Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Notes from the Tradeshow Floor

 

 

“Hi…Don, is it? Nice to meet you. Congrats on your big win!”

 

Tracy, It’s okay. I know this is work for you.

 

“Don’t be nervous. I always like to meet a fan. Especially one as successful as you. Oh, here, let’s do our photo. Smile! There. They’ll bring a glossy I can sign. So you can remember the day.”

 

I don’t crush on celebrities. But I have something for you to remember, if—

 

“Don’t think of me as a celebrity. Just a friend you haven’t met yet.”

 

Tracy, seriously, you can skip it. You sell, I sell. It’s an elaborate game we play. I’m just some schmo, and you don’t know me from Adam.

 

“I thought it was Dan?”

 

Cute. Listen: I know how this meet-and-greet goes. Sign my forehead while I secretly fantasize about you. You grin and bear it. But I’ve got something different to say, something real. I hope you’re ready. I hope you hear it.

 

“Hey, it’s your hour. So, tell me, what’s your secret? How’d you—”

 

 

*   *   * 

 

Wait. Look at this thing. Is it a tanning bed, or time machine? You can’t even tell anymore. But the more advanced it looks the more you think: The science is better. It won’t give me cancer. News flash: It still gives you cancer.

 

Whew. Okay, Donny. Just like you rehearsed…

  

*   *   *

 

Tracy, we are all two people. We’ve all got a public face and a private one, and they fight, and the whole world’s out of control. Except me. I have control. It’s how I sell more cardio machines and racks and free weights than any rep, at any company in the world. Period. It’s how I won cars, a trip to Fiji… It’s how I won this hour with you.

 

All these losers we sell to—they’re all broken. I used to be broken, too. But I woke up. And now I’m at FARSA—the biggest fitness convention in the world—as king of all sales. Again. And I’m walking the tradeshow with the famous Tracy Tanner.

 

“Hey, you’re a lucky man.”

 

It’s not luck. It’s pure skill and drive. It’s that I understand these sad suckers because—just a few years ago—I was one of them. I’ve seen the worst part of myself, and now I can see it in other people…and manipulate it.

 

“I understand that. Like, I was a chubby girl, and now I know what women—”

 

Not the same. I walked around like: Your margins are too thin? 24 Hour gutted your membership? I understand. I’ll come back next year. Everything was about how other people felt, what they wanted, what they wanted from me. I did too much listening.

 

“I mean, listening does seem like a problem for you.”

 

Right! Private me had ambition, but public me sat his useless ass on it. One car, two drivers, going nowhere. Deep down, I wanted to live like nobody was watching. I wanted to take. But I didn’t have the balls. The fear ran so deep I actually thought I cared about these losers. Hell, I didn’t even know there was a conflict. Two selves? Friction? I just thought I was moody.

 

I was like this, Tracy. I was like this a long time. My twenties, my thirties, my marriage… Damned if I didn’t sleepwalk through all of it. Would’ve gone on like that, too, like it does for all these other idiots. But it didn’t. Because one day, three years ago, I woke up crying. And I’ve woken up crying every day since. Every. Single. Day.

 

“Wait…what?”

*   *   *

  

Wait. Look at this. Steed Core: shred your abs on a mechanical horse. You know what’ll never sell? A little Japanese guy dressed like a cowboy, mowing down TV ducks with a fake rifle.

 

God, Tracy. We make our money here, but don’t you get sick of these people? Don’t you wish you had somebody on your level to talk to, somebody that understood?

  

*   *   *

  

This is how it goes:

 

Every morning I wake up in the hotel with the faucet already running. I sit up and hang my head. The tears fill my hands like a stopped up sink. My body shakes, but there’s no emotion—I don’t think about anything at all. It’s just the shame flushing out—the shame of having to sell to these cretins. It’s like pissing. It’s waste. Our brains make shame like melatonin, and it needs a release.

 

I let it run dry, and after two minutes it stops. It’s always two minutes.

 

“Two minutes is…a long time?”

 

Oh, I can go hours. Believe me.

 

“Wow. That is not at all what I meant.”

 

No, I hear you. But that’s not why I’m here. Anyways, when it’s done, I sit quietly. I listen to the maids in the hall, pushing their dirty towels. I listen through the walls: TVs blaring, people fighting or fucking. I listen for other guys crying, and I picture them: a porno on TV, marriage failing, and passing out in the fetal position. I hear these noises, but I don’t hear sadness. What I hear is opportunity.

 

After it stops I drop the ready pack in the coffee maker. I look in the mirror. Are my eyes puffy? Sure. But that only helps. People trust men with bags under their eyes. Women sell youth, men sell age, and crying gives it in spades.

