Grin

by Neil Richter

Turning away from a pile of fan mail addressed to Cincinnati Steve, Dan Simmons –formerly ‘Pitchman Dan’ to any number of TV producers, lonely housewives, barroom floozies, rehab group leaders, pastors, floor wax aficionados, and copyright attorneys, suddenly felt very tired. It wasn’t simply the pain in his face that radiated down through the tendons of his neck, nor the dull ache that seemed to overtake his tongue when infrequently at rest—these discomforts he had gotten used to. Something deeper was gnawing away at him. Staring out over the expanse of his penthouse apartment, it struck him that this sight only fatigued him more.

The sickly cast of the Earthpal fluorescent lighting system (500,000 units sold) rendered everything a morgue gray; the better to view a mausoleum of ingenuity and savings.

Pitchman Dan’s penthouse was filled with items, and each item told a story. In an attempt to cheer his rotten mood, he looked for reminders of his older, hungrier days. Days when he was still another young man in the game looking for his big break. There was the Tamahouri Eggspert Turbine Egg Slicer (260,000 units sold), the bit that made him famous. Now there was a shoot: a fifteen thousand dollar budget, four walls off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and a skeleton crew held together by resolve and a fanatical reverence to the almighty dollar. Why couldn’t it have stayed like that forever? Simple. Easy. Pure. The short-sell, a quickie infomercial played once a week for three months—tops. Get in, get out. Low risk.

How things change.

Dan shifted his attention from the kitchen to the bathroom doorway. Something compelled his eyes, something larger than himself. It had grown familiar after the thousands upon thousands of hours spent considering its width and breadth. The sight in question was a terrifyingly perfect expanse. Chrome baseboards connected to a spotless off-white wall. (Van Gogh’s Delight Mastercoat 300,000 units sold). The cracks between the baseboards and walls had been sealed with Grandpa Frank’s Bug B Gone Miracle Sealer (14.5 million units sold and counting…) Despite the horrors it had wrought upon both his body and psyche, The Pitchman could not deny his affinity for the product in question. Now there was a right humdinger: lubricant, sealer, weather stripping, and pesticide, all in one. It was a personal favorite of the Pitchman’s. It was also his Waterloo. Things were never the same after it.

The shoot seemed tainted with ill omens from its inception. Cincinnati on the eve of the millennium. The doomsday caravans and revelers duked it out in the streets while the clients spent the last four days on a bender, drinking Mint Juleps spiked with Absinthe poolside as the director—a king of the Romanian porn world gone to seed—laid out his plan for a telethon that would make Jerry Lewis himself blow a colostomy bag in envy.

Setbuilders were flown in to create an eight-tiered arena of phone banks out of mahogany and Pergo. Central casting sent in one hundred and seventy-eight extras to take calls. They weren’t public access Frugal Gourmet types either. This was hot action to the max: Academy Award seat-fillers, El Vaca Loca dancers, graduates of the Ron Popeil school of unironic surprise and glee. A craft table complete with Baron de Rothschild cigars and Courvoisier was set up in the hall outside the Pitchman’s dressing room.

There were rumors about where the money came from, but they quickly evaporated. Even if the Grandpa Frank Home Fixin’s conglomerate was backed by a Ponzi Scheme or illicit diamond money, they were professionals about maintaining clean books as well as bottomless pockets.

Dan spent the day of the shoot hopped up on black coffee and Skyline chili. In a mere three hours, he was to don a 1930’s style three piece suit and hawk miracle sealer to the cameras as ‘Cincinnati Steve’, (Who, through a glaring script mistake, hailed from The Windy City) a well-heeled bootlegger branching out into the sealant and pest-control industry. Several crates of Brazilian Hissing cockroaches had been wrangled backstage for the grand finale of the telecast: A vast gauntlet of death as Cincinnati Steve dispatched the infestation from a mock-up tenement bathroom.

PETA had threatened to firebomb the studio, but the backers called their bluff. The outlaw in Dan respected this display of good old-fashioned American moxie.

Perhaps it was the Midwestern cold or the chili, but Dan had jitters that night for the first time in his life. There were ominous portents in everything from the slate gray of the sky, to the horrendous effects the chili had on his bowel movements.

The clapboard sounded like a pistol shot. The extras picked up their phones on-cue and began babbling into them, each having memorized twenty pages of scripted material to make it seem as if the lines were constantly busy. As it turned out, this measure wasn’t going to be necessary.

