Cracking Me Up
Jackie Barnett perched on the set of the Good Day, USA morning show, feeling as if someone had just thrown a huge cup of ice water into her face. Only moments before she had been so excited about the possibilities for her career. As a new reporter on a network show, she had been given the opportunity to interview Charrleen of “The Jubilators” in a three-part series, with each portion airing at different stages in the programming—from the morning show to “Noon Day Round-Up,” with a special segment done on the late-night talk show.
Jackie had studied, practiced and rehearsed, perusing Charrleen’s biography multiple times, even analyzing the lyrics of the new song, “Great Jubilation,” so she could formulate questions and come up with the best angles for holding the interest of the American public.
John Q. Public was certainly interested. The country was split right down the middle between why and why not. Some of the more conservative locales were posing the question, “Why are we messing with Christmas?” and the more liberal strongholds were coming to the conclusion, “Why not, if it’s going to make everybody feel better?”
The conversation had turned into a discussion, quickly becoming an argument, and had finally degraded to a war of insults.
Jackie was quite confident that there would be a built-in listenership—especially since the girl who sang the song which launched the campaign was so attractive and talented.
Taping the interviews had gone beautifully. The connection Jackie and Charrleen created made it seem like they had been girlfriends for life.
But lately Charrleen had developed a crisis of conscience. Jackie should have seen it coming. During one of their private back-and-forths, Charrleen had confided that she was losing faith in the idea of “losing faith.”
She explained that her Grandmama from Louisiana had arrived and planted doubts in her mind. She got her thinking about the Great Jubilation campaign and had her wondering whether it was just stupidity to mess with Christmas. Yes—Jackie should have sniffed it out. But her optimism was so high that she could see nothing but angels and “Joy to the World.”
And now, during this morning’s live interview on Good Day USA,a brief exchange with Charrleen meant to advertise the upcoming airing of the interviews, Jackie posed a final question. She asked, “Charrleen, since I know you to be a woman of faith, do you believe that maybe God sent the opportunity your way, to sing this beautiful song and launch a new enthusiasm for the season?”
Charrleen froze. Tears came to her eyes. Suddenly Charrleen, weeping and struggling to remove the microphone, jumped to her feet and said, “I’m sorry—I can’t go on.”
She ran off the set, leaving Jackie to tie up the segment on the fly—while still trying to convey enthusiasm over the upcoming showcases. In other words, it had not gone well. When the director cut to commercial, Jackie just sat there, devastated. Could the networks even air the specials? What would the public think? Jackie did a little crying of her own. It was so unfair—and certainly, took the “Merry” out of her “Christmas.”
Meanwhile, Charrleen didn’t even stop off at the green room to pick up her stuff. She ran out of the studio, through the door and into an alleyway, where a limousine was waiting. Climbing into the back, the driver, who had been watching on a small screen in his front compartment, turned, opened the sliding glass window and asked, “Are you all right?”
Charrleen took a deep breath, looked him in the eyes and said, “No. Just get me home.”
He nodded sympathetically, closed the glass door to give her privacy and drove to her apartment building. She took the elevator up to her beautiful penthouse and walked in the door. She crossed the room and fell on the chest of her very surprised Grandmama, crying.
Grandmama had seen the broadcast. Her heart was broken for her “dainty doll.” Using her Cajun wisdom, she remained silent, waiting for Charrleen to set the tone for the conversation. Charrleen sobbed. They inched over to the couch, where they sat down together, allowing the broken young lady to find a resting spot on the older woman’s bosom.
After a few moments, the tears stopped and became heaving sighs. As they dissipated, Charrleen spoke. “I really screwed up, Grandmama.”
“Not so, dear child,” she corrected. “I guarantee you this—the Good Day USA program will never forget you.”
Although Charrleen was still plagued by sadness, she erupted with laughter. She pulled back and asked the question foremost in her mind. “What can I do, so I don’t end up being ‘the singer who destroyed Christmas’?”
Grandmama patted her back. “My sweet, you cannot destroy Christmas. Others have tried to do so, but they just ended up buried under a pile of presents and mistletoe.”
