Fiction

Little Expressionless Animals

David Foster Wallace

It’s 1976. The sky is low and full of clouds. The grey clouds are bulbous and wrinkled and shiny. The sky looks cerebral. Under the sky is a field, in the wind. A pale highway runs beside the field. Lots of cars go by. One of the cars stops by the side of the highway. Two small children are brought out of the car by a young woman with a loose face. A man at the wheel of the car stares straight ahead. The children are silent and have very white skin. The woman carries a grocery bag full of something heavy. Her face hangs loose over the bag. She brings the bag and the white children to a wooden fencepost, by the field, by the highway. The children’s hands, which are small, are placed on the wooden post. The woman tells the children to touch the post until the car returns. She gets in the car and the car leaves. There is a cow in the field near the fence. The children touch the post. The wind blows. Lots of cars go by. They stay that way all day.

It’s 1970. A woman with red hair sits several rows from a movie theater’s screen. A child in a dress sits beside her. A cartoon has begun. The child’s eyes enter the cartoon. Behind the woman is darkness. A man sits behind the woman. He leans forward. His hands enter the woman’s hair. He plays with the woman’s hair, in the darkness. The cartoon’s reflected light make faces in the audience flicker: the woman’s eyes are bright with fear. She sits absolutely still. The man plays with her red hair. The child does not look over at the woman. The theater’s cartoons, previews of coming attractions, and feature presentation last almost three hours.

Alex Trebek goes around the Jeopardy! studio wearing a button that says PAT SAJAK LOOKS LIKE A BADGER. He and Sajak play racquetball every Thursday.

It’s 1986. California’s night sky hangs bright and silent as an empty palace. Little white sequins make slow lines on streets far away under Faye’s warm apartment.

Faye Goddard and Julie Smith lie in Faye’s bed. They take turns lying on each other. They have sex. Faye’s cries ring out like money against her penthouse apartment’s walls of glass.

Faye and Julie cool each other down with wet towels. They stand naked at a glass wall and look at Los Angeles. Little bits of Los Angeles wink on and off, as light gets in the way of other light.

Julie and Faye lie in bed, as lovers. They compliment each other’s bodies. They complain against the brevity of the night. They examine and reexamine, with a sort of unhappy enthusiasm, the little ignorances that necessarily, Julie says, line the path to any real connection between persons. Faye says she had liked Julie long before she knew that Julie liked her.

They go together to the O.E.D. to examine the entry for the word “like.”

They hold each other. Julie is very white, her hair prickly-short. The room’s darkness is pocked with little bits of Los Angeles, at night, through glass. The dark drifts down around them and fits like a gardener’s glove. It is incredibly romantic.

 

On 12 March 1988 it rains. Faye Goddard watches the freeway outside her mother’s office window first darken and then shine with rain. Dee Goddard sits on the edge of her desk in stocking feet and looks out the window too. Jeopardy!’s director stands with the show’s public relations coordinator. The key grip and cue-card lady huddle over some notes. Alex Trebek sits alone near the door in a canvas director’s chair, drinking a can of soda. The room is reflected in the dark window.

“We need to know what you told her so we can know whether she’ll come,” Dee says.

“What we have here Faye is a twenty-minutes-tops type of thing,” says the director, looking at the watch on the underside of her wrist. “Then we’re going to be in for at least another hour’s set-up and studio time. Or we’re short a slot, meaning satellite and mailing overruns.”

“Not to mention a boy who’s half-catatonic with terror and general neurosis right this very minute,” Muffy deMott, the P.R. coordinator, says softly. “Last I saw he was fetal on the floor outside Makeup.”

Faye closes her eyes.

“My husband is watching him,” says the director.

“Thank you ever so much, Janet,” Dee Goddard says to the director. She looks down at her clipboard. “All the others for the four slots are here?”

“Everybody who’s signed up. Most we’ve ever had. Plus a rather scary retired WAC who’s not even tentatively slotted til late April. Says she can’t wait any longer to get at Julie.”

“But no Julie,” says Muffy de Mott.

Dee squints at her clipboard. “So how many is that altogether, then?”

“Nine,” Faye says softly. She feels at the sides of her hair.

“We got nine,” says the director; “enough for at least the full four slots with a turn-around of two per slot.” The rain on the aluminum roof of the Merv Griffin Enterprises building makes a sound in this room, like the frying of distant meat.

“And I’m sure they’re primed,” Faye says. She looks at the backs of her hands, in her lap. “What with Janet assuming the poor kid will bump her. Your new mystery data guru.”

“Don’t confuse the difference between me, on one hand, and what I’m told to do,” says the director.

“He won’t bump her,” the key grip says, shaking her head. She’s chewing gum, stimulating a little worm of muscle at her temple.

Alex Trebek belches quietly, his hand to his mouth. Everyone looks at him.

Dee says, “Alex, perhaps you’d put the new contestants in the booth for now, tell them we may or may not be experiencing a slight delay. Thank them for their patience.”

Alex rises, straightens his tie. His soda can rings out against the metal bottom of a wastebasket.

“A good host and all that,” Dee smiles kindly.

“Gotcha.”

Alex leaves the door open. The sun breaks through the clouds outside. Palm trees drip and concrete glistens. Cars sheen by, their wipers on Sporadic. Janet Goddard, the director, looks down, pretends to study whatever she’s holding. Faye knows that sudden sunlight makes her feel unattractive.

In the window Faye sees Dee’s outline check its own watch with a tiny motion. “Questions all lined up?” the outline asks.

“Easily four slots’ worth,” says the key grip; “categories set, all monitors on the board check. Joan’s nailing down the sequence now.”

