“I’m not sure I can sustain forty-eight full hours of conversation with your parents’ friends from when you were a kid,” I say. “Are you sure you don’t want to suggest they stay at one of the many hotels available in the area instead of with us all weekend? We can meet them for lunch?”
Jen rolls her eyes. “It’ll be fine. We’re a stop on their drive to Miami and it makes sense for us to host them.”
They will arrive in four days and I am positive I only have thirty minutes’ worth of conversation in me. I can’t sleep that night, turning over and over imagining hour seven of sitting around the kitchen table with them, our tank of conversation topics bone dry. In my nightmare, Jen leaves to take a shower and it’s just me and Barbara and Bill, staring at each other, each of us listing television shows the other party has never heard of.
Thursday morning I recognize an older man in line for coffee. He’s so familiar, but I can’t place it. I imagine myself asking him where I might know him from, but I’m too shy to bother him. Luckily the cashier asks and the man’s dour face lights up. “I’m Jack Hufford, host of WSB-TV’s Quiz Bowl Challenge.” He flashes a sparkling smile to everyone in line, most of whom don’t care. But that’s it; he hosted that old game show that aired late at night after the local news. Fifteen years ago my high school’s academic bowl team had appeared on the show, and I’d stayed up late to watch it. I remember thinking the host seemed like more than a local game show guy; he had the charm and looks to host a real primetime talk show. But as the crowd turns their heads back away from him, his glow fades and he hunches over, spills coffee as he opens the lid to add sugar at the side table.
I pull out of the parking lot behind Jack’s car and follow him down a few side streets and into the bleak parking lot of a one-story office complex. He walks into the dark lobby of a tax preparation company and takes a seat at the first desk, right against the front window, like he’s a zoo animal. I drive close and see him searching for auditions online when a large man leans over his cubicle wall and yells at him. I speed away, and they both turn at the screeching tires.
From my desk at work I look up the tax prep company and find Jack’s phone extension. At lunch I call him. His bright voice startles me and I hang up.
An hour later I get the courage to try again and in fleeting fragments I mumble my idea: “It’s not a TV show, but, I mean, I guess it’s hosting. Two-hundred bucks? Is that fair? For the day? Come by in the afternoon, just kind of keep the conversation going? Keep things light and friendly and fill any dead air?”
A long pause and then his voice, now an octave lower with sheen. “The show begins Saturday, my friend.”
Barbara and Bill ring the doorbell at 9am Saturday morning while I’m sitting on the toilet. They said they’d be here at 11. Jen is at the grocery store. They ring the bell again and I scramble to clean myself and rush downstairs, still in my pajamas. “Hi, yeah, um, Jen’s out, but should be back soon, um. Oh, welcome. Right, yeah, happy to, uh… have you stay… with us…”
“What a lovely home,” Barbara says, and they begin the tour themselves, stepping into each room to inspect everything we own like they’re browsing a museum. I follow them around my own home as they ask me question after question about the origin of every item and I struggle to come up with more than mumbles about how Jen found that picture or that plant or that shelf somewhere online, but no, I don’t know which website. We finish in the kitchen and I fail to explain where the light fixture came from. They think I’m braindead, unaware of my own surroundings.
After a long pause I remember to offer them water, and they both ask for a glass. I open the cabinet and see there’s only one clean glass available. I find the other three dirty in the dishwasher. I take one out and begin hand washing it, muttering inaudibly about how we don’t entertain that often so we don’t really have that many dishes, but they can’t hear me and can tell this has become an ordeal and Bill says he’ll take a raincheck on the H-2-O, says he’s not too thirsty after all.
Finally Jen enters with grocery bags. She greets Barbara and Bill with hugs, sprays lighter fluid onto the dwindling embers of conversation. I tiptoe upstairs, close the bedroom door, and make them think I’m getting dressed for ninety minutes.
I survive the lunchtime discussion of their nephew’s wedding. But after clearing the table and spending thirty minutes scrubbing the kitchen counters alone, they’re still talking. Surely they’ll wrap it up soon, put on the TV or come up with a place to go. So I sit beside Jen and nod along to the story of their niece’s neighbor’s dog’s surgery, which rolls into long recap of a news story about a dermatologist who scammed insurance companies in their town twenty-two years ago. Two hours pass and I’m still pinned to my chair when the spotlight turns to me. They say I’ve been quiet and they bombard me with questions. I last a while, but I’m tapped out, my mouth dry from telling every story I have about neighborhood squirrels, repeating stories my brother’s coworker once told me about termites, hurling any scrap lying around my brain into the fire to keep the conversation alive.
Jen takes over with questions about Barbara’s cookie recipes and I text Jack under the table, ask where he is, tell him I need him immediately. The spotlight turns back to me. Barbara and Bill ask me about my parents’ upcoming travel plans and I blank, eyes wide, moan something untrue about them going to Seattle soon. Jen corrects me, says they took that trip last year. Everyone stares at me like I’m a liar. I have no idea what I’m saying anymore. I have no idea where I am. Words are spilling out of my mouth when I’m asked but I don’t know what I’m talking about. I check my phone again, no text.
