The Animators

Kayla Rae Whitaker

February 6, 2017 
The following is from Kayla Rae Whitaker's novel, The Animators. Whitaker was born and raised in Kentucky. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and of New York University’s MFA program, which she attended as a Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholar. She lives in Louisville. This is her first novel.


When I first imagined what it would be like to go on TV or radio, I pictured the glamour clichés first: tall buildings, busy people, a long-sought grace and knowledge occurring to me as soon as I had a spotlight trained on my face and a boom mike over my head.

But I climb the subway stairs at 42nd Street and realize, with a loosening of bowels, that this level of comfort and smoothness will never occur to me. I’m about to go on NPR and I feel as stupid as I did yesterday.

I’m slightly relieved to find New York’s public radio affiliate not in a high rise, but in a dark, squat building from the 60s. There’s a point, living here, at which you stop being the transplant, the tourist, and become something else. Not a New Yorker. God, no, never that. Just wearily, testily deft at being here. Strangely comforted by darkness and grime. A doorman keeps post with a crossword puzzle and wags a hand at me when I enter.

It’s been an eight-week, ten-city promotional tour since Florida, a blur of more sour-smelling rental cars and threadbare hotel comforters, the feeling of never having slept enough and always having eaten too much. I’m not in great shape. Sore, chunky from our time on the road, ass melding to the driver’s seat of a low-end Chevy, sepia-toothed from smoking too much, slamming McGriddles and Mountain Dews from the grief of it all, promoting Nashville Combat, which has been called both “regional psychodrama” and “token manipulation” by critics. It’s been discussed as a class struggle piece, a work of fourth-wave feminism, dark comedy worthy of an Oscar, a gross failure, a triumph. We have been condemned and applauded and we don’t much care either way: we nearly piss ourselves every time we see our names in print.

And we have twenty minutes until we’re due on NPR and, still, no sign of Mel. None at all.

My phone vibrates. I wince–I won’t be able to hear a phone ring for another six months without the fear of bad news on the other end–but it’s a text from Donnie:

You just hit number 100 at the box office for the summer season. That’s an INDIE ADULT CARTOON with LIMITED BACKING in the top 100. This is HUGE! You’ll have LOTS to talk about on Glynnis!

I haven’t seen Mel since we landed at JFK three days ago. I try a few numbers: Surly Cathie hasn’t seen her either. Indian John lost track of her the night they saw the Reverend Horton Heat at Mercury Lounge. Directs me to Fart, who I call until his voice mailbox is full. She never replaced her iPhone. Of course.

This is not good. The NPR interview is important. The host of Art Talk, Glynnis Havermeyer–critic, writer, figure-about-town–was keen to meet us after she caught a screening of Nashville Combat at the Angelika. Donnie might have worked for months to get us this interview, harping hard on her connections, plying Glynnis’s assistant, a snotty little reprobate named Fenton. But Glynnis booked us herself. It is an embarrassment of riches.

I turn and spot Mel weaving across Sixth Avenue. When I see the screwy little tilt to her head, my throat ices over with dread. She’s fucked up, maybe a third loosey-goosey. But she’s upright. And spruced: sneakers unscuffed, vest buttoned, a mid-80s blazer of the Brooks Brothers variety. The shadow of a black eye traces the left side of her face.

“Morning,” I tell her.

She cruises over and spanks me on the ass. The doorman glances up. She winks at him. “Don’t worry, she likes it,” she says. Jabs the elevator button.

“I take it whoever you spent last night with didn’t wake you up for this.”

“She woke up me up to bone. I remembered this on my own. Kind of unprofessional dickbag you take me for?” She slings an arm around my neck and jostles me companionably.

“Still no phone?”

“Nope. But what can you do.” She shakes her leg, jingles the change in her pockets, cracks her neck.

I’m developing a talent for getting impressions of Mel’s hangovers via osmosis–variety, intensity, source. It’s like getting something gooey caught in my antennae. This morning, the vibe is hard liquor spiky with something else, something like how I imagine burning batteries must taste. I lean in, smell: low-level rummy with something slightly sweaty and metallic underneath. I grab her chin, peer into her eyes. Visined but too fat around the pupil. Pretty skittery for the here and now.

“What are you on,” I say quietly.

