Five years ago this week, David Foster Wallace took his own life. Twenty years earlier, before Wallace was widely known, he published a piece of original fiction in Playboy called “Late Night.” Alice Turner, Playboy’s fiction editor for 22 years, introduces the short story by remembering how she first came across the promising young writer. Enjoy the story in its entirety, and to read every article the magazine has ever published—from 1953 until today—visit the complete archive at iplayboy.com.
“Late Night” was David Foster Wallace's first publication in a national commercial magazine. He had been published in literary magazines, but this turned a corner for him. I first came across David two years earlier, with a question I asked someone at a writers' conference. One of the other guests was an instructor at the rather prestigious graduate writing workshop of the University of Arizona. In chatting, I asked her, as I often (usually fruitlessly) did on these encounters, if she had any students whose work she could recommend to me. She came up with, immediately and enthusiastically, David. I told her to ask him to send something, with a hint on how to elude the slush pile. And he did, almost immediately.
Now here's where my memory gets slippery. I seem to recall a number of stories that didn't seem quite finished, that I turned down, and that our letters back and forth became increasingly amusing. Eventually, the story in question arrived, entitled "My Appearance." I thought it really worked (I don't remember doing much editing on it), but I objected to the title. David argued back—he thought the title worked on two levels—and though I saw his point I thought it was all wrong for a men's magazine. At any rate, I won for Playboy but I think he went back to his original title in his own collection. -Alice Turner
I am a woman who appeared in public on Late Night with David Letterman on March 22, 1989.
In the words of my husband, Rudy, I am a woman whose face and attitudes are known to something over half of the measurable population of the United States, whose name is on lips and covers and screens. Whose heart's heart is invisible to the world and unapproachably hidden. Which is what Rudy thought could save me from all this appearance implied.
The week of March 19, 1989, was the week David Letterman's variety-and-talk show featured a series of taped skits on the private activities and pastimes of executives at NBC. My husband and I sacrificed sleep and stayed up late, watching. My husband, whose name in the entertainment industry is better known than his face, had claimed at first to be neutrally excited about the call I'd gotten from Late Night, though by the time he'd been driven home, he was beginning to worry that this particular public appearance could present problems. He knew and feared Letterman; he claimed to know that Letterman loved to savage female guests. It was on a Sunday that Rudy told me we would need to formulate strategies for my appearance on Late Night. March 22nd was to be a Wednesday.
On Monday, viewers accompanied David Letterman as he went deep-sea fishing with the president of NBC's news division. The executive, whom my husband had known and who had a pappus of hair sprouting from each red ear, owned a state-of-the-art boat and rod and reel, and apparently deep-sea fished without hooks. He and Letterman fastened bait to their lines with rubber bands.
"He's waiting for the bastard to even think about saying holy mackerel," my husband said, smoking.
On Tuesday, Letterman perused NBC's chief of creative development's huge collection of refrigerator magnets. He said, "Is this entertainment, ladies and gentlemen? Or what?"
I had the bitterness of a Xanax on my tongue.
We had Ramon haul out some video tapes of old Late Night episodes, and watched them.
"How do you feel?" my husband asked.
In slow motion, Letterman let drop from a roof 20 floors above a cement lot several bottles of champagne, some fruit, a plate-glass window and what looked, for only a moment, like a piglet.
"The hokeyness is vital," my husband said as Letterman dropped a squealing piglet off what was obviously only a pretend roof in the studio; we saw something fall a long way from the original roof to hit cement and reveal itself to be a stuffed piglet. "But that doesn't make him benign." My husband got a glimpse of himself in our viewing room's black window. "I don't want you to think the hokeyness is real."
"I thought hokeyness was pretty much by definition not real."
He directed me to the screen, where Paul Shaffer, David Letterman's musical side-kick and friend, was doing a go-figure with his shoulders and his hands.
We had both taken Xanaxes before Ramon set up the video tapes. I also had a glass of Chablis. I was very tired by the time the magnets were perused and discussed.
My husband, watching, said, "This could be very serious."
