Read A 52-Hertz Whale Online

Authors: Bill Sommer

A 52-Hertz Whale (9 page)

Dear James:

Oh, how the people who briefly thought they might just be a little mighty have fallen.

As I mentioned before, Rob/Bob and the others showed some appreciation when I enlightened them to the fact that not every episode of the show had to end in the same way.

But it appears I considered this praise to be a bit more of a mandate for change than it really was. You could argue that I should have seen this coming, because the outline they gave me to write the episode had all the same old boring tropes. They basically wanted me to just color it in, paint by numbers. But I was feeling all inspired, you know? I took that thing and made it my own! I put my own personal stamp on it!

Well, turns out they liked a LITTLE bit of a change, but they weren't ready to handle the radical reformation I presented in my episode. To demonstrate why they didn't like it, and why I'm no longer invited to the writers' room and am back on coffee-and-copies duty, and why Rob/Bob has been giving me the stink-eye for the last week, and why I'm considering looking into an Abominable Snowman gig, let us A-B a typical Testy Snobbin episode with mine.

Episode 6 from last season: In the first scene, Reasonable Mom, already annoyed because she has decided today is the day she must put away all her summer clothes and get out her winter ones, nags Bumbling Dad about the high water bill, which she insists is the result of the constantly running toilet, which Bumbling Dad promises to fix this weekend. Bumbling Dad (henceforth BuD) is watching college football and doesn't want to hear it. Reasonable Mom (henceforth ReMo) leaves in a huff. Just before the first commercial break, as BuD happily watches football, a pipe bursts, seemingly because of the ignored toilet issues (this isn't explained), and the television short-circuits because water gets in the fuse box or something (this isn't explained), and BuD is unable to watch the game. He calls a plumber friend, who of course, is watching the game, and they end up watching the game at the plumber's house instead of fixing the toilet, convinced they can do it afterward. But then the game goes into overtime. Then double overtime. Then triple overtime. And so on.

Meanwhile, ReMo is at home freaking out, and eventually calls this emergency plumber who comes over and charges them a jillion bucks to fix the pipe. There goes their vacation money. BuD slightly redeems himself at the end with a desperate and heartfelt apology and by putting away all of ReMo's summer clothes, getting out her winter ones, and creating a color-coded system denoting the boxes in the attic where he put all the summer clothes, so it'll be easier for her to find them. Because BuD tracks inventory at a warehouse, organization is one of his relative strengths and one of ReMo's minor flaws. She's touched by his effort and thanks him. He apologizes for all the trouble he caused. They kiss. He makes a little remark implying he might get lucky that night, and she rebuffs him with equal parts snark and gentleness. And . . . scene.

There's also a subplot involving Type A Daughter (TAD) and Rambunctious Teenage Son (RaTS) in which TAD and RaTS run for student council against each other. In the end, they agree to be co-councilpeople or some other cornier-than-Fritos bullshit.

Confident of the superiority of my script to the above load of junk, I stopped in the Corporate Coffee Shop as usual on the morning we were going to discuss the script. Even though I've been getting to hang out and act like a writer, I was still on latte duty for ol' Rob/Bob. Since it's fall, R/B has switched over to pumpkin-spice lattes. This is what people in southern California do to conjure the changing leaves and brisk temperatures that people in the rest of the country get in autumn, since we don't really have seasons out here. R/B's originally from Chicago, a place with real fall, which is why I think he's extra-sensitive about these pumpkin-spice lattes. It took me a week of pre-sipping before delivery then careful examination of his facial expressions to really figure out how he liked them. I chatted with my usual barista, and I was so excited about my script that I almost told her the name of the show I worked on. She's definitely a cutie, a fact that I had somehow ignored in all these previous months of pining for Corinne.

Anyway, just before the meeting I walked into his office, handed him his latte, and waited for his reaction. Usually he's typing like mad on his laptop, and he just silently grabs the latte and starts sipping while, amazingly, continuing to type with the other hand. But this time, he paused and gave me this really expectant look, like he was waiting for me to say something, so I said, “Mornin', Rob.”

And he said, “Hey Darren, how you doing?” Now this doesn't sound like much, but in the almost year I've been working there, never has ol' R/B inquired about me in any way. I was a bit stunned, and I didn't know what to say. “Have a seat,” R/B said.

I did. He just stared at me, one of his cheeks twitching every couple of seconds, which pulled his big droopy lips to the side like he was a cow chewing cud at hyper speed. “So, listen, this was a bit of an experiment, letting a PA with no experience take a crack at an episode.”

“Well,” I said, “thanks for taking the risk on me.”

Just then Rob's phone started ringing. He glanced at the caller ID and bit down on his bottom lip so hard I'm surprised he didn't draw blood. He put up a finger to tell me to wait. He put the phone up by his ear but not right on it like the thing smelled bad or something. “Hi, Karen,” he muttered. Karen is one of the studio execs.

The sound that came through the other end of that phone in response was one of the eeriest things I've ever heard, a primal, rabid, downright Chewbacca-like yell that lasted about ten seconds. During the last three or so of those seconds, R/B was waving at me to get out of his office.

So even though we didn't get to talk, I was feeling good that I'd been given a private audience with the showrunner. It seemed like we were about to have a man-to-man conversation. I figured he was about to tell me how fresh my idea was (“You're raw but you've got talent, kid”), how it broke the show's pattern of creating contrived conflicts that can be resolved in one fell swoop just before the closing credits play, as if that's how life works. You see, the premise of my script (Season 3, episode 8) was that BuD wakes up in the morning, inexplicably, as a beached humpback whale. I share the blame, uh, I mean credit, with you, on him being a HBW. It's sort of immaterial, though; the point was that he had to be something lonely, pitiable, and in need of help. Since he's BuD, though, he's too macho and embarrassed to ask for help getting off the beach. The point of my episode was that BuD was finally going to have the existential crisis that his repetitive, meaningless life demanded, and he would either triumph or fail, and the show (and television as we know it, I figured) would be changed forever either way. I hadn't quite figured out the whole triumph v. fail thing though, so it ended with a “To Be Continued . . .”

