When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
I felt as nervous as Mrs. Evans looked when her husband ushered her into the room and seated her across from the medium. She was several years younger than forty, I guessed, drawing that information from her appearance in the video that had been supplied to me. She had appeared slim and attractive with flowing blonde hair and an easy smile. Nothing like the woman I saw before me now. Her hair was dull and dirty-looking. Her clothes, stylish and expensive, hung on her body. Her pinched face showed no warmth, and the pain I saw there made me want to bolt from the room, to escape from the charade. But there was a look in her eyes that held me in my seat. It was a look of expectation. She really believed that something was going to happen in that room, that, even if only briefly, she and her dead son were going to be reunited. I was to be the one who would make that happen for her.
I’m what the entertainment and advertising businesses call ‘voice talent.’ I make my living by using my voice to sell products or ideas. I’m not the rugged Sam Elliott type bass voice that can convince men that their testosterone will be on the rise by eating beef, drinking Coors beer, or driving one of those huge Ram trucks. You’ve heard him warn his listeners that “Only YOU can prevent wildfires.”
No one would confuse my voice with the deep baritone of James Earl Jones and the multitude of times he’s used it to portray such characters as Darth Vader in the Star Wars series, or King Mufasa in The Lion King. You might know him best from hearing him say, “This is CNN.” He has a voice that can turn whatever you are selling into gold.
And I don’t have the mellifluous voice of Alexander Scourby. People remember him as the narrator for the National Geographic documentaries on TV or as the voice on the cassette tape recordings of the King James version of the Bible. His voice is the essence of intelligence and sophistication.
My claim to fame in this business is that I can do children’s voices, making them sound cute or heart-warming. If it’s one of those days that I’m really on my game during a recording session, I can make you smile or bring a tear to your eye. I do little boy voices best, but I can also do girl’s. Some of the cheaper producers I work for hire me to do both voices in the same commercial. The girl’s voice is never as good as the boy’s, but since I’m normally paid for the time I spend in the recording studio rather than the number of voices I create, the producers save money when they use one person for two voices.
So with this talent I have, you might think I’m pretty well off financially, but you would be wrong. My talent fits into a niche in the business, and there is just not that great a demand for it. The three guys I mentioned have made a ton of money, but they are true voice talent. For each one of them, there are a hundred of us chasing the rest of the business: the low-end commercials and the corporate and industrial work. Political season is good if you’re connected, but that’s only every couple of years. The Christmas holiday is lucrative if you do commercials, but what do you do the rest of the year?
I had also handicapped myself by sticking close to my home in Charleston, West Virginia. I didn’t want to leave the beautiful mountains and forests of my home state. That meant I had to travel a lot for work, but I was willing to do it for the privilege of continuing to live in the bosom of my Mountain Mama.
Because finding enough work could get rough, I was pretty excited when my agent called and said he had a well-paying gig for me and asked me to come by his office and talk about it.
My agent had signed me to a contract a couple of years earlier. He’d called me out of the blue. “Hey, Zeke from Cabin Creek,” he’d said in greeting.
“I’m sorry. You have the wrong number.”
“Just funnin’ with you,” he replied. “I saw that Op Ed piece in The Charleston Gazette Sunday, Charlie, and it said you were from Chelyan.” He pronounced it SHEEL-yun, the way the locals do. “Do you know who else claims Chelyan as home?”
“Yep, Zeke from Cabin Creek. West Virginia’s all-time greatest basketball player. When he left the U at Morgantown, I helped negotiate his first contract with the Lakers. Of course, he went out to Los Angeles and got in with the high fliers and left me behind. Speaking of high fliers, how about West Virginia’s own Chuck Yeager, first man to fly faster than the speed of sound and the world’s greatest test pilot? Yours truly put a few dollars in his pocket and helped get our airport named after him. So I’m lookin’ for another Chuck or another Zeke, Charlie. I think you’re the guy I’m lookin’ for.”
He came at me in a folksy drawl with plenty of down-home speech affectations in an attempt to make me feel like we were sitting on the front porch in my old neighborhood. If nothing else, the man was a salesman, and I went to his office on Summers Street close to where it dead ended into the Kanawha River and signed a contract with him a day later.
