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Vol. 5, No. 3

Anything For Money
by Karen E. Bender

Each Monday at eleven o’clock, Lenny Weiss performed his favorite duty as executive producer of his hit game show, Anything for Money; he selected the contestants for that week’s show. He walked briskly across the stage set, the studio lights so white and glaring as to make the stage resemble the surface of the moon. In his silk navy suit, the man appeared to be a lone figure on the set, for his staff knew not to speak to him, or even look at him. He had become the king of syndicated game shows for his skill in finding the people who would do anything for money, people whom viewers would both envy and despise.
    The assistants were in the holding room with the prospective contestants, telling them the rules: No one was allowed to touch Mr. Weiss. Mr. Weiss required a five-foot perimeter around his person. No one was allowed to call him by his first name. No one was to be drinking Pepsi, as the taste offended Mr. Weiss. Gold jewelry reminded him of his former wife, so anyone wearing such jewelry was advised to take it off.
    He stood by the door for a moment before he walked in, imagining how the losers would walk, dazed, to their cars, looking up at the arid sky. They would try to figure out what they had done wrong, they would look at their hands and wonder.
    Then he walked in, and they screamed.
    He loved to hear them scream. They had tried to dress up, garishly; polyester suits in pale colors, iridescent plastic shoes. The air reeked of greed and strong perfume. Some of the women had had their hair done especially for the occasion, and their hair shimmered oddly, hardened with spray.
    “Pick me!”
    “We love you, man!”
    “We’ve been watching since the beginning!”
    A woman in a T-shirt that said DALLAS COWBOYS FOREVER lunged forward, grabbed his arm, and yelled, “Lenny!”
    “Hands OFF Mr. Weiss!” shouted the security guard.
    There was always one who was a lesson for the others. The door slammed and the woman was marched back to her life. They all listened to her heels clicking against the floor, first sharp and declarative, then fading. The others stood, solemnly, in the silence, as though listening to the future sound of their own deaths.
    They were all on this earth briefly; for Lenny, that meant he had the burning desire to be the king of syndicated game shows, one of the ten most powerful men in Hollywood. He did not know what the others’ lives meant to them, just that they wanted what he had.
    Now he needed to choose his contestants. They would be the ones with particularly acute expressions of desire and sadness; they would also have to photograph well under the brilliant lights.
    “All right!” He clapped his hands. “You want to be rich? You want other people to kiss your ass? Well, listen. You’re going to have to work for it. Everyone!” He knew to change his requests for each new group; he did not want any of them to come prepared from rumors off the street.
    “Unbutton your shirts!”
    He knew this one was more difficult for the women, but that was not a concern to him. Some of the people stiffened, pawed gingerly at their buttons. Others tore through their buttons and stood before him, shirts loose.
    “Take off your shirts!”
    He lost a few more with this request. Others removed their shirts as though they had been moving through their lives just waiting for such an order. They stood before him, men and women, in bras and bare chests, some pale, some dark, some thin-shouldered, some fat.
    “Repeat after me. Say: I am an idiot.”
    He heard the chorus of voices start, softly.
    “Louder! Again!”
    Their seats had numbers on the bottoms; he knew immediately whom he would call back. He would call Number 25, the woman with the lustrous blond hair, and Number 6, the man with the compulsive smile. Lenny clapped his hands.
    “Thank you. My assistant will contact those who we have chosen.” Lenny turned, almost running down the hallway. He walked around for fifteen minutes before he could get back to work.

 

