I wrote this story over a year ago, before Trump announced his presidential bid, when he was still a joke, just the guy at the helm of The Apprentice who liked to brag and put his name in big gold letters on everything.
Now, of course, the joke is real and I'm even afraid to satirise because doing that somehow feels like reducing his presidency to entertainment, but the decisions he makes in office are not a joke–they affect us all. It was never really supposed to be a story about Trump. It's a story about a journalist who wakes up one day to discover a hideous growth in his ear–a little human head which won't stop talking, which keeps growing stronger every day. It's a story about the choices we make. Do we come down on the side of beauty, sensitivity, feelings...or do we take the other course and cultivate our ruthless side, attack the weak and the vulnerable? It's a story about the responsibility of journalists and the choices they make for the sake of drama and ratings. The growth was a thinly-veiled metaphor for a metastasised cancer. So, like I said, it was never supposed to be about Trump...
THE SHRIVELLED GROWTH is now nine weeks old, measuring over an inch from ear to ear. Too late to get rid of it, Dr. Moore says. Either I could wait a little longer and then cut it’s head off or––
“It’s got a head?”
“It is a head.”
Way Dr. Moore says it, like this happens every day. Apparently it does, sometimes, mostly to people in my profession. Though he won’t name names, I have an idea who, former television hosts who suddenly left their jobs and turned to radio. Recluses and other whack-jobs perpetually going around like they have a chip on their shoulder. Turned out they did. But Dr. Moore can’t tell me anything. Doctors and their oaths. Like I’m going to tell anyone.
Can’t think about them now or care. What happened to who in the past. All I care about is me, but Moore doesn’t get that. He says, Some even lived––what, is that supposed to make me feel better? I’ve got a massive cyst thing growing inside my head and it’s about to breach.
Don’t you care? Nicole used to say when I’d shoot something down, an idea of hers, an opinion, something she’d done and was proud of and wanted to show me. Like a child she was, dependent on my opinion. Didn’t realise they were just opinions, not even mine, I felt, most days like they didn’t come from me. Just a job to say the worst or the cleverest or most contrary thing. The opposite of whoever the guest was that day or the other person on the panel. Dick measuring contest, only we used our mouths. Sometimes, most times we felt nothing. Or only so-so. Our palettes dead from too much culture. It can do that, you know, expose yourself to enough and eventually you go blind. Literally. Once I’m racing through the Prado as fast as I can, trying to accumulate enough culture and sarcasm so I can earn the right to go back to my hotel suite at the Catalonia and just chill. There it was, the whiteness. The heat did it or maybe the rushing. Out of breath, I find Velázquez and his Las Meninas. The one I’d gone all that way to see and I can’t see a fucking thing. I’m so tired I could murder a cold beer, instead I’ve disappeared behind a haze of white smoke. Not literally. But it felt like. Smoke. Burning up my eyeballs. All I see is that, minutes maybe, I don’t know. Hard to tell time without the visual clues. Hear them, all the cultured people, all the blind cultureless people waiting for me to tell them what to think. And me. Only one there I bet who really needs to see for a living, actually blinded.
Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Walk it off. It comes back, eventually. I’m in the central hall trying to pass like l’m not panicking like crazy. Looking for a guard or someone, trying to remember what Spanish I know and when it returns, as fast as it went it’s back again and now I see. At first a fog and then a haze and then pure sight. So clear. And sharper than ever before. I run right out of the museum. Who gives a damn about art. I want out of there. To breathe. To feel the actual light. Just watch some girls sitting there on the grass verge flirting with themselves, their skirts blown up by the wind. Bare legs glistening in the sun. One is jealous of the other, you can tell. Trying to swallow it, but you can always tell. The other one less aware because she’s always been at the centre of any room she walked into. The light falling right on her and none of the others in the room. I wrote my piece on Las Meninas based on those two girls. Didn’t bother returning to the museum. Could have, still open, but why waste a perfectly good afternoon. When I could be out walking, living, tasting real life. The tapas on the patio of a bar off Calle de Santa Isabel got more of my attention. The waitress and the Caseras potato chips, flash-fried until they achieved the perfect architectural curve, better than Bilbao, than Zaha Hadid. A bowlful of post-structuralist masterpieces. Empty it and waitress brings me another. Wide secretive smile she has makes me think of Goya’s Clothed Maja, but when she walks away––la chingada!––I’m not thinking of that maja anymore, I’m thinking of La Maja Desnuda. Made my notes on a napkin and drank, waiting for night to fall.