She rolls her eyes. “So suspicious. It’s no bueno, Kisses, the way you’re on my dick all the time.”

“Don’t call me that.”

I debate telling Mel about the box office returns. It’s good news, but I’m beginning to question for who. I look at her rummage through her pockets, a slight sheen of sweat making her face shimmer, and add up all the good things this summer that just seem to lead to less accountability, not more. An effect I suppose I should have known in theory. But you can know almost anything in theory.

“Did you know Fart’s roommate works for Mad?” Mel says.

“I don’t care.”

“He also enjoys smoking crystal.”

Jesus Christ, Mel.”

“I know,” she says. “It had been awhile, but hot damn. I mean, Woo.” She narrows her eyes. Whispers, “Woooo.

“I can’t believe you.”

“Oh, come on. I smoked it by accident, and then I was like, well, okay. Let’s do this. Let’s ride this gravy train.”

My voice rises before I can catch it. “Who have you been hanging out with?”

“Dude. These guys were strictly amateurs. Lots of X-Box to be played. Nary a Hell’s Angel to be seen.”

I lay my head against the elevator and moan.

“I’m fine,” she says. “I’m on the downhill slope, man. Perfect time for an interview. I’ll sleep it off this afternoon.”

“Are you telling me you didn’t sleep last night?”

“Disco naps. I’m great, I’m telling you. Let’s do this thing.”

“Just hold it together,” I say, clenching and unclenching my fists. “Please.”

“How about cooling it with the directives, little lady?”

“They might ask about your mom. Did Donnie mention that to you?”

“I got the email,” she says, rolling her eyes. “It’s fine. I got this. Okay?”

The bell dings. The doors slide open. Fenton is waiting. “You’re late,” he hisses.

“No, we’re not.” I point to the clock. “We’re right on time.”

“From my perspective,” he says, “you are unbearably, undeniably late. Now come on.” He actually snaps his fingers at us as he turns on his heel. “We’ve got to get you two miked up.”

Fenton stops at a set of double doors posted with QUIET PLEASE! RECORDING IN PROCESS! We push through to rows of cubicles, clear glass, nubby metal soundboards. Stations are separated into DJ booths, where bespectacled women and hunched men gesticulate, then wait pensively through message breaks. Sound guys motion for guests to speak up, pipe down, cut off.

The sound guy holds up something that looks like a Walkman. He attaches it to my hip. I feel his fingers against my pant seam. My face heats.

A few minutes later, there are heels clicking down the cubicles: a short, stocky figure appears through the window, swathed entirely in gray silk. “Uh huh,” she says to someone. We freeze. That’s her. That’s Glynnis Havermeyer.

My palms are sweating. I flex my hands, drop the note cards I’m holding. Bend over to pick them up. It’s happening. I can’t help it. This is how I view the events in my life: this one will be the narrative’s peak, the game-changer. And it will be incredible if I just don’t fuck it up.

The door opens and there she is, in the flesh. Brief silver glasses, dark lipstick. Hair dyed a red so rich it’s nearly purple. Exactly the way a well-read punk should grow up to look. She’s smiling. Fenton glares at us over her shoulder.

Glynnis turns. “Fenton. Why don’t you take a break? Have some coffee.”

“I’m fine,” he says. And I swear to God, he cuts his eyes at us, the spiteful princess at the eighth-grade Cotillion. “I don’t need a break.”

“Maybe the ladies would like coffee?” She lifts her eyebrows at us. Wonders never cease: she hates Fenton, too. “Thank you, sir.” She shuts the door.

“That coffee’s gonna be thirty percent pee,” Mel says.

Glynnis laughs, offers her hand. I can already see it: she’s one of those people who robs the room of all its oxygen. I want her to teach me to do that. “Ladies. So good to have you here.” She turns to me. “I take it you are Ms. Kisses.”


“I recognize you from your flashes in Nashville Combat.”

The best I can do is, “Heh.”

She reaches out, takes Mel’s hand. “Mel Vaught, without a doubt. Your depiction of yourself is quite on the nose, I have to say.”

Mel slips her hands into her pockets, lets her hair go shaggy in her eyes. She’s playing bashful now. “All I gotta do’s draw a broom with a bunch of yellow hair on top. Not much to it.”

