Mark Connelly

Posted on September 11, 2017

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Editor’s Pick

Public Service

The TV studio was chilly.  Cold air blew from overhead ventilators.  Newman shivered as he stood on the X taped to the floor.  His mark.  

“It’ll get warmer under the lights.  We have to shut off the air when we record because the fans make too much noise.”  The metallic voice coming from the speaker sounded bored and patronizing. No doubt a seasoned veteran trying to impress an intern with his practiced air of professional disdain.  Steven Spielberg forced to direct a Kotex commercial.  Newman cleared his throat, waiting.  He raised his hand to brush his hair.

“Don’t touch your hair!” the speaker boomed.  “She did a great job.  It looks good.  And don’t touch your face or you will smear your makeup.”

 Newman nodded, “Sorry, I forgot.”  He twisted his neck back and forth.  Already his shoulders were knotting up.   He gazed at the taped marks that led to a red line in front of the camera.  He had practiced his lines and pacing, measuring his words and steps to hit his last sentence on the red line.

  A decade ago – a lifetime ago it seemed – he loved appearing on television.  Being interviewed about a case, appearing on a local talk show, doing a promo for his law firm, taping the commercials for his Senate bid that never aired. 

Never aired.  That final night of his old life played in his mind in an endless loop.  Leaving the fundraiser, his breast pocket bristling with a fan of multi-colored checks, drinks at the lobby bar, a drink with a former Congressman across the street, then celebratory shots and shooters at a strip club.  Getting into his car, pulling onto the highway heading to the freeway, hitting the gas to make the onramp, and slamming into that tan Fiesta.  Then, shaken and numbed,  leaning against his crumpled fender with a broken nose watching cops and paramedics circle two lifeless bodies on the street.   

“OK, ready?”  The voice on the loudspeaker had the flat, bored tone of a subway announcer.

Newman nodded, “Yes.”

The hum of the air conditioner stopped.  The abrupt silence was unsettling.  The lights intensified, making Newman feel like a man in a line-up.

“OK.  Let’s go for a voice level.  As we rehearsed. . .”

“One . . . Two . . . Three. . . My name is Robert Newman.  Today is Thursday.  The Packers are playing the Vikings Sunday. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon. . . That good enough?”

“One moment.  Go again!”

“One . . . Two . . . Three. . . My name is Robert Newman.  Today is . . .”

“All right! All right!,” the metallic voice barked.  “Enough!  Enough!  Now like we rehearsed. Walk toward the camera.  Watch your marks but don’t look down.  Remember, don’t look down.  Keep eye contact with the camera.  Pretend you talking to a group of people. All right?   All right!  Let’s go.  Think Before You Drink PSA One. Take One. Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera, carefully measuring his steps.  “My name is Robert Newman, and I was a drunk driver.  I was involved in a car accident that took the lives of two college girls. . .”

 “Cut!  . . You’re looking at the floor again!  Look up and make sure you hit the line ‘the lives of two college girls’ a little harder.  Got it?  OK, for take two?”

Newman waved toward the booth and returned to his mark, taking a deep breath.

“OK, remember look straight ahead! . . . Ready?. . . . Think Before You Drink PSA One Take Two. . . . Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera. “My name is Robert Newman, and I was a drunk driver.  I was involved in a car accident that took the lives two college girls.  I served eight years in prison, and now I’m on parole — asking you to think before you drink.”

“Cut. Good, that was good.  Just on the next one a little more pause after ‘you.’  Just a bit, like a comma.  OK. Let’s move on.”

Newman returned to his mark.

“OK.  Think Before You Drink PSA Two Take One.  Ready?  Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera. “My name is Robert Newman, and I was a drunk driver.  I was involved in a car accident that took the lives of two college students.  I served eight years in prison, and now I’m on parole — asking you – this holiday season — to think before you drink.”

“Cut. Perfect, OK, PSA Think Before You Drink Three Take One.  Ready?  Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera. “My name is Robert Newman, and I was a drunk driver.  I was involved in a car accident that took the lives of two college girls.  I served eight years in prison, and now I’m on parole — asking you — on Game Day — to think before you drink.”

“Cut. . . We are getting a shine on your forehead.  Let Janey touch you up.”

Newman closed his eyes as the makeup girl stretched up to powder his face and forehead.  He took a deep breath and took his mark.

“OK, PSA Think Before You Drink Four Take One.  Ready?  Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera. “My name is Robert Newman, and I was a drunk driver.  I was involved in a car accident that took the lives of two college girls.  I served eight years in prison, and now I’m on parole — asking you – this Memorial Day — to think before you drink.”

“Cut. Perfect, OK, PSA Think Before You Drink Five Take One.  Ready?  Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera. “My name is Robert Newman, and I was a drunk driver.  I was involved in a car accident that took the lives of two college girls.  I served eight years in prison, and now I’m on parole — asking you – on Labor Day — to think before you drink.”

