YOU CAN’T KEEP A GOOD GAL DOWN
My friend Charles and I are having coffee in the breakfast nook, debating the best technique for dealing with turkey neck. He’s a fan of the “let it all hang out” approach—instead of trying to mask it, he advocates drawing attention to the entire area with handcrafted jewelry and other adornments, including playing up the cleavage. I hold fast to the Diane Keaton school of soft, light-colored turtlenecks. I can’t see the beauty in a middle-aged décolletage, even the best of them, all bony and freckled and sun-damaged. But Charles insists that the oversized jewelry/boob platter method nearly always works.
Before we have time to agree to disagree about the matter, Charles changes the subject to his favorite topic.
“Have you had a chance to read my screenplay yet?” he asks.
Lately he’s becoming really demanding. I’ve been working on my own screenplay about my life as an actor on and off for the past thirteen years. When I can manage to sit my fanny down at my desk, I need to be concentrating on my own work. Plus now I’ve got a deadline. I’ve got just five days to finish a draft for my class, Writing the Screenplay of Your Life. The instructor has promised to show the best one to a producer, and it has to be mine. But I’ve got a lot of work to do because I’m having a hard time remembering dialogue from the past.
I live in a studio apartment in Woodland Hills. There’s mostly houses and families out here in the boondocks, but I found an apartment above a drugstore in a strip mall. I tried to get into the Screen Actor’s Guild retirement home, because I’m a people person, but they refused me on the grounds of bad behavior in the past. I have no idea where that came from. Fuck the SAG home, I can make my own friends. I’ll show them, when my screenplay gets produced and I play myself (not the young me of course, I’m not delusional, Amy Adams would be perfect).
My apartment isn’t too bad because I don’t have a car anymore and there’s most everything I need right outside my door: a Ralph’s, a beauty supply, and a post office annex. It’s not as glamorous out here to be sure—it’s more than an hour away from Hollywood. But I get my fix of celebrity sightings over at the Motion Picture Hospital, where I go sometimes for coffee. I had some female surgery and also got my hip replaced there. I’ve seen Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Debbie Reynolds, a few kid actors I recognize but don’t know their names, and Ernest Borgnine, may he rest in peace. He was so good in Marty. I live off Social Security and what I’ve saved from the residuals of a couple of national television commercials. The biggest one was a Tide spot from 1983, back when the kitchens were bright and shiny and it was up to the wife to keep them that way. Television wives didn’t need husbands to help with the housework.
My savings just dipped below $1000, and Social Security won’t even cover my rent. I got a first eviction notice a couple of weeks ago, but it takes three months to kick me out, and by then I should have sold my screenplay.
The first time Charles appeared, it was right after I’d received a particularly cold email from my daughter after not hearing from her for eleven months. I was making Toll House cookie dough to eat raw, about to drag myself out to the living area to catch American Idol, when Charles appeared at the breakfast nook. I distinctly remember smelling bacon frying.
Charles looked so much like Montgomery Clift (before the accident), at first I was taken aback. But then I noticed he didn’t look exactly like Monty, and I was relieved. His eyes were closer together, his nose larger and flatter, and his hair more salt and pepper than Monty lived to see.
That first time we talked about men—the good, the bad, and the ugly—since Charles confided almost immediately that he preferred men as lovers and women as friends. We barely made a dent in our combined romantic histories, but the laughs came quick and easy. We were most amused by how serious some men are about the whole sex act. We howled over the lines we’d heard during what we named “The Presentation of the Penis,” when a certain type of man cradles and offers it up as if this is the thing that’s going to change your life. Charles claimed to have heard “Behold!” and “Voila!” on two separate occasions, without a trace of humor, and I once had a man bark, “Oh, yeah! It’s your lucky day!”
My new friend and I were so perfectly compatible that I tried not to worry too much when he told me he didn’t have a last name. I figured he was like Cher. Or when I told him to feel free to use the restroom and he said that wouldn’t be necessary, even though we polished off two bottles of wine between us. We swapped stories and laughed until 4 a.m. I went to bed feeling optimistic and resolved to call my agent in the morning and make an appointment for new headshots.
Of course when I woke up after staying up too late and drinking too much, the face in the mirror wasn’t one I wanted to submit to headshots. Unless I wanted to humiliate myself and audition for roles as the madwoman in the attic, I could see with my own two eyes that I needed a new plan. That’s when I started looking into the writing classes, and luckily there are so many to choose from I found one that meets at the Radisson right down the street. How hard could it be? No one is writing good parts for mature actresses these days, so I figured I’d have to do it myself.