My agent’s name is Eddie Fisher, and while I never thought anything of him having a famous name, he did. He wanted you to use both names together. He wasn’t Eddie. He was Eddie Fisher. I figured there must be thousands of Eddie Fishers in the country, but my agent worked to capitalize on the name. He thought he was funny and when you walked into his office, he might say something like, “Oh, I’m glad it’s you, Charlie. Debbie just left, and I’m expecting Liz, and I sure don’t want them running into each other.” Of course, he was talking about Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor, the two women who played prominent roles in the famous Eddie Fisher’s life. His insipid attempt at humor was irritating, but I needed the voice work he found for me, so I put up with it.
This time there was no attempt to be funny. He was deadly serious. He greeted me and said, “I want you to sit down, and I don’t want you to say anything until I’ve laid this whole thing out. You might decide it’s something you don’t want to do, and I wouldn’t blame you. If that’s the case, you can walk away with no hard feelings and wait for my next call, but right now I just want you to listen. No questions until I’m finished. Understand?”
Eddie Fisher started his story, and I sat at full attention.
“Do you know the Regency Cadillac Agency out in St. Albans?” he asked.
“Not because I could ever afford to buy a car there, but I know who they are.”
“Well the agency is owned by a guy named Doyle Evans, and one of the production companies we rep does all their commercial work. It’s a huge account. About three months ago the Evans family lost their nine-year-old son to an asthma attack. The kid started struggling to breathe, and by the time the emergency squad transported him to the hospital, he died.”
I thought about my own son who was a year younger. I shook my head, wondering how you ever got over a tragedy like that. No parent should have to bury a child.
“It’s been a terrible time for the family,” Eddie Fisher continued. “The father is making the best of it by doing what most men do, jumping back into his work. The mother is a different story. She remains inconsolable and evidently has reached the point of going a little kooky.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s been in touch with some guy who claims to be able to communicate with the other side.” Eddie Fisher looked at my raised eyebrows. “You know. Says he can bring back dead spirits to talk to the living.”
“And people believe that?” I asked.
“The mother wants to. Desperately. The father thought it was a big scam. He hired an investigator who checked the guy out and exposed him as a fraud. The father threatened to turn him over to the police if he didn’t quit trying to sell his wife this phony bill of goods.”
“Good for him.”
“A funny thing happened though. This guy admitted he had some tricks worked out that were very effective and asked the father what was wrong with providing some peace to his wife by making her think her son was safe and happy in heaven or wherever the family thought was a good place for him to be. In the end, the father agreed to go along with it, thinking it would give his wife a reason for hope in going on with her life.”
“Wow! I can see how he’s thinking, but I….”
Eddie Fisher interrupted me. “We need a voice, Charlie. A kid’s voice. We can’t make it work without a voice. We need you.”
“Why me? Just get a real kid to do it.”
“Won’t work. It has to be interactive. It takes an adult to be able to respond on the spot to the mother. That’s the only way it can work. We’ll brief you on the kid and write a script for you, but in the end, we’d have to depend on you being one-on-one with the mother.”
“I don’t know Eddie. It just feels so dishonest to do that to someone.”
“But think of the opportunity you’d have to put this mother’s mind at ease. You’d be doing her and the father a huge favor. And yourself as well. Mr. Evans is prepared to pay some heavy-duty money for your services.”
Eddie Fisher pushed a contract in front of me. “Check this out,” he said. The dollar figure jumped out at me. It was ten times more than I would usually be paid for a recording session.
“You’ll need some study time with the background info and maybe a short rehearsal with the medium, but once the thing gets underway, it probably won’t last more than five minutes.”
“God, Eddie, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel right.”
He pulled the contract away from me abruptly. “I gotta know by tomorrow, Charlie. Now I better get you on your way. Liz is due here in a couple of minutes.” With that, Eddie Fisher got up from his desk and opened the door for me.
