By Kevin Halleran
Lisa’s found it. I almost drop the salad bowl when her voice explodes through the house. All I did was mention that her Grandma was on a game show, and less than two hours later she’s dug it up from god knows where. When she puts her mind to something—well, she doesn’t get that from me. The spaghetti on hold, I go upstairs to find her leaning over her little desk, her face inches from the laptop’s screen. Her bedroom door is wide open. There was a time when it was always shut.
“Mom, check out this site,” she says, too excited to look up. “It’s got episodes from like every old game show ever made. I had to register for it though, so now the telemarketers are going to think I’m some old, blue-haired, game
“We can’t all be perfect,” I say, taking a seat next to her. The chairs are plastic, hard
, and pink. They match the desk. We bought them for her when she was five and never thought to replace them as she got older. There’s no point now that she’ll be off to college next year. Besides, she says she likes them. They’re retro.
“So now what?” I ask. The screen is a mosaic of black and white stills so tiny and blurry, I can’t tell any apart. I swear all the new computers are designed to keep anybody over forty from using them.
She clicks one of the stills and the screen goes black, but Lisa isn’t fazed so I know it’s all right. After a few seconds a slightly hazy black and white image appears, and a man points straight at us, demanding to know, “Would you like to be queen for a day?” The audience applauds, though more demurely than they would nowadays.
The Queen For A Day title appears over the crowd, and as the camera slowly pans across the audience I see it’s made up entirely of women, all dressed very primly. The sixties hadn’t really kicked in yet.
“Oh, this is so rad,” Lisa says, which means it’s even cornier than she expected.
The host’s name is Jack Bailey. He looks to be in his fifties, with a sharp widow’s peak, a thin mustache, and raised eyebrows. If he wasn’t a game show host, he’d have to sell Oldsmobiles. With a big wave and an even bigger smile, he welcomes us all to the show. Then the first woman is whisked onstage beside him. She’s a timid little blonde-haired woman who can’t keep her head still. It pitches from side to side like she’s in heavy seas, and her eyes dart back and forth whenever she tries to smile—not that she has much to smile about. She tells Jack Bailey about her son, who’s been bedridden for most of his life with polio. Half a dozen operations haven’t done a thing. All she wants is a gurney so she can wheel him outside for some fresh air. He’s too big for her to carry and her husband can’t do it anymore after two heart attacks. Jack Bailey is an attentive and sympathetic listener, except for not knowing what a gurney is. For a moment he actually thinks she wants a Guernsey cow, which I find a little unbelievable until I realize he must be saying it on purpose to help lighten the mood. It seems to work since her head stops bobbing around and she finally looks relaxed. Jack Bailey thanks her for coming on the show and sharing her story. She walks offstage to polite applause.
“Is this all it is?” Lisa asks. “Women come on and tell their sob stories?”
“Your guess is as good as mine.”
Lisa gives me that dazed look and shakes her head. She can’t believe I’ve never seen this before. I’ve told her it wasn’t always like today, when everything seems to be available at your fingertips. I couldn’t have found this anywhere, even if I had wanted to.
The next woman is even more jittery than the first, wringing a handkerchief in her hands the entire time. A few months back, her husband was accidentally killed by his best friend during a hunting trip. Since then two of her three daughters have come down with chronic pneumonia. She can’t find a job, so she wants to go to school to become a beautician. Jack Bailey points out that she’s also going to need a new handkerchief. Somehow he makes this sound thoughtful.
“Oh my god, this show is out of control,” Lisa says as it goes to commercial.
“Well, it’s no worse than some of those reality shows you watch.”
“Are you serious? Those are just trashy. This is like kicking a blind man’s dog.”
Then why are we watching it, I’m about to ask, but the commercial for this week’s Ben Casey fades out, and the next thing I see on the screen is my mother.
She died last year. Seventy-six. Same age as Dad when he died a few years back. Don’t think I haven’t already circled 2039 on my calendar. Things run in our family. Mom was an only child, just like me and Lisa. She had loads of respiratory problems the last few years, and was in and out of the hospital so much she joked that she deserved her own parking space. But anytime someone dies it always seems sudden. There are a million things you wish you had done, said, or asked. Now here she is again, frozen in time, on a computer screen. Strangely, the first memory of her that pops into my head isn’t from those last days. It’s when I was seven or eight and made her take me around town to a dozen different shoe stores because I refused to wear anything but bright banana sandals like my best friend Betty’s. When we finally found a pair, I knelt in the store and clutched them against my chest. Mom said, “You do realize you’re going to outgrow them in less than a year.”
“That’s Grandma, isn’t it?”
I go to say yes but can’t talk.
Jack Bailey is speaking with Mom, but I can’t hear anything. I ask Lisa to stop the video.
“Are you all right?” she asks sweetly.
“I wasn’t expecting this.”
