DEMOCRACY AT WORK
by Thomas Kearnes
Den Mother, of course, was not her real name. While she spoke, Jameson swished the name Greta around his mind. Greta, Mother Greta, the Den Mother. She was speaking so eloquently, about how the Sunset tribe had fallen into harmony after the last vote, about the shattering calm on the beach at dusk, speaking so eloquently that Jameson let the shot fall out of focus. Panicked, he nudged a lever, and Greta’s image sharpened. After glancing over his shoulder at Mona, one of the producers, he sighed audibly. Maybe she hadn’t noticed him fumbling with the camera.
Shit, now Mona was angry. Greta stopped talking but didn’t budge from the boulder. Unlike the other contestants, Greta didn’t seem to possess an on/off switch, an inherent phoniness that snapped into place whenever the camera rolled. She was Jameson’s favorite to film, so natural and elegant, so at ease. She reminded him of mist descending over a hilltop, enveloping it completely like unexpected peace.
“The mic can pick up every sound.” Mona grimaced. “Every damn sound.”
“Can we edit me out?” Jameson suggested.
“Never mind. I think we have enough.”
Greta stood, her mouth puckered with concern. As Mona started back to camp, she mouthed are you okay? Jameson smiled broadly and for a moment forgot the lashing Mona was no doubt saving for production camp. The producers didn’t wish to rattle the players with staff strife. Monty Whitman, the show’s creator, felt it disrupted the game’s authenticity.
Greta called out to Jameson as he and Mona walked away. Mona rolled her eyes but he spun around, the camera perched on his shoulder, blocking his view. “Don’t stay in the sun too long,” Greta said. “You’ll burn up like the rest of us.”
He tried to thank her, but Mona interrupted. “Good luck, Greta. We’ll see you tonight.” She always wished the contestants good luck. Eighteen days into the game, the words sounded so mechanical.
Greta departed, back to the Sunset tribe, but Jameson couldn’t hear her retreat over the pinging gravel and broken brush beneath his and Mona’s feet. The producer shook her head and muttered, “I thought I’d enjoy this more.”
“What’s that?” Jameson had to kill time. Maybe she’d forget his clumsiness.
“Some sad shit is going on at the Moonrise. When both tribes merge, it’ll be a bloodbath.”
“What? Have they gone cannibal?”
“No, they’ve…” Mona paused, gazing over the shrubbery at the desolate beach. Her wistful expression was something only a lover should see. He didn’t wish to know her that intimately. “I’m shocked none of us saw it coming. They’ve organized.” She explained that five on the Moonrise tribe had vowed to stick together and vote as a bloc at every elimination ceremony. They’d already kicked off Biker Blonde followed by Miss Black America, and now only Kid Christ remained. “The Sunset tribe is fucked,” she said. “We’ll see how tonight’s vote goes.”
“Isn’t that cheating?”
“You know Whitman. He’s making it up as he goes along.” She forced her way past a cluster of bamboo branches. They smacked Jameson’s chest. “The players can vote out anyone, even the decent people.”
“What have I told you about using real names?” They walked in silence a few moments. “Yeah, don’t get attached to Den Mother.” Her pitying tone rankled him. The Moonrise bloc had figured out in the first week that Den Mother was the Sunsets’ de facto, well, den mother. Several cameramen had filmed the Moonrise bloc speculating about the scope of her influence.
“And we have to sit back and let it happen?” Jameson’s upper lip curled in disgust.
She cut her gaze to him. “You bet your ass. Unless it’s a one-on-one, you don’t exist.”
The game Whitman had developed, Savages, was unlike any ever produced for television—perfect to air, he said, just as the Nineties ended and a new millennium began. Sixteen Americans, divided into two tribes of eight, competed on a remote island for survival, the last player winning a cool million. Every three days, the losing tribe voted out one of its own. When ten players remained, the tribes merged, resulting—Whitman had assured the network—in free-for-all, social Darwinism. This merge happened tomorrow, the combined tribe’s first vote taking place two nights later.
Jameson’s face fell. The camera felt like an albatross on his shoulder. “This is crap.” He knew he sounded like a child. “It isn’t fair.”
“Of course it’s not fair. It’s television.”
