“Trust me, I’m not.”
But she, ever enthusiastic, is convinced of my genius, and she goes and grabs my laptop and within minutes has found the online application for becoming a contestant. I humor her because I know they will never pick me.
The e-mail told me to be honest with myself—uh-oh—and consider the following questions before deciding to attend the “Wheel of Fortune” audition: Do I think I can solve puzzles in front of a national audience? Um, I doubt it. Am I able to stay focussed and control my nerves under pressure? Historical evidence suggests otherwise. Can I call letters with a clear and confident voice? Define confident. Do I have good presence and vitality and energy? Hmm, I think so, as I recheck the address in the e-mail, having already walked a block in the wrong direction after exiting the subway. But here I am, outside the Ink 48 hotel, on the far West Side of midtown Manhattan. The e-mail informs me that there will be a coffee stand in the lobby for guests staying at the hotel. Please do not drink this coffee! This is not for us. There will be a water station in our audition room. I wish I had brought coffee. But I like the line “This is not for us.” That could be the title of something.
On the fifth floor, in the Helvetica Room, I’m greeted by Jackie, a contestant handler. I instantly like her. She reminds me of Suzi Quatro playing Leather Tuscadero. I try to do the thing where I signal my acknowledgment of the absurdity of participating in this embodiment of American kitsch, but Jackie cuts through my muddled irony with her positive you-betcha energy, and I take a seat near the back.
Soon, Jackie and two of her colleagues get things rolling. “Is everyone excited?!” they shout, and we shout back in the affirmative, and we clap and smile, because we know clapping and smiling are an integral part of the audition, so we clap and smile ourselves into possible game-show existence. Look at us sparkle. Some whoop. Then others whoop. I myself refrain from whooping. Instead, I nod as I clap and smile, hoping my nodding indicates an amused detachment. Then I whoop.
We are put through our “Wheel of Fortune” paces. A puzzle is projected onto a monitor and one of the contestant handlers reads a random name from a clipboard and the random name stands up and a travel-sized wheel is spun and the wheel stops and the random name calls a letter, ideally in a clear and confident voice—T! N! R! S!—and either the letter is revealed or there’s a buzz and we’re on to the next random name. It’s all very quick and professional. These contestant handlers run a well-oiled contestant-culling machine.
“Running on empty,” the man sitting next to me whispers.
“I hear you,” I say.
“No, no, the puzzle. It’s RUNNING ON EMPTY.” (To maintain the sanctity of the audition process, this answer and the answer below have been fabricated.)
I realize he’s right. He’s solved with only the “N”s revealed. This man must be a “Wheel of Fortune” savant. And this happens over and over again, the “Wheel” savant figuring out the answer early on and whispering it to me. But, when my name is finally the random name, the puzzle is brand new and I get no whispers from my Rain Man, so I squint and call “T” and there’s a buzz and I sit back down. Soon enough my neighbor is summoned. He calls a few letters before solving: BEAUTIFUL ISLAND SUNSET. Correct. We clap and smile. They throw him a “Wheel of Fortune” T-shirt. The only thing I go home with is a small No. 2 pencil that says I tried out for “Wheel of Fortune.”