It takes a deep breath and some heavy blinking before I can take it all in. Mom is in a simple black dress like she has come straight from her own funeral. Her hair looks black here, too, even though I remember it being light brown. But it’s the same style, the same way she wore it all her life. Thick curls stop at her ears, leaving her neck long and bare—too long, I always thought, like a giraffe’s. I wasn’t sure I would recognize her immediately, but that hair gives her away. And of course she’s much taller than the other two women. The top of their heads only come up to Jack Bailey’s chin, but Mom is just as tall as him, slightly taller if you count the poof of her curls. Until I finally had my growth spurt at thirteen, she was an Amazon.
“How old was she here?” Lisa asks.
“It’s weird, she looks totally different than I remember, but I still knew it was her.”
“It’s the hair,” I can’t help chuckling.
“I still can’t believe you’ve never watched this before.”
I could try to explain it to her, but she’ll figure it out for herself one day. If Betty’s mother had been on a TV show, I would have hounded Betty about it every morning before school. It would have been the most exciting thing that ever happened to anyone I knew. When we were kids, we gushed over each other’s parents. I loved her mother’s brownies and her father’s thundering Cadillac. But when Betty would say, “Judy, your mom is so pretty,” it didn’t mean anything to me. I knew Mom was pretty like I knew our house number was 1327 and our school was James A. Garfield High. Your own parents are never remarkable, they simply are. Until they’re not.
Lisa resumes the show after I pat her hand to let her know I’m okay. Jack Bailey is rambling about a laundry detergent—they must be one of the sponsors—while Mom waits beside him. Finally he says to her, “Tell everybody why you’re here.” It’s strange to listen to her, knowing I wasn’t born yet. I feel like I’m eavesdropping, like I can hear her and Dad from my bedroom when they think I’m asleep. They’re in the kitchen making fun of our neighbors, the Dietzes, and I know I’m going to have to see Wendy Dietz tomorrow at the bus stop. I feel like I might hear something I don’t want to.
“Earlier this year, my father-in-law got very sick and had to come live with us.”
“What about his wife?” asks Jack Bailey.
“She died a couple years ago.”
“Oh, I see. Go on, please.”
I would have recognized her voice with my eyes closed. Even through the tinny little speakers on Lisa’s computer, that firm, clear diction, like she’s testifying and doesn’t want to be misquoted. This was the voice she used with other people, with Dad or me she spoke very quickly and casually, sometimes stumbling over her words. When I was young I thought that’s what they meant about your indoor versus your outdoor voice, but now I wonder why she was so much more careful around everybody else. I’m so distracted by hearing her again that the actual words don’t register for a moment. Then it hits me that Grandma Hurley didn’t die until I was ten.
My mother continues her speech. “He has to go to the doctor regularly for tests and shots and x-rays. Sometimes three times a week. My husband and I don’t own a car—we both take the bus to work—so it’s difficult to get him there. We’ve tried asking for an ambulance to pick him up, but they won’t do it unless it’s an emergency, and taxis are too expensive. So one of us usually has to take him on the bus, which is very hard for him because sometimes we stand around waiting for ten or twenty minutes before one comes, and when it finally does he has to squeeze between other people on the seats, and he’s a rather big man.” I’ll say—Grandpa was a bear. When he would carry me around on his shoulders, I had to shut my eyes because I was scared of being so high.
“I don’t think any of us enjoy having to ride the bus,” Jack Bailey says . He’s been nodding along sympathetically because he believes everything she’s told him. All I know is that when I was born a couple years later, Grandma was alive, Grandpa was strong and healthy, and we had a blue and white Plymouth Belvedere that, I was told, Dad bought before he ever met Mom.
“My husband and I are trying to save up for a car so that we can drive him ourselves, but they’re so expensive and I’m afraid—” she
stops to swallow. “I’m afraid it will take too long.”
“So you’d like a car so you and your father-in-law won’t have to ride the bus anymore.” It would sound selfish coming from anyone else, but Jack Bailey’s smooth, sincere voice turns everything compassionate. It’s funny how anything becomes a skill in the right context. “Well, we wish you the best, and thanks for coming on and sharing your story with us today.”
The other women only looked at Jack Bailey the whole time, as if they hadn’t grasped the notion they were being filmed. But as Mom turns to walk away she gives a quick smile straight into the camera. Probably just a reflex, like it would have been rude to leave without saying goodbye, but of course I want to imagine it’s
“Did you know all that about her father-in-law?” Lisa asks.
“I’m not sure,” I hesitate.
“You’re not sure?”
“I can’t remember.”
She gives me that dazed headshake again to let me know I’m crazy. How can I know so little about my own family? I just didn’t want to have to call her Grandma a liar, but the truth is I probably didn’t know her as well as I should have. She worked the perfume counter at Bamberger’s, and when I was a teenager and went shopping there with my friends, I always tried to steer us as far away from her as possible. Sometimes she’d spot me across the store and wave, and I’d always pretend not to see her. We never talked about it at home, but after a while she stopped waving. Lisa and I have grown to be pretty tight, especially in the last couple years. She tells me things I never would have told Mom. I know she’s tried pot a couple times and didn’t like it, though she may have only said that for my benefit. I also know she lost her virginity last year—at sixteen, two years younger than me
. It was with a boy named Alexis. She rolled her eyes when I asked if that was her way of telling me she was a lesbian and said, “He’s Greek, Mom.” I asked if she loved him and she told me to grow up. We had some sketchy years in her early teens, but overall we’re much closer than Mom and I had ever been, though for all I know maybe Mom had felt the same way. We’re always better parents than our parents.
