Evenings with Johnny Carson
by RANDAL GENTRY
Michael wandered into the dining room whistling out of tune, drying his hands on the clean tails of his dirty blue work shirt, and he sat down gratefully in his creaking chair at the table and began ceremoniously unfolding his newspaper. “Turn on the light there, would you, hon?” he said, squinting down at the dense black columns of words on the newsprint, now damp from his hands. “Sure, dad,” Vicky said, laying out silverware and napkins around the table. “I can see your hands are broken.” She went behind his chair and slapped at the dimmer knob, and the chandelier came on low. Michael cleared his throat, suddenly and forcefully: “Hem-ehm! Jesus—sorry,” rasping faintly. “Turn it up, please. I can’t see. I can hardly make it out.” She turned back and adjusted it, the candle-shaped bulbs glowing brighter amid the dust and strands of cobweb. “Is that to your liking, Your Highness?” “That is, now, yes. That’s very much to my liking. You can call me that all day long.” He cleared his throat once more and silently farted, leaning intently over his paper. Vicky went out and brought the wooden salad bowl and the serving tongs back in. “God, what is that?” “What is what?” Marcia said from the kitchen. Then she glared at her daughter, a hand on her hip. “Excuse me—. Why didn’t you set a place for yourself?” “Because I’m not eating. I told you I have to go.” “Have to go. Go where? Come help me with this. Why do you have to go? I don’t understand. It’s dinnertime on a school night.” “So?” “So how often do we get to do this? Come on, hon. Play along for once.” Vicky sighed, shoved the tongs into the salad and left them there. “Give me a break.” “Well I’m sorry, but you’re not going. Not tonight. Now come help me with this.” Vicky took the asbestos mitts her mother held out for her, and they bent down before the oven and lifted the heavy casserole out. Marcia, still in her white stockings from the hospital, raised the oven door with her heel so that it slammed shut with a clatter, while Vicky swept her bare foot at Lucy, the old Irish setter, curled around snapping at fleas in the matted fringe of her tail. The dog rose on trembling legs and whimpered as they carried the simmering casserole in and set it carefully at the center of the table. “It’s just to study,” Vicky said calmly. “We have a test coming up. I told you.” “Somebody get the goddamn dog out of here,” Michael said. A flea had just leapt across the newsprint before his eyes, like a comma suddenly come to life. “Why is she still in here?” He looked up at Marcia. “I don’t get that.” “It’s what the vet said,” she said, shrugging. “We’re supposed to make her comfortable until she’s better. Right?” “Oh for heaven’s sake, hon, it’s been a week. Please, somebody take her outside before we all get bitten alive.” “Why don’t you do it?” Marcia said. “Then you can look her in the eye as you shut the door on her.” “I’ll do it—” Bradley almost shouted it, suddenly materializing at Michael’s shoulder. Michael shoved the paper aside. “—Goddamnit!” “All’s I said is I’d do it.” “Quit sneaking up on me like that! Jesus Christ—.” Bradley was already bent over dragging the dog away by the collar. “Sorry.” “Feed them both while you’re at it,” Michael called after him. “Was she eating bread again?” He looked at Marcia and Vicky. “She’s been over here farting.” “Don’t worry, I’m going to feed them,” Bradley called from the back room. Michael sighed, going back to his paper. “Hon, bring the wine when you come in?” Marcia tilted her head at him. “Are you really going to sit there and order people around all night?” “Never mind.” He started to get up. “Stay. Read your paper. It’s how you ask.” She opened the fridge door. “Strawberry or golden apple?” Michael looked at her. “That’s funny. That’s really funny.” It was her running joke for the past few months, about the Boone’s Farm that had had him down on all fours, throwing up in the sand at a lake party over the summer. She lifted a half-empty jug of rosé on her finger to show him what there was. The bottle was less than two weeks old. Michael was sure it should have been more full. One of these kids must have been nipping at it. “That’s fine,” he said. Bradley came back in dusting himself off. He had scratches on his arms and a dirty paw print on his T-shirt, in the middle of his chest. Those dogs just abused him. He had absolutely no control over them. Marcia sat down across from Michael, Vicky next to her. “Did you wash your hands?” Marcia said. Bradley nodded and mumbled that he had, wiping them on his jeans, though Michael could see he hadn’t. They were filthy. “Sit down,” he said to him, folding his paper and setting it aside. “Let’s eat. Where’s Travis?” “It’s okay,” Marcia said. “We can go ahead and start. He’s in his room.” “He’s got a broken heart,” Vicky said. “Poor little booby.” “Why do you have to call him