Charlie awoke to faint mumbling and imagined someone whispering to him as he slept. The sounds, now more audible, came through the bedroom door. He lifted his head up off the pillow and held his breath. A tuft of hair slid down his damp forehead over his eyes. Charlie blinked several times, trying hard to focus on his Bruce Lee poster taped on the satin blue wall. Last month his mother painted his room blue, her favorite color. "Blue hides the dirt better than white does," she reasoned, "which means less cleaning to worry about." Later that month she painted the kitchen blue also.
When Charlie pulled back his sheets, the air felt cold. He left the window cracked a couple of inches open overnight. It must have dropped a few degrees, Charlie thought as he lay on the mattress, arms glued to his side. The room looked the same; no one disturbed anything out of place so as he could see. A lightbulb hung naked from the warped ceiling and tiny dust balls gathered around dozens of books stacked one pile behind another, growing out of the hardwood floor. He stretched over and reached for the alarm clock. The red digits glowed ten fifty-six.
"What's for breakfast?" Charlie asked, rubbing his eyes. A streak of yellow shone through the upturned blinds and bounced off the gleaming chrome lid of the rice cooker.
"It's eleven o'clock," his mother glanced at the clock, " Can't you see I'm busy? Wait another hour and I'll fry some noodles for lunch."
"But I'm hungry!"
"I said wait. Anyway, where were you out to all night?" "At a bar," he answered. "With Sam. All we ate was popcorn and maybe some pretzels. How about anything leftover to reheat?"
She wrung the old mop unconsciously in the laundry basin, her back facing Charlie, intent on finishing her cleaning for the morning.
"You know the Feud comes on in a few minutes so I don't have time to waste." She draped the wet mop across the sink to dry, leaning the handle down as support and hung her apron on the hook beneath the telephone. The kitchen smelled of Pine Sol.
"C'mon, Ma. I skipped dinner," he pleaded.
His mother grabbed the Corned Flakes box from a pantry shelf and sighed. Smiling, Charlie plunked himself down, almost missing the chair. She poured the cereal into a bowl and said, "Get the milk yourself," when someone in the next room whooped.
"Your grandma's calling," she chirped. "Damn Jacksons must have won again. It'll be seven times in a row if they did."
Staring ahead at the wall, Charlie munched his Corned Flakes. Still that ugly blue, he thought. His mother hurried through the hall into the living room.
His mother and grandmother sat on opposite loveseats flanking the thirty-six inch color Magnavox. Both of them leaned forward, elbows propped on the seat arm, palms cupping their chins, anxious to hear every word and gasp. The volume was turned up loud. They were watching Family Feud so transfixed that Charlie entered the room unnoticed.
On the television screen the host Richard Dawson sported a fashionable gray pinstriped suit which exaggerated the optical illusion of his sveltness. In fact, all the contestants on the show looked thin except for the woman standing next to Richard. Nearly six foot tall and weighing about three hundred pounds, the woman resembled a larger Nell Carter. Richard clutched as much of her waist as he could while pointing to the big overhead scoreboard.
"Chocolate mousse," he shouted, and the lights flashed open forty-two points. Her family on the sidelines yawped as the woman pumped her fists upward, almost belting Richard on the jaw; the studio audience clapped knowledgeably.
"That was the number one answer, by the way," Richard added, composing himself. The woman needed only twenty-two points more to win the five thousand-dollar jackpot.
The camera switched to show the scoreboard again. In the answer column just below CHOCOLATE MOUSSE was PLAYGIRL. Some loose guffaws echoed from the back rows.
"Name of a women's monthly magazine," Richard lisped, prompting more giggles, "and you say..." Richard feigned an indignant gesture which solicited uproarious laughter. Now the woman realized her gaffe and sensing the worse, bit her frowned lip. Richard paused to prolong the anticipation and offered an optimistic word. She ignored him to glance at her family, fingers crossed.
