We’re hiding in the powder room at the St Regis hotel.
This is what working in what amounts to a rat’s nest for the past decade has done to us, I think, looking at our reflections in the mirror. Ten years in a piece-of-crap studio in the armpit of Bushwick with full view-and-sound of the JMZ train, giving ourselves humpbacks craning over our drafting tables, Camels drooping from our mouths, passing expired packages of Peeps back and forth in the dark. The work has made me forget how to act like a person. We’re not fit to go out and socialize with the fancy people, all Cheetos-stained hands and dilated pupils.
“Here.” Mel hands me her pipe, the one shaped like a squirrel she picked up from a troubled-looking Village store that sold cheap dildos and off-brand candy. “Chug it,” she demands. “Pull on that motherfucker like you mean it.”
We, the recipients of the American Coalition of Cartoonists and Animation Professionals’ Hollingsworth Grant for our first full-length feature, Nashville Combat, are due onstage in less than an hour. And while we’re happy – nay, grateful – this is not exactly our crowd. Hence, something to take the edge off.
I straighten, check the mirror again. We look better than usual. Damn near swank, even. I’ve managed to squeeze myself into a cocktail getup, wires and clips strapping boobs up and in, stylized girdle crackling my ribs like potato chips, all with my sort of maybe boyfriend, Beardsley, in mind, despite the fact that I haven’t heard from him in over a week. We are known entities for what we do, which, specifically, is make “small, thoughtful cartoons and out-of-mainstream animation shorts intended for a thinking woman’s audience” as mentioned in The New York Times, BUST, Bitch, Dying Broke and Lonely Quarterly, Shitburger Review, et al.
Mel’s in a tux, hair all butched up, specs folded away in her pocket. She’s the dashing one. She’s crafting a joint for later, running her tongue along the adhesive side of the rolling paper. Pulls the joint away and begins to twist with her fingers. Looks at me in the mirror.
“You look like a dykey George Burns.”
“Words hurt.” She slips the joint into her breast pocket. “You look pretty, Sharon. How’s that make you feel?”
She throws herself on the love seat, legs splayed, fiddling with her bow tie. “ACCAP is a poor acronym, don’t you think? Sounds like hocking up a wad of snot.”
“I’m sure they have enough cash not to care.” I adjust a bra strap, shift the girdle, try to breathe. Mel gestures for the squirrel. I hand it to her.
She takes a hit, straightens to hold the toke. “Sit down and relax,” she says on the intake.
“You relax.” I snip at the air with a bottle of Febreze I find under the sink. The St Regis is too classy for its own good. I feel like we’re hemorrhaging money just standing here.
There’s a knock at the door. Mel bellows, “In use!”
“Guys, open up. I need a minute with you two.”
She’s grooming us for bigger times, and we’ve been tripping behind her all the way, playing the part of the brilliant, wayward animators, letting her attribute our fuckups to artistic preoccupation.”
It’s our agent, Donnie. Short for Donatella. She took us on as clients after she saw our first cartoon, Custodial Knifefight, online when we were in college. A crossbow is posted beside the Wellesley diploma above her desk. She says the word cock a lot, but in the pejorative, when something goes wrong: “This isn’t worth cock.” She chews nicotine gum and drinks a steady stream of Diet Cokes. A can of it is sweating in her hand as she steps in, wearing a slate-colored pantsuit and a pair of heels that cost more than our studio rent. Her hair, the same length as Mel’s, is glossy and feline, combed back. She crinkles her nose. “Are you two smoking up in here?”
Mel says, “Nope.”
I look at the floor and whisper, “Yes.”
Donnie rolls her eyes. Our relationship with Donnie used to operate largely by email, but she’s recently begun accompanying us to parties, functions, giving us advice on what to wear, how to speak. She’s grooming us for bigger times, and we’ve been tripping behind her all the way, playing the part of the brilliant, wayward animators, letting her attribute our fuckups to artistic preoccupation – both a kind assessment and a lie. “Just have some coffee when you come out, okay?”
Mel salutes. I feel my face go hot, nod.
Donnie puts her handbag on the vanity and checks her lipstick. “You two wouldn’t happen to be hiding in here, now, would you?”
