On the Charlie Applebaum Stage

by Kathy Flann



Genie changed the subject whenever Dave hinted about marriage, which he did a lot. When that mysterious phone call came from the people at Charlie Applebaum, the daytime talk show, she thought Dave had set the whole thing up to lasso her in, that the episode was going to be one of those “Will You Marry Me?” type deals. But as bad as that setup would be, it gave her an opportunity she doubted she would get again. The show was flying both of them to Chicago. She didn't intend to go back to Smoky Ordinary, Virginia--ever.

     She wasn't a mean person and she didn't want to embarrass Dave. Her plan for the show, rehearsed from when the music began to the moment they walked off the stage, was to say yes, but then let him down easy later, in private, when it was just the two of them, when they were in a horse-drawn carriage riding around Chicago and they had enough space for him to hear, really hear, that she was only twenty and that she wasn't going back. This free trip was a sign. And she could prove she meant it, because all the good clothes she owned were stuffed into the two suitcases stashed in that fancy double at the Radisson. She had a little money, too, enough for a woman on her own to make a new start.

     But when the producer gave her the signal, and the soundproof headphones came off, and she heard her name--Genie Town--and she marched into the bright lights and applause wearing a new sundress from Fashion Bug, she saw, not Dave, but her dad.

     Jesus--she'd seen him just yesterday in Smoky Ordinary. She'd stopped by his house to say goodbye. For good. Though he hadn't known it was for good. He'd been on all fours in front of the VCR, muttering that, just for her big moment on TV, he was learning to use the confounded thing. She didn't believe him. That might be a small thing for him to learn, but he'd shown the ability to screw up smaller tasks before. In the end, she knew, Aunt Marion would invite him over and feed him little sandwiches and make a tape for him to keep. When it came to looking after him, Marion had really taken over now. After everything that happened. After he'd driven all their lives into that tractor trailer's grill on the highway.

     And yet here he was, sitting without Aunt Marion on The Charlie Applebaum stage. In Chicago. He had never even been on an airplane before.

     Genie turned away from her dad. Out in the audience, Charlie looked just like he did when she had watched his show at home, muscular as a star athlete, as good looking as a movie star, his head shaved and his smile almost a smirk, just like Bruce Willis. He stood in the audience holding a microphone and staring at the camera as if he was some kind of serious journalist and not the ex-pop star responsible for “Hurt Me Where It Hurts” and “Absence Makes My Heart Want Rhonda.”

     “Have a seat, Genie,” Charlie said. On the stage were two sofas arranged at a wide relaxed angle to one another. Dad sat at the far end of one of the sofas, so Genie went to the end of the other, as far away as she could, kind of facing him but not looking at him. This was all really weird.

     When she sat down, Dad stood up. He, of course, knew the show's true script--or at least knew more than she did, but he was still obviously out of his element. He looked out at Charlie, then came over and kissed her forehead, even as she leaned away and thought Don't. His withered right hand, scored with white and pink lines of scar tissue, shook on her shoulder, and she could still feel his fluttering touch after he sat back down. Genie wondered if maybe she herself had been the one shaking, not her dad, because her teeth chattered, and she felt like she might wet her pants or something. There was so much sound -- the audience, the music, the crew - but all she could really hear was her own breath roaring in her head.

     She inhaled deeply and looked around. Charlie might be the same, but the room wasn't nearly as intimate as it looked on TV. There was no real ceiling to speak of, for one thing, just a complicated bunch of rafters and lights that were way up high, almost like looking up into the belly of a large animal. And out of sight of the cameras, an army of people in black t-shirts rushed around everywhere whispering and flicking switches, and it was like, she wasn't supposed to find that distracting? While she was pretending they weren't there, Charlie for his part pretended that hundreds of strangers weren't sitting in the audience either.

     “Genie,” he said, “How are you, darlin'?”

     “Fine,” she croaked.

     “Are you? Are you really?” He looked at her sympathetically, head tilted, as if she was one of those sad-case kids on a telethon, and Genie knew she wasn't supposed to know what was going on yet, but come on. He wanted her to say something melodramatic, maybe something about the mother she never had, about how hard life was because of that. Overdramatically, Charlie shifted his gaze, and the camera she saw trained on her tracked with him to focus on her face. “What's missing, Genie, darlin'?”

