The Help You Need

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Humor  |  House: Booksie Classic

When a man spots an actor from an exploitative commercial on the street he vows to take justice into his own hands. But soon the tables turn...


I spotted him through the window of the cafe while I was eating lunch with Doug. He was a clean-shaven man in his late twenties, wearing gold wire-rimmed glasses and a white polo shirt that make him look like tennis pro from the 70s, but that wasn't it. I recognized him without being able to place him. The only clue I had to his identity was that the longer I stared at him, the tighter I gripped my fork until I was stabbing at the limp greens of my house salad like I was holding a spear. 


Doug didn't notice my inattention or my assault on my lunch. He was droning about his promotion and his kids as he scrolled through his phone, so I went on staring out the window until recognition hit me like a mule kick.  "I got it!"


"What?" Doug asked.


"That asshole over there. Blue Jacket. Across the Street."  I pointed at his face with my fork. Doug grunted, unimpressed, and returned to his phone.  


"What about him?"


"Well that asshole over there-"


"If you're gonna keep saying that we gotta cut it down, man," Doug said.  "How about Tahoe?"


"Tahoe?"  I asked.


"That Ass Hole Over There," Doug uncurled a finger on his left hand as he said each work then smiled at me. "Tahoe."


"Wouldn't that be Tahot?"  I asked, annoyed.


"I think the silent "t" classes it up." 


"Whatever," I turned back to the window and saw that Tahoe had not moved. I wanted to take a picture and send it as another in a long series of unanswered texts, but even Tahoe didn't seem like enough to revive a conversation that had gone so cold. 


"Where you know him from?"  Doug asked with a mouth full of crab cake.


I turned from the window and sighed, "Let me tell you about this commercial."


 As far as I could tell, the commercial only ran between midnight and 3:00 a.m. during reruns of Cops or Law and Order. I had seen it dozens if not hundreds of times. It began with Tahoe standing before a neutral blue backdrop, he wore thick glasses, a white lab coat, blue scrubs, and had a stethoscope draped around his neck. His face was dappled with three days of stubble, and his hair stuck up in places like he had stumbled out of bed to film the commercial after 72 hours of being on call. 


He looked straight to camera, and said, "Addiction is a disease," with emotion dripping off every syllable.  Then he asked viewers if they or anyone they knew suffered from drug addiction, which had a pretty good chance of getting a positive response given the class of people who watch Cops reruns at 2 a.m. on a weeknight.  Then Tahoe ceded the screen to a stream of young actors who read lines like, "I did heroin",  "I smoked Crack cocaine" and simply  "Oxys for me" with the enthusiasm of POWs being forced to star in propaganda films for their captors. Then Tahoe returned with his arms outstretched as though he could reach through the screen and pull the viewer into a hug. He implored them to call the number at their bottom of their screen to speak with one of his Addiction Buddies before they or their loved ones died. The commercial ended with his desperate plea, "Please call and get the help ya need." 


I finished my reenactment, standing over the table, with my knife above my head and frenzied emotion shaking my voice.  Doug shrugged and shoveled another forkful of crab meat to his mouth.  "Why do you care bro?"


"Well I.. I just - he..."  I stammered, having never put my anger into words. Doug returned to his phone, the other diners picked up their forks, I sat and stewed on the question.  I was not mad about the commercial, bad medical commercials were the lifeblood of late night TV and I had seen thousands of them. What differentiated the Addiction Buddies from the magic bracelets, unregulated supplements, and cure-all powders, was that they had a face and it was right across the street.  That seemed like enough so I shouted, "He's an exploitative dick man!" Forks clattered on plates again and the blanket of low conversation in the restaurant turned to aggravated silence.


"So is everybody." Doug signaled for the check then ogled our waitress's ass as she went to retrieve it. "She's about to hit me up for 20 percent for carrying plates, then my credit card is gonna ding me for 22 percent on top of that. You don't even want to know what I do at work.  You don't have retirement savings, do you?  401k? IRA?"


I shook my head, "Still unemployed."


"Lucky you." The waitress dropped the check and Doug examined it like it was a contract for stock options.  He lived in a world of numbers that I visited infrequently and against my will, like it was a sick aunt.  All I knew was that there existed a number so low that, if it were printed on the bill, Doug would pay the whole check rather than to ask me for money. After a long deliberation, he grumbled and dropped his credit card onto the check. "Everybody's about to get fucked. At least you've got practice being poor."  