But the doorbell rings. Then again, and again. I rush to open it. A wave of relief.
“Good evening, everyone!” Jack shouts, caked in makeup and hair-slick, his doughy body plump for his old suit. “I’m Jack Hufford and I will be your host for the evening.”
For the first time in hours I can breathe, crammed into the corner hidden behind the open door while everyone looks at Jack and forgets I exist. Until Jen says, “Mike? Do you know what he’s talking about?”
I freeze behind the door, unable to formulate an explanation. But that’s why Jack is here. He glides across the foyer and shakes hands at the dining table. “Mike generously sponsored my hosting this evening, and I am thrilled to be in the presence of such lovely ladies and such an industrious man. Have you been working out, sir?” Bill’s eyes light up and he shrugs off the compliment. We all know he hasn’t exercised in thirty years, but he buys Jack’s bullshit.
Jack sits at the head of the table, leans over it to listen to everyone’s boring stories. He asks Barbara about her knitting, asks Bill about his favorite baseball players. He howls laughter; his eyes well up when things get serious. In minutes, he’s won them over. They repeat the story about the dog surgery and Jack gives them the reaction I couldn’t: gasps, laughs, tears.
Meanwhile I’ve tiptoed upstairs again, closed the door to read the news on my phone. Downstairs, they’re having the time of their life. They don’t remember I was ever there.
After two hours I’m recharged. I can breathe and I’m smiling, telling myself I’ll make it through the weekend thanks to Jack. But I hear footsteps on the stairs. Creeping down the hallway. Jack belting, “Three, two, one!” then pushing open my bedroom door. All four of them stand in the doorway, ogling me as I lay in bed with my phone, and Jack shouts, “We found Mike!” They all laugh and applaud and tell me to go hide again so they can find me.
“You’re hiding from the group,” Jack says. “So we made a wacky game out of it. We noticed you were missing, so we went and found Mike.”
“Oh, no, sorry. I just, uh, I had a… work thing that was urgent and then I guess I got sidetracked online. Sorry, everyone. I’m not avoiding anyone.”
Jen rolls her eyes. “Uh oh!” Jack says, noticing. “Trouble in paradise for the young couple.” Barbara, Bill, and Jen crack up. “How about we go back downstairs where the party is? Leave Miserable Mike up here to pout.”
“Wait, hey,” I say. “I’m not… Seriously, I wasn’t trying to avoid anyone… Look, I’ll come downstairs.”
Jack leads four more hours of conversation, performing bombastic reactions to mundane stories I’ve heard before. But the others match Jack’s energy, ham it up to get a bigger response. I’m trapped again and ready to sleep, but I can’t be the first to leave. They will find me again and mock me. I am stuck here at the table performing interest in the guests until 3 o’clock in the morning when Bill finally says he’s ready for bed.
I walk Jack to the door, give him his $200. But he doesn’t take the cash. “The show’s not over,” he says, flicking his eyebrows.
He looks past me, to the three others. “Miserable Mike here wants to cancel the Jack Hufford show! Can you believe that? We don’t want that, do we?”
“Boo!” Barbara says. Then Bill joins her. And finally Jen. “Boo! Stay, Jack. Please stay. I’ll set the couch up for you.”
I do not sleep, thinking about the stranger on my living room sofa. No one knows who this guy is, but they all like him much more than they like me. He could be a thief, a murderer.
At 4a.m. I tiptoe into the hallway to peer downstairs to confirm he’s asleep. He’s doing push-ups, hard, still wearing his black suit. The stair squeaks and his neck turns to me. His eyes are big and wide and red and they lock onto mine, and he hisses at me. He hisses at me like a rat.
I want to run but resist. This is my house. He works for me. I can make him leave.
I stand over him as he lays on the living room carpet. “Go,” I whisper forcefully. “Now.”
He laughs. Shakes his head.
“Get out of my house,” I whisper louder. “You can’t be here anymore. Just go.”
He smiles. “My career was killed by a weasel who looked just like you. Some shit-brained businessman from the station gave me terrible suggestions on hosting. I was young and naïve and thought he was the boss, thought I had to do what he told me. I adjusted how I stood, how I spoke, I asked fewer questions. I became a worse host because of this jackass’s notes, and the audience lost interest. The bastard got shit-canned by the network and I lost the gig after. Years later I realized what a sucker I’d been to take notes from some dipshit who’d never hosted anything in his life. He wasn’t my boss, and neither are you. I work for the audience, pal. I give them what they want. And the crowd here loves what I’m serving. So take your flat ass back up those stairs and don’t you dare tell me how to host, you god damned coward.”
I turn and run into my room, close the door. Lying in the dark, I remain awake.
“Good morning, and welcome to another fabulous episode of the Jack Hufford Show!” he says as we enter the kitchen to make breakfast. His eyes are no longer red, and he does not hiss. I sit at the far end of the dining table away from him, while the others gather close to Jack and eagerly answer his questions.
