The news anchor dreams there is a fire, a very bad fire. The only thing that can stop it is water. Everyone is waiting until the fire reaches the ocean. Until it does, the only thing to be done is to report on it. He reads a list of names, of people and businesses and towns affected by the fire. All the names are foreign. He does his best to pronounce each one correctly, short of putting on an accent, which doesn’t test well with the target demographics and makes him feel insincere.
He reads names. He tries to give gravity to each, knowing that among his audience are people with relatives there, people on vacation from there, people whom he is telling that their families are dead. He can’t linger long, though. There are more people waiting to hear the name of the next town to be incinerated, if it is theirs. He pauses before the next name. It is his own language, his own town—the place where he lives now. He lives two blocks away from the TV studio. He can make it to bed fast after the 11:00 news, and then he can be there bright and early for the morning news at six. It doesn’t feel like it’s burning. This must be some weird quirk of live TV, the way it’s filmed, like the five-second delay in case anybody curses.
But they are. They’re burning, and then everyone is dead.
The news anchor dreams he’s reporting from a convenience store, the site of a near-robbery. The cashier/owner is telling the news anchor how he foiled the erstwhile robbers. He ducked behind the counter as if to open the safe and then pulled out an ancient tribal mask. It was Gibara, the demon of chaos, whom his people believe is responsible for all randomness in the universe. His father, who still lived in their home city, was a priest of Gibara. People brought offerings to him to keep their lives predictable. The father, a shaman who performed rituals up to sixteen hours a day, was permitted to keep one-quarter of those offerings. The rest had to be burnt. All his life, he was only ever paid in food. When told his son was moving to America, that he would earn a much better living, the shaman cursed him: What use have you for money? he said. Money is a middleman, nothing but the blank space between two contracts. So are you. It is all you will ever be. And the son, who grew up with a priest and a shaman as a father, who knew that every prayer, whether blessing or curse, must be followed up with an amen or risk arousing the demon’s ire, and causing something even worse to happen, said amen.
The son told the entire story to the news anchor, staring deep into the camera, looking earnest, as if he believed his entire speech would make it to television. The news anchor’s producer has an idea: the news anchor should wait in line, buy something, as a way of making the story come to life, so he can report from personal experience. He does. As he’s paying for his purchase—he has selected a single banana—the next person in line pulls out a gun. It’s another mugging. The cashier/owner tries the mask again, but simply gets laughed at. He feels like a fool. And the news anchor, a gun digging into his back, cannot help but pray to the demon, please, I believe you, I believe you, and wishes that the cashier/owner would treat this experience with a little more reverence.
The news anchor has been a news anchor for a long time. He is good at his job, and it’s a good job, but that’s all it is to him, a job. Once he had ambition. He thought he’d be an actor. His dependable voice could convince an audience of anything. He could play the male lead in a romance, having A-list actresses throw their weepy selves upon the expanse of his slightly-lesser-known chest, or maybe he could be an action hero. People depended on him. He had a face people trusted.
But his slicked-back hair went from killer-whale black to pavement gray, and his chiseled cheeks never looked so rocky. His agent in L.A., the agent who had once seemed so keen on his weekend fly-ins for auditions, offered roles that changed from fathers in commercials to grandfathers in commercials.
The news anchor has lately taken liberties with the news. He indulges his penchant for opening lines and colorful adverbs—he has, after all, been reciting these lines longer than the copywriters have been writing them. He adds personal flourishes, things he knows, things he can guess well enough to improvise. He has been paying attention. The same people resurface in the news again and again: publicity hounds, notables, freaks. He has gained an appreciation for these people: those who don’t merely report the news but create it.
This is what led him to his latest trick. He sees a feature photo appear beside his head on the monitors. He gives it a gift: his own story, the most fascinating and riveting tale that could possibly accompany this picture of a six-year-old girl in the stark seriousness of her yearbook picture or a laughing, loose-tongued hero dog. He ignores the teleprompter, mentally blocks out the frantic producers. He knows he doesn’t have long. Until the end of the night’s newscast, or perhaps only until the next commercial break. But until it happens, and until he is dragged off the set, cameras furtively rolling, filmed by a low-grade cameraman who will release the footage of the news anchor’s breakdown over the internet vainly hoping to create a viral sensation, the news anchor will give these visuals the narration they deserve—the brightest dreams he can spin for them, the best reporting he can ever hope to offer.
Matthue Roth's latest novel is Rules of My Best Friend's Body (Hevria), which you can download for free. Slate called his picture book The Gobblings "perfect." By day, he's a creative writer at Google.