We parted on the sidewalk opposite our table. Doug buttoned his suit jacket and stared at the waitress's cleavage through the window as she cleared our plates. I smoothed the wrinkles from my t-shirt and watched Tahoe, dancing in place.


"Why you still staring at that guy bro?"  Doug slapped my shoulder after the waitress had walked away.


"He's the worst. You know?"


 "You gonna do something about it, bro?"  Doug's lips curled and his eyes narrowed. It was a shove. The same shove little boys had been giving each other since they first stepped onto the playground to test their mettle. Doug struck me as the kind of boy who went rushing at every challenge. Whenever I got shoved as a boy, I ran and found a quiet corner to cry in. I tried not to link the playground to our current lives but as I looked from his leather wingtips to my dirty Vans, it was hard not to.


"Maybe," I said.


"What you gonna do bro?" He asked in a low voice. It was a second shove, a call to action, that I for once I felt capable of heeding, so I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, 


"I'm gonna punch that motherfucker in his face!"  The moment I said it my stomach dropped, but before I could take it back Doug cackled and slapped the cafe window with excitement, sealing the bargain.  The newly seated pair at our table, two men with Ken doll haircuts and $500 suits, gasped.


"You do that and lunch is on me forever!"


"You gonna bail me out too, bro?" I asked. 


"Sure." Doug looked down at his watch and frowned.  "Shit I got a meeting or I'd watched you fuck that dude up.  Don't puss out bro."  He punched me in the shoulder for luck then bumped through the crowd, turned a corner, and disappeared.


I waited until I was sure he was gone, then faced north and walked towards my apartment. Unfortunately, Tahoe was headed in the same direction.


A dozen blocks later, I followed him onto a quiet street filled with tax preparers and laundries. I pulled out my phone and texted her. "About to do something crazy. Wish me luck! LOL." Three dots blinked on the right of my screen long enough to foster hope, then they disappeared.  


The only other people on the street stop on the corners, yelling into Bluetooth headsets in crackling foreign tongues. Tahoe was yelling into his phone too, having taken a call as he turned onto the street. 


"Where the fuck you at!?"  He asked as he leaned against the window of a bodega. When the owner banged on the glass and shooed him away he flicked her off. I paused a few feet behind him and watched two children playing with toy cars on the dirty floor of a laundromat. "Seriously?" He shouted,"I been freezing my dick off out here bro and you're bailing!? Shit!" Without warning he sprinted up the street. I ran after him, spurred on by an instinct that had likely save my ancestors from tigers. I was almost near enough to grab him when he jumped in the air and extended one leg like a Kung Fu master in a poorly-dubbed 70s movie. He landed a flying kick against a black lamppost then bounced off and landed on his back in the middle of the sidewalk. When I clomped to a stop behind him, he looked like he was dead.  


I twisted my head like a confused puppy, trying to determine whether he was breathing. When I couldn't tell, I abandoned the exercise and backed away, fearful that I was somehow criminally responsible for his fall.  The crackling conversations on the corners stopped. When I turned, I saw that everyone was staring at me, even the two little boys watched from the entrance of the laundromat. As a 6'2" Samoan, I was used to being stared at but never like this. I was about to run when Tahoe started screaming. 


"My back!" He rolled side to side, then cradled his kicking foot in his hands and howled, "My foot too!" I turned and walked back up the block towards my apartment. I was at the laundromat when he shouted after me.


"What the fuck are you doin' following me Sumo?"


I turned and saw he was hopping after me on one leg,  "I wasn't." 


"Don't bullshit me, Sumo. Your fat ass don't exactly blend in."


Shock had made me miss his insult the first time but the second time it stuck. He settled a few feet away from me and I pulled my fist back the way an archer pulls back a bow. Before I could bring it forward he dropped to his knees and cried, " Don't hit me bro!" with his hands clasped above his head.  My arm trembled with kinetic energy as I looked from the man at my feet to the boys in the laundromat doorway.


In my moment of inattention, Tahoe started shouting, "Help! Rape! Fire! RAPE FIRE!"  I spun and saw the people on the corners were taking timid steps towards us. When I looked down again, Tahoe had his phone's pointed at my face. I heard a camera snap. "I got you bitch!"


"Sorry," I flattened my fist, did a heel turn, and strode away. 


"9-1 Sumo!" I turned and saw his index finger was hovering above his phone's face.  "You want me to dial the last number?"  I panicked and prepared to run but he saw. "You too fat to run Sumo. What's this about anyway? If I fucked your girl I'm sorry man but that's on her too. "


"Forget it."  I took another step towards home. 


