She’s not supposed to mix alcohol with her pills. Not supposed to drink at all, but how else can she fill the hollow?
She misses cocaine and Valium, that chemical seesaw, the duo that blotted out the 90s and half the decade after. Those years after the show. After Tony stopped calling.
She recalls 1983, their second season, swaying to “Karma Chameleon” in Tony’s dressing room, sharing a joint, some Jack and Cokes, an even cooler mom backstage, doling out career advice, warning of Hollywood pitfalls. Cheekboned and hip, doobie angled in her mouth like Lauren Bacall, whom Tony’d never heard of.
“I wish you were my real mom,” Tony had said. “You’re a bodacious fox. Totally banging.”
Not like now. Still bathrobed at noon. Hair thinning, skin blotchy and slack. The prescription pills make her gain weight. Decidedly unbodacious.
“You’re a disgusting cow,” she says to the old woman in the mirror.
The eyes of a hostile stranger stare back.
The audience titters and whoops.
Rex’s failed diet episode has almost 400,000 views. For his high school reunion he tries on his old baseball uniform and looks like the Michelin Man. Like a striped egg. Then come the spinach shakes and sauna-suits. The exercise bike. Whining on the bathroom scale. Sit-ups and pushups and a grouchy, forever hungry and complaining Rex. They conspire against him. Tony leaves pizza slices around like traps. She cooks deserts for a nonexistent bake sale. At the end of the episode Rex devours a whole apple pie and pats his gut.
“There’s no place like the belly,” he says.
Applause and laughter.
Her and Tony were a team and he loved her still, she was sure, even if he never called. There’s no bond stronger than mother and son.
From her parked car she observes Tony’s son through binoculars.
She used to watch Tony like this after the show finished. There is comfort in continuity. Like her life is a two-parter.
She’s seen her grandson scrape his knee. She’s seen him teased by a bully. How painful to witness the tears of the one you love, just out of reach and beyond comfort.
Once, stung by something—maybe a wasp, impossible to tell from the distance—he was inconsolable. Howling on the grass, clutching his arm, his stupid nanny slack jawed and useless.
Her heart exploded that time. The hollow feeling so bad she’d squeezed the steering wheel till her joints ached.
She rents a storage space big enough for a bus. It’s perfect. No windows mean she can control the light. Concrete walls make it nearly soundproof.
For a little extra, the manager agrees to let her paint the walls. He assures her the outlets work.
As he counts her money he glances up. “Don’t I know you from somewhere? Weren’t you on TV?”
She smiles and bats her eyelashes. “Everyone says that.”
Ironic laughter from the audience.
His nanny is negligent, anyone can see that. Always on her phone, doing whatever people do on them. She hates these gadgets. How they numb and dumb us. No real connection anymore and children need to be talked to and touched. Held.
But she can’t. Can’t come within three hundred feet. Parked this close to the playground, she’s actually breaking the law. Tony made her a criminal. Though even here, illicit across the street, she can only imagine her grandson’s honeyed smell. Barely make out the singsong of his voice.
Her grandson digs in the sandbox. His laughter whinnies and her heart surges like a wave.
“Grandma’s here,” she whispers toward the playground. “Right over here.”
A wind blows through the hollow of her like air in an empty bottle.
Sniffles from the audience. Longing sighs.
A pitcher of strawberry margaritas smooths her edges but the hollow remains.
Her body feels loose, the ill-fitted suit of a stranger. A motor oil blackness stuffs her head. Especially when she dwells on the restraining order or her crucifixion in the media. Or when she reads the nasty comments under her clips. She tries to skip them but some seem positive before they veer cruelly.
“The funniest actress to ever grace the small screen. How tragic she snuffed success up her nose.”
“Heartbreaking. Stalking her TV son. The saddest psycho in the world.”
Why do people only remember the bad things? Why can’t they understand she’s not perfect and never was? That what she does, she does out of love?
Like Tony. His final message: “Stay away or I’ll fucking bury you.”
Who talks to their mother like that?
What had she ever done but love him?
They were in a bad patch, that’s all. Sometime lawyers and police had to be involved. Life gets complicated. The hollow feeling comes and with it problems. Tony needed his space. And problems can’t always be joked or hugged away.
