“Backdoor Pilot,” by Jeffrey Kulik

Aug 20th, 2020 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

I have always loved the cheerful, expository music that greets me whenever I regain consciousness. It sums up the story of my life in just a few bars, plus it’s catchy and easy to remember. I am supposed to pull into my driveway just as the music winds down so I can hop out and pose in the doorway with my family for about ten seconds. Today, however, there was another car in my wife’s spot in the driveway. I didn’t know how to handle this change.

My wife, Darla, opened the door alone.  The music was still playing, so I couldn’t hear what she was saying. “What are you doing?” I asked. This is not what we usually did.

“I have a surprise for you!” she trilled as the music ended.

 “My bowling ball’s back from the shop?”

“Even better than that!”

I thought for a moment. There was nothing that I could draw upon to answer this question. “Aunt Mabel died?”

“No, silly! It’s your old navy buddy, Vance!”

He died?”

“No! He’s inside!”

Darla opened the door and revealed Vance sitting in my favorite chair. My two boys, Dervis and Gorey, sat huddled around him, hanging on his every word. Our dog, Bobby “Boris” Pickett, Jr. was sitting dutifully at his knee, and our cat, Skids, purred peacefully on his lap. Vance and I locked eyes. “Ricky!” he called out, standing and dropping Skids to the floor with a yowl.

“My god,” he said, hugging me a bit too hard. “What’s happened to you?” He let me go, poked me in the stomach and made me burp. The audience roared with laughter.

“What’s new with you?” I asked him.

In the blink of an eye, his smile disappeared. He looked over at Dervis and Gorey. “Hey, why don’t you boys help your mom in the kitchen, huh?”

“Aw, do we have to?” they begged.

I nodded and gestured to the kitchen where several gaffers sat smoking cigarettes, and off they went.

Silent puppets danced on our muted TV screen.

Vance grabbed me by the arm and walked me to our bare wall. Standing inches from the plaster, he spoke in a loud whisper. “You get to a point in life sometimes when you realize you just have to make a change.”

“I don’t understand,” I replied, meaning it.

Vance took a step back. “Well, how could you understand? You’ve got everything a man could ever want. A beautiful house, a big wife, two electrifying children, an entire dog, a cat that smells like pure pine cleanser…” His voice started breaking up. I could see a tear forming in the corner of his eye. “Ricky. I left Roxanne.”

He waited a beat for me to say something. There was an awed hush in the room. “But you seemed so happy together.”

“Things change, Ricky. Sometimes, things just change.”

Darla ducked out of the kitchen and asked, “Are you boys ready for dinner?”

Vance quickly composed himself and spun around. “You betcha!”

I was so confused.

Our table was a cornucopia of waxy food, our conversation rife with pointed one-liners with plenty of pauses for laughs. Sure, we all sat on the same side of the table and none of us actually swallowed our food, but that was all part of our nightly routine. “Did I ever tell you kids we used to call your father Crispy?” Vance asked, playfully.

“Crispy?” my two boys repeated with delight.

“I hope you all saved room for dessert!” Darla announced, walking back into the kitchen to fetch us a big, warm plate of figs that had been chemically coated with varnish so as not to congeal under our intensely hot lights. Just then, the doorbell rang.

Opening the door, I was greeted by an unfamiliar young woman, soaked from rain, makeup smeared and runny. “I’m sorry, I must look a mess!”

“Susie!” Vance said, running over to embrace her. “I’m so glad you made it.”

“Ricky? This is Susie Miner. My fiancée.”

Applause. I stopped, grinned an uncomfortable grin, and stared at the blank wall for a specific amount of time. In fact, we all stood still for three minutes and forty-five seconds, signifying nothing.

This was the time when the well-spoken men and women who described products did their work. Classic rock riffs blared as shiny, new trucks overtook muddy hills. Voices read off the side-effects of different medications in quick, staccato bursts. Somewhere, there was a boat show going on.

After we burst back to life, Darla pushed through the swinging kitchen doors carrying her tray of spiced treats. “Soup’s on!” she trilled, before noticing dripping wet Susie Miner standing there. “Who might this be?”

“Darla? This is…” Vance began. The audience shifted in their seats.

“Oh, where are my manners?” Darla interrupted, putting the tray down. “Here, dear, let me get that wet coat. Take off those wet shoes and dry them on the new shoe warmer that Ricky rigged up. Please?”

Susie Miner obliged and handed over her coat. Darla pulled the starter cord on the shoe warmer, which she’d never quite mastered. “Just a minute,” she said. “I’ve got this.”

“Darla, what I’ve been trying to tell you is…”

“Hold on,” Darla said, pulling the cord with all her might. Finally, with a great blast, the shoe warmer chugged to life, its coils burning hot red. Darla, still on her knees, began removing Susie’s shoes with an obscenely long shoehorn.

“Darla, this is my fiancée, Susie.”

Darla froze. She stood up slowly. “This? This is your fiancée?”

“Darla, please,” I pled.

“Oh, no. Fine! Of course,” Darla rambled. “I mean, in this day and age, a man is certainly entitled. Who am I to judge?”

Darla ran back into the kitchen without saying another word.

“Is she OK?” Susie asked, unfazed.

“She just needs a little time to process all this,” I assured them. “Why don’t you go on up to the washroom and get cleaned up?”

My two boys held the figs up to their mouths, then quietly pocketed them, showing great digital dexterity. They made me so proud. Did I mention our house had no toilet?

Vance and I walked out onto the front porch. For some reason that night, the outdoors seemed flat, almost painted on.