Glynnis laughs again. I start to lighten. This is actually going okay. “You know, the two of you are such a compelling couple, visually. Blonde and brunette. Svelte and curvy. Contrast is the thing that draws the eye again and again. Though I suspect you already know that.” She removes the wrap from her shoulders and drapes it across her chair. It gives off fragrance: the woods, something sweet. The lines in her face, unseen when she’s on television – a talking head on VH1, those interminable book talks on CSPAN–are visible. But other than that, she looks, scarily, like her public self. “At the risk of sounding frivolous, that you’re interesting to look at should help when you do Charlie Rose. They’ve booked you for Rose, right?”

Mel and I look at each other.

Glynnis covers her mouth with her hand. “Whoops. They haven’t yet. I play Canasta with one of the producers. Try to act surprised, will you?”

Mel wiggles her eyebrows at me. Canasta.

Glynnis sits down across from us. “All right, ladies, here’s how this will go. I’ll give a sort of intro to you and to your work. We’ll concentrate on Nashville Combat since it’s still in theaters. We’ll use the question roster sent to you last week. Try to keep it as natural and conversational as possible. I’ll try to posit the questions in such a way that they sound spontaneous. Okay? Let’s go.”

She slips on a pair of headphones. The sound guy appears in the adjoining room, waves at us, does a countdown with one hand: five, four, three, two, one.

A green light comes on.

“Welcome to Art Talk this Friday, August 1. It’s been an exhilarating summer in theaters, not least because of a plethora of small, intensely personal projects finding their way to the big screen in a movement reminiscent of the indie push of the early to mid 1990s. Once again, audiences are leaning toward the warmth of grassroots. The biggest buzz of the summer belongs to cartooning team Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses, creators of what many are referring to as the little cartoon that could, Nashville Combat. Though by no means is this film little – it is, to quote Spin, “a spitting, twitching tour de force of epic freaking proportions,” building buzz through an incredibly loyal, energized fan base. Combat is the story of Mel Vaught and her childhood raised by a negligent, drug-addicted mother in the central Florida swamplands. It is smart, funny, visually arresting, and absolutely unflinching.”

I glance at Mel. She is sitting straight in her chair, adjusting her headphones. Her expression does not change when her mother is mentioned. I close my eyes and see Lisa Greaph, her long, purple fingernails pulling open the drawer.

“Vaught and Kisses take as many pains to craft an honest story as they do building the stunning visuals that have taken the cartoon world by storm. And their fans have responded in kind. Witness the Reddit subthread devoted to renderings of Mom, the movie’s cranky, crank-smoking heroine, to which fans have posted their own versions in macaroni, coffee grounds, and most memorably, a painting composed of broad strokes of tinted KY jelly. Absolutely a testament to an audience eager for a movie like this, and for the partnership of Vaught and Kisses, a sign of breaking through to a greater audience. Ladies, welcome to the program.”

We splutter ourselves stupid while Glynnis beams at us with the assurance of someone who actually believes in what is happening. “Now, earlier this year, you were granted a prestigious Hollingsworth grant, worth over a quarter of a million dollars. Congratulations. What’s next?”

She looks to me. My throat shrivels. I nod.

“She’s nodding, ladies and gentlemen,” Glynnis says.

I go, “Huh.”

Mel pokes me. “That means yes,” she says. “In the language of the lima beans.” Opens her hands, shakes her head: what are you doing?

Glynnis likes this. “I’m seeing some partnership going on right now. You two have worked together for over ten years, correct? Do you want to tell us how you collaborate?”

Maybe I should just be honest and tell everyone that me cleaning up from the night before has become our truest form of collaboration. Me getting Mel out of bed, holding her hair back while she pukes with the height and depth of a longshoreman, keeping her from brawling with anyone before noon, making sure she doesn’t fall out of a chair in front of an audience or drop equipment that cost me so much I’ll have to forfeit my firstborn should I actually meet a man who’s not chased off by my stink lines, and most importantly, pretending she doesn’t reek of gin and the tang of last night’s waitress, lured into her hotel room with promises of Jell-O shots and Full House reruns.

