You Can’t Do That on Television

April 19, 2016

This is an excerpt from Christopher Boucher's new novel, Golden Delicious, forthcoming from Melville House on April 26, 2016.

Like most of the kids I knew, we had televisions watching us in every room, recording our movements and prayers, and praying them out as sitcoms and laugh-out-louds to other families in Appleseed. Our sitcom was called The Marginals, about a family that lives really close to the margin. I think back on those times, the times of the show, as some of the best of my childhood. Every day between the ages of five and thirteen I came home from school, looked over my script, and put on my costume: shiny Nike shoes instead of my second-hand unmatching Converse hi-tops, stonewashed jeans instead of vinyl parachute pants, an Ocean Pacific T-shirt over my cigarette shirt from the Salvation Army, a toupee cut in the latest fashion—a tail in the back or pleats shaved into the sides—to cover my bald head. Then I’d open up a closet of smiles in the back room, pick one out, and put it on. Sometimes I’d choose a wide smile, but usually I’d pick a smirk, like this one: [       ].

In the story of The Marginals, I was Scooter LaFontaine, always getting into trouble that led to valuable lessons. My signature lines were, “Who, me?” and “Nice fine good OK!”

Everyone in my family was part of the show. My sister played Samantha LaFontaine, the town’s tap dancing champion (even though Bri hated tap dancing—her real passion was for collectibles, antiques, and junk). My father played a cambridge and my mom a really kind nurse. And she was great at it. When she was in costume, I saw kindnesses from her that she rarely showed in person. In one episode, I saw her cradle a dying sentence in her arms as if she were its mother. In another, I was crushed by a last-second loss in a swim meet. In the car, she turned to me and said, “You tried your best, Scoot. Didn’t you?”

My character, Scooter, nodded.

“And wasn’t that your fastest time ever in backstroke?”

I shrugged.

“Then you won. You did better than ever before. What more could you want, honey?”

The show had certain tropes. Like, every show included a dinner scene.

“How was your day today, Scoot?” my dad would ask.

With that line and almost every other, we’d hear the laughtrack: our cans in the pantry, chuckling and guffawing.

“We learned about photosynthesis,” I said. “How plants transform light into food.”

Haw.

“I wish we could transform this food,” my sister said.

Ha haw haw ha.

“Now, Sam,” said my mom. “It’s just a pleasure for the four of us to eat together.”

I think the ham is great,” said my dad. “Don’t you, Scoot?”

“Nice fine good OK!” I said.

Every episode ended with a moral, delivered to me or my sister from my father or mother while sitting on the back stoop: “If they’re cruel to you,” the mother-character told the Scooter-character once, “then they aren’t really your friends. Friends will watch out for you through thick and thin.”

Or,

“Sometimes we have to put other people’s interests in front of our own,” the father-character told the sister-character. “That’s part of being an adult.”

“But I really wanted to go on the ski trip,” said the sister-character.

“There’ll be other ski trips,” said the father-character.

I look back on that show now—here, in this cramped room, with a head full of doubts—and man, I miss those half-hour arcs: Mr. LaFontaine Gets a New Job. Scooter Gets Lost. Mrs. LaFontaine Meets a Friend for Coffee. Scooter Needs a Hug. Samantha Makes a Friend, and so many others.

We weren’t the only show in town, of course. Every family I knew had a sitcom—their shows were broadcast into our eyes just as ours were broadcast into theirs. With so many shows to choose from, it was difficult to keep your family’s ratings up. You had to say the right things to make people keep watching. After a few seasons on the air, our show became less popular and we needed to make changes. My mom suggested that we make the show more serious—more dark. In one episode, the father-character’s brother-in-law died and the last scene was Scooter and Mr. LaFontaine on the front stoop. “There’s no sense to the universe,” said Mr. LaFontaine, swigging from a bottle of beer. “The Core? Some central meaning? It’s a fucking joke. Or else how could people suffer so much and die so young?”