The call had come from New York the Friday before. The caller had congratulated me on my situation comedy being picked up for its fifth season and asked whether I'd like to be a guest on the next week's Late Night with David Letterman, saying Mr. Letterman would be terribly pleased to have me on. I tentatively agreed. I have few illusions left, but I'm darn proud of our show's success. I have a good character, work hard, play her well, and practically adore the actors and people associated with the series. I called my agent, my unit director and my husband. I agreed to accept an appearance on Wednesday, March 22nd. That was the only interval Rudy and I had free in a weekly schedule that denied me even two days to rub together: My own series tapes Fridays, with required read-throughs and rehearsals the day before. Even the 22nd, my husband pointed out over drinks, would mean leaving LAX very early Wednesday morning, since I was contracted to appear in an Oreo commercial through Tuesday. My agent had thought he could reschedule the cookie shoot—the people at Nabisco had been very accommodating throughout the whole campaign—but my husband had a rule for himself about honoring contracted obligations, and, as his partner, I chose also to try to live according to this rule. It meant staying up terribly late Tuesday to watch David Letterman and the piglet and refrigerator magnets and an unending succession of eccentrically talented pets, then catching a predawn flight the next morning: Although Late Night's taping didn't begin until 5:30 E.S.T., Rudy had gone to great trouble to arrange a conference with Dick beforehand, to help me prepare to handle and be handled by Letterman.
Before I fell asleep Tuesday night, David Letterman had Teri Garr put on a Velcro suit and fling herself at a Velcro wall. That night, his Late Night Bookmobile featured a 1989 Buyer's Guide to New York City Officials; Letterman held the book up to view while Teri hung behind him, stuck to the wall several feet off the ground.
"That could be you," my husband said, ringing the kitchen for a glass of milk.
Letterman offered up a false promo for a cultural program ABC had supposedly decided against inserting into next fall's line-up. The promo was an understated clip of four turbaned Kurdistani rebels, draped in small-arms gear, taking time out from revolution to perform a Handel quartet in a meadow lush with purple flowers. The bud of culture flourishing even in the craggiest soil was the come-on. Letterman cleared his throat and claimed that ABC had finally submitted to conservative P.T.A. pressure against the promo. Paul Shaffer, to a drum roll, asked why this was so. Letterman grinned with an embarrassment Rudy and I both found attractive. There were, as usual, ten answers. Two I remember were "Gratuitous Sikhs and violets" and "Gratuitous sects and violins." Everyone hissed with joy. Even Rudy laughed, though he claimed no such program had been commissioned by ABC. I laughed sleepily and shifted against his arm, which was along the back of the couch.
David Letterman also said, at various intervals, "Some fun now, boy." Everyone laughed. I can remember not thinking there was anything especially threatening about Letterman, though the idea of having to be peeled off a wall upset me.
Nor did I care one bit for the way the airplane's ready, slanted shadow rushed up the runway to join us as we touched down. By this time, I was quite upset. I even jumped and said "Oh!" as the plane's front settled into its shadow on the landing. I broke into tears, though not terribly. I am a woman who simply cries when she's upset; it does not embarrass me. My husband touched my hair. He argued that I shouldn't have a Xanax, though, and I agreed.
"You'll need to be sharp," was the reason. He took my arm.
The NBC driver put our bags far behind us; I heard the trunk's solid sound.
"You'll need to be both sharp and prepared," my husband said. He ran his arm, which was well built, along the top of the leather back seat. He invited me to rest my head against him.
But I was irritable by now. Much of my tension about appearing, I knew, was Rudy's own fault. "Just how much preparation am I supposed to need?" I said. Charmian and I had already conferred long distance about my appearance. She'd advised solidity and simplicity. I would be seen in a plain blue outfit, no jewelry. My hair would be down.
Rudy's concerns were very different. He claimed to fear for me.
"I don't see this dark thing you seem to see in David Letterman," I told him. "The man has freckles. He used to be a local weatherman. He's witty. So am I, Rudy." I did want a Xanax. I turned in the back seat to look at him. "I honestly don't see what about me is savageable."
As we were driven up through a borough and extreme southeast Manhattan, my husband became anxious that the NBC driver, who was young and darkly Hispanic, might be able to hear what we were saying to each other, even though there was a thick glass panel between us in back and the driver up front, and an intercom in the panel had to be activated to communicate with him. My husband felt at the glass and at the intercom's grille. The driver's head was motionless except to check traffic in mirrors. The radio was on for our enjoyment; classical music drifted through the intercom.
"Why do you insist Letterman is mean? We watched the show. He didn't seem particularly mean."
Rudy tried to settle back as serious Manhattan began to go by. "This is the man, Sue, who publicly asked Christie Brinkley what state the Kentucky Derby is run in."
I remembered what Charmian had said on the phone and smiled. "But was she or wasn't she unable to answer correctly?"