Treatment for My Life as an Actor (the early years):
My high school boyfriend Jimmy Ray and I graduated and drove his Thunderbird west across Highway 40 from Shelbyville, Tennessee to Los Angeles in three days. We ate No-Doze like they were Sweet Tarts and sang along to an 8-track tape of Elvis (Girl Happy). The tape was damaged and it played one quadrant over and over, so we had the lyrics to Do the Clam down pat before we’d even crossed the Tennessee line.
After two years in L.A., we had Ray Junior. When Jimmy Ray veered off into the adult film world, I stuck to the respectable path in commercials and television. He tried to get me involved by arguing that since we do it anyway, why not get paid? His view was that all we had to do was mentally block out the lights and film crew. But to my way of thinking, he was just too proud to stoop to washing dishes or bussing tables to buy us a burrito once in awhile. The fact that he would rather serve up our sex life to strangers caused the last smidgeon of love I had left for him to dribble away. Our marriage sputtered through its last year until he stopped coming home and I started up with Walt, who gave me Christina and some bad habits. Jimmy Ray had more success in his world than I had in mine: as “Jimmy Dean,” he was known for his Southern accent and left-leaning “pure pork sausage,” but as plain old Carol Hughes, the assets I displayed had a shorter shelf life.
Last year when I woke up from female surgery in my hospital bed, Martin Sheen walked right by my room. He had an entourage, just like on the television show where he’s the President. After the Motion Picture Hospital released me, they sent a nurse by to help me bathe three times a week but otherwise I was on my own. So Charles kept me company. We watched my programs and drank red wine. Sometimes we played Gin Rummy, but I can never keep the rules straight and I suspected Charles of throwing the game because I won every time.
Mostly we played games we’d invented ourselves. Like the Scale Game. We’d eat a large-with-the-works plus extra anchovies pizza and an entire cheesecake smothered in chocolate sauce, and then weigh ourselves. Our stomachs would look like a child’s beach ball, and I would typically have gained two or three pounds. But Charles would step on the scale, and he weighed nothing. Or after we’d drink a couple bottles of wine, we’d play the Breathalyzer game. I have one from back when I lived in the city, on Sunset Boulevard near Doheny, before my license was taken away. I’d register .16 or .18 and Charles wouldn’t register anything. And boy, was he drunk. He’d be making out with my Kevin Costner life-sized cardboard cutout, which I lifted from Blockbuster. Quite a feat, since I was on foot. I don’t think they missed it, since it was from the movie Swing Vote that hardly anyone saw. Costner has ridiculously skinny calves, but he’s sexy anyway. One game we only played once, because it was too creepy. We stood in front of the mirror, and when I looked straight ahead I only saw myself, but when I looked to my left, there was Charles, goofing off and crossing his eyes at me. After that, whenever he was around I’d drape the mirrors, like the Jews do when somebody dies.
I have two kids from two different exes. Ray Junior’s been using almost thirty years; it’s a miracle he’s still alive. Christina says he got it from me. The kids used to run around the neighborhood and come in just long enough to grab a Pop Tart or a Band-Aid for a scraped knee, while we watched Mike Douglas and drank Burgundy and smoked Virginia Slims. My daughter has a 4-year-old boy named Carson but I’ve never met him, I’ve only seen photographs. Christina was almost forty when she had a kid without a husband, and I was so tickled at the thought of holding a rug rat again, I dug out some of Ray Junior’s old Hot Wheels I’d hauled around since way back when. But Christina is full of judgment. She said being a grandma is a privilege and I didn’t deserve it. She has some crazy ideas in her head, like how we locked her and Ray Junior in the trunk at the drive-in movie, but that’s preposterous. There was plenty of room in the backseat. She moved back east before the baby was even born and she keeps me informed of their whereabouts by email and sends a photograph now and then, but never an address or phone number. The last picture of Carson he’s in a cowboy suit, grinning and aiming a toy gun at the camera. I wish I could put it up on the refrigerator but it lives there tiny on the computer.
Now Charles is back for the second time in one day. When he asks again about his screenplay, I remind him about my deadline, and that I don’t have a spare minute. When he opens his mouth to speak, I tell him to get and he scampers away like a jackrabbit. I don’t feel great about snapping at him, but he backed me into it. Why can’t he understand that I don’t have time to read it? He’s spoiled all the fun of our friendship with this screenplay business.
Writing a screenplay about my own life is strange. I’m not sure if some of my recollections are 100% correct, but then who would know? And what does it matter? Also, it’s hard to know what stuff is important. Or interesting. Or how far back to go. It’s all got me thinking about my whole life, but I don’t think most of it is screenplay material. I’ve never robbed a bank, broken up a marriage, or been abducted by aliens.
It’s the night before my script is due and Charles is back, interrupting my dinner and Dancing with the Stars. He says if I cared about our friendship I would have read his screenplay by now.