“I guess cancer is the Core’s way of saying ‘Screw you,’” I said.

“I guess so, sport,” my dad said.

The mother-character that season was closer to my actual mother: moodier, more unpredictable. “Parents don’t have to love their children,” she said in one moral.

“I thought love was unconditional,” said my sister.

“Not necessarily,” said my mom. “You have to earn it.”

When our ratings didn’t improve, we tried the opposite tack: we made the show light, funny, almost vaudeville. Instead of death or illness there were spit takes and pratfalls. My dad’s signature line was “Waaa!” as his eyebrows leapt away from his eyes.

By this time, though, I was tired of changing. My sister and mother complied, but not me—I was rambunctious, remember? Rebellious, a bad seed. At a dinner scene one day, my mom asked me how school was. My line was, “Nice fine good OK!” Instead, though, I said, “Freaking terrible.”

Haw.

My mom’s eyes were blades, but her smile held. “Why terrible?”

“Chamblis’s mom has HIV,” I said.

Haw haw haw.

“Cut!” the television in our kitchen yelled. “Let’s keep it lighthearted, Scoot!”

“_____,” said my mom.

I didn’t say anything.

“And,” the TV said, “rolling!”

“How was your day, Scoot?” asked my mom again.

“My brain hurts,” I said. “Like, my skull is too small for my thoughts.” And I slammed my head into my plate of spaghetti.

“Cut!” said the television. “What the fuck, _____?”

Our ratings continued dropping. Soon, our TVs lost hope—you could see it in their eyes when they looked at us. When the physical comedy didn’t work, my dad pushed us even further: we went cartoon. Doing so meant going to the doctor every week for animation injections, and retooling our dynamic again. My dad’s repetitive gaffe that season was banging his thumb with his hammer. He’d do it over and over. “YeOW!” he’d shout, and run around with his red thumb in the air.

Soon, even our cans stopped laughing. Then one of our TVs quit, and my mom started flubbing her lines—she’d stare out the window, or pray silently in her seat, or absentmindedly pick up a book on set and start to read, and we’d have to shoot the whole scene over. My dad didn’t give up; in one last-ditch attempt to stay on the prayer-air, he decided that we’d stop the injections, go back to the original formula, and invite on guest characters: Chamblis’s mom, the town’s oldest Orange Traffic Cone, the Memory of Johnny Appleseed. But by then even our living room TV wouldn’t watch us for half an hour.

In our last episode, my dad and sister and I chose our smiles and took our places when we realized that my mom wasn’t on set. The TV gave the five-minutes-to-places call and Mom still hadn’t shown up for costume or makeup. “Where is your mother?” my dad asked between cambridges.

“I’ll go find her,” I said. I looked upstairs, in the front yard, in her gym in the garage. I found her in the far corner of the backyard, kneeling in the wet grass.

I ran over to her. “Mom?” I said.

“—and please,” she was saying. “Protect us from doubts. And worries. Protect us from ourselves.”

“Mom, the show’s starting,” I said.

“Take care of them,” she said. “Take care of them while I’m gone.”

“Mom?” I said.

“I’m praying,” she said. “Do the show without me.”

I heard the credits and the music and I ran inside. “And now,” the TV said, “The MARGINALS!”

The three of us stared at each other. My mom was supposed to deliver the first line.

“How was—” my dad stumbled, “your day, Sam—?”

“Cut!” said the TV. “We need the whole family! Goddammit!” The TV unplugged itself and stormed out of the room. “Fuck this noise!”

The TV didn’t come back until late that night—it smelled of beer and cigarettes for the whole week afterward. And from that day forward? The screen wouldn’t look at me. All it did was show me things. Maybe to hurt me, it mostly showed me other families, families happier than mine, getting great ratings, raucous laughs, happinesses. Our house, meanwhile? Grew lonelier. Colder. Emptier. And no one even saw it. No one even cared what happened to the Marginals.