by Clay Wright
“How did I get here?” A bewildered Martin Collins asks as he sits behind his signature desk that appears on millions of televisions across the nation.
“You better get yourself together before the audience gets here Marty, tonight is a big show.” A disembodied voice echoes from all angles throughout Stage 3, home of the syndicated winning Marty Collins Show.
“Who’s there?” He yells frantically.
A concerned woman rounds the corner carrying a clipboard from backstage.
“Marty, are you ok?”
“Fine Jenny, just fine. I must have zoned out for a second.” Marty sighs as he rubs his temples with a grimace.
“Oh ok, well, security is letting the audience in at ten. Are you sure you’re ok?” Her concerned eyes standing out among her aging features.
“Yeah, I’ve handled worse. Don’t worry about it. I’ll be ok.” Marty removes the handkerchief from his suit pocket and dabs his forehead.
Jenny rushes back to the stage left side curtain held ajar by an obviously antsy producer
“What’s wrong with him?” Asks Rich.
“I don’t know but he’s delirious and sweating, his makeup is starting to wash. I don’t think he can do tonight, Rich. I really think he needs to go to the hospital or at least go home.”
“Do you really think he’ll let us cancel the show?” Jenny notices Rich’s veins protruding across his bald by a choice head. “That dumb S-O-B would have the skin off our asses if we took him off. God only knows what the studio will say.” Rich says with a flutter.
“Ugh, just because I can hang with staff writers doesn’t mean I have to hear gross things every second I’m here you know.”
“Sorry… I’m just saying he won’t let us take him away from that desk if he’s conscious.”
“That’s the thing Rich! He barely is!”
Jenny points at Marty as he swabs his whitening face with a rag losing its battle with Marty’s cold sweats.
“Can we please just put on a “Best of Marty” show and refund the audience’s money?” Implores a visibly shaken Jenny as she wipes her long black hair away from her face.
“By the time I get approval from the studio heads for that, the audience will be seated, and we’ll be going live.” Rich lets loose a defeated sigh.
“I’m going to go talk to him, have the “Best of” ready. I’ll take the heat from the execs if they come down. I swear they would have put Johnny Carson’s cold dead body in front of a camera if they could.”
Rich walks center stage towards the island holding the furniture. He cautiously approaches Marty, he looked worse up close especially under stage lights, Rich thought. His makeup was washing. The more he mopped his face with his previously immaculate handkerchief, the more of his camera looks left him. He was shaking, and to an extent that even the cameramen were looking worried. Not even a labor board saves their jobs from a dead host.
“Marty, what’s up?
Marty shakily cranes his head to make eye contact with his producer and says
“Not much!” Popping out of his stupor with a reprise. “What’s up with you?”
“You look like Marilyn Monroe today, Marty,” he said to break the tension, Marty gave a weak chuckle.
“That’s a good one Richard, messed up, but a good one.”
“Well, you can’t be the only funny one.”
“Why do you think we’re losing to NBC?”
“Is that what’s got you like this?”
“Like what Rich?”
“God Marty do you really think how much you’re sweating is normal?”
“It’s the lights!”
“Not even you buy that BS excuse. Listen, Marty; Jenny and I think we run a “best of” show tonight and refund the tickets. I know this isn’t a good time with Fallon kicking our… “
Marty cuts him off, coming out of it for a second time.
“Under no circumstances are we doing that!” He snaps.
“But Marty, come on man you have to have enough sense to know you can’t pull off a full show in your current state.”
“I am this close to being replaced, Rich! Do you know how many stand-ups are just pining for this desk, next thing you know I’m a geriatric has-been doing a podcast just to have someone talk to me. God knows no one will out of the kindness of their mother f-” He roars before wincing in pain.
Rich cut him off as he points as the audience begin being seated in the rows across from them.
“Listen, Marty, you stalled long enough for you to get your wish. No warm-ups just stay at your desk and have one of the assistants bring you whatever you need to get you ready, for this show. Just get into it and get out. We’ll give the audience something on their way out to balance things out. Do you understand, you stubborn S.O.B?”
“Yeah, Rich, get in, get out. Got it.”
Rich walks stage left, giving a fake wave to the audience before speeding behind the curtains.
Marty sits at his desk, looking above the audience. An old stand up trick, never look at the audience unless you want to psych yourself out, he thought. He takes a deep breath, preparing himself to completely ignore Rich and do some crowd work to warm up the crowd. In and out, into the lungs, and…
“You should have listened to Rich, Martin” A voice like Marlon Brando’s filtered through the voice of God echoed next to Marty. There was a shift in the room. He looked to see a pale-faced man with gaunt Hollywood features and a crooked smile. He wore a blindingly white turtleneck offset by a sharp black suit. He sat comfortably yet with a rigid posture with one arm extended over the top of the couch.
“Who the #### are you?” As soon as the expletive left his mouth, an ear-piercing beep rings through the studio.
“What was that?” Marty says startled.
“You know you shouldn’t say such rough words.”
“How did you do that? And who even are you? How did you get in here? I’m calling security.”
“Look around Martin, we’re the only ones here.”
Marty looked; he was right. He stood leaning over his desk to look towards the curtains hoping to see Rich, Jenny, he’d even be happy to see an intern, someone. No one, rather it was pitch black. The island that held his desk, the furniture, and the all familiar tracing of the Hollywood Hills in the backdrop was surrounded by a chilling void. He sat back down bewildered; the man sat smugly watching him trying to figure out his inside joke.
“Alright what is this?”
“It’s your show Martin. I don’t know what you mean.” the man said with a picture-perfect smile.
“Did Rich set you up to this to scare me into a vacation?”
“You don’t believe that, in all of your years of show business, of being in this studio, you know that nothing happens here without you knowing about it.”