It’s better when these things just kind of fade out naturally, but I can see this situation isn’t going away and I’m going to have to put my foot down. I tell him I think we should take a breather and he looks hurt. He gives me the puppy dog eyes, and he looks more like Monty than ever. I insist I need some time alone to focus, to finish my screenplay and try to get off Xanax (I’m up to three a day, four on Sundays). I need to exercise more and lose ten pounds before I get new headshots.
He still won’t take the hint so I have to get mean. “Are you dense or something? I don’t want you showing up here and I’m not going to read your shit ass script. Don’t you get it? It’s your fault I can’t finish mine! I can’t concentrate!”
He looks at me with this calm expression that drives me cuckoo. Like I could just stop all this and be nice to him if I want. I didn’t figure him for the masochist type.
“What are you, a limp dick or a pencil dick?” That oughta do it. He just looks at me and I think maybe he is some kind of retard or whatever they call them now, because he won’t fight back and he won’t leave.
I lob a serenity candle at him, just to see if he’ll duck. He doesn’t, and it crashes into the far wall and bounces onto the floor. It’s making me nuts that he won’t react, so naturally I start throwing everything I can get my hands on. From the nightstand, I toss my alarm clock, a glass of water, my hardback copy of A Course in Miracles, my lavender-infused eye pillow, the lamp. It all crashes to the floor and I must be crying because my face is all wet and it’s too cold to be sweating. And I guess I’ve been screaming the whole time because I’m breathing hard and my throat hurts.
Now I must be hearing things, because it sounds like someone’s knocking on my door but I’m not expecting anyone. When I hear it again, harder and louder, I answer the door and it’s two cops. One of them’s a gal, about thirty, but not a looker, and she talks first.
“Everything okay in here, ma’am? We got some disturbance calls.” She looks over my shoulder and I turn around. Charles is gone, or hiding. I look under the bed, in the closet, and in the bathroom. I check under the table in the breakfast nook and in the cupboards, but he’s gone all right. I guess he finally got the message.
The cops are looking at me like they’re embarrassed. I guess the place is pretty messy. I hadn’t noticed. I catch the guy checking out Kevin Costner but I doubt Blockbuster ever reported it, and besides they’re out of business now, so I guess he just likes what he sees. I wouldn’t figure him for leaning that way, but you never can tell. Sure enough, he clears his throat.
“So, everything’s okay, then?” he says.
“Yes,” I assure them. “Someone was here before, but he’s gone now. I don’t think he’s coming back.”
The gal looks me in the eye and gives me a nice smile, without showing her teeth. She pulls a business card out of her shirt pocket and hands it to me. “You have any problems, you call us right away.”
The card says: Minnie Demarest, Woodland Hills Police Department, but before I can ask her if she’s related to William, they’re halfway down the steps and it wouldn’t be polite to yell after her.
I think I could be friends with Minnie.
My son used to steal from me, he never calls, and I don’t even know for sure if he’s alive or dead. But it’s not him who haunts me. It’s Christina. Sometimes I wake up at night, thinking I hear her crying, but then I realize almost forty years have passed. One image I can never get out of my head—Christina, about 3 years old, red-faced and screaming in our bedroom, begging to be let into bed with me and her daddy. Her mouth was open so wide you could see her tonsils and there was snot and tears wiped all over her face. She gave off a smell of fear and urine and you could see where she’d wet her pajamas. They were the kind with feet in them, decorated with Winnie-the-Pooh characters. We didn’t want her in bed with us, and neither of us comforted her or took her to the bathroom to clean her up, or even offered a kind word. Walt sat up hugely and abruptly and bellowed, “Back to bed, young lady,” and when she gasped and froze with her eyes wide, he got louder, “This instant!” Christina looked me straight in the eye before turning around, like she was thinking it was all my fault, and that may have been when she made up her mind about me.
Why didn’t we bring her into bed with us? Why didn’t I at least tuck her back into her own? Would it have made any difference? I don’t know. But I can’t get rid of that image of her, no matter how hard I try. We did worse, Walt and me, but that’s the one I can’t shake.
I called Minnie twice a day since she gave me her card that night more than five weeks ago, but it’s her work phone and she never answers so I got tired of leaving messages with whatever desk cop was on duty. No one would give me her home phone or cell number, even though I told them she’d given me her card.
I still haven’t finished my screenplay, and I have to admit I don’t know how. Why is my life important enough to write a script about? Why is anyone’s?
Unless something changes quick, I’m getting thrown out of my apartment in less than a month. That rotten landlord won’t even talk to me; he just leaves the notices up there. I guess he wants to do it by the book, without any personal touch. I don’t know where I’m going to end up, but I really need a new friend to help me through all this. A gal doesn’t want to be alone. I can’t stand the silence.