My husband smiled, too. "Well, she was flustered," he said. He touched my cheek, and I his hand. I began to feel less jittery.
He used his hand and my cheek to open my face toward his. "And Sue," he said, "meanness is not the issue. The issue is ridiculousness. The bastard feeds on ridiculousness like some enormous Howdy-Doodyesque parasite. The whole show feeds on it; it swells and grows when things get absurd. Letterman starts to look gorged, dark, shiny. Ask Mary Moore about that. Ask Charmian or Dick. You've heard them. Dick could tell you stories that'd curl your toes."
I had a compact in my purse. My skin was sore and hot from on-air make-up for two straight days. "He's likable, though," I said. "Letterman. When we watched, it looked to me as though he likes to make himself look ridiculous as much as he does the guests. So he's not a hypocrite."
We were in a small grid lock. A disheveled person was trying to clean the limousine's windshield with his sleeve. Rudy tapped on the glass panel until the driver activated the intercom. He said we wished to be driven directly to Rockefeller Center, where Late Night taped, instead of first going to our hotel. The driver neither nodded nor turned.
"That's what makes him so dangerous," my husband said, lifting his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose. "The whole thing feeds on everybody's ridiculousness."
The vagrant fell away as the young driver leaned on his horn. We were driven west and slightly uptown; from this distance, I could see the building where Letterman taped and where Dick had an office on an upper floor.
"It will be on how your ridiculousness is seen that whether you stand or fall depends," Rudy said, leaning into my compact's view to square the knot of his tie.
Less and less of Rockefeller's skyscrapers were visible as we approached. I asked for half a Xanax. I am a woman who dislikes confusion; it upsets me. I wanted, after all, to be both sharp and relaxed.
"Appear," my husband corrected, "both sharp and relaxed."
"You will be made to look ridiculous," Dick said. He and my husband sat on a couch in an office so high in the building my ears felt as they'd felt at take-off. I faced Dick from a mutely expensive chair of canvas stretched over steel. "That's not in your control," Dick said, raising his glass to his little mouth. "How you respond, though, is."
"If he wants to make me look silly, I guess he's welcome to try," I said. "I guess."
Rudy swirled the contents of his own glass. "That's just the attitude I've tried to get her to cultivate," he told Dick. His ice made a sound as he crossed his legs and looked at Dick's white cat. He smiled grimly. "She thinks he's really going to be like what she sees."
The two of them smiled, shaking their heads.
"Well, he isn't really like that, of course," Dick told me. Dick, who is NBC's vice-president in charge of broadcast resources, has maybe the smallest mouth I have ever seen on a human face, though my husband and I have known him for years, and Charmian, and they've been dear friends. His mouth is utterly lipless and its corners are sharp; the mouth seems less a mouth than a gash in his head. "Because no one's like that," he said. "That's what he sees as his great insight. That's why everything on the show is just there to be ridiculed." He smiled. "But that's our edge, that we know that, Susan. If you know in advance that you're going to be made to look ridiculous, then you're one step ahead of the game, because then you can make yourself look ridiculous, instead of letting him do it to you."
I cocked an eyebrow. "I'm supposed to go out of my way to look ridiculous?"
My husband lit a cigarette as his old superior stood. "It has to appear that way, yes." Rudy's brand is that foreign sort that lets everyone around know that something is on fire. "It's got to be clear it's your choice," he exhaled. The couch he sat on was in a slant of sunlight. The light, this high, seemed bright and cold; his smoke hung in it like ink in water.
Dick is known for his tendency to fidget. He will stand and sit and stand. "That's good advice, Rudolph. There are definite dos and don'ts. Don't look like you're trying to be witty or clever. That works with Carson. It doesn't work with Letterman."
"Carson would play along with you," my husband said. "Carson's still 'sincere.'”
"Sincerity is out," Dick said. "The joke is now on people who're sincere."
"Or who are sincere-seeming, who think they're sincere."
I asked whether it might be all right if I had just a third of a Xanax.
"That's well put, Rudolph," Dick said, looking me up and down. His head was large and round, his knee up, elbow on his knee, his foot on the arm of another thin steel chair, his cat swirling a lazy figure eight around the foot on the floor. "That's the cardinal sin on Late Night. That's the Adidas heel of every guest he mangles. Just be aware of it."