I had a decision to make, and I knew I couldn’t make it in town. I had to free up my mind. I got into my car and quickly I was driving south, heading back to my roots. Chelyan was only about twenty miles from my location in Charleston, and I could get there in an easy drive once I hit the interstate. I wasn’t in a hurry, though, so I took surface streets until I reached Route 60 and followed it along the Kanawha River. Glancing out my passenger-side window as I drove, I could see the water flowing peacefully northwest toward the Ohio. My mind began to slow down, and I could think now.
I couldn’t bring myself to talk to my wife about the project. I was pretty sure I knew what her feelings would be. The idea of duping a grieving parent, no matter what the reason, would not sit well with her. And it didn’t with me either. I tussled with this dilemma all the way to Chelyan. From the town limits, it was only a few twists and turns until I arrived at my destination: a dilapidated wooden structure that had been my house growing up. No one was living there now; it was in total disrepair. This tiny, two-bedroom house had once been home to five people. When things were going well―and sometimes not going well―I would feel the need to remind myself where I came from. I sat in my car for a couple of minutes and let the memories wash over me.
I would never forget my factory-worker dad (mostly unemployed) who worked on cars in the backyard to keep the mortgage paid, or my mother who labored in the school cafeteria during the day and took in ironing at night and on the weekend to put food on the table. God, they worked hard to keep our heads above water, but it was never enough. We three kids in our hand-me-down clothes still knew we were poor. I never wanted to feel that way again.
I crossed the Chelyan Bridge then and headed back toward Charleston on the other side of the river following Route 61. By that time, I had lost focus on any of the moral principles involved in the decision and kept thinking of the figure I’d seen on that contract. In the end, the money won out. As soon as I got into town, I called Eddie Fisher and went to his office to sign the contract.
The setup in St. Albans was perfect. Doyle Evans did all the on-camera pitches in the commercials for his Cadillac agency. When he wasn’t video-taped in the showroom or out on the car lot, he faced the camera from his large, prosperous-looking desk. To avoid having to leave the office and travel to the video company for production services, Evans had built a combined audio/video control room and edit suite adjacent to his office. The room had visual access to the office through a one-way glass that appeared as a large mirror on the wall next to a conference table. It was at this table where the medium had decided to place Mrs. Evans. I requested that he position her facing the mirror. This way I would be able to see her face and, perhaps, take some sign from her expressions and respond appropriately.
The medium did not want to rehearse with me, didn’t even want to hear the voice I would use. He wanted to be as surprised as Mrs. Evans. The only thing he asked me to do was to avoid answering right away when he tried to contact the child and to follow his cue when it was time to terminate the conversation.
Eddie Fisher had provided me with a ‘script,’ as he called it, which was really a suggestion on the direction the conversation would take and information about the boy’s likes and dislikes, the names of his dog, teachers, and close friends. Things like that. For me, the most valuable thing in the information packet was a video taken the previous Christmas in which I could hear the child speak. Besides the impact of the asthma on his voice, he had some distinct phrasing patterns that, with practice, I was able to mimic.
Eddie Fisher and the audio engineer were with me in the control room. The engineer explained that he was not giving me a headset since he was going to be manipulating my voice, mixing in some electronic elements that would give it an ethereal feel, and he didn’t want me to be distracted by the sound. He was seated next to me and could communicate with me by hand signals or in whispers if necessary. The only thing he asked of me was to speak at the same level at all times. He would be fading in my voice at a low volume, as if coming from a distance, and he didn’t want me working against him by doing the same thing.
Through the speaker in our room, I heard the medium greet the couple, but from that point, he directed his comments to the wife. “Mrs. Evans, from our brief phone conversation, I understood that one of the people that I have helped in the past told you about her experience and that’s what prompted you to call me. You wanted to see if I could bring about a connection with a loved one for you.”
Mrs. Evans nodded her head.
“Did your friend tell you that I’m not always successful? That a lot of the success will depend on you?”
“Yes,” she murmured.
“Tell me who you would like to try to contact.”
“My son, Robbie.”
“Is Robbie a young man?”
“No, he’s a boy. Just a boy. He was only nine when he died.” She began to weep, and her husband put his arm around her. She reached into her purse and pulled out a photograph. She looked at it lovingly then passed it to the medium.
He took a long look at it. “Sometimes it’s harder with a child, Mrs. Evans. They don’t seem to have as much control over their afterlife as adults do.” He paused for a few seconds.