La maja vestida and La maja desnuda by Diego Velázquez, Museo del Prado, Madrid
Was the best piece of art criticism I’d ever done, they said. And I’d done it blind. Couldn’t do it again. Why did you stop? they said. Couldn’t tell them I’d done it blind. It was pure bullshit. That I was all bullshit. I mean, if they couldn’t tell I was all bullshit I wasn’t going to say otherwise. They offered me a column, but didn’t seem right. Candy from a baby and all.
Besides, I preferred books. Or rather, tearing them down. Film, too. More to get your hooks into. Artists such easy targets. And so damned earnest. It was something Nicole said that stopped me, Do you know how hard it is? Do you have any idea how hard it is, and you’re just making it harder...she was the most earnest of them all.
No sense of irony.
Why she’d never be a great artist. She was too emotionally linked to it. You can’t believe in a thing if you’re going to sell it. You have to simultaneously believe and not believe. Be able to question yourself and have doubts. Believe too much and it will just come across as fake. Too opaque. Best artists, sometimes, the ones who believe in nothing, I think. Well, I would. I believe in nothing, so satire is the one thing that feels real to me. And cynicism, a good cynic believes in nothing. That’s my church. The unbelievers.
I was going somewhere with this, I swear. Or was I just digressing as usual? Harder to think now there’s a shrunken head taking root at the base of my brain. Or my ear. How the hell can I tell. Dr. Moore says it’s in my ear and slowly making it’s way through the canal. Like a snake. Wants to do another CT scan, but. What if. Not going to risk it. Can’t promise that the Thing won’t metastasize. Sprout eyes, ears, a body. Hard to think about it without getting sick.
Am starting to get superstitious about it. This thing in me, wondering has the little bastard always been there? Driving me. Goading me. (Is maybe even more me than me.) The inner voice, writing the reviews. Like I’m on autopilot, practically asleep, just kept going by this little wisecracker hitching a ride in my head. One night I was working against a deadline and kept falling asleep over the keyboard, nodding off, couldn’t keep my eyes open, but next morning there’s the review staring at me on the screen. Did I do that? I couldn’t for the life of me remember. Every panelist has had the same thing happen, you come unprepared, but somehow these things just come out of your mouth, you don’t know how they got there.
The first time I heard my voice on radio I said, “Who is that guy?” Voice two octaves lower than it sounded in my head. Maybe it was him all along, finding faults, picking things apart, getting stronger, and all this time I didn’t know I’ve been dying for years.
Nicole would say, You focus on anything long enough and it manifests itself. And boy was she right.
Last night it sprouted. I turned over in bed. It was taking forever to get to sleep. Couldn’t figure out why. Of course, it was the little guy. (That’s the name I’ve given it.) Dr. Moore had told me it would be at least another three weeks. Guess he was premature. Go to the mirror next morning and there it is. His little butt peeking out from my eardrum. Or not butt, I guess, Moore says, It’s a nose, but it sure looks like a butt to me. See the cute little hairline cleft in the middle, he says. Great. Adorable, I say. Want to adopt him? Now can we pull him out of there? Like today.
Says I have to wait a while till there’s more that his pinchers can grab onto. Try it now and it could just slip back in and then they’ll never be able to get him out.
Oh my god, the thought keeps me awake at night. Picturing him nested there, like one of those worms you’ve got to wrap around a matchstick once a day until he’s all out. Some of those things are up to twenty feet long, Dr. Moore cheerfully informs me. His bedside manner sucks. Last time I see him he can’t tear himself away from his computer screen to look me in the eye. Finally I peek behind to see what’s so damn fascinating––he’s playing poker online. What is wrong with him. ‘It’s nothing serious. I wouldn’t worry about it,’ he tries to assure me, ‘Good odds you’ll beat it.’
Fucking doctors! What did I do to deserve this idiot? I have to keep going. Have bills to pay.
Am now wondering if I can really trust Dr. Moore and if he’s really treated as many of these cases as he says. Or else: why is my growth such a novelty to him? He’s videoed it and wants to show his friends, make himself famous at my expense, build his reputation on it––I was the guy who dragged that thing out of that poor guy’s head before he died.
