I guess I should start by telling you how I found out I got cast. It came by fortune cookie.
You see, my parents kicked me out this morning so I’m going taxidermal on myself in a pile of shrimp chow mein over at the China Garden in the mall food court. After I’m about fit to be mounted, I push the plate from my sight and snatch up the cookie, crack it open and read:
YOU’RE A STAR. SHINE YOUR LIGHT FOR ALL TO SEE.
And I’m like—Sorry, wrong number. But then I notice the 4-letter signature at the end. It doesn’t look Chinese at all. More like calligraphy versions of the American letters H-O-S-T. I get this shiver.
I reach for the second cookie (they always give you two) and like pulling a pin from a grenade, I pry it apart to see:
THE GAME IS ON. PLAY YOUR HEART OUT.
And I’m like—Oh. My. God.
I start shaking all over and flapping my wrists like some tweaked out bird and I’m on my feet looking all around and I don’t even remember standing. So I sit back down and I’m like—Get a grip, Melanie. I mean, it was only a matter of time.
I’ve lost count of how many audition videos I sent out. I do two rounds a year, for Spring and Winter seasons. Sometimes an extra one for Summer shows, if they sound any good. Of course, I cater each video to the specific show but the gist is…
“Hi, I’m Melanie Grumm. I’m 26 years-old and I live at home with my parents and brat sister in Sarasota, Florida. I don’t have a career or job or hobbies or any of that. I did take one semester at junior college, but dropped out when I realized it’s not worth drowning in debt over if you don’t even know what you want to do when you graduate. I spend most of my time at home listening to music, catching up with my shows, and watching my brat sister outshine me in all possible ways. Or I go hang out at the mall.
“I’m not an exciting person. I don’t live an exciting life. But that’s exactly why you should put me on your show. Everyone on these things is either pretty or smart or athletic or interesting. I’m none of those. I’m the one thing you never see on reality TV. Someone just like the viewers at home. I’m Jane Average. I think it’s important people see they’re not alone.”
I guess some producer bought it. I just wish I knew which one. This opening sure isn’t like any I’ve seen, and I’ve seen them all. But they’re always trying new twists each season, so it could be any of them. I guess if they wanted me to know which show this is, someone would have come out and told me. Instead I get this fortune cookie…sorry, two cookies. Which makes me think this is a new show and I have to figure out the rules as I go. That’s the game.
Which means, I could be losing valuable time. So now I start looking around for anything fishy. I’m careful not to notice the cameras, you don’t want to look into them except in the confessionals or they won’t use your footage. But you can’t not look at them either, once you know where they are. It’s human nature. So my plan is to never know where they are in the first place. What I’m checking out is the people, to see if anyone else here is in on it. But they all seem to be doing their own thing.
So I decide it’s got to be in the clues. I smooth them out on the table and read them over and over til everything’s blurry, looking for codes, keywords. Nothing. Eventually I flip the stupid things over so I don’t have to look at them anymore, and that’s when I see—Duh—there’s numbers on the back!
Lucky numbers, you know? That’s got to be it! So now I reread them until I’m crosseyed and then I scour all the menu boards, figuring they must have something to do with it. But that only makes me dizzier. So I turn back to the seating area, and this time I see them right away. Fliers. Standard 4×6 cardstock, red. One on every table, including where I had just been stuffing my face. Funny how sometimes you can’t see what’s right in front of you until you’re looking for it.
Karaoke Contest, Ruby Tuesday, Sarasota Square Mall,
Tonight, Entry Free for Contestants.
Contestants, that’s me! I can’t wait to meet the others.
To make sure this really is the first challenge, I compare the lucky numbers to the flier, and sure enough—the phone number, address, store number, entry fee, time. I mean, the digits are all rearranged, but they’re all there.
The only thing left is to find the confessional and report in. Turns out that’s the easy part. I mean, of course they’d make it look like a photo booth.
I’m so embarrassed.
It didn’t occur to me I was actually going to have to sing at this thing. No one wants that. When I sing in the shower, the water runs back up the pipes. But I can’t back out. So I decide my strategy will be to just have fun with it. It sounds obvious but you’d be surprised how many people stiffen up in front of a crowd.
