Sammy and May
by Stanley McFarland
“She was cheery,” I said. “That’s what people liked ’bout her. She was pretty as a picture and quick as a whip. She could dance and sing, and she had astounding comic timing for a four-year-old.
“But she was cheery – a chirpy, amiable soul that lit the hearts of television audiences from coast ta coast.”
“And she kept your show on the air,” said the reporter.
I nodded. I had hoped for a softer interview – especially now that I was just an old fart in a nursing home. “She did,” I agreed.
“Weren’t they about to cancel your show when you brought her on?”
“I’d heard something like that.”
“Then you never let her move on.”
“It wasn’t like that!” I grumbled. “It was totally her decision – May and her parents. I never tried ta stop her.”
“But you never let her go, either.”
“It was never my decision,” I repeated the same words I’d said to scores of reporters over the years – most of them in the weeks after The Sammy King Variety Hour went off the air. May was six then, and a television veteran with years of cuteness ahead before puberty would force her to make the transition so few child stars ever managed.
May never had to deal with that problem. She had only one response to network execs who offered her work – “I’ll come back when you bring back Mister King.” We did a guest appearance on The Muppet Show a couple years later. She hadn’t lost a thing - perfect timing, perfect inflection, perfect cheeriness.
I wasn’t my best. I wasn’t sober for one thing. May carried me through our old routine, but people could tell. We didn’t get any offers.
That’s not true – May got plenty of offers. She even got an offer for a show of her own. Her response never changed. “I’ll come back when you bring back Mister King.” A week later I got a letter from Eddie at the old network. He offered me twenty thousand dollars to convince May to move on without me.
I burned the letter – almost set the couch on fire, I was so drunk when I did it.
Over the years I kept getting cards from May – on my birthday and at Christmas. It didn’t seem to matter to her that she didn’t get any back from me once my agent dropped me. His secretary always sent out my cards.
I didn’t hear the reporter’s question – maybe not the last two or three. Forty years ago, they would have blamed the bottle. Now it was just age. Maybe that’s better.
“Maybe you better come back another time,” said the large black nurse. I never could pronounce her name. It was something African.
“I don’t think I have enough for my story,” the reporter said.
“Another time,” the large black nurse repeated. She was good at that – making people do what they didn’t want to do. At least this time she wasn’t drawing enough blood from my arm to sink a… I tried to think what would be funny – a row boat? the Queen Mary?
Nah, I thought, a lot of people didn’t know the Queen Mary anymore. May would’ve come up with something. The kid was quick.
I must have dozed because when I woke the reporter was gone. I used to do that on purpose sometimes – pretend to doze off when I didn’t want to deal with somebody. Then it started happening for real. Seemed a lot funnier before.
I saw a letter on my bed and for a moment I thought it was from May. But May never sent cards with address windows on them. I guessed it wasn’t my birthday.
I used my walker to get up from the chair. It took a little longer than it had a month before. I shuffled over to the bed and opened the drawer in the bedside table.
Someone had rearranged it again, but I found an old card from May. Her youngest was going off to college. She wrote that she was proud, but that she was going to miss her.
The words got blurry. My eyesight was fine, but I was tearing up. I never used to tear up – not even when I drank. Suddenly I only wanted one thing in the world. I wanted May sitting in the chair the reporter had vacated. I want to tell her how sorry I was.
“Lotta good that’s going to do her now,” I muttered. “What is she – forty-five? fifty? That America’s Sweetheart boat sailed a long time ago.”
I reached up and pulled the help cord. I’d never done that before. I always figured a big gong would sound, or at least a bell. Nothin’. I was angry but I started laughing. They gave me a damn defective help cord! The world just couldn’t wait to get rid of Sammy King.
“Mister King?” said the big black nurse as she pushed open my door. I was still laughing and seeing her looking worried made me laugh more.
“Can you talk, Mister King?” she asked. “Raise your hand if you can’t.”
“I can talk,” I sputtered.
“Are you in pain?”
I held out May’s card. “I need to call this woman.”
“Mister King,” said the nurse, “if you’re not in trouble, you shouldn’t be pulling the cord.”
