A stick snapped under my foot, and five ostrich heads jerked up from where they’d been pecking for food and stared at me with beady black eyes. I froze.
I suppose you could call it a mid-life crisis. Well, not exactly mid-life, since I’m only 25, but definitely a crisis.
I’d gotten out of college with a degree in business almost 3 years before, and I’ve been working nothing but dead-end jobs since then. Then I heard that basically anyone can apply to be on Reality TV shows. I found a way to apply through the internet, and signed up for all the big ones: Blind Date, Survivor, Fear Factor (I’ll eat a bug if it gets me a huge check), even The Bachelorette, although I find the idea of competing with other guys for the affection of a successful, beautiful woman even more frightening than eating bugs.
None of the shows ever called me for an audition. I asked my best friend, Dave, and he said, “Dude, you’re TOO normal. They just want crazies for those shows.” He took a swig of his beer. “You know, people who fly off the handle for no reason. Or really stupid people.”
I was about to give up when I stumbled across a listing for “Ultrareality! The realest reality shows ever!”
I clicked on the listing and found that there were several sub-listings: “Lifestyles of the Broke and Unknown,” “Budget Pimp My Ride,” “Serious People Play Rock, Paper, Scissors,” “Domestic Strife,” and “Real People Pet Real Animals.”
I signed up for all of them. I figured if they accepted my application for “Domestic Strife,” I’d just tell them how often I yelled at the cat. Hell maybe just owning a cat, even one that constantly pees on my clean clothing, or, failing that, at the base of my dresser, would qualify me for “Real People Pet Real Animals.”
I heard nothing for almost a month, and actually had forgotten about the shows I signed up for, when I got a phone call as I was walking home from work.
“This is Rick.” I said.
“Rick Darrow?” The voice on the other end was gruff and distorted. I imagined a sweating fat man talking around a huge cigar.
“Well kid, it looks like you’re going to be a star.”
“Ultrareality. We reviewed your application to our shows, and you’re in.”
“Oh wow!” I shouted, then lowered my voice and tried to sound casual. “Which show?”
“All of them.”
“WOW!” I would have jumped in the air and clicked my heels together, but a bus honked at me, and I realized I was in the middle of an intersection, walking against the red hand sign. I scurried across the street, then continued my conversation.
I got the details about where to go and who to meet, and a week later I received a plane ticket in the mail.
I expected it to be to Los Angeles, but it was to some town I’d never heard of: Billingsford, Oregon.
The first show I took part in was “Serious People Play Rock, Paper, Scissors.” I thought it was going to be totally easy and probably stupid, but then I found out why the people were so serious.
We all stayed in a house together, and then were given no food for a week, and couldn’t leave. We had water, but that was it. By the end of the week, we were basically crazy. Finally, someone came into the house and told us that we were to play a Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament, and the winner would get a delicious steak dinner.
The losers would stay in the house for another week. With no food.
It was the most serious Rock, Paper, Scissors tournament in the history of humankind, and caused by far the most fights. I lost, but instead of keeping me in the house for another week, they just sent us all home, with $2000.
So when they called and asked if I wanted to participate in “Real People Pet Real Animals,” I decided it would probably be worth it.
And that’s how I ended up at an ostrich farm in Kansas.
I stared through the locked gate at the field full of roving ostriches, and swallowed hard. I turned to Harv McGillicutty, the man I’d talked to on the phone two months ago, and the spitting image of the overweight, sweaty cigar-smoker I’d imagined. Even now a cigar was clenched in his teeth.
“So, there’s one of these in a pen for me to pet, right?” I asked, uncomfortably aware of the red “ON” light winking at me from the camera to my left.
“Nope.” Harv pulled the cigar out of his mouth. “Harry, unlock the gate.”
Harry did, and swung it inward. “Get goin’ kid.” Harv said.
“Are you stupid?! Get in there and pet a fuckin’ ostrich!”
So I walked out into the middle of the field, angling as close to the one tree in the field as I could. It was big, but there were some low branches, and I thought maybe I could climb it if I had to.
I hadn’t counted on the sticks. I was twenty feet from a group of ostriches that seemed unaware of me when I stepped on the stick and their heads snapped up.
I spent the next thirty minutes alternately chasing and being chased by ostriches. Once I tripped over an ostrich egg, which was way sturdier than you’d think, and finally I had to climb the tree. The farmer rescued me with his truck. I never did pet an ostrich.
They dropped me off at the airport, and Harv said, “Eh, not bad kid.”
He handed me a check for $2000 and a plane ticket.
I guess when they call me to be on “Lifestyles of the Broke and Unknown,” I’ll go. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do for $2000.