Bennies

He is trying to divert her attention from the queue, which stretches and fidgets for two blocks to either side. The broad, chalky warehouse beside them amplifies the glare of a fat Hollywood sun, deepening her impatience and his sense of abashment.

"I was eighteen. Okay nineteen. Okay twenty, maybe."

"They should be paying us for standing here. I have a video," she begins.

"A karaoke video."

She quits her story because she realizes they have shared it before, and she doesn't says things twice.

"The wait shouldn't be too much longer," he says, "It's past three."

She rolls her eyes and gives a laugh that is half funny half despair. It is not as though the woman has nothing better to do than wait in line to attend the taping of a situation comedy. Indeed she has spent the past three days doing nothing but sunning herself beside the hotel pool, chitchatting with an astonishingly bronze transsexual from Miami.  Yesterday she took Polaroids of the Birds of Paradise planted around the ice machine.  Occasionally she swims. Less occasionally she puts on her shoes and wanders down Hollywood Boulevard, until she feels too weary and sad and she turns around and goes back to the pool.

A door clanks open, a production assistant appears and, speaking through both a bullhorn and a dental retainer, lectures the crowd on how and where to sit. The people in line sense air conditioning. They shift forward a couple inches, stop, and move again, like a freight train coupling in starts. The man supposes everyone else feels the same sense of shameful glee as he does.

Except the woman, who rolls her eyes and sighs, "At last."

They are ushered through a concrete stairwell, to the back tier of an expanse of bleachers. The seats appear new-fangled and expensive, painted black metal, with cushions that alternate between yellow and orange. Above hangs a vast latticework of gaffing and lights. The audience, as it now were, is entreated to the very scent of technology, honeyed and druggy, the oily redolence of some inexhaustible machine. The ushers, the cameras, the thrill of an animatronic environment. Monitors within monitors, cords upon cords. The man yields to the fleet electric shock of being duped by some distant effort of graphic or architectural engineering.

The stage is immediate, effulgently lit, a hundred times larger than any televisual device and of such infinitely greater resolution. Recording booth, tape room, manager's office: a radio station. The show is a farcical take on life at a radio station. A comedy about the workplace. Who knows what city. The man is familiar with the show because he has seen it before, laughed at it even, but the woman is uninformed. She does not have the patience for television. He would feel foolish explaining the premise to her, he feels foolish for even knowing, and so he says nothing. She hasn't asked, anyway.

The set appears durable and smooth, like a new kitchen, full of surfaces for chopping meat.

Just as the woman and the man have found their seats, a bombastic voice rattles the studio: "Hello, people!" The woman recoils at this blow to her senses. The volume of the microphone is too loud, and the person wearing it overly enthusiastic. The audience mills about, and the voice continues: "Yes, uh-huh, right." The voice is talking to some other, unamplified person in the crowd. Only one half of the conversation can be heard. "Where are you from? ... Well what about that."

"My tootsies hurt," says the woman.

"That's because your shoes weigh more than your feet."

"You know," (the disembodied voice) "the southern California smog test, don't you?"

"What if we want to leave?"

"Just ten minutes and we'll worry about it."

"Can UCLA?" The voice laughs at its own joke.

Beside them is an elderly couple identically clad in blue nylon. The man sees them and thinks, I've made a mistake in bringing her here. We are too young for this, this derogatory experience of being part of an audience. He experiences their time together as a chain of tiny accommodations, a kind of goosing forward, sport for her sense of boredom. Not much can mollify her discontent, which is fairly constant, but they both expect resolute attempts on his part. This time, though, he has hijacked her afternoon. He has interrupted her vacation and is making her work, toil in the way going to the movies is work, or dancing, or going out anywhere.

"Can you see LA?"  The man seated to their left repeats the line to his wife, renders it even more unfunny.

"Those bennies," whispers the woman. She is talking about the tranquilizers they took earlier, just an hour or so before.

"They are no fun." The man glimpses an actor he recognizes from the sitcom, standing beside a concrete pillar, mouthing words.

"Let's throw the rest away when we get home."

