“The only information I can give you about the episode,” said the rep, “is that its title is ‘My Dirty Little Secret’.”
Helen stood paralyzed in her kitchen as the phone call’s initial excitement swerved into a loop de loop sensation. At first she thought she’d lucked out and that The Barry Ballard Show was finally calling with the tickets she’d put her name in for six months back. But as the details unfolded — a limo ride to the studio, a professional makeover, and her choice of a See’s party assortment or an Edible Arrangements Belgian Bucket — Helen began to suspect that this invitation was not a result of the lottery after all. Then the young rep confirmed it.
“You see, Mrs. Thompson, a member of your family has a secret they’ve been hiding and they want to share it with you here — in front of our live studio audience! Can I assume you’re familiar with Barry Ballard?”
Yes, he could. Maury Povich, Jerry Springer, Barry Ballard. Who didn’t know the contenders for the crown of tabloid talk sleaze?
“So whattaya say, Mrs. Thompson,” pushed the young rep, “can we count you in?”
“Mrs. Thompson, is that a yes?”
“I’ll have to speak with my husband.”
“Okay, if you think so. But he’s confirmed.”
“I’m sorry, what? What does that mean, ‘he’s confirmed’?”
“Well, it means that Mr. Thompson will be with us for the show!”
“You’ve already spoken?”
“Mrs. Thompson, can we have you?”
“Wait. Let’s just wait.” All so fast. What if it’s a scam? But VERY BARRY MEDIA, said the Caller ID. Woosh! said Helen’s heart. “My husband has a secret to tell me on Barry Ballard?”
“Well I can’t confirm—”
“But you did! You just confirmed.”
“No, HE confirmed.”
“But he wouldn’t! He’s a dean. His reputation.”
So why the wobbly knees, Helen? Why the kamikaze butterflies?
“Oh my God,” she murmured. “It’s an affair.”
“Now, Mrs. Thompson.”
“With a student?” But then knowing the type of plot twists that Barry Ballard delivered, “A male student.”
No reply. Didn’t need one. “HA! There it is.”
“But you can’t—”
“Yes! Yes, I can.” Helen knew this game. Knew it all too well. “It was just a matter of time, really. That man stopped touching me ages ago.”
“Mrs. Thompson, please! It’s not your husband on my screen!”
Helen stopped. “It’s not?” And there before her eyes hung Megan’s progress report. “Well, of course it’s not.”
“So you see?”
“Oh, yes. Yes, I see very well.” She stood at the fridge, scanning the tight grid of A’s. The perfect cover. “Oh, Megan. You tricky girl.”
“Mrs. Thompson, I really can’t—”
“You can’t what? Believe how I guessed it? Is that what you can’t? I’m no dope, you know. I’ve watched Barry from the start!”
She made a beeline from the kitchen to the second floor, her home feeling synthetic as she passed through it, like a sitcom. A soundstage with props. By the time she reached upstairs she could all but hear the cameras rolling. A director in the sidelines calling the shots. Canned laughter. Applause.
On the cell, the rep pleaded, “Mrs. Thompson, let’s make this easy.”
“No, no need for that.” She charged into Megan’s room. “I’m sharp, you know — contrary to popular belief!”
“It’s only a show—”
“Really! And here I am thinking it’s my life!”
In Megan’s drawers she found nothing telling, and that said it all. The girl’s life was a facade. Nobody was this dull by mistake. From under the bed Helen pulled out shoe boxes and gym bags, closed and suspicious. She spilled them across the floor.
“Hm. Let’s see. What will I find? Or shall I take a couple stabs while I peruse?”
“Mrs. Thompson, please.”
“Maybe a pregnancy test with the cross faded in? That’d explain the fat ass.” She pillaged through sports gear, scrapbooks. “The suspense is killing me. What has she done? What sort of heathen do I have in my home?”
“It’s not her, Mrs. Thompson! It’s not her on my screen!”
Again Helen stopped.
This made no sense.
She considered her brother in Florida. Sister in Jersey. Their mother and father, both passed away. Memories of all of them broke through their calluses, bristled like quills, pricked Helen’s heart with sharp possibilities.
“So, aren’t you going to ask me about your son?” said the rep, practically defeated.
As far as Helen knew, she only had the daughter.
But no. Apparently Paul fathered a bastard child back in the day. Probably with his high school sweetheart, Bonnie ‘Wartzy’ Shwarzman!
“Oh, Helen, you idiot,” she laughed bitterly.
To that the rep asked, “I’m speaking with Claudia Thompson?”
Helen had to think.
“This is Claudia Thompson,” the young man confirmed, “that I have on the line?”
“No. It’s not. My name is Helen.”
Helen sat up straight in attention, her senses surging. She watched her foot tap-tapping away in Megan’s debris. Fingertips hammering like pistons across her thigh. Oh, heads were going to roll here, yes indeed.
The representative returned.
“Helen Thompson, I’ve got great news!” He paused with a swallow. “The wait is finally over. Your name has been drawn from our data bank!”
The rep continued. “You and a guest get to see the The Barry Ballard Show live!”
With a lowered voice he finished, “Sorry about that mix-up, Mrs. Thompson, ha ha, you know computers.”
“Oh, no, you don’t.” She seethed. “Absolutely not! Just give me a minute. I’m sure we’ll find something you can use.”
Helen blew from the bedroom into the hall. “Let’s take a look in Paul’s closet. I bet we’ll find something there!”
“Mrs. Thompson, we can’t—”
“YES! Oh, yes, you can! You have to. You called me first! You said my family’s going to be on Barry Ballard!”
Bursting into her bedroom, Helen wondered where to begin.
Brian Michael Riley is a writer, illustrator, and multimedia artist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Other recent work of his has appeared in The Fix, Page & Spine, and Deadman’s Tome.