The Gold and Green Ball
by Chris Sharp
The psychologist known to millions as Dr. Love had been a well-regarded therapist with all the professional and academic credentials any working psychologist would ever need. His practice was thriving, and he had written several best-selling pop psychology books under his real name.
That, in turn, had led to frequent stints as a paid expert witness on jury trials -- and on the witness stand, he had learned that it was his talent as a performer -- not his academic qualifications -- that could take him to a critic's seat at the Cannes Festival or a private party at Ma Maison.
A TV show on a local network station had garnered him first one, then a series of appearances on a nationally-syndicated talk show. Within a year, he had his own national show, and he had never looked back. The show ran under his real name, the one known from his books, but everybody called him by the nickname coined by the talk show host who had had made him a star: Dr. Love.
Dr. Love's show was modeled after the old Oral Roberts ministry program. Sick people were introduced, their ailments mercilessly revealed, and then miraculously healed -- or at least set on the path to recovery -- before the final credits were played. To accomplish so much in an hour (twenty minutes of which were occupied by commercials, promos, and theme music), he had to totally trash some core values of the profession of psychology. The central counseling values of respect and empathy and confidentiality wouldn't work on the people that he had brought in as guests for his show, not in forty minutes, anyway. Besides, his TV audience simply wanted his guests to be treated like mad people and nothing more until they miraculously got better in the final minutes of the show
So Dr. Love used secondary core values on his guests instead, especially concreteness and confrontation, and by lancing his guests constantly with these sharp points he changed them from wild bulls in the arena into meek and lovable Ferdinands so the TV audience could finally applaud them.
"Now Laura," he was saying to the patient-du-jour, a thin woman dressed in lime green (nearly fluorescent under the TV studio lighting) who hadn't yet said a word, "I understand you don't want to say anything to me because that would be an act of betrayal. You feel you would be betraying that boy friend of yours named Denny who so tragically died some twenty years ago. You feel he has been comforting you all these years, but I am threatening your belief system right now. You think all I want to do is destroy what he is to you. Because I would be burying him alive, when he still wants so much to live with you."
"You see, Dr. Love," said the exactly opposite and talkative woman who was Laura's sister "Laura is shutting down, just as she shuts down against all of her family to protect her relationship with this ghost. You just have to look at her face right now to see she is choosing Denny over us."
"And in your own words, Laura," said Dr. Love, "how do you react to what your sister is telling us? Do you agree that you have shut yourself off against all of humanity to protect your relationship with your boy friend who died almost twenty years ago?"
At last the lime-colored woman did something. She sighed a heap of anguish at everyone.
"That's rubbish," said Laura at last. "I have a job and I've worked in the same company for over fifteen years with good reports and regular pay increases. I am hardly crazy."
"Laura works for a law firm," her sister captioned for everyone who was a loss for what Laura was talking about. "She knows enough about legal arguments to shoot down attacks on her. She makes sure she's an indispensable worker so she can pay for the life style she chooses. That life style that excludes family, non-imaginary friends and even Christmas."
"Not true, Linda. I celebrate Christmas plenty."
"Who do you celebrate Christmas with? A ghost?"
"You know nothing about who I celebrate Christmas with, Linda."
Dr. Love started to flail his hands up and down to show his audience he wanted to protect the two sisters from physically attacking each other. This way, he made his ambitious little producer happy. He was simply taken with this young girl just out of college who said she wanted to make the Dr. Love Show more like the Jerry Springer Show -- even bringing a giant vat of spaghetti onto the set and having the guests jump into all the noodles and tomato sauce and have them wrestle each other right then and there.
Dr. Love liked the idea of a big spaghetti fight enough to rehearse it, but the rehearsal so successfully reified the utter nonsense of his clients practically drowning in tomato sauce that he realized his best-selling books would never again be associated with the reputation of a serious psychologist. So he not only killed the idea, but he shouted that putting his clients into all this spaghetti sauce was a miserable thing to do to them.
"Whoa, ladies, whoa," said Dr. Love, executing a Jerry Springer-style two-handed stop-it gesture. "Now let's just agree on one thing, and that one thing is that to show we have a problem in this family. So let's be fair and ask Laura herself how she would solve her problem."
