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The Couch Gag
By Dave Shulman
First published in L.A. Weekly, July 25, 2007.
The living room is unstable. At times the couch falls through the floor, or worse. But the next day the floor’s hole has healed, and everything’s fine. The choir sings and the clouds part to reveal a balmy afternoon in the city that surrounds the couch. The city, too, is unstable. Some days it’s big, some days it’s small. It has no permanent address. Double-time Bauhaus circus music plays. Colorful crops grow neatly in the verdant foothills beyond the power plant at the edge of town. At the elementary school across from the candy store, a boy between the ages of 9 and 11 serves a lonely detention, chalking the same ersatz aphorisms over and over on the board, waiting for the 3 o’clock bell.
I will not write fuck on the chalkboard.
I will not . . .
They said it would correct his behavior without explaining why the behavior required correction. They said it would teach him to be a better citizen. But he’s still detained here at least once a week, working for free.
The bell rings. The boy makes a fast exit on skateboard and heads home, threading pedestrians as he whizzes along the sidewalks, past the bookstore, past the bar, past the appliance store.
The boy fears nothing but the hideous nocturnal wrath of clowns.
Atoms burst, water boils, turbines rotate; so far, the seals are holding. The boy’s father works at the power plant. It’s a dangerous job that requires significant sleep and doughnuts. The whistle blows, the shift ends, the boy’s father drives home in a domestic pink sedan with no license plates, too fast. His loyalties are split equally between family and beer. Easily annoyed, he grunts often and occasionally strangles his only son, but never to death.
The boy has no brothers and two sisters, both younger. The older younger sister is between the ages of 7 and 9, and the younger one is between the ages of 0 and 2. The boy’s younger younger sister was born with a birthmark capable of giving point-of-sale price-scanning systems a false positive. Her price depends on the scanning software. At the grocery store, for example, she consistently rings up as $847.63.
The boy’s older younger sister gets good grades. Instead of serving detention after school, she plays baritone saxophone in the concert band. The band room is bright orange with blue floors. A bust of Beethoven glares at the students from the cabinet at the back. Rehearsal usually ends at 3:30, but the band instructor dismisses the boy’s older younger sister around 3.
The boy’s mother drives a domestic orange sedan with no license plates. She allows the boy’s younger younger sister to ride shotgun without wearing any kind of restraint system.
Despite the boy’s mother’s unemployment, the family somehow affords a two-story house. Everyone arrives home from different directions at about the same time. The boy’s father parks in the driveway, followed almost instantly by the boy, on skateboard, the boy’s older younger sister, on bicycle, and the boy’s mother and younger younger sister, who barely avoid running over the boy’s father as they park in the garage.
The boy’s family rushes toward amusement. Dinner passes quickly or is bypassed altogether. The goal: the living room.
But the living room is unstable. Its contents and surfaces defy the laws of physics. It’s a black hole or a jigsaw puzzle. It’s a fishbowl or a sanctuary just beyond the walls of a prison. The family is drawn to the couch, but the couch can be evasive. It enters on a conveyer belt, or turns into a car wash, or tethers an enormous man-eating fish. Once in the living room, there can be no turning back; the family is vulnerable to the living room’s desires. Their limbs are mismatched. They’re cockroaches. They’re bartenders. They’re balloons. Crushed by a Monty Python foot. Wind-up dolls. Sea-Monkeys. Shriners. A poacher has murdered them, made a rug of one and mounted the others’ heads on the wall. The boy’s father is harpooned. They re-evolve from single cells to fully functioning organisms in seconds flat. They collide and shatter like glass. They’re the Brady Bunch, the Beatles, the Harlem Globetrotters, a chorus line, gingerbread men, fruit on the vine, guests of David Letterman. They’re rejected by the couch’s rugged bouncer, supplanted by neighbors, trimmed into topiaries, roasted over an open flame, beamed aboard. The family ages decades in an instant and turns to dust.
The double-time Bauhaus circus music reaches a crescendo. The family succumbs to the will of the living room, to a complete molecular overhaul. Sits as one to watch the opening credits of the only television show they’ve ever been able to tolerate at the same time.