Dan hoisted the cylinder of sealant, which had been fabricated into the shape of a Thompson machine gun with several pounds of plastic composite. Through a wave of nausea and dread he forced the edges of his mouth upwards. He saw his face in the camera’s reflection: The pomade-slathered hair, rivulets of product dripping down a furrowed brow; the eyes devoid of sincerity and compassion; the grinning mouth of some large jungle predator.

“Saaayyyy, if any mug ‘tinks dis sealant ain’t the bees knees I’ll eat my shoes and that’s a promise.” Cincinnati Steve hoisted the caulking gun. “Any takers, bright boy?” Cincinnati Steve feigned surprise at the incredulous home viewers. “Whoa now, runnin’ the hard bargain, eh? Somebody’s gotten inta that nickel whiskey and feelin’ a bit ornery, eh? Will Gimme an hour and I’ll give ya th’ business on this SEALANT!!!”

…Which he then proceeded to do, in pure Pitchman Dan style. The diction of the period, which seemed so cumbersome to The Pitchman at first, gradually became second nature. The key was the ‘eh’, a punctuation unto itself. The prime difficulty of the old Chicago accent was that it maintained a guttural, Midwestern twang, while at the same time utilizing every nasally cliché perpetuated by a Paul Muni or Jimmy Cagney.

By the fifteenth or so ‘eh’, he had that fucker nailed to the wall.

The caulking gun was a different matter altogether. Though he had been told that the composite was made of lightweight plastic (‘Same sheet used in space Shut-tel’ The Romanian porn king had told him) it felt like pure concrete. The script called for him to have the weapon hoisted up to his shoulder at all times. Cincinnati Steve had enemies, you see. Much like the sealant—he was always at the ready. With the combined weight of three frozen turkeys tugging at his shoulder, however, The Pitchman felt every incessant tug of his anguished muscles, even as he wisecracked and grinned his way through the first hour of the telethon. Another hour in and things were looking grave. The caulking gun had sunk to crotch level, and Dan was clutching it like a gangbanger holding up a 7-11 with a sawed-off 12 gauge. Through it all his grin held firm. It was made of stronger stuff.

The calls started streaming in soon after The Pitchman used his ‘heater’ to seal each floor of a one eighth-sized mockup of the John Hancock building. As the night wore on, the sales chart began to resemble a vast bell-curve, or the inverted funnel cloud of an F-5 tornado. Over the course of hours two through four-and-a-half, the calls increased exponentially until the phone bank had a waiting list in the triple digits and three or four of the older Popeil-veterans had to be taken away by medical personnel for heart attacks that turned out to be nothing more than acute angina brought about by stress and muscle fatigue.

This torrent of consumerism crested with a 45 minute blitz in which Cincinnati Steve himself was forced to postpone further festivities to field calls.

“Tree units, eh? Tree units’ll do ya? If you wuz in a cathouse the gals’d call ya a tree minute man, widda constitooshun like dat. Eight units, eh? Now we’re cookin’. Now we’re getting’ sum gravy on dose biscuits!!!”

“How are yah hun. You talk like dem Michigan Avenue dames. Pure class. Pure class I tellya. Sixteen yooonuts? Stop the presses boys we gotta hellcat here!!!”

“Put yer Ma on da phone, eh short stuff? Tryin’ tah reach da police? Hell kid, I ain’t da police. Scram. Well then dial th’ right one!!!”

And then the calls gradually began tapering off as The Pitchman prepped his charmingly lawless alter-ego for the grand finish. The roaches had been wheeled backstage and put in a number of holding pens below the bathroom mockup—which was itself a self-contained unit held up by forklift. Cincinnati Steve informed the rapt audiences at home that any product worth its salt should be willing to duke it out on the streets, to get its hands dirty, to split some lips and cave in some noses. Any product worth buying should have that killer instinct. Any product worth buying should have the stones to choose you, and not the other way around.

So he asked them: We ready tah kick some butt!!!!

YES, screamed the unseen audience.

We ready to show ‘em what we got?!?!

YES

WE READY TO SHED SOME BLOOD?!?!?

YES. BLOOD.

WE READY TO KILL SOME VARMINTS?!?!?!

KILL KILL KILL KILL KILL KILL shouted the unseen masses.

Stagehands dressed all in black brought in the bathroom mockup from offstage. From his vantage point several feet away, The Pitchman could hear the faint rustling of eight hundred and sixty-four large Brazilian Hissing Cockroaches. Each was roughly the size of a cell phone and emitted a high-pitched sound like pressurized steam when confronted by predators. He was to kill every last one of them. The Porn King had been very adamant about that.