     Genie didn't have to give him the satisfaction. “Nothing's missing,” she said. “Charlie.”

     Charlie looked disappointed; the muscles under his trademark white tank top deflated a little. “Okay, let me put it another way,” he said. “When I was young, my prostitute mother couldn't give me the love I craved,” he said, turning toward the audience. “As you all know.”

     “We love you, Charlie!” a woman called out.

     “Thank you, sweetheart,” Charlie said, and then he continued. “And so I ate. Boy did I eat. I was so big, no one could ignore me.” There were murmurs of recognition in the crowd--everyone knew his story, and about his big comeback playing himself in the made-for-TV movie Big Boys Don't Cry. “What I'm saying, Genie, is that just like for you, something was missing for me. And until I found out what that something was, I couldn't stop binging on simple carbs.

   “Let's have a look at some pictures and see if we can figure out together what's been missing from your life . . .”

     Behind the cushy gray sofas on the stage, on a big screen flashed enormous pictures of Genie as a kid, a tow-headed, pot-bellied thing: one of her standing in an inflatable pool some long-ago Virginia summer, one of her sleeping on her dad's lap while he read the paper, one of her with her mother the Christmas before that botanist came through town collecting local samples, Genie's mother among them.

     And finally--she knew it was coming--one of her mugging for the camera with Tom. She remembered the Halloween her dad snapped that photo. Tom had dressed up as Timmy from that old TV show Lassie and Genie had been his dog. It summed up their relationship, she thought now, the way Genie had followed Tom everywhere he went, everywhere he'd let her.

     “We should explain this one, shouldn't we, Genie?” Charlie said. “This is Genie's brother, Tom. Just over a year ago, Tom died. Genie's father--you've heard him speak already, folks--drove the two of them into the path of an oncoming semi.” Here the crowd began to murmur in disbelief. “The reason Ray here survived,” Charlie continued, raising his voice to compete with the noise, “was that his body was so limp with alcohol that it didn't break the way Tom's did. All except for his hand. Isn't that right?” Charlie turned to Genie for confirmation.

     “Yes, that's what the doctor told us,” she said, and the crowd began to quiet down, whispering amongst themselves, shaking their heads in quiet breathless horror. She could feel her face getting warm and she started to get dizzy, sort of like when she'd found out that Tom died in the first place. She had passed out then, and she had come to as if from a frightening dream, and she'd seen Dave and Aunt Marion standing over her. The looks on their faces made her remember what had happened to Tom, and she tried to will herself to pass out again, but she couldn't.

     This was worse than Dave cooking up a plan to use a bunch of spectators to make her marry him. If only she'd learned how to pass out at will, she could have done it now and been carted off stage. She could have woken up on a dressing room sofa with a blanket over her and been given lemonade through a bendable straw. She could have asked for some fresh air, and then been gone, gone, gone, off into the Chicago afternoon. She still could. But somehow she had to get through this show. She closed her eyes for a second and imagined her new life, imagined herself dancing down the Magnificent Mile like someone in a musical, all leotard and sparkly shoes.

     But unmercifully, she was still conscious, with Charlie looking at her, waiting. And with all of these people--Dave had been right that they would all look like Yankees, with their sharp bird-like faces and dark clothes. The truth was, she hadn't really seen any of Chicago yet, just the view out the window of the airport limousine--all those tall glass buildings, and then when they turned onto Michigan Avenue, the blue water.

     She shut her eyes again. It was strange to think that if she could get out of some emergency exit, push the bar and just started walking, she could walk and walk and walk and never meet anyone who knew her, or knew about Tom. Not a gas station attendant making sick small talk about a dead man, not faking, sad-faced people in the dry cleaners. Not even the busy bodies she knew were in any city, the amateur head shrinkers who lurked in the aisles of the drugstore, would have been able to gossip about the forty pounds she'd lost since Tom died (“I tell you, it's dangerous to lose that much that fast”). Or the sundresses she wore (“Poor girl, trying to look good, but you know how much hurt she's got inside”). She wouldn't run into any plump former classmates with babies on their hips, pretending they didn't see her. She imagined all those girls back home now, crouched in front of their televisions watching this show, curtains drawn to block the mid afternoon sun. They would be sucking air through their teeth and tsking, but secretly they'd be jealous. They would know what it meant, getting out of Smoky Ordinary. They would wish they were in Chicago. She imagined them on all fours up close to the TV, like her father the day before. The exotic shape of the word “Chicago” would roll around in their mouths like a fancy hard candy they wouldn't dare spit out or swallow.