Horrible headaches since he did that thing with the mini torch. Can’t even write straight. Past and present, mixing up all the time. English feels like foreign language. It’s because I’m not hearing well anymore. Read that once, dyslexia related to bad hearing or something. Shit. Shit. Shit. Can’t afford to be going stupid. Always said I’d rather die than. But scratch that. I want to live. I don’t care if I’ve got the next Dalai Lama growing out of my ear, I’ll wear a basket if I have to. I want to live. When he put that needle thing in to test it, Jesus, the white hot pain. The Thing went berserk in there. I felt the hot trickle flowing down my cheek and saw his expression, real horror, silent film style. He couldn’t disguise his disgust.
“What’s happening, what’s wrong?” Holding the side of my neck and feeling the hot red.
“That’s not supposed to happen. You must have very thin skin.”
Fuck you. That’s my face, my brain’s seeping out––and you’re sorry? I’ll sue the shit out you, you incompetent asshole. I mean it.
He said he was sorry several times after that and gave me a hat to wear. “No one will notice,” he said, trying to keep a straight face as he gave me his home number and penciled me in for next week “or sooner if anything goes wrong in the meantime.” He keeps referring to us as “The Thing and I.” He opened the door. “See you guys next week!” How you guys getting along? One great big joke to him. He doesn’t even realize how unfunny that is. I’m not developing a relationship with it. I just want to get it out of my head.
“I’m me, you’re not me!” I’m telling myself in the bathroom mirror that night.
“Who are you kidding,” the Thing says back.
I was dumbfounded, literally. To think I used to laugh at people who heard voices in their head.
Did my cellphone cause this? Used it nonstop for 20 years. Meanwhile, getting very hard to work or keep the respect of my colleagues wearing this hat now in the radio station. Great hat, they all say, but I know what they’re thinking. Thank god it’s radio, otherwise I’d be screwed. They don’t say anything, thinking it’s some kind of crude fashion statement––like the time I grew the woodsmen’s beard––and meant to be ironic. Or they just think I’m half mad anyway and aren’t surprised to see me wear a protective lycra cap to work.
“Cool dude,” the stoner in the diner tells me one day. “Been there, man. Bad karma, get yourself some wheatgrass.”
Overhear Cathy and Seth laughing over at the espresso machine. “He’s fucked.” “I’ve seen worse,” she says. “Where? Not here. It’s the worst I’ve seen.” My antenna for insults superhuman now. My hearing for everything else next to zero. I’m starting to teach myself to read lips, but only get it right about 10% of the time. Last week during lunch hour, thought Cathy told me that she felt selfish and crap. What she’d really said was she “felt like shellfish and crepe.”
It’s making me cranky, I realise that. And a little weird. Sitting at my desk one afternoon, I hear the little bastard humming to himself. Actually humming a tune. Like he’s bored and needs to keep occupied. Softly at first and then really cranking it up death metal style like someone singing in their car, except I’m in an open plan office where anyone can walk by, and I’ve got my own private pirate radio station playing in my head.
And Ingrid, this girl I’ve been trying to impress since forever, passes my desk and hears it. But there’s no way to cover that kind of racket except yammering on like a lunatic. Funny thing is as soon––I mean the exact moment––she walked away the Thing went completely silent.
I used to be centered, but I’m losing my compass. Could tell you my opinion on the flip of a coin. Sometimes it didn’t even matter which side I took. I’d drive to the station, get there with minutes to spare and say to the other reviewer, “Which one you want to take?” Like if we both felt the same way about a film or book. Or if we both felt neutral. And I’d jump in and say I’ll do for. You do contra. Or, no, actually that’s bullshit. Most times I’d take contra. More fun doing contra, the rest is just cheerleading, and I’m a crap cheerleader. I mean there’s only so high you can jump before the audience begins suspecting you’re suspended by strings. I’m good at contra, and that’s that. Wish it were the other way. That I could finely pick apart the detractors and come out on the side of beauty, on the side of grace. For––For what? ‘Art’? No one really believes in that anymore. All they want is what I do. Build up something just high enough that it’s fun to watch it fall.
Last night I dreamt I was on The Apprentice and Donald Trump was wearing a doctor’s coat and giving me a choice.
Trump: We can’t remove it. I thought we could, but...One of you has to decide or the other one will. I like you both. It’s hard, but that’s life.
Me: How can you sit there and tell me that? Like it’s not...Like it’s nothing.
