“It would be stupid to turn down the prize,” said Marla. She and Tyson were in the basement of her parents’ house where she was living until she had regrouped enough to return to college, which everyone seemed to hope would be soon.
“Not if you already have a boyfriend,” said Tyson.
“It’s not even a date,” said Marla. “It’s more like a chance to meet a celebrity. Plus a free dinner.”
“A local celebrity,” said Tyson, as if that made all the difference.
“I’m not going to fall in love with him,” said Marla. “I just want to meet him. And it’s a free meal at an expensive restaurant.”
“I don’t understand why you had to send so many pictures of yourself along with the valentine,” said Tyson.
“Eight pictures isn’t that many,” said Marla. If she was being honest, she hadn’t understood why they needed any pictures of the participants in order to judge which one had made the best Homemade Valentine, but she knew she was an attractive girl and she figured the pictures she’d chosen to send along with her entry certainly couldn’t hurt her chances. And she’d been right, apparently.
“Well,” said Tyson, getting to his feet and shrugging into his coat. “Let me know when you’re available to do something with your actual boyfriend since your Valentine’s Day is already booked.” He turned to leave.
“You’re being stupid,” said Marla.
Tyson stopped at the bottom of the basement stairs. “If this was some big movie star you were going on a date with, fine, I’d understand. But this is Hal Brigolek. We see him around town all the time. And his show doesn’t even make sense.”
“But I won, Tyson.”
Hal Brigolek had won Huffton’s Most Eligible Bachelor award six years in a row. In fact, he’d won every year since he’d saved the life of a visiting multi-millionaire’s daughter at the community pool and been rewarded with an undisclosed, but presumably enormous, sum of money which allowed him to quit his job as a lifeguard and realize his dream of hosting a local TV show on Channel 2 called ‘Round Here With Hal Brigolek. The premise of the show was nebulous at best. It mostly seemed to function as a medium for Hal to air whatever he and his two-man crew had happened to film that week, the quality of which fluctuated wildly. One episode had consisted of Hal asking people on the street if it was their birthday, to which everyone he asked replied that it was not, which then drove Hal to order a cake from the grocery store bakery that said “Happy Birthday, Nobody” on it, which he then threw off of an overpass from a moving van. Fortunately no one was hurt. Another episode featured a few local actors and played out like a pilot for a sitcom with Hal in the lead role as a roadie for a six-year-old singing prodigy. This episode was well received and many people tuned in the following week to see what would happen next only to see an entirely unrelated episode in which Hal pretended to not know how to water ski in order to drive a local water skiing instructor crazy with his incompetence. Then, later in the episode, Hal cruised past the gaping first instructor while skiing like an expert behind the boat of a rival instructor and waving happily.
But no one seemed to know Hal personally. He’d grown up in the area, but since saving the multi-millionaire’s daughter, he’d cut ties with his friends and family and embraced his role as a reclusive eccentric, albeit a handsome one in his early thirties with his own TV show who was often seen around town filming segments, putting gas in his jeep, shopping at the hardware store, and eating by himself or with his film crew at restaurants. When approached by local citizens, Hal was courteous, friendly, and charming, but that was as close as anyone could get to him. No one understood him.
Marla wondered if her date with Hal could change that. She wondered if perhaps she could be the one to get to know him, at least a little bit. In a way, being the only person to know something about the real Hal Brigolek would make her a local celebrity herself. People would want to know what she knew about Hal, would beg her to share, but she wouldn’t share anything beyond the occasional hint. Of course, back at college, if she ever went back, no one would care and she’d still be silent and anonymous and weak, but around home everyone would be curious. “What did he say to you? What’s he like? What’s he really like?”
And Hal was handsome. Marla liked Tyson and wanted their relationship to last, for a while at least, but it was hard not to be excited at the prospect of one-on-one attention from, air of mystery aside, such a good-looking older guy.
When Hal arrived at Marla’s parents’ house shortly after 6pm on Valentine’s Day, Marla was up in her room regretting her decision to wear her hair up, though it was too late to change it now.
“Marla!” called her mom from the bottom of the stairs. “There’s a limousine out front!”
Her heart fluttering, Marla put on her coat and hurried down the stairs.
“Is he not coming to the door?” asked her mother.
“I guess not,” said Marla. “I’ll see you later, mom.”
Her mother looked disappointed as she followed Marla down the front hall to the door. “It would have been nice if he at least said hello.”
“Maybe he will when he drops me off,” said Marla. She opened the front door and gasped at finding two men on the doorstep, one with a video camera and the other holding a boom mic.
“We’re filming the date for an upcoming episode of Round Here With Hal Brigolek,” said the man with the camera. “Just do what you’d do if we weren’t here.”
“How fun!” said Marla’s mother, her eyes shining as she peered over Marla’s shoulder. “I’ve seen that show! I’m not sure I get it, but I watch when I can.”
“Do you want me to come out again and act like I don’t see you?” asked Marla.
“Nah,” said the cameraman. “Just go to the car.”
