Peg didn’t understand the excitement below the TV set. The sorority girls, had they bothered to notice, would never understand Peg not understanding it. Watching the dichotomy was the perfect complement to my burger. Different realities.
Peg sweeps popcorn kernels that litter the floor, once had to clean vomit from inside the corner pocket of the pool table, and caps off most evenings by emptying her tip jar onto the bar and counting the change. The allure of the reality TV show that had the sorority girls in a boil was lost on Peg. Even if it was a two-hour season premiere.
“What is it they’re fussing over?” she asked. “You know about this show?”
Peg motioned toward the sorority girls. She smiled because she likes them, but shook her head because of what I already mentioned. Different realities.
I chewed deliberately and mulled my reply. I could have told the truth, but then why leave Wanishing in the first place? It’s all anybody up there will talk about. I had all I could take, threw a couple of days’ worth of clothes in a bag and landed in this bar 15 minutes outside of Big Rapids because it seemed like safe refuge. Plus the marquee advertised “Vennison Burgers.” I was hungry and some misspelled food sounded good.
Still, I could have gone with the truth, or at least a version that bore a resemblance, something that dabbled in fact but shielded me from the ugly reality. No pun intended. I could have gone with the truth. I wasn’t going to be around long enough to be annoyed. Drop the bomb and slide out of there.
Instead, I jawed that venison until it was ground to mush and rinsed it with four inches of beer.
Then I swallowed. And I lied.
“No idea,” I told Peg. “It’s a new show, I think. I haven’t heard much about it.”
Jim Gold says people are either running to something or they’re running away from something. I’m not so sure. Seems like most people aren’t going anywhere. Like the people at the Nerdy Bird. When I stepped through the door hungry for some venison, I scanned the room and was reminded of what Jim had said.
A group of hunters were deep into a game of Pool Ball Poker. Two guys in dirty jeans and dirtier t-shirts battled on the dartboard. An old couple who probably lived in one of the nearby farmhouses sat quietly at a table watching the evening news on a TV hanging in the corner. And a woman with a pile of graying hair – Peg, it turned out – stood behind the bar working a crossword puzzle in the newspaper. I imagine the scene looked remarkably similar two hours earlier. Or two nights earlier. Nobody looked to be running to or from anything.
“Little early, ain’t ya?” Peg asked, looking up from her puzzle to greet me.
“Don’t usually see any kids from the college ’til last call. Yer about six hours early.”
Amused by herself, Peg set the crossword puzzle aside and placed a napkin on the bar top as I settled onto a stool.
“I don’t go to college,” I said, and it felt strange to say it. “I’m just coming through town.”
“What can I get for you, hun? Need a menu?”
“No, I’d like the burger special, please” I said, startling her with manners. “And a draft.”
Peg scribbled my order and disappeared into the kitchen.
The Nerdy Bird is a wooden cube, a neighborhood bar without a neighborhood, a miracle that defies business logic. It’s surrounded by a handful of farmhouses, miles of cornfields and miles more of northern Michigan forest. The walls are wood. The tables are wood. The bar is wood. And on every square inch are decades of carvings. Names or initials are the standard, but if you look close enough you can find a joke or an opinion on world affairs. A few years ago someone notched “Regan sucks” into the bar top. The Nerdy Bird is no house of scholars.
“I’d a bet my tip jar you were over from the college,” Peg said, back from the kitchen and pulling my attention from the carvings as she set a full glass in front of me. I took a drink and it was good.
“A month ago you’d have been right. I finished this summer.”
Peg seemed happy to learn her guess hadn’t been too far off.
“Did you go to Ferris?”
“No, up in Wanishing. GLU.”
Peg chewed her gum some more and returned to the kitchen.
One of the hunters began a new game of pool and the break cracked through the quiet. I returned to reading the bar – someone scratched the word “balls” on there – while I listened to bursts of conversation coming from the pool table. The hunters were debating the young college football season. The guys playing darts celebrated the end of a game by sitting and drinking. The old couple never looked away from the evening news.
“So you finished college this summer, whaddja study?” Peg’s trips in and out of the kitchen were remarkably quick, her returns silent, and she always managed to surprise me.
“Hmm? Photography. Journalism.”
Peg seemed to approve.
“So, what, you take pictures for the newspaper?”
I really didn’t want to get into the details. She whisked back into the kitchen, returned a few seconds later with a basket full of condiment containers and laid out a napkin and plastic ware in front of me. I was back to reading the bar.
“So what now?”
“What now? What are you going to do now that you’re done with college?”
I lifted my glass and drank.
“Take pictures for a newspaper, I suppose,” I said.
“Around here we’ve got the Crier,” she said, tapping the issue in front of her. “Comes out every Thursday. I don’t know who takes the pictures, but they’ve got this fella who writes articles, Dan Lester, he’s always riling people up with some of the stuff he writes. I get such a tickle out of him.”
I smiled, because there really wasn’t much else I could do.
“He wrote an article earlier this summer about the mayor and how he’s been driving around in a fancy Cadillac that turns out the taxpayers were paying for. Really made the mayor look silly. There’s a story in last week’s paper telling how the mayor gave the car back. Drives his old Honda now. I got such a chuckle out of that. You folks all set?”