 

I run the shower cold, stand there till my skin goes numb. It soaks into my veins, and afterwards I’m lighter. I’m like an iceberg. Then I drink my coffee by the window and watch the shitty world, the smog, the traffic jams. A million squirrels, trying to get a nut. To them, it’s chaos. Forward? Backward? They don’t know. They’re flying blind. But a few of us can pull the strings. A few of us are woke enough to see the patterns.

 

“Yeah. You’re real woke.”

  

*   *   *

  

Pergo flooring? Make your sales guy go barefoot! Teak lockers? Make your guy hand out log slices! Look! Wood! Microfiber towels? Make your guy wear a towel around his slacks! Look! This is what towels do!

 

Ugh. It’s offensive. Nobody gets the kayfabe. Nobody respects the art.

 

*   *   *

 

 

Look, Tracy, I already said it: I don’t crush on celebrities. They’re all too broken, and they’ve all got bodyguards anyway. You can never get close enough.

 

Two months ago I didn’t know anything about you. I mean I knew your face. I knew every rep had your poster in his garage. But I figured you were fake as a spray tan, like the rest of ‘em.

 

“Uh huh.”

 

But, okay. I find out this is the sales prize, so I Google you. I watch your workout videos, your interviews. I read your little sidebars in “Women’s Health.” I get to know the polished you.

 

Know what else I saw? That Oprah interview.

 

“Stop. That’s off limits.”

 

Oh, I played it back so many times. It was a panel thing, remember? Body image and the modern woman. God, I don’t know how you got picked for that one. You got a million problems, but pretty sure body image ain’t one of 'em.

 

“Don, that’s enough.”

 

But you’re lucky you did get picked because, whether you know it or not, that was your crying moment.

 

“You really doing this?”

 

It goes around a few times, and then Oprah asks a softball question: What makes you feel beautiful? The other celebs say some trite BS about healthy relationships or helping people. And then it gets to you. You remember what you said? Standing in the mirror and telling myself I am. Wow. Just wow. I mean, yeah, it’s true. But damn that came across horrible! Can I tell you?

 

“No! You can’t. I already said you can’t.”

 

Ah! I didn’t have to. Oprah did. God bless her, she laid in to you. It’s easy to tell yourself you’re beautiful when you look like you do. We’re here to talk about real beauty. Do you feel beautiful? Are you beautiful on the inside?

 

And you just kept saying yeah, I’m good.

 

Oh, it was so awkward. I’ve never seen anybody need a shell to crawl into so bad. God have mercy, it finally cut to commercial break. And then, when it came back…you were gone! You walked off the stage!

 

I tell myself I’m beautiful. Tracy, that was an answer for men, not you. Sure, your picture gets tacked up over Johnny Husband’s toolbox. But he’s not buying your videos. He’s not buying your stupid perfume. He’s not your core audience.

 

Anyways this sold it for me. You’re famous. You’ve got talent. But you’re where I was three years ago. There’s a second Tracy in there—the real Tracy—but you’re fighting yourself. You need my help.

 

“Oh, fuck my life.”

  

*   *   *

  

Ugh. These people.

 

A giant spin class! Live teammates, working together from all over the world! A peloton of virtual friends!

 

Whatever. When you take off those VR goggles you’re still in bum-fuck Ohio. Those names on the leaderboard are stuck in strip malls. Just. Like. You.

 

God. You’ll never have any friends.

 

*   *   *

  

So here we are. Dead center of the tradeshow floor. Here’s my brand—Fitcor—with the God real estate. Why? Because I put us there. And over there—that’s your stage, two rows off center. Your sign in the rafters—T2. The only question that matters is: How do you take center? How do you bump me off?

 

“I got an idea. Just ten minutes till the contract’s up…”

 

Good! Then you’re ready for the last lesson: Ask yourself who you are. Are you the one who needs accolades? The one who needs attention from idiot men? The one who bases her self worth on “Likes”?

 

Are you really the one who walks off the stage? Do you secretly hate yourself?

 

“No, but I hate you.”

 

Why? I bring opportunity! You just have to take it! That blonde over there: fifty-something, too-tight face… That’s Suzanne. All she owns is pink Lycra, and the gym is her life. She looks like Farah Fawcett, but like, now. All she wants is to be young forever. She can’t, but you can sell her on trying.

 

That other blonde… That’s Sandy. She’s basically Suzanne, except roided up, and with huge implants. She wants to feel safe. She can’t, but you can sell her on trying.

 

And there’s Alyssa. Young, pretty, idealistic. She actually thinks fitness can change the world. Twenty years from now she’ll either be a Suzanne or Sandy, depending on what her relationship with her dad was like. She needs a role model. She needs you.

