You can see my mother's first job on basic cable everyday at 5pm EST. Just Us Kids is one of those annoying family-friendly sitcoms that seems to have no beginning and no end, but exist in some alternate, candy colored universe without rain designed to make you feel, well, unfriendly towards your own family, I guess. My mother played the pre-teen princess on the show, Carrie Butterhill. On her character's birthday, the producers got Neil Diamond to do a cameo and sing “Sweet Caroline.”
That's the kind of show it was.
Now, I am sure you've seen this tele-wallpaper at some point in your life. An airport gate, a doctor's office. A hangover. And it slid past your eyes and off into oblivion, as it deserved.
But that never happened with us. No, every day, we gathered in front of the television—Josie, Todd, and me—Carrie.
Yes, I am well aware about how creepy that is.
It wasn't always that way. I remember spending hours with Mom, reading books and singing nursery rhymes. I swear, she had more energy for all of that stuff than I did. I felt like I was keeping up with her. We never watched television.
Things changed when Josie and Todd were born. Mom had looked blank, confused. “I didn't plan for twins,” she kept saying to me, as though I had been the one to change the script on her. And they were a handful. They screamed when she tried to sing, threw their books instead of listening to her read them. I could see Mom staring longingly at the door. I hoped that she would remember that I'd never been that much trouble, and would take me with her.
One day she said “OK, FINE” and turned on the television. While she was flipping through the channels, Josie suddenly shrieked, “Mommy!” And so it was—Mommy, about 20 years or so earlier. A lot thinner and a lot blonder, but still...something around the eyes was still, and always, Mom.
“Oh.” Mom said, pausing to look down and fiddle with the remote. A small smile bloomed on her face.
“Did you know about this?” I'm not sure what I was accusing her of.
“What? No...I mean, yeah, I knew about the SHOW, obviously, but it's been off the air for so many years...” She trailed off, and stared back into the small glassed in box that held her former self. “My first job.”
I feel like I had known that, somewhere, like Daddy had sat me down solemnly when I was smaller and told me. It had felt important, like a secret. “Your mother was on television,” he had said. “It was a long time ago.” His voice had gone quiet. He had looked off towards the window, then back at me, as though pressing me to hear whatever he wasn't saying. But I couldn't. I was only eight or so then; the twins newborns. He left us shortly thereafter. Mom never held it against him. “He said he couldn't 'do Ohio' anymore.” And then she would laugh, once.
Now the twins sat, silent, and watched that dumb show from beginning to end. Every time Mom's character walked into the frame, they clapped, and whispered, “Mommy.”
“Shouldn't we be turning it off now?” I raised my voice slightly, to be heard above the moronic laugh track.
“Shush...I remember this scene.” The remote hung useless in her hand and it was as though she was lost.
Well, after that, Josie and Todd demanded to see “Mommy” everyday and Mom gave in, everyday. It became a regular part of our day—our time with Carrie Butterhill. We watched her fight for more allowance, struggle with homework, cry over boys—always looking perfect. Always fixing everything by the twenty-eighth minute or so (I counted). I think the twins were beginning to get confused, honestly. They had Mom, then the “TV Mom,” and, always, Carrie. Sometimes they would look at me as though they couldn't quite place me.
One day, I came home from school and found Mom alone, sitting at the kitchen table, leafing through a fat photo album. I leaned over her, expecting to see pictures of a smiling Josie covered in mud, or Todd on his trike. Or even a baby me.
The pages were crowded with publicity pictures, magazine articles. Mom smiling coyly, blandly, sweetly. Carrie everywhere. I stared hard at the pictures, until I could see them behind my eyelids.
“Where are the twins? And why aren't you at work?”
“Did you know that Scott Baio gave me my first kiss? Well, mine and Carrie's.” Her voice went up when she said kiss, like she was channeling a twelve year old.
“Who?” I grabbed four cookies, then put one back.
She sighed. “I always forget you're just thirteen, Car.”
“You didn't answer me.”
“The twins are with Grandma and work, ugh...I think I need to try something new.” She fluffed her hair then, and I was filled with horror.
“New, like TV? Another show?”
She giggled. “That's so sweet that you think that!” Twelve year old voice again. “But no...” she tugged on one of the publicity stills. “Just something with better hours. You know...more of a future.” She glanced out the kitchen window. It was so dark outside already that the window reflected the kitchen back to us, in frosted miniature. “Maybe it's just winter.” She frowned at me, picked at one of my split ends. “You need a haircut.”
“I don't need one, and anyway, dental work doesn't have a future?”
“Not unless you're the dentist.”
While Mom was picking up the twins, I looked at her album again. At my age, already earning money. Famous. Beautiful. And now she was forty, still beautiful, stuck in a strip mall dental office, checking insurance cards on the phone. “Doing” Ohio because Daddy couldn't.
Maybe what I needed was to find a job.
On Monday I cut school after lunch and went to the mall to think—something about all of the noise made the inside of my own head quiet. And then I saw the line. Have you got what it takes to be a model? The wannabes were already lined up, some two and three deep in places. I weaved myself in and out of the line, always needing to get past them to check myself in the windows of the stores. Tall for my age. Gangly. I didn't look like Mom, or Josie, both beauties. I looked like Grandma—like I'd seen something I wish I hadn't, and I didn't think I should tell . Have you got what it takes? Suddenly, it was though Carrie Butterhill was asking me, and I wanted to answer.
It moved faster than I expected, that line. It was like standing line to get a picture with Santa, that same sense of fear and joy crowding in your throat.
Soon I was behind the wobbly fake-wall. No Santa throne; in fact, it didn't look like much—rolled down beige background, like the maps at school. Wires and black carry cases everywhere. A single metal stool, rusted a bit around the foot rest.
The bored photographer took pictures of everyone, obligingly, and two women looked at them, whispering about hair color and crossed eyes. The women looked glamorous. They didn't belong in a mall in Ohio on a January Monday.
It occurred to me that this was a scam. The mall heat dried up my eyes and I didn't want to look at anything. I started to back out of the line.
“You gonna stay still, or what?” Before I knew it I was sitting on a stool, the photographer moving me before eyeing me in his viewfinder. Then he looked back, startled.
“You're not bad. You ever done this before?” At his tone, the two women both stopped and stared at me.
“No.” I'm not sure what made me add, “But my mother did.”
“Huh. You got good bones.” And then the photos went click, click and something inside of me went click, click back.
The women looked at my pictures, then at me, then back at my pictures again. “You know...we could use you. Maybe.” The photographer handed me his card. “Call us. We mean it.”
Taking the bus home, clutching my pictures and the card, I was dizzy. The smoke curls suspended in the blue winter sky were like happy question marks, and I was the answer. I could see the bus, the road, the dirty snow piled between the parked cars...I was a camera lens. And they were all beautiful.
I burst into the house, my mouth already open, the pictures snapping in my outstretched hand like a flag. It was time for Just Us Kids, but for once, I didn't care. We would all move to California. The two Carries merged, and I wanted everyone to see. I was fixing things.
Mom and the twins sat on the couch, reading. The twins sat on the couch, eyes half closed, mesmerized by Mom's story. A crumpled newspaper lay next to her, text boxes circled with red ink, like little surprised mouths.
And the television was off.
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Labels: story time, sunday scribblings