The old couple was standing beside me. The man set the remote control and a $10 bill on the bar. He and the woman left without saying a word. Peg thanked them before bumping the kitchen door with her hip and disappearing again.
Welcoming all at once a waft of warm air, a chorus of squeals and a pack of sorority girls, the door to the bar burst open. There must have been 20 of them, and they filed quickly into the area left vacant by the old couple. The hunters looked on with not-so-subtle interest. As if rehearsed, the girls began rearranging tables to form one large horseshoe-shaped sitting area below the TV that hung dark in the corner. Holding my food in a red plastic basket, Peg swung open the kitchen door to inspect the commotion.
“What in hell’s bells...?” she started before stopping to let a smile spread across her face. “Whaddayu girls doing here this early? Is it last call already?”
A tiny girl with blonde hair pulled into a ponytail skipped to the bar and gripped its edge. A wide grin split her face in half, pushing out a pair of cheeks that nearly buried her eyes and nose. A pink scarf draped needlessly over her shoulders, framing the Greek letters on the front of her sweatshirt. Peg beamed a warm smile across the room as if genuinely happy to see the girls, regardless of how fast they talked.
“Surprise!” the little one squeaked, as if her presence alone truly was worthy of celebration. “We were sitting around the house talking about ‘Who’s Who?’. Tonight’s the premiere, you know, and Marcy was like, ‘We should have a premiere party.’ Everyone was like, ‘Yes, let’s do it,’ but the TV room at the house isn’t big enough, so then Shayna was like, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Bird,’ and everyone was like, ‘Omigod, that’s perfect!’ I was like, ‘Should we call ahead first?’ but everyone was like, ‘No, let’s just crash it!’ So here we are. Surprise!”
She fired off words at a remarkable clip, bouncing from one topic to another and hardly taking time to draw air. She was tiring to listen to.
“The show starts in a few minutes,” she continued, igniting a new explosion of words that she managed to blend with an equally dizzying montage of facial expressions. “Omigod, the TV works, doesn’t it? It’s on Channel 4. At least it’s Channel 4 at the house. It’s probably Channel 4 here, too. Omigod, this is so exciting. Have you seen the previews? It’s going to be the best. Do you have the clicker?”
Peg accepted the verbal attack with an experienced grin, waited for it to subside and handed the remote control across the bar.
“The TV’s all yours, you girls have fun.”
The blonde girl shot back to the group, flashed the remote and was applauded as if she clutched an Olympic medal. In seconds, the TV was on and the girls scrambled to find a seat. Peg glanced at me and noticed I’d been following along.
“Just wait,” she said, tapping her fingernails on the bar. “Watching them order drinks is a real treat.”
Peg finally set my food in front of me. I checked my watch, saw that I had five minutes and went hard at my burger and fries.
“What is it they’re fussing over?” she asked. “You know about this show?”
That’s when I lied. Peg had no idea.
“These new shows just don’t seem real,” she said. “To me, it don’t get any realer than Bob Barker. Here they come, watch this.”
The blonde, apparently one of the leaders of the group, bounced back to the bar, this time with two similarly dressed, slightly taller friends flanking her. She carried a slip of paper in one hand and a small plaid purse in the other.
“OK, ready?” she asked, as if Peg had been holding her breath anticipating the order. “We’d like two fuzzy navels, five Bud Lights, a Sea Breeze, two gin and tonics, one Corona with a lime and one without a lime, and three cranberry and vodkas.”
She traced an index finger along the paper as she read, and clapped the list on the bar top when she finished, still wearing a smile that devoured the rest of her face.
“Oh, and three Diet Cokes. Kristi, Gina and Pam are driving.”
Peg snatched the sheet of paper and spun to a cash register beneath a huge painting of a toucan wearing a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a pocket protector. With impressive speed, she hammered in the entire order. I nodded hello to the girls, who were standing just a few feet away. Three sets of teeth returned the greeting.
“That’s going to be forty-two dollars and 75 cents,” Peg called over her shoulder. “You girls gonna pay as you go or run a tab?”
The three huddled to discuss before the blonde pinched a 50-dollar bill from her purse and placed it on the bar.
“We’ll just pay as we go,” she said. “You can keep the change.”
“Why thank you darling, aren’t you sweet,” Peg said as she set five bottles on a round tray. “If you’d like, I’ll bring everything over in a minute.”
The girls, who had been looking over their shoulders at the TV more than they had at Peg, filled every pause with giddy commentary about “Who’s Who?”.
“Huh?” one of them grunted. “Oh, no, that’s OK, you don’t have to wait on us.”
Peg went about her business of making the drinks. At one point, she had to duck into the kitchen to carve a lime. I was doing everything I could to devour my food and get back on the road, but somehow having the girls standing there slowed me down.
“Are you gonna watch ‘Who’s Who?’,” one of them asked, catching me in mid-bite. I worked quickly at chewing and rinsed with beer, but the gap between her question and my answer was uncomfortable.
“No, probably not,” I finally answered. “I’ve heard about it a little bit though. Looks pretty good.”
