Sam had lived a cliched life from the moment he was born. He had grown up in the thick of it, at a time when the majority of Americans had learned how to live from watching television. Everyone acted like television characters–his parents, teachers, and friends when he was a kid, and his wife, bosses, and coworkers when he was older. In elementary school, his classmates would repeat the popular jokes and catchphrases of the season (life moved slower back then). Some of the kids had loved Pee Wee Herman and imitated him constantly, while others had repeated lines from Predator, Robocop, and other movies or television shows. It was as if they were rehearsing for adulthood.
Crucial moments called for a certain gravity. Someone had once said that all of life is a stage. Maybe Shakespeare. Maybe no one. Who knows? No one knew anything anymore, except about television and movies. But regardless of whoever said or didn’t say it, it was true.
What was life without acting? It was nothing. 99% of the time for 99% of the people, it was dull and uninspired. A good producer would say that it didn’t have enough beats, or that the beats were all wrong. And what the hell is the point of the script? The guy just goes to work for 40 years and croaks? Where’s the arc? What are the stakes? His mortgage? Who the hell cares about his mortgage? Who the hell even owns a house anymore? No one in our demographic.
It’s all wrong. You go to school, you get a job, you get another job, you go up and down from job to job and sometimes from place to place, maybe you do something interesting once or twice in your life, like have a complete breakdown or join the Peace Corps, but for the most part it’s just one day after another, one girlfriend, job, disappointment after another. By the fifth time your boss takes you aside and puts his hand on your shoulder and says “Sorry, but we’ve got to let you go.”, who the hell cares? The lead actors don’t even care anymore. But you have to go through the motions and pretend it all matters because the truth is that none of it matters. Maybe on a personal, visceral level, it matters, as far as being cold and hungry, but the rest of it is basically bullshit. If you have enough food and a warm bed, to hell with it. You might as well die tomorrow.
If it were a movie, it would be one scene. The vast majority of your life would be covered in one scene. Unless it was one of “those” movies, they’d show you at work once, maybe just to show how boring it is.
The point of most decent movies is that they aren’t like life. Even in the more realistic ones, when the protagonist loses his stupid job and harpie wife, it’s actually the beginning of a learning experience that teaches him how to love himself and pursue his dreams. This doesn’t happen in real life. No one learns a goddamn thing. And for some reason, seeing these movies makes us happy? None of it makes sense.
In any case, Sam’s entire life was cliched. His wife nagged him but loved him because TV had taught her that that was what wives did. She worked, too, because she was a modern movie, and juggling motherhood and a career, whew, it wasn’t easy. Actually, it was pretty easy, but according to television and the movies, it wasn’t, so she played up to it. It was stressful, going to work and having to take care of little Emma. Really, she spent most of her day at work doing nothing. Sam, too. They just sat there wondering how this system could possibly work, with so many people going to work and almost no one ever actually doing anything. One person could replace five or six easily. One robot could replace them all. But it was still a grind, and a monotonous one, and there were movies that showed them how to act up to that, too. The endless existential dread of it all, the uncertainty of the future. And on top of it all there was little Emma, the mortgage, the car payments. These were tough times for Americans. Not for Sam and his wife, but there were homeless people everywhere. Worrying about those homeless people, about possibly joining them, was stressful. What with China and automation and the mortgage and all.
One morning while buying his daily coffee and lottery tickets, Sam got his arc. Checking his tickets from the week before, he discovered he had won 120 million dollars. He stared at his winning ticket in disbelief. This never happened. Not to people like him. Old people who lived in small towns no one had ever heard of won the lottery. Not Sam.
Sam was already over 40 years old. His character was already established. He went to work, paid his bills, built birdhouses and shelves in the garage over the weekend, and then repeated. He had been on repeat for over 20 years. He had his wife and little Emma to worry about, pre-schools, the college fund, the mortgage. One Friday a month he would go out with some of the guys from work and talk about their relative positions in life, the responsibilities incumbent upon all of them. His younger coworkers nodded along at his sage advice regarding 401ks and how to negotiate a decent mortgage. They would laugh and tell him no way–those days were over for them, the days when marriage, home ownership, and raising a family were basically a given. There was no way in hell they could ever afford it. Sam would tell them that he had felt the same way when he was young (he hadn’t) and his coworkers had told him he was probably right (they knew that he wasn’t). Every now and then one of the old timers would come in and tell boring, politically incorrect anecdotes about the good old days and get drunker than he realized (it was almost always a he). As TV had taught them, these old timers were to be graciously respected and listened to, and then kindly guided to a waiting taxi.