Charrleen smiled. Her Grandmama was so comforting—certainly an exacting woman, but more than willing to cease the pressure and allow for grace. “But you didn’t answer my question,” Charrleen pointed out.
“And I can’t do that,” said Grandmama. “Only you know what you have done and only you know what you want to do, because only you will be able to do it.”
“I feel so alone,” said Charrleen.
“I understand the feeling,” replied Grandmama. “But you are truly never alone. There was once a prophet in the Good Book who hid in a cave and lamented to the heavens that he felt abandoned—sure that he was the only one who still believed. The story tells us that the voice of God spoke to him and said, ‘Don’t be an idiot. I have thousands who still get it.’ Well, more or less, that’s what the voice said.”
Charrleen laughed again. “I need to be with someone who believes. I need to know if I’m believing too much or too little.” She looked up at her Grandmama. “It’s not that I need a cheering squad, but for now, I need to be around someone who loves Christmas as much as I do.”
Grandmama chuckled. “Well, that is me, but no. I’m much too old. Everything I say will sound ancient. You need to hear a fresh voice, a brighter tone. Someone who only has wrinkles on their brain, not their face.”
Charrleen nodded. Grandmama waited, and when there was no response, she pursued, “Well? Do you know such a person?”
Charrleen tilted her head back, looking toward the ceiling. “W-e-l-l…” she began slowly. “There was a young fellow I just met over a luncheon, who seemed to be dedicated to Christmas. He spoke up to Mr. Markins about it.”
“I see,” said Grandmama.
“I think he was a friend of Shelley’s,” Charrleen continued. “I guess I could call Shelley and get his name…sit down and pick his brain. Or maybe he could pick mine.”
Grandmama noted, “Sounds like a lot of picking going on.”
Without saying another word, Charrleen reached over, grabbed her purse, took out her phone and dialed Shelley, who answered on the first ring. Charrleen explained that she wanted the number of the young man who had joined them for lunch.
Shelley, surprised, asked cautiously, “Why would you want Chris’s number?”
“Because I liked what he said, and I’d just like to hear more,” Charrleen piped back.
Shelley had an instinct to resist the request, but that was impossible. Why? What excuse could she give? So, with as much cheerfulness as she could muster, she provided the digits. She was about to ask another question when Charrleen thanked her and hung up the phone.
Charrleen didn’t wait. She programmed the number into her phone and punched the button. Three rings. Four rings. Five rings. It was actually on the seventh ring that a very sleepy male voice croaked out an elongated, “Hello?”
“I don’t know if you’ll remember me,” began Charrleen, “but we had lunch together. I’m Charrleen–from “The Jubilators?”
A long pause.
Chris was thinking. How could this call have any good news? Why would a beautiful pop singer be calling him on the phone unless he had committed some dastardly indiscretion which he might not be aware of, but was still horribly offensive? Realizing that Charrleen was waiting, Chris managed, “Yes. I remember you. I mean, of course I remember you. I mean, you’re you. How could I not remember you?”
Charrleen pressed on. “I know this is odd, but I was wondering if you watched ‘Good Day, USA’ this morning?”
Once again, Chris couldn’t tell if this was a test or not. He formulated his answer carefully. “I… did not,” he said very slowly, “but…don’t take that personally, because…well, Good Day, USA is not in my sleeping schedule…” he finished.
Charrleen chuckled. “Don’t worry about it. I just wondered if you and I could have coffee…to talk about Christmas. About elves, mangers and Santa Claus.”
Suddenly a light dawned. Chris remembered that Charrleen had expressed doubts about the Great Jubilation promotion. “Sure,” he said. “When?”
Charrleen was about to suggest a location for their pow-wow when Chris interrupted. “Wait a second!” he said. “I’ve got an idea. I hope this isn’t too weird. I have a meeting in the park with some kids this morning, who want to make Christmas even more Christmassy. They’re like—well, like the poster kids for Christmas.”
Charrleen gasped. “That is so weird,” she said. “Because I’m supposed to do this video at Fenswick Park today, around one-ish—so I could stop off and meet your kids first, before that appointment.”