"I'm not forgetting shit."  He hopped to my side on one leg and shook his phone just out of my reach. "You talk to me or the cops. Your choice."


I sighed, "You're in that commercial."  


"Oh," he stretched the word out like it was taffy. "So you're one of them." Them. I'd always thought I was unique. The knowledge that I was a member of a shadow fraternity which had silently united against this man hit me like a sledgehammer. It made me want to hit him more. 


"I guess? Sorry." I hazarded another step up the block.


"Don't you fuckin' walk away from me!  I own you."


"I said I was sorry!" I felt tears welling in my eyes and instinctively looked for a place to hide but found none. 


"You still owe me. Lucky for you my friend just flaked. So you can either roll with me on some errands or we go to the cops.  It's up to you Sumo." I considered his proposition as he tapped his brown loafer on the street.  When I took too long to answer he offered me his own version of a shove, "You're looking at assault, emotional distress.  Probably some sex stuff."


"Sex stuff!?" 


"Who's to say where you touched me bro?" He beamed at me with a mouth full of veneers. "What's it gonna be?"  


I followed him through H&M as he draped shirts over my forearms while mumbling to himself about "Looking fly".  When I was holding nearly every top from the fall collection, he dragged me to the fitting rooms. The attendant, a girl in her late teens with a brown bob and a black sweater, told him that I had to wait outside because only five garments were allowed in the booth at a time. He pointed at me and said,  "That's my bodyguard darlin'. I'm an actor. Don't worry about us."  


"Limit is still five." She drummed on the counter with her sharp black fingernails. 


"I bet not for Ryan Gosling."  He snatched a stack of shirts from my arm and hissed,  "Don't even think about going anywhere Sumo." Then stomped into the fitting rooms. The attendant glared at him through me until she was satisfied, then pulled out her phone and ignored us both. 


Tahoe emerged a few minutes later, dropped his five rejected shirts on the floor in front of the attendant's counter, grabbed five more shirts off my arm, then headed back to the fitting rooms. I pulled out my phone snapped a picture of my arms and texted it to her with the caption, "A little light shopping :)".  There were black dots this time.  After seven more trips, my arms were empty and there was a knee-high pile of cast-off garments on the floor. After dropping the last reject onto the pile, Tahoe leaned over the counter and smiled at the attendant.


"What are you doing later honey?  I got an audition but afterward we could..." he raised his eyebrows and growled like a panther. "Lemme have those digits."  The look she gave him could have smelted iron. I wished she would punch him for the both of us but she returned to her phone without giving him another thought.


"Your loss."  He swatted at the air between them, then dragged me out of the store.


We went to two more stores where he tried on two more armloads of shirts, hit on two more disinterested fitting room attendants, and left empty-handed. He bought a hot dog from an Indian street vendor he called "Buddha" outside of the last shop.  I watched him eat while my stomach growled and I wished I had ordered more than a salad with Doug.  "Shopping sucks man.  Clothes suck.  Bitches suck but," Tahoe took a bite and his speech became garbled as he chewed down the bun, "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."  


"We're even," I said.


"No motherfucker,"  he balled the hot dog wrapper and threw it at me. It bounced off my chest and rolled into the gutter. "Not even close bro."  I clenched my fist and closed the distance between us but he did not flinch when I pulled my arm back this time. He smiled at me with mustard smeared across his cheek, "You don't have the balls bitch."  


"Fuck you." I turned, knowing he was right, "I don't care if you call the cops. I'm done."


"Cops?"  He doubled with laughter. When he rose, his glasses had slid to the end of his nose and he was wiping tears from his eyes. "I can't believe you fell for that. I got priors bro. I was just fuckin' with you."


"O...K," I said. There was an ocean between the letters.  


"Look, I like you kid," he placed a hand on my shoulder. "I got an hour until this audition. Let me buy you a drink to show there's no hard feelings."


"Fine," I sighed, "But only one." 


"You know I ad lib most of my lines," he said as we entered the dim bar, as though we had been in the middle of a conversation about stagecraft on the street, and not walking in silence. As my eyes adjusted to the light I saw his ruse was wasted on the two other people in the bar, a fat man with a  grey beard who looked like a dirty mall Santa and a middle-aged female bartender wearing a faded pink tank top and a scowl.  


"Interesting," I scratched my chin and followed him to a pair of rickety barstools furthest from the entrance.


"What can I get you?"  The bartender yelled at us without moving from her spot by the door.


"What have you got?"  I asked, giddy at the prospect of getting both a free meal and a free drink in the same afternoon.