The crew called production camp Inferno. The island was located near the equator, only one-fourth the size of Delaware. The game took place on the western end while the Inferno was on the eastern half. The camp was a snake pit of dampness, underbrush and wires of varying thickness plugged into over a dozen generators. The crew occasionally had to yell over the machines’ incessant drone. An editing bay stood at the far edge of camp. Whitman claimed the network’s deadline for the first episode was tight, so editors would have to start cutting footage before the game itself had ended.
Jameson was surprised Mona abruptly parted ways with him after arriving. He’d been ready for another tongue-lashing. He would’ve been fired the first week had there been enough to crew to fill the void. While Whitman had invited two alternates in case one of the players backed out at the last minute, he’d failed to bring along any backup crew.
He knew he should nap before his evening shift with the Sunset tribe. Scenarios of varying heinousness polluted his mind, all of them involving a dumbfounded Den Mother, Greta, stumbling from the elimination ceremony. All losers were whisked away by motorboat to a neighboring island the crew had named Purgatory. Whitman refused to say what amenities, if any, awaited those who couldn’t survive the vote. He had to warn her, warn the whole Sunset tribe. He’d grown fond of them, the five that remained. They were silly and desperate and totally unprepared for America’s scorn.
The cameraman who was sometimes Jameson’s friend cooked sausage links over a modest campfire. Jameson kept calling him Cooper but knew that wasn’t his name. He didn’t complain, however, whenever Jameson said it. Not-Cooper glanced up from his food and asked how the shoot went. Jameson knew he didn’t care. After the first two or three days, the crew had drafted nicknames for every player. For example, the Moonrise bloc was run by Gentleman Jackass and She-Beast. Jameson had nursed a slight crush on Frat Rat, from the Sunset tribe, his acres of teeth and feathered blond locks, but wisely hid his attraction when among his macho coworkers. At any rate, Frat Rat was voted out on Day Nine. Not-Cooper nodded glumly as Jameson described his latest fuck-up. The sunlight bore down through the palm trees’ broad leaves. No matter where you stood, the heat seeped through your skin.
“The merge is gonna be a shit-storm,” Not-Cooper smirked and rotated the links in the pan.
Jameson swallowed. Was he the only one who gave a damn? “I wish there was something we could do.”
“Just let the bastards go down with the ship. No life jackets.”
In his tent, Jameson set his travel alarm clock for seven that evening. His doze was dreamless and fitful. Several times, he ascended to semi-consciousness, smothering beneath the oppressive heat. Despite this, he never rose from the floor. If he mimicked the position associated with rest, his mind and body would be fooled. Thinking about Den Mother, the way she dropped her voice to a murmur when interviewed at night, made the heat tolerable. When his alarm chimed, he rolled around under the sheets, as if wondering what noise had stirred him.
“You were off your game with Den Mother,” Mona said. Jameson had just changed into his last clean T-shirt. “Kevin can fill in. Get some more beauty sleep, kid.”
Jameson stood at the edge of Inferno as Mona led Kevin, a doe-eyed and scrawny Latino, into the jungle. It was stupid. He didn’t always shoot Den Mother, not even typically. But Mona had promised! His arms and back grew slack as he stared at the dirt. Why waste time bitching at him after the botched interview? A simple snub was less fuss. She’d thrive if deported to the other side of the island and given a chance at the million.
The sun finished its descent, and most of the crew not shooting had gathered around the campfire. Not-Cooper strummed an old George Strait melody on his boxy black guitar. The others watched him because he was the only one doing anything. The crew’s bodies were limp, like fresh roadkill, stretched upon the stumps and boulders and fallen trees around the campfire.
When they landed on shore a week before the players, the jungle had seemed lush and forbidden, the perfect setting for a game designed to reduce players to their most primal selves. It revealed itself, however, to be a mere repository for every insect, reptile and critter that no one could name and no one could avoid. Whitman had offered a weekend vacation in Palm Springs to whomever had amassed the most mosquito bites by game’s end.
Landing a multi-month stint filming a hot new show that would revolutionize television had been a windfall. Jameson had spent the previous year submitting his paltry resume and acquainting himself with his friends’ spare rooms and sofas. With the money he was making now, he could afford a studio apartment. If he got hired for a second season—Whitman was confident the network would demand one—maybe he could afford a neighborhood without crack dealers or constant police patrol. His mother had been so proud, calling from across the continent in Virginia. She reminded her son that this was his dream…enjoy it! Jameson no longer knew the substance of his dreams. He was too spent to muster even modest perspective.