that?” Marcia snapped at her. “You know he hates that.” “No he doesn’t. My little booby. It’s my little name for him. It’s what my friend Javier’s mom calls him. It’s our special thing. He knows I won’t say it in public.” “All right,” Michael said. “So what about this broken heart?” He drank from his glass of cold sweet pink wine, sucked his teeth, and set it down. “When was there even a girl? He didn’t tell me anything about it.” “There’s always a girl,” Vicky said. “What do you think goes on at school?” “I don’t know. Learning, bullying. The usual stuff.” “I haven’t learned a thing in eleven years of school.” “That’s nice, hon. But you look good.” They each began eating as soon as they had served themselves from the steaming casserole. “And he told you this,” Michael said. “That there was a girl.” “Please, he didn’t have to,” Vicky said. “He was all a mess when he came home. He had this note? Written in purple ink with little balloons dotted over the i’s?” Michael shrugged, waiting for the explanation. “So?” “Don’t you see? She’s letting him down easy. The colored ink, the balloons? It’s a kiss-off.” Vicky glanced at her mother. “He was also crying? Bawling actually.” “Hm,” Marcia mumbled, looking down at her plate. “I didn’t see the note. I didn’t know there was one. I did hear him crying in his room. He wouldn’t let me in, but he was just sobbing his little heart out in there. It could only be that, Mike. He’s at the age.” Declan, the oldest, wandered into the kitchen just then from the laundry room, smoking a cigarette, his eyes puffy from sleep, one of his epic afternoon naps, his long red hair crimped on one side from the pillow. When he saw what was for dinner he groaned. “Ah, shit,” he said. “Ma—. Come on. Not goddamn tuna casserole again. Fuck me.” Michael set his fork down. “I’m going to clobber the shit out of your son,” he said to his wife. “I am going to kill him.” “No you’re not.” Declan flicked his ashes into the sink, full of soaking dishes already, and leaned over the breakfast bar toward them. Marcia sat up stiffly over her plate and cut a noodle with her spoon. “Come sit down with us,” she said without looking at him. “It’s nice of you to come out of your hole.” Bradley and Vicky exchanged quick glances and tried not to laugh. “What’s so funny?” Marcia said. Declan stubbed out the cigarette in an enormous Bakelite ashtray on the bar and came around and slumped into his chair, blowing the last of the smoke up into the dusty chandelier. “So who’s got a girl? I heard the family speculation from my chambers.” He pointed at Bradley. “Not him.” “Leave him alone,” Michael said. “Travis, according to Vick.” Declan brought his fist down on the table, making his plate and silverware jump. “Well who’s the tramp, and who’s her father? I demand to know.” “Her,” Bradley said with his mouth full, pointing his fork at Vicky. “And him.” “Shut up,” Michael said. Marcia cleared her throat noisily. “Some girl in his class,” Vicky said. “He bought her a necklace.” Now Marcia absently lifted a hand to her own throat. “What necklace? I didn’t know about any necklace either. Why don’t I know any of this?” Vicky shrugged. “I don’t know. I just know he went to Clark’s on Saturday with his little rubber change purse and poured his money out on the counter. My friend Sylvie helped him. She works there.” “Who else knows about this?” Marcia said. “Do the girl’s parents know?” “How should I know? I have no idea who she is. It’s not like he tells me anything.” “We need to look into this,” Declan said solemnly, brushing loose strands of bright red hair behind his ear with one finger. “By God, promises were made. Gifts were accepted. An understanding appears to have been reached, goddamnit! Legal action may be in order.” He wagged a finger between Michael and Marcia. “I advise the two of you to retain counsel on your child’s behalf.” “Would you shut the hell up?” Michael said. “We’re trying to talk about this.” Marcia tilted her head at Michael and sighed, then after a pause said, “Well I don’t think it’s right, the whole thing. He’s only eleven.” “Yeah, and I was eleven when—” Vicky stopped herself. Bradley started to laugh. “Go on. Tell them.” “When what?” Marcia waited for her daughter to finish. “Nothing. It was a joke. Of course he’s too young for that sort of thing.” “He’s almost twelve,” Bradley said. “He’s got to learn sometime.” “Let’s get him out here and find out how far he’s gone,” Declan said. “Second base?” “Nah,” Bradley said. “I seriously doubt that.” “Maybe ass over jeans. Definitely no camel-toe.” “Peach fuzz is all it’d be,” Bradley said. “Unless she’s older than him.” “Camel what?” “Goddamnit,” Michael said. “That’s enough. This is a little girl you’re talking about. Have some decency.” They heard a creaking of the parquet floor in the den, and they all turned at once and saw the grainy, skinny form of Travis in the shadows of the unlit