“That’s my job,” Faye says.

“Your job,” the director hisses, “is to tell Mommy here where your spooky little girlfriend could possibly be.”

“Alex’ll need all the cards at the podium very soon,” Dee tells the grip.

“Is what your job is today.” Janet stares at Faye’s back.

Faye Goddard gives her ex-stepfather’s wife Janet Goddard the finger, in the window. “One of those for every animal question,” she says.

The director rises, calls Faye a bitch who looks like a praying mantis, and leaves through the open door, closing it.

“Bitch,” Faye says.

Dee complains with a weak smile that she seems simply to be surrounded by bitches. Muffy deMott laughs, takes a seat in Alex’s chair. Dee eases off the desk. A splinter snags and snaps on a panty-ho. She assumes a sort of crouch next to her daughter, who is in the desk chair, at the window, her bare feet resting on the sill. Dee’s knees crackle.

“If she’s not coming,” Dee says softly, “just tell me. Just so I can get a jump on fixing it with Merv. Baby.”

It is true that Faye can see her mother’s bright-faint image in the window. Here is her mother’s middle-aged face, the immaculately colored and styled red hair, the sore-looking wrinkles that triangulate around her mouth and nose, trap and accumulate base and makeup as the face moves through the day. Dee’s eyes are cigarette-red, supported by deep circles, pouches of dark blood. Dee is pretty except for the circles. This year Faye has been able to see the dark bags just starting to bulge out beneath her own eyes, which are her father’s, dark brown and slightly thyroidic. Faye can smell Dee’s breath. She cannot tell whether her mother has had anything to drink.

Faye Goddard is twenty-six; her mother is fifty.

Julie Smith is twenty.

Dee squeezes Faye’s arm with a thin hand that’s cold, from the office.

Faye rubs at her nose. “She’s not going to come, she told me. You’ll have to bag it.”

The key grip leaps for a ringing phone.

“I lied,” says Faye.

“My girl,” Dee pats the arm she’s squeezed.

“I sure didn’t hear anything,” says Muffy deMott.

“Good,” the grip is saying. “Get her into Makeup.” She looks over at Dee. “You want her in Makeup?” “You did good,” Dee tells Faye, indicating the closed door.

“I don’t think Mr. Griffin is well,” says the cue-card lady.

“He and the boy deserve each other. We can throw in the WAC. We can call her General Neurosis.”

Dee uses a thin hand to bring Faye’s face close to her own. She kisses her gently. Their lips fit perfectly, Faye thinks suddenly. She shivers, in the air conditioning.

 

JEOPARDY! QUEEN DETHRONED AFTER THREE-YEAR REIGN”

  —Headline, Variety, 13 March 1988

“Let’s all be there,” says the television.

“Where else would I be?” asks Dee Goddard, in her chair, in her office, at night, in 1987.

“We bring good things to life,” says the television.

“So did I,” says Dee. “I did that. Just once.”

Dee sits in her office at Merv Griffin Enterprises every weeknight and kills a tinkling pitcher of wet weak martinis. Her office walls are covered with store-bought aphorisms. Humpty Dumpty was pushed. When the going gets tough the tough go shopping. Also autographed photos. Dee and Bob Barker, when she wrote for Truth or Consequences. Merv Griffin, giving her a plaque. Dee and Faye between Wink Martindale and Chuck Barris at a banquet.

Dee uses her remote matte-panel to switch from NBC to MTV, on cable. Consumptive-looking boys in makeup play guitars that look more like jets or weapons than guitars.

“Does your husband still look at you the way he used to?” asks the television.

“Safe to say not,” Dee says drily, drinking.

“She drinks too much,” Julie Smith says to Faye.

“It’s for the pain,” Faye says, watching.

Julie looks through the remote viewer in Faye’s office. “For killing the pain, or feeding it?”

Faye smiles.

Julie shakes her head. “It’s mean to watch her like this.”

“You deserve a break today,” says the television. “Milk likes you. The more you hear, the better we sound. Aren’t you hungry for a flame-broiled Whopper?”

“No I am not hungry for a flame-broiled Whopper,” says Dee, sitting up straight in her chair. “No I am not hungry for it.” Her glass falls out of her hand.

“It was nice what she said about you, though.” Julie is looking at the side of Faye’s face. “About bringing one good thing to life.”

Faye smiles as she watches the viewer. “Did you hear about what Alex did today? Sajak says he and Alex are now at war. Alex got in the engineer’s booth and played with the Applause sign all through The Wheel’s third slot. The audience was like applauding when people lost turns and stuff. Sajak says he’s going to get him.”

“So you don’t forget,” says the television. “Look at all you get.”

“Wow,” says Dee. She sleeps in her chair.

Faye and Julie sit on thin towels, in 1987, at the edge of the surf, nude, on a nude beach, south of Los Angeles, just past dawn. The sun is behind them. The early Pacific is a lilac cube. The women’s feet are washed and abandoned by a weak surf. The sky’s color is kind of grotesque.

Julie has told Faye that she believes lovers go through three different stages in getting really to know one another. First they exchange anecdotes and inclinations. Then each tells the other what she believes. Then each observes the relation between what the other believes and what she in fact does.

Julie and Faye are exchanging anecdotes and inclinations for the twentieth straight month. Julie tells Faye that she, Julie, best likes: contemporary poetry, unkind women, words with univocal definitions, faces whose expressions change by the second, an obscure and limited-edition Canadian encyclopedia called LaPlace’s Guide to Total Data, the gentle smell of powder that issues from the makeup compacts of older ladies, and the O.E.D.

“The encyclopedia turned out lucrative, I guess you’d have to say.”