I pick “Take A Chance On Me” from Mamma Mia—I love that movie! I think it’s amazing how they got the songwriters to come up with the perfect words and music for the story. I hope they write a sequel. Anyway, so I’m strutting around the stage like — Who’s your daddy? I think most of it goes over their heads. I don’t win, but I’m not the worst either. That’s some round kid in Spandex who gets so into “Don’t Cry Out Loud” that by the end he’s crying so loud he can’t finish. He looks like one of those silver party balloons leaking its helium. I feel so bad.
Josie Takami wins (first reward is dinner for 4 on Ruby) and she totally deserves it. She owns the stage with luscious Jason Mraz’s “The Remedy” getting the whole crowd singing along and bunny-hopping so the bar racks are all shaking like they’re gonna pop. Josie’s Japanese, like from the real Japan, not Japantown or anything like that. She says she’s been doing Karaoke since she was 3. I didn’t even know Japan had Karaoke.
I go to sleep with Josie’s song in my head —Ahhhhhhhyyyy won’t worry my life awayyyy. Hey hey! Woa woa woa. I don’t even realize I’m humming aloud til my sister bangs on the wall.
Yeah, I should explain.
When I told you my parents kicked me out, what I meant was they said I can still sleep there and eat breakfast and dinner there, but from 8 to 6, I’m banished to find a job and my own place. I didn’t mean to make them sound so evil. I mean, I get it. They only want me to get my act together. I just couldn’t begin to tell you what that is…if not this. Good thing they expect me to be at the mall right now.
“Can you keep a secret?”
Here it is, Day 2, and already I’m about to break the Cardinal Rule of Reality TV. I can’t help it. It’s Gus. I just hope I don’t get kicked off for it.
Gus is basically my best friend by default. I’m not being mean, he’d put it the same way. You see, all my friends went off to college or got jobs and popped out babies, while Gus moved here from Miami a year ago to be with his lover Hey-Zeus (that’s Jesus in Spanish) and he works all the time at the American Eagle at the mall so he doesn’t have a life either. He and Hey-Zeus broke up three months ago, which has only made him more of a shut-in. Gus is short for Gustavo.
Right now he leans against a lamppost by his store’s entrance, gripping a lit Benson & Hedges 100 menthol between two brassy fingers and pursing his lips at me—his way of showing me he’s offended I would even question his loyalty. I want to tell him that pout is redundant when your mouth already looks like a change purse, but there’s more important things on my mind like, “I got picked.”
“What do you think?”
“Really? Ohmigod, hon. You’re gonna be famous!” Gus is built like he’s got a body-pillow stitched down the front of his shirt, so he’s a terrific hugger. “When did they call you?”
“Then what? Get talking, girl. My heart can’t take the suspense.”
So I tell him.
His face goes blank. He sticks his cig between his perma-pout, takes a long drag. Blows it all out. “Should I be worried?”
“I think I’ve got a good shot.”
He jabs his unfinished butt into the ash-can. “So I should be worried.”
He grabs my shoulders. “Earth to Mel! You can’t be serious.”
“Why not? I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”
“I know, hon.” He tilts his head and seeks my eyes. (Like I’m not already looking at him?) “But it’s not real.”
I break away and back up. “How do you know?”
“Because that’s not how they do it.”
“Oh? When did you become the reality TV expert?”
“OK, where are the cameras?”
“They’re everywhere! Up in the corners, one’s right there.” I point, without looking.
“Those are security cameras.”
“Yeah, cool effect, don’t you think?”
He heaves a sigh like letting air out from a tire—short, fast and taking two inches off his height. Then he pulls out another cig and shoves it in his mouth so hard, I think it’s gonna break. He lifts his lighter—one of those see-through, extra-long kind, in royal blue—and starts fumbling with it. Like those fingers that fold two hundred shirts a day suddenly can’t remember how to flick a Bic. Poor guy, he must be tired. I help.
He blows his plume out the side of his mouth. It makes him look like he’s smirking.
“You’re gonna be late,” I say.
But that doesn’t faze him. He spends the next 10 minutes trying to convince me I’m making the whole game up. I shoot holes in every argument til he’s down to smoking filter, and he goes, “Have you spoken about this with any of these other…contestants?” (He says it like they’re my imaginary friends.)