"Got Pabst and Jack. You want anything else, you can get the fuck out."  


"You see why I like this place Sumo? It's so authentic. That's what being an actor is all about. Real fuckin' life!"  He slapped the bar which I noticed was just a 2x4 balanced on saw horses with a black sheet draped over it. 


"Is this even legal?"  I asked and the air ran out of the room.  Santa looked like he would kill me if he could only will himself off his stool.  The bartender twisted the point of a paring knife into her thumb and walked towards us. 


"So what if it's not?" She smiled, revealing a set of brown tobacco-stained teeth.


"Calm down beautiful." Tahoe said, "The boy is cool, just not as cool as us. Two whiskeys and two beers please."


She stabbed the knife into the bar inches from my hand, then dropped below the sheet and banged bottled around.  After a lot of swearing, she came up holding two PBRs and a dusty bottle of Jack.  She poured our shots into miniature red solo cups then demanded fourteen dollars through her first and only smile.


Tahoe opened his own can and said, "Pay the lady,"


"You said-"


"-I said I'd buy you a drink.  Not the first one.  Don't be cheap."  I wanted to argue but the bartender had pulled her paring knife out of the wood and was pointing the tip at me, so I fished my wallet from my jeans and piled crumpled bills and change on the bar until she looked like she did not want to stab me anymore.  She scooped the money into her pocket and walked down the bar to resume her conversation with Santa.


I took a picture of my drinks and typed, "5 o'clock somewhere". Then I added the emoji of a face that's crying and laughing at the same time and hit send. No dots appeared. I shot the whiskey back. It tasted like it had been cut with turpentine.


"Who you textin' Sumo?"


"No one," I shoved my phone back in my pocket and drank the beer which was warm but tasted like it should.


"Bitches ain't shit man. Watch this."  He leaned over the bar and hollered, "How's a beautiful lady like you end up in a place like this?"


The bartender rolled her eyes, "A long string of bad decisions. Same way you did."  


"You ever wanna make another one."  Tahoe mimed humping the bar.  She sniggered, then turned away.  "See? They're everywhere. No point getting broken up about any one of 'em."  He pulled a square of paper from his back pocket and unfolded it on the bar. He started mouthing the words on it the way Doug mouthed numbers on a check.  Once he had finished the page he said, "I'm 'bout to go legit Sumo."


"What's legit?"  The words felt strange in my mouth. The turpentine whiskey was already catching up with me.


He shoved the paper under my nose. It was the script for a commercial involving a company called Bear Roofing.  Tahoe explained he was reading for the part of Homeowner 1 - a male in his 30s who was described in the casting call as "not too attractive". 


"That's why I was looking for a new shirt, but they all looked too damned good on me!" He followed my eyes as I read the script.  The plot of the commercial was that Homeowner 1's roof had caved in and he had no clue what to do about it until Homeowner 2 - 20s pretty female, told him about Bear Roofing and saved the day. The commercial ended with both homeowners standing atop his new roof and celebrating by singing the company's jingle,"Ducks go quack quack dog go ruff ruff but if you want a roof roof you better talk to Bear!"  


When I finished reading he took his script back and repeated the same line, changing his tone and emphasis with each pass, "Whatever am I going to do?" "Whatever am I Whatever am I going to do?" I finished my beer and wanted a second but had no more money, so I was reliant on Tahoe to buy me one.  Reading lines had slowed his drinking pace so I snatched the script back and said,


"Let's read together."


"I don't know. I'm a pretty intense actor and I improvise a lot. You gonna be able to keep up?"


"I'll do my best." He waved the bartender over for another round. I waited until he paid, then I read, "Your roof caved in!"


"Whatever am I going to do..."


Between shot of poison whiskey and reading lines until words were sounds with no meaning, I lost track of time. Tahoe did too, because when he finally checked his phone he screamed, "Shit!" and dragged me out of the bar by my wrist. 


We found a cab and headed uptown while Tahoe hyperventilated and I laughed at trees that seemed to have rainbows for leaves. When the cab stopped we poured out it, dragging our shadows behind us and we stumbled towards a squat brick building that the casting notice had led us to. We fell through the double doors and leaned together for balance as our footsteps ran ahead of us to the back of the room where a woman with grey dreadlocks sat behind a pressboard table braiding the hair of a young girl in her lap.  She did not wait for us to speak before pointing down the hallway to her left.  I laughed because alcohol had made everything funny and followed her finger to a door at the end of the hall with a paper sign that read, "Auditions", taped to its face.