Julie sniffs the air that smells yeasty. “It got to be just what the teachers tell you. The encyclopedia was my friend.”

“As a child, you mean?” Faye touches Julie’s arm.

“Men would just appear, one after the other. I felt so sorry for my mother. These blank, silent men, and she’d hook up with one after the other, and they’d move in. And not one single one could love my brother.”

“Come here.”

“Sometimes things would be ugly. I remember her leading a really ugly life. But she’d lock us in rooms when things got bad, to get us out of the way of it.” Julie smiles to herself. “At first sometimes I remember she’d give me a straightedge and a pencil. To amuse myself. I could amuse myself with a straightedge for hours.”

“I always liked straightedges, too.”

“It makes worlds. I could make worlds out of lines. A sort of jagged magic. I’d spend all day. My brother watched.”

There are no gulls on this beach at dawn. It’s quiet. The tide is going out.

“But we had a set of these LaPlace’s Data Guides. Her second husband sold them to salesman who went door to door. I kept a few in every room she locked us in. They did, really and truly, become my friends. I got to be able to feel lines of consistency and inconsistency in them. I got to know them really well.” Julie looks at Faye. “I won’t apologize if that sounds stupid or dramatic.”

“It doesn’t sound stupid. It’s no fun to be a kid with a damaged brother and a mother with an ugly life and to be lonely. Not to mention locked up.”

“See, though, it was him they were locking up. I was there to watch him.”

“An autistic brother cannot be decent company for somebody, no matter how much you loved him, is all I mean,” Faye says, making an angle in the wet sand with her toe.

“Taking care of him took incredible amounts of time. He wasn’t company, though; you’re right. But I got so I wanted him with me. He got to be my job. I got so I associated him with my identity or something. My right to take up space. I wasn’t even eight.”

“I can’t believe you don’t hate her,” Faye says.

“None of the men with her could stand to have him around. Even the ones who tried couldn’t stand it after a while. He’d just stare and flap his arms. And they’d say sometimes when they looked in my mother’s eyes they’d see him looking out.” Julie shakes some sand out of her short hair. “Except he was bright. He was totally inside himself, but he was bright. He could stare at the same thing for hours and not be bored. And it turned out he could read. He read very slowly and never out loud. I don’t know what the words seemed like to him.” Julie looks at Faye. “I pretty much taught us both to read, with the encyclopedia. Early. The illustrations really helped.”

“I can’t believe you don’t hate her.”

Julie throws a pebble. “Except I don’t, Faye.”

“She abandoned you by a road because some guy told her to.”

Julie looks at the divot where the pebble was. The divot melts. “She really loved this man who was with her.” She shakes her head. “He made her leave him. I think she left me to look out for him. I’m thankful for that. If I’d been without him right then I don’t think there would have been any me left.”

“Babe.”

“I’d have been in hospitals all this time, instead of him.”

“What, like he’d have been instantly unautistic if you weren’t there to watch him?”

Among things Julie Smith dislikes most are: greeting cards, adoptive parents who adopt without first looking inside themselves and evaluating their capacity to love, the smell of sulphur, John Updike, insects with antennae, and animals in general.

“What about kind women?”

“But insects are maybe the worst. Even if the insect stops moving, the antennae still wave around. The antennae never stop waving around. I can’t stand that.”

“I love you, Julie.”

“I love you too, Faye.”

“I couldn’t believe I could ever love a woman like this.”

Julie shakes her head at the Pacific. “Don’t make me sad.”

Faye watches a small antennaeless bug skate on legs thin as hairs across the glassy surface of a tidal pool. She clears her throat.

“OK,” she says. “This is the only line on an American football field of which there is only one.”

Julie laughs. “What is the fifty.”

“This, the only month of the year without a national holiday, is named for the Roman emperor who. . . .”

“What is August.”

The sun gets higher; the blood goes out of the blue water.

The women move down to stay in the waves’ reach.

“The ocean looks like a big blue dog to me, sometimes,” Faye says, looking. Julie puts an arm around Faye’s bare shoulders.

“‘We loved her like a daughter,’ said Jeopardy! public relations coordinator Muffy deMott. ‘We’ll be sorry to see her go. Nobody’s ever influenced a game show like Ms. Smith influenced Jeopardy!’”—Article, Variety, 13 March 1988.

Weak waves hang, snap, slide. White fingers spill onto the beach and melt into the sand. Faye can see dark sand lighten beneath them as the water inside gets tugged back out with the retreating tide.

The beach settles and hisses as it pales. Faye is looking at the side of Julie Smith’s face. Julie has the best skin Faye’s ever seen on anyone anywhere. It’s not just that it’s so clear it’s flawed, or that here in the low sun off water it’s the color of a good blush wine; it has the texture of something truly alive, an elastic softness, like a ripe sheath, a pod. It is vulnerable and has depth. It’s stretched shiny and tight only over Julie’s high curved cheekbones; the bones make her cheeks hollow, her eyes deep-set. The outlines of her face are like clefs, almost Slavic. Everything about her is sort of permeable: even the slim dark gap between her two front teeth seems a kind of slot, some recessive invitation. Julie has used the teeth and their gap to stimulate Faye with a gentle deftness Faye would not have believed.

Julie has looked up. “Why, though?”

Faye looks blankly, shakes her head.

“Poetry, you were talking about,” Julie smiles, touching Faye’s cheek.

Faye lights a cigarette in the wind. “I’ve just never liked it. It beats around bushes. Even when I like it it’s nothing more than a really oblique way of saying the obvious, it seems like.”