“But you’ll try?” she insisted.
“We’ll try,” he answered and placed the photograph on the table face up between them with the image pointed toward the mother.
“I want you to close your eyes and concentrate as hard as you can. Picture Robbie and try to project all the love you have for your son out to him. If I can feel his presence, I will call out to him and try to get him to speak to you. It may take a while, so just concentrate.”
She closed her eyes tightly, and I could almost feel the pleading going out from her.
A couple of minutes passed before the medium spoke softly: “Robbie.” A pause. “Robbie, your mother is here and needs to talk to you.”
I started to open my mouth, but the audio engineer clamped down on my arm, and when I looked at him, he shook his head.
“Robbie,” the medium implored again. “I know you are with us. I can feel your presence. Your mother wants to speak with you.”
Mrs. Evans could stand it no longer. “Robbie! Oh my baby, talk to me.”
The audio engineer nodded in my direction.
I leaned into my microphone. “Mama,” I said. I knew this was the term Robbie used for his mother. “Mama,” I said again. I could see the engineer next to me potting up my volume, and I saw Mrs. Evans sit up expectantly.
“Oh, Robbie, baby. Can you hear me?”
“Yes, Mama, I can hear you.” Now Mr. Evans sat up straighter. I think he’d heard the accuracy of my representation of his son’s voice, and it surprised him.
“Where are you, Robbie? Are you alright?”
“It keeps changing, Mama, but it’s all so beautiful. All the people and the places. Is Skipper okay? He was running around and barking when the fire department came, and I thought they might run over him.” I knew Skipper was Robbie’s dog, and they were very attached to each other. I thought I’d scored big with the question, and when Eddie Fisher clasped me by the shoulder, I knew he agreed.
“Skipper’s fine, honey, and he misses you. He sleeps by your bed every night. But you don’t sound alright to me. I still hear the asthma in your voice.”
“I think I’m losing him,” the medium said. We had obviously gone down a road he didn’t anticipate with the asthma, and he was ready to bail out.
“I’m okay, Mama. Don’t worry about me,” I said, as the engineer was fading me out.
“I’m not sure that asthma voice was a good idea,” Eddie Fisher said to me. “I’ll have to talk to Mr. Evans and see what he has to say.”
“You were awesome, dude,” the audio engineer said to me.
I heard from Eddie Fisher within a couple of hours. “Good news and bad news, Charlie. The bad news is that Mr. Evans wasn’t happy that you’d used the asthma voice. He was very impressed with the impersonation you did of Robbie, though, and the good news is that he wants to have another session with a healthy voice. Not the same money, of course, because you don’t need the prep time, but it’s still a healthy payday for both of us. I’ve already got my secretary drawing up a contract. If you come over this afternoon to sign it, make sure it’s after four. Debbie should be gone by then.” I was still caught up in the emotions of a woman I had helped dupe, and Eddie Fisher’s ridiculous charade galled me, but I forced myself to swallow my feelings.
After a long walk along the Kanawha River later that afternoon, I was able to clear my head sufficiently to think about the situation and see what I needed to do. I went to Eddie Fisher’s office to sign the contract and presented my idea to him. I wanted Robbie to explain to his mother that he had used his asthma voice because he knew she would recognize it. He didn’t want to sound different and have his mother think it wasn’t him. My agent bought the idea and said he would pass it on to Mr. Evans. I told him I would send him my calendar for the next couple of weeks, but I knew whatever day was chosen for the follow-up encounter, I would cancel any recording sessions or other appointments and make myself available.
The next session was set for three days later, on a Friday. Mrs. Evans looked like a different woman when she walked through the door that morning. Her hair had been colored and styled, and she―or someone―had applied makeup. Her thinness still showed, but she had selected a dress style that downplayed the effect. She carried an expensive designer purse that complemented her attire. She wasn’t smiling, but neither did she display the pinched, pained face she had worn on her initial visit.