 

Tracy, there’s a potential market of millions, but they’re all carbon copy of these three basic models. You just have to see the forest from the trees.

 

“That is misogynist bullshit.”

 

It’s the same with men! Watch. My audience is that beefcake over there. Chad. In high school he stuffed fatties in a trashcan. Now fast-forward twenty years. Chad’s back, and he wants three hundred a month to yell at the fatties while they do skull crushers.

 

This is not a good business model.

 

But now Chad needs the weaklings. Their cash keeps the janitor paid so he won’t get staph from the bench press. So I sell him approachable machines, bells and whistles, gamification. Anything to get the fatties in the door on New Year’s resolution time. Then I give him some wisdom. I say: This is how you keep Kathy with a “K” interested enough that she thinks she’ll come back. This is how you squeeze her for dues. This is how you keep the lights on so you can work out till your pecs explode.

 

There’s thousands of Chads. And, weirdly, millions who want to be Chad. Now do you see it, Tracy? Everybody lives in a lie, even the ones we sell truth to. The world doesn’t want to wake up. It’s too hard. Instead they come to places like Vegas.

 

Every day a hundred thousand people stumble into McCarran, looking to feel whole. They come here for the show, for lights and noise, for dopamine. The lizard brain. Sex. Most of all, sex. This giant charade made out of a million tiny parts, that gets broken down and hauled away, and leaves them with nothing but a vague feeling of wholeness they can’t quite catch. Next day they leave, sunburned, broke, broken up. Instead of wholeness they’re ripped apart even wider. On the way out, they walk by another hundred thousand more, just getting off the plane. And the meat grinder goes on.

 

There’s billions of dollars to be made off helping people hide like this. But to do it, we can’t hide from ourselves.

 

Every morning, before I leave the room, I look in the mirror and say: You know who you are, Donny. Now go lie your ass off. Tell them they can be somebody. And I do. And it’s gotten me everything.

 

My hour’s up, Tracy. Remember: You’re better than these idiots. They’re stepping stools—use them. You need to punch some paparazzi. You need to throw a boyfriend through a window. You need to know your audience. To make your money. To stop listening. You need to sell women on your strength.

 

You need to see we’re on the same level—above everybody else. Do you feel it?

 

“Fuck you, Don! Do you feel this?” 

 

*   *   *

  

We part. I stagger past the miles of treadmills, the tonnage of freeweights, the crushing hoards of too-fit, too-horny people. I pass under the FARSA sign: “Fitness, Aerobics, Racquet, and Sports Association. Success by affiliation!”

 

I built this, Tracy. The success comes by affiliation with me.

 

I enter the corridor, empty except a few high-tops, the tablecloths already stripped. I plop down on the floor and hold a napkin under my nose to stanch the blood. I’m alone, but I carry your autographed picture. It says: “Your highest moment was my lowest. Thanks for the wakeup call, asshole.”

 

I read it again, and I laugh. Sometimes the sell doesn’t look like you thought it would. Humans are funny that way.

 

You’re a wily one, Ms. Tanner.

 

Next to the escalators down to the casino’s belly, there’s a platform with a Spin bike. There’s a girl on it, too young and too pretty. A man is by her, a buff guy with a sun-spotted face. He schmoozes, but she doesn’t hear him. She just smiles her unbreakable smile. Look at these two realities: In one, she’s on a stationary bike in an empty hall, some creepy shithead watching as she peddles her ass off going literally nowhere. In another, she’s riding through golden fields toward fame, toward her own destiny. Which is true? They both are. But only one brings in the money.

 

I watch her and I think: Sometimes your highest moment is somebody else’s lowest. Sometimes a grown woman socks you in the face in front of a thousand people. So what? When they fight back it means you already won. It means the sell worked.

 

They only get mad when you’re right.

 

In the coming months you go back on Oprah. You issue a retraction. You apologize, and it’s a beautiful piece of acting. You say: No, I didn’t feel beautiful. But I remembered how. And there it is: your mirror moment. Your career explodes—the book, the videos, the makeup line. Girls, you can feel beautiful. Just remember how. Thanks to you, a million housewives feel whole again.

 

And, by default, thanks to me.

 

You’re too big for FARSA now; I won’t see you again. But that’s okay. We’ll keep evangelizing. And, side by side, we’ll keep winning. Because we know the secret.

 

The secret is to ignore the shame. The secret is to never stop pedaling.

 

 

 

 

Ryan McFadden is a Santa Cruz, CA native, currently living in Berkeley with his wife and two-year-old son. He got an MFA in fiction from California College of the Arts. In his day job he leads a team of writers at Dropbox.