~

He had grown up in Chicago in the nineteen-thirties, the only child of parents who had married impulsively and then learned that neither understood the other; Lenny dangled, suspended, in the harsh, disappointed sounds of the house. His father died suddenly when Lenny was eight. Lenny’s mother moved them to Los Angeles and got a job as a secretary at one of the movie studios. The boy was shocked by the clarity of the desert light, the way it made everything—the lawns, flowers, cars—appear stark and inevitable. His mother was the only person he knew in the world, and at first when he walked to school he was crazy with fear that she had also disappeared. He pretended he was collecting clouds to make a wall around her, and when the sky was cloudless he pretended he was sick. Then his mother brought him to the place where she worked. He sat on the floor watching her, and then everything else going on around her, too.
    When he graduated high school, he became an errand boy on a soap opera, then a writer. He enjoyed making bad things happen to other people: troubled marriages, sudden illnesses, kidnappings. He married a woman who was impressed by his job and descriptions of various actresses on the set. They had a child, a girl. Then one day the producers gathered all the employees into a windowless conference room. “There’s no more show,” they said.
    It was a bad time for hiring in any field, and he and his wife had little savings. He looked for work for six months without luck, setting his sights lower and lower, but already there was an odor of desperation on him. One night, his daughter was screaming with pain from an ear infection, but he was afraid to go to a doctor for what it could cost. The child’s pain so horrified him that he bolted out of the house.
    He did not stop running for several blocks. Strangers walked down the street, their wallets bulging with money he wanted. The money was so close to him, he could almost smell its green dusky smell. His teeth were clenched very tightly, and his jaw hurt. Suddenly, he had an idea: he could rob a liquor store. He had thought about how to do this when he wrote his soap operas. The simplicity of this idea made him stop in astonishment. He could wear a stocking over his face and stuff a bottle in his jacket pocket as a gun.
    There was a liquor store a few blocks away, and he stumbled toward it. Lenny stood outside the liquor store for a long time, the clear red letters announcing LIQUOR into the night air. He sobbed softly. His tongue tasted like a dry, bitter leaf. The other customers entered the store, noble in their morality and their innocence. He had become this: a man who would do anything for money.
    Later, he would tell people that this was the moment he became God—for he had saved himself. Anything for Money could be a show in which contestants could do terrible, absurd things to receive vast amounts of money.
    The next day, he waited for six hours outside the office of his former employer. When Lenny saw the head of programming, Mr. Seymour Lawrence, come out, he hurtled toward him, thrusting out a proposal. “Read this,” he told Mr. Lawrence. Lenny did not know why the man decided to listen to him, though he understood, in an honest part of himself, that it was simply a grand moment of luck. Later, he chose to describe this as a sign of his own inherent glory. Mr. Lawrence took the thin sheet of paper, folded it in half, and stuck it in the pocket of his blazer. Lenny watched him walk off. A month later, Mr. Lawrence bought the idea for the show.
    

 

~

Now he was sixty-five, the show’s executive producer, and his limousine took him from the studio to his home in the hills above Los Angeles. As a young man, he had never quite believed the success of Anything for Money, the way his longing formed itself into homes, boats, cars. He used to wake up, his heart pounding as though he was running an endless race. His daughter and wife were mere shadows to him, for he needed to get to the studio with an almost physical craving. He was there from eight in the morning to ten at night.
    Thirty years ago, his wife, Lola, left. He blamed his wife’s leaving on her excessive demands; many of his colleagues’ wives had left them, too. The few times he had seen her since she left him, she looked entirely unfamiliar to him. It seemed that he had not been married to her but a look-alike who resembled her. She had come up to him at a party and said, softly, “You never knew anything true about me.” When she said this, he felt a deep wound, as though his honest attempts at goodness had been misunderstood. All his attempts at romance had been deeply clichéd—he bought her diamonds, midnight cruises, silk gowns. “All I wanted,” she said, “was a poem written about my eyes.” He stood before her like a little boy. Did this mean they had not loved each other?
    His memories of his daughter were glazed with exhaustion. Charlene stood, naked, in the bathtub, water streaming down her tiny body, a pale angel absolutely convinced of her own glory; he could not believe she had come from him. Sometimes Charlene ran to him and clung to him with such fierceness, he felt a crumbling inside him. He was afraid she would see in his eyes the weakness of a lame dog and would laugh at him. She was a toddler running, stiff-legged, across the lawn, running as though the lawn were clouds and would tear apart if she stepped too hard; then she was six and running, legs outstretched, like a small antelope, in gaudy, colorful clothes; then his wife left and he could not see her running. She was gone.
    

 

~

Charlene believed that he had kicked them out of the house. That was what Lola had told her. He tried to explain to her that that was not the truth, but she said bluntly, “Mom said she asked you thirty times to stay at home for my five-year-old birthday. And you did not.” He did not remember any of these requests. He had thought he belonged to a family, but his wife and daughter had become strangers who could not be trusted.
    Charlene had decided that he did not want her; but he had decided that she did not want him. She called him only to request money, which he always gave her. He once heard her on a talk show denigrating him with a fictional story: “My father was so self-centered he had a special mirror only he could look into. If anyone else did, he’d tell us it would crack.” Much audience laughter. Lenny would not hear from her for months, and then get a long letter, dissecting injuries done during her childhood; she had been arguing with him in her mind the whole time. Then, when he called her to discuss the letter, she would hang up on him.
    The calls came more frequently immediately after Lola’s death. His ex-wife had died in a car accident fifteen years ago; she was gone and his remnant feelings for her were interrupted—he still had not divined whether they had loved each other or not. Charlene seemed to hope that, as her only living parent, he would have the capacity to read her thoughts. He sensed then how remote she felt from other people. When he could not read her thoughts, she reacted with anger so forceful it was as though he had told her he hated her.
    Over the last fifteen years, he heard about her mostly through gossip items in the paper: Charlene Weiss sub eatery sinks. Charlene Weiss briefly hospitalized for alcohol abuse. Charlene Weiss has fling with Vance Harley, hunky new sitcom star. Charlene Weiss has daughter, Aurora Persephone Diamantina Weiss. A quote from the happy new mom: “I have reached a pinnacle of joy.”
    She did tell him about Aurora. She had become pregnant by one of her many suitors and decided to have a child on her own. He received an elaborate birth announcement, a silver card with a photo of the baby girl swathed in white robes like a tiny emperor. The inscription below the picture said Aurora: A Child Who Will Be Loved.
    For thirty years, he lived alone in his mansion on top of the Santa Monica Mountains; he had told his architect that he wanted to feel as though he could touch the entire city. He could see all the way to the Pacific Ocean, the expanse of ocean like black glass, all the way to the luminous blocks of downtown, to the cars pouring, twin rivers of red and white lights moving east and west, north and south. His loneliness had buried itself deep within him, and he experienced it as the desire to be in the seat of every car. The architect had set his living room at the edge of a hill, so that when Lenny looked out his twenty-foot-high glass windows, he almost believed he could fall into the trembling party of lights. He stood there many nights, his mouth hot with longing so primitive he could not name it; he was aware only of his quiet desire to thrust himself into the dark air.
    

