The Death of Lou Grant

December 25, 2011

Nominated for an EPPIE Award. And its free. Laughs, chuckles, rape, and murder.

The Death of Lou Grant

A man is dying in his backyard of a heart attack. He begins to recall his life. Except that it is not his life. It is the life of a fictional character from a popular television situation comedy. And he can’t…

Chapter One

I Am A Corpse

1. Dieing

I am a corpse. I am having a stroke in a lounge chair on the outskirts of the American Empire on the ledge of a small blue planet in the suburbs of the Milky Way during the first days of the third Millennium. I can hear children in the next block on their bellies crawling through the bushes. There is a cat above me, walking along the telephone wire like a trapeze artist. He tip-toes across with such delicate bravado. I wish I had a camera. A lawnmower two houses down is blasting out music, a Bob Dylan song I’ve never heard before but there is no mistaking the great bards vocal tones. Ants are crawling up the beams of sunlight marching in goose steps like little Nazis toward the sun. Sweat is rolling off my forehead and into my eyes like tears retreating.

In this moment I can smell the lawn bleeding. I shouldn’t have bothered to mow the lawn. Perhaps that brought on my stroke. But the grass was so long you could have parted it down the middle and slicked it back like a mortician might the recently deceased. I hope they don’t manicure my face before they place me on public display. I was never a handsome and was proud of it. I don’t want to be painted up to look like one of Picasso’s blue women.

My fingers tingle. The muscles on my arms and legs are flaccid. I have a craving for bacon, scrambled eggs and sausage, and gravy on toast. How I love American cuisine. My cholesterol was too high. For years I have been trying to control it and now in my last moments I would like a good breakfast. The machinery of my existence is breaking down. My bowels are relaxing. A pool is spreading out from my crotch. There is no feeling in my legs. The muscles on my arms are twitching. The throat has dried up. My tongue races around in my mouth like some creature caught in the jaws of a trap. I am having a stroke. I can feel my arteries expanding like inner tubes ready to burst. My veins turning brittle are popping like lights on a Christmas tree. Is this a test of my personal civil defense system? It is the panic of stillness. My Absolute Moment is coming to fruition. I’m not ready. This is not a good time. I still have payments to make on the house. I was losing weight. I stopped drinking. Not all at once, I grant you that. And I was trying not to think about sex every five minutes. My voting habits were becoming more conservative. I voted for Mayor Anderson and his recent crusade against pornography. I supported the movement to have cats put on leashes and bicycle helmets made mandatory equipment for cyclists. And women’s rights to choose. And I can’t seem to stop talking.

I have always talked. Since I was a kid and my mother took the teat out of my mouth, I’ve been talking. I wake up talking. I talk in my sleep. I interrupt people when they’re talking. I talk during movies. I talk with my mouth full of food. I do not talk while I am being intimate with a woman. Not unless I’m asked to. When I was a kid over the breakfast table my old man used to bet me a quarter that I couldn’t refrain from talking for five minutes. I never made a dime off him. And now as I lay here dieing, in the midst of a stroke, I can’t stop talking. But does anyone hear me? No one ever listened to me. That’s what’s wrong with people. They never learn to listen. It would be a far better world if people learned to listen. Especially to me. Not that I was Bertrand Russell. But I had my story. Like right now, I’m laying here looking at God straight in the eyes. God has a receding chin. No wonder he’s always wearing a beard. And he has very little personality. God is a chartered accountant with a wired sense of humor. Or perhaps God is a mortician preparing us for our long journey through nature’s decomposition. Or maybe a publisher with a musty smelling manuscript growing in his lap. I am looking my creator straight in the eyes and I have a story.

2. My Story

My story began in games. Children’s games. Eight and nine year olds playing the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the first episode in which we learn why the Lone Ranger dons a mask and becomes a defender of justice. We also acted out episodes of Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Davy Crockett, and Superman. Every kid knew that George Reeves who played Superman had jumped out of a building, forgetting that he was not the Man of Steel. And every kid knew that Davy Crockett patched up the Liberty Bell. He was a welder. And every kid knew that Roy Rogers and his horse were one creature, but why was his sidekick Brady driving around in a jeep?