The editing bay was inside a claustrophobic makeshift suite, walled off by army green canvases. The equipment—the VCRs and switches and screens and spools—was two days away from the trash heap; Whitman hadn’t seen the point in exposing top-shelf machinery to these punishing conditions. Surprisingly, no one was working at the console. It was the first time he’d surveyed the whole editing bay. It impressed him in the way pachyderms impressed him—distantly and disconcertingly.
To the side was a file cabinet containing every last tape filled with average Americans scheming and starving on a remote island. Whitman hoped to recycle the tapes as the early episodes were assembled. If your heart broke while the camera rolled but some douche erased the footage, maybe it didn’t break after all. Ecstatic, James found the top drawer unlocked.
After riffling through the cassettes, he found one marked Greta. No one informed whoever labeled these that the crew agreed nicknames would discourage inappropriate bonds between the players and themselves. A whole cassette of Den Mother’s warmth and wisdom, her greatest hits. Jameson recalled enough about the machines from his junior-college courses to bring Den Mother’s image up on a monitor.
It was obvious she wasn’t from L.A. or New York or Florida or anywhere one would find middle-aged women of fighting age, never realizing they were fighting death. Jameson could remember her mentioning it, but he decided she was from Minnesota, maybe Wisconsin. She’d allowed crow’s feet, laugh lines and worry lines to invade her rosy-cheeked face. Her hazel eyes softened whenever she spoke of others who needed her affection or counsel.
Jameson watched raptly, zipping through a minute or two then allowing the tape to play. He didn’t have enough time to watch it all. Maybe he’d catch the best parts, like channel surfing. More than once, she insisted that she knew this was a game and she would have to vote out the very tribesmen she claimed to adore. Still, Jameson couldn’t dismiss her as craven and insincere like the other players, even the ones he liked. How must it feel to call her Mom? The head editor, a burly woman who ate nothing but granola bars, crashed his reverie.
“Your ignorant ass just shoots these losers,” she huffed. “You leave the watching to me.”
He gulped and pushed himself away from the monitor, almost flipping over his chair. “Sorry, Brenda. I thought I could help.” Hearing those words leave his mouth dehumanized him.
She smirked and chomped her granola bar, rolled her eyes and ordered him to scat. He rushed out, too embarrassed to get a last glance, Den Mother perched on a boulder or a tree trunk or the beach, assuring him, assuring everyone at home, that these players could inspire more than derision. Inside the tent, Jameson didn’t bother with sleep. He stripped off his clean shirt—he’d need it for his next date with Den Mother.
The crew kept up with the game’s progress thanks to a constant flow of producers and cameramen in and out of Inferno. The Moonrise tribe, dominion of Gentleman Jackass and She-Best, had lost the immunity challenge, the last before the merge. At the elimination ceremony, their voting bloc jettisoned Kid Christ. The pudgy cameraman didn’t stifle his glee recounting how the contestant burst into tears and threw back his head, arms raised, demanding that God avenge his betrayal. Reportedly, She-Beast muttered that God had nothing to do with it.
The Moonrise bloc had evicted every tribesman not in its alliance. Nothing left to do but target Sunset’s players starting tomorrow. Jameson’s gut twisted, perspiration coating his face. He had to warn Den Mother. Neither Mona nor any other producer knew of his special connection with Den Mother. They wouldn’t know to keep Jameson far away.
He didn’t dream about the game. Instead, he trudged along a Venice sidewalk, terrified those interviewing him for jobs would notice his massive erection. After that, he dreamed of a long-ago afternoon at Chuck E. Cheese. It had been his first visit. The playroom had been grimy with bad lighting, not shiny like the commercials promised.
Not long after sunrise, a booming voice instructed the crew to circle the campfire. Monty Whitman hadn’t rallied the troops since the first day of shooting. Jameson stumbled out of his tent, his last clean shirt on his back, albeit no longer clean. Whitman wore his typical uniform: dark khaki slacks and shirt, huge pith helmet, wraparound shades. One might mistake him for a tourist determined to “experience” the wilderness. He gestured incessantly while he spoke. The crew attempted enthusiasm, but it was too hot and they were too bored with the players hatching their schemes of mundane malignance.