Mel slips the squirrel back in her pocket. Shoots her cuffs, wrings out her shoulders. I see her hands tremble slightly. “Please,” she says.
Truth is, all this good luck has made us both a little gun-shy. When Donnie told us we’d won a Hollingsworth, it was like she pulled an atomic bomb from her pocket and flicked it on the ground. The grant is $350,000. We’ve just spent the past decade throwing ourselves into the blinding headlights of our work, wondering if it was ever going to happen for us, wondering if it wouldn’t be the smart thing to quit. Eating meals and drinking coffee at our drafting boards, getting by on a podunk grant here, some freelance work there, the inheritance Mel’s aunt left her when she died once saving us from eviction. Increasingly convinced that our lives, as they were, were as good as they were ever going to be.
The Hollingsworth is almost too good. There’s the feeling that it’s either saved us or ruined us. We walk into the night knowing that, cult status or no, Nashville Combat’s on a limited run, and grants don’t mean shit unless people actually go out and see this thing. It’s hard to escape the feeling that if we don’t come up with an amazing idea for our next project, it could all end here. So cautiously, carefully, we dress up and take the subway to Manhattan. Toddling with pants down into our uncertain future.
Donnie caps her lipstick and turns to us. “Ladies,” she says. “They’re waiting for you out there. Time to join your party.”
I remember that night in flashes – whether because I was drunk (possible) or because that’s just how I remember everything now (also possible).
In memory, I am a spectator, watching the tops of our heads bob through the banquet hall. Mel leads the way, the only person I’ve ever seen who walks like the theme from Sanford and Son is playing on a loop in her head, through a crowd of clean-cut patrons and artists wearing Chucks with nine-hundred-dollar suits, their dates in silk boutique dresses. Getting our picture taken with Donnie and collective reps and foundation officers. Mel with her mouth open, hair bleached and cowlicked all to hell, me a sad-sacked, big-tittied Haggis McBaggis with unspeakable split ends. Playing off each other when introduced. It’s the Vaught and Kisses Show: I’m the straight man, Mel’s the wild card, we joust, we get laughs.
I take an occasional look around for Beardsley. Mel glances at me, irritated, knowing who I’m looking for. Mel believing in the night, believing that I should be having a better time.
We’re hustled backstage and put in a dark side wing to wait for our walkout. I can see the snub tip of Mel’s nose, her long, sensitive fingers reaching out to toy absently with the end. Her hands make her the best draftsman I know, deft at the old-school, minute-by-minute sketches on which our work is built, the kind the old Warner Bros. studios once glorified. Had Mel been born sixty years earlier, and a man, she would have been a star: a prewar, chain-smoking, dame-ogling cartoon auteur. Not to say she’s not comfortable in her own skin, but one gets the sense she’s forever strumming on a wire in there, constantly trying to escape from some secret seam. It occurs to me, looking at her in the dark, that I may be the only person to see this, the only person able to get close enough to Mel Vaught in the wild to see the quivering underbelly.
I hear her let out a shaky breath. She’s nervous. I reach out and make her take my hand. One of the board members is speaking onstage.
“Their first full-length feature, Nashville Combat, is a true tour de force: equal parts angry and tender, funny and sorrowful, demonstrative of a thoughtful, skilled craftwork. Like its creators, the work seems older than its years. Vaught and Kisses have made known their allegiance to the ink-and-color tactics prized by classic animators, and the content of Nashville Combat is as compelling as its look – a story of modern womanhood, gay identity, family, criminality, and the travails of a late twentieth-century childhood. The vessel for these issues is co-creator Mel Vaught, who transcends autobiography to make something entirely new with her story of growing up poor in the Central Florida swamps with a delinquent mother who is incarcerated when Vaught is thirteen years old. It is dark, yet brilliantly funny, well crafted enough to let the light shine through the cracks.”
What’s the best way, Mel kept saying, to get someone’s heart rate up? Make them feel like someone’s hovering just over their shoulder? That’s what we need.”
The lights dim. A screen behind the podium flickers.
