It was sometime during the summer that Billy and Patty realized their father, Lawrence Shag, mister to his friends, sir to his children, was finally going crazy, and that there was nothing they could do about it. He had always been somewhat strange, even before Mrs. Shag had left, but his eccentricities and quirks were turned upside down after she'd gone. He would keep all the lights off in the house, day or night. In the middle of the evening, he would wake and rise, having to piss, and take a flashlight into the bathroom, shining the yellow rays down into the toilet, laughing as his urine filled the bowl. Through their thin bedroom walls, Billy and Patty would wake and creep out into the hallway and watch their father giggle as he would flush the urine away. Mr. Shag would stay up at night in the living room, dressed in a formal suit and yellow tie, his black shoes bright and shiny, and watch taped episodes of Matlock and Columbo. He liked the way they could solve mysteries, the way they could figure things out. He wished deep down that he could be like them.
However, Mr. Shag felt his calling was something other than sleuth work, something much more important to him. He was a filmmaker, making home movies with his children that he would submit
to America's Funniest Home Videos for an appearance on the air and their ten thousand dollar funniest video prize. His videos were not normal, however, far apart from the usual golf club to the crotch or cat crashing into the sliding-glass door. His videos had stories, and stunts, and other cinematic elements; staged works of art, as he was convinced.
He had come close to winning twice before, once with a Girl vs. Tree—a short clip of his daughter Patty decorating the family Christmas tree, the large green triangle falling over on her—and another time with Riding Dogback—a beautifully filmed piece where his son Billy rode the neighbors dog around like a horse, complete in cowboy getup, until the Mastiff bucked him off.
He was determined to win, though, Mr. Shag keeping his children on a rigorous filming schedule, from morning until late at night when the light was no longer good for shooting. Mr. Shag would make his children shoot each scene over and over, trying different angles of attack, little things that he thought would make the films funnier. His two children would have to watch each version and take notes on what they did wrong, what they could correct the next time they would shoot.
When the two of them would protest, tired and achy, asking their father if they could break from filming for a few days, he would say that the videos would make their mom come back, and the two of them would believe him. Mr. Shag would say if she saw them on the TV having a good time, she would realize what she was missing and come home. Both children would nod to him and tell him they were sorry, and that they would work harder. They would go back reciting lines and acting on cues, secretly blaming Mr. Shag for their mother leaving, but carrying on as to help keep him sane.
Mrs. Shag, Eleanor, sold wigs by phone to cancer patients and bald men who were trying to regain the masculinity they feared they had lost. She would call people from a long list the wig company gave her, and try and convince people that buying a fake slice of hair would help their self-esteem, or make them whole again. She wasn't very good, though, never meeting her quota, and always having extra product lying around at the end of the month. The house would be full of unsold wigs, all colors and styles: red and curly; blonde and straight; brown and short; even an Afro that she used to wear around for fun, outside in the front yard gardening.
In the morning, after Mr. Shag, once a respected Oldsmobile salesman (the best in the district) had left for work, she would sit outside in the backyard and smoke pot. She would do yoga, bending herself in half on the kitchen floor. She would spend all day preparing strange-smelling foods that stunk up the house, dishes made with bark and grass and bugs, dedicating half an hour or so of her day to telemarketing wigs.
When Billy and Patty would come home from school, the three of them would play with the unsold wigs. They would put them on and run around the house, creating characters for each wig and conjuring up phony accents to go along with them. Mrs. Shag would string some of the wigs up and hang them over the staircase railing, putting on puppet shows for her children. The three of them would hide the wigs in mailboxes; they would take them out in the backyard and light them on fire; they would jump up from behind the couch and throw them at Mr. Shag when he came home. He would frown at them, almost growling, and Mrs. Shag would take her children outside, all three of them laughing.
At night after Billy and Patty were presumed asleep though still thoroughly awake, their ears stuck against the walls or the two of them sitting crouched in the hallway near the kitchen, Mr. Shag would yell at his wife, calling her a hippie and saying he didn't understand why he married her. He would say, "You're not the woman I fell in love with. Why don't you get serious and get a real fucking job, and stop screwing around with those wigs."
