erasing clouds

Requiem For Screech

by matthew webber

--March 30, 2003, Manhattan, Kansas

I shook hands with Dustin Diamond tonight: Screech, you know, from Saved by the Bell, the 1980s sitcom about six zany high school kids and their wacky principal that sometimes touched on serious topics like caffeine pills but usually cracked wise about crushes. He of the "multi-colored pants up to [his] nipples" and the "pubic forest fro," as he joked tonight during his stand-up comedy routine at a local bar. The geeky one of his crew, just like me, except I wasn't so runty and I didn't have a nickname that referred to my voice, which didn't crack as often or go all high-pitched and whiny like I was swallowing balloons - not helium but balloons, like swallowing spherical rubber - and my hair was short and straight and I wore the white shirt and brown pants of Catholic grade school and I didn't have a cool, Nazi-looking friend like Zack or a hot, brainy friend like Jessie and a jockstrap friend like Slaterů You get the picture.

It used to be my favorite show.

I didn't get a picture of Mr. Diamond tonight because I already had one, an 8 X 10 promotional glossy with Screech, or Dustin, posing like he's computing logarithms; older, unshaven, his hair cropped close to his skull; like Sir Dustin Diamond or the Viscount of Screech; not like a comedian who's fondest of potty and peepee jokes; not like a celebrity boxer who had to cancel a scheduled interview in a bar in Manhattan, Kansas, on a Thursday afternoon with reporters and photographers from the local and university dailies because his TV interview in Topeka ran late and he had another TV interview in Hays, Kansas, of all places, wherever the googamooga that is; not like a celebrity whose manager doesn't return a student journalist's daily phone calls but tells said student journalist when he finally picks up his phone that his client doesn't do interviews on the day of a show and I should have tried earlier even though I called him three times and my article won't help him even though it's running on the second day of his two-day gig in town and it doesn't matter that I was supposed to meet Dustin on a Thursday afternoon in a bar in Manhattan, Kansas, because, sorry, no thank you, sorry.

I did get an autograph, though, on that picture I already had, the picture the bartender gave me when he apologized for Screech's absence, which at the time I thought a phone interview would remedy; the snapshot for which the students and townies who had grown up watching and laughing at Screech every Saturday morning and then every day in the reruns of reran reruns had to pay. They also could pay for a Polaroid with Screech, with his arm around their waist or their hand enclasped in his hand, with the star smiling like he means it, like it's maybe, like, the eighth time he's posed, with the fans who used to love him and who maybe still adore him, who smile as the flashbulb blinds them, and they blink away, starstruck, from Dustin as he slips from their side. He signs with a Sharpie: To Emily, Melissa, Where were you when I needed you? Love, Screech. Or: If I looked like Zack you'd probably be in love with me. Good luck! Dustin. And: I used to have a show, you know. Thanks for your $12 donation.

On mine he wrote, "To Matt," and then I can't read the rest.

"Hey, good show," I told him. For parts of the show, that was true. Maybe I expected the nipple pants and squeaking. Maybe I expected a monologue rather than his joke-punchline-new joke delivery. His part about the boxer shorts was funny, though, and the part about peeing in troughs. Yup, that really sucks, man. I chuckled when he told it. I laughed just like old times.

Quietly, in his man voice, he thanked me, signing my unpaid-for picture, as he looked down at his Sharpie and his scribble on his stubble. "The crowd was kind of tough, though," he confided. "I play at some of these colleges, these three-thousand seat theaters, and they go wild. Tonight they were kind of dead." His voice sounded dead-like: deep, scratchy, tired. It sounded like he looked, which wasn't like a "Saved by the Bell" character. He handed me his photo.

"Thanks," I said. I shook his hand. What else had I wanted? What else could he have given me? I stuffed Dustin's picture in my backpack, in my notebook, with my notes and my quotes and my printout of an internet interview. My story was due in an hour and a half, in about the time it takes to watch three episodes including commercials. It's probably on somewhere, at some hour of the night, on something like channel 221. It was probably on then. It's probably on right now. I backed away from the table. I smelled like twenty-four years of cigarette smoke and beer spills.

The girl in line behind me bought a Polaroid. I blinked as Screech's manager shot him.

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Issue 13, April 2003

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