Tag Archives: comic memoir short

Trivial Pursuits

by Hope Madden

It has been ten years since George and I packed our bags for a trip to Orlando to try out for VH1’s “World Series of Pop Culture”—a game show where teams battle each other for the title of biggest movie/music/TV trivia nerd.

My husband and I had watched the first season with our then-14-year-old son Riley and sought to impress him with our heady command of all things trivial. He was duly impressed and mounted an all-out campaign to persuade us to audition for season two.

He didn’t have to try too hard. We flattered ourselves that we easily could have trounced any team from season one—something I’m still hard-pressed to disbelieve. The champion missed questions about Caddyshack, Star Wars and Monty Python.

And you call yourself a nerd!

By comparison, between film reviews and George’s radio gig (a job he’s had since high school, by the way), we know movies and music.

But we did have one big weakness: George and I haven’t watched a TV show since The Sopranos went off the air.

It occurred to me that my friend Martha seems to watch every program on every channel at all times. I proposed the idea to her of joining our team and she nervously accepted.

One problem: my vanity. Martha is stunningly attractive and I realized I didn’t look forward to being the team frump.

Meanwhile, George had asked his friend Dan, who also watches no TV, to join the team. And though Dan’s strengths were basically the same as ours, he’s no prettier than I am. Excellent.

So, we kicked Martha to the curb and Shark Sandwich—named after the Spinal Tap album—was born.

Martha, by the way, took it well since she was hoping the audition wouldn’t come to pass anyway.

Because we were especially weak when it came to reality TV, we hatched a strategy. Whenever we were asked about the subject, we would answer “Flavor Flav.” This was 2007, after all, and he was literally the only reality TV star we knew.

I found this strategy so amusing that I considered using it in everyday life.

Officer friendly: Do you know how fast you were driving, ma’am?

Me: Flavor Flav?

In Orlando, hundreds of teams were tested over three days. We’d already passed their online test, which is how we got the Orlando invite. Once there, Shark Sandwich and 39 other squads of wannabes were ushered into a hotel ballroom to take a 50-question exam.

We were given half an hour to complete it, and the top two point-getters would move on to the next round: a face-to-face interview with producers. The other 38 teams would go home and the next 40 teams would move into the ballroom.

My teammates were supremely confident, but I was nervous about the test. I signed a contract, so under penalty of law I cannot divulge any questions. Still, if you don’t know that, say, Keanu Reeves’s character in Point Break was Johnny Utah, former quarterback for The Ohio State University, go ahead and head home.

Shark Sandwich missed a total of three questions, making us one of the two teams to be invited to sit with the ridiculously young VH1 producers.

Again my teammates were supremely confident, and they probably should have been: They’re entertaining. Dan, longtime morning show producer and radio DJ, fronts the Dan Orr Project, a band famous locally for its clever parody songs. During our audition, he sang a bit of “Nights in White Castle” (to the tune of “Nights in White Satin”).

I think the twentysomething producers were amused, and that’s what they were looking for, right?

They wanted teams that would draw interest—love or hate—from an audience. Could the three of us elicit such passion?

Here’s where the beautiful Martha probably would have come in handy.

After our meeting, we were encouraged to wander around the area’s theme parks and wait for a call. If we passed, we’d be one of the eight teams in the local Orlando tournament, with a trip to the big TV tournament in New York on the line for the winning nerds.

We’d had a few cocktails by the time the producers phoned, which makes it all the more surprising that we didn’t unleash a profanity-laced tirade when they rejected us.

No reason was given, so we assumed it was because VH1 felt that America-at-large couldn’t root for a team whose members knew their stuff because of their jobs and not just for the love of trivia.

It was an easier philosophy to accept than many other options—too old, too boring, too drunk.

So we swallowed our pride and watched season two from home. Our main interest was seeing the team that came from our Orlando tryouts: They’re Real and They’re Spectacular. All right, maybe taking a team name from a Seinfeld line was clever, but whether or not they were real, they were far from spectacular.

They didn’t answer a single question correctly. Not one.

They’re Real and They’re Spectacular went out on a question from the TV show “Friends.”

Good lord. Even we knew Ross’s monkey was named Marcel.

Why did they say Flavor Flav?

OK, they didn’t really say that. But I would have respected them more if they had.