“Omigod, it looks amazing,” the blonde chirped. I waited for her to add more, but apparently that was it.
“You look familiar,” one of the others said. “You don’t have English comp this semester, do you?”
“No, I don’t go to school here,” I said. I could feel my food cooling in front of me. I really wanted to eat.
“That’s so weird, you look totally familiar.”
I’m not sure how I was supposed to respond, so I didn’t.
“You need another one, hun?” Peg asked. She was back from the kitchen and pouring gin over a glass of ice.
“No, I’m fine, thank you,” I said. “In fact, I’m ready for my check when you get a minute.”
As the girls hauled the trays back to their tables, “Who’s Who?” was nearing its start. The group’s wild excitement swelled when graphics flashed across the screen announcing the start of the show. Its thumping theme music filled the bar and accompanied a sweeping aerial shot of the United States that closed in on the Midwest and roared into the streets of Chicago. The girls gasped to a collective quiet as the announcer’s voice burst from the speaker.
“And so the search for one woman begins,” he proclaimed as the camera raced between skyscrapers lining Michigan Avenue. “Prepare yourselves for a journey like no other. Ten men are here for the start, battling in an adventure without boundaries, a game without rules. Each of you millions of viewers at home can join in along the way. In the end, we’ll have an answer to the only question that matters. Who’s who?”
Peg slid my tab on the bar and eyed the show with curiosity. I was fingering through my wallet while peaking over my shoulder at the TV. The hunters were still shooting pool, in a different world.
“Over the coming months, you’ll get to know all of our contestants, including this man,” the announcer said as the TV screen showed a guy in his early 20s walking along Navy Pier.
“And you’ll meet this man.” The video blinked to another guy in his early 20s standing in a bar on Rush Street. I was standing next to him.
Peg saw it immediately, maybe even more quickly than the sorority girls. The blonde spilled her drink. They both fired a look in my direction, glanced back at the screen, then back to me. There may have been a small measure of uncertainty at first, but after a second look they were positive. It was me up there. Hurrying, acting as though I hadn’t seen it, I flipped a 10-dollar bill on the bar and stood up to leave. It was too late. Nearly everybody at the table had spun and was looking at me, a few even stood and were slowly approaching. I suppose I could have made a dash for the door, but it never seemed like an option. I felt trapped. I didn’t move.
“He-e-e-e-e-e-y, that was you,” the blonde shouted as the show’s intro faded to commercial. “Omigod, that was you!”
I looked at Peg and felt ashamed. Like I said, I lied. She was pointing at the screen but looking at me, confused.
“What in hell’s bells?”
The sorority girls circled, anxious to get closer.
“O-MI-GOD, that was you, wasn’t it,” the blonde said again. It wasn’t a question.
“I knew you looked familiar,” one of the others said.
The sorority girls were really bubbling. Nearly all of them stood and most formed a wall between me and the door. To my other side, Peg lurked behind the bar and said nothing, but wore an expression that wanted answers. I looked back at the sorority girls, who were in a frenzy and wanted to know everything. Finally, they quieted to the point that I might say something.
“I’m sorry, but I really wasn’t lying,” I said, lying again. “I’m not planning on watching the show.”
Somebody held up a small camera and snapped a picture.
“Are you on the show?” one of them asked. “Like, one of the cast members?”
“No, I just know a guy who is,” I said. “I just didn’t say anything before because I’m kind of not supposed to. They don’t want us talking about anything that hasn’t aired yet.”
There was a short pause before one of them blurted, “Omigod, do you know what happens? Do you know how it ends?”
I debated my response for a few seconds, not sure what to give away.
“Most of it. I mean, yeah.”
They erupted and drew closer, blasting me with questions. Peg shared in their amazement despite lacking their perspective. Even the hunters, who I don’t think had any idea what was happening, had taken interest.
“This is so – weird,” one of the girls crowed. “How were you there?”
“Omigod, the other girls aren’t going to believe this,” said another. “We should call Sandy.”
Finally, the blonde took the floor and the others quieted, as if trained.
“So, you really know what happens?” she asked. “I mean, seriously?”
I could have told them everything, but they really didn’t want to know. It would have ruined it for them. They’ve been watching promos and reading teaser articles for the better part of the summer. Up in Wanishing, you can’t go 10 feet without seeing an ad, hearing an interview or reading an article. I’m sure the ad campaign didn’t spare Big Rapids. These girls are planning to watch faithfully for the next few months; having the ending given away would spoil it for them.
Peg, though, she looked at me a little differently after that. I couldn’t blame her, considering I lied. By the time the commercial break ended, the girls returned to their tables and resumed their journey, as planned, but took turns badgering me with questions. It seemed to help that Peg filled my beer glass and convinced me to stay. As “Who’s Who?” unfolded on screen before them, the girls didn’t hide talking about me, and wandered by occasionally to gush, especially during commercial breaks. I didn’t divulge much.
But with Peg, it was different. For the next two hours, as the girls shrieked with every new plot twist, she stood across from me and listened. I didn’t tell the sorority girls much of anything, but I sat there and told Peg the whole damn thing.