I really thought it was good. I still think it might be good. So that's why it hurt especially bad when he completely demolished what I wrote in the writers' meeting an hour later. I mean, I've been yelled at plenty of times (see: dad, my), even a couple times in front of other people, but it was like Rob/Bob had turned into one of those celebrity chefs or something, he was yelling and cursing so much. And even though he kept yelling at me, it was like he was yelling to the other writers. They were the television audience watching at home and needing to be convinced to keep watching, and I was just a prop, not even a person.

Long story short, they had to run one of those memory episodes where they come up with a frame story and then run clips from old shows to fill the half hour, and I'm coffee-and-copies guy again.

Best of luck in work and love.

To Be Continued . . .


From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 27, 2012 at 10: 45 PM
Subject: RE: meeting today

Hey M,

Writing to save you the trouble of having to say “I told you so.” I knew the kid wasn't ready, but I needed a sacrificial lamb, and he was just right there. Please don't tell the rest of the gang I said that. I'll apologize to them in person. Not sure what I was thinking. Might have had something to do with this football coach I had back in high school. I was a linebacker, believe it or not. One game, we were losing to some team we should have been creaming, and he pulled me and the other two best players on defense out and put in these three total scrubs for the first series of the second half. We ate our humble pie, watched the other team march down and score again, and put our helmets back on to come in. He sat us right back down. We didn't get in the rest of the game and we got absolutely creamed. But I tell you what, that was the last game we lost until the state semis, because the other guys and I were so mad that we worked our butts off for the rest of the season just to spite our coach for doing that to us.

How have you been otherwise? I see work-you every day, but I miss seeing other-you, the you with her fingers running through my chest hair. I'm not saying that to try to change anything. I know that's not possible. Just saying it because it's true. I hope Ron and the kids are good.


From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 27, 2012 at 11:37 PM
Subject: RE: meeting today

Not sure what it says about you that you think the techniques that motivated you as a teenage jock would be effective with a bunch of adult professionals.

Kids are fine. Ron and I are in counseling.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 28, 2012 at 5: 48 AM
Subject: RE: Michael

Dear Harriet,

I am writing to ask about Michael's recent absence. Missing practice (and school) at this time of year can be quite detrimental. Is he feeling any better? None of the other players seem to have talked to him. Please let me know if everything's all right. If it's the flu or something like that, please let me know, as this information may affect game-planning in the coming days. I was going to email you soon anyway because Michael seemed especially distracted last week in practice and Friday's game. Coach Erickson and I have been riding him pretty hard for a while, but he still seems to be having trouble keeping his head in the game.

We could really use Michael in this Friday's game.


Jack Olmstead

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 28, 2012 at 3:48 PM
Subject: RE: Michael

Dear Coach Olmstead,

Michael will be back at school tomorrow. He has not been ill. Rather, he had a run-in with the law that we have been dealing with. It happened when he was in Tampa over the fall break a couple weeks ago. I would rather not discuss details and would rather you didn't share details of the incident with the administration (it's probably a matter of public record if you would like to look it up), but I will say that although Michael was far from innocent in this situation, he's the only one who got in trouble because he was trying to protect his friends who were far more involved with the wrongdoing. A couple of those friends are on the football team, by the way. Please discipline Michael as you see fit. If you would like the names of the other players involved, please let me know.


Harriet James

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 29, 2012 at 6:02 AM
Subject: RE: Michael


I will speak to Michael and come up with an appropriate punishment for all involved.

Jack Olmstead

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 30, 2012 at 5:32 PM
Subject: RE: Job News

Dear Darren:

Sorry to hear about your work situation and for not writing sooner. Work's been keeping me busy. They gave me more hours, which I hated at first. Less time researching whales or hanging out in the kitchen, baking and stuff. Not to mention, every minute of every shift, I was waiting for people to harass me: steal my sign, throw gum in my fur, shout obscenities at me. I was so on edge that it felt like being at school. But worse. Then I realized that no one actually knew that it was me in the costume, and—if I really thought about it—the majority of people walking by didn't tease me at all. Just the opposite. Kids waved at me, upperclassmen gave me high fives, an old lady (who might have had dementia) asked for my autograph.

Now, I kind of like being the Abominable Snowman. (Plus, the costume adds about six inches to my actual height and a lot more bulk than I'd ever have in real life—even if I actually used the Jillian Michaels
Biggest Loser
free weights under my bed that my Dad bought me two years ago.) Kids, teens, housewives, businessmen—people passing by—talk to me, and so I talk back (in a slightly altered version of my voice). I'm surprised by what comes out: funny stories I make up about life as a yeti and slang I've learned in the Urban Dictionary. I can do stuff as an Abominable Snowman that I can't do in real life. Like cartwheel, speak in Pig Latin, stand on my head, and yodel. It is insane.

That's not to say that things aren't still kind of rough. I have A LOT of time for my mind to wander at work, and most of the time, I'm thinking about Salt. Today, I imagined his last swim—algae blossoming around him and plankton riding the ocean's currents. A school of fish darting in and out of the sea grass. His lone shadow, dark against the sand. He calls out to his pod and journeys toward shallow waters alone. His own air bubbles form a little net around him. Maybe he's kind of lost in the silence. Or in the way his silvery body creates its own solitary wake.


James Turner

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected]
Date: October 31, 2012 at 1:25 AM
Subject: RE: Job News

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