I clear my throat, a sort of professional “erm,” and pluck at the waistband of my snug size 14 pantsuit. “We do it all as a team,” I manage. “From the first storyboards to editing.”

“I’m interested in hearing about what your storyboards look like. You’re clearly art school grads, but with a taste for candy, it would seem–obvious cartoon fans, with that sense of fun and danger coming through in your work. I see Ren and Stimpy there. I see 90s-era Klasky Csupo there. I see Ralph Bakshi there. Can you fill us in on how this aesthetic influences the way you storyboard?”

She looks at me. My throat freezes right back up. Shit. Shit shit. I was prepared for this–the academic questions, the tech stuff. And now I can’t talk. Glynnis, Mel, the sound tech, they’re all watching me freak out.

And so she looks to Mel.

Mel kicks back, crosses her legs, adjusts her tie and says, “Well, we wanted to do something more honest than those retrospective memoirs that make everything so saccharine, you know? And Sharon and I both watched ungodly amounts of television, as kids. Just brain-slaying, vision-doubling hours of TV. Cartoons included. Drawing in that style was just the ghost that emerged when we started to dig. It didn’t feel like a conscious decision. I mean, childhood is pretty much ground zero for stories, right?”

“Yours, in particular, was very storied,” Glynnis says. “Can you tell us about the main players in Nashville Combat?”

“Uh, it was me, my mom, and a whole string of Mom’s boyfriends. It’s basically my upbringing until her arrest when I was thirteen.”

“Can you tell us why she was arrested?”

Mel rolls her eyes upward as she ticks off the list. “Uh, bunch of stuff. Possession, intent to sell, intent to prostitute. That’s right. Only in Florida can you charge a woman with the intention to whore herself out.”

I press my lips together. It’s a slip, not a big one, but a slip, just the same. This is where it all starts to come apart. I can feel it.

But Glynnis chuckles. “This is a very place-oriented film. Some have gone as far as to categorize it as regionalist. Would you agree with that assessment?”

Mel shrugs. “Nah. I mean, it is where it is because that’s the memory. I don’t think we really set out to tell about the place.”

“But you’ve clearly chosen to make it a focus,” Glynnis says. “We’re hearing the term “white trash noir” thrown around here. We’re hearing a lot about “redneck pathos.” How would you respond to the way in which this movie is being sold?”

Huh. Is it just my imagination, or was that a tone of displeasure in her voice? And what the hell does she mean, being sold.

I cough. She turns to me. “We won’t deny the setting,” I say, my voice shaking. “It makes sense. Mainstream America has a big fear of the rural. If this story isn’t rural, then it definitely takes place at the margins of the suburban. The line separating what’s developed and what’s still wild–that’s more interesting to us, I think.”

I lean back and take a deep breath without looking at Mel. That actually felt okay. Thoughtful, precise. Not totally vapid.

Glynnis leans in, gazing at me. “You’re a bit of an enigma, aren’t you,” she says.

I laugh, and then so does she, a stilted reaction sound. “No, really,” Glynnis says. A smile creases her mouth, but her eyes remain still. “One wonders, upon watching, if Nashville Combat is the product of shared trauma, in a sense. Did you find some of your own experiences surfacing in the film as well? What kind of stake did you have in the making of something that was so personal for your partner?”

The rest of the room falls away. This was definitely not in the questions the producers sent. And her tone–it bore the unmistakable note of a throw-down. I thought she liked what we were doing. I was almost right. She likes what Mel is doing. She is challenging me to tell her what it is, exactly–if anything–that I do. I am being asked to explain myself. Glynnis is staring at me.

I open my mouth. Nothing comes out. There’s a horrible, cottony stillness for a good three seconds before I feel Mel stir at my side, just now waking up to the room. She jumps in, “Are you kidding? Kisses is the boss, man.”

Glynnis goes back to her with a lopsided grin. It’s genuine–not what she gives Fenton, or me, but something secret and hidden. They’re the only two people in the room again.

I have ten pages of notes sitting on my desk back at the studio, the weeks of worry and preparation I’ve put into this interview. My freshman year at Ballister, I listened to Glynnis’s podcast (and she was one of the first to post podcasts, at the very tip of the aughts) on the mammoth Dell I’d just bought for college. Listening to Glynnis always gave me the sense of driving around the periphery of a large city at night, lights made brighter by the darkness surrounding–exotic signage, alien parkways. I ran over the dummy questions, I practiced my best, thoughtful erm, my radio laugh. Thinking, Glynnis will love me, will love us. Never imagining I’d need to practice a defense against an ambush, against what was your stake in this?