The medium greeted her and asked her to be seated. “Now I need to caution you, Mrs. Evans, your encounter with your son was so successful on your first attempt, I don’t want you to think that all such attempts are that easy or that successful. While I have been blessed to be a go-between in many successful encounters, I don’t know why they happen, nor do I know how to automatically make them happen again. Now you need …”
She cut him off sharply. “I know what I need to do. Quit instructing me, and let’s get started.” She closed her eyes. Her husband reached over and took her hand, and she quickly yanked it away from him.
“I will tell you if I can discern Robbie’s spirit, Mrs. Evans,” the medium said.
There were several minutes of silence in which Mrs. Evan and the medium seem to be concentrating fully, and Mr. Evans fidgeted.
“Robbie, we’re here again. Robbie? I feel your spirit, Robbie, and your mother wants to be able to hear you again.”
Mrs. Evans jumped in. “Oh, Robbie, honey, I need to talk to you.”
I knew I had my cue. I didn’t have to wait for the audio engineer to tell me to begin. “Mama, I’m okay. You’re worrying, but I’m okay.” I could see the sparkle jump into her eyes.
“Oh, Robbie, you don’t sound sick this time.”
“I’m not sick anymore, Mama. I didn’t think you would know it was me if I used this voice. You only know me with my asthma voice.”
“Then you are really okay and happy, Robbie?”
“Oh, yes, Mama. It’s beautiful here. Very beautiful.” There was a long, awkward pause.
“Robbie, honey, how come you don’t talk to your father? He’s right here next to me.”
Oh boy. “I don’t see him, Mama. I didn’t know he was there.”
‘Hi, Robbie,” Mr. Evans said suddenly, a big smile on his face.
Mrs. Evans put her arm up in front of her husband as if restraining him, not letting him move forward into the conversation. “You can’t see your father because he wasn’t with you when you died. Ask him where he was that evening, Robbie. That evening and all the other nights and weekends you and I spent alone. He’ll tell you he was working, Robbie, and he was some of the time, but ask him where he was the rest of the time.”
“Kay, don’t. This isn’t the time or the place.”
“Alright, Doyle, Robbie doesn’t need to know about all the times that you weren’t there. Just tell him about the one time. The last time when he needed you. When he gagged and wheezed and thrashed on the floor, and I couldn’t stop it. Tell him where you were that last time.”
Mr. Evans didn’t respond, just dropped his gaze and began shaking his head. He didn’t see his wife’s hands open the purse or pull out the pistol and point it at him.
“Hey, what’s going on?” the alarmed medium asked.
Mrs. Evans stood and moved a few steps away from her husband, as he looked up and saw the gun in her hand. The audio engineer jumped up from his chair and rushed to the phone on the wall, presumably to call 9-1-1.
Mrs. Evans kept her eyes and the gun on her husband but spoke again to Robbie/me: “Is it really beautiful there, Robbie? And peaceful? Are you at peace?”
“Yes, Mama,” I murmured in a voice that was nearly inaudible.
“This gun isn’t for your father,” she said calmly. “I don’t want him with us. I just want it to be the two of us. The way it’s always been. Just the two of us.” With that, she turned the pistol toward herself.
“No, Mama, don’t!” I screamed totally in character. At the same time the medium threw himself across the table and grabbed Mrs. Evans by the arm, forcing her gun-hand up so that the bullet went into the ceiling instead of her head. Mrs. Evans collapsed then and began sobbing uncontrollably. Her husband joined her on the floor in an attempt to console her.
“Get help, Mama. Get help,” I said into the microphone. I wasn’t sure she could hear me until I turned to see the audio engineer leaning over his board next to me, fading out the audio.
“Oh, God, what a mess,” Eddie Fisher said. “Now I bet Evans won’t want to pay us. I should have recognized the signs. Just before Liz goes off her rocker she always gets all decked out like that.”
I couldn’t take it any longer. My fist flew out and struck my agent in the face and knocked him off his chair and onto the floor. I stood up over him. “This is not a goddamned joke, Eddie. This is real life and almost real death. Not some make-believe fantasy.”
He was trying to stop the blood flowing from his nose when I left my childish voice in the control room and walked through the door that led to the alley where my car was parked. I could hear the wail of a siren on Kanawha Boulevard. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be reading an account of this story in the The Charleston Gazette tomorrow morning.