The crowd was only one man at first, live tweeting on his smartphone. We couldn’t make out what kind of phone it was because he stood across the lawn, toeing the edge of the ditch at the end of the driveway. The man must’ve known he was in the right place, because there were no other houses around, only cornfields and untamed prairie. If he was lost he could just as easily walk over and ask us for directions. We were in the middle of our Sunday afternoon routine, playing Mario Party on the beat-up Nintendo 64 in the garage, listening to the breeze rustle across the crops. I had written my name, Loraine, across the game cartridge in permanent marker so no one would accidentally steal it back in the days when we all had working game systems and lived with our parents. My Nintendo was the only one still in working order.
Marcy and Rooks were sprawled across the moldy plaid sofa my mom and I had moved out of the living room years ago before lung cancer turned her into fertilizer. It still smelled like cigarettes and sweat. I came home from Iowa State spring break of freshman year for her first round of chemo and never went back. Over the past eight years, I’d tried to make the house my own, but it still felt haunted by her illness, a cursed family heirloom in which I dwelled. It was a small ranch with two doleful, one-window bedrooms tucked at the end of a narrow hallway. My old room had transparent curtains that were useless, because the sun almost never shone in. The common space wasn’t all that bad though. The kitchen counter looked out over a modest living area where I kept the better television. I’d picked up the TV in the garage from a yard sale a town over. It was almost as deep as it was wide and even Rooks couldn’t fix the weird coloring.
Sanders rested on a beanbag chair that trickled foam pellets across the cement. They’d eventually blow away when a strong wind came through. In the July heat, I rested my head across his lap, allowing my body to starfish across the dusty floor, because the cement was cool during the dog days of summer. He pressed his beer bottle to my forehead to cool me down. Sanders’ thighs were sturdy, the boniest part of his body, but a decent pillow nonetheless. Rooks introduced us one day when they came into the diner. Rooks and Sanders were five years older than Marcy and me and knew one another from high school. I was familiar with Sanders by reputation. He was one of the few other kids in the area to head off to college after graduation. He had earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science.
You wouldn’t find our small stretch of Iowa labeled on a map. It’s not really even a town in the traditional sense, more so a community of houses spread out over endless acres of corn and soy, but still everyone is familiar with everyone and you can recognize most people at a distance. With that said, we were pretty sure the kid at the end of the driveway wasn’t from anywhere in the state. He had that rich big city look about him. His designer clothes clearly hadn’t been washed more than a handful of times and the gold chain dangling outside his t-shirt glimmered in the sun. Boxy turquoise sunglasses covered half his face, the rest of which was framed by a well-groomed beard. More the music video type than a farm boy.
There we were in the middle of our game and he walked down the side of the road and came to an abrupt stop in front of the lot, pulled his phone from his pocket, and held it at eye level in front of him, capturing something with the camera. We nicknamed him Hollywood and whispered jokes. After he hadn’t moved for an hour, we debated calling the sheriff. Instead, I closed the garage door and we left him standing there sweating in the sun, dust billowing across his clean clothes on the rare occasion a truck drove by. That night, after Marcy and Rooks hopped in their pickup and drove home, I received a text from Marcy alerting me that Hollywood was still standing in the same spot like a scarecrow. I read it near verbatim to Sanders while he was shaving. The bathroom was fogged from his shower and caused his beer to sweat onto the sink tile.
“Marcy says Hollywood is still standing in the same spot like a scarecrow.”
“He’s harmless,” Sanders said, standing with a towel around his waist. “Besides, the doors are dead-bolted. If it makes you feel better, I’ll load the Glock and put it on the nightstand.”
“No that’s okay.” I said. “I just have a weird feeling. Gives me the heebie jeebies.”
Sanders toweled off his face and wrapped me up in his arms, sandwiching my head into his bare chest. He was starting to get doughy, but I still felt safe tucked against him. We stayed there leaning into one another for a while in the hallway, until I felt the urge to distract myself from Hollywood’s presence and pushed Sanders back into the bathroom. I yanked the towel from his hips and hopped up on the thin stretch of marble countertop next to the sink to let him get a hold on me. Sanders wasn’t always that passionate, but he was an adroit lover. We were quick and to-the-point and when we were done we haphazardly brushed our teeth and fell asleep watching reruns of Chopped, the two of us buried in the fold of the beige leather couch in the living room that had replaced the outdated one in the garage. I fell asleep no longer worrying about the man outside. That night, I dreamt of peculiar and innovative food fusions: tuna mac and cheese burritos, funnel cake sliders, charred Brussels sprouts pan fried in candy cane duck fat glaze.
