Fiction from Denise Tolan
Sell You, Sell Me
The commercial ran in the early eighties, in the evenings when sitcoms came on. So many sitcoms came on.
The shot began with a black screen, then quickly opened to a wide shot of fireworks over a lake; the concept seemingly a meta-firework itself. As if the audience themselves narrowed the lens of a telescope, a group of people came into focus. They were sitting around a picnic table while children ran about stabbing sparklers furiously at the night.
The camera zoomed in closer until it rested on a young woman. Her eyes were luminous, bright, alive. She lit a sparkler of her own, waved the fiery stick in the air, eventually drew a gauzy heart around a young man’s handsome face. When the camera caught his unguarded eyes, they were wet with love for the young woman.
She was lovely, people said. Not thin enough to be a movie star, but certainly cute enough to carry a commercial.
He became an instant star. Puppy dog eyes, the magazines cried.
Lela, the young woman, knew even then they were drinking it in too quickly. At her young age it was still difficult to believe in commercial nights and mid-summer breezes that sweetly blew firework smoke away from lakeside tables.
People often stopped her in the street, but never asked about what the commercial was selling. Those eyes, they always said. His eyes. Are they all that? How did it feel to have all that?
The Commercial Aftermath:
Lela wished she could find a TV channel to play a cool breeze so she could drown out the mid-September rerun of the Texas heatwave they were living through. Puppy dog-eyed Will, the young man who’d looked at Lela from inside a fiery commercial heart, had taken a phone call behind closed doors. Lela cranked up the volume on Three’s Company so she wasn’t tempted to eavesdrop. She competed with the laugh track to drown out Will’s closed-door performance. He was working an audience in the other room she knew nothing about.
Right at the commercial, like a perfectly timed performer, Will stood in front of the TV and turned it off. He had an offer.
With the TV off, the room was dark and silent, like the shocking second after a light bulb burns out. Will was trying to be cool, trying not to sparkle. The less she talked, the more he said. After a time, Lela coughed and waved her hand, to stop the smoke from blowing in her face.
The offer meant Will would have to move.
Lela would join him.
That was the extent of the very loose plan.
He packed. He preened.
She fussed. She fought.
His eyes, unguarded, remained guarded.
No one intended to be cruel, but they both were anyway.
Her friends threw Will a goodbye party, but he left town a day early. No one knew what to say, so they ate hamburgers by the lake and pretended this was reason enough to get together in the first place. When Lela’s eyes grew wet, she blamed it on the wind. The sparklers stayed packed in someone’s trunk. Her friends would light them on New Year’s Eve. She would have new friends by then.
There were promises made over the phone. Lela would visit Will in December. He would be back by March. But there was never enough money for flights or drives or dreams. Soon, the phone calls stopped because it became too hard to remember the kind of desperation that led to so many promises.
Then, just like that, it was thirty years later.
So much time gone by, like the blink of an ad.
Thirty years later, a director has a vision for a sitcom. It picks up where Will and Lela’s commercial left off.
The back-story will reveal itself through the theme song. There will be a montage of coffee shop scenes, where Lela meets up with friends who tell her stories of how Will has settled in a city a thousand miles north of the one he left behind. With each sip, she gathers facts about Will: he did not marry, had a wonderful career, no children.
Although the theme song won’t reveal this, Will has heard the same about Lela.
The director is committed to using Freytag’s pyramid to lay out the show. In the pilot, Lela, still not-so-thin and now middle-aged, gardens in her front yard. Her eyes are as bright as ever and she has a certain everywoman quality that resonates on camera. She is likeable and the director is proud he has gone with Lela over Will to welcome in the series. A part of him also believes this will build interest in the show. Everyone will want to see if Will still has those puppy dog eyes.
The director uses Lela’s small southern suburban house in Austin, Texas to film. The inside of her home is surprisingly hip, full of 1950’s coffee shop memorabilia. The camera takes us on a tour of her home office where it pans her bookcases, slowing over the journals where Lela has published many pieces of fiction.