Like the episode where Tony secretly gets tickets to the Mötley Crüe concert and she finds out and locks him in his room. He tells her he’ll never speak to her again and doesn’t for the entire show, writing his responses on a notepad: “Yes.” “No.” “Bite me, Mom.” Then it turns out his friend smoked a PCP-laced joint at the concert and jumped off a building, thinking he could fly. She hugs Tony so tight. At the end of that show Vince Neil does a cameo and lectures on the dangers of drugs.
The audience goes wild.
670,000 views for that clip because people know it can’t all be laughs.
She knows this better now that she’s stopped taking her pills. The hollow fills her like a gas leak.
A collective Awww from the audience.
She’d always detested the color of the living room walls. The set designer said yellow was a “funny color.” How can a color be funny? She still wonders.
Hate it or not, she matches the storage space walls with the closest paint swatch—Spring Fling.
The painters do a bang-up job. The walls glow the exact dandelion of the Raising Tony set. It’s almost home.
Nostalgia floods the hollow: running lines before the shoot; last minute script and blocking changes; a dirty joke with the muscled cameraman; vocal warm-ups; applause;
She watches as her grandson dawdles on the swings, ignored by the nanny. A snooty college girl, tanned legs and ponytail, perfect skin and the easy laugh of the young.
Probably Tony bangs her. Probably she tells her friends, I’m banging a movie star! Probably texts it right now while the boy’s arms droop and his legs dangle in the dirt, unswung.
How can Tony leave her grandson in the care of this tramp? After all she’d taught him, the years of Raising Tony, how does he not know better?
“Priapic,” Rex had called him, though Tony didn’t know the word. Tony didn’t like Rex. Didn’t get his humor. They were fine onstage, but offstage.
“A washed up dickweed,” Tony had said and she’d agreed.
Rex’s breath reeked of coffee and teeth issues. He liked to joke about having “Russian hands and Roman fingers,” pinching her ass too hard.
She’d never loved Rex like a husband. Not really, not in her heart, not like she loved Tony from his first day on set.
She raised him. Taught him.
Her Lil’ Tiger. Her son.
Most props are easily found. The exact coffee table and lamps. Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” and the sad clown paintings. The dark pine dining room table where they’d have “serious talks.”
The old television was super-duper easy. The same model exactly. Broken, but no need to turn it on. Nothing worth watching anyway, these days.
The top rated show for four years running and zero profanity. Writers had to be clever, not cheap, not like these days with their fart jokes and sex humor. Writers were artists in the 80s. Tasteful.
“I love how you speak my words,” Charles used to say. “Like we share the same mind.”
He’d been charming and talented and great in bed. He’d had front row seats for the Go-Go’s at the Hollywood Bowl. She’d spent an hour after the show swallowed by teenage autograph hunters and their rabid mothers while Charles stood to the side, laughing. He’d raised his hands in surrender, mouthing: they love you, what can you do?
They still loved her. 400,000 views for the episode where Tony decides to bake a birthday cake for her and uses salt instead of sugar. So many warm comments, so much love, after three decades of near-oblivion. Her audience, invisible and everywhere (even China!) and so many.
They eat the cake anyway, not wanting to hurt his feelings. Rex makes a face like he’s eating road kill. She grins through her whole slice.
Hysterical laughter from the audience.
God but her legs were thin then. Like Ivory tusks.
And Tony proud as can be. He promised to cook her birthday cakes forever. He’d made so many promises.
She skips her audition and drives to the park instead. She feels as though she’s reclaimed her life. At sixty-five, she’s exhausted with detergent and antacid ads. Why can’t her agent find her anything else? The stalking scandal is ancient history.
The answer waits, as always, in the rearview mirror of her car: That stranger’s face, permanent dissatisfaction time-etched into it, eased only by her too-white smile, the denouement of every twenty-second spot. Smiles and head shakes of amazement, another product-produced miracle. Ta-da.
The boy slumps on the swing, bored, eager for contact, for someone to just talk to him.
She’ll tell him how she skipped her denture ad audition to see him.
How she once played Nora in A Dollhouse.
Desdemona in Othello.
How she’d been singled out in Variety for her part as a junkie in a Gene Hackman film. She’d died like a champ.
Then Raising Tony. The runaway hit.
They’ll watch all the old episodes.
They’ll count the views together.
Everything can be a teaching moment.
The little boy talks to himself on the swing. Her heart does a somersault.
Comedy is pain plus time. So why aren’t things funnier? Why does the hollow grow larger?