Julie grins. Her front teeth have a gap. “Olé,” she says. “But consider how very, very few of us have the equipment to deal with the obvious.”

Faye laughs. She wets a finger and makes a scoreboard-mark in the air. They both laugh. An anomalous wave breaks big in the surf. Faye’s finger tastes like smoke and salt.

 

Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek and Bert Convy sit around, in slacks and loosened neckties, in the Merv Griffin Entertainment executive lounge, in the morning, watching a tape of last year’s World Series. On the lounge’s giant screen a batter flails at a low pitch.

“That was low,” Trebek says.

Bert Convy, who is soaking his contact lenses, squints at the replay.

Trebek sits up straight. “Name the best low-ball hitter of all time.”

“Joe Pepitone,” Sajak says without hesitation.

Trebek looks incredulous. “Joe Pepitone?”

“Willie Stargell was a great low-ball hitter,” says Convy. The other two men ignore him.

“Reggie Jackson was great,” Sajak muses.

“Still is,” Trebek says, feeling absently at the pulse in his own wrist.

A game show host has a fairly easy professional life. All five of a week’s slots can be shot in one long day. Usually one hard week a month is spent on performance work at the studio. The rest of the host’s time is his own. Bert Convy makes the rounds of car shows and mall openings and Love Boat episodes and is a millionaire several times over. Pat Sajak plays phenomenal racquetball, and gardens. No one is exactly sure what Alex Trebek does with his time.

There’s a hit. Sajak throws a can of soda at the screen. Trebek and Convy laugh.

Sajak looks over at Bert Convy. “How’s that tooth, Bert?”

Convy’s hand strays to his mouth. “Still discolored,” he says grimly.

Trebek looks up. “You’ve got a discolored tooth?”

Convy feels at a bared canine. “A temporary thing. Already cleaning up.” He narrows his eyes at Alex Trebek. “Just don’t tell Merv about it.”

Trebek looks around, as if to see who Convy is talking to. “Me? This guy right here? Do I look like that sort of person?”

“You look like a game show host.”

Trebek smiles broadly. “Probably because of my perfect and beautiful and flawless teeth.”

“Bastard,” mutters Convy.

Sajak tells them to both pipe down.

 

The dynamics of the connection between Faye Goddard and Julie Smith tend, those around them find, to resist clear articulation. Faye is twenty-six and has worked Research on the Jeopardy! staff for the past forty months. Julie is twenty, has foster parents in La Jolla, and has retained her Jeopardy! championship through over seven hundred market-dominating slots.

Forty months ago game-show production mogul Merv Griffin decided to bring the popular game Jeopardy! back from syndicated oblivion, to retire Art Flemming in favor of the waxily handsome, fairly distinguished, and surprisingly intelligent Alex Trebek, the former model who’d made his bones in the game show industry hosting the short-lived High Rollers for Barris/NBC. Dee Goddard, who’d written for shows as old as Truth or Consequences and Name That Tune, had worked Promotion/Distribution on The Joker’s Wild, and had finally produced the commercially shaky but critically acclaimed Gambit, was hired by MGE as the new Jeopardy!’s production executive. A period of disordered tension followed by Griffin’s decision to name Janet Lerner Goddard—forty-eight, winner of two Clios, but also the wife of Dee’s former husband—as director of the revised show; and in fact Dee is persuaded to stay only when Merv Griffin’s executive assistant puts in a personal call to New York, where Faye Goddard, having left Bryn Mawr in 1982 with a degree in library science, is doing an editorial stint at Puzzle magazine. Merv’s right-hand man offers to put Faye on staff at Jeopardy! as category/question researcher.

Faye works for her mother.

Summer, 1985, Faye has been on the Jeopardy! team maybe four months when a soft-spoken and weirdly pretty young woman comes in off the freeway with a dirty jean jacket, a backpack, and a Times classified ad detailing an MGE contestant search. The girl says she wants Jeopardy!; she’s been told she has a head for data. Faye interviews her and is mildly intrigued. The girl gets a solid but by no means spectacular score on a CBE general knowledge quiz, this particular version of which turns out to feature an important zoology section. Julie Smith barely makes it into an audition round.

 In a taped audition round, flanked by a swarthy Shriner from Encino and a twig-thin Redding librarian with a towering blonde wig, Julie takes the game by a wide margin, but has trouble speaking clearly into her microphone, as well as difficulty with the quirky and distinctive Jeopardy! inversion by which the host ‘asks’ the answer and a contestant must supply the appropriate question. Faye gives Julie an audition score of three out of five. Usually only fives and fours are to be called back. But Alex Trebek, who spends at least part of his free time haunting audition rounds, likes the girl, even after she turned down his invitation for a cola at the MGE commissary; and Dee Goddard and Muffy deMott pick Julie out for special mention from among eighteen other prospectives on the audition tape; and no one on the staff of a program still in its stressful initial struggle to break back into a respectable market share has anything against hauntingly attractive young female contestants. Etc. Julie Smith is called back for insertion into the contestant rotation sometime in early September, 1985.

Jeopardy! slots forty-six through fifty are shot on 17 September. Ms. Julie Smith of Los Angeles first appears in the forty-sixth slot. No one can quite remember who the reigning champion was at that time.

Palindromes, Musical Astrology, The Eighteenth Century, Famous Edwards, The Bible, Fashion History, States of Mind, Sports Without Balls.

 Julie runs the board in both rounds. Every question. Never been done before, even under Flemming. The other two contestants, slack and grey, have to be helped off-stage. Julie wins $22,500, every buck on the board, in half an hour. She earns no more in this first match only because a flustered Alex Trebek declares the Final Jeopardy wagering round moot, Julie Smith having no incentive to bet any of her winnings against opponents’ scores of $0 and $-400, respectively. A wide-eyed and grinning Trebek doffs a pretend cap to a blank-faced Julie as electric bongos rattle to the running of the closing credits.