I smoothed my blue dress. "What I want to know is, is he going to make fun of me over the Oreo spots?" I told Dick. I was truly worried about at least this. The Nabisco people had been a class act throughout the whole negotiations and campaign, and I thought we had made some good, honest, attractive commercials for a product that didn't claim to be anything more than occasional and fun. I didn't want Oreos to be made to look ridiculous because of me; I didn't want to be made to look as though I'd prostituted my name and face and talents to Nabisco. "I mean, will he go beyond making fun? Will he get savage about it?"
"Not if you do it first!" Rudy and Dick said together, looking at each other. They laughed. Dick turned and made himself another small drink. I sipped my own. My cola's ice kept hitting my teeth.
"In other words, appear the way Letterman appears on Letterman," Dick gestured, as if to sum up, sitting back down. "Laugh in a way that's somehow deadpan. Act as if you knew from birth that everything is clichéed and hyped and empty and absurd, and that's just where the fun is."
"But that's not the way I am at all."
Dick's cat sneezed in the sunlight.
"That's not even the way I act when I'm acting," I said, looking from one man to the other.
"At least she's looking terrific," Dick said, smiling. He felt at his sharp little mouth, his expression betraying what looked to me like tenderness. Toward me? We weren't particularly close.
When tense, my husband always rubs at the red dents his frames impose on his nose. I looked at the watch I'd received on my birthday.
I am a woman who lets her feelings show rather than hide them; it's just healthier that way. I told Dick that when Charmian had called, she'd said that David Letterman was a little shy but basically a nice man. I reminded them that I was a professional, had done three Carsons, a Cavett, a Donahue, and felt that I knew how to handle an appearance. I said that if I was tense, it was really my husband's fault, and now Dick's; and that I'd appreciate either silence or a Xanax or some constructive, supportive advice that wouldn't demand that I be artificial or empty or on my guard to such an extent that I vacuumed the fun out of what was, when you came right down to it, supposed to be nothing more than a fun interview.
Dick smiled very patiently as he listened. Rudy was dialing a talent coordinator. I looked at both of them. Dick instructed Rudy to say that I wasn't really needed downstairs for make-up until after 5:30: Tonight's monolog was long and involved, and a skit on the pastime of another NBC executive would precede me.
Dick said to me, "You could say it's like what happened over at Saturday Night Live. It's the same phenomenon. The cheap sets that are supposed to look even cheaper than they are. The home-movie mugging for the cameras, the back-yard props like Monkey-Cam or Thrill-Cam or coneheads of low-grade mâché. Late Night, S.N.L.—they're anti shows."
"You'll just have to act, is all," my husband said, brushing the hair back from my ear. He touched my cheek. "You're a talented and multifaceted actress."
"So I'm to be a sort of antiguest?" I said.
It turned out that an area of one wall of Dick's office could be made to slide back automatically, opening to view several rows of monitors, all of which received NBC feeds. Beneath a local weatherman's setup and the March 22nd broadcast of Live at Five, the taping of Late Night's opening sequence had begun. The announcer, who wore a crew-neck sweater, read into an old-fashioned microphone that looked like an electric razor with a halo.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" he said. "A man who is, even as we speak, checking his fly: DAVID LETTERMAN!" There was wild applause; the camera zoomed in on a tight shot of the studio's Applause sign. On all the monitors appeared the words Late Night Applause-Sign-Cam. The words flashed on and off as the audience cheered. David Letterman appeared out of nowhere in a hideous yachting jacket and wrestling sneakers.
"What a fine crowd," he said.
I kept stabbing at the fur of Pepsi and fine rum on my ice. My finger left a clear stripe in the dark fuzz. "I really don't think this is necessary, Rudy."
"Dick," I turned, "talk to him."
"Testing," said Dick.
Dick and I stood near the room's broad window, which was no longer admitting direct light. The window faced south; I could see rooftops bristling with antennas below us. Dick held a kind of transmitting device, compact enough to fit in his soft palm. My husband had his head cocked and his thumb up as Dick tested the signal. The little earplug in Rudy's ear was originally developed to allow sportscasters to take direction and receive up-to-the-minute information without ever having to stop talking. My husband had used the transmitter sometimes when he was at NBC and associated with Saturday Night Live. He removed the earplug and cleaned it with his handkerchief.
The earplug, which was supposed to be flesh-colored, was really prosthesis-colored. I told them I emphatically did not want to wear a pork-colored earplug and take direction from my husband on not being sincere.
"No," my husband corrected, "being not-sincere."