Two weeks later, there’s a letter in my mailbox, the “Wheel of Fortune” insignia emblazoned on the upper right corner. CONGRATULATIONS! I am standing in the lobby of my apartment building. I shake my head, NO and WAY playing in stereo. It’s like being accepted to cartoon Stanford. I look around for someone to tell, but nobody’s there. I grab my phone. My youngest is at pony camp. My oldest is on a camping trip. My middle is with her mom. I text her and wait for the dot-dot-dot of Are you serious?, the dot-dot-dot of OMG, but no dot-dot-dots appear, so I call and leave a message and then head upstairs to read the rest of the letter. I’m told the show tapes only four days a month, five or six episodes a day, with the actual taping schedule not formed until two weeks in advance, which will be as much notice as I will get. I am responsible for all my expenses. Most important, and printed in bold, there is an appeal to keep things in perspective. “Being a contestant on Wheel of Fortune is a wonderful opportunity!” the letter continues. “But it shouldn’t take precedence over other important areas of your life.” They want me to make sure I’m financially sound before I decide to head to Los Angeles. And if I’m not feeling physically sound, no problem, they’ll have me appear at a later date. “Your health is more important than spinning the wheel!” There’s a tender seen-it-all quality to the prose, as if the “Wheel of Fortune” people can hear your shouts of joy, and they’re shouting right along with you, because this is exciting, but they’re also reminding you that this is just a blip on the radar of life, and maybe you’ll win a lot of cash and tons of prizes, and maybe you won’t, but guaranteed you’ll have some fun. That said, please please please don’t do anything stupid to be here, like quit your day job. The “Wheel” will accommodate.
My phone rings. It is mid-January, 2020. Over New Year’s, a massage therapist told me that this year is going to be my year, and I believe her, which is unlike me, believing in this kind of optimism, but fuck it, I believe her, so I answer the Culver City area code.
“David, it’s Jackie from—”
I agree immediately. They have asked me twice before, and for various reasons I’ve had to say no, but this third offer, well, that’s the formulaic charm. I soon receive a FedEx with important information about my future “Wheel of Fortune” appearance: the release forms, the travel details, the hotel recommendations, the schedule, the request for notification about any possible felonies in my past, etc. The wardrobe section is by far the most interesting part: men get a brief paragraph—dress “business casual” and NO JEANS! NO TENNIS SHOES!—while women are bombarded with multiple paragraphs concerning the positives of two-piece outfits, and solid colors, and blazers, and well-fitted, padded bras, and the negatives of tight tops, and loose tops, and clingy tops, and striped tops, and black or bright red or white tops, and any sort of bold pattern, and silk blouses, and low-cut blouses, and necklaces, and pins, and bracelets.
I choose a pair of dark-blue pants, a medium-blue shirt, and a suit jacket.
Of course, I envision the ridiculous outfits I could wear, as well as the ridiculous things I could do, like trying to solve the puzzle right from the start —I HAVE A POOP IN MY PANTS—real sophisticated stuff, stuff my father hated at the dinner table. I claim iconoclasm, but the truth is more desperate. The closer my appointment with the “Wheel” gets the more fraught my appearance seems. How should I act? What are the proper levels of self-consciousness, micro and meta? I laugh again at the absurd prospect of being a contestant—I’ve been laughing a lot, short bemused snorts, like unexpected sneezes. And then I have a moment of dread. What if I fuck up royally? What if, instead of JAMAICAN COFFEE BEANS, I guess JAMAICAN COFFEE BEARS? Because I could so easily do that.
This is a very bad idea.
I am sitting in the contestant waiting room, at the “Wheel of Fortune” studio, on the Sony lot, in Culver City. The room is more like a locker room, with rows of lockers and a modest spread of breakfast items and weak coffee. We might as well be factory workers on break. Our cell phones have been locked inside these lockers. We can have no reading materials, either. We must simply exist, as ourselves, full of impounded energy, twenty of us, including alternates, representing five days in March and one day in April. We size one another up. I take note of those who have followed the dress code and those who have not. Two of us will be our competition. I try to slip on a journalistic mask, but I’m too self-deprecating and too eager to please. I am a monkey grinding himself.
I remember dancing once, like really spinning-around-and-flopping-all-over-the-place dancing, in the living room of my boyhood apartment. I have no idea why I was dancing; maybe the TV was playing a song I liked, maybe I just wanted my share of attention. I must have been ten, though my memories often reduce down to ten. I’m flailing around, as loose as Steve Martin, and my father lowers his newspaper and stares at me and says, “What are you, some kind of fag?” I know that my father is teasing, as he’s prone to do, though “fag” is more familiar during school recess, circa 1977, than after dinner on Seventy-third and Lex. I hardly recall my reaction, but I know that I stop dancing and retreat to my bedroom, which is wallpapered with posters of the rock band Kiss, as well as hundreds of photographs of the band meticulously clipped from Rolling Stone and Circus and Creem. Maybe I slip on headphones. Maybe I listen to “Flaming Youth.”