The next morning, Sanders opened the garage and stepped out to smoke a cigarette. I wouldn’t let him smoke in the house on account of my mother. I tried incessantly to get him to quit when we started dating, but after two years or so I gave up. I told myself I wasn’t responsible for his tarred lungs, but refused to let him smoke inside, because I didn’t want to inhale it and hated the way it stunk up the furniture. He smoked the same brand as my mom and it was too familiar. She’d wrecked my immune system with secondhand smoke when I was a kid.
Hollywood was still standing there in the same dust-covered clothes, thumbs frantic, pounding away at his phone. Whenever Sanders retold the story of that morning he’d make this eerie expression of combined illness and nostalgia. It went like this:
Sanders dragged on his cigarette and tried not to stare at the creepy voyeur loitering at the end of the drive. He looked down for a moment to ash into an empty beer bottle, but when he looked back up half a dozen teenage girls were standing next to Hollywood. They were dressed in matching white t-shirts adorned with glittery gold paint that read “184” – our house address. The girls giggled and asked Hollywood to take their picture. Sanders flicked his cigarette butt off into the yard and they all started clapping and shrieked in delight.
When he came back inside, he looked at me like an actor. “Something fishy is going on,” he said. His delivery felt rehearsed.
I finished my glass of orange juice. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Hollywood’s got company.”
“Are we bank robbers now?” I chided. “Is this a stick up?”
“Just go out into the garage,” he said.
I walked outside to roaring applause. There must have been three-dozen people roiling onto the lawn, hooting and hollering like it was Woodstock. Two shaggy teenage boys in khaki shorts and tie-dye shirts deftly flicked a Frisbee back and forth across the driveway. A bronzed woman wearing nothing but a teal bikini and an ornate headdress hula-hooped in the center of the dirt road. There were several cliques of teenage girls in matching outfits, divided by their colors of choice like rival gangs. The crowd piled onto the grass so that an orange food truck tagged with yellow lettering that read “Cheese Louise” could pull up next to the drainage ditch on the shoulder of the road. A woman in a matching orange shirt (I later found out she was Louise), dry erase easel in hand, exited the truck, set up an A-frame, and began scrawling menu items and prices across the blank white surface in red dry-erase marker. The special was grilled cheese with locally sourced Manchego, Serrano ham, and spicy hand-ground mustard.
I waved to the crowd and they raised their smartphones en masse to capture the moment. More people were showing up by the second. The shoulder of the road was lined with cars as far as the eye could see. I walked back inside and the audience let out a collective groan as I closed the door. Sanders was smoking a second cigarette in the house. I could already tell the stench was going to cling to the furniture.
“Well?” he said.
“Why are they here?” I asked.
“Must be a convention in town or something,”
“Don’t play cute. You know you’re not supposed to smoke in here.”
“I’m not going back out there,” he said.
“You’re going to have to, I think.”
“Because I think they’re here to see us.”
I dialed Marcy on the phone, hoping to catch her before her shift at Danny’s Hash, the restaurant two towns over where we waitressed, although, the students that passed by from Lincoln or Omaha heading east toward the university always called us servers. Marcy hated that word because it made her feel low, like she was somehow less than them for never going to college. She always joked that she didn’t serve anyone, but she’d wait around all day for a decent tip. I didn’t mind it so much. I guess I was less sensitive about semantics. The phone rang several times before Rooks picked up.
“What can do, Lo? We’re just getting out of the shower.”
“Tell Marcy to get her ass over here when her lunch shift is done. And you should get over here ASAP too.”
“It’s Monday. I’m not sure we can make it.”
“Trust me. You guys need to see this.”
Rooks exhaled heavily on the other end of the line. “I’ve got a couple odd jobs, but I’ll come over after.”
Rooks had been a farmhand since he could walk and could do any work you could imagine: irrigation, gardening, herding, plowing, mowing, cropping, septic, tractor and truck maintenance, electrical, plumbing – you name it. He always found gigs that paid cash and was known across a quarter of the state for his alacrity and professionalism. Being an orphan, Rooks never owned any land. Even though Marcy had married him a year before Hollywood showed up, Rooks still wrote her monthly rent checks at the time as if the house wasn’t half his by then.
“Just tell Marcy it’s important and we’ll see you when we see you.”
“Yup.” I hung up the phone.