In adolescence our stories changed from adventure to athletics. I played Jim Brown, the great Cleveland back, carrying half a dozen of my friends on my back down the field toward the goal line. There were Foster Hewett scenarios played out in our heads as we streaked in off the wing like the Big M, or dipsy-doodled down the middle of the ice like the Pocket Rocket, or taunted opponents with the cheeky finesse of a Carl Brewer. In the summer we learned to hit like Rocky Nelson, the big slugger for the Toronto triple A club. He had a peculiar way of standing with one foot perpendicular to the other. Rocky Nelson later went up to the majors with the Dodgers, a big bat off the bench. I remember listening to the World Series on the radio and when Rocky came to bat I felt as if I was up there with him. I could hear the crowd, feel the dust at his feet, and smell the sweat running down his arms and into his hands. The sky was blue, the sun was yellow, and the grass was painted neon. And when the first pitch arrived I could feel the muscles in his arm tighten and Wickenhauser, my grade six teacher yelling out, “Are you listening to a radio, Grant?”

In our stories we felt at home. Harmony ruled. It was safe for we knew what was coming. Even our conflicts were so structured that they almost always had a peaceful resolution. I remember one warm afternoon in May when I was challenged to a fight by one of the schoolyard toughs. His name was Higgins. Though not a large kid, Higgins had a reputation as a fighter. Chewing gum, hair dangling over his eyes, jeans hanging low over his hips, Higgins struck a menacing pose. I don’t remember the reason for our fight. Perhaps there was none. But Higgins had challenged me and I had to respond. All the kids in the schoolyard formed a circle into which Higgins and I entered. Higgins snarled at me. I stood, hands at my side, and waited to be pummeled. The crowd was silent. Higgins ambled up to me, grinned, and swung. I ducked. Higgins missed, swirling passed me. The schoolyard broke into laughter. Higgins looked at me and then down at his feet where his trousers were now curled. The fight was over.

As we entered our twenties we exchanged jocks for rock stars and still we kept dreaming; about playing a guitar and shaking our long hair and girls fainting at our feet, about having money, and adulation, and interviews with straight-laced reporters named Jones who never understood what were up to. I used to hang out in Yorkville, the local coffee house area, in one of my father’s old suits, faking an English accent, hoping girls would mistake me for Brian Jones of the Rollingstones, which worked wonders for me until he drowned. The story was that Brian was on acid and thought he was a fish. He ended up a bottom feeder.

At college there were new roles to play. . Sometimes I was an existentialist, smoking too many cigarettes, drinking pots of black coffee, and pretending that alienation was my Cross. I especially craved the attention of young girls with straight long hair, mini skirts and see-through white blouses. Love was my god. It was lovely to walk around for hours with an erection strapped down inside skintight jeans. At college, I drank a lot of beer, and lived lonely evenings in dreams that played out in my head like black and white matinees at the old Runnymede theatre. I graduated in media studies, got a job running cable at the CBC, learned to operate a camera. Life became boring. My employers found me to be diligent, punctual, hard working and enterprising. I was able to function very successfully on two levels. My body, the robot, paid my rent; my imagination kept me sane. In time the place normally labeled reality became the closet where I kept my body. My soul was the stuff of stories.

I loved situation comedies on television, loved the way the characters bounced one-liners off each other, punctuated by a laugh track. (There was a woman’s voice in the laugh track that I recognized as my Aunt Eunice. It was a lovely laugh that seemed to break temporarily into hysteria as if it had suddenly reached a moment of orgasmic enlightenment.) These characters (for me they were real people) in sitcoms lived an idyllic existence, a life quietly sifted through a gentle humanity that ordinary life could only faintly duplicate. There was no down time, no moments of tedium, no flat line existence. People tolerated each other. There was no pettiness that was not humorous, no anger that embittered, no sense of loss that was intolerable. And even in the depths of despair there was always next week show.

I watched all the sitcoms. There was the Nelsons, and the Honeymooners, Leave it to Beaver, the Andy Griffith Show, Car 54, but my favorite was the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Like every other red blooded North American, I fell in love with Mary Richards, the character Mary Tyler Moore played on the show. Sometimes I saw myself as Lou Grant, her crusty cantankerous, always loveable boss.

3. The Newsroom Staff

I slept through my years at the Corporation as we called the CBC. Even though I operated a camera on several prestigious programs, I lived each day as the forty seven year old, bald, fat, grumpy, Lou Grant, dreaming through all the episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show until I had exhausted all the scripts and began to create stories of my own. In my stories I had the same staff members, the same offices as WGM of Minnesota. But my characters began to evolve, to become something more than they had been imprisoned in the original show.