The crowd is finally seated. Only a lanky man, dressed in canvas pants and a hooded sweatshirt, remains standing in the bleachers, and he is holding a microphone. It dawns on everyone that this is the owner of the strange, loud voice. He introduces himself as Benny and asks whether someone might turn down his levels. He suggestively tells the sound man he is feeling "hot." He sings, "Oh say can you see, by the smog of LA," and the quality of his voice drops to a low, muffled roar. He stretches his voice to a growl, which in turn becomes the sound of engines and machine guns. Some people near the front of the crowd, delighted by their luck in seating, quickly catch on to the sound of Benny's portrayal of an aerial dogfight. The sound check is part of the act, sure, great!

But the attention of most in the audience is directed not at Benny, but instead straight forward. It is the stage which dominates the room, illumined with blazing color and flecked with halogen white.

Stilts support a large plexiglass enclosure that stretches like a proscenium over the bottom level of the set. The cage is filled with electronic equipment, it is a radio announcer's booth. Most of the gadgetry is fake, cardboard, but obviously something is wired because a technician is there, checking levels. His voice resides just behind Benny's patter, on a sort of secondary aural plateau. You can't tell what he's saying but it's there. And below that an impalpable and silent communication among the other crew:  a language of pointing and glances, a way of excluding the audience who now studies their workplace so scrupulously. A woman carrying a boom mike nearly collides with a man who is, inexplicably, spraying the set with a mist bottle. A man hanging lights. What's that word, the man thinks, grip, he's a grip. A guy with a mop, the mopper.

The woman isn't even looking. She is staring at her shoes, these puffy blue sneakers with absurdly fat soles. She bought them yesterday for nine dollars, but already she doesn't like them. In anyone else it would bother the man, this reluctance to at least feign some meager sign of curiosity about one's surroundings, a wrinkled forehead or an inquisitive hmm. But of course with her it doesn't matter, because basically, he thinks, she's right. It is just spent time, watching.

Some men wear ties. It's hard to tell whether they are producers or extras or what. Maybe they're best boys, thinks the man. Everyone has water. There is activity on the far left side of the stage, at the kitchen part of the set, two women wearing huge tool belts and hauling a ladder offstage. Cameramen roost on black and silver turret-mobiles, attending direction.

Split level steps break up the floor and accentuate its horizontality. Fissures everywhere lead nowhere. Half-walls barely separate the space, partitions artfully placed to hide nothing at all. All this adroit concealment of nothingness.

"'Please tell the court, what does bald eagle taste like?'" Benny is telling another joke, in the aisle just behind the man and the woman.

The house lights dim. A series of monitors flicker on, suspended from the ceiling latticework and aimed toward the audience. One two four eight, they display the network logo.

Benny is directly beside the two, separated from them by only the old nylon couple.   "'Somewhere between a California condor and a spotted owl, your honor.'" He carries a wad of T-shirts under one arm. The man and woman can hear Benny's voice thundering all through the room, but they also hear his real voice, before it hits the microphone.

"And how are you all tonight."  Benny's double voice. Like something advanced and terrible, alongside its dumb mimic.

The woman stirs in her seat. A slow moment later the man realizes they are being addressed. The pulsing of dead air.

"Get us a shirt," she says.

"Hi."

But Benny doesn't want to talk to him. Benny wants to talk to the woman. "We're pleased to have Blondie here with us tonight," he squints and the airy region of audience that is paying attention flutters and smiles. "Folks, let me ask you something. Are you familiar with the show?"

The woman glares at the man. Her eyes, cerulean blue, assert unambiguously that she does not intend to speak. All her psychic bulwarks are deployed, her pose is completely rigid. The man does not remember what they have just been asked. "Yes," he answers.  For some reason he is standing up now, he has submitted unaware to some gesture, his body impelled by the blind dumb weight of exigency. The woman does not stir, she is still sitting. The man surveys a roomful of bobbing heads, feeling safe so long as he is tethered to her inimitable sight. The crowd is rapt and intent. All this technology magnifies their time here like a microscope enlarges space, unfolding each moment and preserving it for examination.

Benny has said something, a non-question which is basically, do you have any questions. He puts the microphone against the woman's lips.

