Creative Nonfiction | Issue 2 (October 2023)

Family Focused

C.E. O’Banion

They never wheel in the big TVs anymore. The creaking wheels of the faded blue carts, the slight teacher wrestling it around desks and chairs like a riot cop.

I saw one during the pandemic while working in a nursing home in south Louisiana — we’d roll one into the dining room for movie night — at 1 PM each day. It was always the same movie: Red River starring John Wayne and Montgomery Clift about a cattle drive. We’d draw the blinds and lower the lamps, making sure to hover just above industry lighting standards so they could see the big bubble of a TV but also locate their walkers. The only one that realized it was the same movie was a blind man that would scream, “Oh, no, shit!” each time the orchestral boom of the rolling title credits fizzled out of the retrofitted speakers I’d rigged on the side. Then he’d scream about where all his Medicaid money had “run oft to” if we could only afford one DVD.

We weren’t as blunt each time Senora Balhoff pulled in the blue cart, TV strapped down like a sick prisoner, as a sixth grader lowered the lights.

“Gracias, Senora Balhoff,” we’d say, nodding our heads closer to the desks. The school had more than one DVD, but only one in Spanish: Gone in 60 Seconds, which Josh Brine, an eighth grader that already worked at the movie theater, once called “Made in 60 Seconds,” which made Will Thomas flip a desk. Will was a little high-strung but, like my dad, never caught wanting for passion when it came to Nic Cage.

Gone in 60 Seconds is a PG-13 movie that’s actual tagline is something about “boosting cars” and having fun doing it. There’s a line that a late-90s blond Angelina Jolie delivers to Nic Cage about what’s more exciting, “having sex or boosting cars?” My mom finally got to the bottom of the movie when I insisted on “boosting” a buggy from the grocery store instead of grabbing her one as she’d asked.

My friend Hunter had to sit in the hallway each time the TV rolled in — his mom found out about Gone in 60 Seconds years before.

Hunter’s mom checked any potential film experience with a Christian review website — Family Focused. Cross-referenced with the King James Bible, the page scored every movie by how many non-biblical curse words, sexual or suggestive glances, or deaths appeared on screen. It used a simple system of red, green, and yellow lights for each category, then a short description.

Fratricide: green light.

Flooding an entire planet to teach someone a lesson: yellow light.

Just a few months before, we tried to go see Jurassic Park III at Cinemark XII. We found Hunter’s mom and our ride, studying Family Focused and relaying the bad news: too many deaths, too much cussin’, and seventy-five too many dinosaurs for the bible to make sense.

Velociraptor cracking a man’s neck then devouring his head: red, deep red, light.

We were as disappointed that day as Hunter was embarrassed each class Senora Balhoff pushed in the TV cart. He’d slump his shoulders, let out a knowing groan, then grab his bag and head toward the door.

Boostin’ cars and having sex: red light.

I sometimes wonder what Family Focused would say about Frozen. I can see “Let it Go,” in particular, giving them some grief. Or a recent Pixar movie that says “stupid” in Italian a couple of times, which I contend is solely responsible for my three-year-old’s Euro-centric cursing tangents and not The Sopranos.

Through the first month of the school year, we’d experienced the thrills of Cage and Jolie’s escapades four times, and, if memory serves, I was catching onto my Spanish pretty well. “¡Acabo de robar cincuenta autos en una noche!” Which roughly translates to, “I just stole fifty cars in one night!”

One morning, Senora Balhoff nudged the corner of the cart around the classroom door’s frame, teasing us with another viewing. She was such a small woman. One shoulder jammed into a long leg of the cart as her foot propelled her body, pushing off the white cinderblock classroom’s walls. Her black hair hung down to her perpetually floral dresses, which she’d shake and flattened once one of the eighth graders finally hopped up to help her.

I’d been scared of her since she caught me cheating off my friend Tommy the year before. Tommy’s mom, like Senora Balhoff, was born in Argentina but lucky enough to marry a pasty man from east Texas, likely of German or British descent. The vocabulary word I stole from Tommy was “dinosaurio.”  

Will Thomas jumped to move the TV today, and Hunter begrudgingly grabbed his bag when Senora Balhoff stopped him with a raised eyebrow glance and soft palm raised over her head.

“Clase,” she said, stopping to catch her breath. “Class! I have an announcement. Cazador, please sit down. I think you can stay.”

Hunter turned back to our group with a surprised but confident look.

“We are not watching 60 Segundos today. But,” she paused to let us calm down, and for Hunter groaning, I think he thought he’d get to see Cage this time.

“I am going to turn the TV on under one condition. You stay calm. If you need to go to the office, you can, but you should stay calm.” A blanket of confusion draped from the humming fluorescent lights, and she fiddled with some long green cords.

It made its way to our corner that we might be watching the Romeo and Juliet cassette tape from Mrs. Copeland’s English class, the one where Juliet might as well be nude, but we’d never know since Mrs. Copeland skipped over each potentially passionate scene.

When they got it hooked up, the static rolled over the screen, and Senora Balhoff scooted to the side, punching down the volume button. The screen began to focus and skip, then roll like eyes into the back of its head. The picture was rotating around the toilet roll of the TV, then wobbling to a stop somewhere in the middle, and all I could see was smoke.