"There's a difference," Dick said, trying to make sense of the transmitter's printed instructions, which were mostly in Korean.
But I did want to be both sharp and relaxed, and to get downstairs and have this over with. I did want a Xanax.
And so my husband and I entered into negotiations.
"Thank you," Paul Shaffer told the studio audience. "Thank you so much." I laughed in the wings, in the long, jagged shadows produced by lights at many angles. I wanted a few moments to watch David Letterman in the flesh. There was applause for Shaffer. The Applause sign was again featured on camera.
From this distance, Letterman's hair looked something like a helmet, I thought. It seemed thick and very solid. He kept putting index cards in the big gap between his front teeth and fiddling with them. He and the staff quickly presented a list of ten medications, both over-the-counter and 'scrip, that resembled well-known candies in a way Letterman claimed was insidious. He showed slides side by side for comparison. It was true that Advils looked just like orange M&M's. Motrins, in the right light, were SweetTarts. A brand of MAO inhibitor called Nardil looked just like the tiny cinnamon Red Hots we'd all eaten as children.
"Eerie or what?" Letterman asked Paul Shaffer.
And the faddish anti-anxiety medication Xanax was supposed to resemble miniatures of those horrible soft pink-orange candy peanuts everyone sees everywhere but no one will admit to having tasted.
I had gotten a Xanax from my husband, finally. It had been Dick's suggestion. I touched my ear and tried to drive the earplug in deeper. I arranged my loose hair over my ear. Agreement or not, I was seriously considering taking the earplug out.
We saw a short veterinary film on dyspepsia in swine.
"Your work has gone largely unnoticed by the critics, then," the video tape showed Letterman saying to the film's director, a veterinarian from Arkansas who was panicked throughout the clip, because, Rudy's distant voice in my ear maintained, he couldn't tell whether or not to be serious with Letterman about his life's work.
The executive coordinator of NBC Sports apparently fashioned perfect rings of high explosives in his basement workshop, took them into his back yard, and sat inside explosions; it was a hobby. David Letterman asked the NBC executive to please let him get this straight: that somebody who sat in the exact center of a perfect circle of explosives could be completely safe, encased in a vacuum, a sort of storm's eye; but that if so much as one stick of dynamite in the ring was defective, the explosion could, in theory, kill the executive?
"Kill?" Letterman kept repeating, looking over at Paul Shaffer, laughing.
The Bolsheviks had used the circle device ceremoniously to "execute" Russian noblemen they really wanted to spare, the executive said; it was an ancient and time-honored illusion. I thought he looked quite distinguished and decided that sense played no part in the diversions of men.
As I waited for my appearance, I imagined the coordinator in his Westchester back yard's perfect center, unhurt but encased, as waves of concussed dynamite whirled around him. I imagined something tornadic, colored pink—since the dynamite piled on stage was pink.
But the real-live explosion was gray. It was disappointingly quick and sounded flat, though I laughed when Letterman claimed that they hadn't gotten the explosion properly taped and that the executive coordinator of NBC Sports, who looked as though he'd been given a kind of cosmic slap, was going to have to do it all over again. For a moment, the coordinator thought Letterman was serious.
"Terribly nice to see you," is what David Letterman said to me. I had followed my introduction on stage; a sweatered attendant had conducted me by the elbow and peeled neatly away as I hit the lights.
"Terribly, nay, grotesquely nice to see you," Letterman said.
"He's scanning for pretension," crackled my ear. "Pockets of naïve self-importance. Something to stick a pin in. Anything."
"Yas," I drawled to David Letterman. I yawned, touching my ear absently.
Close up, he looked depressingly young. At most, 35. He congratulated me on the series' renewal, the Emmy nomination, and said my network had handled my unexpected pregnancy well on the show's third year, arranging to have me seen only behind waist-high visual impediments for 13 straight episodes.
"That was fun," I said sarcastically. I laughed dryly.
"Big, big fun," Letterman said, and the audience laughed.
"Oh Jesus God, let him see you're being sarcastic and dry," my husband said.
Paul Shaffer did a go-figure with his hands in response to something Letterman asked him.
David Letterman had a tiny label affixed to his cheek (he did have freckles); the label said Make-up. This was left over from an earlier joke, during his monolog, when he had returned from a commercial break with absolutely everything about him labeled. The sputtering fountain between us and the footlights was overhung with a crudely lettered arrow: Dancing Waters.