This is a big mistake, I think, picking over a Danish.
This isn’t funny.
Wuss. Wimp. Pussy. Candy-ass.
I am hardly a man.
There are gasps in the contestant room. “Hello, everyone.” It’s Vanna White. She’s in a robe. “This is the real me,” Vanna tells us, “before the magic of makeup and wardrobe.” And yet she glows. Vanna has repeated the same dress only once, out of more than seven thousand. She wishes us luck and leaves. It’s all very quick. No autographs, just kind words. People might joke about Vanna White having the world’s cushiest job, earning millions for “turning” letters four days a month, but “Wheel of Fortune” would not be the same without her. Because Vanna is pure goodness. She just is. She humanizes the blank coldness of the puzzle board with her confident gait and soft touch and radiating warmth. She is sexless sex appeal, her smile a slice of apple pie. Vanna responds to our call when we are right, and when we are wrong she frowns with sympathy. She might clap for us without clapping, but we hear her loud and clear. Pat is O.K., though Pat has the startled appearance of the class clown who has found himself the butt of the joke. Vanna is the show’s beating heart.
After Vanna, we have an hour-long thrill-a-thon with the legal department, and then we are brought into the freezing-cold studio for an introduction to the wheel and the mechanics of the game, and we record our “howdy” for our particular affiliates, which is beyond embarrassing (“Watch me play ‘Wheel of Fortune’ on WABC!”), and return to the contestant room and are given our contestant groupings (hello, Cyndi, from Baltimore; hello, Mark, from Brentwood) and draw numbered golf balls to determine what day we will be (we are Thursday) and then draw again to determine our placement on the wheel platform (I’m the center position), after which we head back into the subzero studio (I now understand the padded-bra suggestion) and speed through a pretend game with a pretend Pat Sajak, who resembles my high-school English teacher, but this Mr. Rushton seems more the literary-actor type, and as we spin and practice, and spin and practice, the studio audience begins to file in, plus the guests of the contestants—oh, and what about my youngest, who started this ridiculousness? Well, she has a school trip this weekend, and, though she isn’t going on the school trip, she’s sort of made plans to, like, hang with all her other friends who aren’t going on the school trip, so, yeah, Dad, do you mind if I, like, stay put? Um, O.K. And my middle has a party she wants to go to. Fine, fine. And my oldest is away at school and has no desire to come to L.A. and watch his father play “Wheel of Fortune.” Yeah, yeah, I get it.