I expect Mel to say something more here, something more directly in my defense. But she doesn’t.

“Fair enough,” Glynnis says. “But the question of setting-” She wags her finger back and forth between us; I’ve suddenly reappeared–“relates tangentially to a very old argument as to the nature of animation, which still has trouble defining itself as a mature genre. When subject matter veers toward the complicated or dark, as I would say it does in your film, it seems many will pull back out of a belief that the cartoon rules of content have been violated. Which brings us to a difficult point in the story of this movie: the death of Kelly Kay Vaught, the archetype for Nashville Combat’s Mom.”

A high-pitched shriek of gas comes from my midsection. The mic picks it up. Glynnis looks to me, eyebrow raised. Then, back to Mel.

“This must be an incredibly tough time for you, Mel,” she says.

“Yeah, well,” Mel says, “it’s, you know, never easy to lose someone. Even if you hadn’t been in touch. Which my mom and I weren’t, not really.” She pauses. “Still a weird place to be in.”

“For those of you who don’t know,” Glynnis starts, and then recounts the entirety of the whole grisly Kelly Kay fiasco – the prison scuffle, the wound. I sneak a look at Mel. Her face is neutral. I see the pink lining of her left eye jump slightly.

“Had you discussed the movie with your mother?” Glynnis asks gently.

“No,” Mel says. “She didn’t even know about it. Like I said, we hadn’t talked in a while.”

“Some have suggested, how would one phrase this, a complicated relationship between the depiction of Kelly Kay in this film and the events surrounding her death. What’s your reaction to this?”

Mel crosses and uncrosses her legs, sniffs deeply. “What, that guy from Salon who wrote that story? That what we’re really talking about there?”

“Well, if you want to address that-“

“I have no problem addressing that. It was a ridiculous argument. It was bullshit.”

I reach out to touch Mel’s arm.

Glynnis throws her hand out toward me. “Let her finish,” she says.

I shrink back.

The Salon story was on the ramifications of what the author coined “reality fiction”–stories based on real life, real people, actual events–and how these works affected those on whom characters were based. Discussed were a writer with a recent novel detailing a breakup with an ex-girlfriend who, in turn, claimed her business suffered as a result of the book, and a woman who’d written a television show about her spectacularly ruinous marriage who did not deny that her handsome divorce settlement may have been inflated as a result of the publicity. Nashville Combat was the article’s centerpiece: a film so personal, and so troubling, that it may have precipitated the death of its inspiration, provoking a fellow inmate to beat her, either due to celebrity or infamy.

It was a reach, by any definition. But it was also a huge blow. An incredibly damning story in a respected publication with high pageviews. We all told Mel to not let it bother her; Donnie suggested an Internet ban. “Fuck it,” Mel had said, flapping her hand. “It’s so much chatter. Doesn’t matter.” But it bothered, her, I could tell.

I scroll to the quote on my iPhone and toss it into Mel’s lap, then give Glynnis the evil eye: See? I can be useful.

Mel picks up the phone. “If this movie is remembered at all in fifty years, it will be recalled as a snuff piece…less a work of art than a shock treatment, lacking in nuance or complexity. Okay,” Mel says, “look. Without getting too precious about it, art is what it is. And to use a work as a scapegoat for the crazy things people do is real, real shortsighted. So the next time he stages a goddamn puppet show with the ladies he rows crew with, let him slice the hell out of whatever he writes and retain whatever sense of superiority he can get out of it. Just because the movie made him uncomfortable does not give him the right to create some ridiculous causality between two events. I can’t help it if Shitheel here walked in expecting Toy Story.”

Glynnis smiles.

Yeah. It’s real interesting when Mel flies off the handle, isn’t it, I think. “But there were other reviews,” I cut in, leaning forward to make Glynnis look me in the eye. “People who appreciated the movie’s honesty, its undiluted quality.” Rein her in, I will Glynnis. Control this interview, you patronizing twat. I know the landscape of Mel’s impulses and she is not on level ground right now. If something rubs her the wrong way, she will blow. And when it happens, it’s fast. It’s a t-bone at an intersection.

