Life with Dad : “Say What, Bub?”
(Sketches from a 1970s family)
by Andrea Burn
This is a work of fiction. Unless otherwise indicated, all the names, characters, places, events and incidents in this work are either the product of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
A typical 1930s semi at the end of a cul-de-sac in Birmingham West Midlands, where a gauche American family from the Deep South have recently moved in their pursuit of Merry England.
Meet the Family
Dougie Puckett – early 40s: all-American Dad, husband and teacher. Hapless DIY enthusiast with a propensity for profanity,which he tries in vain to disguise from the kids.
Martha Puckett – 38: genteel Southern Belle, wife and mother with expectations beyond her means.
Melvin – 17: ‘A’ Level Maths student; into classical music.
Randy – 15: typical teenager; into The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, basketball and teasing his sister.
Phoebe – 12: teenybopper and annoying kid sister.
Piddle – Randy’s German Shepherd dog
Frisky – Phoebe’s cat.
One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
5pm one weekday afternoon. Dougie is painting the old, dark upright piano in the dining room with magnolia gloss. There is paint splattered everywhere – especially on Dougie. Randy has just come home from school. He throws back the dining room door and chucks his satchel on the floor. Incredulous, he gapes at Dougie.
“Dad – you’ve painted the piano white.”
“That’s not white boy – that’s cream. Now it won’t stick out in the room so far.”
“ Yeah right – you’ll never notice it.”
Martha glides into the room. She looks thoughtfully at Dougie holding the paintbrush.
“Shame you can’t paint the vomit coloured tiles on that old fireplace. I feel nauseous just looking at them.”
“Good one, Mom! Vomit coloured tiles!”
“I’m going to put my mother’s sliver candelabra on top of that piano.”
“The silver candelabra! Well, bust my buttons! Soon we’ll be livin’ high-on-the-hawg! I’ll just dust down my dinner tux.”
Dougie dances a little jig in the doorway. Phoebe interrupts as she stomps into the room, teetering on platform shoes.
“Dad – what have you done to my piano? You can’t just paint it! Mom – tell him! If the wood can’t breathe, it will drop its tone and then I can’t practise and then I’ll fail my Grade 3 piano exam!”
“Mom, tell him! It’ll drop its tone.” Randy mimics his kid sister with great delight.
“Shut up Randy!”
“Make me!” Randy creases up laughing.
Martha intervenes with one of her ‘looks’ at Randy, who in turn smirks at Phoebe and makes a swipe at her.
“Alright you two, cut it out. Scoot and do your homework before dinner.”
“I don’t have any; Mr. Chopra said.” Phoebe shoots a smug look at her brother.
“Sure – like the time Mr. Chopra told you that the Hagley Road has a tidal wave that ripples under the tarmac twice a day from Five Ways to the Holly Bush. And you believed him.” Randy laughs and taunts Phoebe.
“I did not so believe him!”
“Did not too.”
“Did so. You LOVE Mr. Chopra!”“Do not! Dad – tell Randy to stop it! He’s being gross.”
Dougie is admiring his paintwork. He hasn’t been listening.
“I’m going to start in the hallway. Son, go into the garage and get me the can of magnolia emulsion. It’s in there somewhere.”
“What are you gonna paint now Dad?”
“I’m gonna paint over that ugly son-of-a-gun wallpaper. Who in their right mind would put purple wallpaper with brown and orange triangles on it on the dog-gone walls?”
Randy goes in search of the paint. Martha is now gawping at the hallway wallpaper as she smooths her apron.
“That sure is THE ugliest wallpaper I ever saw in my life. I declare, it’s just tacky. My mother would have a conniption fit if she could see it.”
“Your mother? What in tarnation has she got to do with the wallpaper?”
Martha pulls a frown.
“Well – you would never see anything so tasteless in a real Southern home.”
“Honey, I can’t turn this crock-of-bull, 1930s semi into a Southern home with a dad-gum front porch and chandelier; but I’m doin’ my level best to put a hell-ova tonne of gloss on it.”
Randy returns with the can of paint and gives it to Dougie, who opens it and gets straight down to work; splashing paint straight over the wallpaper – no preparation. Martha looks on.
“Don’t you need to take the old wallpaper off first honey?”
“Nah – just painting straight over the top; a couple of coats ought-a do it.”
Piddle trots past; getting dog hair stuck in the fresh paint.
“Son-of-a-gun! I swear – that hound…”
“Now Dougie – not in front of the children.”
“Well, dad-blasted! One day that dawg will listen to me!”