My main writer, Murray Slaughter, was an odd fellow. Like myself, Murray had a reclining hairline, but unlike myself, Murray wore a toupee. He wore it shifted slightly on his head to one side like a French beret. Murray was quite the lady’s man and was not beyond boasting about his recent conquests, keeping a record of his girls, as he called them, in an album of raw Polaroid snapshots. This is somewhat at odds with the Murray Slaughter of the television series, but then, all of my colleagues had more of an edge to their personalities than was apparent on the tube. Murray and I got along. I made Murray laugh, especially when I insisted that he was not being true to his nature, which was as a devoted husband and father. Not that Murray didn’t love his wife, Marie. Murray had vices. The ladies was one: the ponies was another. They were related. Murray followed anything with a tail. It was never difficult to find Murray when he wasn’t at work. The Chez Moi, a small bar tucked into a side street near the corner of Bloor and Yonge in Toronto, was filled every evening with gamblers and low life drifters and Murray was always in attendance. I don’t know why Marie put up with him but I guess there are women who can’t live without some abuse, not that Murray ever hit his wife, not that I know of, not that it would have been any of my business. I make it a rule — never get involved with the private lives of anyone on staff. I hate personal stuff. I was not against someone having a vice; I have several of my own and cherish them as I do my own children. Everyone has their vices and it’s better that they are out front and not in hiding where they can suddenly rise up in moments of stress like relatives who only show up at funerals. But personal intimate discussions made my skin crawl.

Gordie was my weatherman. He was colored, though he claimed he was Italian. I hate that word colored. No one calls Italians brown, or Swedes beige, or Irish poke-a-dot. On several occasions Gordie was ready to bust my chops because I made some reference to his ancestry. “Nothing to be ashamed of Gordo,” I would say. “There’s no one I respect more than Martin Luther King.” This was before Dr. King was assassinated. Not that Dr. King’s assassination ever came up on the show. Generally speaking. Murder puts a damper on humor. Gordie was in denial. We wanted to put him in sports but Gordo had no interest at all in football, or baseball, or hockey. The only sport he showed any interest at all was the Tour de France and no one thought that our market share would increase with Gordo’s analysis of the flying Belgians. Gordie did the weather. He loved it. Said the weather was the sound of God’s bodily functions.

Ted Baxter was our news anchorman. Although he was a few inches too tall and had a little bit too much black in his hair (which I attributed to the use of Grecian Formula), Ted had the same bumbling bluster as his television counterpart. It was great having Ted around the newsroom, like having a portable and moving dartboard. Ted came to us directly from the movie industry where he had been doing promotional projects for various products. One that he was exceptionally proud of was a film done for the plumbing industry on industrial attire.

Although everything else was in place, our office had no Mary Richards. The newsroom lacked a certain sweetness and innocence. And until Mary showed up, I could still return to the real world, to my job as a cameraman at the Corporation, to paying my bills, to driving home to my wife and children each evening. Each world was separate from the other but all that would change the day she walked into my office. It was a slow news day in mid-August. I think the Pope was praying for peace some place. Murray’s tongue was hanging out the side of his mouth as he opened the door to my office and stuck his head in.

“Guess whose here, Lou?”

I looked up impatiently. I hated being interrupted especially by chirpiness.

“You gotta guess, Lou!”

I let out a low animal growl.

LAUGH TRACK. Did you hear that? I hate laugh tracks but I cannot separate it from the show. It’s embedded in my head like some indelible character. Maybe it’s the devil gargling.

Murray stepped to one side and a lovely young woman stepped in. Murray smiled at me with those adult rated eyebrows. Murray introduced us. For a moment I was stunned and said nothing. I dismissed Murray and reached over my desk to shake that small trembling hand. Mary smiled nervously. Mary always seemed to be nervous around me as if she thought I might suddenly lunge for her throat. She’d just graduated from journalism, and was hoping that she might get a job in our newsroom, making copies, making coffee, and running errands. And then she started to cry. God, it happened so suddenly. I wasn’t prepared.

“Don’t…” I barked.

Mary wept harder.