“Some of them.”
He tosses his butt to the curb, as though the ash-can suddenly didn’t exist, and goes, “What have they said?” He does sound tired. I bet it’s working all those doubles.
“You know people will say anything to win.”
He sighs again and looks at his watch. “OK, look. Don’t tell anybody else about this.”
“I’m serious. Promise me.”
At least now I understand today’s clue:
SUCCESS IS KNOWING ALLIES FROM ADVERSARIES.
One bananaberry smoothie later, followed by 20 minutes under Fye headphones, I realize the clue has nothing to do with Gus. I mean, that would be ridiculous. These shows are always splitting players into teams at the start. So the clue must mean today’s challenge is to find my team.
I spend the rest of the day working this out and I think I’ve got it. The 16 singers last night are the cast, that’s obvious. Today I discover all of us are mall people—8 work here, at one of the stores or for the mall itself, and 6 plus me are regulars. The 16th, the meepy round kid, was nowhere to be found. Obviously the first eliminated. (Thank God it wasn’t me. That’s the worst!)
So there we have it. Employed versus Un. I’m just glad it’s not boys against girls. That’s so played.
I’m OK! That settled—Owie! Owie! Owie!
As you all got to witness last challenge, I took a beach volleyball to the cranium. Never thought I’d be the one pulled from the game by an emergency.
So I’m on my back seeing stars and feeling a little drunk, getting loaded onto a gurney and trucked to the E.R.. I’m told the guy who pelts me, Zack (from my own team, no less) takes the ride with me, though all I remember is hearing muddled voices repeating—Who was that girl anyway? I thought she was with you. At the hospital, he brings me tulips, peanut clusters, a Beanie Bear and a crazy-intense apology (which how can I not accept?) and then waits outside while they check if I have a concussion, which it turns out I don’t, thank God. Of course this doesn’t stop Mom and Dad from having a conniption when they see my black eye.
They want me in therapy so bad they’re trying anything short of bribing me. It’s ’cause they know they can’t force me. What are they gonna do? Throw me out? I bet they regret playing that card so soon.
But if I think Mom and Dad are bad, wait til I get a load of the Cuban missile crisis I provoke when Gus sees my eye. He threatens to tell my parents about what he’s now taken to calling my “little fantasy.” I want to tell him he’s bluffing (which he is) but he would take that as a dare. So instead I tell him I’ll stop.
Later I try to get Naomi Fincher to form an alliance with me, pointing out that I pose no threat to her. She’s not a very nice person, you know. She acts like she doesn’t even know what I’m talking about. She thinks she’s such hot you-know-what. Well, I’ll tell you one thing. That Atlanta accent is fake. I happen to know for a fact she grew up in Daytona Beach.
For the latest task, we have to model for this fashion and beauty show put together by a few of the mall shops. Ann Taylor does the girl’s clothes. Brooks Brothers, the boys. Traxx, the hair and makeup for both. The theme is Everyday Chic and the concept—that any Jane or Joe Schmo can look like a supermodel with no more than a beauty treatment and the right wardrobe. That’s why we make such perfect models. No one gives any of us a second glance…except for Princess Naomi, of course, who people can’t stop gawking at. I wouldn’t want that.
Anyway, the winning models of each sex and their teams of consultants win a day at the spa that’s next to Macy’s.
For my makeover, they pair me with Chantal. At first I’m bummed because, after all, she was from the other team. Even if we have merged, loyalties run deep in these things. Grudges too. Remember, Chantal was the one who tried to run me down in that mad obstacle course race in the parking lot.
But as of now, that’s all in the past, because Chantal has turned out to be the sweetest person I have ever met. And talented?! Oh my God, when she’s done with me, I don’t even recognize myself. She even covers up my shiner with this sparkly, deep purple eyeshadow. For the first time ever, I look like a real woman. I didn’t know that was possible.
I wish she had been on our team from the start. I’m going over to her house on one of her days off after shooting is over and she said she’ll teach me how to put all this stuff on myself. I can’t wait.