"So then, Susan, any truth to the rumor linking that crazy thing over at your husband's network and the sort of secondary rumors? ..." He looked from his index card to Shaffer. "Gee, you know, Paul, it says 'secondary rumors' here; is it OK to go ahead and call them secondary rumors? What does that mean, anyway, Paul—'secondary rumors'?"
"We in the band believe it could mean any of ... really, any of hundreds of things, Dave," Shaffer said, smiling. I smiled. People laughed.
The voice of Dick came over the air into my ear: "Say yes." I imagined a wall of angles of me, the wound in Dick's head and the transmitting thing at the wound, my husband seated with his legs crossed and his arm along the back of wherever he was.
"... secondary or not, about your fine comedy program moving over to that other, unnamed network?"
I cleared my throat. "Absolutely every rumor about my husband is true." The audience laughed. Letterman said, "Ha, ha." The audience laughed even harder.
"As for me," I smoothed my skirt in that way prim women do, "I know next to nothing, David, about the production or business of the show. I am a woman who acts."
"And, you know, wouldn't that look terrific emblazoned on the T-shirts of women everywhere?" Letterman asked, fingering his tiepin's label.
"And was it ever a crazy thing over at his network, Dave, from what I heard," said Reese, the NBC Sports coordinator, on my other side, in another of these chairs that seemed somehow disemboweled. Around his distinguished eyes were two little raccoon rings of soot, from his hobby's explosion.
My husband told me to prepare for direction.
"In fact," I said, "I'm not even all that talented or multifaceted an actress."
David Letterman was inviting the audience, whom he again called ladies and gentlemen (which I liked), to imagine I am a Woman Who Acts emblazoned on a shirt.
"That's why I'm doing those commercials you're seeing all the time now," I said primly.
"Well, and now hey, I wanted to ask you about that, Susan," Letterman said. "Let's see," he rubbed his chin, "is there, maybe, any way we could indicate to the folks at home what they're commercials for without quite hitting the nail right on the head, I'm wondering."
"Sure," I smiled. "Oreo."
Letterman and the audience laughed. Paul Shaffer laughed. My husband's electric voice crackled approvingly. I could also hear Dick laughing in the background; his laugh did sound deadpan.
"That would about do it," Letterman grinned. He threw his index card out a pretend window behind us. There was a clearly false sound of breaking glass.
The man seemed utterly friendly.
My husband transmitted something I couldn't make out because Letterman had put his hands behind his head with its helmet of hair and was saying, "So then I guess why is the thing, Susan. I mean I know about the dollars, the big, big dollars over there in, ah, prime time. They scribble vague hints, allusions, really, is all, they're such big dollars, about prime-time salaries in the washroom here at NBC. They're amounts that get discussed only in low tones. Here you are," he said, "you've had, what, three fine comedy series? You've got a series that's been on now, what, three years? Four years? You've got a daughter who's done several fine films and who's currently in a series, you've got a husband who develops series...."
"Remember Saturday Night Live back when it was good?" said the NBC Sports coordinator.
Letterman released his own head. "So, series, daughter's series, husband's series, Emmy nomination, one of the best marriages in the industry, if not the Northern, ah, Hemisphere...." He counted these assets off on his hands. His hands were perfectly average. "You're loaded, cookie," he said. "If I may." He smiled. I smiled back.
"So then, Susan, a nation is wondering, What's the deal with going off and doing these ... Oreo commercials?" he asked in a kind of near whine that he immediately exaggerated.
Rudy's small voice came: "See how he exaggerated the whine the minute he saw how——?"
"Because I'm not a great actress, David," I said.
Letterman looked stricken. For a moment, in the angled white lights, I looked at him and he looked stricken for me. I was positive I was dealing with a basically sincere man.
"Be honest," Rudy said, his voice slight and metallic as a low-quality phone.
"Let's be honest," I said. The audience was quiet. "I just had a traumatic birthday, and I've been shedding illusions right and left."
Letterman opened his mouth to say something, but then didn't.
"I am a woman with no illusions, David."
My earplug hissed a direction never to say the word illusions.
"That's sort of a funny, coincidental thing," Letterman was saying speculatively. "I'm an illusion with no women. Do you ... detect a sort of parallel there, Paul?"
Paul Shaffer did a go-figure from the bandstand.
"Doom," my husband transmitted from the office of a man whose subordinates fished without hooks and sat in exploding circles. I patted at the hair over my ear.