LAUGH TRACK. You see what I mean. I hate that. This should have been a dramatic scene. My first meeting with the lovely young princess of our story, but the laugh track change it into farce.

Mary reached into her purse and pulled out a tissue. I would have used the name of a commercial product but these things were still being negotiated.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Grant. I don’t know what’s come over me. Oh this is…”

“Please. Miss Richards,” I muttered turning away. I can’t stand to see a woman cry. I never know what to do with my hands.

“You don’t know how difficult it is to find work, Mr. Grant. You can’t get a job because you don’t have enough experience and you can’t get experience unless you get a job. It’s a catch 32.”

“22!”

LAUGH TRACK

“Excuse me, Mr. Grant?”

“Catch 22.”

“Are you sure? My eye makeup is running. I must look awful. It’s just been one thing after another. Mildred died last night. Well, not really died. She was eaten by Jack. Rhoda warned me about Jack but I thought they’d work things out. I guess I turned a blind eye. I woke up to find Mildred’s sweet little head and feathers in the sugar bowl.”

LAUGH TRACK

“Jack ate Mildred?” I turned back to Mary who was dabbing her eyes with the tissues. She looked like a raccoon.

“Jack is my cat,” Mary explained.

“And Mildred is…”

“My cock-a-too.”

LAUGH TRACK

“I really need a job, Mr. Grant. I’ll work free for the first month if you’ll just give me a chance.”

“Whose Rhoda?”

“My best friend.”

“Thank God!”

LAUGH TRACK

I thought for a moment. Dramatic effect. “Look. Miss Richards. We don’t need a gopher. We have Ted.”

LAUGH TRACK

Mary’s lip began to tremble. Tears welled up in her eyes once again.

“No, not again,” I pleaded.

“I can’t help it, Mr. Grant. You must think I’m just a foolish young girl. I really am quite bright. Graduated with straight A’s.” Mary rambled on for some time in this manner, swinging from a detailed account of all her academic accomplishments to bouts of uncontrolled weeping.

“Miss Richards!” I interjected when there was a pause in the action. “We have a position as a junior writer and if you would be willing to go through a period of…”

“Oh, Mr. Grant!” Mary cried, a broad smile sweeping across her face. I stared at her, amazed. I think I might have smiled. And laughed. I have this ridiculous laugh like Goofy, the Disney character. Mary smiled. I thought I heard wedding bells. I was falling in love with her. Everyone fell in love with Mary.

4. Panic Attack

Everything changed. More and more I found myself locked into my fantasy world. I couldn’t stand being without my Mary. Life in the real world was like a dream I had and when I was awakened it was always into the world of WGM Minnesota. I should have been happy. But alas, every silver lining has its cloud. And my fantasy had its own hell and it found its birthplace in Lou Grant, my doppelganger. Lou Grant of WGM Minnesota had his own dream world, one that I had been unaware of until Mary joined the office. Lou Grant pined for the life of the street, the criminal world, life as expressed in movies of the late forties and early fifties, films that had come to be known as film noir. Lou Grant had a taste for danger and he indulged this taste by fantasizing. It’s ridiculous. How can a sitcom character have fantasies? There should have been a law against it. I was not in control. A dream inside a dream. In these last moments my life was unraveling as a series of TV reruns.

The sun was lying on my forehead. My shirt collar felt too tight. It felt gritty. My belt was too tight. I was panting like a dog in the midday sun. Warmth filled my crotch. Jesus, I think I pissed my pants. I kept listening for an ambulance siren hoping that someone had found me out here in the yard slipping in and out of consciousness, in and out of the dreams of Lou Grant. Sweat sizzled on my forehead. Tree branches overhead creaked like a rusty gate. A thought flashed across my mind. How much of modern psychosis is a result of overcrowding? Claustrophobia. Not the fear of being closed in but the revulsion, like motion sickness, of too many bodies, too many minds, too much hate, love, jealousy, lust, greed, too much sympathy, too much of everything, too much of us. I felt like my chest was caving in. I wanted to be back in the newsroom with Murray and Mary and the gang but I kept falling back into Lou Grant’s nightmare.

5. A Drink After Work At The Silver Dollar

MURRAY: “Let me get this straight, Lou. You’re having nightmares.”

LOU GRANT: “Yes.”

MURRAY: “About what? What are these nightmares about?”

LOU GRANT: “What difference does that make?”