Trump: I’m not explaining it very well. Obviously, we can remove it. It’s just chances are... (The little guy is now completely breached. Sure he’s small, but he has moxy. Personality. And I can tell, even though The Donald won’t say it, that he’s been backing him from the start. Now Trump scrunches up his chin and makes a Donald Trump pout.) I’m not going to make it easy for you. One of you has to choose. Who will it be? Which of you guys is stronger?
I know what Trump means. The little guy is a better person than me. Smarter. But I’m fucking bigger. If you could just pull him out, I’ll stand on the bastard till he’s dead.
Trump puts his palms flat on the boardroom table. The sign that he’s letting me choose.
Me: I’ve always told the truth.
Trump: That’s why I’m asking you. Who do you think will have a better chance in the world? You did a great job, a great thing, so I want to give you the chance before he gets any bigger.
Me: I can feel myself draining away.
Trump: If you wait any longer, it won’t be a question of asking you whether you want to kill it. The choice will be made for you.
Me: But he’s a part of me.
Trump: This is a very, very difficult question for me to have to ask. But––you know what I’m going to say––do you think he’s better than you?
Me: Not better. Better at certain things. But not...I have other skills. It’s just he’s more ruthless. I used to be, but it’s like I’m not myself anymore. Give me a chance. I can try to be ruthless again, it’s just...
Trump: He’s better at it. He’s fucking with your head.
Trump: So, are you saying that you should die, and he should live? You’re giving up, and you don’t have any fight left in you anymore? I’m surprised. Really. I didn’t expect this. Are you sure you want to do this? I’ve always respected you. You’re a good guy.
Little Guy: What about me?
Trump: You’re not so good.
Little Guy: Yeah, well maybe not more creative. But is that so important? I’m better. Just better.
Trump: Better at being an asshole, basically.
Little Guy: I wouldn’t say asshole.
Trump: But I would. You don’t have to say it. (Turns to me.) He’s an asshole. He’s very good at being an asshole. Not afraid to be ruthless. You’re good at other things. Fine sentences and all that. More of a dreamer, would you say? More. What’s that word...more earnest. More sincere.
(Sincere? Was he talking about me?)
You don’t have to be embarrassed. It’s good to have feelings. Feelings are a good thing. I have feelings. Not like you, but I have them. Not necessarily useful in your line of work, but useful. I can see why the choice could be difficult for you. He’s really much more competitive than you.
(Now I find myself pleading, and this could be a gamble, I realize. Trump has no time for whiners. He likes fighters.)
Me: I don’t mean he doesn’t have feelings. It’s just that I believe in things more than him and––I don’t see why that has to be a bad thing.
Trump: But it is. For a critic, to lose their faculties like this. Because that’s what you’re talking about, isn’t it? Losing your faculties. You’re whining like a kid. Where’s your edge, Stephen? Where’s it gone? I don’t recognize you anymore. Where’s all this love come from? It’s kind of unprofessional, isn’t it? (Turning to the others around the boardroom table). Am I wrong? He’s like a different person. (Shaking his head.) What would you do? It’s a hard choice. Glad I don’t have to make it.
Next morning, I get up and everything is so clear. Don’t know exactly what happened during the night, but I can guess. Neck and sheets and medical cap. Hot red mess. Call Dr. Moore, but it’s Saturday and he’s not at his office. Drive to his home covered in blood. His two daughters playing on the lawn...what is it about this image that makes me pause?...skirts spread wide like the start of summer. Here, at last, are my Las Meninas. Dr. Moore, rising up and rushing across the grass so his daughters won’t have to see me.
“So, you have made your decision?”
Mia Funk is an artist, interviewer and founder of The Creative Process, an exhibition of her interviews and painted portraits of over 100 esteemed writers, which is traveling to universities. Her portraits of writers and artists appear in many public collections, including the U.S. Library of Congress, Dublin Writers Museum, Office of Public Works, American Writers Museum (forthcoming), and other museums and culture centers. Funk has received many awards and honors, including the Prix de Peinture from the Salon d’Automne de Paris and has exhibited at the Grand Palais, Paris. She was commissioned by the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival to paint their 30th anniversary commemorative painting of over 20 jazz legends. Her paintings of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud won the Thames & Hudson Pictureworks Prize and were exhibited in Brussels for Bacon’s centenary, in Paris at the American University, as well as international arts festivals in Europe. As a writer and interviewer, she produces a column and podcast for Litro (UK) and the Portrait of a Writer column for TinHouse.com, and contributes to various national publications. She serves on the National Advisory Council of the American Writers Museum.