The pilot is all exposition. After the first commercial, the audience rides a Vespa with Lela to a university where she is a professor of writing. At the university, a cast of characters, who are unsurprising and cast to type, are introduced: a fifty-something-year-old department secretary who is hunting for a husband; an older literature professor who carries around an eight-hundred-page historical novel in a violin case, hoping to entice a reader; the young female poet who is new to the campus, but walks into walls, sighs, then grabs a pen and paper to write about the experience. In spite of this cast of clichés, the exposition goes well, and the director is right. #whereiswill trends on Twitter.
The action rises slowly, like dough. Back in Lela’s office, the audience listens as a colleague reads a review of Lela’s recently published nonfiction piece.
“Ready?” the young poet begins. “The move to nonfiction by Lela Gorisch results in a breathtaking memoir. One of the more surprising sections of this already honest work is when Gorisch reveals how she suffered abuse at the hands of her former commercial costar, Will Norther.”
Lela blanches. Though the words in her work are careful and measured, she is an inexperienced baker of that kind of bread and it pains her that the first cut into her slice of life reveals too quickly the incident where Will was abusive. It was just the one time, she is careful to add in her piece, but still, that changed the flavor of everything.
The episode ends with this one piece of nonfiction running into the spotlight to receive applause like an aging movie star making a comeback.
That night, Twitter is ablaze with #WTFwill and #speakwillspeak.
The camera seems to find Lela, as if by accident, sitting in her office at the University. The calendar on her desk reveals an ordinary Wednesday in mid-October. Lela hears a noise outside her door and tilts her head. There is a distinct sound of shoes shuffling.
“Lela,” says a man’s voice from behind the door.
The audience knows. It’s Will.
“Yes,” Lela says.
A shock of silver hair appears like light when an outside door is opened, then quickly shut.
“You had to know I would come,” Will says, standing tall in the doorway. His eyes are as blue as everyone remembers, even cooler beneath the newly silver hair, like an ice cube thrown into the snow.
“No,” Lela says, calmly, looking better than Will in her smart black slacks and sweater. “I never imagined you here.”
The director exhales surprised at his emotional reaction. No one but the director knows, but this is the first time Lela and Will have seen each other in thirty years.
Lela appraises Will, as if he’d been sent for her to put a price on. Then, in spite of the years, and the newly released story, and the lingering hurt, Lela stands and enters his open arms. #NOLELANO and #nohugforwill explode.
Will pulls back, takes Lela by the shoulders, moves her like she is a crooked picture frame.
“We’ve aged well,” he says. And though it is true, it is also true they have both gained weight. Still, they move together like thin people, as if their mirrors at home play only reruns of the commercial they starred in thirty years ago.
“I read your story,” Will says. Lela deftly ducks and moves away from the hands still holding her shoulders.
The episode ends with the action rising. Twitter strikes. #PuppyDogEyes and #IsLelaStillWILLing trend.
There is an odd opening this night where Lela is seen as a young girl, watching the commercial with her friends. On Reddit, the sitcom director is accused of trying too hard to be artsy.
Back in Lela’s office, she is standing by her desk.
“I read your story,” we hear again. Almost like an echo.
“The story I wrote was an exploration of my relationship with my mother,” Lela says. Will looks at Lela like he knows a secret she has long tried to keep. “This story isn’t about you, Will.”
“Listen,” Will says, sitting in the chair next to her desk. “I accept that the story is not about me, but it also very much is. And I’m sad, because to be honest, over the years, whenever I’ve thought about us, it’s a happy memory. I never once imagined I made your life worse.”
Lela will certainly win an award for this role. You can see the pain spread all over her face, like clay drying in the heat. Did Will make her life worse?
Will’s eyes are moist. That plays well with the audience. The director smartly leaves a space in the dialogue like Will is holding out a chair for Lela to sit in. Lela says nothing. It is a truly uncomfortable moment. Reddit forgives the director for the opening montage. This is art.
The screen slowly turns to black with a small click, like in the old days when a television was pushed off with a button. Words from young women are whispered in the dark.
“You shut yourself down for thirty years because of Will, Lela. Because he hurt you. He did hurt you. Remember?”
The lights come up so fast, everyone is startled.
“Remember that necklace you wore?” Will circles his neck, as if Lela might have forgotten where she wore her own necklace. “The one your grandmother gave you? Dio te Protega, it said. I loved how it felt when it touched my bare chest, knowing the other side had been on your bare chest. It felt like a powerful amulet binding us together.”