Sometimes, after he said something like that, Mrs. Shag would cry and chant something in gibberish, asking Mr. Shag why he is so angry, saying he wasn't like this the night they climbed into the back of his VW Beetle, which soon after prompted them to marry. He would call her crazy, and she would throw wigs at him, hard. Billy would wonder which ones she had thrown as he sat listening, thinking he could identify which wig by the sound it made when it hit his father. He would always guess a short one, brown maybe blonde, but was never really sure. Patty would squeeze her brother's hand tightly, scared, and he would make shadow puppets on the wall to try and cheer her up while the Shags bickered in the kitchen.
Mrs. Shag would eventually stomp off to her room, saying someday she would get half a mind and leave, and Mr. Shag would then sit down in the kitchen with his shoes on the table and drink.
Billy was sitting on the roof, the moon high and bright, when his sister carefully crawled up next to him, their father watching Columbo on a loop in the living room underneath. They were both in their pajamas, their green bathrobes flapping in the breeze. The air smelled like wet grass when the wind blows through it. Billy was starting to wonder again about their mother, about if she remembered them, about if Mr. Shag's plan for making videos would ever pay off. He doubted it.
"Why are you up here?" Patty asked, tucking her hands under her armpits to warm them. "It's real cold."
"Looking for a shooting star," Billy replied, his eyes focused intensely on the black and blue welt-of-a-sky above. Patty cocked her head up toward where his gaze was, her eyes moving from right to left in her head, scanning the night. She knew her brother wasn't as smart as her, and sometimes she knew he believed in things that didn't make any sense. Patty would always humor him, sure that her brother didn't know he was being patronized.
"What for?" Patty asked.
"I wanna make a wish."
"I'm not so sure that works," Patty said, sitting down next to him.
"Maybe it does. I just wanna try."
"What are you going to wish for?"
Billy shrugged his shoulders and brushed some hair out of his face. He didn't know what he wanted to wish for. It wasn't for his mother to come home; it wasn't for his father to stop acting crazy; it wasn't for his sister and him to run away to someplace near an ocean, the coast of California or Maine, maybe to try and find their mother and tell her she wasn't crazy. Billy just wanted to see one, to see something beautiful like that.
Patty watched her brother as he stood up and started to count stars with his long, skinny index finger. She then stood up, too, both of them counting stars aloud with their fingers to try and keep track. They would take turns, each one finding a star, pointing to it, and adding it to the running total out loud.
"You ever wonder if mom thinks about us?" Patty asked.
Billy nodded, not looking away from the sky, not stopping his counting.
"Good," Patty said. "I was hoping it wasn't just me."
"I know she does," Billy said, his sister not looking over at him, not stopping her counting either. "But I don't think she's gonna come back though."
The two of them went back and forth all night, taking turns, counting 1,024 stars before they fell sleep next to each other on the hard, black shingles. Mr. Shag was sitting in the living room below, his double-breasted suit wrinkled, wondering if sometimes his wife still thought about him. He doubted it.
It was the morning of their latest shoot, the three of them sitting around the breakfast table, Mr. Shag sipping coffee and going over storyboards while his children slurped Cinnamon Toast Crunch from unwashed bowls—he hated doing dishes. Mrs. Shag had always done them with her children after she gave them a yoga lesson. Pots and pans sat soiled in the sink, Billy and Patty using the same bowls over and over again without a wash. They tried to do the dishes, tried all the time, but Mr. Shag would never let them.
"Your mother has to do these," he would say, as he would drag them away from the sink. "You don't touch those."
"But mom's not coming back," Billy would say.
"Somebody has to do them," Patty would add.
"She's coming back, alright," Mr. Shag would reply as he sat them in front of a script. "Just learn your lines and she'll be back."
The three of them moved slowly, sleepily, his children speaking sluggishly with groggy movements. Mr. Shag chuckled here and there, reading over the script one last time to make sure everything was how he wanted it. He had bragged for weeks that this new film was going to be his opus, the one piece of work that would finally earn him the cash prize, and his video an airing on national TV. It was a cowboys and Indians concept, something he had been sitting on for quite sometime. Billy was playing a kid who was pretending to be a cowboy, a sheriff to be exact, and his sister pretending she was an Indian princess who he was chasing after. Mr. Shag, who was making his motion picture debut, was a random passerby who was to get shot in the ass with a stray arrow.
