Perfect Like on TV

Perfect Like on TV charcoal drawing
Perfect Like on TV short story illustration. Charcoal drawing by author.

Perfect Like on TV

Dolores was the boy’s mother.  Dolores was always either incredibly happy or incredibly sad.  Dolores was unstable like this because of what had happened to her as a little girl.

Dolores and her sisters had been kidnapped when they were girls and taken to a secret location over a thousand miles away by their alcoholic father.  Dolores’ father took the girls just to spite his wife for being unfaithful, and they were gone for a year or two, almost two years.  The boy could tell it had been traumatic for his mother Dolores and her sisters in the end, but Dolores always talked about how much fun they had all had in California and how wonderful it was.

Dolores had only been five or six at the time her father drove away with them out of the blue one day, and southern California must surely have seemed wonderful and remarkably different to a child taken from Mississippi before air conditioning.  Suddenly it was wasn’t sweaty or humid or cold any more, and it was sunny all the time, and there were all these places to swim, and no mosquitos, and there were fruit trees everywhere and rolling hills, and everything else that “you kids just wouldn’t believe, and it was just perfect like on TV.”

Dolores always described California to the boy and his sister that way, “perfect like on TV,” and she really believed it. No matter what the boy’s father might have to say, Dolores knew the world wasn’t dumpy and poor like the Mississippi Delta, drunk and beat down, all mosquitos and humidity.  She had actually seen it.  She had actually been there.  Through her six-year-old eyes, rural California had been a type of paradise in real life, and not just the weather or the landscape or the trees growing everywhere with fruit you could just pick and eat.  Everything about California had been how life should be.

First there was the ongoing adventure of constantly bouncing around between different families while their father worked oil and construction jobs. Then there were all these melodramatic reunions when he would get fired for drinking or laid off.  Dolores and her sisters got to stay with their cousins for weeks at a time during these reunions.  There was even a cousin the same age as Dolores to pal around with, and all the girls slept in the same bed and stayed up all night talking anyway.  In terms of diversions and excitement, it was more like summer camp than real life.  At least it was to six-year-old Dolores, who didn’t have to fight the strange men off the way her older sisters did at every new house they boarded in.

Over the years, time and all the television shows set in southern California had magnified these happy memories in Dolores’ mind to the point that they warped her perceptions, and warped them to an extent that was clinical.  In Dolores’s mind, television shows became less fictional and more like a glimpse of what was really possible, a world she really remembered, a world that she knew existed, no matter how impossibly perfect.  In terms of relationships and lifestyle and material success, life really was like the TV shows portrayed it.  Or at least it was for women who hadn’t married the boy’s father.

The boy hadn’t yet figured out why his mother Dolores tended to believe nearly everything she saw on television, but he was painfully aware that his father was the exact opposite.  His father’s big break in life had been getting hired on as a welder for the pipeline company.  He worked in a loud-as-hell tin building full of giant compressor engines.  After sweating all day in the tin building, he would come home and drink about five or six beers while he welded “jobs on the side.”  The boy’s father welded these extra jobs in the open shop that stood between their house and field full of junked cars hid in head-high weeds.  By the time the boy’s father sat down to the dinner table, his ears would be ringing, his face would be sunburnt, and his shirt would be off his sweaty pot belly.

Dolores cried a lot at the dinner table.  Dolores would look at the boy’s father, and sometimes the boy could actually see the devastation coming into her face.

short story by Joe Riverson Smith