“I lost it,” Lela tells Will. “Years ago. I’ve looked for one like it ever since.”
“I didn’t know,” he says. His eyes wet. Is he acting? #IsWillActing “I didn’t know I caused so much damage to you.”
“I know you didn’t.”
The episode will end there. The director is astonished because the dialogue was not scripted. #TeamLela and #TeamWill dominate the next few days.
The action is almost risen.
It’s been 3 days.
The director wants tonight to be the start of the climax, but climaxes are not as easy to predict as you’d think.
“Do you really know?” Will begins the show, as if no time has passed since last week. Since thirty years ago. “I remember pushing you hard against the wall outside the restroom. My hands felt so big across your shoulders. Once I had my hands on you, I wanted to smash you into the brick like you were a bug. I wanted you to feel me. I wanted you to say you were sorry for not being happy about my new job. I was angry that you made it hard for me to leave.”
Lela looks at the ground. She is trying not to breathe any louder than she already is, but all you can hear is her breath. It makes the audience stop to take in air.
“It was dark outside,” Will says, like he is talking to someone who has already walked away. “I never saw there was a nail there.”
Will looks at Lela with his cool blue eyes. “You never told me I cut your back.” It seems like he is accusing Lela of something.
“How do you know about my back?”
The director allows Will time to try to read Lela. The audience has to decide if Will’s eyes are icing up or melting down.
“I hope it didn’t leave a scar.”
“You were mad at me that night because after you told all our friends your news, you’d seen my hand on Javi’s knee,” Lela says.
You can see the truth hit Will like a closing door.
“Javi. How did I forget that part?”
Will stands, using the edge of Lela’s desk for help. The acting choice shows he is rattled. “Now that you said the name Javi I remember it all. All these years I just focused on how frustrated I was with you. I did hate the thought of leaving you, but I was mad that you weren’t happy for me. All that is true, Lela.”
“I was sad for us, Will. Sad we were over.”
“I thought you would sleep with Javi the minute I was gone.”
“You were right.”
The Gasp Heard Round the World, Reddit claims.
Lela stands, not rattled, not holding the side of her desk. “Have you come for some sort of absolution?”
Will’s face flushes. His shoulders drop. Something like truth colors his eyes. “I don’t know why I came. I just knew I had to.”
“I’m not mad at you,” Lela says. “You were a good boyfriend in so many ways. We both grew up with violence. It was bound to play out that way with us.” This is not part of the dialogue, and the director is surprised, but it plays so he lets it slide.
A breeze from the open window slams Lela’s office door shut. Will’s body language shows he feels it like a clap from the hand of God.
“I saw the blood on the sheets the next morning,” Will says, too loudly, like a criminal on those detective shows when they finally break. The director and the rest of the crew are riveted. “I saw the scrapes on your back while you were sleeping. I left early because I knew I’d hurt you. I left early so I could get away.”
“That’s why you missed the party.”
“I’ve never been one to face my failures. I guess that’s why I’m here. There’s still time to be a better man.”
Lela looks at him like he is a clock that has stopped working. Is there anything here to save?
Will sways, as if he’d been placed on a tightrope.
Lela has a decision to make: Is it time for Will to pay?
There are many articles in the coming months renaming the sitcom format the thirty-minute realdramcom. The director has smartly chosen to take a break from the show, run the pilot and the first four episodes over and over until the world cries uncle for new shows.
Twitter tweets. Reddit ponders. Lela and Will meet alone, to watch a rerun of the commercial. Lela sees how impossible it all was. Will thinks Lela is beautiful.
They both agree to film a new commercial for much more money than they imagined possible.
In the end, they both grow old without once purchasing the product they’d given so much to sell.
Denise Tolan‘s work has been included in places such as The Best Small Fictions 2018, The Best Short Stories from The Saturday Evening Post, Hobart, Lunch Ticket, and was a finalist for both the 2019 and 2018 International Literary Awards: Penelope Niven Prize in Nonfiction.
Reading this felt like tumbling into fiction/nonfiction/tv/”real” life – form and story beautifully echoing and weaving.
[…] Congratulations to Northwest Vista College English faculty, Denise Tolan, for being named a finalist in the fiction category of Best on the Net for her “Sell You, Sell Me” from Atlas and Alice Literary Magazine. Read the piece here. […]