictures.
“What’s that, an IBM? A Dell?” he asks, indicating the computer.
“IBM. Just a little thing, only good for writing.”
“Yep,” he says, nodding quickly. “Computers are fantastic, aren’t they? They do so much. I use e-mail all the time, stay in touch with my business associates. And, hey, did you know I post on the MegaFlex discussion boards almost every day?”
“I heard that,” she says. “I guess that makes sense. You know, computers would have made it a lot easier for you. Kind of like the modern equivalent of typing on telegraph paper.”
He winces, looks out the window and takes a deep breath. “Let me be clear. This is an interview to talk about the announcement. The announcement is a new machine. I understand we’ve been secretive about that. Trademark issues.” He talks slow, looks her straight in the eye, his hands laying flat on the table. “But I’ve been very clear that I didn’t want to talk about all that…earlier stuff. If the publicity people didn’t tell you, then that’s our mistake and it will be fixed.” She nods and he continues. “I made a name for myself and, well, it almost killed me. And it was mostly bullshit.” He puts a hand over Mary’s and squeezes too hard. “But now I’m in the best shape of my life, selling a fantastic product I believe in with all my heart. And I really don’t want to drag out those old ghosts.”
Of course, she knows all this, knows his entire history. The childhood in Lowell. Football at Columbia. Years of struggle and then the excitement of publishing The Town and the City. More years of obscurity. The cross-country trips with Cassady. Six years of rejection for On the Road, and then the trouble of coming to terms with overnight success. The loss of Cassady. The alcoholism and the diabetic coma that almost killed him at the end of the 60s. The public rift with Ginsberg over Vietnam. The embarrassing magazine essays and disconnected talk show appearances. The “comeback” in the 80s–guest spots on The Love Boat and Cannonball Run Three.
And, of course, she is here to talk about the latest incarnation, the unlikely resurrection of the old beat prince as infomercial king, endorser of Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex, pusher of MegaBars, MegaDrinks, and MegaMeals, Nike-endorsed fitness celebrity beamed into millions of homes each day through the miracle of cable television and the Internet.
“Okay Mary,” he says, “let’s talk about the product. Let’s talk about how each and every Entertainment Digest reader can lose twenty pounds next month. How, in only fifteen minutes a day, man, they can be stronger, fitter, healthier, happier, and sexier. Isn’t that more important than what a bunch of lunatics did so long ago, a bunch of alleycats, stalking into half-opened doorways, pawing after the moon….” He catches himself. “We were just fooling around. We wanted to be famous.” He takes a sip of coffee. “Anyway, today we’re going to talk about the product. Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex. And nothing else.”
She nods, thinking about the tattered copy of On the Road in her backpack, sitting side-by-side with her own half-finished manuscript.
“Absolutely,” she says. Professional.
He hops up from the table and touches her arm. “Hey, let me show you something. See this sweatsuit? Made just for seniors. It’s light, but not too light, keeps the warmth in. Seniors, they lose body heat faster. Nike’s the only company working for the active senior. Fastest growing segment of the physical fitness community.” He’s smiling, tugging on the sleeve of his jacket.
The fabric is shiny and smooth. “Yeah, nice,” she says, thinking about the bottle in her bag. One more shot and this might seem a little less surreal.
“And it moves, too!” he shouts, running into the living room with loud, plodding steps that echo through the little house. He starts doing toe touches and jumping jacks, his body rotating fiercely, steadily, popping up and down like a piston, still talking all the while about Nike and seniors and proper stretching and fabric that breathes, but not too much.
He really does look amazing. Not an ounce of fat on him. Tall and straight. He moves to the stereo and takes off the Miles Davis, holds up a CD called “Amazing MegaFlex MegaDisco Remix Workout!” and smiles at her. “The new CD,” he says, then pops it into the player. A pumped-up version of “I Will Survive” thumps through the little rooms of his mother’s house. “Could be my theme song, don’t you think?” he shouts.
Mary nods. Her stomach hurts. This is starting to feel like a mistake, a bad trip. She stumbles into the living room.
“Of course you’ve seen one of these before,” he says, walking toward a familiar piece of equipment in the back of the room. It’s Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex, the same one Mary’s seen a million times on the infomercials and magazine advertisements.
“Everybody knows the MegaFlex, or at least I hope they do,” he says, patting the machine like a favorite dog. “But I don’t think you’ve ever seen one of these.” He opens a small gym bag and pulls out a contraption that looks like an elaborate slingshot. He places it in the crook of his elbow and pulls back steadily. His biceps swell like cheeks filling with air, then deflate as he relaxes his arm. “Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex Travel Gym!” he says. “You can take this thing anywhere, man. It fits in a suitcase. It’s crazy! Sixteen different exercises!”
