e had been birthed by a collection of pop-culture myths. Coca-Cola had been his mother’s midwife. Pale Dr. Warhol in his white fright wig had nodded sagely in the background. A second attending, in Lycra and hair gel, may well have been Superman. This was how he remembered it (or, more accurately, misremembered it). His birth, beneath the warmth of neon signage. Dragged by the fingernails into a room of bright color and repetition. How could he help where he was going, if this was where he had started out?
Today, however, he was in a state of zen unhappiness, a state that might in ordinary circumstances have led to a productive morning. At least a few thousand words of memoir were waiting to be written, mostly anecdotes from the ’80s, but today, the nagging depression couldn’t coax even the shittiest sentence out of him.
He switched on the TV. Daytime cable. In yellow Colorvision, William Shatner was investigating an alien threat of some kind. Spock raised his eyebrow and the phone rang.
“Nothing, man. Trying to come up with a chapter for the book people.”
Josh had nothing to say. Josh had never had anything to say. Every day, Josh called him and asked about the memoir.
“You come up with a title yet?”
“The publishers wanna call it Just the Kid,” he delivered in monotone. “But I think that’s a fuckin’ stupid name.”
Eventually the Enterprise floated across the screen on invisible wires, and Josh hung up with an ‘alright, yeah, bye’.
He added a few lines to the Word file that had been languishing on his hard drive, and then picked up the remote control. Weekdays, 1 p.m., reruns of the show. There he was: curly-haired, big-eared, his weak chin never destined to grow into square-jawed manliness. From ages ten to fourteen, he had grown inside a television tube into a surly teenager. After four seasons, the network had pulled the plug on Just the Kids. There was no public outcry against the sitcom’s cancellation, no words of consolation for his character, little Rudy Salmon. Just a life cut short, transferred onto VCR, and banished to Best Buy bargain bins. Suddenly, Sam Freeman had become a ‘former child star’.
The pop culture echo onscreen delivered a punchline and then exited. His television family continued their dinner table conversation. The baby face looking back and forth between television mom and television dad, a pink, tennis-ball of a child, would grow into Josh Reitenscharfer. Sam didn’t know why he was still in touch with Josh. Out of a sense of misplaced fraternity, perhaps.
“Hey… Hey, Sammy!”
He started, looked behind him. His Spidey sense told him that a jovial killer brandishing a lens-flare knife was waiting to pounce. No one was there.
“No: over here, asshole.” On the screen, Baby-Josh’s round cheeks lip-synched to words spoken by the adult Josh. He was staring out of the TV and right at Sam. “The fuck are you doing, watching this shit? Are you high or something?”
He wasn’t high. Was barely drunk. The scene around Josh had gone out of focus as though the camera lens had been smeared with Vaseline. Like when Shatner saw a beautiful alien he wanted to fuck, Sam thought.
“I… No,” he said. “Josh?”
“This is not the time to be thinking about getting your end away with some green-ass alien chick,” Baby-Josh said. His face was grainy like only ’80s TV could be. Sam was afraid that if he blinked he might be sucked into some static non-existence. Eventually his eyelids gave in, and the television family came into focus and went about their business. The slow cuts warmed Sam’s insides, and he went back to his laptop.
andall Pryce, the soft-spoken Midwesterner who had played Just the Kids’ father John Salmon, had been a poor man’s Jimmy Stewart. During filming, Sam could squint beneath the studio lights and almost make out the real actors trying to escape from beneath the TV family facade: here was James Stewart, opposite him a glamorous but homely Lucille Ball; the mailman was a Bogart, but without cigarettes (it was, after all, the era of political correctness); and their neighbor was Elvis, with sideburns turned grey.
He and Josh had always worn primary colors; they were the crew of their own starship Enterprise.
“Mr. Freeman, this is Sandra Killington, from Gotham Publishing.” He had picked up the phone automatically. It wasn’t Josh.
“Hello, what, er…”
“How are you today?”
“Fine, I’m just working on the memoir.”
A laugh. “Don’t worry, we’re not checking up on you. We had some more ideas for the title.”
“How about Sam & Salmon?” She paused. In the background, a Twilight Zone star scape swam on the flatscreen. “We can include Just the Kids in there, too. Maybe as a subtitle?” Sure, he said, whatever. Sandra-Killington-from-Gotham-Publishing had no more interest in Sam Freeman than Rod Serling did.
After he hung up, he asked: “Rod, what’s the twist at the end of this one?”
Rod’s pixellated features looked out at him and said: “Picture the interior of an apartment, daytime. Samuel Freeman, 36 years of age, a minor star now supernovaed into obscurity. Like all things burned into their component atoms, Freeman may be destined to languish… in the Twilight Zone.”
he Chantilly Place Diner was his Holy Grail. It seemed almost to glow. It was red and silver, a toy racing car. As Josh slid out of the booth and waved a nonchalant goodbye, Sam noticed that his mustard-yellow polo shirt was torn in the back. He let Josh go without saying anything.
Behind the counter, a server polishing coffee mugs with a dish cloth asked: “Can I get you more coffee, hun?” She floated over to his table, silent as a silver screen Dracula, coffee pot held menacingly at head-height. Sam shook his head, asked for a strawberry shake instead. Drinking alcohol had been prohibited on a family show such as Just the Kids, and as such, the Salmon family’s only vice had been the occasional trip to a soundstage diner where Rudy slurped a milkshake and his parents sipped coffee. Since they had reconnected, he and Josh had gravitated toward the Chantilly Place out of some sense of nostalgia, he supposed.
He pulled his computer out of his bag and set it on the Formica table top. The still-open Word file blinked a cursor at him.
In the delivery room, Superman’s forehead creased, the midwife lit up with a red, familiar glow, and a newborn Rudy Salmon clawed his way into existence. Next to the impassive Dr. Warhol, Sam Freeman looked on, confused. Was this Rudy’s birth, or his? He felt like William Shatner wearing a William Shatner mask on Halloween.
The milkshake slid onto his table and he began to type: I had been birthed by a collection of pop culture myths. Coca-Cola had been my mother’s midwife. Pale Dr. Warhol in his white fright wig had nodded sagely in the background… [ends]