"Dumb answer," said Charlie just loud enough to jar his mother and grandmother out of their trance. "She choked." Both jerked their heads at him, visibly annoyed.
"Look at her," his mother said. His grandmother quickly patted at her breast, trying to regain her calm. "You nearly scared her to death." Charlie chuckled. "It's not funny. Didn't I teach you any manners? She frightens very easily," she chastised. He lowered his head, contrite. "Yes, you taught me manners." Charlie then facing his grandmother whispered, "I'm sorry." The old lady smiled, nodded to accept his apology, and returned her gaze to watch Richard.
"...Playgirl," Richard finally said. The contestant winced when she saw that her last answer scored only two points. Richard hugged the woman and commiserated, "Vogue. People named that the number one answer, but keep your chin up: you still won five dollars for every point you earned."
"What did I say? Talk about stupid-- Playgirl?!" Charlie snickered. His grandmother shushed him to be quiet, but he continued, "Duh, name of a porno mag is ... duh, Good Housekeeping," now laughing heartily at his own joke.
"Didn't you hear your grandma? The show's still going on, and she wants to see the rest, so please settle down," requested his mother.
"Yes," Charlie stopped, incredulous. "But why? I mean, she doesn't even speak the language, let alone understand what they're saying. So what I make noise. She's only watching the show, not listening to it!"
"You're being rude is why. Your grandma might not be able to know what's being said, but she can tell what's going on."
"Oh, c'mon. How can she tell?" Charlie demanded.
"If you'd bothered to ask her, you'll be surprised at how she figures out what's happening just by the facial expressions and body language."
"Yeah, that makes sense for All My Children or even Three's Company, but Family Feud? It's a game show about people naming the most popular whatever. Knowing what the people say is the whole idea for seeing the damn show! Tell me the logic behind her attraction to it!"
"Well, she derives great pleasure watching anyone, who wants to, try to win cash. Remember where she comes from, people worked hard, very hard, just to make ends meet. So it amazes her that you can get some money by simply answering some questions on TV." Charlie kept silent. "Now if that is to your satisfaction, calm down, and let her watch in peace."
Richard had calculated the consolation prize to total five hundred and forty dollars when the woman broke down in defeat, sobbing, "I blew it!" repeatedly, a quivering, hysterical blob. Taken aback by her outburst, Richard stood rigid at first, speechless. A few long seconds passed before he finally reacted. "Now, now, dearie," he cooed, holding his handkerchief out to her like a flag of truce, "there's no need to be upset." Another woman, the one closest to the podium, rushed around the microphone table towards her weeping sister as a dumbfounded Richard, attempting to restore decorum, opened his arms and gingerly embraced her, hoping to shore up her spirits. Without warning, the big crying woman screamed, "No!" and pushed Richard off his feet. "Don't touch her!" The other woman, startled by but unsure of what just happened, flung herself between the two. Richard withdrew his hands and slowly held them up in mock surrender. "I only meant to comfort her," he weakly protested, stepping forward. "Leave her be!" Her sister warned and stuck her hand into Richard's chest, stopping him dead in his tracks.
"I'll be damned. They're about to fight -- right on TV!" exclaimed Charlie as he moved closer to the set, "It's gotta be a stunt because no way in hell can this shit be for real."
"Take your hand off me!" Richard slapped her hand aside and pointed his finger in between her eyes, his face flushed beet red, "Don't YOU touch ME, you little sh-." Before he could finish his sentence, the other woman slugged him across his jaw. Richard staggered back, half conscious, bumping into her larger blubbering sister. She clutched him, hoping he could support her frame, only to have Richard break her fall, his squished body cushioning the momentum of her full weight. He was out cold as onstage people ran about in pandemonium; some towards Richard, others to the contestants trying to calm everyone down.
"God, and I thought Geraldo getting punched was funny," Charlie commented, flipping the volume up, "but now Ive seen everything."