MURRAY: “They’re about sex, eh Lou?”

LAUGH TRACK

LOU GRANT: “Did you hear that?”

MURRAY: “Hear what?”

LOU GRANT: “Nothing.”

MURRAY: “You’re starting to scare me, Lou.”

LOU GRANT: “I am not having nightmares about sex, Murray. They’re dreams about the low life of the city. Scumbags. Drug dealers, winos, hookers…”

MURRAY: “Ah!”

LAUGH TRACK

LOU GRANT: “I don’t want to have them anymore but I can’t seem to stop them. They have a life of their own. Have you ever had recurring nightmares, Murray?”

MURRAY: “Only when my mother-in-law shows up for the weekend.”

LAUGH TRACK

MURRAY: “What? Something wrong, Lou? Look, Lou, if its really bothering you, maybe you should seek out some professional help.”

LOU GRANT: “I’m not nuts, Murray!”

MURRAY: “You don’t have to be crazy to seek out counseling from a psychiatrist. You don’t think Mary is crazy, do you?”

LOU GRANT: “Mary is seeing a shrink?”

MURRAY: “Ya, Lou. She’s dating him.”

LAUGH TRACK

MURRAY: “Sorry, Lou. I couldn’t resist it. No, Mary is seeing a psychiatrist. Remember, she had that problem with an eating disorder. Well, she went to a counselor and I think it’s really helped her.”

LOU GRANT: “I think I’ll stick to scotch.”

MURRAY: “Does it help?”

LOU GRANT: “No, but I like the buzz I get off it.”

LAUGH TRACK

6. Who Is Harry?

Lou Grants dreams begin with Harry. Harry, an unshaven, surly looking character, spends most of his hours sprawled out on a sofa, half in darkness, nursing a hangover. Is Harry a psychological projection of Lou Grant’s desire for adventure? Given Harry’s disheveled appearance and degenerate life style that would seem unlikely. Perhaps Harry is a Christ like figure sprawled out on his crucifix sofa? Lou had been dragged to numerous Bergman films when he was courting his wife and this bleak Kierkegaardian landscape could have rubbed off onto Lou. But that too is unlikely. Lou had fallen asleep during most of the films. Perhaps Harry is the remembrance of some character in Lou Grant’s childhood, a drunken uncle or perhaps Harry is Lou himself, a younger and leaner Lou Grant caught up in his misbegotten youth. But whatever his origins Harry is always there at the beginning of Lou’s dream, the portal into the slimy underworld of the city.

Harry’s head is propped up on the armrest where he has passed out. An almost empty bottle of Black and White Scotch Whisky, liquid rolling slowly back and forth in its belly, rests on the floor just out of the reach of his dangling arm. A light flickered off and on from a streetlamp outside the living room window. On a table beside Harry is an ashtray brimming over with cigarette butts, Camels. I liked that name for a cigarette; I like the picture of the camel on the package. Passive nobility. They were the cigarettes Lou Grant smoked. Harry looked a little like a camel: exhausted, bags under his big sad eyes, drooping mouth, hairy ankles. Harry coughed, cleared his throat, rubbed his nose with his index finger, the white of his teeth turned golden. The bottom corner of his lip curled up. Harry’s chest shook. Another cough. His teeth began to grind. Harry smiled in his sleep.

It was always the same. Across the room, a television set was on. The screen hovered in the darkness, like an apparition. The sound was low, barely audible. Mary Richards was on the screen, her long dark hair, soft milk skin, eyes large, bright, unflinching, teeth perfectly placed. She was delivering one of the series of documentaries WJM had created called Homicide. People are fascinated with violence, especially murder. Someone else’s murder. Mary’s voice was light, fragile, vulnerable, a sweet song.

Homicide was a series of documentaries we designed to market the exit of the twentieth century. Mary didn’t want the job. She wanted to remain in the newsroom writing copy for Ted. Ted was on his knees in my office begging me to give him the job, his lips polishing the soul of my Italian leather shoes. Ted worshipped Walter Cronkite. He yearned to say the words, brought to you by the Prudential Insurance Company of America. But Ted wasn’t right. His voice was too polished, his manner too smooth and cultured. No one would trust him. This series was to document the horror of the twentieth century. Mary was the perfect victim — beautiful and without guile.

(As an afterthought I might add that this novel is written as a collage.)


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