I said, "I'm forty, David. I turned forty just last week. I'm at the point now where I think I have to know what I am." I looked at him. "I have four kids. Do you know of many working actresses with four kids?"
"There are actresses who have four kids," Letterman said. "Didn't we have a lovely and talented young lady with four kids on recently, Paul?"
"Name ten actresses with four kids," Shaffer challenged.
Letterman did a pretend double take. "Ten?"
"Meredith Baxter Birney?" Reese said.
"Meredith Baxter Birney." Letterman nodded. "And Loretta Swit has four kids, doesn't she, Paul?"
"I think Meredith Baxter Birney actually has five kids, in fact, Dave," said Paul Shaffer, leaning over his little organ's microphone. His large bald spot had a label on it that said Bald Spot.
"I guess the point, gentlemen," I interrupted them, smiling, "is that I've got kids who're already bigger stars than I. I've appeared in two feature films, total, in my whole career. Now that I'm forty, I'm realizing that with two films but three long series, my mark on this planet is probably not going to be made in features. David, I'm a television actress."
"You're a woman who acts in television," Letterman corrected, smiling.
Paul Shaffer, still leaning over his organ, played a small but very sweet happy-birthday tune for me.
Letterman had put another card between his teeth. "So what I think we're hearing you saying, then, is that you didn't think the Oreo-commercial thing would hurt your career.
Dick was asking Rudy to let him have the remote transmitter for a moment.
"Oh, no, God, no, not at all; I didn't mean that at all," I said. "Career considerations didn't come into it at all."
Letterman rubbed his jaw. He looked at the sports coordinator. He scratched his head. "Not a factor, then?"
"A decision without factors," I smiled. I leaned toward him conspiratorially. He leaned over his desk toward me. I looked furtively from side to side. In a stage whisper, I said, "I did the Oreo commercials for fun."
I worked my eyebrows up and down.
Letterman's jaw dropped with glee.
"I did them for nothing," I said.
"Oh, now, come now, really," Letterman said, laughing. He pretended to appeal to the studio audience: "Ladies and gentlemen...."
"In fact," I said, "I called them. I volunteered. Almost begged. You should have seen it. Not a pretty sight."
"What a kid," Paul Shaffer tossed in, pretending to wipe at an eye under his glasses. Letterman threw his index card at him, and the sound man, in his red sweater, hit another pane of glass with his hammer. Letterman seemed to be having the time of his life. He smiled; he said, "Ha ha"; his eyes came utterly alive; he looked like a very large toy. Everyone seemed to be having a ball. I touched my ear.
"This is inspired," I heard Dick telling Rudy.
We talked about the cookie commercials I'd appeared in.
"David, there were more people on that set taking care of the cookies than there were taking care of me." I laughed.
"Have to make those cookies look good, I'll bet," Letterman mused.
I heard my husband thanking Dick.
"God," I said. "We'd be rolling, and I'd be hitting my stride, you know, really starting to emote—and they'd all of a sudden yell, 'Cut!' They'd come rushing out onto the set: 'Ohmygod, the cookie doesn't look good.'" I looked at him. "David, the cookie must look good."
"Words, really, to live by, if we pause to reflect just a moment, ladies and gentlemen," Letterman said, looking out at the audience. I laughed. Everyone laughed.
Letterman smiled warmly at me as we went to commercial.
It was then that I felt sure in my heart I was safe. Because, when we cut to that commercial message, David Letterman was still the same way. The director, in his cardigan, sawed at his throat with a finger, a cleverly photographed bumper filled all Six-A's monitors, the band got funky under Shaffer's direction and the cameras' lights went dark. Letterman's shoulders sagged; he leaned tiredly across his obviously cheap desk and mopped at his forehead with a ratty-looking tissue from his yachting jacket's pocket. He smiled from the depths of himself and said it was really grotesquely nice having me on, that the audience was certainly getting the very most for its entertainment dollar tonight, that he hoped, for her sake, my daughter had even one half the stage presence I had, and that, if he'd known what a thoroughly engaging guest I'd be, he himself would have moved molehills to have me on long before this.
"He really said that," I told my husband later in the NBC car. "He said 'grotesquely nice,' 'entertainment dollar' and that I was an engaging guest. No one was listening."
Dick had gotten a driver and gone ahead to pick up Charmian and would meet us at The River Café, where the four of us try to go whenever Rudy and I are in town. I looked at our own driver, up ahead, through the panel; his hat was off, his hair close-clipped, his whole head still as a photo.