"I need the best from you today, children," Mr. Shag said. "We really need to nail this one." He didn't look up from his script or storyboards. He kept his head down, his tongue curling up the side of this face. Billy and Patty just looked at each, their eyes communicating back and forth. They had created a code, a complex series of blinks or snaps of their fingers, something they had perfected in the weeks right after their mother left, Mr. Shag enforcing a perpetual quiet over the house. To their amusement, their code was surprisingly accurate, each one of them knowing exactly what the other was saying. Billy blinked twice, saying YOU WANNA GO OUTSIDE AWAY FROM DAD FOR A WHILE? Patty smiled some, then blinked once: YEAH, BUT HE'S GOING TO GET MAD.
"You two ready?" Mr. Shag asked, starting to gather his papers in one neat pile.
"I guess so," Billy replied. Patty chimed in with "If we have to, sir." Billy snapped his fingers twice, and Patty snapped three times, pausing, then snapping twice more, their father wondering why his children could never sit still.
The shoot wasn't going so well, not for Mr. Shag, not for his children. Their yard looked like a miniature movie set with two second-hand store movie cameras at both ends, and a fairly complicated lighting rig that Mr. Shag built himself from old scaffolding and desk lamps standing in the middle. He jumped behind the camera and motioned Billy into the frame, his son's costume old and falling apart, however quite complete with real spurs on the heels of his boots, and a rusty old Bee-bee gun in his hostler. Patty's Indian outfit looked baggy, more like an Indian's pajamas, the colors of her war paint running into each other and sliding off her face.
Billy had been blowing his entrances and exits. Patty's headdress kept sliding off her head and down to her ankles. The main camera was on the fritz, fading out, the picture hazy and wavy. The sound wouldn't work, and the lights were burning out one by one. The children watched as Mr. Shag cursed and stomped around, scared that maybe their father had finally broken, snapping in two like he was a cheap, plastic toy. Mr. Shag pushed the camera over, the crumbling sound of it hitting the ground following.
"What are you damn kids doin'?" he shouted, walking over to them. He was furious at the children for not being better prepared for the scene; at how the lights and camera weren't working; at how he was forty-two years old and alone. He knew, and had known for sometime that his wife wasn't going to come back. He knew it didn't matter what he did, that it didn't matter if he made the funniest home video anyone had ever seen, she was never going to come home. His voice was high and whiny, a pitch his children had never heard. He came huffing over to them, his arms flailing around.
"Are you trying to blow this for me?" Mr. Shag asked. Even his tinted sunglasses and thick mustache seemed angry. "Are you trying to make me sadder?"
They both shook their heads no, but he stomped and mumbled and said, "Your ma left because of you two. She couldn't handle you both anymore. So the least you could do is try and cooperate. Don't you want her to come back?" Mr. Shag reached down and snatched the pistol form Billy's hostler and raised it to his temple. He was going to teach his children a lesson.
"Do you want me to pull the trigger?" He was bent over, right at eye line with both of them, one hand resting on his knee. Mr. Shag was breathing like a bear, deep and long and hard. Billy and Patty both held their hands out begging him to stop. He just chuckled, cocked the gun and screamed, opening his mouth so wide Billy could see down past his silver fillings and slimy tongue.
"We'll try harder," Billy shouted.
"We're sorry we made mom leave," Patty added.
"Will you? Will you try harder?" Mr. Shag asked, showing his big teeth, his mouth stretched so far that it seemed to rub against his sideburns. Billy and Patty were both crying by then, their father still bent over with the gun to his head. He slowly drew the pistol away and shoved it back into Billy's hostler. "That thing wouldn't have killed me anyway," he said, lowering his sunglasses. "Wouldn't have even pierced the skin. Too damn old and rusty." The children's father called an hour-long break and suggested they work on their lines and cues, while he went inside to drink and fall asleep.
Billy and Patty were up in their room, watching turtle-shaped clouds scoot by, the winding sound of early summer just outside their window. They could hear their father downstairs snoring. He would occasionally cough and sputter like an old car, and the two of them would just laugh and call him a lemon.
"We have to be fast." Billy said. "We only get one shot."
