Published Issue 111, March 2023
“This is really unnecessary,” he said. “I didn’t sign up for this.”
He rubbed his blue, furry hands against his blue, furry thighs, practically squirming with discomfort.
“See that resistance?” the therapist observed, leveling him with a dispassionate stare over a pair of small, rectangular glasses. “That is precisely why you’re here.”
God, he hated her voice. It was so stale and unsweet, just like the room surrounding him. Not a sprinkle of fun or color anywhere. He should have known they wouldn’t get along when he’d spotted the remnants of her lunch in a trash bin. A salad. Why anyone eats such things was beyond him. He had to get out of here.
“So, I think …” the therapist said, trying to catch his large, wandering eyes. “I think we should talk about the incident.”
The patient sighed and rubbed his temples, like he had a hangover. Which he did.
Because truth be told, it was like: take your pick Ms. Freud. Ever since he’d ransacked that Mrs. Fields at the Westfield Mall, he’d been on a downward spiral. The Show suspended him from its cast. His agent wasn’t returning his calls. And now the paparazzi was out for him too, after news broke that, in the throes of a rush, he’d entered his neighbor’s home on Christmas Eve and swiped the plate they’d left out for Santa.
“He really is a monster,” People Magazine declared on its latest cover.
As if reading his mind, the therapist added, “I think we move beyond recent events. Take me back to the beginning. The beginning of your … condition.”
He drummed his fingers into the arm of his chair.
But even through his recalcitrance, he realized if he was ever going to get her to sign off on his evaluation, he had to play ball. That was the showrunner’s condition for him to return to the set: clearance from a “licensed mental health professional.” It was all such a joke, a waste of time. But perhaps he could skate by without getting too melodramatic.
“Well, as you know …” he began. “I grew up on the Street.”
The therapist nodded encouragingly.
And no sooner had he started describing his childhood than all came flooding back. The rank wisps of steam rising from manhole covers. The sirens wailing at night. How he huddled around fires to keep warm, and under banisters from the rain. How his band of misfit friends engaged in hours of make-believe to escape the godforsaken patch of urban America they called home.
His parents, like many of his friends, were out of the picture, victims of Nixon’s drug war. This was back in the late ‘60s, and if you grew up in the hood, your friends were your family. They were the brothers and sisters you could rely on when the world had passed you by.
And then all of the sudden the world gave a shit.
He still shook his head at the serendipity of it all — even though the events had been immortalized in countless magazine features, Wikipedia entries, and even a Ken Burns documentary. That moment in 1967 when two clueless Upper East Siders got lost trying to find a charity fundraiser in Hell’s Kitchen and stumbled upon the Street. Film and TV types, they were drawn at first to the music. It was Big Bird who, unsurprisingly, got their attention with a freestyle about gender fluidity. Oscar was playing drums, or rather trash can lids, to provide a beat. And he … he who’d years later find himself recalling this scene in the therapists’ office … he was the hype man. He shouted, cajoled and jeered in a weird, gruff voice that used to make his friends laugh, but later became his signature voice on the Show. It wasn’t his real voice at all, but so many children across America had now become used to it that many people didn’t know he was just acting.
“We were just young, dumb kids from the hood,” he told the therapist. “So when those producers came knocking, we took our chance. We didn’t care they wanted to make a stupid kids show.”
During those first few seasons, none of them had talent agents. None of them even knew how much they were worth. What they did know was that they could suddenly afford their own cribs. It was such a weird but totally dope development, going back to the Street to film episodes, but not actually having to live there anymore. They became both heroes and outcasts of their old neighborhood, repping the Street while also alienated from it by fame.
Then came the fateful day when he discovered his persona. It was just some stupid skit the producers came up with about counting numbers, and the Count was doing his usual thing … “a one, a two, a threeeee!” He’d been off to the side, watching the filming and taking a drag of his cigarette, when an idea struck him. Maybe the kids would laugh if he popped a cookie into his mount every time the Count went up in number. There was a tray of them right there next to the trailer.
Sure enough, when he slammed one cookie, two cookies, three and four into this mouth, the children burst out in laughter. Never mind that he felt sick to his stomach afterwards; this could be his shtick! His role! Up until then, he’d only been a minor character on the Show, at risk of losing his place on the cast. But once the fan mail poured in, the producers told him audiences loved his new character.
A scratching noise distracted him for a moment, and he glanced over to the therapist who was furiously jotting down notes.
“Oh,” she said. “Don’t mind me. Please continue.”
He rolled his eyes. Of course, his pupils were always like that.
“Anyway, so then …” he said, “and I don’t know how to explain it …”
He tried. Tried to explain how the world opened up for him. The Oreos sponsorship, the chartered jets, the VIP tickets, the recognition everywhere he went, and that thing that he craved so much: being somebody. He only faced one requirement in that life, one inevitable favor people asked him to do wherever he went: he had to stuff his face full of sugar and act like a deranged fool.
His waistline went first. Then his blood pressure. Soon enough, he was eating so many cookies that he forgot what it was like to eat anything else. He convinced himself that it was all worth it, that he enjoyed making people laugh at his gluttonous antics. But two marriages and two costly divorces later, it was his childhood friends who sounded the alarm. Bert, Ernie and Grover staged an intervention.
“Look man,” they said. “It’s gone too far.”
Withdrawal was a bitch. He wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone. Afterwards, his manager came up with a plan. He couldn’t have any cookies in his home, or anywhere near him unless he was filming on set. The strategy worked for a while. In fact, it only went to hell two months ago when he caught that scent from the Mrs. Fields in the Westfield Mall …
His voice trailed off.
The therapist’s scratching continued.
“Might it be,” she finally said, putting down her notepad, “that cookies are just a distraction?”
“I’m serious,” she said. “Maybe the real you has nothing to do with cookies.”
“But I’m the cookie mon— ”
“I know,” she interrupted. “But what if you put that aside for a moment? What’s left?”
He felt sweat gathering on his forehead — and the urge to down an entire tray of Chips Ahoy. Ah shit, he thought. What was more pathetic than this, a children’s star having an existential crisis in a Midtown therapist’s office? He wondered if Macaulay Culkin ever found himself in a similar situation.
He glanced at the clock, then at the evaluation form sitting on the therapist’s desk across the room. At that moment it seemed a million miles away.
A creeping realization entered his head. It filled him with angst, but also … hope.
He wasn’t going to return the Show anytime soon. Or maybe ever.
Chris Walker is a journalist based in Denver, and an associate editor at 5280 Magazine. He has spent his career chasing stories around the globe for publications ranging from VICE to The Atlantic, and has explored the worlds of skydiving drug smugglers, murderous expats, and armed off-gridders. But one thing that truly terrifies him? Showing people his fiction. He appreciates this chance to get outside of his comfort zone. More information about Walker’s work, including a list of journalism awards, can be found at chrisallanwalker.com. Catch him on Twitter.