Mel recrosses her legs. Her left foot jounces up up up up up.

Glynnis changes the subject. “Let’s talk a little bit about your technical approach. Some have said that your decision to not use advanced CGI is–what’s the word here–contrarian?”

“We actually use CGI,” I correct her. “It would be hard to be a two-man operation without it. We use it in conjunction with traditional cel-by-cel tactics. And we do it because we believe in the technique, and we like the results. Period.”

Mel cuts in. “Lemme tell you something,” she says, and her voice is high and fast, still amped from the Salon story. “The time those guys who call us contrarian spend yapping is time we spend busting ass old-school. It’s like, well, suckle my nuts, look at John using Maya to make a twenty million dollar movie. You know what? Fuck that. John is copping out of what makes him a cartoonist. John is compromising. If you get your meat from a bad cow, you’re gonna get a bad burger, you know what I’m saying? We are slaving away over the drafting board eating that burger medium rare because we know our butcher, Glynnis. And I don’t care if that cow rolled around in a kiddie pool of its own poo poo. It’s a risk we’re gonna take. I will eat it because we do this honest or not at all.”

Mel leans back in her seat, takes a breath.

Glynnis is frozen in her chair. “Well put,” she manages.

I look over at Mel. Mouth, who the fuck is John?

Glynnis turns to me, and in the bright, loud voice of someone changing the subject, “Your name is quite the draw, Sharon.”

For fuck’s sake. How many times do we have to go through this. I grit my teeth. “It’s Scottish.”

“It’s awesome, is what it is,” Mel says. “I spent two hundred bucks changing my name legally from Melody to Mel and she gets to be Sharon Kisses for free.”

“I wish I could change it,” I mutter.

“She’ll never change it. It gets her tail. Men shit when they hear the name Sharon Kisses. For serious.”

Mel’s voice dips, goes hoarse. She’s Drunk Mel now. Glynnis pushed her by talking up that goddamn Salon story. Now, she’s acting out. Overcompensating. When Mel feels sad–and right now, it strikes me that Mel is, in fact, very, very sad, and has been this whole summer–she tries to make up for it by manufacturing joy. I was a moron to hope there was any way of walking into this pretending to be sober.

Glynnis gives a nervous titter. My hand wraps around the microphone perched in front of me. I try to see if I can lift it. It’s nailed down.

Mel slaps my knee. “It’s cool. I got my demons too. When my mom got knocked up with me, she was real dandy to do a DIY abort job because she was too cheap to go to the clinic, right? And she heard somewhere that an excess of Vitamin C could kill a baby in utero. So she took a metric butt ton of C, like orange juice injections straight up the cooter. As an adult? I almost never get sick. True story. Almost made it into the movie, that bit. But it just ended up making sweet, sweet love to the cutting room floor.”

She’s throttling her microphone now too. I can see it loosening off the dash, unknowingly making purchase while she talks.

“It’s true,” Mel says. “It’s near impossible to overdose on Vitamin C. You just end up shitting it out.”

Glynnis nearly chokes.

“Try that with other vitamins. Vitamin D? You’ll end up with a giant purple eye. Vitamin A? Testicles like pumpkins. But C? Just sluices on through, babe. Like me.”

Mel leans over the table and the microphone rips from the dash. There’s a spark, that electrical spit of a device cutting out. The sound engineer jumps up, waving his arms.

Mel says, “Crap.”

Glynnis freezes. Looks at me. And for the first time in that interview, I laugh. I laugh, and I don’t know what it means, or where it’s coming from. But for once, I’m not forcing it.

“Oh ho,” Glynnis says. “You two. I think we’ll wrap it up here.”

* * * *

I don’t talk on the elevator. The silence trails us out onto Sixth Avenue.

“I don’t know what your problem is,” Mel says. “She liked us. Aside from the broken mic. Why are you so moody all of a sudden?”

“My interpretation of a good interview is one where you don’t talk about how much tail I do or don’t get.”

“I was trying to guide her away from that stupid Salon article because I was sick of talking about it. It’s called a joke.