"The name's not Blondie, dumb-ass." she says. Her voice is all woofer, magnified a thousand times. It bounces and snaps and fills the auditorium. A ripple of alarm rolls from the crowd.

Benny releases the microphone, letting it drop to his side. He catches the wire and yanks the mike around in a loop, as if doing a yo-yo trick. "Well, if I knew you'd feel that way, I wouldn't have asked."

The dull, awkward plash of rudeness embarrasses the audience and makes them restless.

Benny walks away.

Quickly, the hanging monitors above fade up and sparkle, and divert the attention of the crowd. A parade of animated sprites flutters over the screens, a series of studio names and logos. The video trailer conveys a sense of effortless legibility and mutation which the man finds difficult to fathom. There is nothing that does not require effort, thinks the man. Especially leisure, which, he begins to realize, this is not. This seems more like surgery, inducing anesthetic fear.

Another, third sound system begins to hiss loudly, a sound that means something has been recorded and is now being played back. The audience is entreated to watch by an unearthly recording of a woman's voice, which exclaims: "Here's what happened last week on the show!" Then the monitors display just that, a montage taped maybe a week or a month ago:

A woman with enormously curled hair has taken a position at the radio station, as an efficiency consultant. It is her job to evaluate this division, the newsroom, and it appears that she has fired one of the workers, the funny queer guy. He is terminated from his job because of his clumsiness, this is the main plot. There is a shot of him with a waste basket on each foot, and he sighs, "Fired!" There is a shot of another character, the shifty announcer, who says something lewd and flirtatious to the efficiency expert. Then a reverse shot of her, aggrieved but still poised. The station owner, a bald man wearing a bow tie, is burning some amount of cash. The sound of bass and laughter. An exterior shot, with a crate tumbling out of the back of a truck. Finally, inside the crate:  here is the funny queer guy, rolling down the middle of the street, yelling, pounding the wooden walls with his fists.

The situation is, the show they are about to perform is the sequel to the previous episode, which was the first show of the season and thus also represented the fallout from the big finale of the last season. These are little events that are no longer happening. It doesn't matter whether they were recorded a week or a month ago.

The man looks to his side and finds the woman has closed her eyes.

It's over, the video, lights up. The audience is relocated back to the present. They aren't here to watch television anyway, they're here to watch the taping of a sitcom about life at a radio station.

The woman and the man sit motionlessly. He is seated squarely forward, legs even and slightly spread apart. His elbows occupy both armrests, one of his arms is across his chest, two fingers barely touching the chin. It is the pose one assumes while being driven somewhere in a car, or waiting for the doctor, a sort of obstinate surrender. If the man's posture imparts a hint of fear, it is also true that the woman's composure reflects a bleached mien of anger. She is less symmetrical, stretched away from him so that her head is fully resting on the palm of her right hand. Her jaw muscles are tensed up and her eyes, now slightly open, assail the area immediately before her.

A man somewhere in the distance says, "Go." There is a clap, like the small sharp report of a firecracker, then an electronic honking sound.

At once, for once, everything is quiet.

A handsome man wearing a dark blue shirt and a charcoal gray suit strides onto the set, toward the area of the stage which represents his office. You can hear his footsteps.

The audience examines the scene ravenously, notices illimitable trifling aspects thereof, because the lights are so sharply focused and there seem to be no shadows at all. The walls are dark blue with brown trim and the blue of the walls is the same hue as the handsome man's shirt. He walks toward a group of men who shoulder an arch of technical equipment, cameras and booms, he walks into them and through them, like a kid playing London Bridge. Straight past the non-wall, into the non-office. The actor-secretary is waiting, along with the actor-shifty announcer. They both pretend to leap for the attention of the suited actor, shattering the hush of the scene with fervent and practiced non-talk.

"One at a time, one at a time," says the suit.

"Sir, these cutbacks are getting out of hand," says the secretary.

"They've stopped replacing the light bulbs around the mirror in my dressing room," says the announcer.

"This is radio, Jack, I don't see why you need that mirror in the first place. Dress any way you want."

