By Chef Crystakat
Let me tell you the secret of the century: being a single parent is hard. Yeah, of course it’s worth it and all, but I’m not sure how anyone does this for eighteen years. Shift at the hospital, hurry home and check on Tommy, four hours of shut-eye tops, then another eight hours working retail, rinse and repeat. It’s awesome.
With a schedule that tight, you think I’d froth at the mouth for the chance to get some extra sleep, but lately my insomnia’s getting real bad. The circles under my eyes are starting to look like a permanent fixture. When Tommy’s crying is ringing in my ears and I feel like I’m about to shatter into little pieces, there’s only one outlet: late-night TV. Infomercials, to be exact. More infomercials than you can count.
Sitting in front of the ghostly blue glow of the screen is just about the only thing that helps distract from a one-year-old’s incessant wailing. Yeah, yeah, before you revoke my “good parenting” card, I’ll have you know Tommy cries over nothing. The kid’s fed and watered, but he’ll scream like it’s the end of the world.
There’s no feeling quite like slipping into a near-fugue state at two in the morning with the words buy now, and we’ll throw in a free pack of refills!ringing around in your head, like ping-pong balls ricocheting in an empty room. At some point, if you’re lucky, you’ll slip into unconsciousness and wake up with your face mashed into the couch.
I’ve pretty much seen them all by now. Catalogued in them head. There’s the blender that promises to make meal prep 5000% more efficient, the hairdryer from heaven, the neck-cushioner that’ll cure your arthritis, the vacuum cleaner that connects to Bluetooth and probably can sleep with your wife. A hundred perky men and women going on about weight loss pills and makeup and kitchen knives and towels that’ll revolutionize your life, no really, we promise or your money back.
Well, all except one. Last night, I saw a new infomercial that I’m still not quite sure if I hallucinated or not. It was maybe 3AM, and my mind was throbbing, pulsing inside my skull. I’d all but given up on sleep. The blonde woman on the screen had just finished her spiel about cubic zirconia jewelry, and then this way-too-catchy jingle was blaring from the TV:
Spleeno! Spleeno all your worries away! Spleeno! Spleeno makes a better today!
It was a chorus of high-pitched voices, I think, something childish like you’d hear in a toy commercial. The lyrics to the jingle flashed across the screen in fat, cartoonish letters.
Next, there was one of those “before” montages. You know, the clips of people cracking eggs onto the floor or groaning about their bad back, before the miracle product swoops in to save them. It was pretty standard: a black-and-white shot of a young woman applying mascara in the mirror, making an exaggerated mess of it by smudging it all over her eyelids. She frowned at the finished result. The camera zoomed in on her clumped-together lashes. The whole time, this glum, almost comically sad tune played in the background.
It transitioned into a full-color scene of the woman beaming into the mirror. The words SPLEENO! hung above her head, and the music was now generically upbeat. Look. I hadn’t slept in around thirty-six hours, and I’d started to feel like my brain was melting out of my ears, so I don’t know what I saw. But it sure as hell looked like this pretty girl brought a pair of tweezers up to her eyelids and began plucking out her lashes, one by one, all with a TV-ready smile splayed across her face. No time lapse or anything. It might have gone on for five minutes or fifteen. When it was finished, she almost looked normal, but if you looked close, you could see her completely bare lids.
The infomercial ended with the SPLEENO! jingle playing again while the woman beamed into the camera. She picked up a tube of mascara, looked at it, then tossed it aside. It was so strange that I figured it had to be a parody, complete with an “after” montage of overacting and smiling. I know this sounds crazy, but afterwards, I felt almost relieved. Like some small weight I didn’t even know was there had been taken off my shoulders.
Then Tommy’s crying started up again, and the feeling was lost.
I saw it again last night. Honest to god. I actually did pass out for around an hour before waking up, feeling like absolute crap. I peeled myself off the couch to check on Tommy. He was sleeping for once, and I promptly returned to the living room to tune in to my favorite channel.
I watched the same toaster infomercial twice before it came on again. When the jingle started, my heart sped up: Spleeno! Spleeno all your worries away! Spleeno! Spleeno makes a better today! Whatever this was, it had one hell of a catchy tune. The kind that crops up in your mind at the worst of moments.
Call it morbid curiosity. I wanted to see what was going to play this time. It was too early to be an April Fool’s prank, but maybe it was all a joke by someone with a seriously weird sense of humor, or promo for an upcoming movie.
The jingle ended, and the colors quickly faded to black and white. I watched as a middle-aged man came on screen. He was dressed in his pajamas, his hair tousled in a TV version of a messy bedhead. He stood in front of the mirror and cupped his cheek with a grimace, then opened his mouth to inspect his teeth: they were yellow and crooked, some of them sitting at angles that looked downright painful. I could see black spots of rot on his molars. He poured a cupful of mouthwash and gargled, but his face creased as if he was in agony and he quickly spit it all down the drain.