room. “What, is that him? Did he hear us?” “What’s the matter, Tray?” His arms were bowed out at his sides, they could see that much. “Travis, come sit with us,” his mother said. “We’re sorry. You don’t have to be by yourself in there.” But he turned without answering, his body bent forward as if about to ram something with his forehead, and walked away, his arms still out at his sides. “Fuckin shits!” he blurted out, his voice breaking, and then tears came as he went back out the way he’d come in. “Looks like he’s trying to take off,” Bradley said. “Like he’s trying to fly. Look at him.” “Honey, we weren’t laughing at you.” “Yes we were,” Declan said. “Don’t lie to him.” “Nice one,” Marcia said to Vicky. “Me? It was him—” she pointed her fork at Declan. “What’d I do?” “All of you,” Marcia said. They heard Travis’s door slam, and the dogs began to bark again. “Poor little booby. Come back, booby—” she called. “For crying out loud stop it,” Marcia said. “Fuckin shits,” Declan said. “You have to admit that’s bold for an eleven-year-old, right in front of his parents.” “Honey, go talk to him.” Michael was back to eating. “I will in a minute.” Vicky pushed her plate away. “Mom, I have to go. June’s gonna be pissed.” “You still haven’t said why,” Marcia said. “Actually I believe I did, but I’ll tell you again. We’ve got to write a computer program by Thursday, and we’ve got a chemistry quiz tomorrow. You want to see the rest of the agenda? Because I can go get it for you. You can look at my notes and everything, if it’ll make you feel better.” She was starting to sound pretty shrill. “All right, all right,” Michael said. “Hon, please.” “Why can’t June ever come over here anymore?” Marcia said. “That’s what I’d like to know.” Vicky tipped her head toward Bradley, who blushed and stared at his plate. “Ask him.” “Shut up, bitch.” Michael dropped his fork and cuffed Bradley on the back of the head. It was going to happen. His blonde hair fell down in front and he shook it back and blew it out of his eyes, the tears brimming already. Marcia shook her head. “You two better work this out.” “Don’t say another word,” Bradley said to his sister. “Sure, Brad,” Vicky said. “No problem. I’ll tell you what, I’ll hold my tongue if you’ll quit sticking yours down my friends’ throats.” Declan pointed his fork at her. “I like that. That’s a good one. Shitting where you eat, Bradley, young man. Not a good practice. She’s right.” Michael’s face went red, Bradley slammed his fist down on the table, and then they were all talking over each other. “That’s enough.” “How about not saying the word shit while we’re eating?” “Mom.” “Why don’t you go before it gets too late,” Michael said firmly, quieting the others. “Call when you’re ready to come home, and Brad or Deck will come walk you back up.” “I think I can walk up the street by myself.” “Yeah, she’s good at walking the street,” Bradley said. Shut up,” Michael said. “That’s enough.” “You eat some salad before you go,” Marcia said. “I ate salad.” “Eat some more.” Vicky sighed and reached toward the shallow bamboo bowl with its iceberg lettuce, canned pears and three-bean salad drizzled with Russian dressing, and stabbed up a forkful. “Satisfied?” “Now eat it.” Travis lay on the narrow bed in his room. The sky was a deep blue outside his window, and the oak leaves and heavy limbs in the backyard were like black paper cutouts against it. The air that came in through the cracks between the jalousies was cool now. It had been cold in the morning, with a standing mist in the yards under the orange trees and hovering over the old lady’s swimming pool that he walked past on his way to school, then warm at recess after lunch when that cunt Connie gave him the note written in purple ink, still warm on the way home when he tried to hold back his tears till he got to the front door, and now cool again as he watched the oak leaves shifting against the sky. The dogs scratched and whined out there, attacked by fleas. He felt sorry for them. He felt sorriest for Lucy, because of the worms the vet had said were trying to get at her heart. They were supposed to be gone now, or dead, the worms, flushed out of her, but the medicine they had given her was made of strong chemicals, and ever since receiving the injections her legs shook whenever she stood up. But Travis also felt bad about Taffy, the little Spitz, because she was fourteen years old, three years older than him, which was probably a hundred in dog years, and her eyes were milky and half-blind and her legs trembled even though she wasn’t sick in a specific way as Lucy had been. He thought about being old. He was glad he wouldn’t be old for a long time. It was too late for the dogs, they already were. When winter comes, at least the fleas won’t be as bad for them out there, he thought. But they’ll whine at night anyway, because of the cold, then, because it bothers old bones even