“Ma, we need to make a commercial,” I told her.
“A commercial? Is this Keating’s class?” She said it like we’d been attending the same classes together. She was cleaning the fridge and mopping the floor and cooking a pot of gravy and probably doing fifteen other chores beyond my knowledge at the same time. She always did that. It was like breathing to her.
“How long have you had for this project?” she asked, snapping her head around to catch my expression.
“I don’t know – a few weeks.”
“A few weeks!?! And it’s due tomorrow?” I nodded because it was futile to argue with her. She was right. Besides, in the event you started to win an argument with Mom, you were unwittingly putting yourself at further bodily risk. If you pushed her far enough there was a chance you might catch a flying sandal to the chin. And her aim was lethal. She was like the Dennis Eckersley of moms.
“Well,” she said, “when did you plan on getting started?”
“Brad’s coming over with a camera in a few minutes. Shouldn’t take more than an hour since we already know what we’re doing.”
Mom had one of those smirks on her face. The ones where her top lip crinkles over her bottom lip and her molars grind just enough so you can hear the squeaking of enamel. The one that said even she knew that I knew I was full of shit.
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“I don’t know. Something with gnomes.”
“Gnomes? Aren’t you afraid of gnomes? Lord help us if we ever bumped into someone under five feet at the grocery store. You’d scream your head off.”
“Not anymore, Ma. I was, like, three when I did that.”
“Well, not too much has changed,” she said.
The doorbell rang and our toy poodle, Sparky, yapped like mad. Poor dog was dealing with a perpetual identity crisis. He thought he was a Doberman.
Brad came in with a video camera three times the size of his head—which, at the time, was cutting-edge. We didn’t have the first clue of how to operate the damn thing.
“Do you guys know how to work the camera?” Mom asked with that same, sage-like smirk on her face again.
“Of course, Ma. What do you think we’re a couple of morons?” She didn’t respond, as this was more of a rhetorical question in my household—a kind of modified greeting of sorts, akin to ‘Good morning’ or ‘Good night’ or “Gusundheit” (which I never heard anyone in my family actually say).
“So who’s in the commercial?” she asked.
“Both of us,” said Brad. And we explained our premise for the piece; how we’d be trying to sell a product called ‘Miracle Growth Pellets’ to our customers; how they were pills that could turn a tadpole into Wilt Chamberlain overnight; how we’d wear shoes on our knees to make us look shorter.
We had it all planned out, except for one minute detail.
“Who’s working the camera?” Brad and I looked at each other—the default response for anyone with the foresight of a 12-year-old boy. “Ok,” Mom said without us having to ask. “I’ll be down there in a minute.”
‘Down’ was our name for the basement, a mad scientist’s laboratory of sorts, where a multitude of school projects had been born unto this world. It was also where my dad had hooked up the Nintendo to an old, console television set, so after a few games of Duck Hunt we finally got around to practicing our lines. Only, we hadn’t written any lines, so we just kind of made them up as we went along—which worked pretty well when we were just screwing around.
The thing was, our acting skills weren’t as adept when the camera got rolling; and getting the camera rolling was another problem altogether.
“How in the world do you work this thing?” Mom asked, heaving the contraption up on her shoulder.
“Just press this button here,” I told her. Apparently it wasn’t that simple, because after we shot the first take and went on to view our results, there was nothing on the screen but an endless wave of static. For a second I felt like that creepy, little girl staring at her television screen in the movie Poltergeist.
“Crap,” I said.
“Watch your language,” Mom snapped. “We’ll get it on the next try.”
But we didn’t.
Brad started laughing about two lines in. And we didn’t get it on the next try either. Or the try after that…or the try after that. Each time, a different obstacle befell us: the phone was ringing; the dog started barking; we’d forget lines—or just be cracking jokes outright in the middle of it.
Six O’ Clock became seven. Seven became eight…and then nine…and then ten. About the only positive thing that happened on our commercial in those four hours was that we learned how to work the camera. Or so we thought.
Mom was getting that look on her face where I knew we better stop messing around. Sandal-tossing season seemed imminent, and I was the only logical target in the room. It’s not like she would peg my friend Brad with any of her footwear. Mom’s projectiles were strictly of the bloodline-seeking variety. But, trust me, she had no qualms about creating witnesses. Brad knew this well.
After a 10:30 take in which I found it funny to cast a set of bunny ears behind the head of an ultra-short Brad, Mom lost it.
“Darn it, guys!” she shouted. “Let’s get this shinola done already! This is your last chance or you can find a new camera operator.” Only she didn’t say ‘darn’ and it certainly didn’t sound like ‘shinola’.
The light of the camera was blinking its evil, red eye as she spoke.
“I think we just recorded that,” Brad said.
“Whatever,” I said. “We’ll tape over it. Let’s just get it right.” And I’m happy to say our next take was a real gem. Maybe a bit shorter than some of our other takes, but priceless and comedic nonetheless.
We were pretty excited to show the commercial the next day in Ms. Keating’s class. Everyone was roaring when Brad came shuffling out with his shoes on his knees. And they were cracking up by the time he’d taken a growth pellet, woke up, and stood towering over me, the salesman, now with the shoes down on my knees. We found ourselves quite amusing.
But, I assure you, Mom stole the show.
As I walked to the front of the classroom to retrieve the tape, a funny thing happened that I didn’t find very funny at the time.
“Darn it, guys!” I heard Mom shouting (I only wished it was ‘darn’). I looked up at the screen and saw Brad and me standing there passively, just as we had the night before. I ran to the VCR to hit the stop button. “Let’s get this shinola done alre—“ I was too late. The class was in hysterics. All the blood had risen to my face. Ms. Keating used her grade book to cover her nose and mouth—presumably to stifle a laugh that would have compromised her iron-clad allegiance to professionalism. Brad looked at me with his jaw dropped open.
What I didn’t know at the time, as I stood there shell-shocked and staring into the cackling faces of my classmates, was how that precise moment would mark the beginning of the next three years answering bizarre questions about my mom. Years that were filled with responses like ‘No, my mother does not have a trucker handle or a CB radio’ and “No, Mom was never a naval commander during the Second World War.”
That day, when I came home from school and told Mom what she’d spouted off in my class, I thought she was ready to pack up the house and move to another town. There may have been a part of me that hoped she’d get her bags and do it. If I would have been on speaking terms with her during those first few weeks after the bombs dropped, I may have even told her so.
But I’m glad I didn’t, because when you allow time to step between yourself and your initial reactions, a jolly little fellow named Perspective comes by to visit. He has a bad habit of making you feel stupid at first, but in no time flat you’ll realize that a tiny pinch of embarrassment is one of the great spices of life. Often, it’s just the ingredient to build some of those flavorful moments that never quite leave you, and that always make you crack a smile no matter where you are and no matter how hard you try to hold it back.
My mom is always good at helping me realize little details like that. After all, she’s the only reason I know the difference between shit and shinola.