As I was pushing through the door Tahoe pulled me back into the hallway.  "Wait!" His eyes were liquid and he could not stand up straight. "Are we ready?"  


"Of course."  I smiled. "We are gonna sell the shit out of some ruffs!"  I placed a firm hand on his shoulder and squeezed.  His expression soured.


"Oh Sumo you didn't..." he tried to stifle a laugh but it escaped anyway. "There's no we. I'm goddamn famous," he shouldered past me and shoved the door so hard it smashed into the wall of the next room.  I followed him into a rectangular waiting area. A woman wearing a black dress with shoulder-length grey hair, sat behind a desk guarding another set of double doors along the back wall. The sides of the room were lined with chairs full of men who looked vaguely like Tahoe, as if he had modeled for an art class and each one of the students' drawings had been made flesh and blood. They all eyed him suspiciously as he stumbled through the center of the room.


"You fucks!"  He punched the air in front of him and the force nearly knocked him over. "I'm booking this one too!  It's all Andy, all the time! You hear me!?"


The other Tahoe's rolled their eyes, then resumed reading their lines. He fell into an empty chair. I dawdled by the door until the woman in black waved me over.


"You keep him quiet," she whispered when I reached her desk, "We don't want another incident."


"Incident?"  I asked, but she had already relegated me to a class of people she did not speak to unless it was absolutely necessary. She called a name, then walked around me like I was furniture to usher one of Tahoe's doppelgängers into the audition room.


Tahoe was snoring with the script on his lap when I returned to him. I kicked his chair and he woke with a start, "Is it my turn?"


"Not yet." 


"Good." He yawned, "You know once I book this I might need an assistant." 


"Read your lines," I grunted and pulled out my phone. Doug had texted me, "What's goin' on bro?"  I ignored it and took a picture of the room.  I added the caption, "I'm acting now, LOL" then hit send.  The grey dots appeared again and my heart raced. This time they did not disappear. My hand shook as I waited for the message.


"What'd I tell you about bitches Sumo?" Tahoe laughed and pawed at my phone


"Shut up." I snapped.


"Don't you get an attitude with me Sumo!"  He stabbed me in the chest with his rolled up script.


"Don't you fuckin'," I felt rage build in me and I wanted to hit him again. But I didn't ball my fist, I ran like I always did. I burst through the door with him screaming behind me, turned past the woman braiding hair, and raced towards freedom with my footsteps echoing around me. By the time I felt the sunshine on my face, I had almost forgotten him.


I was sitting on a park bench outside when the message finally came. It was only two words, "Please Stop." Before the pain set in, a second set of dots appeared followed by a second message. "Nevermind, I'm blocking you." 


I squeezed the phone so hard that the screen bled like rainbow leaves. I wanted to smash the phone or kill myself but I was just a little too sober to do either on a whim. So I stood and stared at the sun, hoping to go blind on the cheap.  I was well on my way when I heard doors bang open behind me and Tahoe screamed, "That's not enough!"


"I assure you it is," replied a man with an oaken tone. I saw the woman who had been braiding hair shoving Tahoe onto the sidewalk with his arm twisted behind his back. An old man in a tailored black suit was walking behind her followed by a half dozen of Tahoe's doppelgängers.  


"I'm on TV!"  He screamed as he struggled to get free.  As he searched for an escape he must have seen me on the bench. "Sumo!" He shrieked, "He knows me! Tell 'em where I'm from!" 


"You want him? Cause if not I'm calling the police."  The woman with dreadlocks asked from a sunspot where her face should have been.


I lumbered over to them. Tahoe laughed, "You get me out of this and we're even, I promise." 


I swung my fist without hesitation this time. I didn't see where it landed but I felt it connect. Then there was a lot of screaming so I ran. When I could no longer hear the shouting, we were both free.


At 2:45 am that night I was watching Cops with in bed with an icepack on my swollen knuckles.  During the commercials, I fantasized about the crab cake platter I was going to order at lunch with Doug that afternoon. Even though I had been waiting for it, I still jumped when I heard Tahoe say, "Addiction is a disease."


I leaned forward when he reached out his arms, wishing that he could reach through the screen and hug me. I listened to him talk about drug addiction as a pit no one could climb out of. I watched children do disinterested kabuki introductions of drugs, and I read the number at the bottom of the screen. I was shaking when he said the final line,"Please call and get the help ya need."  I turned off the TV and wished it was that easy.


Submitted: January 29, 2019

© Copyright 2020 Ben Stearns. All rights reserved.

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