But the best part of the day, and the biggest shocker, is the guys. It’s like they all took insta-hunk pills for lunch. Especially Zack. Where has he been hiding that guy? All of a sudden, he’s Orlando Bloom in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Your Royal High-and-Mightyness wins (big surprise) but if I get booted off this round, it won’t be so bad, ’cause at least I had this experience. I always thought that was such a line when people said that, almost always right after getting voted off.
But now I know.
They took my car! Can you believe it? I rode the bus here today. I haven’t done that since junior high. I guess Mom and Dad had another Ace up their sleeve after all. It’s cause my brat sister ratted me out. I ran into her in the elevator yesterday holding some guy’s hand after the fashion show. She says she saw the whole thing. I’m like, “So?” Apparently she’s got a boyfriend now. And what’s worse, he seems like a really great guy (for a 13-year-old.) What am I saying?!
Well, she can have the rusty old go-cart, for all I care. ‘Cause I know that’s what’ll happen. Mom and Dad’ll just store it in the garage for 3 years until the Golden Child gets her permit. It’s sick, really. My parents think she’s the best thing to come along since the Keurig (never mind I’m pretty sure she came first.) They don’t see her for the mutant, savant…alien she is (And I mean E.T. alien, not the border-crossing kind.) I think it’s mind control. She’s half my age, if that gives you any indication where their heads were at when they had her. I guess they held out as long as they could to see if their first born would amount to anything before taking one last desperate stab. Kudos for them. Looks like the second time was the charm.
Anyway, today’s lucky numbers refer to the vacant storefronts on the mall directory. This is our biggest challenge yet, finding businesses to breathe new life into these shells. I don’t know the first thing about commercial real estate, but I’m not about to lay down now.
What I do is call up all my favorite stores (the one’s that aren’t already here, of course) and tell them how much my friends and I love their stuff and how we’d shop there all the time if they were only at our mall. They don’t need to know my friends don’t live here anymore or that I have no money. The rest is totally true. I end every call with, “Tell them Melanie sent you.”
When my battery dies, I use the mall phone in the customer service lounge. Once they hear what I’m up to, they let me stay on as long as I want.
Well, not to be anticlimactic but as I predict, Bryson wins. I hear it’s a cash reward too (though he insists its just a “commission.”) Personally, I think a rental agent should be disqualified from this type of challenge.
But what I’m really upset about is Josie is the one eliminated this round. They say her, “student visa expired.” That’s creative. I wonder how they’ll put it when my turn comes—”Paying customers only?”
Josie and I had so much fun with that quiz challenge the other day. I like how they called it a “consumer survey.” We took it together so we could compare answers. And it worked! Neither of us flunked.
I was hoping to take Josie with me to the finale. I should know better. You can’t plan your life around other people.
Yesterday cheered me up a little. Nothing like someone trying you bring you down to force you to pull yourself back up. That Naomi, she’s such a…oh I’ll say it—Bitch! (I know, you’ll have to edit that out, but it felt good just to get it on record.) You know what she says to me? “I don’t even believe there is a game. I think you’re nuts. I’ve just been playing along ’cause I think it’s funny.”
Well, I’ll show her funny. I’m gonna win this task. Then I’m gonna make sure she’s the next one kicked off.
The clue says:
IF YOU NEVER STAND FOR SOMETHING,
YOU CONSENT TO LOSING IT ALL.
But the “IT” is smudged so it looks like “CONSENT TO LOSING MALL” and I’m like—Did they do that on purpose? Then I have an instant panic attack, ’cause I’m thinking—Lose the mall?! I knew things were sluggish from the economy and all but I had no idea they were thinking of selling out. Sure enough, Lancaster, the mall cop, tells me the owners are considering an offer from investors who want to build an office building here. A volunteer group is collecting signatures to present to the mall’s Board of Directors to convince them not to sell. So I’m like, “Where do I sign up?”
He takes me to this place in the mall I never knew existed. (Me! I know, right?) It’s called the…Con-see-urge Desk. (It’ll take me a while to get that right.) I guess they’re like Mall Hosts…or Hostesses in this case. Her name is Pam, according to her name tag, which also tells me she’s Head of the Concii…yeah.