The indistinct clamor of crowd noise buzzed throughout the house. I looked around for Sanders, figuring he had gone back to bed, but he was nowhere to be found. I heard a burst of cheering in the garage. I opened the door and stood wide-eyed on the threshold. The crowd had grown too large to see anything past the perimeter of the driveway. The spectators had moved all the way down the sides of the pavement, so that the closest onlookers were right next to the house. Sanders stood on the side nearest me, cigarette resting obliquely at the corner of his mouth, putter in hand, a bucket of golf balls next to him, lining up a shot across the garage floor at two beer bottles spaced about six inches apart. As he pulled the putter back and swung, a hush fell over the mass of people. The ball languorously rolled across the floor, skipped over a random piece of detritus, and made a hollow tink sound as it nicked one of the beer bottles and rolled through. Sanders went down on one knee and pumped his fist. The crowd erupted in thunderous applause.
There was no way to be sure how many people congregated outside of our place. After the second day, the four of us gleaned that we had become overnight Internet sensations. Hollywood had live tweeted our Mario Party marathon with the hashtag #184house and it had remained trending since. Sanders’ putt had nearly a hundred million views on YouTube. By the time Marcy and Rooks made it over later that day, Sanders and I had already started experimenting with various methods of entertaining our guests. I dug a baton out of the attic from my high school days twirling. It was exhilarating to see the awed faces that circled around me as I spun around and tossed the silver cane skyward in the front lawn. It gave me a feeling of youthfulness I hadn’t experienced since I was on the field at halftime nearly a decade ago. Meanwhile, Sanders told hackneyed knock-knock jokes, but everyone laughed even though they were stale. Sometimes he had to wait two or three minutes between punch lines until it was quiet enough for him to continue. After a while, the baton twirling tired out my forearms and I switched to juggling oranges, which was slightly less strenuous.
Rooks ended up making it over before Marcy because she got stuck rolling silverware at the end of her lunch shift. It didn’t take him long to adapt to the situation—he’d always been an easy-going, laidback kind of guy—and he grabbed his banjo from the back of his truck. Sitting at the mouth of the garage in the deflated beanbag chair, wearing a ratty red flannel and faded jeans—his perennial look—Rooks fiercely picked away at the banjo for two hours straight. The audience was enraptured from start to finish. Sanders took advantage of Rooks’ jam session and went inside to grab a beer and answer a couple work emails. Before we hit it big, Sanders worked as a tech consultant and controlled his own hours. It was my second day off in a row from the diner. I was tuckered out from performing and let Rooks take over so I could sneak a cold shower.
Once I’d dried off and changed, I wandered back out into the garage. Marcy was nestled up next to Rooks on the bag chair singing a cowboy ballad. She’d clearly stopped at home first to get dolled up. Her lemon sundress looked freshly ironed and her hair was tied back in a matching yellow bandana like an elegant movie star of yesteryear. The crowd swayed back and forth in unison. A few muscled men near the front in matching American flag tanktops waved lighters above their heads. I patted Marcy on the shoulder as I walked by and pushed my way into the crowd.
As I neared Cheese Louise, smartphones and video cameras veered in my direction. Strangers brushed their fingers over my shoulders and hair. I saw Hollywood’s face among people in the distance and he smiled at me. There was a line for sandwiches, but those waiting scooted to one side and let me skip to the front. A different woman was behind the counter than the day before. I ordered four specialty grilled cheeses and a quart of tomato soup for our quartet, all of which was given to me gratis. One grilled cheese appeared in the window before the other three and since I was famished I took a bite right away. It was the best grilled cheese I’d ever tasted.
“Cheese Louise!” I shouted.
I was inundated by boisterous laughter from anyone within hearing distance. Even Marcy and Rooks stopped mid-song and chuckled. Sanders wandered back outside, beer in hand, to see what had caused the hubbub. Marcy leaned in and gave Rooks an overzealous kiss, biting down on his lip for dramatic effect. Everyone oohed like a 90s sitcom.
After a few days of winging it, we took the collective talents of our audience and applied them to ourselves. Sponsorship offers started coming in on the morning of the fourth day and we shamelessly accepted every one of them. By the end of the week the four of us had quit our jobs. There was no need to work. We had refrigerators full of free food and complimentary energy drinks, a new espresso maker with a lifetime supply of Guatemalan beans, a creative grant from YouTube (on top of royalties), an official press tent sponsored by a up-and-coming social media app approaching its IPO, and more clothing labels sending us apparel than we could wear in a lifetime.
Our fear, then, was that all the swag came with an expectation of high quality. We couldn’t rely on improvisation forever. So on that fourth day, Sanders cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled out to the crowd, “Does anyone have any screenwriting experience?”