     “Genie,” said Charlie, “can you tell us about the accident? Can you tell us how your brother's death changed things?”

     No one back home in Smoky Ordinary, Virginia ever asked her this. They didn't need to. But here in Chicago her life was as blank as that giant lake that lapped against the edge of the city. Here, she could be someone other than Genie Town. She could be someone exciting, live up to her real name, Geneveve. She was no Yankee, but the woman she could be here wouldn't be unsophisticated. She could be a consultant at a designer make-up counter in Marshall Fields, all of the professional women in the city, with their black scarves and tiny key rings, coming to her for advice. Why not? Why couldn't she? Tom had gone to Pennsylvania to go to college and make his mind even better than it was. Surely Genie could manage to sell fancy makeup to people who already wanted it. She would be exotic here, the kind of woman rich people would want to know.

     “Come on, Genie. I know it's hard. I mean, when my mother was turning tricks, I used to stuff four, five, maybe half a dozen caramel apples down my neck. Hey, that's one way to stop yourself from talking, am I right?” he said, turning to the audience. They clapped their approval.

     The clapping died down. Charlie was staring at her. She sighed and decided to tell the basics, just the facts, like she was a court stenographer of her life, like she was someone else. She took a deep breath and talked fast. She didn't look at her father. “My dad represented the company that sold Dollywood all its paper products; even after we grew up and moved out of his house, he used to try to get us to come along on those long commutes to Tennessee to keep him company.” She knew she was talking too fast. Charlie was squinting at her, trying to make calming motions with his hands. But she couldn't do it the way he wanted. “He didn't like that job, and when his drinking was really bad, he would go on and on about the one that got away--the job he said he could have had but didn't take, at a start-up internet company called Yahoo!” Here the crowd gasped. She shook her head.“But that was nonsense. We're just from Smoky Ordinary,” she said. “It's just tiny. Dad wouldn't have known what the internet even was back then. But one thing was for sure. Tom and I both knew better than to ride in the car with Dad when he was going on and on about that.”

     Here, she took a breath and scratched her face and prepared to tell the lie again, the lie she'd told everyone, even Aunt Marion. “Dad had been carrying on like that for days right before the accident. I'll never know why Tom went along,” she said. “It will always be a mystery.” She looked at Dad there, and he was looking back at her, smiling a little--but blank--like Genie was someone who seemed very nice but didn't speak English. Or like he still didn't understand what he'd done.

     “It's time for a commercial break,” said Charlie. “When we come back, we'll reveal to Genie why she's here today. And in the next hour, we'll meet the woman who stumbled across her own son in a singles bar twenty-six years after he was kidnapped. Don't go away.”

     The crowd cheered and the lights dimmed a bit. A woman ran over to Charlie and began to oil his muscular arms to enhance the shine. Genie had been ordered not to talk to other guests during the commercial. And that was fine. She looked at the crowd and thought about how crazy this was, talking in front of these people. As if she was going to tell the whole story,.

     The whole story, if in fact there was such a thing, she never told anyone, because Smoky Ordinary was a small town and whatever she said would get back to Dad. She wasn't cruel and she didn't want to hurt him. And she also didn't want to “share” with him, or “bond,” or discover the “joys of forgiveness.” What she wanted more than anything was to forget he existed, the same way she would delete phone messages.

     For the first time ever, though, she began to think about how the story would go if she did tell it, and the words began to roll through her mind just like Charlie's words rolled down that TV screen behind the camera.