Donovan Riley happened…

by Hope Madden

I was not a pleasant pregnant person. There was no legitimate reason for my nastiness—I didn’t have a particularly problematic pregnancy. I wasn’t bed-ridden or diabetic, didn’t have kidney stones or anything. Two of my sisters and a niece-in-law all passed kidney stones while they were pregnant. Fuck! So I had no real reason to complain, but complain I did.

During the time that I was pregnant, I worked at a restaurant in the now-defunct City Center Mall called The Boulevard. There were several servers hired at one point or another during my pregnancy, and once Riley was born and I’d returned to work, one of them—Dawn—said to my friend Tori, “Wow! Motherhood’s had a big impact on Hope. She’s so nice now. She’s a completely different person now that she’s a mom.”

Tori responded: “No, she was a completely different person when she was pregnant. We just got her back.”

My dickishness was fairly legendary at the restaurant. At one point, while I was taking an order from one table, the man at the next table started pestering me.

“Excuse me. Miss! Excuse me! Excuse me!”

I asked my customers to give me just a second, turned my head toward the offending patron and barked.

I’m not saying that metaphorically I barked at a customer. I’m saying that I made a barking noise, loudly and as viciously as I could, toward this man. Who shut right up, by the way.

Why so grumpy? Well, first of all, people touch you when you’re pregnant. The minute they realize you’re pregnant, it’s as if that misanthropic asshole they’ve known all their lives has disappeared and in its place is a polite woman who invites you to put your grubby hands on her belly.

As if!

Also, when you do express your frustrations, they make excuses for you. “It’s just the hormones…”

Hey, buddy, fuck you. Acknowledge and accept my seething anger or risk being pushed down those stairs like that last idiot who underestimated my bloodlust.

Mainly, though, I felt claustrophobic in my own body, like I was trapped inside my ribcage or something. Plus, the smell of anything made me vomit—not just for the first few weeks, but for the entire pregnancy. All 9 ½ months of it.

That’s correct. He was two weeks late. Imagine how pleased I was. I would walk up and down the stairs, jump up and down, curse out neighbors—any of those tried and true methods of encouraging the baby to just come out already.

None of it worked, until March 12. We were facing a very late blizzard and the boy decided it was time.

Not, like, immediately. I was to face hours and hours of lies as George—eating from a basket of candy that, I still feel confident, was meant for me—would join in the doctor’s chorus of, “Just one more push!”


Oh, the string of expletives that would follow such deceit. So bad that I won’t repeat them here, and I’ve already said fuck at least twice. That’s how bad.

I will share one anecdote that you don’t want to hear. The head of my bed faced one side of the room and the foot of my bed faced the door.

That, friends, is just bad geography. As the door opened and closed, opened and closed while nurses and technicians came and went, I got—impatient is not the word, but it’s in the area code.

“Do you think we could keep the door closed?” I asked politely in between screams of pain. “It may be just a birth canal to you, but I’d rather not share it with passersby.”

I’d have smacked somebody if I could have, but that’s the other real drawback of pregnancy—immobility.

Anyway, sometime after 11, after George had eaten all the good candies from my basket and Married with Children reruns were on the wall-hanging TV, Donovan Riley joined us.

All giant head and tiny body and furrowed brow, he looked very worried. And he should have been because we were all about to be tossed out in a blizzard since we had no insurance or earthly way of paying for a night’s stay at a hospital.

Or maybe he was worried about the cluelessness that wafted like a fog off his parents.

Oh my God, we were parents.

And maybe we didn’t suck at it because here it is, 25 years later, and he is the very best, bravest, loveliest person we have ever known.

Happy Birthday, baby bunny!

A Ghost at My Sister’s House

The story of Miss Hanes begins when my sister Julie Anne and her young family moved from a small apartment above a Toledo wicker shop to a charming old house in the suburb of Point Place.

It was a very pretty first home for Julie Anne, her husband Brett, their toddler Brenna, and their sweet but excitable Dalmatian, Gonzo. It offered a homey neighborhood and plenty of room for the family to grow. But there was always something off about the place.

Immediately upon moving in, my sweet baby niece Brenna began to take on odd qualities.

Odd, even for my family.

Brenna’d always had an almost eerie calm about her, even as a toddler, quietly observing with the hint of judgment. But somehow, in the new house, she seemed almost otherworldly.

Need an example? One of Brenna’s more unsettling games during this particular period was called Magic Fingers. It was a game of her own creation, where she’d cast a spell by wiggling her fingers above her head, chanting. After calling on the power of the magic fingers, Brenna would utter a command.

“Magic Fingers, make Hope be dead,” for instance.