As Marla crossed the dark front yard to the curb where the limo was parked, the two-man film crew followed her. She wondered if they’d be filming the whole time. If they were, it might make Hal less likely to open up to her. But on the other hand, she’d be on TV a lot, almost the star of the show, in a way, and besides, they wouldn’t be able to air everything, so there would still be plenty of the date about which viewers would only be able to enviously speculate.
When Marla got to the limo, no one got out to open the door for her. She was about to open the door herself when the passenger’s side window lowered with an electric whir. Marla stooped down to look inside and saw Hal sitting in the driver’s seat and pondering a map of Huffton unfolded on his lap by the dim glow of the dome light. “I’m driving,” He said. “You can sit up here if you want.”
Marla opened the door and climbed into the front seat while the film crew piled into the back. Smoothing her sleek brown dress over her lap, Marla looked over her shoulder and saw the camera pointed at her and the boom mic hovering just above the lens. She looked at Hal. She saw that his cheeks and chin were covered with stubble that, depending on one’s perspective, could either look sexy or indicate that he wasn’t taking the date very seriously.
“Hello,” said Marla. “I’m so happy to have won the contest. I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time.” She was embarrassed at how stiff she sounded.
Hal looked up from the map. “Can you read maps?”
Marla was taken aback. “I guess so, yes.”
“Good,” said Hal, handing Marla the map. “I need you to navigate us to the restaurant.” He turned off the dome light and pulled the limo out into the street.
“Whoa,” said the cameraman from the back of the car. “We need the light on to film, Hal.”
“I can’t drive with it on,” said Hal. “It’s distracting.”
“I can’t really read the map with it off,” said Marla. “What’s the restaurant? Do you know the address?”
“Fine!” shouted Hal. “We’ll go somewhere I know how to get to!”
No one said anything for a few moments.
“Should we keep rolling?” asked the cameraman.
“I’m not turning the dome light on,” said Hal. “Do whatever you want.”
Marla couldn’t tell if Hal was mad at her or the cameraman or both. She hoped he wasn’t disappointed with her already. The award letter hadn’t been clear about where her Valentine’s Day date with Hal was supposed to take place, but Marla was worried that the dome light issue may have resulted in a significant downgrade from the original plan.
“So did you see my winning homemade valentine?” asked Marla. “Or did somebody else judge them?”
“No one judged them,” said Hal, stopping in the middle of an intersection to squint at a street sign while cars on all sides honked. “I just looked at the photographs and chose a winner based on those.”
Marla felt far more flattered than indignant. After all, It wasn’t as if making homemade valentines was her life’s passion. She’d spent a lot of time on it, but wasn’t it better to be chosen based on her looks? Didn’t that mean that Hal actually wanted to go on a date with her? She was beginning to feel more confident.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“Where do you want to go?” asked Hal.
“I thought you had some place in mind?”
“Well, we can go anywhere. I already ate, actually, so it’s up to you.”
Marla was a little hurt. “So you’re not going to eat anything?”
“I might get a milkshake,” said Hal. “If we go someplace that has them.”
“What about Stem to Stern?” asked Marla. Stem to Stern was Huffton’s newest lakefront seafood place. Earlier in the week Marla had overheard her parents discussing Stem to Stern’s outrageous prices and she’d immediately begun to hope that Hal might take her there on the date.
“I don’t think they’ve got milkshakes,” said Hal. He turned around in his seat to face the cameraman and said, “Do you remember if they have milkshakes there or not?”
“They definitely don’t,” said the sound man. It was the first thing he’d said all night and Marla decided she hated him.
“They do have good lighting,” said the cameraman. “I think it would be a flattering setting for the girl.”
“It’s always about lighting!” shouted Hal.
Marla turned to glare back at the cameraman. “My name is Marla. Don’t call me ‘the girl.’”
“I told you guys it was pronounced Marla,” said Hal through gritted teeth as he pulled into a palm reader’s parking lot and turned around.
“How else would you pronounce it?” asked Marla. Everyone ignored her.
“So where are we going?” asked the cameraman.
“Stem to Stern,” said Hal. “If anyone knows how to get there.”
Once they got to the restaurant, Marla finally got a chance to see Hal behaving more like a celebrity. Even without reservations, the hostess rushed them to a prime table next to the long windows looking out over the lake. With the cameraman and the sound man hovering around her and Hal, Marla felt like quite a spectacle. She could feel the glances and outright stares of the other people in the restaurant and she wondered how many of them would tune in to watch her and Hal again when the episode aired.
Marla didn’t take long to decide on soft shell crab, but Hal was still searching in vain for a milkshake hidden somewhere on the menu when the waitress came back to ask if they were ready to order. Marla thought she recognized the waitress as a girl who’d been a few years behind her in school though she couldn’t remember her name. The waitress, clearly thrilled to be waiting on Hal, especially with a camera present, barely seemed to notice Marla.
“I already ate,” said Hal. “And all I really want is a milkshake, which you don’t have.” He gestured at Marla and said, “So just take her order.”