     The truth she wouldn't tell was that Tom was twenty-two, just older than she was now, and he had gotten out of Smoky Ordinary. He spent his summers in this little camper that he drove all over the country--even to Alaska. The extra bunk over the driver's seat he filled with hundreds of albums, as much used vinyl as he could buy with money he made doing odd jobs for people he met. Once, at a yard sale right in Smoky Ordinary, he found a rare copy of a Led Zeppelin record. He said he had screamed like a girl and then he had sung “A Whole Lotta Love” for three hours straight, until Ricky Rogers, the bartender at Go Fish! threatened to punch him in the face. He told Genie it was the best day of his life.

     She and Tom had talked the day before he died. He was rolling through town for a couple days, and he came into the beauty supply shop, which Genie now managed, and she'd told him how Dad's drinking had gotten bad again and how Dad had been spending whole nights out on the driveway in his lawn chair, jabbering more and more loudly to himself, holding an antique crossbow on his lap, whining about the past, whining about the fact that he'd never married their mother, never given her enough reason to stay. “Li'l Star,” Dad had called out when Genie came by to check on him. “Li'l Star” was his nickname for her, which he mainly used when he was drunk. He referred to their mother as “Big Star.”

     “Li'l Star,” he said. “Do you think I can shoot this through my heart?” She could see that he was trying to point the crossbow toward himself but his arms weren't long enough. “Do you think Big Star would feel it? And wouldn't that be the littlest bit romantic?”

     When she'd told Tom, he had stared off down an aisle for a long minute, and then he had said, in a dreamy voice, “Do you ever think about the fact that we can never really know each other? I mean, really know each other?”

     “No,” she told him; she said she was just thinking about the hassle if a neighbor complained and Dad got arrested. “You know, Tom,” she went on, “some people don't ever have time to get to know anyone, really know anyone, because they're too busy with all of the things their family doesn't feel like dealing with.”

     Tom just smiled. “Quit worrying about him,” he said. “So guess what? Ask me what's new.”

     She sighed and rolled her eyes. “What, Tom? What's new?”

     A grin spread across his face. “I'm going back to school. At UVA.” He pulled a folded piece of letterhead from his pants pocket and waved it at her. “It's an MA in music history. I start in August.”

     “Have you told Dad yet?”

     “I'm going to tell him tonight. I think I'll go with him to Tennessee. Don't worry, I'll drive.”

     At that moment, a moment she had replayed now for a year, and probably would for the rest of her life, she said, “Well, good. Go. Get the both of you out of here.” She said it even though she knew that Dad would put up a fight about somebody else driving, and that Tom wouldn't want a conflict and would let him do it. Sometimes, she would have explained to Charlie and the audience, she could hear her words as clearly as if they were off one of Tom's records, and she could see her brother's freckled face and big eyes looking back at her. Tom, full of joy, without a care, getting out of town again, and pretty soon starting a new life in Charlottesville. Maybe she'd been jealous. And maybe she had killed him.

     So, on those nights after Tom died, when she lay awake, the only thing she could do was sneak out of bed, leave Dave sleeping, and drive to Dad's to look at that dark house where she grew up, with its chipping green paint and the trellis of unruly climbing roses that Dad planted years earlier on a sober day. She didn't know why, but that short drive, while every other person in Smoky Ordinary slept, made it so she slept. Maybe it was being physically nearer to happier times--or at least times when she was too stupid to know things weren't happy.

     The commercial break was over. The big photo on the wall--the one of Tom and her as kids--lit up. And the crowd was saying “aww” like the two of them were puppies on a calendar. Charlie said, “We're back with Genie, whose father, Ray, called the show a while back to arrange a surprise for her today. Do you have any idea what it is, Genie?”

     She shook her head, but it wasn't so much true that she didn't know. It was more that she didn't want to think about it. She'd been driven to this studio with Dave, and they'd walked in together, then pushed down different hallways to separate dressing rooms. Whatever it was, Dave and her dad were in it together.

     “Well, let's let Ray speak for himself,” Charlie said. Now Dad uncrossed his legs and Genie noticed for the first time that he was wearing a new suit. She'd seen that he'd had his hair and beard cut very short sometime in the previous twenty-four hours, and she thought now that he looked nice, like he should have been more than what he was--which was now a part-time clerk at St. Margaret Lutheran Church. He looked for a moment like he was stuck in his seat or like he had forgotten himself why he was here.