"I don't have a problem," said Laura. "If I did have a problem I'd do something about it or ask for help."
"Laura, dear Laura. Tell us about that problem that has brought me here at least," said Linda the sister.
"Obviously it's because I lost the man I love in a terrible accident. I was only nineteen years old. Denny had called me just that night that he had something to tell me, and as he was coming over his car crashed and he died."
Jason -- the Best Boy among the camera crew -- trained a lens on Laura's face carefully. This was the first key moment on the show that day. Dr. Love touched his chin, a baseball signal he used when he wanted all the studio noise cut off from the audio pick-up. He wanted this close-up of Laura to have no competition from the set. Clearly they were all reacting to an initial fear that Laura might go through the whole show petulantly refusing to say a word.
"And why," Dr. Love asked, "do you feel there is not a problem to this terrible tragedy?"
"Because Denny's with me now forever. In our church, you see, we marry not just for this life, but eternal life."
"She was never married to Denny," Linda jumped up to say. "She thinks she's married to a dead man who never married her."
So seriously, Laura told her sister, "What do you know about death, that it's confined to what you know about marriage?"
"That's what she's learned from her law firm, Dr. Love, to just come up with a back-to-you whenever you say something to her. Now she's made it so you never have a sane conversation with her."
"Well, Linda, what do you have against having at least an insane conversation with Laura?"
The audience was at last glad to laugh at something Dr. Love said.
"But in all fairness, Laura," Dr. Love said, a little more fortified by earning a laugh, "don't you think that the experience of living with a ghost might not have been one of your ambitions when you graduated from high school?"
"I would say." said Laura, "seeing a ghost is not as extraordinary as a man whose love is so strong he sends it to you from the other side of the veil."
Jason trained his lens on a woman in the audience wiping her eye.
"Dr. Love, wait until you hear the next thing. Ask her in what form Denny is when he's with her."
"I'm not going to talk about that in front of the whole country," Laura said. "My words aren't good enough."
"I'll just try to make do then with my words," Linda went on. "Laura thinks that only the body Denny carried with him into his accident died. But she thinks her rooms are filled with his spirit. Week after week, she'll just sit in her place and be with him. She'll just sit like a zombie with not even a TV or a computer on. If you call her, you get intercepted by an answering machine. I could leave ten messages before she finally calls me back, maybe the next day or the day after that."
"Well, Laura?" asked Dr. Love.
"What's really happening will not get through in this kind of setting."
"Why not, Laura," said her sister. "If you're really proud of your husband, what's wrong with telling us why?"
"Because I could try to do that, but I could never really represent Denny fairly, and I'd end up just telling you more about me. If you want to hear about me, I can do that a little better."
"Okay," said Dr. Love.
"Okay," said Linda.
Dr. Love touched his chin again, and all the noise on the set went off except for Laura's voice.
"I was less than a year out of high school, and still living with my parents, when Denny asked to take me to our church's Gold and Green Ball," said Laura. "I had never gone anywhere with Denny before, but we were spending more time joking together at Sunday school at that time. Married people went to the Gold and Green Ball, too, sort of like supervisors. But the Ball was really set up by church members so that our single people would have the chance to spend the night together in the most encouraging atmosphere our local church budget could afford.
"The Ball took place in a grand ballroom of a Marriot Hotel. Most of the local people at the Marriot were members of our church, so they knew the drill."
"Laura," interrupted Dr. Love. "What I'm hearing is that you're still at that Ball. You're not here at this studio with your sister and me."
"Take my word for it, Dr. Love. This Ball is a good place to be."
Jason trained his lens on the audience members. Now there were a couple of women crying.
"The Marriot contracted this wonderful jazz band that sat on a small bleacher. All the trumpet players sat on the lifted second bench so you could see their silver Cotton Club cummerbunds and their wonderfully sequined shirts. When the trumpets went up, the trumpeters stood and you thought you were seeing a row of Miles Davis playing to you from the celestial kingdom. I guess the ball organizers broke the bank putting this together, like if this show doesn't get our single people to love each other, nothing will.