Ten minutes later Faye Goddard locates a missing Julie Smith in a remote section of the contestants’ dressing area. (Returning contestants are required to change clothes between each slot, conducing to the illusion that they’ve ‘come back again tomorrow.’) It’s time for Jeopardy! slot forty-seven. A crown to defend and all that. Julie sits staring at herself in a harsh makeup mirror framed with glowing bulbs, her face loose and expressionless. She has trouble reacting to stimuli. Faye has to get her a wet cloth and talk her through dressing and practically carry her upstairs to the set.

Faye is in the engineer’s booth, trying to communicate to her mother her doubts about whether the strange new champion can make it through another televised round, when Janet Goddard calmly directs her attention to he monitor. Julie is eating slot forty-seven and spitting it out in little pieces. Lady Bird Johnson’s real first name turns out to be Claudia. The Florida city that produces more Havana cigars than all of Cuba is revealed to be Tampa. Julie’s finger abuses the buzzer. She is on Alex’s answers with the appropriate questions before he can even end-punctuate his clues. The first-round board is taken. Janet cuts to commercial. Julie sits at her little desk, staring out at a hushed studio audience.

Faye and Dee watch Julie as the red lights light and Trebek’s face falls into the worn creases of a professional smile. Something happens to Julie Smith when the red lights light. Just a something. The girl who gets a three-score and who stares with no expression is elsewhere. Every concavity in that person now seems to have come convex. The camera lingers on her. It seems to ogle. Often Julie appears on-screen while Trebek is still reading a clue. Her face, on-screen, gives off an odd lambent UHF flicker; her expression, distantly serene, radiates a sort of oneness with the board’s data.

Trebek manipulates the knot of his tie. Faye knows he feels the something, the odd, focused flux in the game’s flow. The studio audience gaps and whispers as Julie supplies the Latin name for the common radish.

“No one knows the Latin word for radish,” Faye says to Dee. “That’s one of those deadly ones I put in on purpose in every game.”

The other two contestants’ postures deteriorate. Someone in the audience loudly calls Julie’s name.

 Trebek, who has never before had an audience get away from him, gets more and more flustered. He uses forty expensive seconds relating a tired anecdote involving a Dodgers game he saw with Dan Rather. The audience hoots impatiently for the game to continue.

 “Bad feeling, here,” Faye whispers. Dee ignores her, bends to the monitor.

Janet signals Alex for a break. Moist and upstaged, Alex promises America that he’ll be right back, that he’s eager to inquire on-air about the tremendous Ms. Smith and the even more tremendously personal sacrifices she must have made to have absorbed so much data at such a tender age.

Jeopardy! breaks for a Triscuit advertisement. Faye and Dee stare at the monitor in horror. The studio audience is transfixed as Julie Smith’s face crumples like a Kleenex in a pocket. She begins silently to weep. Tears move down the clefs of her cheeks and drip into her mike, where for some reasons they hiss faintly. Janet, in the booth, is at a loss. Faye is sent for a cold compress but can’t make the set in time. The lights light. America watches Julie Smith murder every question on the Double Jeopardy board, her face and vinyl jacket slickered with tears. Trebek, suddenly and leguminously cool, pretends he notices nothing, though he never asks (and never in hundreds of slots does he ask) Julie Smith any of the promised personal questions.

The game unfolds. Faye watches a new, third Julie respond to answer after answer. Julie’s face dries, hardens. She is looking at Trebek with eye narrowed to the width of paper-cuts.

In Final Jeopardy, her opponents again cashless, Julie coolly overrides Trebek’s moot-motion and bets her entire twenty-two-five on the fact that the first part of Peking Man discovered was a fragment of jaw. She ends with $45,000. Alex pretends to genuflect. The audience applauds. There are bongos. And in a closing moment that Faye Goddard owns, captured in a color-still that hangs over her iron desk, Julie Smith, on television, calmly and deliberately gives Alex Trebek the finger.

A nation goes wild. The switchboards at MGE and NBC begin jangled two-day symphonies. Pat Sajak sends three dozen long-stemmed reds to Julie’s dressing table. The market share for the last segment of Jeopardy! slot forty-seven is a fifty—on a par with Super Bowls and assassinations. This is 24 September, 1985.

 

“My favorite word,” says Alex Trebek, “is moist. It is my favorite word, especially when used in combination with my second-favorite word, which is loincloth.” He looks at the doctor. “I’m just associating. Is it OK if I just associate?”

Alex Trebek’s psychiatrist says nothing.

“A dream,” says Trebek. “I have this recurring dream where I’m standing outside the window of a restaurant, watching a chef flip pancakes. Except it turns out they’re not pancakes—they’re faces. I’m watching a guy in a chef’s hat flip faces with a spatula.”

The psychiatrist makes a church steeple with his fingers and contemplates the steeple.

“I think I’m just tired,” says Trebek. “I think I’m just bone-weary. I’m tired of the taste of my teeth in my mouth. I’m tired of everything. My job sucks string. I want to go back to modeling. My cheek muscles ache, from having to smile all the time. All this hair spray is starting to attract midges. I can’t go outdoors at night anymore.”

“This girl you work with,” says the doctor.

“And Convy reveals today that he’s getting a discolored tooth,” Trebek say. “Tell me that augurs well, why don’t you.”

“This contestant you talk about all the time.”