"Are you sure about this?" Neither of them was confident in their idea, nor could either of them figure out whose idea it originally was. Maybe they both had come up with it, Billy thought. Something they both had been thinking about. Maybe it was some higher calling, Patty wondered—something akin to ESP or telepathy maybe, a cosmic message from something greater than the two of them.
"I'm sure," Billy went on. "This is going to be our masterpiece." He took his sister by the hand and they moved into the closet, shutting the door. Patty dug her hands in and pried up a piece of wood floorboard, pulling a brown wig from underneath, the only one they could salvage before Mr. Shag threw them all out. It still smelled like their mother, like vanilla. They both held the wig at separate ends, staring at it, and Billy thought about how much his sister looked like their mother—green eyes and blonde hair.
"Alright," Patty said. "But you have to do it. I'll just film it."
Billy nodded once, swift and sharp. He sneaked back downstairs and outside to snatch his cowboy gear while Patty took the wig, addressed an envelope, and grabbed an old video camera from their father's room. His pillows were strewn all over the floor, his bed unmade and smelling sour of old wine. Billy came back upstairs, dressed in full cowboy costume, spurs, gun, and badge, and Patty took his black, ten-gallon hat off and set the brown wig on his head. Long strands of hair hung in his face and dangled off his neck. The wig sat crooked, parted off to the left side, the bangs almost covering his eyes.
"You should wear this," she said, straightening the hair on his egg-shaped head. "I think mom would like it." Billy shook his shoulders like he was trying to find a comfortable place under the wig, and he clasped his hand in Patty's.
"You got the envelope already?" Billy asked. "Addressed to America's Funniest Home Videos?" She nodded, and the two of them started downstairs, their feet just barely touching the floor as they walked. Mr. Shag's fat stomach was poking out through his stretchy golf shirt as he slept on the couch. The back of his thick, hairy neck stuck out from his collar like a log from a scummy pond. Patty readied the camera as the two of them sat crouched behind a big recliner, Billy cracking his knuckles.
"You know that feeling you get when you first wake up?" Patty asked, holding Billy back by his shoulder. "I've felt that way since mom left. Like we've been sleeping or something this whole time. Like hazy, you know?" Billy didn't really understand what his sister meant, and that was fine. He knew how smart she was, and many a time he was confused by her, by words that she would use and the order she put them in.
Billy stood up and whispered for her to put the tape in the envelope right away, to drop it in the mailbox as soon as it's over. He told her to make sure of this, to make sure she doesn't waste any time. Mr. Shag would be angry and quick, and any errors would foil the plan. Their father stirred in his sleep, his head rising from the couch as he sat up straight. Billy ducked back down behind the recliner, Patty giving his hand a healthy, terrified squeeze, both of them fearing their plan was foiled, and that Billy would surely get it for wearing wardrobe in the house. They both peeked up over the chair and watched as their father bent over fiddling with the VCR that lay on the floor.
For the moment, they were safe.
Billy thought about how big his ass was, about how fat he was getting. Mr. Shag once had been a fine specimen, tall and slender with black hair and thick, brown eyes. Right then though, Billy was somewhat ashamed of his father, embarrassed some as well, at his father's now lethargic and flabby body. He decided that his ass would be the new target.
Billy blinked twice to his sister, saying everything was going to be okay. She smiled, just a little, and whispered 5 seconds, 4 seconds, 3, 2, 1, action. Billy crept right up behind his father, a foot away, maybe two. He could feel his father breathing, feel his chest rising up and down like Billy was sitting on it. Mr. Shag was grumbling to himself as he adjusted the VCR, pushing buttons and flipping switches while Billy prayed he wouldn't turn around. Billy's hands went cold but were sweaty too, his fingers spread far apart.
He pulled the rusty gun from his holster and squinted his left eye as he drew the gun level with the target. Billy swallowed, took a breath, and fired. The shot split Mr. Shag's ass down the middle, right along the line that kept his ass cheeks apart; it was a perfect act of marksmanship, the bullet sliding forcefully into the slit that was his anus. Patty stopped recording and leaped from behind the recliner and tore off to the mailbox, envelop in hand, aghast, yet feeling strangely satisfied with what had happened. As Mr. Shag whirled around yelping in pain, his fingers stiff like a bear's claw, outstretched and lunging at him, Billy Shag understood what his sister had meant moments before.