“This shoot has surpassed my wildest expectations,” he called. The tide fell against the beach as he paused. Jameson found the sound soothing. “My players, your players, have come to win! They’re lying, they’re scheming, they’re bringing every kind of excitement John Doe American could want. Best of all, they’re doing this wearing only swimsuits.” A few crewmen laughed, but the others weren’t sure if Whitman wanted that. “I have better news. Your schedules will ease up a bit. With us losing another player every three days, that leaves fewer to shoot. Enjoy the break. You’ve earned it!”
“Fuck that,” someone in back cried. “We want our bonus!”
Whitman crowed with laughter. The crew followed, this time certain it was the proper response. “One last thing,” he added. “I know none of you would dream of violating our most important rule, but it’s imperative that nothing we say or do influence the players.” His fingers made a V and flicked back and forth underneath his eyes. “Let’s keep each other honest…”
After that inspirational interlude concluded, Mona informed Jameson they’d be one of the teams shooting the merged tribe’s first interactions, in addition to quick one-on-ones. The young man’s voice cracked, he was so desperate to hide his enthusiasm. Ten players, even more producers and crew—surely he’d have a chance to warn Den Mother. Alas, he had no idea how to do it. If caught, he’d be sent to Purgatory along with whatever player got the business end of the votes.
Two hours later, on the opposite end of the island, half a dozen cameras aimed their lenses at an expanse of beach. Soon, the crew heard the hollers and merriment of both Sunset and Moonrise players converging. Their joy jumped tenfold to find a large feast of wine, bread, meats and cheeses awaiting them. Until today, all they’d eaten was rice provided by the producers and whatever wildlife they caught. Jameson wondered how this food wasn’t “interference” with the game. The thought left his head, however, when Mona began calling instructions.
A half-hour later, while the players gorged like Vikings before a voyage, the producers began subtly extracting from the feast first one player and then another for interviews. Jameson worried when Den Mother wasn’t selected first, or the time after that, or the time after that. Maybe the producers didn’t need sound bites from all the players.
“Since you’re Den Mother’s favorite,” Mona said quietly, “I’ll go fetch her. She spills her guts when you’re filming.”
Jameson nearly dropped the camera, he was so excited. He retreated a few yards into the jungle and began experimenting with angles. Den Mother greeted him warmly and sat on a fallen palm tree as instructed by Mona. Jameson grinned. She’d instinctively selected just the right position for his shot. He was amazed at how perfectly Den Mother segued from playing the game to confessing, the interview almost over before he realized his only chance to warn her about the Moonrise danger would soon expire.
“How does it feel,” Mona asked, “playing the game with five strangers you’ve known only from challenges?”
“Maybe the Moonrise tribe is just like us.” Den Mother winked at the lens. What made her do that? Did she know Jameson had a message for her? “They had to make some hard decisions at their elimination ceremonies, but I’m sure those were based on merit, not personal feelings.”
Mona’s contempt seemed to elude Den Mother, but Jameson read her face as easily as a billboard. “Could the Moonrise be playing the game differently than you?’
Den Mother shrugged and smiled. “Anything’s possible in this game.” She laughed. “I learned that real damn fast.”
“Has your tribe decided which Moonrise member will get your votes?”
“Oh, there’s been talk that a couple of us might still vote for each other.”
Mona, so contained during interviews, paused. Jameson assumed that she, like him, was stunned. She asked if the Sunset tribe might still be too focused on eliminating each other to think about Moonrise.
“Sure,” Den Mother said. “Besides, maybe no one on Moonrise deserves to go home just now.” She swatted at a horsefly. “It pains me to say this, but we have a few personal conflicts among us five. You’d think after nearly three weeks, we’d be past that.” She smiled but it didn’t stick. “You look surprised, Mona.” The situation was more critical than Jameson had speculated. “Young man, close your mouth,” Den Mother laughed. “There are flies everywhere.” His eyes widened to learn Den Mother watched him like he watched her.