"Denny had been out of his church mission about a half year, almost the time I had been out of high school. He was going back to college now as an old sophomore. He served his mission for two years in Italy, especially Rome, which is a pretty tough place for anyone but a Catholic missionary as you can guess. He and his mission partner lived in a converted pension house, where the boarders moved from tiny sleeping quarters to a big den and everyone got together to watch TV or to read books, as Denny told me. He enjoyed being in a country where people actually read books in public. Though Denny's thick wavy brown hair didn't have a national identity, his long eyelashes and the way his dark eyes ended up resting on yours made him fit right in with the Italians
"Every Thursday night -- Denny didn't know why it was Thursday, but his landlady explained it celebrated the eve of Friday -- every Thursday the landlady would land in the den with good pastries and punch and music from a typical ghetto-blaster. Not with Italian opera music from Verdi or Puccini, as you might imagine, but tin-pan-alley Roman songs.
"Denny sometimes stayed there at these Thursday night parties because he always drew in more missionary discussions at them than he and his partner did tracking on the crazy Roman streets. At some point at these parties the landlady would take a young guy by the hand and start swinging him around the room to the music. After a couple of attempts to dance with Denny and his partner she gave up, respecting how seriously they obeyed mission rules, and she gave them extra pastries to compensate them for being left out of the dancing.
"This little background I think can help to explain where Denny drove me after the gold and green ball was all over. We actually want to a 24 hour McDonald's. This is true, we actually forgot to eat all the free food they had for us at the Ball. Our church parties for singles are really conspiracies, you see, and even the food is a conspirator. They had all these hot buffalo wings that took so long to eat that we were forced to sit down with them and talk with each other.
"We must have gotten so engrossed in all of that that it wasn't until the band finished its last song we realized we were starving. We ended up getting large orders of McNuggets because we were still so absorbed in other issues we didn't want to be distracted with something as complicated as a hamburger. I found out that Denny knew this McDonald's already and he had this particular restaurant in his plan for me that night. It was one of those few that had an upper floor because it was in an urban location with high horizontal costs.
"There was no one upstairs when we walked up to the second floor, and as we ate we weren't even visited by a worker. So Denny decided after we finished dinner this was a good time to show me what he knew about Roman dancing. It was the dancing his Italian landlady used to do with her young tenants in her den. I was pretty good that night at letting him lead, and soon we were just holding onto each other as we uproariously jumped all around the room to the McDonald's elevator music.
"It was just a couple of weeks after that Denny called me. He said he had something important to say to me. He said not once, not twice but three times that he wanted to spend some serious time with me. It was about nine thirty, and he only lived about ten miles from our house.
"I ended up staying up all night long waiting for him. I thought I knew him pretty well at this point as we had been finding some excuse to see each other every day. But then I thought he was being really weird to call me like this and keep me awake and then to not show up. I was getting so irritated that I couldn't call him back, because what if he was playing a practical joke on me now? If that was the case, I wouldn't want to be serious with him ever again. When I finally fell asleep, it was after eight in the morning.
"Then around noon I got a phone call from a friend of mine in the church. She told me a drunken driver had hit Denny's car when he was driving over. These were exactly the four words she used. ‘Denny's passed away.'"
Laura passed for a few seconds, but no one on the show would say anything.
"But there are the really great things about this experience," Laura added. "I got a chance to know Denny, and Denny has been a strong enough man to make sure I had a good life all these years.
"I've been talking for an awful long time, Dr. Love. Isn't there anything else going on this show right now besides me talking?"
"No, Laura," said Dr. Love. "You are the show."
The TV audience giggled and clapped.
Laura knew by the way that everyone froze while she introduced Denny that Dr. Love and his people were way out of their league now. Laura felt sorry for all of them. All of a sudden a sudden the show wasn't about Dr. Love anymore. Nor was it about Laura, the woman who lived happily with a ghost.
It was all about the other-dimensional dancing man who drew Laura to her feet and waltzed her across the stage, refusing to let go of his unfinished business.
© 2009 Chris Sharp
Bio: Chris Sharp graduated from Fresno State University in 1997. In 2003, he won the West 35th Street Award for best new fiction by Crimestalkers.com. Between stories, he is a public school teacher at the Menifee School District in Riverside County, CA. Chris's most recent appearance in Aphelion was His Last Bull Ride, a tale of a rodeo cowboy whose last ride took a part of him away, but left a gift in return, in the December 2008 / January 2009 issue.
E-mail: Chris Sharp
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