The rumors were true: the Celebrity was in town—our town—to film her reality show, the one we hated but couldn’t stop watching. She had actually been spotted, had been tweeted about, had posed for pictures in front of the Happy Cuts barbershop. Reports so far indicated that she was nice, even though on TV she was notoriously not nice. She’d had lunch at the BBQ Shack, our BBQ Shack, where we had after-church slaw and hush puppies, where our children had birthday parties, where our sports fans watched the playoff games.
We drove around town in the heat, windows rolled down, looking for her, or for her cameras, or just a glimpse of that glossy raven hair. We drifted through red lights and stop signs; all over town there were near-collisions, laughed off with, “I was looking for her!”
There was a lottery to be part of her television show—to be a background diner, or a browsing customer, or a passerby, and those of us lucky enough to be chosen signed ten-page contracts and confidentiality agreements: We are allowed to use your image/silhouette/voice in perpetuity. We mused on the possibility: our images, voices, silhouettes surviving long after our deaths, into perpetuity, that glimmering land inhabited by movie stars and singing sensations—and now, by us.
She was here because our town had made the bottom of various worst-in-the-country lists. Our garbage was especially putrid; our produce was extraordinarily limp. Our boutiques were musty with the fashions of yesteryear. Our children ran wild in the streets, smoking and stealing, and their parents went sporadically to dead-end jobs and spent the rest of the time drinking in dim bars.
On her TV show, the Celebrity breezed into sad towns and humiliated the townspeople, made old people cry, smacked some babies around, and mocked pets and automobiles, all while looking absolutely gorgeous in gold high heels and white dresses. She’d bring in construction crews to knock down buildings and rebuild them. She’d put shy children on parade floats and teach dogs to read simple history books. She’d turn coffee shops into wine bistros, add a seashore or a mountain, turn a mill town into a resort town, and combine single-parent families into blended Brady Bunch configurations—all in the course of four days. Before she left, she’d dole out some white dresses to the women, toss some red bow ties to the men, and give new collars to the cats and dogs.
“Goodbye,” she would call, as she rode out of town on her motorcycle. “I’m on to the next dump.”
We adjusted quickly to the cameras following us. It began to seem completely natural. Had it ever not seemed natural? We felt like celestial objects trailed by plumes of light. We spoke loudly; we told jokes. We made snide comments about the garbage, the pets, the children, the businesses, and each other, to prove we weren’t complete idiots. Most of us were here because of failures elsewhere.
Actually, all of us were.
And we kept searching for her. We drove by the restaurant she was scheduled to renovate, and the boutique she had bulldozed. There were fuzzy Instagram photos of her in an orange hard hat—wasn’t that her? We drove by the home of the family whose children she took to raise as her own. We snapped photos of the camera crew filming Main Street’s shuttered buildings, the empty beer cans rolling down the street. We poked our iPhones out car windows and circled the hotel where she was staying, but most of us never even got a glimpse, and it frustrated and pained us. We pounded our fists on our steering wheels, and when we collided with each other, we didn't laugh anymore, but punched each other in the face, and attracted police cars, but not, usually, any cameras, and certainly not the Celebrity.
We skipped our sporadic jobs and we locked our children out of the house, and when we passed each other on the pavement, we didn’t look up except to scowl and think: You’re not her.
When the show aired two months later, the confidentiality agreements were voided, and so we were free to talk about what had happened behind the scenes: how the Celebrity had torched the boutique’s curtains and almost killed everyone; how she made the hotel staff cry and then hugged them and made them cry more; how the children had to be coaxed and bribed to object when they were taken from their parents and given to the Celebrity. How the dogs learned just enough history to form a small revolution and chase a gaffer onto a ledge.
We watched ourselves on TV, walking down Main Street, talking about how much we hated this town and each other. We felt a strange compassion for ourselves, our voices and our images, and for our children, and our pets, and our old people.
For a while, we were grateful to the Celebrity for coming to town and making us famous, and then we were resentful, and then we forgot.
The show aired a few more episodes and then was canceled and then even the re-runs were canceled. The mountain at the edge of town dissolved in the autumn rains. Some of us moved away from our town, but most of us stayed; some of us went to jail. Some of us started blogs, and two moved to California to study camera work and production design. One of us became a minor celebrity herself, and never came back to her hometown, and altered her IMDb bio to say she was from somewhere else.
Sometimes, we’d see a woman in a tattered white dress, or a man in a battered red bow tie, and we’d feel ashamed and confused, and not know why.
There are some of us who still remember, but it seems cruel to talk about—and even to think about—what it was like to be comets, trailed by lights and cameras and fuzzy microphones and kind voices telling us we were doing great, to just be ourselves.