Mona recovered her composure. It was like watching a receiver bobble a Hail Mary only to seize it at the last moment. She said, “It’s heartwarming how much affection you have for strangers, Greta.” Jameson’s mind was so busy calculating how to warn Den Mother that he didn’t notice Mona ease back from her boulder. He knew from experience that when she straightened her back, withdrawing physically from the conversation, it meant she wished to conclude the one-on-one. It surprised him to hear Mona wish Den Mother luck.
The contestant told Jameson to be careful—his cheeks and nose were bright red. “That damn sun,” she said. “My kingdom for some cloud cover!”
He jerked the camera from his face. With no lens between them, it took him a moment to calibrate his perspective. “Moonrise is voting as one,” he stuttered. “They think you’re the leader. If they get rid of you first, the other four will be easy.” He didn’t need to look beside him to imagine Mona’s jaw dropped in shock, quickly followed by white rage. He focused on Den Mother, whose features kept realigning while decoding his outburst.
”Jameson, what are you talking about?” she managed. “How do you know—?”
Mona leapt between Jameson and the contestant. She literally pushed Den Mother back toward the feast. The contestant stumbled, arms flailing, and Jameson feared she’d topple, her skull smacking against a stone. If he kept imagining Den Mother in danger, he could keep imagining himself as her savior. Mona insisted all sorts of rumors circulate among the crew. She encouraged Den Mother to ignore Jameson and please never repeat this rumor to any other player. Mona smiled wildly. “I think you might take it all, Greta. I really do.” Ignoring her, Den Mother looked over her shoulder a last time before joining the tribe. She mouthed are you okay? Jameson’s gaze was fixed on a tree trunk. Had he already finished his mission? He stood dumbly as Mona demanded that he return to Inferno immediately. Whitman would be told about this, she promised. Circling the perimeter of the feast, Jameson willed himself not to glance at her. He’d done what was necessary, and now Whitman would do what he felt necessary.
After returning to Inferno, the disgraced cameraman told no one, not even Not-Cooper, what he’d done. When Mona stormed into camp, however, he watched helplessly as the gossip leapt from person to person, like malaria. Brenda, in particular, shot him a dirty look. He crawled into his stifling tent, stripped naked, and tried to recall the breathing exercises his last therapist taught him. The crew didn’t announce dinner. Were they avoiding him as ordered, or were they appalled like Mona? Drifting to sleep, he knew it made no difference.
Three hours later, he woke to a commotion outside. At his tent’s opening, he watched the crew scramble, a trio of cameras rushing toward the island’s other side. He didn’t know what to think. The first post-merge vote was still two nights away. The immunity challenge wasn’t scheduled till hours before the vote. He was about to rise from his tent when Not-Cooper blocked his way and slowly shook his head.
“What the hell’s happening?”
“Damage control, dumbass. Whitman moved the elimination ceremony to tonight. Can’t undo what you did, stupid shit, but once Den Mother’s gone, no one left in the game will know. Apparently, she didn’t share that info with the others.”
The heat, he never got used to the heat. Enormous mosquitoes, bugs the size of butterflies, swarmed the two men. He’d made things worse. Not only did Den Mother fail to act on his warning, Whitman had pushed her execution date two days forward. His head swam with confusion and denial. He imagined this terrible isolation and dread closely resembled what a real island castaway might experience. The whole game seemed to him a claptrap devoted to instigate mistrust and melodrama. Not knowing why, he quickly looked around Inferno to make sure no one was filming his humiliation.
Not-Cooper shoved Jameson back into his tent. He ordered the young man to wait for him. Jameson did as instructed. He wasn’t among friends.
After an interminable half-hour, Not-Cooper ordered the young man to come outside. There, Jameson found the entire crew—every cameraman, every editor, every producer—circled around the campfire. The ring of indignation was menacing like he’d been told the elimination ceremonies were.
Whitman strode forward, halted inches from Jameson’s nose. He wondered if the show’s creator would throttle him while everyone watched. After all, he’d named his game Savages.
“I wanted to fire you hours ago,” he said, “but I realized it was more appropriate, more in keeping with the integrity of this game, if I let your fellow crew members decide. They’ve all cast their votes and placed them in a jar.” A vote? Insanity! Whitman was the undisputed boss. Why should he care what the peons thought? Jameson’s face flushed with humiliation, and he realized that was precisely Whitman’s intent.