A plain-looking woman in a purple blouse, a pink fanny pack nestled above the hips of her khakis, raised her hand and entered the garage without waiting to be called on. Without saying a word or looking up from his phone, a playwright named Donald also emerged from the sea of spectators and crossed the invisible barrier, cuing us that he was willing to volunteer as well. The woman introduced herself as Laura. Together, Laura and Donald helped us write our first Garage Late Show.
Since we were still adapting to the spotlight and feeling overwhelmed with self-importance, we decided the logical itinerary for our debut was to have Sanders host while the other three of us came on as guests. YouTube brought in a film crew to air the show live. Rooks talked about how he spent the day fixing a tractor, and Marcy surprised everyone (even me) by revealing she once published a romance novel under a pseudonym. Sanders asked me about growing up in the 184 House with my mom. I could’ve punched him. I didn’t want to talk about her cancer, and felt more vulnerable than I ever had in my entire life. Still, we instantly became the most viewed programming in late night. The Garage Late Show broadcast for six consecutive episodes, of which I found episode four most enjoyable, because we had an indie septet on as the guest for our musical segment “Garage Band.” They brought more brass than a high school marching band and performed for our live audience until dawn.
Daytime performances were more challenging and less rehearsed. Rooks took to interviewing random audience members and found he had a knack for convincing people to reveal moving, enigmatic, and sometimes personally catastrophic stories about themselves in a public forum. Not wanting to fall behind on her book club, Marcy read aloud passages of The Goldfinch for hours on end. I still twirled the baton from time to time, but mostly fulfilled my dream of hosting a cooking show. It turned out some contractors in Iowa City were fans, and in less than 48 hours of our debut they’d built me a full outdoor kitchen on wheels (again, gratis) that could be moved out into the yard after my shift. It even had a working kitchen sink that could be connected to the garden hose. During my show, I took my mother’s favorite recipes and taught them to the world. Despite her smoking she was an exceptional cook, and always told me there was no point in keeping secrets in the kitchen. We all have to eat after all, she’d say. One day, I even brought Louise on the show so she could share her top tips for making gourmet grilled cheese.
Sanders became obsessed with making people laugh and relied more and more on our growing crew of writers to provide him with endless comedic material. If a joke didn’t land he’d be upset for hours. A few writers were hired and fired within an evening, let go after one subpar punch line or less-than-stellar segment idea. He had been drinking heavily since the second day and tried to balance it out by guzzling energy drinks from our sponsor. After one particularly mediocre show, I tried to soothe him with sex, but he dodged my advances and sequestered himself in blankets, mumbling, “They can play infomercials until morning for all I care.”
Not wanting to sleep next to Sanders in his inebriated state, I walked back out into the kitchen. Marcy was up late reading her book.
“You could kill a man with the weight of this thing,” she said, plopping Tartt’s novel on the counter.
“Sure wish I had time to read,” I said.
“Anyone can make time. That’s what we always say in book club.”
“Right now, I’m just trying to convince Sanders to make some time for us.”
“Well, in that case, we never should’ve taken on Jack Daniels as a sponsor.”
“That’s not entirely what I mean.”
“Sorry. I just want to cheer you up.”
“Why’d you never tell me about the novel?” I’d wanted to ask her since the first late show, but we hadn’t enjoyed one free minute together. I Googled the title and apparently it did pretty well. The Ranch Hand. It was still available in stock on Amazon.
“Shoot, no one knew except Rooks. People just have such preconceived notions about romance.”
“So do you have any romance advice for me now or what?”
Marcy stared down at her book for a moment in thought. “Sanders isn’t great at this,” she said. “But you’re a natural out there when you cook. It’s easy to see how much that time with your mom meant to you when you’re in the kitchen. That’s probably why he’s sour. He’s jealous because he’s not as good as you.”
“I mean he has to realize this wasn’t my doing, right? We’re all just trying to make the best of the situation. He should be happy for me.”
Marcy looked up at the clock above the sink. It was her time to go on. “I don’t know much,” she said. “But I do know one thing. Men only care about winning.”
On the tenth day, I woke up to find the house deserted. Our writers had vacated the living room and I found a note from Marcy and Rooks on the kitchen table.
Hollywood has moved. Gone home.
-Marcy & Rooks
I walked out into the garage, but no one was there. The lawn was barren, still littered with empty cartons of tomato soup and a miscellany of plastic bottles. About half the cornfields were still standing, but most of the acreage was trampled flat from where the crowd had camped out or parked. The prairie behind the house had turned into a mud pit. I thought about cleaning up, but decided there was no rush. I walked back inside and unlocked my new iPad, which had arrived in a gift basket from an Oscar-winning actress after she was on our late show. I skimmed the news and found that Hollywood had indeed literally moved on. He was spotted in St. Paul, Minnesota, camped outside the house of a young gay couple, who had recently adopted a daughter and named her Ruth after their favorite Supreme Court Justice. The crowd was already estimated around 35,000. The decision seemed random, but really Hollywood could’ve chosen anyone, anyplace, wherever.