more than young ones, and they’ll burrow in the sand, huddling together behind the junipers, and he would go out there with his blanket many nights and with his coat on and his slippers and get behind the junipers with them and stay as long as he could, shivering and feeling his legs and butt go numb in the sand. The rest of them were in there clearing the dishes now. Vicky had gone to the bathroom a few minutes before and then had stood at his door sort of whispering to him, calling him booby in her sweet high-schooler’s voice, trying to get him to open the door, but he hadn’t even bothered to answer her. He knew her. She would just put a bunch of words in his mouth, trying to make his problem sound all grown-up, confusing it on purpose, making it into something nasty she could get more interested in. She was always doing that. Then she went out. He heard her being smart to their mother and then closing the front door. And finally, as things quieted down, just as Travis had expected, he heard a knock on his door that he knew right away was his father. “It’s me,” his deep voice came through the hollow wood. “What.” “Can I come in?” “Can I stop you?” “You can stop me. That’s why I asked.” “I don’t care. Come on in.” His father opened the door and came in, his shadow slanting up the other wall. The shadow was a lot skinnier than he was. He sat on the bed, lowering it under Travis’s body. “Hey. We didn’t mean to talk behind your back like that. It’s just that you never told me there was a girl. I was surprised. I thought you were going to talk to me when that happened. Didn’t we have a deal?” “That was your idea.” “But I thought you’d want to.” “I don’t. I don’t want to talk to anybody.” “Even me?” “I can feel it here—” his breath caught three or four times, rapidly, then he relaxed. He pointed to the lower part of his chest. “It feels like acid burning, right here.” “Wow. What did this letter say that made you feel so bad?” “I don’t know. I forgot what was in it. I burned it.” “What do you mean, burned it? Burned it where?” “Outside.” “You be careful burning things.” “I just wanted to burn it. I wanted to watch it burn.” “Well I don’t like you burning things. That’s how things get burned down. You understand me?” “I understand.” “So no more burning things. Promise?” He nodded. “I’m not burning things. I just wanted to burn that.” “Did it help?” He shook his head. “No.” “Okay. So that’s not the way, is it?” He shrugged. “All right,” his father said. “It’s getting late. You need to eat your dinner and finish your homework. Do you have any?” He shrugged and let his shoulders drop. “I guess.” “Don’t you need to do it?” He shrugged again, and sighed. “I’m getting up.” His father stood up from the bed and went to the door and drummed on it with his fingers. “We’ll talk again later. But I did want to ask you about your language earlier, what that was all about.” Travis sat up in bed. “Nothing.” “Okay. Because you’re going to get your hide tanned talking like that.” “All right.” “Now come get your dinner. That’s enough moping around.” Somehow it had gotten to be almost midnight already. Michael looked again at the numberless face of the tiny alarm clock above the headboard to be sure, and sucked his teeth. The kids were in bed now, or at least in their rooms and quiet. Bradley had come back a few minutes after Vicky, at almost eleven o’clock on a school night, his agitated face pale and desperate, his body reeking of cigarettes. Michael didn’t go near him. Now he had two of them smoking. Two unhappily in love, and two smoking. What was next? He didn’t even want to speculate about that. When it came to Vicky he just crossed his fingers and uttered fervent though probably blasphemous and un-Lutheran prayers under his breath. But he wasn’t ready to deal with any of it, neither Vicky and her young woman’s perils nor the spurned love of adolescent boys, nor the stupidity of these healthy teenagers polluting their bodies with all these vices. With Bradley, he knew that if he’d confronted him he probably would have ended up blowing his top and wanting to cuff the jerk again. It was all he wanted to do lately, every time he saw the little shit sulking past him guiltily, or worse, hovering around trying to score good points off him. So he had just let him go on to his room, glowering, stinking of tobacco, without challenging him about the smell, or the time, and had gone instead to look in on Declan, who was easier to deal with simply because he had already given up on him, in a sense, and tapping at his door and entering his room, he had found him smoking too, as usual, though not cigarettes this time. He was a gentleman now, apparently, this theatrical goofball of a young man, taking after his new actor and writer friends, wearing a thrift-shop paisley quilted vest and smoking some cloyingly sweet loose tobacco out of his grandfather’s old cherry-wood pipe, while