Chris produced his own gasp. “Did you say Fenswick Park? Talk about weird. That’s where I meet the kids. At 10:45. I know that doesn’t give you much time…”
Charrleen interrupted. “My time is my own. This is important. So where do we meet?”
Chris replied. “Just drive into the main parking lot. We’ll be looking for you. What kind of car will you be in?”
Charrleen sighed. “Well…all I have is my stretch limousine.”
“Okay,” said Chris, squelching his enthusiasm. “That’s gonna make it easier to spot you.”
Charrleen added, “Thank you. By the way, is your name Chris? I think that’s what Shelley called you.”
“Shelley…?” Chris asked slowly.
Charrleen answered. “Yeah. I called her to get your number. She seemed a little weird about it. I think she was just respecting your privacy.”
“Right,” said Chris, imagining Shelley’s plotting.
“Well, anyway,” Charrleen concluded, “thank you for taking my call. Thank you for this wonderful idea. And I’m looking forward to meeting these great kids.”
Chris blurted out, “You’re the greatest.”
Charrleen terminated the call.
Chris groaned to himself. You’re the greatest?? That’s the best I could come up with?
He considered his clumsiness—how it seemed to possess his personality. Then he silently breathed a “wish upon a star” … that maybe Charrleen had already hung up before he uttered his dumbness.
Shelley sat for nearly an hour, trying to figure out some proper way to find out why Charrleen was calling Christopher.
Two forces were at work: there was the rational, level-headed, thinking human unit who prided herself on being able to match wits with anyone—either gender. This being had already set aside any consideration of being hooked up with a pseudo-author who had Santa Claus issues. Then there was the other part of her—the little girl who still hung around, leftover from her childhood, who was told that anyone who was unmarried after age twenty-six was doomed to a life of solitude and condemned to the title of “Old Maid.”
Shelley disliked Christopher—in a kindly sort of way. She found him ignorant, even when he bettered her with his wit. But the issue wasn’t actually about their interaction together, or the possibility of becoming a couple. Rather, it was her duty as Chairman of the “Great Jubilation Project” to know what this rogue singer was up to. She had to be clever. She didn’t want to be intrusive or come across girly-girl.
And yet another issue was screaming for attention. Mr. Roger Dunlevy, the founding partner in Dunlevy and Markins, had asked a favor. This was monumental, considering the fact that he had never spoken to her before, and she wasn’t certain he knew that she worked for the company since he had once asked her where he could find a broom. (The request troubled her for two weeks, rattling around in her brain and causing her to wonder if she carried the demeanor of a custodian, or looked like she should be a housewife, sweeping up in the suburbs.)
When he approached her with the possibility, she held her breath, hoping she could pull it off. It was actually rather simple—his friend, Maxwell Winslow, was coming to town. He was a single man who wanted to be shown the beauties of the city and required a tour guide.
Shelley said yes, never thinking that no was an option.
Therefore, following her usual studious profile, she looked Maxwell Winslow up on the Internet, discovering that he was a corporate giant with a Fortune 500 company and had initiated the idea of making the December holidays more universal. He had placed an op ed in the New York Times entitled“A Worldly Celebration.” He contended that the symbols which were more world-wide and common should be adapted into the yearly expression of good cheer. This would be better for the whole planet and might inspire more good will the rest of the year.
Shelley read the entire fifteen-thousand-word article. It was exhausting, boring, illuminating and definitely foretold that the man she would be ushering around town was scholarly and not given to fits of passion. He was also twelve years her senior.
Not that she was looking for romance. A bit of companionship might be nice. Shelley had considered a cat—but if she wanted to be around dismissive creatures, she could go see her family. A dog was out of the question. It required walking and feeding. Though she believed that somewhere within her there was a dog-walker, she also felt she might go broke paying someone to do the job. People were so fussy about their mutts. After all, they weren’t humans—not kids, not children or even brothers and sisters.
If she wanted to be successful being a tour guide for this giant of industry, she needed to switch into a more flexible gear. But Shelley hated flexible. Flexible meant you had to be ready to do anything at any time. Flexible was just too flexible. It was too much “playing it safe,” which wasn’t really playing at all. So even though it appeared to those on the outside that Shelley was calm and common, inside, she felt, was a raging biker chick, looking for her Hell’s Angel. (Well, that was a bit too far, but she still wanted something spicy—her personal jalapeno.)