 

~

The call came when he was having a limo meeting with the producer of the talk show Confess! His maid’s voice floated over the speakers.
    “Mr. Weiss,” Rosita said. “Come home.”
    “Why?” he said to the air.
    “A child is here.”
    “What child?”
    “Aurora.”
    Everything inside him became colorless, still.
    When they reached his house, Lenny stepped out of his limo. His home was made of pale marble, and clear white wavelets from the swimming pool shimmered on its empty walls. Black palms, bathed in blue light, swayed in the warm wind. The bushes in his gardens had been trimmed to the shapes of elephants, giraffes, bears, and they made a silent, regal procession through the darkness. He stood for a moment, in the quiet that he had made, before he went inside.
    The girl stood at the top of the stairs. He would not have been aware of her but for the ferocity with which she stood there, as though she had dreamed herself in this position for years. She was gripping the railing, staring at him. Her face was dim, but he could see her fingernails holding the rail—they were an absurdly bright gold. She ran down the stairs so fast he thought she might fall. She was standing in front of him, breathing hard.
    “Grandfather, you’re real,” she said.
    His legs felt insubstantial as water; he stepped back. He looked at Aurora. He believed she would now be about twelve years old. Her face had the hard, polite quality of someone who had been scheming quietly and fervently for a long time. Her auburn hair reached halfway down her back. She had Lola’s eyebrows, two arched U’s that gave her an alert, surprised expression. She had Charlene’s dark-blue eyes. They were the color of steel, and moved around restlessly, but had a hard gaze when they settled on something. He knew because they were also his eyes.
    “Hello,” he said. He offered his hand. She shook it vigorously. He still had on the phone headset he usually wore so as not to miss any calls.
    “What are you doing here?” he asked.
    “I was sent.”
    “By who?”
    “My mother.”
    She handed him a letter. The letterhead said:

BUENA VISTA REHABILITATION CLINIC
YOUR SECRETS ARE OURS

    Dad—
    I am here for the next three months.
    Take care of Aurora.
    She likes chocolate.
    I’m so tired.
    
    Charlene’s signature resembled a tiny knot.
    The letter’s tone was so polite he knew that someone had been watching her as she wrote it.
    “Is this where your mother is?”
    She nodded and moved toward the living-room window. “I read about this!” she exclaimed. “Your view. In a magazine about houses. It’s even bigger in real life.”
    He wanted to stop her. She was standing against the window, pressing her fingers against the glass. He saw her make a breath on the glass, a pale oval, and the intimacy of the action made him want to walk away.
    Two large suitcases sat in the foyer. He gestured toward the suitcases. “Carlos can take these up for you.”
    Aurora darted up to one and grabbed the handle. “No!” she said. “I want to do this one myself.”
    The bag was not actually a suitcase but a large green canvas sack. It bulged with odd, unidentifiable objects.
    “You can’t carry that yourself,” he said.
    She looked pleased, as if she’d predicted he would say this. “Then you help me.”
    He did not remember the last time he’d carried anyone’s bag. “Rosita, call Carlos,” said Lenny.
    “No,” Aurora said. She stood up straighter. “I want you.”
    Rosita brought him a dolly and he pushed the bag into the elevator. The girl walked beside him, fiercely gripping the bag handle. The elevator rose to the second floor and the three of them walked and pushed down the hallway, Aurora gripping the handle of the bag the whole time with a nonplussed expression, as though she were walking a dog. When they got to a guest room, he stopped.
    “You can stay here,” he said.
    She walked in, dragged the bag into a corner. “Thank you,” she said.
    “Good night,” he said.
    Her eyelids twitched. “I’m not sleepy yet.”
    He began to back away. “Hey, look,” he said. “I’m sorry. You’ll have to entertain yourself. You know.” He lifted his hands helplessly. “Sweeps. Nielsens. I don’t have time for baby-sitting. Rosita,” he said. “Aurora will be visiting us. Please bring her a hot chocolate.”
    Aurora stepped back and looked down. She wrapped her arms around herself, tightly. She looked as if she had fallen from the sky.
    He did not know what to say to her.
    “Rosita, add some whipped cream to her chocolate,” he said.
    

