My first job of the season was to make a man headless. His house was in this quiet stretch of South Central Los Angeles filled with rows of crooked palm trees under stupid and easy sunshine. This neighborhood would say to whoever was watching our show within a 120 mile radius: This could be happening down your street. A headless man could be your neighbor.

Headless Man was not headless—he had a head, just one that dangled from his neck halfway down his pectorals and made his face upside down—but that was my task: Make him look headless, at least for the commercial teasers of the show.

When the AD arrived, I introduced him to Headless Man as the assistant director, and the AD said, “Hola, señor”—our show was entirely in Spanish but that was all he knew.

They shook hands and Headless Man turned to me and said, “You are the only Latino here?”

“Me and you.” I tried to smile.

He had a big grin and a golden tooth under his mustache wet with saliva. He said, “Where does Mr. Camera Man hail from?”

“My mother’s from El Salvador.” For some reason I said it present-tense, like she hadn’t died six months before. Headless Man squeezed my shoulder. “You two are a long way from home.”

Stanley Delgado

Stanley Delgado is a graduate of New York University’s MFA program. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

Hannah Tinti on “Camera Man”

Our new issue, “Camera Man” by Stanley Delgado, follows a grieving cameraman as he travels through different neighborhoods of Los Angeles, filming sensational tales for a Spanish-language television show. The guests on Milagros are boiled down to their tabloid elements (Psychic Woman, Headless Man) in order to draw viewers and ratings, but once our Camera Man focuses his personal lens on each subject, the carnival sideshow tent is pulled back, revealing extraordinary life stories full of displacement, loss, struggle, and survival.

My favorite stories are stories about storytelling, and “Camera Man” examines this theme fully with both heart and humor, questioning whose voices get to be heard, whose voices are silenced, and where to find the truth in the ever-blurring line between fact and fiction.

This short story will make you laugh, sigh, and gasp—right until the final pages. So step right up, ladies and gents, boys and girls, and get ready to behold strange sights that will amaze and entertain you, in Stanley Delgado’s “Camera Man”!

Q&A by Hannah Tinti

HT: Where did you get the idea for this story?
SD: There were a lot of smaller ideas that knotted up and turned into the first draft of this story a few years ago. I had a film gig (under-the-table work in set design) for something that I thought was very melodramatic but which I then learned was extremely autobiographical. At the time, I also worked at a Walmart and was rediscovering my love of daytime public access in the breakroom during my lunch hour. I was also writing a now-deleted novel from the point-of-view of a Salvadoran woman in the 1970s. I was born in 1996. Something was bugging me about the whole story-making process, on a personal and industry-wide level. There was something I couldn’t exactly put into words, so I started writing a story. I wrote a flash fiction piece about a cameraman filming an old man eating a cactus, and although the cactus eater doesn’t bleed, the cameraman does.
HT: What made you want to go back and revisit/expand that flash fiction piece?
SD: I am working on a collection of short stories, and what ties them all together is this thing about history and narrative, history as something that changes each time it’s told. There’s this Bolaño line: “The […] novelist seems to believe that ‘somewhere in time and space’ the crime in question has definitively triumphed, so he proceeds to catalogue it.” As in, in my biased reading, means: write about the false things like they are totally true, because somewhere somehow they are. I think about a friend in fifth grade telling me, “My dad died,” then reading my face, and saying, “April Fools!” and we both laughed, kind of. Before finding out something is real or not, there is a moment of belief, I think. It wasn’t April Fools. But I found out a couple of years later that his dad had, in fact, died. Anyway, “Camera Man,” to me, felt like a kind of thematic center of my collection, a chance for me to examine the act of storytelling, and the storyteller, and an industry involved with both. And it was fun to keep writing in that world, which is the most important thing.
HT: “Camera Man” addresses who gets to speak, who gets to listen, and how stories can be misinterpreted or taken advantage of (particularly after someone dies). Was this your original intention with the piece? And how did you manage all the different “stories” shared?
SD: I think everything I write is always about storytelling; it’s actually kind of a problem. But this story was very much about the responsibility of a storyteller, and I always knew that. I tried to keep the stories as close to things I have been told. But then you kind of have to lie and make it fiction. I also tried to not worry about the stories being a little disconnected from the narrator, so that then the narrator and reader would both be on this quest for connection and meaning. Like when my uncle died, a honeybee landed on my arm at his funeral, and it stayed there, with me, for a few minutes, and then it went away without a sting. That doesn’t mean anything, like inherently, but you also know that it does. I love stories that do not make total sense, and instead of trying to write one of my own, I try to write stories about encounters with those stories.
HT: Headless Man, Soulless Man, Psychic Woman, and Jar Woman are such rich characters, even as they are reduced to their “saleable parts” on the television show Milagros. What drew you to write about these odd folks? And if you could be a fictional character featured on Milagros, who would you be?
SD: As a kid I saw a lot of daytime television during summer vacations. I don’t know how to swim, but Tyra Banks taught me to smize; it was the sensational Spanish stuff that really drew me in, though, since that was what my grandmother and I would watch. Folks would come and talk about cartel warfare, dwarves, kids overdosing on drugs, ghosts, loan sharks, sightings of the Virgin Mary and Pedro Infante. And it was all treated with the same tone, serious, the real and the fake all sharing the same attention. I have always wanted to honor that: the banana-bonkers and the human. And I think I would want to be Psychic Woman. Being paid to lie sounds great. In a non-actual-threat-to-people kind of way.
HT: The setting of LA plays a big role in this story, but the world of Milagros is very different from Hollywood. Can you talk a bit about the neighborhoods featured in this story, and how you came to write about Los Angeles?
SD: These neighborhoods are the ones I grew up in, or where I had family and friends, so it’s what I know, or what I think I know, and they aren’t usually documented as much. I love writing about LA because every stranger, their stories could be some long thread connecting them back to any city or country in the world, so an LA story could be an anywhere-else story, too.
HT: What are you working on now?
SD: I’m finishing a collection of short stories and working on a novel about a summer camp for kids who have demonic encounters and other spiritual crises. I usually don’t like talking about my work, but I’m doing this to force myself to write it. I can point to this and remind myself I have to write it.
HT: What’s the best bit of writing advice you’ve ever received?
SD: There is so much. One that helped was Marie-Helene Bertino saying “Everything is a craft problem.” It’s not that pretty-sounding, but it helps: Instead of getting hung up over can I write this, I ask myself how to write it. A story that doesn’t work is not like a failure of your humanity; some words need to be changed, is all.