“Then what makes you so special? I’m not dense, I know this is either a dream or a hallucination…”
“No need for such a serious tone
, Martin, I come as a friend. I’ve followed your career for some time. Not to spoil the twist but I guess all of your life.”
“Ah, so that’s it. You’re my guardian angel coming to show me the error of my ways; George Bailey or Dickensian style” Marty leaned back in his chair with an accomplished swagger. His trademark after landing a good line on an unsuspecting guest.
The man laughed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Marty couldn’t help noticing how frail his hands were. They were too thin for his frame.
“Even when sat next to Death himself, you still flaunt the comedic savvy that sat you behind that desk. You are a true professional.” Death said with a chortle.
Marty froze and sat at attention.
“So, you’re here to kill me,” Marty said coldly.
Death sighs and eases more into the chair.
“Before we get philosophical, can I ask something of you Martin?”
“I don’t think I have a choice here.”
“Sure, you do Martin, not with the larger matters at hand but the small comforts. I am more generous than Dickens portrayed me.”
“Alright what is it?”
“I have always wanted to be a guest on one of these shows.” Death said in a plain tone. “I asked Johnny Carson, but you know how he was.”
“Do I get anything out of it?”
“Well,” Death pauses, processing hopeless thoughts in Marty’s case. “No, other than throwing a very old servant and respected friend of the big man upstairs a bone. Pun intended.”
“Did Death just make a pun?” Marty mumbles to himself.
“Yes, he did.” Death motions to his porcelain ear. “They’re unimaginably old but they hear everything.”
“So, what will it be Martin?”
“Why not. Call me Marty.”
“Marty…” Death said with a creeping ear to ear grin. “If we’re going to do this, we need an audience.” Death claps his hands and the void recedes in a curtain draw. An audience is revealed seated in the risers, frozen in place. One woman even halfway between dropping and catching a phone stagnant in place while staring in shock into Marty’s eyes. All of them are a shared look of confusion and terror with every frozen expression beaming directly before Marty’s desk.
“Why do they look like that?” whispers Marty as he takes part in an unwinnable staring contest with two hundred breathing statues.
“Think about it Marty, if you’re talking to me right now, what do you think happened while you were sitting at your desk earlier?”
“Oh… yeah.” Marty nervously rubs his neck.
“Well, Marty, are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be in this situation.”
The familiar voice of Rich booms through the speakers
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Marty Collins show!”
A phrase Marty never thought he would hear again as sweet nostalgia plays background music. Marty tears up, moving his freshened handkerchief to his eyes.
The speakers blare the penultimate announcement
“Tonight’s speeeecial guest, you know him from such films as ‘Grandma’s Last Hours’, ‘The Vietnam War’, and tonight’s final show! Death!”
Marty leans over to Death’s cupped ear.
“A bit morbid don’t you think?” Marty whispers.
Death gestures towards an unresponsive crowd and returns with a cold look.
“This is my favorite part,” says an eerily giddy Death.
“Heeeeere’s Marty!” The speakers fizzle out as Marty stands in traditional fashion, waving at the crowd and centering himself before a once lively crowd. If this was going to be his last show, might as well go full send, Marty thought.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a great final show tonight but before we get to that I wanted to say a few words. I have done this show for twenty fantastic years, I have ignored family, health, and all wonders of the world because I just love it. I have many regrets in my life, but I wanted to thank you all for the time spent appearing in your lives.”
His television charm remains immaculate among his cynicism as he saunters before the unresponsive fans.
“Tonight, we have a great guest that many of you have unfortunately come across or courted.”
Marty walks over behind his desk, no commercial break to transition but nothing about this is normal he thought. He took great pleasure feeling every stitch and texture of his chair before moving his hands seductively over his hardwood desk while Death watches on and picks his cuticles.
“I really am going to miss all of this.”
“I know you will Marty.” says Death with an unnerving empathy.
“Are you ready, Mr. Death, for your fifteen minutes of fame?”
“Since you neanderthal figured out radio waves.”
Marty fixes his tie.
“So, Death, where did you get your start?”
“Nowhere in particular, I really just started after the big boys started their squabbles. Genesis, ya know.”
“Ah! I always hated Sunday school” says Marty with a fake grin.
“Well, that explains the destination.”
They both let out a disheartened chuckle as Death moves his fingers on the arm of his chair triggering a laugh track.
“So, do you like your work killing people?”
“Do you know what everyone gets wrong about the whole concept of mortality Marty?”
“I don’t kill.”
“You don’t? Well, I got to say a lot of people would beg to differ. It’s funny how no one gets answers like this until it’s too late.”
“That’s life.” Death says with a shrug.
“So, I got to ask Death, what’s the big man like?”
Death looks down with a smile before looking back up into Marty’s tired eyes.
“Like no one you can imagine, Marty.”
“That’s good to know. I know my mom was always a big fan of his.”
“Yes, she was Marty, still is.”
“That’s good to know” Marty slaps his table. “That is really good to know.”
The reality sets in again as Marty begins to tear up again before regaining his composure and his tv voice.
“Marty, do you know why I like these shows so much?”
“I couldn’t guess, Death. I really couldn’t.”
“The hosts become their own gods, interacting with celebrity angels and demons, overseeing the best experiences this plane can provide. It’s part of the Hollywood experience. It’s entirely ego but according to a TV Guide, you bronze bulls appear before millions and can influence existence for an hour at a time. If only you stepped down from the pedestal occasionally that I wouldn’t have to take so many into let’s just say, a less than desirable existence.”
“You’re a bit too late with that monologue old friend,” says Marty as he removes his tie
“Well Death, did you enjoy yourself on the show?”
“I did Marty. Thank you, you made a very old worker happy.”
Marty stands and bows before his worshippers.
“Goodnight and drive safe.”