writing his poetry, or his novel or play or whatever it was, heaps of yellow pages curling at the edges, composing his careful lines with a long black swan’s feather, of all things, that he had found on the little beach of the lake with the avian sanctuary in the center of town, the hollow shaft pared slantwise and dipped in a bottle of ink—working in this way by the light of a blessed oil lamp on his tortured escritoire, as he called his desk now. Jesus, Michael had hollered at him and thrown a fit, ranting and raving about the flame, and had slammed the door and stormed off, but then he’d thought better of it and gone back and blown the sooty lamp out, cupping his hand above the hot chimney glass, and carried it in to the kitchen to cool. In the morning he would throw the damn thing out. Something about these kids, he thought. Each one seems to want to burn the house down in a different way. Now he was in bed with his wife at last. She was sitting up next to him and he was rubbing her plump leg, hoping for the best. “You want any more of this?” she said, and when he waved it off she tapped the long roach out in a glass ashtray on the nightstand and lay back against the pillows releasing a cloud of smoke so thin and sheer that Michael wondered why she bothered to smoke the stuff at all. “Oh boy,” she sighed. “What a day.” The TV was on. “I can’t watch this again,” she said. “So depressing. Why do they have to have it on all day?” She rocked forward onto her hands and knees, making the waterbed slosh around, and he watched her. She got up and shut the TV off, then turned to face him, her eyes pink and narrow. She was grinning. “I got an idea to cheer you up.” “I didn’t know I was depressed.” She was standing in the narrow space between the bed and the cluttered dresser that the TV sat on. She raised her arms and began rolling them in a gentle motion, that silly grin still on her face. “How’s this?” “I’m depressed, I’m depressed,” he said. “Now take something off.” “I only have one thing on.” She tugged at her gown. “Let me lower the blind.” “Leave it. It’s the Parkers. You know they’ve been asleep for about three hours.” “He sometimes gets up to go to the bathroom.” “Leave the shade alone and do your thing. If he gets up he’ll have the thrill of his life. Then he’ll drop dead of a heart attack.” She laughed, too hard, bent over double, and then straightened up and started her arms going again. She let a shoulder strap fall, and held the tattered lace against her breasts and laughed. She couldn’t stop it. Her face and neck were red. “Now let it slip down.” But she quickly pulled the strap back up, crossed her arms and coughed. Travis stood in the doorway in his pajama pants, staring up at her. “Let what slip down?” he said. The boy’s thin belly stuck out as he scratched his back. “What is it?” Marcia said. “Why are you up?” “What were you doing with your arms?” “Nothing. It’s a dance. Why aren’t you in bed?” “Can I sleep with you guys tonight?” “No—” Michael said. “Aren’t you a bit old for that?” “Don’t even discuss it with him. Send him back to bed. It’s our time.” Travis ignored him, focusing on his mother. “I feel sad,” he said, his voice incredibly tender. “Oh, Jesus.” Michael saw his wife’s hand go to her stomach. “Ten minutes,” she said. “You can lie down with us, but then it’s back to bed and no getting up again.” “Okay,” Travis said, his voice already back to normal. He came over and climbed under the covers, making the whole bed slosh violently. He held up the covers for Marcia, but first she had to put the things away in the drawer of the nightstand. “It’s smoky in here.” “We burned a candle,” Michael said. “I thought that was a fire hazard.” “Not for us. We’re grownups.” “What was on TV?” “Listen, you,” Marcia said. “Go ahead, turn it on.” Michael had his arm under Travis’s head. “He’s wide awake. He’s not going to sleep any time soon.” Marcia went to the dresser, turned the TV back on and dialed around the channels, the picture flipping a few times, and then she came to bed, Johnny Carson on the grainy screen with the volume turned low. “Mom,” Travis said, his eyes fixed on Johnny. “Quiet,” Michael said. “I’m trying to hear.” “What is it?” “Just, it’s been about ten hours already, and it’s not getting better. How’s ten more minutes supposed to help?” “Because you’re with us now.” She glanced past him at Michael with her head tilted, her eyes soft and sympathetic. The bed was moving under them in slow waves. Michael shook his head. “All right, fifteen,” he said, knowing even that was a lie. “But that’s it. You understand?”
RANDAL GENTRY'S stories have appeared in The Green Hills Literary Lantern and Mangrove Review, and his poems in The New Orleans Review, Crab Creek Review, Barnwood, Perigee, Illuminations, and a number of other publications. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children, and is writing a novel.