He stands on it, sticks his foot into the sling, and pulls his heel up toward his buttocks. “They thought you could only do fifteen, but I just invented this one yesterday. Hey, you want a better butt, I’m telling you, Mary, this is it!”
Mary tries to look interested. She’s starting to feel sick, tight-headed and claustrophobic. Her face is getting hot. Sweat drips down her armpits.
“This is the big announcement,” he says. “Fitness for the masses. Anybody can afford this baby. Just five payments of $10.95!” He pushes the machine into Mary’s hands. “It’s yours. Use it. You’ll like it. And if you have any trouble with the exercises, just give me a call or look at the website.”
She holds the Amazing MegaFlex gingerly, like a mousetrap that could snap at any moment. He puts a clammy hand on her shoulder. Mary notices that his fingers are stained brown and wonders if the color is from nicotine or self-tanning lotion. “And I really do hope you understand that this,” he points to the piece of equipment in her hand, “is the real story here.” He pauses a beat. “So,” he says, “the person from Rolling Stone is coming in soon…”
“Don’t you ever miss it?” she asks. “The writing?”
He wipes sweat from his brow with a Nike towel. “The answer is no. No, I don’t miss it. I don’t miss being drunk or hungover all the time, walking around in a daze, sleeping on benches. I don’t miss the loneliness of rejection or the circus of what they told me was success.”
“But isn’t this so…I don’t know. I mean, all those people outside? What would Cassady think of all this?”
He snorts. “Cassady? You wanna know what Cassady would make of this? Cassady was incredible. He could’ve done so much. The brains, the energy, the charisma. The physical tools. He could’ve been anything he wanted. You know how Neal died? On the side of the tracks like a bum. He was forty-two years old. He could’ve been anything, and he died like a bum. So don’t give me what about Cassady. Cassady’s dead.”
She knows she should stop now, get out while there’s still time to salvage the article. Be professional. “But the writing, didn’t it mean a little more than all of this, machines and commercials and money?”
“The writing? You think that was real?” His teeth flash white and the veins bulge in his neck.
She takes out her copy of On the Road. The flask falls out and she stuffs it back into the bag. “This got me through high school, through most of college. This is why I became a writer.”
He shakes his head. “That’s not real.” He talks slowly, sadly, like a parent explaining the Easter Bunny. “Wanna see real? Feel this.” He puts her hand over his bicep. It’s hard and solid. “That’s real,” he says. “That’s something I made.” He points to the MegaFlex. “That’s real. And it matters to millions of people who use Jack Kerouac’s Amazing MegaFlex to make their lives better. To get stronger. Fitter. Healthier. Happier. And sexier!”
Mary shoves the book into her bag, shakes his hand one last time, and slinks toward the door.
“Hey,” he catches her by the arm, “don’t forget this.” He shoves the Jack Kerouac Amazing MegaFlex Travel Gym into her bag. “You may want to try it sometime,” he looks down at her hips. “Take something off that ass of yours.”
After she finishes the story–one thousand words on Jack Kerouac and the Amazing MegaFlex–she relaxes at her desk with a glass of bourbon, a pack of Camels, the novel manuscript, and On the Road. She reads the opening line. “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.” Like an old friend, it’s still there. It will always be there.
How can he say that’s nothing?
She pulls out the Amazing MegaFlex Travel Gym and places it on the table. A grotesque little torture device. She fits it in her elbow and pulls back slowly. The MegaFlex wobbles and almost pops out of her hand. She lets her arm relax and then pulls back again. The machine offers just enough resistance. She is working, but not too hard to try it again. And then again. Ten repetitions and her arm starts to shake. She drops the MegaFlex on the table and feels the blood pumping through her bicep.
A silly little machine, anyway. She lights a Camel and takes another sip of Beam. She’s short-winded and sweating. Her arm feels swollen and useful. She picks up the manuscript and her pen, reads a line, and then puts it back down again.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dave Housley‘s collection of short fiction, “Ryan Seacrest is Famous,” was published in 2007 by Impetus Press. His work has appeared or is coming soon in Knee-Jerk, Hobart, Nerve, PANK, Quarterly West, Sycamore Review, and some other places. He’s one of the editors of Barrelhouse magazine, and keeps his stuff online at davehousley.com.