Twenty years is a long time. How do you break character after 20 years? According to television and the movies, and in this case, real human biology and psychology, a breakdown was in order. Any major life change, positive or negative, was a seismic shift. Like structures on land during an earthquake, aspects of a person’s character and personality were rearranged. Edifices crumbled and roads and buildings were swallowed, while new cracks and ridges grew and rose from the battered landscape. 120 million dollars, even after taxes, changed everything. He could get a better house, wife, friends. He wouldn’t have to go to work anymore. What would he do? Who would he talk to?
Despite the winning music of the scanner, Sam managed to escape from the little shop without attracting much notice. Luckily, whoever was manning the counter had ducked in back while he had scanned his ticket, and the others milling about were still groggy from sleep, too overwhelmed by the prospect of having to face yet another day to pay much attention to anything going on outside of them.
Once he was outside, he called in sick to work. He usually felt a little nervous when he did this, but this time he felt nothing. The 120 million dollars was already changing him. Miguel or Nancy or whoever had picked up the phone had told him to feel better and he had barely heard them.
On the drive home he noticed a party supply shop. He stopped in and bought several canisters of helium and thousands of balloons for what seemed like an absurdly low price. Afterwards, he made various stops to pick up cake, beer, a bottle of whisky, a cold cut platter. He was hardly aware of what he was doing. After 20 years of living here, he had done all of this before. He could rely on some modified version of autopilot, a simple splicing of a few disparate algorithms. Birthday party, bachelor party, commute home. There was enough previously stored data to guide his actions with little thought or effort.
When Sally found him at home six or so hours early, he was sitting on their deck drinking whisky and inflating balloons. She watched him for a few moments before placing baby Emma into her crib. Emma had always been a good baby; a quiet, sleepy baby. After tucking her in, Sally opened the sliding glass door and walked up behind Sam. He took a long pull of whisky—it looked like Early Times—then pulled a balloon from a bucket beside him. Apparently he had dumped all of the balloons out into a bucket. He lifted a balloon from it, pulled its lip around the nipple of a helium canister, and gently bent the nipple to inflate it, then deftly removed the balloon and tied it off. His movements were smooth and automatic, as if he had been doing this for hours (he had). He then released the balloon and let it float off into the clear blue sky. Sally looked up and saw a dozen or so balloons receding into the distance. Further away, she could see hundreds more. She squinted and saw a trail of balloons wobbling up and off into the distance, scattering as they got further away. Red, yellow, and blue balloons dotted the horizon.
Sally had been expecting an arc of this sort for awhile. Sam was at the right age for it, and men–well, men went through these sorts of things. They got to a point in life when they realized that this was it–that they would never be anything else. Maybe they were grateful for what they had, but it still hurt. It was the last part of growing up, of becoming a “real” adult. It happened to women, too, but they were usually better at hiding it. They matured earlier and thought more about the future, so they extended and diluted the crisis of adulthood. Unlike men, they had a duty to the family’s sense of connection. Wives were responsible for maintaining relations, for remembering all of the birthdays, anniversaries, graduations. Or at least that was how Sally saw it. So she just watched him for a few moments and considered how to react. She was never much of a harpy. She was more of the maternal type, kind, supportive, and patient. There weren’t a lot of good roles for women. After a few minutes she pulled a plastic chair over and sat next to Sam. She patted his shoulder, then squeezed his hand to say hello. He squeezed back without looking at her as he took another pull of whisky, then let go of her hand. He placed the bottle at his feet and returned to inflating balloons.
“How’s it going, hon? Rough day at work?”
Sam shrugged his shoulders.
“You want to talk about it?”
Sam tied off another balloon and let it go. They both watched it for a few moments as it floated off.
“There’s something very relaxing about this,” said Sam.
Sally nodded. She peeked back through the sliding glass doors to check on Emma, who appeared to have fallen asleep in her crib. What kind of life awaited Emma? People didn’t watch TV like they used to. She would grow up into a different kind of adult. Hopefully, a better one. The kind of world she would grow up into–that was another matter.
She placed her hand back on his and squeezed as they looked up at the hundreds of balloons bobbling off into the distance.