That’s got to be the funnest job in the world—Mall Hostess. It’s the first one I’ve heard of that sounds made for me.
Pam hands me a clipboard of petitions with a pen on a string tied to it. “There’s no pay for this,” she reminds me. But I tell her with a wink, “That’s okay. Sometimes winning a challenge is its own reward.”
Well I’ll tell you, I have never talked to so many people in one day in my life and every single one signed my petition, without fail. I’m sure I won this task. Take that, Naomi Fincher.
Save the mall!
I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m the last one left from my original team and it’s not at all like it should be. I thought it would feel…I don’t know. Triumphant, you know?
Zack got hired at Guitar Center in town. I know I should be happy for him, but it means he has to quit the game. We get a day off from challenges thanks to him. But I’d rather the challenge. To top it off, that means Naomi’s still in.
Then Gus has to get in my face with his friend the personal trainer who’s Chinese and swears up and down the Host’s signature on my clues really means “Seven Flower Snack Foods.”
And now I got this couple of gorillas in heat outside, pounding on the booth and shouting that I didn’t put any money in so I should either get on with it or get out.
I really wish the producers would step in and handle this.
Well, it’s down to the Final 3 and somehow I’m still here. One more elimination til the final round, and I won’t lie, I’m nervous now. There’s me and Lancaster and Naomi. Bryson went home in the last challenge and he’s the only one I’m sure I could have beat. Even after winning that real estate task, he still never did take this game seriously. I’m surprised he lasted this long.
I don’t want to have to face Naomi in the finale. She’s so conniving she’ll do whatever it takes to make me look bad. She doesn’t care about winning so much as about other people losing. But Lancaster’s just as tough in a different way. He knows everybody and they all adore him. So if it’s the two of us facing the jury, I don’t stand a chance either.
PURSUE A DESTINY THAT HELPS REALIZE ANOTHER’S
AND YOU HELP REALIZE YOUR OWN.
Choose my own task? That’s a neat twist.
It’s makes sense. Tough choices are always part of the final stages of these things. Now that it’s down to the last few standing, they want you to show them what you’re made of.
So now I’ve just got to find someone with a dream and help them make it come true. How hard can that be?
Lancaster got fired this morning, which I’m pretty sure means he’s out of the game too. So it’s down to me and Naomi, after all—the Final 2. I feel bad for Lancaster, but I’m not worried about him. After this airs, companies will be lining up to hire him.
As for yesterday’s challenge, I decide the best task I can give myself to fit the clue would be to get Gus and Hey-Zeus back together. I was there when it fell apart, so I know their breakup was stupid and they both regret it. I mean, you should have seen them. You’d have said they were made for each other.
So, I arranged an intimate evening for 3 that stretched into an all-nighter full of laughter and tears. And when it was over? Well, I can’t get into all the gory details ’cause it’s not my business to tell. But let’s just say it doesn’t always take Dr. Phil to save the world.
THE STEPS OF YOUR JOURNEY DESCRIBE THE DESTINATION
A lot of people come to Sarasota for the beach. But when you grow up here, unless you get into surfing or whatever, you grow bored of it pretty fast. I prefer the mall, where there’s air-conditioning, clean bathrooms, a 20-theater googleplex and whatever food you could possibly want to eat. And did I mention clean bathrooms? I tell you all this because the final clue is a trick clue that takes me to the one place I least want to be.
The clue is clear. I have to compile all the clues from all the previous challenges and arrange them into one big treasure map that will lead to some object, like a totem or flag. The first person to find it wins.
Naomi’s out there on the opposite end of the shoreline, sunning herself. It’s her way of shoving it in my face that she doesn’t think I stand a chance. I tune her out, focusing only on digging with my plastic shovel from the Dollar Store. Occasionally I check my map again (if you can call my chicken scratch on the back of a lunch tray liner that) stand up, retrace some steps, then plop down in a different spot close by and resume digging.
All day I’m doing this in the broiling heat, digging holes like some OCD toddler. I’m at it til my cuticles are raw, my shorts are a permanent tattoo on my rear, I’ve got tears caked onto my cheeks in gritty clusters, Coppertone and charcoal smells coat my nasal passages and everything aches. And still I’m like, “It’s got to be here! I know it!” Babbling and bawling on national TV. “It can’t be all in my head! It’s real! It’s got to be!” Everyone walking by gives me the same pitying turn of the head.