I broke the news to Sanders when he rose from bed. It was nearly noon and he sauntered out of the bedroom with a notepad, pen dangling from the corner of his mouth. He removed it occasionally to scribble down ideas for his opening monologue. After I explained the situation and he saw the empty field firsthand, he immediately began drinking. We still had enough Jack Daniels to satiate Ernest Hemingway through the drafting of three or four lesser novels.
For the next week, Sanders partook in an unexpurgated fit of tireless drinking and moping around. He vomited often and soon turned yellow in the eyes. I didn’t try to stop him and never once made an effort to distract him with love or affection. After allowing a two-day hangover to subside, he moved out of the house. He couldn’t accept that for the rest of his life he’d probably be a has-been. So he packed up his things and said he was moving west to L.A., hoping to regain some of that lost luster on stage that our romance could never give him.
Last I heard, Sanders was on The Bachelor. I fell out of touch with him after he’d been in California for a month or two. Despite going back to tech work out of necessity to pay rent, his job title was still listed as comedian on the show. He booked a couple larger clubs when he first moved, but it became clear he wasn’t much good without his writers. Once the word got out, he struggled to book more than open mics.
Back in Iowa, I went back to Danny’s Hash, hat in hand, and apologized for quitting so abruptly. I asked if I could have my old job back.
“Are you kidding me?” Danny said. He was a hefty, balding man with eyeglasses that rested low on his acne-scarred nose. No matter the time of year, he always wore a white polo shirt.
“I know I didn’t give you a proper two weeks,” I said. “But please, I need the money. You have to understand the circumstances left me no choice at the time.”
The truth was I didn’t need the money. The royalties from our week plus in the limelight might not have been enough for Sanders’ California dreams, but the checks could hold me over for years if I wanted. I was just getting bored as hell. Marcy and Rooks had gone back to work too. They were losing their minds sitting around. Marcy, however, didn’t go back to the restaurant. She had a new gig narrating audiobooks for publishers.
“Oh, I know that!” Danny said with a smile. “You think we weren’t watching you down here at the diner? Hell, we felt famous by association. What I mean to say is why would I have you waiting tables? It’s clear you belong in the kitchen.”
Over the next few weeks, Danny and I revamped the entire menu. Hash and breakfast foods remained our staples, but I added one prominent lunch addition – an array of gourmet grilled cheeses.
One Sunday morning, I was playing Mario Party by myself in the garage when Hollywood himself walked up the driveway. He asked if he could sit down on the sofa and I nodded. I restarted the Nintendo so we could play together. We played without an iota of competitive spirit and talked for hours. I found out Hollywood’s real name was Mo and he was mostly selling shoes online now. Turns out even tastemakers fall out of fashion. He was older than I expected. I took him for a college student when he was out in the driveway, but over the course of our conversation it came out that it was his thirtieth birthday.
“You need a cake!” I said.
“I’d settle for a grilled cheese.”
I paused the game and we went inside so I could cook. I turned a football game on the television so Mo didn’t have to awkwardly watch me and wait to be fed. Sanders had packed up all the whiskey and transported it out west, but I offered Mo a beer. He declined and plopped down in front of the TV in the living room. I had some stale homemade focaccia bread and a half block of Muenster cheese and got to work on his sandwich. I knifed a pat of butter into a hot cast-iron pan and the smell filled the kitchen.
A few minutes later I delivered his sandwich with some potato chips and a glass of water. The two halves were cut diagonally and I’d speared a candy-striped birthday candle through each one. I lit the candles and turned out the lights. I sat on the floor so that I wouldn’t encroach on his space while he ate.
“This is too much.” Mo said.
“No,” I replied. “It’s your birthday.”
Mo blew out the candles and darkness enveloped the room. I could hear him bite into the sandwich in the dark and a gust of wind howled against the house. He handed me the other half and I gnashed into the crunchy bread. There we were, two strangers brought together by fifteen minutes of fame, eating together in the only home I’d ever known. A good meal shared, like family.
Aram Mrjoian is a former contributor at Book Riot and a current contributor at Chicago Review of Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Millions, Kenyon Review online, Joyland, Colorado Review, the Ploughshares blog, and many other publications. He is currently working toward his MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is the Assistant Managing Editor at TriQuarterly. Find his work at arammrjoian.com