The final contestant is somewhat older and more haggard looking than the rest, but I can’t concentrate on what she’s saying. I keep thinking about Mom’s story. Maybe the producers came up with it, the way some of the old quiz shows gave answers to the contestants they wanted to see win. Did they think Mom was the prettiest or smartest? All I had ever heard was that Mom was on a game show. I figured she just answered some trivia questions or guessed the price of Palmolive. No wonder no one ever told me the details about it. I wonder what Dad thought. Knowing him, he probably never watched it either. I can picture him coming home from work and Mom telling him, “Guess what? I was on a game show today,” and he just scratches the dimple under his nose and says, “How about that?”
Lisa’s not paying attention anymore either. She’s too busy badgering me with questions: Did they give her the car? What happened to Great-Grandpa? Was anyone else in our family ever on TV? Why didn’t you ever go on a game show? What to do but
give her a big hug. She thinks I’m still emotional about Mom, so she squeezes me and tells me it’s all right. I wonder how she’s really my daughter, because when I was her age and Mom came into the kitchen to tell me her mother had died, all I could think to say was, “Where are we going to have Thanksgiving dinner from now on?”
“I’m proud of you,” I tell Lisa.
It’s too much. She jerks away and turns back toward the computer screen. We get along best when I’m her friend and not her mother.
“Look, the queens are back.”
So they are—all four of them sitting in a row behind a long counter, Mom second from the right. I still don’t know what to make of her. Some of it could have been true, I guess. Grandpa could have been sick at the time and gotten better, but my money’s on the whole thing being bunk. My brain scrambles to recall every occasion I heard her tell a lie, even if it was only complimenting Mrs. Dietz’s dress, but just like you never notice your parents’ strengths when you’re young, you never notice their faults either. They’re vanilla until you’re an adult. It was my college graduation, walking from the football field with Mom and Dad, smiling and waving my diploma cover at everyone I recognized, when Dad said soberly to Mom, “Surprised to see so many coloreds.”
The four women look miserable, like they’re waiting to be sentenced. Who can blame them after spilling the embarrassing details of their life on national television? I’d never do it, not that anyone would want to hear about my dull life. What would I ask for if I was one of them? Money, I guess, so that my ex-husband wouldn’t always have to come through and save the day, offering to cover the new water heater or Lisa’s college tuition. Just enough money so I could tell him where to stick it the next time he offers to write a check. Maybe it was something as simple as that with Mom. A car of her own. She doesn’t look quite as forlorn as the other three women, which seems only right since she didn’t have their problems. Then again, their stories might be just as phony. Maybe every queen is a liar.
One by one Jack Bailey recounts each woman’s sufferings, then an applause meter appears over her face and the needle jumps to the right as the audience reacts. The novelty of seeing Mom on television has worn off for me, and now it’s like sitting through any lousy program, but Lisa is hunched over the desk, anxiously scoring how each contestant fares. Mom gets a smattering of applause, about the same as two of the other women, but it’s the widow with the sick daughters and the well-wrung handkerchief who blows them all away.
“Booo!” Lisa moans, but I’m relieved Mom lost. There have been too many questions already.[HK52]
Lisa’s disappointment only lasts a few seconds. She cackles as they escort the winner to center stage, drape a velvet robe around her, and plop a tiara on her head. Then they sit her on a padded high-backed throne while they reveal all the prizes she’s won, including a stove, a dryer, and a china set, plus the only thing she asked for, a cosmetology correspondence course. The whole time they address her as Your Majesty.
That’s it. Jack Bailey thanks the sponsors one last time before the screen fades to black with the queen still seated on her throne. Thirty minutes have passed in what felt like five. Dinner has been sitting half-cooked in the kitchen all this time. With me, everything either gets burnt or goes ice cold.
“Wow,” gasps my exhausted Lisa, “that was totally surreal.”
“I’m glad you got to see it.”
“What about you?”
“Well, yes, I guess I’m glad I saw it.” And after thinking about it a moment, I decide this is true. “It was nice to see her again, especially so young and healthy
Except she was nothing like when I was a girl. She was a whole other woman, someone Jack Bailey probably knew better than I did. Remembering that smile she gave for the camera, there’s no doubt anymore that it was for me. There she was before I was born, and here I am after she’s gone, and finally we’ve got something we can share.
“I wish Grandma had won,” Lisa says. “How cool would that have been? You would have had a new car.”
I could tell her the truth, but what’s a lie between mothers and daughters?
Kevin Halleran has an MFA from San Francisco State University, where he has also taught. His stories have appeared in Flights, Soundings Review, Conclave, Infinity’s Kitchen, Crannóg, Avalon Literary Review, Quarter After Eight, Fiction365, and Foliate Oak. He lives in San Francisco.