To us, the opening credits of Nashville Combat are like the voice of a friend. We know it immediately. We worried over the first two minutes for months, trying at least twenty different approaches before settling on the final cut. “What’s the best way,” Mel kept saying, “to get someone’s heart rate up? Make them feel like someone’s hovering just over their shoulder? That’s what we need.” We used distortion to fuzz the initial frames, making it look like a bad conversion from analog, like the old stuff we love, something best seen in a piss-drenched movie theater forty years ago, seats knifed to bits, carpet stained, a man with no face in a trench coat two rows behind you. The landscape is all smeared pastels, ink blobs – a dirty bizarro world, part Ren & Stimpy, part Clutch Cargo, part seventies German cartoon porno.
I can feel every year that has passed since we met in the first thirty seconds of the movie. All those nights in college we spent sketching, talking Tex Avery and the old school, dissecting everything from The Simpsons to Krazy Kat, tracking down lovely old Nickelodeon bumpers and watching them over and over, taking notes, finding out about production companies, learning how to track other artists, their techniques, their tics. We pored over all the gritty American International stuff, all the Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic we could handle. The grainy, ripped-off VHS and Betamax tapes I picked up on trips to Manhattan from hole-in-the-wall comic book shops and porn retailers back when a good chunk of the Village was still dangerous. The beginning of our work life together, the 2001-to-2002 school year, tinged with rising terror levels and TVs blaring, a raw feeling around the edges of everything. The first night we met. I look down at my arm. The hairs are standing up.
Onscreen, a skinny kid with a yellow bowl cut walks through a gas station. My mom went to prison when I was thirteen years old, the voiceover says – the voice being Mel’s, of course; no one else could replicate that rippling, broken-glass sound. I was probably lucky I didn’t go with her.
The kid’s hand grasps a pack of Skittles and slips the candy into her pocket. Cut to an old guy at the counter, coffee-ground stubble on his cheeks, scratching at his newspaper with a pencil.
Cut to a shadowy form in a trucker hat meandering in the next aisle. A swath of light comes down just far enough so you can see his eyes, wily and blue, glint knowingly. Meet Red Line Dickie, the voice continues. As far as Mom’s boyfriends went, he was actually okay. He tolerated me, because he found me useful.
The kid walks the next aisle, pockets a battery. Red Line does a little nod. They do a separate stroll for the door. Then, off-frame, the unmistakable click of a shotgun’s safety being switched. The rumble: “Tell your brat to empty his pockets.”
A close-up of Red Line’s mouth: luscious, cruel lips, yellow teeth. Jaw unhinging softly as he bellows, “Run!”
The scene fragments, goes sharp and bright. There’s the sound of shots fired – the frames go crimson at the pops – as Red Line and Kid Mel scrabble to a waiting truck. They throw themselves inside. The truck takes off.
Didn’t even have time to tell him I was a girl, Mel’s voiceover says.
In the motion of the truck, Red Line whips off his hat, reaches out his hand. Kid Mel smacks a bunch of batteries into it, then slowly removes the Skittles from her pocket and tips the contents, careening in the light, into her mouth. Red Line taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned, the voice says. Never work for free.
“Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses,” the announcer says. Someone pushes us out, and there we are.
I’ve seen the footage: the way Mel steps up to the mic, blinking, eyes almost rheumy under the lights (we are both breathtakingly stoned), hair blinding white, and me behind her (looking really good, actually, I can see that now; mouth painted red, hair piled high, giggling). She’s handed the Hollingsworth platter. Speaks briefly, gestures to me. It seems, on film, that I need to be beckoned, that I don’t want to speak. She has to pull me in, hand on my lower back: Go.
In the recordings, I don’t look anything like how I felt that night, so well concealed am I below the layers of manners and makeup. I don’t trust myself to diverge from the script. I can’t be funny like Mel; God knows if I tried I’d blow my load on a knock-knock joke. So I make my remarks short: Thank you, you don’t know how much this means. Something forgettable, something I forget right after I watch the video. But whatever it is, I mean it.
From The Animators
Kayla Rae Whitaker was born and raised in Kentucky. She is a graduate of the University of Kentucky and of New York University’s MFA program, which she attended as a Jack Kent Cooke Graduate Scholar. She lives in Louisville. The Animators, her first novel, is out now from Scribe. Read more.
Author portrait © Mark Bennington