"Did you have to turn it up so loud? Not that we can't see the spectacle enough without you blasting our eardrums off." His mother rose and turned as if to walk away but paused, looking back at her son doubled up, cackling maliciously only to have his grandmother shush him to be quiet.
Someone wearing a headset, maybe the director, gently shook Richard, lifelessly sprawled out on the floor, and then screamed above the din for an ambulance. In a panic, two interns shouting, "Dicks hurt! Dick's hurt!" crisscrossed their headphone wires and tumbled into the cameras.
"Talk about surreal," said Charlie, still giggling, "but enough silliness, let's watch something else. Like maybe the news. That ought to be just as funny." Charlie reached for the dial.
"No," said his grandmother. Her furrowed brow betrayed her concern for the injured Richard.
"It's about over, Grandma, besides Richard's not really hurt. He's faking a injury because he's too embarrassed to get up. People'll laugh at him and he knows it." He reached for the dial again.
"What did she say?" his mother interrupted, "leave it."
"But we'd rather watch the news, wouldn't we, Grandma?"
Annoyed, she glared at him and shook her head no.
Charlie reached for the dial a third time, but his grandmother intercepted him before he could change the channel. She gripped his wrist, struggling to pull his arm away. He managed to pry two of her fingers off his forearm, saying, "Okay, I get the message so let go." As she relaxed her hold, Charlie flipped the dial anyway, and smirked. Outraged, his grandmother changed the channel back, cocked her eyes at her grandson, and stood guard. Not again, thought Charlie as she grabbed at his arm when he attempted to turn the dial. "I don't want to hurt you," he warned as he jerked her hands away violently, accidentally shoving his grandmother backward. She lost her balance and fell back, feet up, into her chair, banging her body loudly.
His mother rushed to her side, nearly knocking over an endtable and two vases. "Are you hurt?" she asked. "He didn't mean to do it on purpose."
"I'm sorry, but it's her fault," Charlie offered.
His grandmother got up slowly from her seat and faced Charlie. He stood tense as she clenched her fists so hard the veins popped on her forearms. Even her whole body shook.
"Calm down now, mother," her daughter advised, "No need to work yourself up."
She nodded at her, turned, swung her rigid arm upward and roundhoused Charlie across the mouth. Blood trickled from where she struck. Charlie remained still, his lip throbbing with pain. His mother gasped; she knew what to expect next, but froze.
Charlie grabbed his grandmother.
"STOP!" his mother cried. But it was too late. Charlie slammed the old woman onto the floor and began kicking as hard as he could. In horror his mother ran toward them and shouldered him away. He moved back and looked down at his crumpled grandmother: he was hyperventilating like a drooling maddog. "Get out, you hear! GET OUT!" she shrieked. Charlie knew saying anything would waste his breath so he closed his mouth and walked away.
Looking in the mirror Charlie examined his lower lip. Her jade wedding band caught the soft tissue above the chin, puffing up the area so it would be too sensitive to touch. He reflected on what attracted his mother and grandmother to become Family Feud addicts. Everyday usually around eleven and later in the evening after the network news, both of them would congregate to watch Richard. Was it guessing at answers that required intuition, not education? Or was it family bonds working together always cheering that inane "Good answer"? Or maybe simply cash?
"I don't get it," he wondered aloud, applying flesh-colored makeup close to his fat lip. He wiped the excess cream off his cheek and leaned forward to inspect his handiwork. A stubborn cake of oiled powder, jutting out from his chin, chafed his fingertip as he rubbed to blend in the odd spot. Not that bad a job he told himself and made a mental note to replace the makeup next time out. As he opened the bathroom door, he heard sirens.
The fluorescent light outside formed a silver rectangle across her covers. Charlie sat alone near the foot of her bed in the dark. Visiting hours had ended almost two hours ago, but no one came to tell him to go. He noticed the walls were painted a light blue.
"Someone should repaint these walls," he mumbled. Charlie uncrossed his legs and thought.
"Maybe white," he decided.