Hoisting the Thompson Caulking Gun aloft with weary arms, Cincinnati Steve beckoned for silence from the bank of phones. Manipulating his hands like a faith healer, he hushed the unseen television audiences, resulting in a sharp downturn in calls. All through the massacre, however, many persistent souls waited patiently on the line.

The studio lights dimmed and a blood-red follow-spot illuminated the pooling pomade-slime on The Pitchman’s forehead as he trudged toward the mockup. A sign above it read: St. Valentine’s Day Motel.

On cue, the lids to the holding boxes were sprung and lights concealed beneath the floorboards clicked on, propelling the hordes of panicked cockroaches to swarm up through cracks in the baseboards, through the drains of the Farble sink and bathtub mockups, through small aerated cracks in the faded wallpaper.

The Pitchman swallowed his disgust, not at the roaches but at the wanton slaughter he was to commit. Their collective hissing filled the studio space like a single voice, a titanic scream cresting above the whirring cameras and whimpering phone-jockeys.

The follow-spot seemed to grow several degrees redder as Cincinnati Steve got down to business. He began with the baseboards. In a series of practiced movements, he sealed them off with four identical strips of product. The few roaches left to flounder in the narrow corridor that lay between baseboard and wall quickly ingested the toxic mixture and immediately fell into convulsions. Their legs gesticulated wildly in the air like saplings tossed about by a powerful wind. These were the lucky ones. Those who lay below, too lethargic or frightened to seek escape, were overcome by fumes as the sealant crept downward, hardening into a thick paste that blocked all possible exits. Bewildered, they rushed about, cannibalizing each other in their desperate attempt to chew through to freedom. Soon, all was still beneath the baseboards of the St. Valentine’s Day Motel.

Aboveground, the killings continued unabated. Having sealed the walls, Cincinnati Steve began to fire at will, spraying vast streamers of sealant from his weapon. Though the hissing had begun to fade as their numbers diminished, the urgency with which the remaining roaches sounded their collective anguish picked up. More and more, the hissing took on human properties: The distressed scream and gasp of a woman here, the persistent whining of a child there–Always beseeching, always subservient, and increasingly defeated.

But good old rough n’ tumble Steve had no mercy. He cackled as he strafed the caulking gun back and forth. Relieved by his mirth, the phone-jockeys rose up out of their chairs, clapping and urging him along. Any doubt in the minds of television viewers were likewise extinguished by that rascal Steve and his ridiculous pretentions of lawlessness. ‘What fun!’ They thought. ‘It’s like a videogame!’ And they nudged each other, making sly jokes about in-laws and slovenly grandparents with filthy homes as they watched Steve do his thing. It wasn’t about sealant anymore. It was about catharsis.

Beneath the grinning mask though, Dan was horrified. His eyes darted from one end of the bathroom to the other as he stood in the center and turned in a circle, wiping out dozens of roaches with each pass around the room. The edges of his grin started to droop, but he willed his mouth back up, and it held. It was more than that though. It was as if his face was stuck, like it had hardened just like the calcified trails of Sealant he tread upon. Still, he pressed onward.

“Want some more, eh? How’dya like me now? Eh? Eh? Eh?”

By this point, enough roaches had lost their voices that the whooping and cheers from the phone bank retook the studio. Bloodlust gave way to simple mirth as Cincinnati Steve wiped out the last of them, chasing down the remaining vermin one by one in a series of precision attacks.

And then there was the last survivor: a mid-sized roach with a pair of beautiful wings that shone like obsidian in the dim studio lights. It had survived the feverish assault by playing dead amongst the piles of corpses that occupied the same womb-like egg sac it once called home. Now, thrust into the bright light of a horrifying new world, it allowed its antennae to momentarily droop in what was to be one part of a communal outpouring of grief. But there was only the one roach, and instead of inspiring solidarity among the battlefield wounded, it gave away its position to the eagle-eyes of Cincinnati Steve.

Thoroughly in character by now, The Pitchman extinguished the last vestiges of his conscience and remade himself anew as a being of pure instinct. The last three remaining roaches had been tipped for assassination via an almost telepathic series of visual and aural cues. It was as if The Pitchman/Cincinnati Steve had learned to smell life amongst the sea of death. In his pitiless eyes, the momentary shifting of a single antenna was tantamount to the deafening screams of a wounded enemy soldier. There was no escape now.