“She lost,” Trebek says, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “She lost yesterday. Don’t you read papers, ever? She lost to her own brother, after Janet and Merv’s exec snuck the damaged little bastard in with a rigged five-audition and a board just crawling with animal questions.”

The psychiatrist hikes his eyebrows a little. They are black and angled, almost hinged.

“Queer story behind that,” Trebek says, feeling his wrist for his pulse. “I got it fourth-hand, but still. Parents abandoned the children, as kids. There was the girl and her brother. Lunt. Can you imagine a champion named Lunt? Lunt was autistic. He and the girl got abandoned out in the middle of nowhere somewhere. Grisly. She was adopted and the brother institutionalized. In a state institution. This hopelessly autistic kid, who it turns out he’s got the whole LaPlace’s Data Guide memorized. They both like memorized this thing, as kids. And I thought I had a rotten childhood, boy.” Trebek shakes his head. “But he got put away, and the girl got adopted by some people in La Jolla who were not, from the sense I get, princes among men. She ran away. She got on the show. She kicked ass. She was fair and a good sport and took no crapola. She used her prize money to pay these staggering bills for Lunt’s autism. Moved him to a private hospital in the desert that was supposed to specialize in sort of . . . yanking people outside themselves. Into the world.” Trebek takes a breath.

“And I guess they yanked him OK,” he says, “at least to where he could talk. Though he still hides his head under his arm whenever things get tense. Plus he’s weird-looking. And but he comes and bumps her off with this torrent of zoology data.” Trebek plays with a cufflink. “And she’s gone.”

“You said in our last hour together that you thought you loved her.”

“She’s a lesbian,” Trebek says flatly. “She’s a lesbian through and through. I think she’s one of those political lesbians. You know that kind? The kind with the anger? She looks at men like they’re unsightly strains on the air. Plus she’s involved with our ditz of a head researcher, which if you don’t think the F.C.C. took a dim view of that little liaison you’ve got another . . .”

“Free-associate,” orders the doctor.

“Image association?”

“I have no problem with that.”

“I invited the girl for coffee, or a Tab, years ago, right at the start, in the commissary, and she gave me this haunting but also hunting smile. Told me she could never imbibe caffeine with a man who wore a digital watch. The hell she says. She gave me the finger on national television. She’s practically got a crewcut. Sometimes she looks like a vampire. Once, in the contestant booth, the contestant booth is where we keep all the contestants for all the slots, once one of the lights in the booth was flilckering, they’re fluorescent lights, and she said to get her the hell out of that booth, that flicker fluorescence made her feel like she was in a nightmare. And there was a sort of nightmary quality to that light, I remember. It was like there was a pulse in the neon. Like blood. Everybody in the booth got nervous.” Trebek strokes his moustache. “Odd girl. Something odd about her. When she smiled things got bright, too focused. It took the fun out of it, somehow.

“I love her, I think,” Trebek says. “She has a way with a piece of data. To see her with an answer . . . Is there such a thing as an intellectual caress? I think of us together: seas part, stars shine spotlights . . .”

“And this researcher she’s involved with?”

“Nice enough girl. A thick, friendly girl. Not fantastically bright. A little emotional. Has this adoration-versus-loathing thing with her mother.” Trebek ponders. “My opinion: Faye is like the sort of girl who’s constantly surfing on her emotions. You know? Not really in control of where they take her, but not quite ever wiping out, yet, either. A psychic surfer. But scary-looking, for so young. These black, bulging, buggy eyes. Perfectly round and black. Impressive breasts, though.”

“Mother-conflicts?”

“Faye’s mother is one very tense production exec. Spends far too much time obsessing about not obsessing about the fact that our director is her ex-husband’s wife.”

“A woman?”

“Janet Lerner Goddard. Worst director I’ve ever worked with. Dee hates her. Janet likes to play with Dee’s head; it’s a head that admittedly tends to be full of gin. Janet likes to put little trinkety reminders of Dee’s ex in Dee’s mailbox at the office. Old bills, tieclips. She plays with Dee’s mind. Dee’s obsessing herself into stasis. She’s barely able to even function at work anymore.”

“Image associated with this person?”

“You know those ultra-modern rifles, where the mechanisms of aiming far outnuber those of firing? Dee’s like that. God am I scared of being like that.”

The psychiatrist thinks they have done all they can for today. He shows Trebek the door.

“I also really like the word bedizen,” Trebek says.

 

In those first fall weeks of 1985, a public that grows with each Nielsen sweep discerns only two areas of potential competitive vulnerability in Ms. Julie Smith of Los Angeles. One has to do with animals. Julie is simply unable to respond to clues about animals. In her fourth slot, categories in Double Jeopardy include Marsupials and Zoological Songs, and an eidetic pharmacist from Westwood pushes Julie all the way to Final Jeopardy before she crushes him with a bold bet on Eva Braun’s shoe-size.

In her fifth slot (and what is, according to the game’s publicized rules, to be her last—if a winner she’ll be retired as a five-time champion), Julie goes up against a spectacularly fat Berkely mailman who claims to be a cofounder of the California chapter of MENSA. The third contestant is a neurasthenic (but gorgeous—Alex keeps straightening his tie) Fullerton stenographer who wipes her lips compulsively on the sleeve of her blouse. The stenographer quickly accumulates a negative score, and becomes hysterically anxious during the second commercial break, convinced by the skunked, vengeful and whispering mailman that she will have to pay Jeopardy! The nine hundred dollars she’s down before they will let her leave the set. Faye dashes out during Off-Air; the woman cannot seem to be reassured. She keeps looking wildly at the exits as Faye runs off-stage and the red lights light.