     “Tell Genie what you want to say, Ray,” said Charlie, in a voice like a school teacher.

     Dad finally pushed himself up from the sofa and came over to Genie and he started to cry before he even sat down. Genie had only seen him cry once before and it wasn't at Tom's funeral, either. It was later, when he finished his rehab and his months in jail. He came to see her at Aunt Marion's and walked into the kitchen, where she was in the middle of peeling some potatoes for supper. “You're so little,” he had said, standing there in the doorway of the kitchen, a younger, handsomer, more clean-shaven and sober version of himself than Genie had ever seen. “My Little Star--”

     “Don't call me that,” Genie had said to him. “I haven't grown since I was thirteen, but I'm not a kid.” In the ten months he was gone, the world had become unfamiliar, like everything that had once been solid--the car, her brother, waking up in her own bed--had become vapor, and when she saw things that were the same, like her high-school friends and the girls at work, they seemed alien. But as upside-down as her world was, she had hugged her dad, and he'd sniffled a little.

     Now, though, he shook, he was crying so hard, and with his graying beard, he looked old to her, more helpless than usual. He hugged Genie and kissed her cheek. He took her hand in his good one, and he managed to get out, “I want you to forgive me.”

     The crowd murmured “Ohh,” and some people clapped. Charlie jogged down from the audience and knelt down behind the sofa and put his arm around Dad and patted his shoulder. Genie wanted to get Dad to stop, but her tongue felt thick and unwieldy. It occurred to Genie that she had no way of predicting anything--what these people in the audience were going to say or do or think. Or even her own father. Especially her father. She felt sick. These things would not be happening in the lives of those women who shopped at Marshall Fields; these things would not be happening to Geneveve Town.

     “This is hard for you both, isn't it?” Charlie said to them, and Genie understood why these shows sometimes turned out so trashy, because she suddenly had to fight the urge to say something smart-mouthed to Charlie, like “Did you just figure that out, Brainy Bruce?”

     But then she thought about what Dad just said and she thought, What kind of stupid idea is this? She was not one of those people who wanted “closure.” She didn't need to know why her mother took off twenty years ago, and she didn't need her father's apology. Things just were what they were, and life went a lot smoother if a person accepted that. That was one way Dave and Genie were so different--Dave the small-town cop went around trying to find out why all kinds of things happened, like burglaries and assaults and animal abuse. If Genie had his job, she'd end up blowing something to bits.

     Charlie jogged back up the stairs into the audience. “Ray,” he said. “What made you decide to say this to your daughter here?” Dad perked up a little then and began to look around the room, like he had just realized where he was. It occurred to Genie then that the two of them, she and Dad, were alike--both surprised by the places they ended up. “She's so special and we think she deserves to know it,” he said, the words coming out of him haltingly. “We think everyone should know.”

     Charlie looked at Genie then like she was supposed to do something. She gave him nothing.

     Dad glanced over his shoulder at one of the producers, who was standing just out of sight of the audience and wearing giant black headphones. He gave Dad a supportive look and a thumbs-up.

     For a second, Genie had this feeling, or maybe it was just a hope, that Dad was going to tell her that Tom wasn't really dead, and Charlie was going to bring Tom out. And Tom would walk out from backstage, tall and freckled and more lean than ever, and he would sit down and tell them that he joined some kind of top secret Peace Corps and that Dad had driven him, not to Tennessee, but to the airport in DC and the accident was all a set-up, and then he would tell Genie about all of the places he'd seen. And Genie would be so happy for him because she'd never been anywhere. But Charlie, of course, said nothing about Tom because Tom was dead, and what else was there to say? What was left for Dad to do? What surprise remained, what way of trying to change the way she thought about him? Maybe the dad he'd reveal to her would be more complicated than how she thought of him--which was as a kind of mental cripple, someone who had no motives for how he acted. That he was something else terrified her, and she had the urge to run out of there and not stop running until she could get somewhere else, somewhere fixed… like in the spotlight of Dave's gaze when she came home late from work. Dave's dark eyes were like eternity, like time itself.