“I’m in trouble,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true.
“How are you in trouble, Mister King?”
I looked into the nurse’s eyes. They were big and brown like the rest of her. She was tired and annoyed, and a little bit worried – maybe she was worried I was losing it.
“I needa… to say I’m sorry.”
The annoyance disappeared. She was still tired, and worried, but the nurse’s eyes changed – they went soft. She took the card out of my hand. “I’ll see what I can do,” she said.
I didn’t remember going to sleep. I was on the bed and the big black nurse was back.
“Mister King?” she said. “I’ve got Ms. Dunbarton on the line.”
Dunbarton? Who the hell was… May – that’s right; I remembered – that was her married name. I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t seem to get my elbows under me. “Help me… please?” I asked.
I don’t think I’d said please twice since they moved me in this place. The big black nurse leaned over to help me sit up. I stared at her name tag – S.H.A.N.I.Q… What kind of name starts like that?
“Here he is Ms. Dunbarton,” said the big black nurse. She handed the phone to me. I couldn’t say a word.
“Mister King?” said a voice at the other end. It wasn’t a child’s voice, but I woulda known it was May even if she had called me. “Is it really you? I’m so happy you called!”
“Got yer nose,” I said like I did when we first met. She was too old for that gag even then. May laughed back then and did again on the phone.
“I have a granddaughter now,” she said. “We were watching The Sammy King Variety Hour yesterday.”
“It’s on reruns?”
“DVD,” she said. “There’s a site online you can get it – well, a lot of the shows anyway. I still can’t find some of them.”
“I guess they have everything on their computers these days.”
“Pretty much,” she said. “Megan, that’s my granddaughter, loved it. She couldn’t believe that Grandie was that little.”
“You were a tyke,” I said. Whatever May said after that washed over me. She sounded great.
“…of course I had to explain to her who Shirley Temple was.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Our stuff is kinda dated, I guess.”
“They’re great memories.”
“There’s a reason I called.”
“I’m so glad you did.”
“It’s just…” I was hoping for her to interrupt. I wanted to tell her I was sorry, but I couldn’t get it out. May didn’t interrupt. She knew better than to step on a line. “You had a career back then,” I finally said.
May laughed. “Part of three seasons – a career?”
“You coulda gone on.”
“Kid – I shoulda told you to move on. You had the world at your feet. You were being loyal, and instead of telling you… Well, I shoulda pushed you outta the nest.” Junk clogged up my throat. I started coughing. My damn body couldn’t even talk on the phone anymore. I reached for a Kleenex and I was surprised to be handed one. The nurse was still in the room. I grabbed the tissue and spit out the crap. May was still silent on the other end.
“It’s like this, Kid,” I said. “I was a selfish bastard, and I used you. I used your popularity to help me get back on top again. I sunk my career in a bottle, and then I became an albatross around your neck. I’m sorry. I really am.”
“Mister King?” I could tell that May was crying.
“I’m so sorry that you feel bad. It’s all my fault. I should have told you years ago.”
“What’re ya talking about?”
“I never wanted to be the new Shirley Temple.”
“I loved doing the show with you. I loved rehearsal. I loved the taping. I loved every minute of it, but I never wanted to do another show.”
“You were my best friend, Mister King. You were probably the best friend I’ve ever had. We’d play and laugh and make things up. It was the world’s best make-believe, but one thing wasn’t make believe at all.”
I couldn’t speak. I just shook my head.
“You, Mister King,” says May. “You were my prince, and my jester. You were there with me through all the adventures. I never wanted to do that stuff without you.”
“Damn, Kid,” I managed to choke out. “You were a lot of fun yourself.”
I heard her half laugh, half cry on the other end. “I love you, Mister King,” she says.
“Right back at ya, Kid.”
We talked more. Small stuff – memories, laughs. The nurse stayed close. She handed me a Kleenex now and again. Finally we said good bye and I hung up the phone.
I looked up at the nurse. Through the tears I could barely make out her name tag.
“Thank you, Shaniquay,” I said.
Her big brown eyes shone. “Right back at ya,” she said.