“Vance, how old is that girl?”

“Sure, she’s a couple of years younger than me, but I love her, Ricky. She makes me feel alive! Here, look at this ink,” he said, rolling up his sleeve to show me a Garfield Hates Mondays tattoo on his right forearm. “Would the old Vance have done this?”

I examined his arm. “Well, the old Vance probably would have spelled Garfield right. And Mondays.”

He snatched back his arm and rolled up his sleeve while the audience roared with delight. The joke had been a nice release for them after the particularly heavy scene that preceded this. “You don’t understand. This isn’t about her. It’s about me. I’m trying to get back all that life I missed living!”

I walked to the corner of the porch. Vance put his arm around me, and we stared out into the night. “You’re right, Vance. I don’t understand.”

“Ricky, I’ve got a new job at a radio station in San Diego. I’m starting over. And one day, maybe you will understand.”

After the kids had cleaned up the mess from the old fig switcheroo, I set up Vance on the couch, and tucked him in with a gentle kiss to the forehead. I knew Darla wouldn’t want them sleeping in the same bed under our roof. I turned off the lights and cranked up the gas just enough to get a little buzz, then made my way upstairs. I sneaked past the guestroom where Susie was talking in her sleep about killing Vance for his money and retired to my own bedroom just as Darla was fitting her wig for her weekly Natalie Wood routine. I was all keyed up to see some of those patented gyrations when Darla tossed off the wig and pressed her face against our bedroom mirror. Clearly, there was something on her mind.

“What’s wrong?”

“Can you believe Vance?” she asked, turning to the blank wall of our bedroom. “Cavorting around with a girl half his age.”

I patted her on the shoulder. “Now, now. It’s their lives.”

“Well, I don’t like it one bit. Roxanne and I went to high school together. We’re the same age. And now she’s been put out to pasture like some old, damp horse. How am I supposed to feel about that?”

I pulled her in close. Gentle music began to swell as it often did in such tender moments. “Don’t worry, Darla. Nothing like that is ever going to happen to us. Why, I remember when my mom turned forty, she mysteriously disappeared, and my dad married Loretta. Could that Loretta cook! And sew? Forget it. She was hemming slacks for the whole neighborhood. I remember once I asked my dad what happened to mom. Well, he just gave me a wink and said she ran off with the circus. Sometimes, these things just happen.”

Darla sat on the bed next to me, saying nothing. I grew tried and shut down.

The next morning, things were even more different. For starters, the cheerful music that usually accompanied the opening of my days was gone, replaced with some very modern jazz. The names that appeared around the bottom of my field of vision were all different. I didn’t see the words McLean or Stevenson written anywhere. This new music continued as I boarded a plane, landed at a strange airport, got in a taxi and wandered up to a tall apartment building by the ocean. It kept playing as I took an elevator up eighteen floors to apartment 18-G. I walked in and sat down, and the music stopped. I waited in the dark while the voices jabbered on about the hardwood barrels in which an expensive whiskey was aged.

The jazz started up again, but more incidentally this time. Two familiar people walked in, ignoring me. They walked up to their floor-to-ceiling picture windows and looked out on an unfamiliar skyline. All their furniture was facing a blank wall of their own. Magazines with ads on their back covers for generic-looking wintergreen gum blanketed their walnut magazine-stand.

“Well, here we are,” Susie sighed.

Vance drew her in. “Just think. This is a fresh start for both of us.”

“And your mother?”

“You’ll hardly even notice her. And I think she’s starting to warm up to you.”

“She put my car keys in the toilet today. Then she flushed.”

“Oh, that’s just her way of letting you know she likes you.”

“I don’t know, Vance. I just don’t know.”

He grabbed her around the waist.  “Baby, this is just the beginning. I think everything’s going to be all right from now on.”

Someone knocked on the door. Susie opened it and was greeted by a well-dressed man holding a plastic daisy. Applause.

“I’m Jeeves. From across the hall?”

“I’m Susie. Nice to meet you. This is my fiancée, Vance,” she said, pointing through me.

Vance rather uncharacteristically folded his arms and began tapping his foot. “Sorry, we’re not interested in any magazine subscriptions!”

“Vance! Be nice!”

Jeeves waved amiably through me at Vance. “I just know we’ll be the best of friends,” he said, before turning around, clicking his heels, and skipping away.

Susie closed the door. “That wasn’t very nice.”

“What’s going on out there?” Vance’s mother bellowed from her bedroom down the hall.

“Nothing, ma! Just a door-to-door salesman.”

“I don’t like being bothered during my foot bath!” she howled back.

Susie’s eyes bugged out. “My new dishwasher!  Ruined!” She began to run off, but instead froze in place, her legs in the air, her arms flailed crazily. Vance froze as well, a stupid grin plastered across his face. I felt myself disappearing.

They rested there in front of me, unbreathing, unblinking. A small, plucky dog that I hadn’t noticed before also hung frozen in the air, suspended mid-jump, tongue hanging out, his paws touching nothing.

The life I knew was gone. The focus had changed and left me behind. The people I felt most comfortable with were offscreen. I feel retooled, reworked, retitled. I didn’t know what to make of all this except to think that these two crazy kids might just make it after all.

That jazz played again. The audience roared with applause. I had been taped in front of a live, studio audience.


Jeffrey Kulik is a state employee and lifelong Chicagoan who has been published in The American Bystander, The American Bystander Quarantine Cavalcade, Literally Stories, Arcturus, Adelaide Literary Magazine, and Public Organization Review.

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