My husband, in the back seat with me, held my hand in his hands. His necktie and handkerchief were square and flush. I could almost smell his relief. He had been terribly relieved when I saw him after my appearance. Letterman had explained to the audience that I needed to be on my way, and I'd been directed off stage to much applause as David introduced the self-proclaimed king of kitchen-gadget home sales, who wore an Elks pin.
"Of course he really said that," my husband said. "It's just the sort of thing he'd say."
"Exactly," I maintained, looking at what his hands held.
We were driven south.
"But that doesn't mean he's really that way," he said, looking at me very directly. Then he, too, looked at our hands. Our three rings were next to one another. I felt a love for him and moved closer to him on the soft leather seat, my face hot and sore. My empty ear did feel a bit violated. "Any more than you're really the way you seemed when we were handling him better than I've ever seen him handled." He looked at me admiringly. "You're a talented actress," he said. "You took direction. You kept your head and did us both credit and survived an appearance on an anti-show." He smiled. "You did good work."
I moved away from my husband just enough to look at his very clean face. "I wasn't acting, with David Letterman," I told him. And I was sincere. "It was more you and Dick that I had to ... handle." Rudy's smile remained. "He wasn't savage," I said. "He was fun, Rudy. I had fun."
He lit a long Gauloise, smiling. "Did it just for fun?" he asked wryly. He pretended almost to nudge my ribs. A high-rent district that I had remembered as a low-rent district went by on both sides of us.
And I'll say that I felt something dark in my heart when my husband almost nudged me there. I felt that it was a sorry business, indeed, when my own spouse couldn't tell I was being serious. And I told him so.
"I was just the way I am," I maintained.
We both listened as something sweetly baroque filtered through the limousine intercom's grille.
"It's like my birthday," I said, holding my second husband's hand in mine. "We agreed, on my birthday. We drank wine to it, Rudy. We held the facts out and looked, together. We agreed just last week about the way I am."
My husband disengaged his hand and felt at the panel's grille. The Hispanic driver's hatless head was cocked. A part of his neck was without pigment, I saw. The lighter area was circular; it spiraled into his dark hair and was lost to me.
"He leaned across right up to me, Rudy. I saw freckles. A little mole, near that label. I looked at him. I saw him."
"But we told you, Sue," my husband said, reaching into his jacket pocket. "What put him on television in 1989 for you to see is that he can't be seen. That's what the whole thing's about, now. That no one is really the way they have to be seen."
I looked at him. "You really think that's true."
His cigarette crackled. "Doesn't matter what I think. That's what the show is about. They make it true. By watching him."
"You believe that," I said.
"I believe what I see," he said, putting his cigarette down to manipulate a bottle's cap. Its label read take several, often.
"That strikes me as really naïve."
Certain pills are literally bitter. When I'd finished my drink from the back seat's bar, I still tasted the Xanax on the back of my tongue. The adrenaline's ebb had left me very tired. We broke out of the tall buildings near the water. I watched the Manhattan Bridge pass. The late sun came into view; it hung to our right, red. We both looked at the water as we were driven by. The sheet of its surface was wound-colored under the March sunset.
I swallowed. "So you believe no one's really the way you see them?"
I got no response.
"Dick doesn't really have a mouth, I noticed today. It's more like a gash in his head." I paused. "You needn't defer to him in our personal lives just because of your positions in business, Rudy." I smiled. "We're loaded, cookie."
My husband laughed without smiling. He looked at the last of the sun-colored water as we approached the Brooklyn Bridge's system of angled shadows.
"If no one is really the way we see them, that would include me," I said. "And you."
Rudy admired the sunset. He said it looked explosive, hanging, all round, just over the water. Reflected and doubled in that bit of river. But he was looking only at the water. I saw him.
"Oh, my," is what David Letterman said when Reese the coordinator's distinguished but raccoon-ringed face had resolved out of a perfect ring of exploded dynamite. Months later, whenever I'd come through something by being in its center, surviving in the stillness created by great disturbance from which I, as cause, perfectly circled, was exempt, I'd be struck all over again by what a real and simply right thing it was for a person in such a place to say.
And I have remembered and worked hard to show that, if nothing else, I am a woman who speaks her mind. It is, yes, the way I'm forced to see myself. To live.
And so I did ask my husband, as we were driven in our complimentary limousine to join Dick and Charmian for drinks and dinner at NBC's expense, just what way he thought he and I really were, then.
Which turned out to be the mistake.