Phoebe stomps upstairs and slams her bedroom door. Soon strains of David Cassidy can be heard seeping from her room on her transistor radio. Randy puts Led Zeppelin 11: Whole Lotta Love on the record player in the dining room. He takes school books out of his satchel and sits at the table. Dougie whistles in the hallway while he continues smothering the wall with paint as Melvin descends half-way downstairs with a pained expression.
“Dad – can you get Randy to turn that crappy music down? I’m trying to describe Newton’s method for obtaining successive approximations to the root of an equation!”
Melvin troops back upstairs and pounds his fist on Phoebe’s bedroom door.
“Hey Phoebe – turn that crap off! I’m trying to study!”
“Son – we’ll have less of that goddam language.”
Melvin rolls his eyes as he slams his bedroom door. The can of paint is nearly knocked over by Piddle, who tears through the hallway as she chases Frisky upstairs.
“Cheesus Randy! Come get your son-of-a-gun dawg and put her outside! And turn that dad-gum wah-wah music off! Melvin’s right – a man can’t have any peace around here.”
“It helps me concentrate, Dad.”
Dougie sticks his head into the dining room, jabbing the air with his dripping paintbrush.
“In my day, we had REAL music – the greats: Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington.”
Randy sings under his breath.
“I’ll give you doo-be-doo-be-doo if you don’t get that S.O.B dawg outta here.”
Martha calls from the kitchen.
Piddle thunders downstairs, skids past the freshly painted wall and lands at Martha’s feet. She pats the dog’s head,
She puts a bowl of food down for the dog, washes her hands and calmly wipes them on her apron as Dougie shakes his dripping paintbrush at the dog. Martha wags her finger at Dougie,
“Don’t say it! I declare – what a mess. Go and get cleaned up. And DON’T come down in your under-shirt for supper!”
Dougie kisses Martha playfully on her cheek and winks at Randy. He whistles as he trots upstairs to get changed for dinner.
Martha is in the kitchen, serving plates of spaghetti bolognaise to each family member in turn.
“Here Phoebe – use both hands honey. Don’t spill it.”
“Oh Mom, I can do it.”
Phoebe snatches her dinner plate, turns swiftly into the hallway and watches with horror as the spaghetti slides off. As if in slow motion, the spaghetti is suspended in mid-air for a moment before splatting on the white carpet. Dougie, who has come downstairs in a clean shirt, dances an exaggerated jig in the hallway as he chants,
“It’s one step forward and two steps back for this family. One step forward and two steps back!”
Martha looks on in horror at the splattered spaghetti.
“Not my white carpet!”
“Dadgummit Phoebe, hand me the Ajax.”
Dougie rolls back his sleeves and begins scrubbing on his hands and knees. Piddle barges between him and the stairs and begins ravenously eating the spaghetti on the carpet.
“Randy! How many times have I gotta tell ya to come get your filthy dawg outta here before I send her dad-gum butt to kingdom come!”
Randy sneaks a string of spaghetti to Piddle before dragging her by the collar into the dining room.
“Not near the goddam piano son! Cheesus H!”
Melvin takes his plate of dinner with a look of disdain and turns to his sister.
“Phoebe, you’re such a child.”
“Am not! I’m nearly thirteen!”
“Yea, Pheeb; such a dweeb.” Randy grins.
Phoebe sulks as Martha gives her another plate of food.
“I know, I know. Don’t spill it! As if…”
“Don’t speak to me like that young lady, or I’ll…”
“Or I’ll wash your mouth out with soap. That’s what your grandfather used to do to me and by God it worked.”
Phoebe stomps off into the dining room, sits at the table and sulks; her chin cupped in her hands.
“Why does everyone in this family hate me?”
Melvin leans across his plate.
“Because you’re a brat.”
The family sit down to dinner when the cat saunters backwards down the hallway, retching as it goes. It passes the dining room door, slowly vomiting up an entire large bird. Dougie recoils in disgust.
“Cheesus H! Son-of-a-bitch cat! I’ve just washed my hands!”
Martha is distraught.
“Not on my white carpet!”
“Phoebe – come get your goddam cat and put it outside! Son-of-a-gun, lousy, good-for-nothing… someone get me the rubber gloves and some newspaper, would ya? Dadgummit! – is it too much to ask to eat dinner without one of these sons-of-bitches ruining it?”
Dougie’s face is starting to turn red.
“Now honey, I know you’re upset but please watch your language in front of the children. I declare!”
Dougie ignores the remark and rolls his sleeves back again, ready for action. He stands up from the table, throws down his napkin and walks purposefully into the hallway where he kneels to begin cleaning up the regurgitated bird. The kids leave the dinner table too and stand around gawping as Dougie mutters.
“One step forward and two steps back.”