The speakers say, "Stop," and they all quit pretending. The actors resume their marks and stare indifferently at the walls, everywhere except toward the audience. The attendant crew stiffens and recalibrate their positions; the vault of equipment bobs into place. There is a moment where everything is frozen again. Then the director's voice: "Go."

The loud clap, the electronic honk. The footsteps, the clamor of voices.

"One at a time, one at a time," plays the suit.

"Sir, these cutbacks are getting out of hand," plays the secretary.

"They've stopped replacing the light bulbs around the mirror in my dressing room," plays the announcer.

"This is radio, Jack, I don't see why you need that mirror in the first place. Dress any way you want."

"Stop. Thank you. Next setup, please."

There is no appreciable difference between the takes. What kind of performance is a taping, the man muses. It is the calculated arc of a motion curve, a roller coaster going in the same low circles. The woman twists with resentment, and the man supposes she is feeling somehow debased for having undergone the dull repetition of performance.

On the stage, the crew slides deftly to the middle of a platform and begins setting up their next shot. The performers scatter. Only the actor who plays the announcer ventures down stage, sauntering casually toward the crowd. He stands squarely behind the snack table, conceding only a relaxed but deliberate posture to the fans seated around him. A boy in the front row hands out a dollar bill to the actor, who signs his autograph on it.

"There, now it will be worth something," he says.

At once the woman is halfway standing up, perched forward as if about to sprint over the seats in front of her.

"Yeah, like fifty cents," she shouts across the room.

The people in the audience collectively crane their necks, submersing the studio in a diffuse undulating noise. Even some of those onstage look up. The woman, her brow drawn to a file, counters this warped plane of accusation with an even more trenchant gaze than the audience and crew combined. The fierce tint of her eyes betrays a cultivated hardness, a refractory and barely muted grievance. There is something else about it too, this woman's look, a kind of polymerized fatigue. She is aware of the drugs, her highness. They have taken tranquilizers, which, after all, is easy enough to forget. Especially while on them. Ha ha, up yours. Up everyone's, says the woman, just by staring. Then she slides, very slowly, back into her seat, focusing on the empty space directly in front of her.

The man watches a panicky production assistant, the girl who had ushered them in, motion to her supervisor, maybe the stage manager, a man holding a clipboard and a walkie-talkie. He in turn defers the glance to a blond guy standing beside the exit and wearing shorts and a navy polo shirt on which the word 'SECURITY' is imprinted in bold white lettering. The guard's complexion is copper and his calf muscles especially large. All three of them, the assistant, the manager, the bouncer, look toward the couple in the audience. Their eyes meet those of the man, because the woman is still staring straight ahead. Their stooped countenance is meant to appeal to him, to entreat from him some display of level-headedness. It alleges that he is to assume control of the situation.

Of course the idea, that the woman is in any way under the man's authority, is unconditionally laughable. He has reached the limits of his coercive abilities just getting her this far from the hotel. He cannot bring himself to deliver even a shrug of atonement in their direction.

And now look, here comes Benny. As he heads up the aisle, two stairs per stride, Benny is the champion of the audience. They are a gawking current in his path; they have come to love him. He comes to stand in the row of the man and woman, and the aggregate volume of impudence, doggedness, and plain mean-spirited pluck hangs in the air like rank condensation. Both of the old nylon couple appear horrified, as if others in the crowd might mistake the man and woman as their relatives.

He speaks into the mike, forming his words in a drawl. "Lady," he says, "there's only room for one comedian in this studio, and he called in sick today. So unless the temp service sent ya, I'll ask you not to scream at the actors."

The tranquilizers, the benzodiazipan. The effect of the pills occurs to the man like a new thought. He invokes their defense and it arrives obediently, unfurling a warmth that approximates a small sense of freedom. Like warm water filling a vacuum. Benny's presence is nothing. Indeed, before Benny says any more, the stage manager beckons with one agitated hand, summoning him across the room. With his other hand the stage manager holds a walkie talkie against his lips, and he mumbles a short phrase, no more than a word or two.

The actor standing behind the snack tray decides he is needed and skulks onstage. He throws his paper cup into a waste bin, returns to his mark and resumes the toady posture of his character.