     “Your dad has another surprise for you, Genie,” Charlie said. Before she could even turn her head, she knew it was him, knew it was Dave, almost like she could feel him before she saw him. Could it be that she hoped it was him? He walked from backstage and she saw him as if he was a stranger, someone she'd never seen before--squat and muscular like a football player, even underneath the new suit he was wearing, which was iridescent, like blue or purple eye shadow.

     He carried an enormous bouquet of pink flowers, and in spite of the stage lights he looked tanned, and his thinning hair was a little wild over his collar, like he'd been assigned a crime scene out in the tobacco fields again--a stolen tractor or a van full of illegal workers.

     “It's Genie's boyfriend, Dave!” Charlie said, and the crowd applauded. Genie glanced at the big screen behind the sofas and there, to her amazement, was Aunt Marion sitting backstage clapping. She was wearing the top she'd bought with Genie at Potomac Mills Mall last week. They were all here with her, all of them in on the plan. Then the picture switched to Genie. In the bottom corner, she saw the show's title as a caption: Help me get my grief-stricken daughter back! Genie looked at herself in profile looking at the monitor, studied the grooves of her cheekbones and her sharp, jutting shoulders. “Dave and your dad have been talking. They've been wondering how to bring joy back into that face of yours. No one can do it for you, Genie. Sixteen long years of psychotherapy have taught me that.” Here the crowd applauded again. “But feeling appreciated sure does help. These nice folks want to give you what my mom never gave me.”

     “Genie,” Dave said and he got down on one knee in front of her. Some women now began screaming and Genie could hardly hear him. He gestured to Dad. “You've been so sad for so long. We want you to come back to us,” he said and he produced a ring from inside his suit jacket. He started to mouth I love you, but Genie shut her eyes before he finished.

     “So,” Charlie said to her. “What do you want to say?”

     Genie knew that she was supposed to say how happy she was and cry a little, and she was supposed to hug Dave and Dad, and maybe say this was a dream come true.

     But Dave needed to know that he could either move on with her or get left behind. She opened her mouth. What she actually said was, “None of this brings him back, Dad. You can't make up for it.” Because she suddenly knew that Dad was trying to give her something. In the silence that followed, even she was surprised by what she'd said.

     And then she thought that the caption on the TV was wrong. It should have said My daughter is extremely pissed off! Because that's how she felt nearly all the time. A shrink would tell her what really pissed her off was that she wasn't Tom. In his twenty-two years, he had more thoughts and did more with himself than she ever would, no matter how long she lived. He probably thought about their mother and wondered things Genie never had. He would have said the right thing that night, the thing that would have stopped him from getting in that car. He was that far from being like everyone else she knew. It was what she hated the most about people--Charlie Applebaum, the mayor of Smoky Ordinary, Darla Starling from the Channel 3 news, these people in the audience--they were so mediocre, so utterly adequate. And Genie. She was adequate, too. She was the worst of all.

     “So do you know?” Charlie said to her. “Do you know your answer?”

     She opened her mouth. The crowd began to cheer in anticipation. And she could see that asking questions meant being brave enough for the answers. She looked at Dave in front of her there on his knee and thought that he was braver, at this moment, than she would ever be. And so was Dad. They both put themselves out there.

     “Yes, all right,” Genie said, and that was when she understood that she would go back home to Smoky Ordinary. She would marry Dave, and sometimes she would come home late from work, and his eyes would be dark like eternity. And they would all be pretty okay, pretty adequate. And that was when she began to cry.
The Adirondack Review
The St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book AwardThe St. Lawrence Book AwardThe St. Lawrence Book Award
The St. Lawrence Book Award
KATHY FLANN's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Shenandoah, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, Yemassee, The O. Henry Festival Stories, Third Coast, Blackbird, The North American Review, The Barcelona Review, and New Stories from the South.  A short story collection, entitled Smoky Ordinary, has been named a finalist for the Virginia Kirkus Literary Award co-sponsored by The Kirkus Reviews and Little, Brown & Co.  A graduate of the MFA program at UNC-Greensboro, she is currently the program director for Creative Writing at St Martin's College in Lancaster, England.