The scene shifted, and the now-technicolored man was dressed smartly in work clothes, his hair slicked down with gel. SPLEENO! danced across the screen in burning pink letters. The counter was littered with teeth. He looked into his mirror and smiled, revealing a completely toothless mouth with raw, bloody gums. I should have been disgusted, but that reaction never came. Instead I was… fascinated. The man didn’t look to be in pain. He seemed almost elated. And why shouldn’t he be? His pain was gone. I wondered how he felt—light, carefree. I felt a little scared for feeling the way I did, but I couldn’t deny it, either.
Afterwards, I stuck around to watch a mattress commercial, but found that my eyes closed of their own volition, and I finally fell into shallow, dreamless sleep. I woke up feeling unsatisfied, like I’d had some unfinished business in a dream, but couldn’t remember what.
I’ve stayed up every night since Tuesday and it hasn’t come on a single time. I know what I saw, but at the same time I’m starting to doubt myself. Maybe I dreamed it all up. Either way, I haven’t slept a minute in three nights.
I almost crashed the car during a milk run for formula and diapers this morning. Tommy is driving me up the wall. I could swear he wakes up and starts sounding off the minute I get home, and shuts up once I’m at work. God, I wish I had the money for a sitter. Just one night of peace and quiet might be enough. Nothing around me seems solid, anymore. It’s like the world is slipping away, and there’s only me, a sack of blood and bones dragging itself to places that feel like hollow imprints. I know I look like shit, but I’m finding it hard to care.
I wonder if this is how people lost in the desert feel, when they see that last mirage of cool water.
It came on at 1AM. I can’t explain it, but the moment I heard the first notes to the jingle, I felt a wave of relief crashing down on me. The world felt real again.
I kept my eyes glued to the screen. There was an elderly woman this time, walking down a set of stairs to that same sad tune. With her coiffed gray hair and red sweater, she looked like a character out of a Christmas movie, the sweet old lady about to serve her grandkids chocolate-chip cookies with a smile. She wasn’t smiling now, though. Each time her right foot made contact with the steps, she winced, quickly shifting her weight to her left. Bad knee. Once she got to the bottom, she rested on the banister and caught her breath. The next few clips showed her hobbling around the house—I realized it was the same one the others were shot in—and clutching at her kneecap every few seconds.
Right then, it was as if I could feel the pain shooting up my leg, too. I wanted her to be free of it. I wanted to feel light again. I watched as the TV cut to a close-up shot of the old woman sleeping in bed. Her gray hair was spread out on the pillow like a halo. The camera slowly pulled out, revealing the rest of her nightgown-clad body and the smooth, round stump of her right leg. I noticed it’d been severed just above the knee, and it looked to have healed completely, the skin intact except for a line of white scarring. I examined her face. With her mouth curled into a smile, she was the picture of tranquility. I couldn’t help but smile myself. Her pain was gone now, discarded with the unbearable weight of all that putrid flesh. For the first time in a long time, I felt at ease, perfectly content, even. I kept smiling as the jingle ran again.
Spleeno! Spleeno all your worries away! Spleeno! Spleeno makes a better today!
I didn’t sleep for the rest of the night, but I kept grinning anyway, enjoying the way those words rolled off my tongue.
Yesterday was the best one yet! I didn’t go to work, just in case I’d miss it while I was gone. Tommy was crying as usual, and he was annoying as ever, but I didn’t let him distract me.
I kept my attention on the TV. The infomercial came on around midnight—earlier than usual. It featured a man and his dog. A golden retriever. Even with the grainy quality, I could see that it was a beautiful specimen, its coat sleek and its eyes bright. Too bad it just wouldn’t shut up. Its barking went on and on, all through the night, and my heart clenched with sympathy as the man groaned and clapped his hands over his ears. The barks seemed to grow in volume until it was unbearable. I shook my head as the man tried a pair of earplugs to block out the noise. I knew all too well those didn’t work. Tommy’s cries could penetrate through anything.
I was on the edge of my seat waiting for what came next. The black-and-white gave way to color, and the man went from tired and groggy to well-rested. He got up from bed and stretched, then went to the kitchen to fix himself a cup of coffee, humming the whole time. As a stream of coffee poured into his mug, I noticed a large yellowish mass lying on the kitchen floor. The dog’s body looked broken, and its head was stained with a bloom of red, but the man’s newfound happiness was so infectious that I hardly paid it any attention. The now-familiar SPLEENO! hung above the pair. I realized my face was wet with tears of joy. The man had gotten what he wanted: silence. The tears kept coming even after the screen went black.
Spleeno. It’s a wonderful sound. A wonderful word. It takes all your worries away. It makes you realize you have to hold on, and if something’s standing in the way, then you have to get rid of it.
That night, I slept like a baby.