“It wasn’t funny. No one thought it was funny.”

“Well, congratulations. You’ve finally kicked your sense of humor into submission.”

We go underground. I lead us silently to the Brooklyn-bound track. The news has been threatening a heat wave all week. The air presses down on us. We wait.

“All right,” Mel says. “Fine. Don’t talk.” She walks to the edge of the platform, leans out to look for headlights. Jingles the change in her pockets. Finally tugs her moleskine from her bag and kneels down. The picture spools out quick and dark: an enormous Hispanic lady in a muumuu. I glance down the platform. The lady is there, flapping a copy of The Watchtower at her face, unaware that Mel is drawing her.

Mel rears back, takes a long look at what she’s done. Retouches something small at the top. I look over. Little men dressed as bank robbers run from the lady’s ear. The lady stares dead-eyed into space. Below her, in bubble letters:


She scratches it out. Tries again:


I unclench my jaw long enough to say, “Why didn’t you back me up when she said that thing about me being an enigma? About what kind of stake I had in this? What the fuck was that?”

“She wanted to know more about you because you are interesting, Sharon,” she says. “Not that you make that easy for anyone.”

“We’re supposed to be a team. You would have remembered that if you hadn’t walked into NPR so fucked up your blood alcohol level could have powered a commercial jet.”

She snorts. “If your writing was that colorful, I wouldn’t have to live and die in the studio every day.”  Her mouth clamps down in regret as soon as she says it.

“I’m sorry. This, coming from someone who hasn’t worked a day in two months?”

She lifts her arms, lets them fall to her sides. “The studio’s not the most welcoming place right now. There’s not much I can say to you that doesn’t piss you off. I can’t win. This is why people don’t get married.”

“This is why people like you don’t get married.”

“Well, hell’s bells. I could have told you that.” She’s standing now, pale and sweaty. I can see cracks in her lips.

“You’re an alcoholic,” I tell her.

“Oh, come on.” She flaps around in a circle. “Shut up, Sharon.”

“No one except an alcoholic gets up and makes Irish coffee at eleven in the morning. No one except an alcoholic gets wasted and strips at a panel discussion. Normal people don’t do that. People with drinking problems do that. And I think the movie pushed you into a bad place. I regret having any part in this.”

“I don’t see you turning away the checks we’re getting. I don’t see you turning down NPR interviews. But hindsight’s twenty-twenty, isn’t it.”

“I have a standard for how I should be treated,” I say. “And you just went way below the line.”

She rolls her eyes. “Where’s this standard with the dipshits you date?” Draws a smoke out of her pocket. Lights it. There aren’t many people on the platform. She gets a few dirty looks, but only a few.

“You started out charming Glynnis,” I say. “She liked you, not me. But then you ran it into the ground. She’s probably lucky you didn’t take off your shirt and slap the sound engineer with it.”

Mel leans over the platform again. “You’re never going to let that go, are you.”

“If I left,” I say, “no one would blame me.”

“You can’t do this without me,” she says. “You know you can’t.”

It knocks the breath out of me. It’s a long moment before I can even speak again. “There are people who would actually appreciate working with me,” I tell her. “Do you know how many calls I’ve deflected from Brecky Tolliver this summer?”

Mel opens her mouth. Shuts it. Crosses her arms over her chest.

“Yeah. Ever since the panel discussion. She tried to hire me while you were buzzing around hitting on coeds.”

“Wow,” she says. “Look at that. Look at you, whipping Brecky out like that. What, are you trying to make me jealous?”

“I’m letting you know where you stand,” I say.

“Typical,” she spits. “You’re doing this like a total girl, parading it around. You gonna pick another dyke to buddy up with, Sharon? Someone you don’t have to compete with?”

It’s mean–a meanness she was searching for, somewhere down in the dregs of herself.

“You know what,” I say quietly, “why don’t you keep the ugly shit to yourself for once instead of pouring it out all over me. I’m tired of this.”

Mel blinks at me, breathing hard. Then lifts her hands. Yells, “You know what? Fuck this.” She starts for the stairs, cigarette clamped between her teeth, and bounds up, her back growing smaller and smaller until she’s gone.



From THE ANIMATORS.  Used with permission of Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Kayla Rae Whitaker.

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