Toast - wherein we visit a Hooverville in the Mojave

The setting: a scenic overlook somewhere in the Mojave Desert. A Ford Taurus is parked there. We see three of its four inhabitants: Mom (30s); Janey (14); and Joey (9), three-fourths of a typical family among the dozens of families currently finding themselves part of the 21st Century Hooverville along the highway.

As their old Ford Taurus is the worse for wear, so are the family’s clothes. Mom is in a tattered Anne Klein suit; Joey in a very dirty Sponge Bob T-shirt, baggy jeans, and Converse high tops with flapping soles; Janey is in fashionable teen slut garb, which is perfect for the homeless life. Dad, who appears later, wears what’s left of a Brooks Brothers suit. The fact is, if their teeth weren’t so white, they could easily be living under a freeway overpass.

A crude fire flickers; a bitter gust of wind sweeps through the camp. Janey is on the phone under the car. Joey puts several slices of bread on a stick, then moves closer to the fire to make toast. The family is relentlessly happy and cheerful.

JANEY: …No, living here isn’t so bad. I don’t have to make my bed because I don’t have one, there’s a cute, roving band of inner-city youths that prey on everyone, and --

MOM (checking her watch and looking under car): Young lady, get off that phone this instant –

JANEY: Call you later. Bye.

Janey crawls out from under the car, and hands Mom the phone. Mom takes it, protectively, examines it, gives it a light dusting, then places it atop a pedestal – on a pedestal on the hood of the car.

MOM: I’ve told you time and time again to stay off the phone when we’re expecting our call from the National Focus Group Survey. Do you have potatoes in your ears?

JANEY: Sorry, Mom.

MOM: Now go help your brother make toast. Your father’s been away all night and I’m sure he’ll be ready for a good, hot breakfast when he gets back.

JOEY: And appreciative of how thoughtful we are.

Janey moves to help Joey.

JANEY: It’s not like I was being negative, or anything.

MOM: I know you weren’t, Janey. You’re a perfect daughter and Joey’s a perfect son…

She moves to inspect the toast.

MOM (cont.): And this toast looks almost…perfect.

She becomes even more cheerful at the thought of her own little word jokes.

JOEY: Medium-brown, just like Dad likes it.

JANEY (nostalgically): Number four on the toaster.

The three of them ponder this for a moment.

MOM: Now that’s enough wallowing in the past! Let’s count our blessings…

Mom looks around, sees no blessings, looks again – this time it’s the desert, and immediately re-perks.

MOM (cont.): We live in…

JANEY/JOEY: …a scenic overlook.

MOM (cheerfully continuing the chant): Our life is backlit by…

JANEY/JOEY: …a giant postcard.

MOM: And we’ve never gone a day without toast.

JOEY: That’s because you’re the best mom in the world, Mom.

MOM (looking at ground and shuffling): Aw, thanks, sweetie, but let’s be fair. I owe it all to those calls from the National Focus Group Survey. (as an afterthought) And your father, of course.

JANEY (concerned): I wonder where he is. It’s not like him to be late for an appointment with a pollster.

MOM: Young lady, turn that frown upside down. I’m sure your father’s fine. Although you’re right. It’s not like him to be late for an appointment with a pollster.

JOEY: I’m sure he’s fine. (trying to be encouraging) Maybe he stopped off to sell blood, like last time!

They are buoyed by this thought. The phone rings. Joey leaps to answer it.

JOEY: Hello?...(annoyed) Bobby, I told you. I can’t talk Wednesday morning.

As she listens, Mom droops.

JOEY (cont.): That’s when the Survey group calls and asks for our opinion!

At the mention of “Survey group,” mom recovers, pretending that she is a puppet and pulling herself up with an invisible string.

JOEY (cont.): Bye!

He hands the phone to Mom and she inspects it to make sure it’s working properly, then puts it back on top of the car.

JOEY (cont.): Sorry, Mom. Some people just don’t understand the importance of being polled.

MOM: That’s right. Polls are important. Polls are used to determine important decisions. Polls tell us that…(now, a total change of character, apparently channeling Jesse Jackson)…We are somebody!

Janey and Joey exchange a look and Mom realizes that she just cracked, then quickly regains her composure and moves to the fire to check the toast.

MOM (cont.): Not a moment too soon!

She starts to wrap the toast in a towel. But the phone rings and Mom leaps to grab it. The toast goes flying.

MOM (mid-air): Children, make more toast. (into phone) Hello?...(excitedly) Yes, this is the Doakes family…The National Focus Group Survey?...Well, hello! May I tell you how synchronistic this is? I was just willing you to phone us…Of course I believe in synchronicity. Is that what you’re asking in today’s poll?...You can’t tell me because you need to talk to the head of the household?...(stalling and scanning horizon) Well, three out of four Doakeses are ready to be asked for our opinions, children, line up for the Survey people…

Jane and Joey line up.

MOM (cont.): …and say hello…

Janey and Joey ad lib hellos into the phone. It doesn’t help. Mom is almost completely unglued.