Even though in five hours she would be dressing to go out with a man who was probably a billionaire, her undisciplined mind still drifted to her frumpy, unshaven and uncombed Santa impersonator. It was ridiculous. How could she feel jealousy about this Christopher fellow? It was just a date or two. And when he humiliated her in front of her boss, he established very clearly that her feelings were not as important as his opinions. She chased the thought of him out of her mind.
Shelley climbed into the shower—way too early. She was powdered and puffed a full hour in advance, and spent that hour changing her mind on her dress seven times, which was ridiculous considering she only had nine outfits.
She chose the black one. She looked closely in the mirror. Yes. It was forgiving. It was the Catholic priest of clothing. It was the Amazing Grace of garments. She could hide a lot of baggage underneath black draping. Not that she had a lot of baggage, but more than was allowed for carry-on.
The time arrived. Mr. Maxwell Winslow was to pick her up in his limousine. (That in itself was a step up from Christopher.) They were going out to dinner at a six-star restaurant. (Shelley had always thought they ended at five stars.) Winslow had procured tickets to a Broadway show that supposedly had no tickets available. (Christopher could only afford to take her to discount matinees at the Movie Cinema.)
Yes, it was going to be a night to remember.
Shelley didn’t want to think about all the ramifications of being on a date—or in a meeting, however you chose to think of it—with such a well-known playboy, but God, she hoped he thought she was worth consideration. That’s all she required. Even if he doesn’t do me… does he want to?
She was getting crazier by the minute. Finally, the limousine showed up, Shelley climbed into the back and Winslow offered her a glass of champagne. He was better looking than she had even imagined and smelled like a pine log with flowers growing out of it. She politely passed on the champagne because she was already a little too intoxicated by the atmosphere. He was surprised, bruised that she turned it down, so she changed her mind, took the glass, drank it straight down and held it out for more. What the hell? Might as well have a good time while making a good impression on the boss who thinks you know the ins and outs of a broom closet.
The restaurant was gorgeous, and everything was going perfectly—until the subject of Christmas came up.
When Shelley mentioned “Great Jubilation,” Maxwell waxed disapproving. “It’s an acceptable title,” he proffered. “I was hoping for something a bit more imaginative. Something more inclusive, that wouldn’t force the idea of joy onto those who are content with their contemplative manner.”
Shelley stifled a frown. It wasn’t so much what he was saying, but rather, trying to keep up with the context of his words that was giving her trouble. She nodded—not in agreement, just hoping the conversation would roll onto something that was easier for her to address. But Maxwell continued.
“I’ve grown weary of people who think they know what’s best for everyone,” he stated. “I’ve worked hard all my life to not need anything. After all, it is our needs that betray us, don’t you think?”
Shelley nodded again. She realized she would eventually need to utter a sound, or he might assume she was mute. However, Maxwell pushed on, oblivious. “Of course, the Muslims are too aggressive. The Buddhists, too passive. And the Christians, too dogmatic. We are human. It is a shame to be ashamed of that. It is insane to believe that we won’t have flaming passions ignited by things we smell, touch…”
When he said the word “touch,” he reached over and placed his hand on top of Shelley’s. She had an immediate reflex to pull away. It was so ugly. Here was this genius—this financial wizard—this philanthropic legend—and he was willing to make physical contact with her, and she yanked away like he was a horny purple lizard.
He didn’t even notice. He perpetuated his speech. “I am a man. You, a woman. What do we have in common? Many things. But there is always something we want from each other—and it only becomes ugly if we allow that want to deteriorate to a need.”
He paused and looked at her for either response or applause. Shelley couldn’t tell. She quickly cleared her throat. “If I were to be honest with you, Mr. Winslow,” Maxwell flicked his hand into the air, interrupting her. “You are not so uptight and so young that you are going to insult me by calling me Mr. Winslow. We are sharing a meal—so I am Max.”