Mona, cheeks scarlet and eyes aflame, read the slips of paper one by one. Each had yes written upon it. No one had informed him, but Jameson assumed that meant yes, fire his traitorous ass. Each vote felt like a punch in the throat. Kevin mouthed an obscenity when he caught Jameson’s eye. The former cameraman halfway hoped the crew, those just as miserable and bug-ridden as him, would spring to his defense.
After the last yes was read, Whitman directed the young man to make his way down a narrow, twisting path that ended at the beach. There, a motorboat would whisk him away to Purgatory. He hadn’t thought to pack and was too humiliated to mention it. Jameson didn’t know where he’d stay once banished, or who’d be with him. Part of him expected the boat’s captain to toss him overboard before reaching exile. The path took over twenty minutes to traverse. More mosquitoes, more bamboo branches slamming into his chest. He made the beach just as dusk faded. He expected a boat to be waiting, but there was none. Exhausted, he flopped on his back atop the sand.
Jameson didn’t remember falling asleep, but he recognized the voice calling his name, waking him. He couldn’t believe it. She was here! Better yet, there was no camera intruding, no Mona plainly not giving a shit what happened to anyone. Den Mother wouldn’t be standing beside him, however, if she hadn’t been eliminated.
Whitman liked to contend that Savages was more a “reality” show than a traditional game show. Game shows, he said, had a troublesome reputation, all their tackiness and sugar-high enthusiasm. Jameson suspected, however, that audiences would connect most quickly with the elements of Savages that were frank manipulations: the elimination ceremonies, the immunity challenges, the gradual shedding of garments until indecency knocked.
Den Mother laughed, brushed his shoulder. “You were right, young man. It was brutal.”
“Why didn’t you do something? Tell someone?”
“I knew at the start I wouldn’t win. The odds weren’t good.” Mentioning them by their real names, she praised She-Beast’s aggression and Gentleman Jackass’ charisma. “I made a promise before the game: I wouldn’t disgrace myself just for a little money.”
“Greta, a million dollars is a lot of money.” Greta. He thought of her as Greta now.
“One day it’d be gone, though, and I’d have to look in the mirror.”
He shrugged her hand from his shoulder, pouted and glared out at the ocean. A small but increasingly loud roar signaled the motorboat coming to collect them. Why had he fought so hard to save her if she would’ve never saved herself? “This is crap,” he said. “It’s totally not fair.”
Greta laughed and, silently, Jameson forgave her. At Purgatory, maybe she could bake cookies. He’d wash the insect eggs and grit from her hair. He would clear her dishes after each meal. She’d tell him about her real kids and he could pretend to be one of them. His last clean shirt was drenched with sweat. “Admit it, though,” he mumbled. “It wasn’t fair.”
She draped her arm over his shoulders. Her touch felt familiar and friendly, like a bathrobe. “Only children believe life is fair.”
“I was talking about the game.” Jameson smiled, thankful no one was filming.
“So was I.” Greta shrugged and smiled. “Television is just like life, in a way…”
A chill trickled down his spine. That wasn’t what he’d needed to hear. It sounded absolutely true, so it must be forever ignored. He wished the motorboat would hurry up.
Still, he hoped Greta might bake treats for him in Purgatory. He recalled, as a child, sinking his teeth into an oatmeal cookie one Christmas. At least, he thought he was that boy. Maybe he was remembering a commercial. The motorboat slowed, its engine sputtering, Jameson took Greta’s hand, guiding her aboard. The woman squeezed his fingers and mouthed thank you.
About the Author:
Thomas Kearnes graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with an MA in film writing. His fiction has appeared in Hobart, Gertrude, A cappella Zoo, Split Lip Magazine, Cutthroat, Litro, Berkeley Fiction Review, PANK, BULL: Men’s Fiction, Gulf Stream Magazine, Wraparound South, Night Train, 3:AM Magazine, Word Riot, Storyglossia, Driftwood Press, Adroit Journal, The Matador Review, Mary: A Journal of New Writing, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pidgeonholes, Sundog Lit, The Citron Review, The James Franco Review and elsewhere. He is a three-time Pushcart Prize nominee. Originally from East Texas, he now lives near Houston and works as a cashier. His debut collection of short fiction, “Steers and Queers” will print at Lethe Press in 2019.