The couch was the challenge—the manufacturer long out of business. She has it custom made, costing a fortune but worth every cent. It’s parsley-green and smells brand new. She stretches her flabby body on it and the hollow subsides.
Every show ended on the couch. A kiss from Rex, a zinger from her, Tony’s wide-eyed glare—the glare that made him famous. Then resolution and closure, kissing Tony’s hair, soft as Chinese silk.
“I love you, Mom.”
“I love you too, Tony McBony.”
Applause and the credits roll.
Families don’t sit together anymore, not like they used to. The couch is the hub of a good home. The home every child needs.
She sets up the camera, squinting the frame. The couch is centered and she zooms out till it’s just right. A wide shot of the living room. The same as the show. Exactly the same.
She hears the theme music in her head. She feels thirty years younger. What is it about cameras? Why so sexy?
The muscled cameraman had taken her on this couch. His mustache tickling her neck, grazing her belly. She’d loved Charles but that cameraman, his voice a growl, he was something. And his camera loved her.
She wears a wig, just in case. She wouldn’t be surprised if Tony warned the nanny. God knows what terrible things he might have said about her. He lied all the time. Lies lies lies. How can a mother be blamed for watching over her son? For loving too much?
She adjusts her wig in the mirror. Lovely black curls, close to what her hair used to be, though not as thick or soft, of course.
She’s imagined stepping out of the car and crossing the street so many times, it feels perfect when she places her binoculars on the dashboard and actually does it. Rehearsed but natural. Completely in the moment.
Charles might have wrote it differently. Maybe a gun, the Chekov thing.
He’d have her shoot the nanny in the back of the head. Deliver a pithy line as skull explodes over park bench, ponytail dangling between skinny legs, dribbling bits of brain onto her sneakers.
Vigorous applause from the audience.
The boy slips down the slide, runs to the top again. Not yet, she thinks. Wait for the cue. Wait for the other people to go.
Or a baseball bat, like Tony’s from the episode where he strikes out in the bottom of the 9th.
Rex lectures him on a “Winner’s attitude.”
She delivers her zinger: “Rex, you talking about winning is like Gandhi talking about hamburgers.”
The swing and hit, the reverb in her arms, the sound of a split log.
Or a garrote. Her hands were still strong, no arthritis like her mother. A quick “guess-who?” from behind, over neck instead of eyes, then the squeeze, wire biting soft flesh, leaning back, giving it her all, as the nanny’s eyes strain toward the memory of air, her face shifting from tan to pink to purple.
The cameraman’s joke: “What’s the difference between pink and purple? The grip.”
Hoots from the audience.
The boy is on the other side of the playground. She worries about him, so high on the jungle gym. But this is her cue. No one else is there.
She steps behind the nanny, clutching the knife.
Her cue: grandson turned away, swinging like a monkey, singing to himself.
A teacher once told her a good actor sees the whole scene in their head before it happens. A good actor lives it, again and again, in their “mental theater.”
She’s lived it many times already. The soft steps behind, the sweep of the knife, like cutting a ripe melon, the gurgle and pop of crimson bubbles. The gasp for never-arriving air.
Applause and cheers.
Her grandson is terrified in the car. She holds his little hand as she speeds. The scene perfectly played.
She grabbed him from the jungle gym, told him about the killer in the park, how they must “Run!” She’d ran and carried him—so light in her arms, no more than a sack of groceries—covering his eyes so he wouldn’t see the red slopping his nanny’s sports bra. The crack in her throat. She felt his little heart pound at her breast, her legs throbbing but sturdy.
She’d even remembered a child’s seat. Buckled in, his body limp as a noodle, brown eyes wide and staring like Tony’s, how nervous he’d been before the first show. She’d hugged him backstage and told him he’d “kill it,” and he did.
“We’re going to make a stop, then call the police,” she tells him and he nods, or doesn’t, maybe it’s the bumps of the road, his body floppy, stare vacant. She worries about his diet, plans dinner, something healthy. Soup maybe.
At the storage place she notices the bloody handprint on his shirt and mumbles a curse. She’d forgotten clothes. Wardrobe.
How stupid! What else has she forgotten?
“It’ll be ok,” she tells him though he doesn’t seem quite there as she yanks down the corrugated door, the sound like thunder.
“Hush, don’t cry, Lil’ Tiger.”
Just like she said to Tony when his Guinea Pig died, maybe Charles’ best episode, with nearly a million views. Rex stands in the hallway with the replacement animal, a twin of Casper, the one he’d hunted for all over town to trick Tony. Instead she’d told the truth.