Nervously, Shelley gently pointed at him and said, “Then you can call me Shell. No…Shelley. That’s fine.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back. Smiles all around.
Shelley was waiting for her brain to arrive to the dinner, grateful that the black dress was there. Winslow talked for half an hour before they even ordered food. He opted for calamari and she chose lobster. She didn’t know much about lobster—it did not live in her neighborhood. But she knew it was a classy thing to order at a classy restaurant. She asked the waiter if she was supposed to go to some tank to pick out her lobster. The waiter sneered and in broken English, replied, “No. That’s Red Lobster…”
Maxwell emoted a short giggle. A little bit of Shelley died.
They waited for food. In that interim, Maxwell covered three other subjects: universal poverty, universal health reform and a large dose of universal boring. It was hard for Shelley to imagine how a man with such charisma, finance and even some sexiness could be so vacant of appeal—at least to her.
Every time he mentioned Christmas, she thought of Santa Claus. Santa Claus made her think about Christopher.
Every time he brought up poverty, she thought about poor people—which made her think about Christopher.
Every time he brought up health care, she thought about unhealthy—which certainly made her think about Christopher.
What was Christopher doing with Charrleen?
It was the question that kept racing to the front of her brain, and every time she threw it back to the rear, it jogged up her cranium and made itself known again. While cracking her lobster shell, she realized she was in trouble. She would, of course, finish out the evening watching a Broadway show which only made her focus on how she needed to pee. But she was a girl in a terrible fix—she had read about it very recently at a dentist’s office, sitting there waiting to be drilled. She had considered reading one of the three magazines available: Sports Live, Mechanics Today or You Girl.
There was an article listed on the front of “You Girl” entitled How You Know You’ve Got It and Can’t Get Rid of It (Take the Test).Inside were ten questions about your present relationship with your man.
Bored, nervous about her lack of flossing and waiting impatiently, Shelley had taken the test—with Christopher in mind. She added up her number and looked down to the end where a code explained where she was in what the article referred to as “the world of love.”
Three possibilities: Madly in Love, Not in Love, and in Pre-Love.Her score landed her right in the middle of Pre-Love. The You Girl article described it as a situation in which “enough contact and intimacy had been exchanged between two people that they know they want to see much more of each other, but neither one has admitted the urge. Even though each may attempt to interact with others, dissatisfaction will come to the forefront because both need to find out if their Pre-Love could lead to being Madly in Love.”
At the time, Shelley dismissed the article as drivel. She was a feminist—a woman of today. A conscious, aware being. Prepared to take on any comers.
But now, as she sat in the limousine on her way home with a billionaire who was attractive enough to call “tycoonish,” she felt empty, alone—and possessed not one single drop of desire to have him touch her, kiss her or for that matter, even recognize that she was still in the vehicle.
Preparing herself for an awkward exit, Shelley pretended that the lemon on the lobster had curdled her stomach, and that she would have loved to invite Max up—but she was afraid… Well, you know.
Maxwell Winslow, who was not accustomed to being rejected by women, immediately accepted her excuse, expressed his concern, and suggested baking soda and three units of water with a drop of hydrogen peroxide.
Shelley listened very carefully, as if she were taking a “mind pencil” and jotting it down in her brain. The limousine rolled to her door. She nervously took his hand, squeezed it and thanked him for a lovely evening. Max pulled her in for a brief hug, whispering in her ear, “You’ve got it, girl. You’re one of the ones.”
Not certain what he meant, and feeling extraordinarily upside down and turned inside out, Shelley quickly gave a brief kiss to his ear, and pulled away. They smiled to each other as if waving good-bye. The chauffeur had already made his way around to her side of the car, opened her door, helped her out and walked her to the entrance.
Shelley was overjoyed—relieved to get away, nervous, questioning, frustrated, pissed off, and unwilling to have one more hour of life without knowing for damned sure what Charrleen wanted with Chris.
The elevator took her to her floor and as she walked to her apartment and put the key in the lock, she lifted her eyes and spoke to no one in particular and said, “All right. I admit it. I’m in Pre-Love.”
Published by Jonathan Cring