The first shot of sealant was a crippling blow that engulfed the lower half of the roach’s body as it began to scurry away. Beneath the thick, chemical stew it stretched out its remaining legs toward freedom. Something approaching acceptance crossed its opaque, multi-lensed eyes. The barrel of the caulking gun loomed a mere three inches above.

“Teach ya ta bring yer kinda filth inta MY TOWN, EH?” Cincinnati Steve hissed.

The final, sepulchral glob of sealant formed a neat bubble which engulfed the roach. Death, sweet death, came quickly.

But Steve wasn’t content to simply vanquish his foes. He proceeded to humiliate them by dancing upon their dead bodies. He segued from a spirited Lindy Hop to some sort of Charleston hybrid as an intentionally scratchy recording of Sing Sing Sing wafted through the studio.

The bathroom mockup was wheeled away and men in rubber gloves swept up the remains of the roaches while Cincinnati Steve bid the viewing audiences at home a warm adieu.

After lurching backstage, a thoroughly exhausted Dan poured himself a Cognac from the mess table only to have its contents dribble down the front of his suit when glass met mouth. Dismayed, he examined the ruined vest. A curious pain wracked his face and neck, compounding The Pitchman’s frustration. With shaking hands, he began to probe his face in a feeble attempt to massage some pliability back into its muscles. The first thing he felt was the edges of his mouth, which had grown rigid and firm after five hours of nonstop enthusiasm. Following the curve of his lips, he took note of a geometrically perfect half-moon of a grin. Beneath it, spasming muscles quivered with the effort of sustaining it.

The Pitchman rushed to the mirror in his dressing room. He was greeted with a nightmarish sight: The obscene grin adopted at the height of Cincinnati Steve’s bloodlust was indeed locked in place. Dried cognac mingled with clumps of makeup to form a brownish crust at its corners.

With the panic of a drowning man, The Pitchman clapped both hands to his face and worked them up and down. He tasted copper as a crack opened up in his lower lip. Failing to loosen the grin, he began to slap at his face. Great welts rose on both cheeks.

He was soon jolted by a knock at the door, no doubt signaling a backer or one of their couriers bearing gifts. For several breathless moments, Dan simply stared at himself in the mirror, focusing all his energy on the panicked eyes behind the smile. The knock came again. With a heavy sigh, he walked to the door and opened it.

“Happy, yes?” The Romanian Porn King crowed, entering with a cake shaped like an anatomically perfect pair of female breasts and the unrecognizable phrase: Spectitular Job emblazoned across it in pink lettering. “I am happy. They are happy. Are you happy? If yes, then we are all happy.”

“Now see here you mug, I gots problems wid mah kisser and I gots ta sort this bidness out soon or else I’m bound ta get antsy, eh?”

“Ha ha ha. Please to make more jokes if it is your liking. Jokes!!!”

Dan clapped both hands to his mouth. The words had not come out as intended. Instead, they were intercepted somewhere between throat and lips. The entire transformation felt bodily. Dan’s attempts at modern day turns of phrase simply became muscle spasms and nausea. Steeling himself, he tried again.

“He-e-e-e-l-l-l—Hey now? What’s with the high hat, Pally? Can’t ya see I got one foot in the meat wagon? Geez, what’s a guy gotta do to show distress in this town?”

The Romanian Porn King placed the Spectitular cake on the table and clapped Dan on the back. “To them you are Pitchman. To me you are Funnyman. But you are also powerful man after performance tonight. Either way, is good for us.”

Dan tried to express himself several more times, but again and again his words were reduced to feral grunts and Depression-era slang. Tears of desperation began to run into the trenches caused by The Pitchman’s grin as he followed the Porn King out to the inevitable cast party.

The Pitchman spent the next several hours swilling Old Fashioned after Old Fashioned in a mad attempt to loosen his body from this strange reverie. He poured the booze straight down his gullet without letting it touch his lips, which were starting to crack a bit more at the corners.

In keeping with the theme of the telethon, the backers spared no expense in creating a true speakeasy experience. Top shelf whiskey and rum flowed from old cognac barrels and the waitresses and barmaids were all busty gals in bustiers and long stockings. Everyone was in their best period-appropriate gear and cries of ‘Let’s get a wiggle on!’ and ‘I’m tighter than a Hell’s Kitchen clothesline!’ pierced through the racket made by the thoroughly mustachioed Big Band musicians on the stage up front.

The projected value of the telethon was a foregone conclusion. Each and every one of the backers was rendered a millionaire several times over—which was hardly tarnished by the fact that they were millionaires already. Armed with this knowledge, they fell over a thoroughly soused Steve with a gratitude that was more predatory than anything.