 

~

Lenny woke with a shudder in the middle of the night. He sat, his heart pounding, in his bed. Then he got up and went to the kitchen. He sat in the blue midnight and drank a glass of milk.
    He heard footsteps—peering out of the doorway, he saw Aurora in the foyer. The girl was walking barefoot, in her long johns, through the enormous room. She made almost no sound and moved through the darkness in a careful, fevered way. She did not merely look at the grand hallways but went up to the statues, lamps, and touched them tenderly, getting to know them. She moved urgently, disappearing into room after room.
    He fled back to his room. He felt shaken, furious, wondering if he should wake Rosita, call the police. The girl had simply been walking through his house. Now it seemed that the clock was melting, the curtain could burst into flames. He lay awake for a long time, unable to get to sleep.
    

 

~

He woke up at six, far earlier than he believed the girl would wake up. After he made his way down the stairs, he realized that his headset was gone. He had left it on the kitchen table after his midnight glass of milk, and its absence made him feel broken off from the news of the day. He rang Rosita and asked her to look for it. He would give himself twenty-five minutes for breakfast. About ten minutes into his breakfast, Aurora walked in. She stood in the doorway; she looked as if she was trying to decide whether she should bow or curtsy or just barrel ahead.
    “Hello, grandfather,” she said.
    “Hello.”
    Her face was heavy with exhaustion but hopeful. She sat at the other end of the table. Before she did this, she moved a large crystal urn of flowers to the floor.
    “What are you doing?” he asked.
    “I want to be able to see you when we talk.”
    He eyed her and ate a forkful of eggs. Rosita placed a croissant before her. Aurora was staring at him, drumming her fingers on the tablecloth.
    “I have a question.”
    “Yes?”
    “How does it feel to be syndicated in forty-three countries?”
    “Forty-four. Somalia just signed on.”
    “Forty-four.”
    “Very good.”
    “Your first episode of Anything for Money had the biggest television audience ever.”
    “That is true.”
    “How did you get Ringo Starr to do a guest spot?”
    “He asked to come on.” He looked up. “Is this an interview?”
    “I’ve read one hundred twenty-seven articles about you. In all the major magazines. More on the Internet. On the authorized sites.” She went through four slices of bacon. “Is it true that you only stock water in the back of the set so that contestants will get hungry and meaner?”
    “No.” He lifted the paper in front of his face. “Anything you need, ask Rosita.”
    “I would like an office.”
    He lowered the paper. “For what purpose?”
    “The production of my feature film.”
    He folded the paper.
    “I am currently in pre-production.”
    “You are twelve years old,” he said.
    “I know,” she said, as though that was a compliment. “I have read many books on the subject. I am writing a script. If you want to know the title, I can—”
    He marched out of the dining room; she followed. He walked too fast. He was not used to waiting for another person, and he could sense her trailing behind him, trying to catch up.
    He pushed open two doors embossed with a gold pattern identical to the doors of Il Duomo in Florence and walked into a room that overlooked the rose gardens.
    “Your office,” he said.
    She seemed surprised that her request had been obeyed so easily; then she walked in, hands clasped behind her back like Napoleon inspecting the troops. She walked to the window and looked outside. The morning sun fell in wide bright strips across the lawn, so that the pink and cream-colored roses gleamed like satin.
    “Do you require use of a phone?”
    “No,” she said.
    “A fax machine?”
    “No, thank you.”
    She rose up on half-toe and then abruptly down again; later, he realized this was the gesture she used when she had more on her mind that she wanted to talk about, as though she were trying to make herself physically taller, give herself stature to ask for what she wanted.
    “Your office,” he said. “Now. My headset.”
    “Your what?”
    “My headset. I need it.” He smiled, trying to appear more relaxed than he felt. “Hey, I could be missing my biggest deal.”
    “I don’t have it,” she said curtly. She sat stiffly in the office chair, like an executive calling a boardroom to order. “Now. Tell me your opinion. I want to describe the sky over a new planet that has been created by the explosion of a supernova. Should it be pink or yellow or blue?”
    “Blue,” he said, helplessly.
    She spun the chair. “Thank you. I have to get to work.”
    

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