It was the first time I understood the phrase “clouds of smoke.” Then they showed the replay, like a sports highlight, a plane hurling into a tall building. It was the first time I understood how fast planes are traveling.

Some of the girls started spontaneously chirping, sounds of distress. Senora Balhoff was sitting back at her desk, her head resting in her hands, black hair shooting between her short fingers like dark waterfalls as her shoulders bounced. Parents started showing up at the school to pick up kids in case a plane was diverted to a small east Texas middle school.

The intercom prickled overhead, and someone in the front office coughed as they tended to do before making an announcement.

“Mrs. Bal-Hoff?”


“Britney’s mom is here to pick her up. Send her to the front office, please.”

“Hunter is needed to the office, too. His mom is here to pick him up.”

9/11: red light.

East Texas remains segregated from significance on the cultural landscape (outside of a former resident’s run for president and my friend Joseph’s sister making it into the background of a Game of Thrones episode), but the geographical anonymity which can sometimes border on all out isolation cocoons the area from the true vehicles of disaster. It’s too far south for blizzards, too many trees for significant tornados, and the only thing you might want to bomb is the dowdy old water tower with the “Twice as Nice” slogan. When the last gasps of Hurricane Katrina reached us in 2005, we played the greatest game of storm soccer there ever was. We went slipping through the rain and mud as the ball spontaneously lifted and swirled this way or that, crashing back into someone’s ribs or the goal. The same wind that broke buildings and tore through lives a few hundred miles south provided me with an indelible memory. One that I hope to remember when they wheel in the TV for me and play Red River or, again with great hope, Gone in 60 Seconds.

We had recess on 9-11.

Rolling out of the classroom doors, I found a few friends, one of which was on his way to the principal’s office for saying he thought this type of thing happened in other countries all the time, so why should he care? The rest of us filed slowly to the playground in the back of the school, the pace quickening when the herd rounded the last corner.

My wife and kids evacuated to east Texas during Hurricane Ida in 2021 while I stayed behind to show my blind friend Red River. My wife, Melissa, sent me videos of the kids, which flooded my phone at once when I made the daily pilgrimage to the interstate, where my phone’s carrier provided a sliver of service. They were running across our family cabin’s lawn at the lake, Henry barely able to waddle after Flannery’s three-year-old screeches of excitement. “You can do it, Henry!” some adults said in the background.

Then I saw the blink of a firefly just above the driveway, the sky darkening but not yet asleep, as my daughter would say. I filled entire mason jars with them when I was a kid, but with the humidity in south Louisiana, I realized this was the first time they were seeing fireflies. Flannery broke into a run, her arms bent at the elbow, a determined and optimistic look in her eye that faded as the blinking light when out before she could reach it. Henry’s method was more cupped hands and blind faith, grasping at air and opening his mouth.

It was getting late in the summer, and the cicadas were buzzing in the trees enough that my phone vibrated if I turned the volume up. A couple more blinked across my phone screen as Henry tumbled forward in his attempt to turn (He won’t be an NFL receiver).

And then she caught one, running it over to Melissa and squealing as hints of light pierced her little fingers. She looked through a little hole between her thumb and pointer, then screamed as the bug flew, determined and frightened, into her eye.

After some exaggerated tears and light petting from her mom, I watched as Flannery strode confidently, happily, back into the meadow and knew that she’d never forget her first hurricane evacuation.


We were eventually called back into the school, but now the local Baptist youth minister roamed the halls asking if we needed someone to talk to. Mrs. Snyder, our seventh-grade social studies teacher, told him to get lost and slumped behind her desk. Her brownish gray hair perched on her head like an hourglass, she looked frazzled as she announced that those of us left could have a free period. Those of us left were either working moms’ kids or kids with at least four siblings whose parents weren’t going to let a terrorist attack interrupt a previously scheduled day of peace.

My friend John David, his mom stuck at work coordinating rides for the train conductors rolling through town, performed tricks with a miniature skateboard up and down the wooden desk, his fingers grinding it across the metal bar that attached the seat to the desktop (I’d watch a kid in Houston break that metal bar off years later during my first teaching job. She broke it off and beat another kid across the head and neck with it, cutting her and ruining a white button-up I’d worn that day. This is where my first and last bit of street cred came from — I broke up a fight then had an extra button-down in my car. The kids loved what would be the coolest and whitest moment of my life).

They played “I’m Proud to be an American” on the intercom, which sent Mrs. Synder into a fit of tears. Some kids stood to salute the flag. Mrs. Synder took down the Texas flag that usually hung near or above the American one, not out of protest but probably because of all places you can get away with it — it’s probably east Texas.

Disaster rages through our world, mine less so now that I’m away from the nursing home business. “It’s getting worse out there,” I caught myself saying one week this pandemic, like I was on the frontier, flanked by a family that needs water before succumbing to dysentery.

I don’t know if it’s getting worse, but I can only hope when the next disaster comes, my kids get to watch it on TV.

C.E. O’Banion is a writer with work featured in The Southern Review Literary Journal, The Hooghly Review, Hyacinth Review, Dead Mule, and across the internet. O’Banion’s writing, which focuses on the great indoors, chain Mexican restaurants, his cat, and the American south, can be found in his novel, Chinese New Year, published by TBP Press, and an upcoming collection of short essays. He and his family live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he teaches at Louisiana State University.