At some point, the late afternoon coolness washes the beach clear and I realize that soon it’ll start getting dark fast. I see Naomi leaving empty-handed and I don’t want to think about what that might mean. Then Gus, just off work, comes down to check on his looney-toons best-friend-by-default. He’s like, “OK Melanie, it’s time to stop this. Let’s go back to the mall, get you cleaned up, and I’ll treat you to a smoothie.”
“I don’t want a smoothie! And if you don’t support me, then I don’t want you here either.” I figure that’s bound to make him leave me there like a bad date, but next thing I know he crouches onto his hands and knees, all grunting and joints popping. And would you believe, he starts digging there beside me?
I stop what I’m doing and look at him. Just…look. I prop myself on my knees, arms limp at my sides, and watch as he sifts through heaps of sand, only to see them to slide back into place and fill back up the dents he just made.
“Stop it,” I say, barely a whimper at this point. But he keeps at it, sweeping up wave after wave of sand. It’s flying in his face and he winces and gags as it gets in his eyes and mouth. But the stubborn you-know-what keeps at it. And again, I’m like, “Stop it,” but louder now.
And he goes, “No, we’ll find it.” And I realize he’s serious. And suddenly I get really concerned.
I reach out and put my hands on his and hold them as still as I can, ’cause I’m trembling. “It’s over,” I say, “There’s nothing to find.”
He meets my eyes, his brassy scoops still half-buried in sand, and says, “You sure?”
“It was fun while it lasted,” I say, forcing a giggle.
He drops back onto his rear and looks at me, or into me, really. He’s not ready to feel relieved yet; he won’t let himself til he makes sure I’m not playing him…again. I don’t blame him. Let him look, he’ll see.
I notice my reflection in his pupils, itty-bitty in an open sea. And I watch the waves roll in and out, through his eyes, as I let the dread pass of crumbling like a sand castle beneath their battering ram. To my back, the moon shines a rippling stripe on the heaving water’s black surface, the spine of a person praying. And after I’m not sure how long, I’m like, “What happens now?”
Back at the mall I slink inside the restroom by the carnival rides to rinse off as much of my humiliation as I can. I step out into an ambush.
Standing there in front of the carousel, a backdrop of wild-maned horses in golden saddles galloping frivolously by, is this mass of people, and not just any people—Chantal, Lancaster, all the ones I’d made a fool of myself in front of over the past couple weeks, including a few who got voted off my make-believe island before I could learn their names. Bryson is here in his rental agent suit, with what looks like a blank form and a pen in his hand. Pam, the Head Concierge, is here too, and she’s also got a blank form in her folded hands, along with a name tag like hers, except with her thumb covering the blank where the name goes. Others who I don’t recognize look like they’ve just gathered around to see what’s going on.
Gus bounds into sight with Hey-Zeus suddenly on his arm, and before I can ask what’s up they both point to a bench behind me.
Sitting there is Zack, all patient and wearing the dorkiest grin. It’s crippling.
On his lap is a lunch tray from the food court. On that is a small white plate. And on that is a fortune cookie. Not like the ones from China Garden. This one’s bigger, and a little lumpier. It looks custom made. And it’s still warm.
Normally I’d think they were making fun of me now, except everyone’s smiles are so…real.
So I figure it’s my turn to play along.
I pick up the cookie and pull it apart (’cause it doesn’t really crack) and I unfold this mondo-sized fortune and read:
CONGRATULATIONS, MELANIE. YOU WON!
I turn cherry-red. And I want to burrow into one of those holes I just dug, like some sunburned sand crab. But then I look at all the faces huddled around watching me, waiting to see what happens next. And I have to smile. Because I know this may not be real, but it’s true.
Sage Kalmus is a 40-year-old gay male freelance writer living off-the-grid in the foothills of western Maine. He self-published his first novel, Free Will Flux (FreeWillFlux.com), a work of metaphysical fiction, and he is currently working on his second novel. He believes we are all interconnected.