They seem occupied. I put my plate in the sink and disappear into the hall bathroom and lock the door. I lose track of time reading the news on my phone until a clicking noise at the knob. The lock pops open and the door swings in. “We found Miserable Mike!” Jack shouts. “Pretending to use the restroom once again just so he can stare at his phone instead of engaging with company. That’s ten points to Barbara for correctly guessing he was avoiding all the fun we’re having in here! This guy would rather sit on a bowl full of his own smelly brown than participate in the party? What a strange bird, huh, Bill?”
“That’s right, Jack,” Bill says, laughing. “He’s not like you or I.”
Jack grins down at me and I hold my hands over my penis, which I realize they’ve all been looking at. They laugh and Jen shakes her head as Jack turns and leads them to the living room for a round of charades.
Charades is hell. I force myself to laugh along with them, but every clue is directed at me: Barbara has to act out Miserable Mike being anti-social in his bedroom; Bill acts out Miserable Mike hiding on the toilet, and he does so with his index finger jabbed through his zipper-hole, deliberately only an inch long. Jack invents new scenarios for them to act out as Miserable Mike, hiding in closets or asphyxiating myself in a car.
I force a smile, pretend I can take the joke, count down the time remaining in the weekend.
After three hours, Jen excuses herself to the restroom and I follow her. Jack says, “What a pervert, following a gorgeous woman into the bathroom,” and Barbara laughs while Bill high-fives Jack.
“We need to get him out,” I whisper to Jen. “Will you help me?”
“Why?” she says. “He’s saved the weekend. You’re barely talking to anyone.”
“He has the red eyes of the devil.”
“Something about him is serpentine. We need to get him out. I think he’s an evil presence.”
She rolls her eyes, pushes me out of the bathroom, tells me to calm down, says I should go take a walk, get out of the house.
“How many miles have you logged, Miserable Mike?” Jack shouts at me from the driver’s seat of my car as I jog on the main road outside our neighborhood. He’s speaking through a megaphone. Jen, Barbara, and Bill press against the windows, taking photos of me, cracking up.
“We’re on a safari looking for indigenous sad-sacks,” Jack says. “And boy did we strike gold!”
I keep my mouth shut at dinner, accepting the beating as Jack cracks everyone up with incoherent jokes about how I run like a psychopath and that all the neighbors call the police whenever they see me outside. He says I’m a strange man with unusual interests who is probably dangerous. They all applaud when he steals my laptop from my office, says it’s time to play Guess Miserable Mike’s Internet Search History.
I slam the laptop shut and scream that this has to end, stomping upstairs.
“I think it’s safe to say that search history is a smorgasbord of bizarre porn and desperate articles about how to get buff.”
Bill falls off his chair laughing.
I stand in the shower for an hour, covering my penis with my hands, petrified that he’s going to kick in the door as soon as I leave myself exposed.
He never comes in, but the torture of the anticipation is just as bad.
Jack stays the night again, but this time I don’t check on him. I assume he’s doing something unsavory down there, and I’m better off not knowing.
In the morning he hosts breakfast, telling Barbara and Bill I’m a weak and insignificant man while they crack up. I smile and nod and take it, accepting my place as his comedic punching bag because it will end soon.
Jack carries Barbara and Bill’s bags out to their car for them, hugs them and kisses their cheeks, thanks them for being such a fantastic audience.
They drive off and I slam the $200 in Jack’s hand. “Thanks, pal,” I growl. “Now get the hell out of my house.”
He locks eyes with me, winks. “Why would I do that? I’ve just been moved to primetime.”
“Your wife asked me to stay. She said you haven’t been bringing much to the dinner table lately. Says the conversation’s a bit stale and she could use my help hosting.”
Jen smiles and nods. “It’ll be great.”
“Just the three of us?” I say. “At dinner every night?”
“And breakfast,” Jack says. “I’m here to solve all your anti-social problems.”
“No,” I say. “That’s just… When overnight guests are here. I’m fine the rest of the time.”
Jack and Jen turn their heads at the same time, make eye contact, and laugh. Jack says, “Miserable Mike gets ten more points on the Clueless Count. Now, come on, bud, help me move my stuff upstairs.”
Jen puts her arm around Jack, kisses his cheek. “Jack’s taking over your spot in the bed,” she says. “It’s what the audience wants. He asks me questions. He’s engaged.”
I swallow hard. “I’m not paying you to sleep with my wife in my bed.”
“Of course not,” he says. He hands me back my $200. “You know, I spent a few years away from hosting, working just for a paycheck, and I was depressed. Bleak and glum and always wondering what was even the point of showing up to the office? I lost track of who I really am, who I’m meant to be. I host not for the money, but because I need it. It’s like breathing to me. I was born to do this, and I’ll do it whether there’s money in it or not.”
“Come on, Jack,” Jen says, stepping inside. “I want to show you something in our bedroom.” Her tongue glides over her top lip.
Jack turns to me, grinning. “Thanks for tuning in to today’s episode of the Jack Hufford Show. That’s a wrap for now, as what Jen and I are about to do is certainly not acceptable for primetime. But stay tuned for an exciting episode of Miserable Mike Jacks Off on the Couch.”
He winks at me, his pupils blood red.