These days two different friends are courting my attention. One of them looks like Oprah, and she feels like a big long hug. The other one has excellent posture and says things like “winners can’t be whiners” and “the difference between a patriot and a creep is a liberal education.” He may have been in the military; I can picture him in uniform. When he visits, he wears pressed Dockers, a short-sleeved button down plaid shirt, and cop sunglasses. His features are handsome, but when I look at him I think of everything bad I’ve ever done. I haven’t seen the other one for awhile, the one like Oprah, but maybe if I’m nice to her next time, she’ll come back more often. I put on some water for tea and head to the foldout couch, where she usually appears. I smooth the afghan out over her spot, and listen to the crickets until the whistle of the kettle calls me back to the kitchen area, where I prepare a pot of Earl Gray and arrange two cups and saucers on an antique silver platter I found at the Salvation Army. She likes things just so. I set the oven timer to three minutes, the exact amount of steeping necessary for a perfect cup of Earl Gray, and sit down to wait.
I wake up in what I immediately recognize as one of the recovery rooms at the Motion Picture hospital. With the white walls and white lights, it might be heaven except for the photograph of Greta Garbo on the wall.
A woman is at my side. She’s in her forties, with undyed grayish brown hair and a stern expression. No lipstick. “Hello, Carol. We almost lost you. ”
What’s she talking about? What happened to me?
It’s Christina, I suddenly realize. I haven’t seen her in more than five years. She’s aged at least that many, but she’s still pretty.
Christina looks at me without blinking. It’s not a mean look, more like I’m her pet that’s been naughty and rolled around in dirt. I must look awful.
She reaches up and tucks her thick, wavy hair behind her right ear, a gesture I’ve seen her do a thousand times since she was about three. It breaks my heart—whether it’s because I’d forgotten it or because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it, I’m not sure.
“Carol!” she barks at me so loud I flinch.
Christina, why are you calling me that?
I thought I said that out loud, but all that comes out is a sort of croak. It sounds like a stubborn cork.
“Don’t try to talk. The doctor said that would make it worse.”
What doctor? I can’t speak? I can’t speak! There’s that croak eeking out of me.
“Stop it!” Christina practically screams at me. How did she turn out to be such a witch? She glares at me and says, “I’ve been calling you Carol since I was ten years old. You never wanted to be called ‘mom’ back then. You didn’t want anyone to know you were old enough to have kids.”
That’s ridiculous. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
No reaction. I haven’t even made a croak this time. Christina speaks slowly and loudly, like I’m a child or an idiot. Just because I can’t speak doesn’t mean I can’t hear.
“Listen, Carol. I’m just here to take care of a few things and help you get moved into an assisted living home.”
A nursing home? I don’t need that! I can take care of myself!
“You’re about to be evicted and now… there’s really no alternative… a stroke is nothing to take lightly…”
Christina’s words go in and out; it sounds like she’s speaking underwater. I feel funny, like I forgot something… Did I feed the cat? I don’t think I have a cat anymore… My eyelids feel heavy, like I’ve taken a Quaalude or an Ambien… I think I’ll just rest my eyes for a minute…
…When I open them again, I have to wonder, “Am I in heaven?” If I was, I wouldn’t smell bacon frying, would I? Not if there are pigs in heaven.
It’s bright and kind of blurry like when you squint your eyes against the sun, and someone is fluffing my pillows. Christina? It’s Christina! I can hear her! Her voice is lively; it sounds like she’s smiling while she’s talking.
“My mother was so beautiful,” she says. Who’s she talking to?
It’s Oprah! She’s sitting down by the foot of the bed. She smiles so big; it’s the kindest smile I’ve ever seen.
Oprah nods and says, “I’ll bet she was.”
“And so glamorous, always dressed up with her hair piled on top of her head in an elaborate hairdo and her makeup done to perfection.”
She’s talking about me!
Christina leans in close. “You were the best mom ever. All the kids were jealous of how you’d make pie for dinner whenever Walt wasn’t home. And you’d serve it on grandma’s good china. Sometimes there’d be two pies; you’d call it a “do over.’ You’d make another pie because you said the first one wasn’t any good, the crust was a little burned or something, but we’d always eat that one too. Remember, mama?”
My heart feels big in my chest. What a sweet girl she is.
She looks at me with all the love in the world shining through her eyes and says, “It’s gonna take a little while. But the doctors think you’ll be able to speak again.”
I hope so. I’ve got a lot to say.
ANGELA BARTON is currently a writer, researcher, and editor, after receiving an MFA in Film Production from UCLA and working several years in feature film editing. Her stories and essays have appeared, among other places, in The Potomac Review, Sirens!, Apollo’s Lyre, Vision Magazine, and the anthology Staying Sane When You’re Quitting Smoking. She lives with her husband in the Eagle Rock suburb of Los Angeles. She can be found at www.angelabarton.com.