“It’s beautiful babe, just beautiful!! The way you splattered them vermin!!! Beautiful!!!”

“You got the killer instinct pal. Straight up and down stone cold killer. Gives me a big ol’ stiffy just thinkin’ about all them units flyin’ out the door.”

“We’ll have you takin’ baths in caviar and angel piss in no time pal.”

At some point, around his third or fourth Whiskey Old Fashioned (Or was it Brandy?) Dan gave up and allowed Cincinnati Steve to take over his vocal chords. The nausea decreased as his panicked eyes glazed over. If only he could show them his horror, his claustrophobia at being locked away somewhere deep inside himself. Alas, Steve’s face only knew one emotion: A quicksilver blend of good-humor murderous rage.

“I splatted ‘em good, did’n I, eh? Gave em’ the dirt nap, little dose a’ lead fer the road. Tellya what, I’d do it again in a heartbeat. ‘Cause that’s what I yam.”

“What yam. What yam!!!” Screamed one of the backers—also blotto–, “And what is that, huh? What type of yam are you?”

Much laughing ensued.

“Like the man says–Stone cold.” Said Dan in Cincinnati Steve’s voice. “Hard man, corner-store peddler, killer, lead doctor, s’all the same. I’m da best dere is.”

Much praise ensued.

Cincinnati Steve became an institution, and Pitchman Dan became his vessel. After several months of intense physical therapy—purchased on the sly by a newly wealthy Dan—He found that there was no losing the smile. Refusing to give up hope, Dan tried other, more extreme measures. Muscle relaxers were prescribed and several tedious and complicated surgeries were undertaken, but in the end it was hopeless. Weeks upon weeks of uninterrupted grinning had shifted the contours of his face on some fundamental level. Any further measures would run the risk of disfiguring him permanently. Thus, Dan was left with a difficult choice: Be a rich, handsome man enslaved to a smile, or a poor, ugly man with the freedom to frown. Always the pragmatist, Dan took a deep breath and chose the former.

As to the speech impediment, The Pitchman found that any attempts at structuring a normal sentence resulted in such physical discomfort that any kind of therapy was simply out of the question. Unsurprisingly, the general public grew to delight in his misery on this count. Dan came to be viewed as a uniquely dedicated method actor: An Olivier of the Home Shopping Network; only better. Because as months turned to years, he was still at it, perfecting his one immortal role. Some on the fringe began to view him as mentally ill, a liability, but the larger percentage of corporate backers were more than eager to lavish millions of dollars on the mad genius of the infomercial.

And so, through multi-bladed kitchen knives and edible bandages, through winter-scented sexual aids and briefcase-sized collapsible ladders, through endless conveniences to home, garden, office, vehicle, and bedroom, Dan came to accept his fate. Eventually he even managed to halt the endless philosophical debate in his mind. Why had he been chosen for this? What had he done? Which great sin had he committed to be subjected to such a fate? In the end, it didn’t matter. The show must go on.

Tearing his eyes away from the bathroom, Pitchman Dan exited the kitchen and walked across the living room floor (Paul Bunyan’s Timberland Timberkit 760,000 units sold) and looked out the picture window at the city below. With steady hands, he probed the deep grooves worn into his face from years of grinning. Lately they had started slathering on greater amounts of makeup to cover the damage it had done to his features. Luckily, technology caught up. Modern day airbrushing and creative editing would ensure at least several more decades of solid work.

With eyes fixed on the earth below, The Pitchman watched the distant afternoon rush. Tiny specks scurried across the pavement in odd, organic formations. Long ago, Dan had learned to stop envying them, though loathing had not completely left his jaundiced worldview. Besides the t.v. appearances, he rarely left his penthouse. Backers communicated through his agent, and sent products to his door ahead of time. A computer-operated scanner outside signed packages for him. There was no need to make explanations or emit pleasantries in that infernal voice.

As the world passed by him seventy-eight stories below, Dan considered the sight with coolly malicious eyes–Scurrying little specks with little legs and little handbags. If only he had a caulking gun big enough to eradicate them all. Wouldn’t that be aces?

Wandering away from the window, The Pitchman walked back to the bathroom, to the only mirror in the house. It was where he checked the status of his decaying grin before the black limo with tinted windows whisked him off to the next shoot. He applied a speck of ointment here and a dab of lotion there. Then he spoke to his reflection:

“You and me, mug. You and me. Straight to th’ top!!!”

The End