There is a freedom to fight, the man thinks, but also the onerous burden to do as much. The crowd has finally stopped looking. Their silence is just a plain, benign noiselessness, not so charged as before.

She has taken up the task well enough, though.

The "go." The clap, the honk.

Mister nice-suit is back in his office. He is standing opposite the two other actors, his back facing a large plate-glass window and the photographic depiction of a city skyline. Two cameras record the scene from perpendicular angles. "Forget the light bulbs," the secretary-character pleads. "What about Jeremy. It's been two days since he got fired and no one can find him." At this point, the audience can see that a scaffold is being lowered into place behind the window, behind the boss. It is a window washer's carriage, and on it Jeremy is comically adjusting a set of ropes and pulleys. There is a smattering of laughter from the crowd as it recognizes the character, the convivial queer, still disheveled from his tumble in the crate. His outfit, a mustard collared shirt and kelly green sweater vest, appear to have been torn to pieces. He makes a motion to silence the secretary and announcer so that they do not alert the boss to his presence, but as he removes his hands from the ropes the scaffold lunges sideways and throws Jeremy off. He is now dangling by his left hand only. The audience laughs louder, more genuinely.

The woman in the audience gasps and stands up. She ambles sideways toward the aisle, blocking the old couple's vantage with no air of compunction. She shows no regard even to the man, who watches vigilantly as she marches toward the rear wall of the auditorium.

The onstage boss waits for the laughter to subside before delivering his line: "The situation is hopeless. There is nothing I can do for any one of you. Upstairs are the only people with any authority on this. We can only wait and see. I would say otherwise but I simply don't want to leave anybody hanging."

The woman approaches the security guard, the blond bouncer by the door. Benny sees her coming and crosses over to meet her there.

With his free hand, the pendent actor playing Jeremy removes a cell phone from one pocket. He dials, and the amped-up sound of a telephone ringing fills the studio. The boss moves to answer the phone on his desk but the others rush to block his path.

The announcer picks up the phone. He speaks into the handset, delivering one half of a conversation. The actor portraying Jeremy maniacally mimes the other.

"Hello? No, you haven't caught me at a bad time. You want a meeting? Sure, no problem. Tomorrow? No, that won't work for you. How about this afternoon. I see, still not good. Right now? Well, I am in the middle of something. Okay, now it is. Where shall we meet? Mann's? No? Right in front of the building? Well, if you say so. In front of the building it is. All right then. I'll catch you on the sidewalk." And the announcer throws down the phone and dashes out the door.

"Stop," says the director's voice. "Re-setup, please."

It might be funny, the man can't tell. He gets up from his seat, resigned to leaving. The woman is saying something to Benny, and the man knows that whatever it is will be enough to get them finally banished from the premises. He delivers a rueful look as he crosses before the old couple, but senses from the way they both frown and seem to hold their breath that he is, in their esteem, beyond pardoning.  As he heads up the ramp toward the back of the studio the man sees the bouncer pointing toward their newly vacated seats, urging the woman back.

"What do I have to do," her shouting is deliberate, so that only the few hind rows of the auditorium can hear. "Fake a miscarriage to leave?"

Benny is casting the woman a brutal and censorious glare, a last effort toward ascendancy over her hold on the studio.

She turns and strides to the exit, punches the metal traverse and throws open the door. Her fury is impressive, it resounds all through the stairwell and back into the auditorium.

The man feels dim and inculpable, he doesn't even understand the nature of the conflict, beyond the scant reality of their attendance. But he does find an odd sort of edification, from this radiant woman in cutoffs and puffy blue sneakers. She sails down a flight of steps, and he follows closely behind. When the last door is opened, a peal of coruscating white light fills the landing and splinters their vision.

Go, clap, honk.

The door slowly shuts and at last they are outside, surrounded by only the sounds of the street. The heat on their arms and faces is a shock.

The woman fishes a bent cigarette from her pocket. They wander toward Hollywood Boulevard, the direction of the hotel. The man dares not speak, until the woman begins to laugh and shake her head, and then he joins her in laughter.

About This Story


  • Author: Dan Frazier
  • Published Online: Jan 13, 2012