“Casper has passed on.”
She’d turned it into a lesson. Her little man ready for the tough wisdom of love and loss.
Tears and applause.
Settled on the couch, a perfect little Tony, shivering away the horrors of the afternoon. He’s so much cuter than Gary Coleman or Ricky Schroder, even cuter than Tony was. She’ll do better this time. She’ll teach him the simple truth of family. How family is forever.
She tells him its naptime. “Sleep is food for the young.”
Though his eyes are wide. As if they’ll never close.
She tightens the ropes. She’s used bathrobe belts so his tender skin doesn’t chafe. She pulls a soft blanket to his chin. Canned soup simmers on the hot plate. For the first time in ages her hollow fills. It runs over with the pleasure of comforting the one she loves.
When he calms down she’ll tell him who she is, watch his mouth form an oval of surprise. She’ll clutch his sweet-smelling hair to her breast.
Kids don’t care if her boobs have drooped and are no longer beautiful. Kids are pure love.
They’ll have so much fun, grandma and grandson.
The show can carry on till she’s elderly—a wisecracking octogenarian, maybe with a cane and a spicy sense of humor (though never crass), a no-bullshit woman a la Nancy Reagan. She’ll teach him how to deal with Tony and Rex, how to get the best of them. She’ll have edgy zingers but a soft side, especially for him, and millions of viewers.
But it’s so hard.
She tells him not to look at the camera.
“It breaks the illusion,” she says. “You have to pretend there’s a wall there. Can you pretend, Lil’ Tiger?”
But it seems he can’t. All he can do is cry and strain against the ropes that keep him in place, upright on the couch. His little face isn’t camera ready at all but red and smeared with snot and tears. She remembers what WC Fields said, something about never working with animals or children.
Though Tony’s sobs never annoyed. No desperation or hysteria in them. His tears were measured, professional, tugging the audience’s heartstrings. They stopped on cue.
After, she’d hug Tony and deliver the lesson. And all always ended well.
Then claps and cheers.
Like the show where Tony ran away from home and left her a note saying how he hated her because she’d grounded him for stealing her pin money and spending it on fireworks. He didn’t hate her. He came back crying, her Lil’ Tiger again. The family went to 4th of July fireworks. Tip O’Neill made a cameo and talked about patriotism and family values.
Thunderous applause from the audience.
Almost 300,000 views for that one. And most of the comments were lovely. Loving. They missed her and the show. They’d give anything to see her again.
The boy won’t stop screaming.
A tireless siren. An aural torture that churns the dark waters in her head. Her loose skin feels tight. She longs for a drink but has brought nothing to the storage space. Another thing she forgot.
He strains against the ropes and she considers options. Sometimes one has to improvise—lines are dropped, tech cues missed. One needs to be quick on their feet. Adapt.
And she’s good at improvisation. Everyone always said so.
Like the final episode when Tony goes away to college (450,000 views). They hug on the couch, her tears real, as he promises he’ll write everyday. He tells her he loves her, that she made him the man he was and the audience cheers, and she improvises a line, saying “I’ll never leave you, I’m always right here,” and she touches his forehead, just like E.T.
And the audience gives a standing ovation.
At last the boy sits still and quiet. It didn’t take long, only an hour after the soup. Though he’d complained that it was “bitter,” glaring at her, Tony’s glare, and cried through the last spoons of it.
She undoes his ropes and arranges him on the couch, leaving the camera running. His tears long dried.
“I’m tired, mother. Tired of everything.”
She tells him she understands. She feels the same. Exactly the same.
The Lil’ Tiger is an angel when he sleeps.
She strokes Tony’s hair, his little legs curling on the couch. This green ship where they’ve weathered storms and shared everything. Where will it take them now? Together forever.
Charles’ words in her mouth, his pitch-perfect closer. Though her tongue is sluggish and thick. Her gestures clumsy, as though underwater. The light fades as she struggles through her exit speech.
Only the camera light is strong. Near-blinding. Blinking heavy, she makes out the form of the muscled cameraman behind it.
He smiles. Winks.
Beyond him sits a shadow audience. Faceless and silent. Watching as they always do, forever and ever.
Her eyelids heavy curtains closing, she awaits their applause.
Originally published in Black Candies: The Eighties, edited by Ryan Bradford & Julia Dixon Evans.