Newman took his mark and waited for the metallic voice.  Over and over.  Each holiday.    Four versions of each.  Over and over.  I drove drunk.  I killed two college girls.  Over and over.  Different words — two college girls, two people, two women —  but the same message.  I killed. I killed. I killed.       

He glanced at the clock on the wall.  When would this end?  When would this ever end?

Voices behind him, the voice on the speaker were talking about him as if he were not there.  Didn’t they realize what these words were doing to him?

He raised his hand.  “I need a minute.  A break.  Just a break.  Please.”  He lurched off his mark to the door but found it locked. 

“Where are you going?” the metallic voice barked.

“I need a break.  Where is the restroom?”

“To the left.  No, the left!”

Newman found the door.  In the small blue-tiled men’s room he bent over the sink.  His stomach clenched and he hunched over.  He had not eaten that day.  Nothing came up but bitter vile.  He chewed two sticks of gum, spat them out, and then, careful not to smear his makeup, drank some water and gargled.  He chewed more gum, spat it out, and washed his hands.  He looked into the mirror.  Do the drill.  Just do the drill.  It was his mantra now.

His parole officer had urged him do this as part of his community service.  “Think of the good you can do with something like this, Bob,” he had told him.  “I know it might be tough, but just go and do the drill.  These public service announcements will be powerful.  Think of the good.”

Think of the good.  Taking a deep breath, Newman returned to the studio and his mark.

The speaker above him buzzed and clicked.  “OK, OK, let’s get busy.  Are you ready?. . .  Hey!  Are you ready down there?”

Newman raised his hand, “Yes, yes.  Ready, ready.”  His tight legs throbbed as if he just run a marathon.  He glanced at the taped marks on the floor.  Walking to the camera over and over. Ten paces and confess.  Ten paces and confess. Different lines with the same message. I killedI killed.  Over and over.  The confessions of Sisyphus.

“OK, let’s go.”  The metallic voice had gone from bored and patronizing to irascible and contemptuous.

Newman took a deep breath, looking at the clock.  Forty minutes to go.  New words appeared on the teleprompter.  He quickly memorized them, mentally adjusting his pace to match the number of syllables, and waited for his cue.

“Alright, PSA Responsibility One. Take One. Action!”

Newman walked toward the camera.  “My name is Robert Newman, and I was an attorney.  But nine years ago, I drove drunk and killed two college girls.  They lost their lives, and I spent eight years in prison.  Now I am out on parole, asking you to drink responsibly.”

“Cut. Perfect. OK, let’s step it up and hammer these out.”

It was Twilight Zone Kafka.  Newman repeated his confession over and over, in tight sound bites, as the invisible voice directed him to walk faster, look more serious, pronounce a word differently.  He perspired under the lights, and the makeup girl came out again to powder his forehead.

The words on the teleprompter were like the needles in Kafka’s penal colony machine.  Stamping his crime into his head.  I killed.  I killed.  The Mark of Cain branded on him.  Didn’t they know what they were doing to him?  This was no Kotex commercial.  No Support the Troops appeal.  Didn’t they care?  Was this all part of his punishment?  He remembered an inmate telling him that parole was worse than prison.  In prison he was watched by bored guards.  On parole he was tormented by sadistic demons.  Alone and helpless on the outside, he quickly violated to escape the ambiguity of freedom to return to the safety of his cell and the comforting routine of counts and drills.

“Alright?  We ready down there?  Let’s go!”

“My name is Robert Newman. . . .”

Over and over.  Like clockwork.  He hammered them out.  I killed.  I killed. 

“Hey, we got some time left. I hear you speak Spanish?  Let’s do some!”

Newman took a breath, twisting on his mark, his neck aching.

“Are you ready?”

Newman waved his hand and nodded.

Newman walked toward the camera.  “Mi nombre es Robert Newman y era un conductor ebrio. . .”

On the bus to the halfway house, Newman could not get that disembodied voice out of his head.  It lingered like an echo.  Ordering him, directing him.  A puppet on verbal strings.  If there was time enough, he could have confessed in a dozen languages:

Mein Name ist Robert Newman und ich ein betrunkener Fahrer war.

Mon nom est Robert Newman et je étais un conducteur ivre.

Il mio nome è Robert Newman e io ero un autista ubriaco.

Is é mo ainm Robert Newman agus bhí mé tiománaí ar meisce. . .

Why not confess to the world in every language?  Maybe he could confess in Irish and Icelandic, Korean and Cajun, Hebrew and Haitian.   On and on.  Over and over.  And the worst was to come when the commercials went on TV and appeared on YouTube.  Why not crucify him and hang him over the expressway in warning? 

Newman looked out the window as the bus glided past a row of taverns, sports bars, and Major Good Times announcing Happy Hour in blinking neon.  For the first time in nine years, Newman wanted a drink.      

****                                                  

Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, and Digital Papercut.  He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.

 

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