At that time, I didn’t know whether to fear that some demon intended to steal my beloved niece or take comfort in the more realistic notion that Brenna would be the child who could summon and command the spirit world.

It wasn’t just Brenna’s unusual playtime antics, though. Things moved around the house. Not before your eyes, but objects just didn’t remain in the spot you remembered putting them or seeing them last.

This was particularly problematic for Brett.

Not long after they’d taken residence, Brett’s wedding ring came up missing. After an exhaustive search and a little drama, they replaced it.

He lost that one, too.

It was an ugly time until Julie Anne – doing laundry down the basement – found both rings on the floor under a pile of clothes. She handed one to her husband, who promptly lost it again. Julie Anne returned to the basement to check and found the ring right where she had spied it the last time – in the center of the basement floor under a pile of dirty laundry.

Had it been only the ring, well that would have been weird enough, but it wasn’t.

Items moved around Brenna’s room as well, winding up on surfaces too high for her to reach. The front and back door would be standing open, even if you were certain you’d closed and locked them. And worst of all, the dog refused to go into the nursery.

That is never a good sign.

Fascinated, Julie Anne talked to neighbors, who spun a yarn about a tragedy in the Hanes family, who’d lived in Julie Anne’s house a few years before.

A story emerged. The teenage daughter babysat all around the neighborhood one summer. She was well-liked by the area kids and their parents. She had a nice enough family, herself, although maybe a little strict, overprotective.

That might be why she decided to sneak out her bedroom window, across the porch roof and down the tree one night to meet a boy at the little wooded patch beyond the cul de sac.

Neighbors couldn’t remember whether her father claimed to suspect an intruder, or if he thought he was catching that boyfriend sneaking into his daughter’s room.

Or if Mr. Hanes was just a psycho.

Whatever he was thinking, Mr. Hanes shot his daughter. She never left the house again.

Now the troubled, lovesick teen wandered Julie Anne’s halls, stealing wedding rings and hiding them where Brett would never find them – under a pile of work needing to be done.















Little evidences of Miss Hanes’s presence filled Julie Anne’s house, from the bedazzled basement floor to the little knickknacks that moved around Brenna’s room – all harmless enough reminders that we were not alone in Point Place.

And then one night I would have more of a one-on-one run in.

My twin sister Joy and I were sleeping over, sharing Julie Anne’s bed upstairs. Julie Anne was sleeping with Brenna, and Brett was working the night shift.

It was late and Joy and I were both long asleep when I was roused by a stomping sound.

It didn’t wake Joy up. I lay there a while in the dark. The house was quiet.

Then I heard it again – it sounded like footsteps from above, which was odd because I hadn’t even realized that Julie Anne had an attic. Certainly, no one was walking around in the attic at this hour, but by now I was absolutely awake and a clear footfall could be heard coming from beyond the ceiling above me.

What could it be? I considered.


Nope, squirrels scurry.


Now that’s just idiotic.

How would a deer get into Julie Anne’s attic? 

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

Ooooooh. I did not care for this. I shook Joy.


“Joy! Joy!”

Nothing. A sound sleeper, that one.

Stomp. Stomp. Stomp.

I decided to ignore it. Maybe block it out. I landed on the age-old, truly courageous plan to roll over and pull the covers over my head.

I rolled to my side, facing Joy, covers in hand.

I tugged.

The covers would not move.

I really yanked them toward my head, but they wouldn’t reach. They were held firmly in place.

I tugged and tugged, but it was as if someone was sitting on the bed with me, sitting on top of the blankets.

I imagined her there, right behind me. Her bloody nightgown, her mournful face…

I looked at the peacefully sleeping Joy, the sister I was about to abandon to a ghost.

Then, without a thought to her safety or so much as a peek over my shoulder at whatever was back there sitting on the bed with us, I hopped up, stood on the bed, stepped over Joy and toward the bedroom door, and fled to the TV room downstairs.

And, like big, dumb Gonzo, I never went back upstairs.

Face Off

by Cat McAlpine

I have many fears.

I am afraid of heights. I am afraid of the dark. I am afraid of deep water. I am afraid I will never realize my potential, or that the car I just passed on the side of the road really did need my help, or that I’ll never get out of debt. I am afraid of how big the universe is and how small I am. The usual.

But the fear I encounter the most is my fear of small spaces.

I’m not afraid of being crushed. I’m afraid of not being able to get out of a small space, and then being probably crushed. Or suffocating.