A bell initiates Double Jeopardy. Julie, refusing to meet the audience’s eye, begins pausing a bit before she responds to Alex. She leaves openings. Only the mailman capitalizes. Julie stays ahead of him. Faye watches the stenographer, who is clearly keeping it together only through enormous exercise of will. The mailman closes on Julie. Julie assumes a look of distaste and runs the board for several minutes, down to the very last answer, Ancient Rome for a Thousand: author of De Oratore who was executed by Octavian in 43 B.C. Julie’s finger hovers over the buzzer; she looks to the stenographer. The mailman’s eyes are closed in data-search. The stenographer’s head snaps up. She looks wildly at Julie and buzzes in with Who is Tully. There is silence. Trebek looks at his index card. He shakes his head. The stenographer goes to $–1900 and seems to suffer something resembling a petit mal seizure.

Faye watches Julie Smith buzz in now and whisper to her mike that, though Alex was doubtless looking for the question Who is Cicero, in point of fact one Marcus Tullius Cicero, 106–43 B.C., was known variously as both Cicero and Tully. Just as Augustus’s less common appellation is Octavian, she points out, indicating the card in the host’s hand. Trebek looks at the card. Faye flies to the Resource Room. The verdict takes only seconds. The stenographer gets the credit and the cash. Out of the emotional red, she hugs Julie on-camera. The mailman fingers his lapels. Julie smiles a really magnificent smile. Alex, genuinely moved, declaims briefly on the spirit of good clean competition he’s proud to have witnessed here today. Final Jeopardy sees Julie effect the utter annihilation of the mailman, who is under the impression that the first literature in India was written by Kipling. The slot pulls down a sixty-five share. Hardly anyone notices Julie’s and the stenographer’s exchange of phone numbers as the bongos play. Faye gets a tongue-lashing from Muffy deMott on the inestimable importance of researching all possible question to a given answer. The shot of Julie buzzing in with the correction makes the “Newsmakers” column of Newsweek.

That night Merv Griffin’s executive assistant calls an emergency policy meeting of the whole staff. MGE’s best minds take counsel. Alex is sent out for coffee and Cokes.

Griffin murmurs to his right-hand man. His man has a shiny face and a black toupee. The man nods, rises:

“Can’t let her go. Too good. Too hot. She’s become the whole show. Look at these figures.” He brandishes figures.

“Rules, though,” says the director. “Five slots, retire undefeated, come back for Champion’s Tourney, in April. Annual event. Tradition. Art Flemming. Fairness to whole contestant pool. An ethics type of thing.”

Griffin whispers into his shiny man’s ear. Again the man rises.

“Balls in a trough,” the shiny man says to the director. “The girl’s magic. Figures do not lie. The Triscuit people have offered to double the price on thirty-second spots, long as she stays.” He smiles with his mouth but not his eyes, Faye sees. “Shoot, Janet, we could just call this the Julia Smith Show and still make mints.”

“Julie,” says Faye.

“Right.”

Griffin whispers up at his man.

“Need Merv mention we should all see substantial salary and benefit incentives at work here?” says the shiny man, flipping a watch-fob. “A chance her to be industry heroes. Heroines. MGE a Camelot. You, all of you, knights.” Looks around. “Scratch that. Queens. Entertainment Amazons.”

“You don’t get rid of a sixty share without a fight,” says Dee, who’s seated next to Faye, sipping at what looks to Faye a little too much like water. The director whispers something in Muffy deMott’s ear.

There’s a silence. Griffin rises to a stand with his man. “I’ve seen the tapes, and I’m impressed as I’ve never been impressed before. She’s like some lens, a filter for that great unorganized force that some in the industry have spent their whole lives trying to locate and focus.” This is Merv Griffin saying this. Eyes around the table are lowered. “What is that force?” Merv asks quietly. Looks around. He and his man sit back down.

Alex Trebek returns in shirtsleeves, with refreshments.

Griffin whispers and the shiny man rises. “Merv posits that this force, ladies, gentleman, is the capacity of facts to transcend their internal factual limitations and become, in and of themselves, meaning, feeling. This girl not only kicks facts in the ass. This girl informs trivia with import. She makes it human, something with the power to emote, evoke, cathart. She gives the game the simultaneous transparency and mystery all of us in the industry have groped for, for decades. A sort of union of contestantorial head, heart, gut, buzzer-finger. She is, or can become, the game show incarnate. She is mystery.”

“What, like a cult thing?” Alex Trebek asks, opening a can of soda at arm’s length.

Merv Griffin gives Trebek a cold stare.

Merv’s man’s face gleams. “See that window?” he says. “That’s where the rules go. Out the window.” Feels at his nose. “Does your conscientious entertainer retain—and here I say think about all the implications of ‘retention,’ here—” looking at Janet, “I mean does he cling blindly to rules for their own sake when the very goal and purpose and idea of those rules walks right off the street and into the hearts of every Triscuit consumer in the fee world?”

“Safe to say not,” Dee says drily.

The man: “So here’s the scoop. She stays til she’s bumped. We cannot and will not give any help on-air. Off-air she gets anything within what Merv defines as reason. We get her to play a little ball, go easy on the board when strategy allows, give the other players a bit of a shot. We tell her we want to play ball. DeMott here is one of our carrots.”

Muffy deMott wipes her mouth on a commissary napkin. “I’m a carrot?”

If the girl plays ball, then you, deMott, you start in on helping the kid shelter her income. Tell her we’ll give her shelter through MGE. Take her from the seventy bracket to something more like a twenty. Capisce? She’s got to play ball, with a carrot like that.”

“She sends all her money to a hospital her brother’s in,” Faye says softly, next to her mother.