The space inside a television is bigger than expected, the distances free of edits, the vantages seen through eyes rather than cameras. “Ladies and gentlemen, here are the stars of our show, Pat Sajak and Vanna White.” There I am, between Mark, from Brentwood, a precision runner, and Cyndi, from Baltimore, who during the introductions will show Pat her self-professed skill on the mouth trumpet, her puckered lips going toot-toot-toot. But the mouth trumpet has been cut from the broadcast. Now it’s just Cyndi, who lives with her beautiful wife, Kailie, and their dog, GG. And I am David, from New York. I imagine my children, laughing at their goofball dad. The space inside a television is familiar yet alien, like one of those dreams of being in your house but the house isn’t your house. It is uncanny. That’s the word. I’d like to solve, Pat: UNCANNY SENSATION. It is a doll-house version of “Wheel of Fortune,” and we have been shrunk. We are Mike Teavee in the chocolate factory. Look at me, I’m on TV! I notice my head, my nose, my smile. And my voice, horrible. But my skin looks decent—thank you, makeup person, wherever you are. I see my father. In the head. In the nose. In the smile. I imagine my father watching me from his chair in the living room. His small-bore son. Unserious. I have decided, in this moment, to try to be myself. I will honor the game and play earnestly. Whatever viewing party I had planned before the pandemic is now happening via text message. My children are with their mother. I will win a thousand-dollar gift card to Cabela’s by solving AMAZING CLOUD FORMATIONS. My middle texts, “Congrats dude.” My oldest texts, “What’s the Hulu password?” Today is Thursday, Episode 139 of Season 37 of Our Lord, “Wheel of Fortune.” But most Americans have discovered a new day of the week, previously unknown, which has steamrolled all the other days into an endless, featureless horizon. The clock has started. Less than twenty minutes will be spent inside this television. Vanna is wearing a sapphire-blue princess-cut shift-style dress. Pat has on a silver-gray suit and a silver-blue tartan tie. I am clapping, and then I remember and clap without clapping. With all the flashing lights and sounds and colors, I feel as though I’ve dropped within an A.D.H.D. diagnosis. When I was twelve, I saw Kiss in concert at Madison Square Garden. This was peak Kiss. My father took me. He wore a blazer, like the blazer he was buried in, Brooks Brothers, dark blue. A lot of the people around us sported makeup. The Demon. The Starchild. The Catman. The Spaceman, who was always my favorite. My father must’ve been baffled and possibly disturbed by this scene. And here was his son, enraptured. Halfway through, he asked what was happening up there onstage, and I, wide-eyed and deranged, shouted that Gene Simmons was spitting up blood. This was the apotheosis. God knows what my father made of me. But taking me to the Kiss concert became his story, a story he told with great pleasure. And I didn’t expect him to show up here. In his chair with the remote. Watching me as Pat approaches and we pick up our ringers for the first tossup of the game. Maybe because I’ve been thinking about death. Maybe because I know how petrified my father would be if he were alive in this moment of the coronavirus, eighty-six years old, his lungs already ravaged by years of smoking. Stay away. Stay away. Even more than usual. Stay away. I place my hand on his chest. The space inside a television is nothing but a space to be filled, and I try to fill my father’s emptiness with love, seeing him as a person, which is ironic, since he’s just a husk, and yet I see him. The worst has happened. Time will say nothing but I told you so. And I want my father to feel my love regardless, my love for him, my recognition of us. We were both helpless to help. And all I want is for my children to see me, even as I have a hard time seeing myself. I swear during “Rock and Roll All Nite” my father swayed his shoulders a bit. Confetti fell from the ceiling, fell all over us. It was the final encore. And here we are, at the end, which is the beginning, my father dead and my relationship with him just starting. I try pouring myself into him before the lid is closed forever. The opening tossup is revealed with a chime, the category What Are You Doing?
▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢
I watch as the letters reveal themselves like ticks on a metronome.
▢ ▢ ▢ T ▢ ▢ G M ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢ ▢
Cyndi will win twelve thousand five hundred dollars. Mark will win nine thousand dollars, which includes a trip to London.
▢ ▢ I T ▢ ▢ G M ▢ ▢ ▢ O K
And, though I’m no good with tossups, I know this one. A hundred per cent I know this one. I can’t quite believe it. Practically made for me. Maybe this game will go my way. Maybe I’m destined to win big. Maybe the gods are telling me something. This could be my year, after all.
I ring in.
Pat says, “David,” with Pat-like anticipation.
“WRITING MY BOOK,” I answer in a clear and confident voice.
“Nope,” Pat says.
I will come in third, otherwise known as last. Three thousand one hundred and fifty dollars, plus the Cabela’s.
A few more letters are revealed.
Cyndi rings in.
“BAITING MY HOOK.”
“Yeah,” Pat says. “There you go.”
I see myself nod and smile. It’s a good smile, I decide. A natural smile. ♦