This fear manifests in many places. On the tube in London, a crowded car would remind me that all of those hot, sweating bodies were stuffed in a tiny tin can, that was then stuffed into a cement tunnel.

Concerts are typically a non-starter. There’s nothing worse than being mocked by a glowing exit sign from the middle of a writhing crowd of bodies.

Given my litany of fears, you’d think I’d never leave the house. But I endure. And I push myself to confront my fears. I swim in lakes and cross rooms without turning on the light.

I just do it all while a very loud voice in my head screams “OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD YOU’RE GONNA DIE”.

When my friend, and local filmmaker, Michelle Hanson asked me if I’d be willing to be decapitated for her upcoming horror film, I didn’t realize I’d be confronting my greatest fear.

“A cast of my head?”


“Oh my god yes! Can I keep it?”

A few weeks before we were set to do the live face cast, (They call it this. Is there a dead face cast? Don’t tell me.) Michelle sent me a video via email. “Here’s the process. Watch this and let me know if you have any questions.”

I didn’t watch the video. I worried it might freak me out.

A few days before the cast, a friend asked me who was coming with me. I had planned to just meet Michelle there.

My friend looked nervous. “I’m NOT claustrophobic and I had to hold someone’s hand the whole time I got mine done.”

“I’m sure it will be fine” I told myself. The little voice had started to whisper “But what if you diiiieeeee?”

When I entered the prosthetics space, a small rented room lined with monster heads and spare limbs, I gave myself a few minutes to settle in. Then I dropped my bomb.

“Hey, I didn’t want to freak anybody out, but super casually I’m actually really claustrophobic.”

The room went silent as Michelle, and the two face-technicians (sure) stared at me in horror. Then there was a flurry of questions and pointers.

“Didn’t you watch the video I sent you?”

“It will probably be fine, most people are fine.”

“Let us know if you start panicking.”

“How claustrophobic?”

“It will take 30 minutes, tops.”

And then one of the technicians said something truly terrifying.

“Here’s the thing. If you freak out, its gonna take us just as long to get the thing off of you as it will to sit and wait until it’s dry. So you might as well just wait and not ruin the mold.” This man clearly had no fears.

No way out.

I tried to play it cool. I am not sure if this was successful or not. But I smiled and lightly joked as they taped a trashbag to my shoulders, glued on a bald cap, and vaselined my eyebrows.


“Okay, so we’re gonna cover your face in this goo-“ I don’t remember what any of it was called now, my inner voice was screaming, “- and then we’re going to put this cast material over that. As soon as it’s dry, we’ll take it off. When we cover your nose, just take one deep breath, and then blow air out of your nose really hard, and you should be able to breathe.”

Should. Be. Able. To. Breathe.

So I played it cool up to that point. And I played it cool as the technicians smeared by face with goo the consistency of clay. They covered my ears and I realized I couldn’t really hear. They covered my forehead. And then they covered my eyes. And the thick goo started to roll down my face. As the sludge crested my cheeks I lost it.

“Okay, uh, I’m gonna need to hold someone’s hand.”


I heard a distant, under water “How you doing?”

I couldn’t move above my elbows, so I simply gave a weak thumbs up. Michelle’s small hand had found me, and was giving a reassuring pat.

And then my mouth was sealed. And my cheeks. And my nose.

“Are you gonna cover the nostrils?” One technician asked.

“Uh…. No. I think I’m just going to fill in around it.” The other answered.


I’d been snorting out air like a wild horse, in a desperate attempt to keep clay from blocking my airway.

I realized I hadn’t asked how I was going to get out, but it was too late. I was buried alive. Every once in a while a technician would come by and tap on the cast to see if it had dried. I couldn’t hear them approach, but when they tapped on my face, it sounded like dirt thudding on the lid of a coffin.

“HELP!” the voice screamed. “I’M STILL ALIVE IN HERE.”

They told me the whole process would take about 30 minutes. I was there for an hour and a half. I didn’t ask how long I was entombed. I don’t think I want to know. But eventually, after many weak thumbs up and hundreds of nostrils-only breaths, I heard tearing.

They were cutting away my fake face.


I want to say that when they peeled away the cast and goo, I was reborn. I was without fear or doubt. I had conquered claustrophobia.

But I’m sweating right now just thinking about it.

I don’t know if you can conquer a fear. Maybe you just have a string of terrifying experiences in mosh-pits and crowded elevators. Maybe you just have to find someone to hold your hand, and live to tell the tale.

That head better look fucking awesome.