MOM (cont.): …You know, Mr. Doakes will be here any second, as you may recall, he’s got an impeccable record when it comes to being polled, he’s always on hand for your call, in fact, you could say, it’s the reason he gets up in the morning, that goes double for all the members of our family…

Janey and Joey cheerfully nod in agreement.

MOM (cont.): …Well, couldn’t you call back? Mr. Doakes has so many opinions, and we already know what they are, so of course he’s anxious to share them with you, in fact, the last thing he said to me was, “Honey, you know what really rings my chimes?”…(reacting to the line going dead) Hello? (shaking phone) Is anyone there?

Mom frantically takes the phone apart and quickly puts it together again to see if it’s working.

MOM (cont.): Did you kids do something to this phone?

JANEY: Of course not, Mom.

JOEY: I’m sure they’ll call back.

MOM: Well, the Bakers missed their call last week and then they lost their space at the overlook! Who knows where they are now!

JANEY: Don’t worry, Mom!

JOEY: It’s all good!

MOM (attempting to re-perk): Oh, I’m sure you’re right. You’re always right. Except of course when your father –

Dad now enters, shell-shocked. Mom rushes to him, grabbing the stick with toast and offering it.

MOM (cont., totally re-perked): Toast?

DAD (waving it away): Five-thousand men showed up to write one line of ad copy. It started raining. They wouldn’t open up the gates. Fights broke out. They sent in the dogs. It got ugly. I left.

A beat as Mom, Jane, and Joey frown.

DAD (not liking their frowns, attempting to re-perk): But I didn’t miss our phone call, did I?

Mom, Janey, and Joey now exchange angry, sullen looks.

DAD (cont., now deflated again): Don’t tell me. Correctly assuming that I would return jobless, Mom did a hoochie-koochie dance for the highway patrol, Joey broke down and sold his A-Rod rookie card, and Janey was tied up and tongue-kissed by that roving band of inner city youths.

JOEY (well-meaning): We couldn’t help it, Dad –

MOM (quickly cutting Joey off): -- The point is, honey, I’ve got some good news…

Dad smiles.

MOM (cont.): …And some bad news.

Dad frowns.

MOM (cont.): The good news is…

Dad smiles.

MOM (cont.): …They did phone, so that means we still count…

Dad does an end-zone victory dance.

DAD: Team Doakes!

MOM: And the bad news is…

Dad stops dancing, then frowns.

MOM (cont.): …they only wanted to talk to the head of the household and you weren’t here…

DAD (disbelieving): Well, couldn’t you get them to phone back? They’ve never asked specifically for me before…

JANEY: Maybe that’s because you always answer the phone.

MOM: Zip your lip, young lady. I won’t have any of that smart talk in this house.

Janey “zips” her lip and exchanges a look with Joey.

Dad starts pacing around the camp. Mom plants the stick with the toast over the fire.

DAD: I suppose I didn’t have to go off on another wild goose-chase job hunt…

MOM: Sure you did, honey, because that’s the kind of guy you are.

Dad re-perks, as Mom begins to deflate.

MOM (cont.): …I suppose I could have disguised my voice and said I was the head of the household….

DAD: But, honey, that would have been dishonest, and that’s not the kind of gal you are.

Mom re-perks, as Dad deflates again.

DAD (cont.): …Well, I suppose if I had a real head on my shoulders, I would have taken our family nest egg out of the bank, and put it in our king-size Serta sleeper and then removed it before the bank collapsed and the bed was repossessed. But thanks to my famous short-sightedness, I didn’t do that.

MOM: Hey, hey, hey, honey, you’re not Nostradamus!

Dad does not re-perk. Mom begins a cartwheel.

DAD: Well, I should have read Nostradamus. He predicted this whole shebang, didn’t he?

MOM (completing the cartwheel): Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t, but one thing’s for sure. Back in his day, they didn’t have toast!

Dad immediately re-perks, and the two of them move happily to the fire. The family huddles around.

DAD (picking up the toast stick and examining the toast): Mmmm…medium brown…Number four on the toaster. If you want my opinion, I like it!

Everyone agrees, anxiously waiting for Dad to start eating so they can follow.

DAD (cont., shouting into the void): The Doakes family likes medium-brown toast! Did you hear that, National Focus Group Survey? (now sheepishly, to family) In case they’re listening.

JANEY/JOEY: We’re listening, Dad. We like to hear your opinions.

The phone rings.

MOM (mid-air): It’s working!

They all lunge or it and pile up on top of the phone. Dad tries to keep the toast stick clear of the jumble. From under the pile we hear Dad.

DAD (excitedly): Head of the household. What can I do you for?...(dejectedly) Oh, yeah, sure, what the hey…

The group reassembles around the campfire.

MOM (hopefully): Well?

DAD: The Coopers in the blue Hyundai. They said they have some preserves so I invited them over.

MOM (looking around): Might as well start meeting our neighbors!

Dad finally begins to take a bite of what’s left of the toast. But a gust of wind blows it from his hand and offstage.

MOM: Children, make more toast.

The lights fade.

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