“Hospital?” Merv Griffin asks. What hospital?”

Faye looks at Griffi. “All she told me was her brother was in Arizona in a hospital because he has trouble living in the world.”

“The world?” Griffin asks. He looks at his man.

Griffin’s man touches his wig carefully, looks at Muffy. “Get on that, deMott,” he says. “This hospitalized-brother thing. If it’s good P.R., see that it’s P.’d. Take the girl aside. Fill her in. Tell her about the rules and the window. Tell her she’s here as long as she can hang.” A significant pause. “Tell her Merv might want to do lunch, at some point.”

Muffy looks at Faye. “All right.”

Merv Griffin glances at his watch. Everyone is instantly up. Papers are shuffled.

“Dee,” Merv says from his chair, absently fingering a canine tooth. “you and your daughter stay for a moment, please.”

Idaho, Coins, Truffaut, Patron Saints, Historical Cocktails, Animals, Winter Sports, 1879, The French Revolution, Botanical Songs, The Talmud, ‘Nuts to you.’

One contestant, slot two-eighty-seven, 4 December 1986, is a bespectacled teenage boy with a smear of acne and a shallow chest in a faded Mozart tee-shirt; he claims on-air to have revised the Western solar calendar into complete isomorphism with the atomic clocks at the U.S. Bureau of Time Measurement in Washington. He eyes Julie beadily. Any and all of his winnings, he says, will go toward realizing his father’s fantasy. His father’s fantasy turns out to be a spa, in the back yard of the family’s Orange County home, with an elephant on permanent duty on each side of the spa, spouting.

“God am I tired,” Alex intones to Faye over a soda and handkerchief at the third commercial break. Past Alex, Faye sees Julie, at her little desk, looking out at the studio audience. People in the audience vie for her attention.

The boy’s hopes for elephants are dashed in Final Jeopardy. He claims shrilly that the Islamic week specifies no particular Sabbath.

“Friday,” Julie whispers.

Alex cues bongos, asks the audience to consider the fact that Californians never (“never,” he emphasizes) seem to face east.

“Just the facts on the brother who can’t live in the world, is all I want,” Merv Griffin sys, pushing at his cuticles with a paperclip. Dee makes soft sounds of assent.

“The kid’s autistic,” Faye says. “I can’t really see why you’d want data on an autistic person.”

Merv continues to address himself to Dee. “What’s wrong with him exactly. Are there different degrees of autisticness. Can he talk. What’s his prognosis. Would he excite pathos. Does he look too much like the girl. And et cetera.”

“We want total data on Smith’s brother,” iterates the gleaming face of Merv’s man.

“Why?”

Dee looks at the empty glass in her hand.

“The potential point,” Merv murmurs, “is can the brother do with a datum what she can do with a datum.” He switches the paperclip to his left hand. “Does the fact that he has as Faye here put it trouble being in the world, together with what have to be impressive genetics, by association,” he breathes, “add up to mystery-status? Game-show-incarnation?” He works a cuticle. “Can he do what she can do?”

“Imagine the possibilities,” says the shiny man. “We’re looking way down the road on this thing. A climax type of deal, right? Antigone-thing. If she’s going to get bumped sometime, we obviously want the bumper with the same kind of draw. The brother’s expensive hospitalization at the sister’s selfless expense is already great P.R.”

“Is he mystery, I want to know,” says Merv.

“He’s autistic,” Faye says, staring bug-eyed. “Meaning they’re like trying to teach him just to talk coherently. How not to go into convulsions whenever somebody looks at him. You’re thinking about maybe trying to put him on the air?”

Merv’s man stands at the dark office window. “Imagine sustaining the mystery beyond the individual girl herself, is what Merv means. The mystery of total data, that mystery made a sort of antic, ontic self-perpetuation. We’re talking fact sustaining feeling, right through the change that inevitably attends all feeling, Faye.”

“We’re thinking perpetuation, is what we’re thinking,” says Merv. “Every thumb over at Triscuit is up, on this one.”

Dee’s posture keeps deteriorating as they stand there.

“Remember, ladies,” Merv’s man says from the window. “You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the precipitate.” He guffaws. Griffin slaps his knee.

Nine months later Faye is back in the office of Griffin’s man. The man has different hair. He says:

“I say two words to you, Faye. I say F.C.C., and I say separate apartments. We do not I repeat do not need even a whiff of scandal. We do not need a Sixty-Four-Thousand-Dollar-Question-type-scandal kind of deal. Am I right? So I say to you F.C.C, and separate pads.

“You do good research, Faye. We treasure you here. I’ve personally heard Merv use the word ‘treasure’ in connection with your name.”

“I don’t give her any answers,” Faye says. The man nods vigorously. Faye looks at the man. “She doesn’t need them.”

“All I’m saying to you is let’s make our dirty linen a private matter,” says the shiny man. “Treasure or no. So I say keep your lovely class apartment, that I hear so much about.”

That first year, ratings slip a bit, as they always do. They level out at incredible. MGE stock splits three times in nine months. Alex buys a car so expensive he’s afraid to drive it. He takes the bus to work. Dee and the cue-card lady acquire property in the canyons. Faye explores IRA’s with the help of Muffy deMott. Julie moves to a bungalow in Burbank, continues to live on fruit and seeds, and sends everything after her minimal, post-shelter taxes to the Palo Verde Psychiatric Hospital in Tucson. She turns down a People cover. Faye explains to the People people that Julie is basically a private person.

It quickly gets to the point where Julie can’t go out anywhere without some sort of disguise. Faye helps her select a mustache and explains to her about not too much glue.

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