The waitress didn’t take her eyes from Hal. “We can make you a milkshake. I’m sure we can! We’ll find a way!”
“I’ll have the soft shell crab,” said Marla.
“What flavor do you want?” asked the waitress, still speaking to Hal. “Chocolate? Strawberry?”
“Strawberry, sure,” said Hal.
“Coming right up!” said the waitress, and she hurried away from the table and disappeared through the swinging doors into the kitchen.
“I don’t think she even heard my order,” said Marla.
“She was excited about the milkshake,” said Hal. “I think that was the problem.”
Marla sighed and took a sip of her water. Hal was watching her but she couldn’t read his face. She set the glass down on the table and said, “Why did you choose me? I don’t understand. Am I just material for your show? Because the way this date is going, I don’t think it’ll make a good show.”
“The show’s never as good as I want it to be,” said Hal. He sprinkled salt on the tablecloth.
“That’s because the lighting always sucks,” said the cameraman.
“The lighting’s good right now,” said Hal.
“Not as good as I thought it would be,” said the cameraman.
“I think it might help if you and I talked like we were really on a date,” said Marla. “If we shared stuff about our pasts, about our aspirations, things that are important to us. Maybe not even on camera. Maybe just to build some chemistry.”
Hal looked at the cameraman and cocked one eyebrow. “What do you think?”
The cameraman shrugged. “Depends if we keep her.”
“What do you mean?” asked Marla.
“Keep you on the show,” said Hal. “As a romantic interest of some kind.”
“So this is an audition?” asked Marla, her voice quavering. She felt goose bumps appear on her bare forearms.
“Sort of,” said Hal. “It depends on how usable the footage is. And it depends if you agree to accept the role or not.”
“What happens if I do?” asked Marla.
“We haven’t extended an offer yet,” said Hal.
“I’d need to know more about it,” said Marla.
“Probably true,” said Hal. “But again, we haven’t extended an offer.”
“I’d have to stay here in town,” said Marla. “I wouldn’t be able to go back to school.” She smiled. “I do have a boyfriend, though. Would that be a problem? What I mean is, would I be acting as your real life girlfriend too? Or just pretending like it on the show?”
“Well, we haven’t-” Hal was interrupted by a loud crash followed by shouts and exclamations of alarm.
Marla, startled, looked up and saw their waitress lying on the floor only a few tables away, surrounded by broken glass and a spray of pink milkshake across the decorative tile. An old woman in a flowing yellow pants suit had risen from her chair next to the fallen waitress and was crying, “I didn’t know she was behind me! She was moving so fast! I don’t even know what happened!”
“She was practically running,” said a bald man with a grave face. “Her eyes looked wild. Is she breathing?”
Hal got to his feet. “Keep filming,” he said.
“Obviously,” said the cameraman.
“What are you doing?” asked Marla, trailing behind Hal and the film crew as the group of people gathered around the fallen waitress parted to let them through.
“He’s going to do it again,” said someone nearby in a low voice.
Hal crouched next to the waitress and rolled her gently onto her back. Her eyes were closed and her lips were parted. There was a nasty purple knot forming on her forehead. The cameraman and sound man crowded close, capturing the tense scene as Hal put his face down near the girl’s mouth. “She’s breathing,” he said, and there were audible sighs of relief all around. “I’ll need someone to help me lift her,” said Hal. “Carefully!”
“Wait,” said Marla. She turned and took a glass of cold water from a nearby table. Then she held her arm out over the waitress and poured the water in a long stream onto the girl’s face. The girl gasped, opened her eyes, and sat bolt upright, sputtering and woozy. “What happened?” she asked with a whimper, wiping the water from her face. Marla set the half empty glass back down on the table. Hal glared up at her from his knees. The other people didn’t seem to know whether to praise her or scold her.
The cameraman lowered his camera for what seemed like the first time all night and said, “I might as well just throw this tape away, Hal.”
When Marla came into the kitchen at 8:30, her mother was eating hard-boiled eggs over the sink.
“You’re home!” said Marla’s mother. “Where’s Hal? Did you invite him in?”
“He’s gone,” said Marla. “He dropped me off. Is there any dinner left?”
“Are you kidding? Didn’t you eat?”
Marla sat down at the kitchen table, lowered her head, and began to sob. “I hate college, mom. I hate it so much. I never want to go back.”
Marla’s mother froze at the sink, a half-eaten hard-boiled egg in one hand, a whole one in the other. “What?” she finally said. It was literally the only thing she could think to say.
“Nothing,” said Marla, wiping both eyes at the same time with the tips of her fingers. “I’m going to bed.”
“Good night,” Marla’s mother called after her. There was no answer. Finishing her eggs, Marla’s mother washed the yellow yolk crumbs down the sink. She hoped the next episode of ‘Round Here With Hal Briogelek wouldn’t be another of those awful episodes where they showed the scenes all out of order. If she was going to help her daughter, she really needed to understand the show this time.