Location: Hedgesville, WV
Date of Birth: 3/31/66
Another commercial break. Glace won't let me smoke. The building codes wonít either. Up on the roof with Phrygia and her gang the streets below look livable. Unpredictable veins coursing through a scriptless city. Phrygia likes menthols. Give her a few and she'll tell you the name of every street you can point out to her. Give her a couple packs and she'll tell you the story behind every one of them. She's got something in common with the streets.
The fate of my televised world is handed to me typed on precious white paper. The motions I go through have been predestined by the good people of Gamma Productions, Incorporated. There's this joke the staff tells all the newbies. Working your first day here is like reading the last page of a book. This is all you get.
I didn't expect it to work out like this when Thornton and I moved to Hollywood. We had dreams deeply instilled waiting to ferment. Thornton's the actor. I just came along for the ride. On the outside chance, I dreamed I could sell my screenplay. Waiting tables, hustling pool here and there and taking any bit part that I saw in Variety. But here I am, the host of Guess My Dysfunction. The most watched syndicated show on television. God bless America. It needs it.
Phrygia says I need a woman. I think she needs to stick to her bird friends. Glace would be a lot prettier if she didn't carry that clipboard around though. Itinerary this and agenda that. Scripts. The God of Hollywood. And beyond. At least in Forest Glen. The home of the Fighting Sileni. Thornton wasn't much of a booster. He had this place in his eyes since the first time I met him. Cigarette and leather jacket. Prankster poet. Handsome. All proponents enough to be popular. But he didnít want it. That made him a strange child. Actually thinks dreams come true the way you dream them. Phrygia sides with him on that one. Rare occurrence. Those two don't mix so well together. Souls on different streets. Doves and rooftops aren't part of Thornton's ideal scheme. And bikinis and crime shows are?
Fluttered wings grace the immediate sky.
"Mommaís little babies have come home." Five virgin-white doves and one mammoth pigeon called Pegasus (the symbiotic leader of the squadronĖat least thatís how she puts it) scamper toward Phrygiaís cupped hand of feed. "There you go."
"Look. Thereís a note on Pegasusís leg."
"Itís probably a letter from Midas. The old coot. I guess I should write him back."
"Are you two ever going to meet?"
"What we have here is a beautiful correspondence. Poetry by pigeon. Why would we both want to mess it up by physical contact? Nowadays, people are talking to one another on those terrible computers. Just chatting away. Most of the time they donít know what anyone looks like, or smells like for that matter. Just whatís in the head. The good stuff. They have their internet. I have my Pegasus."
Glace and her clipboard should be storming through the fire exit any minute now screaming something to the fact that I have never been able to grasp the logic behind live sets. Go when the little red light is off. Stay when the little red light is on. Blah blah blah. Phrygia cares little for television. Locusts, plagues and television. The downfalls of society. An unhomogenized one anyway.
Back to Thornton. A part of him is pure ideal. We were in this diner somewhere off the coast of Arizona. Quaint. Subtle yet engaging background. Early redneck. He had the cheeseburger. I had the chicken. The waitress. This rustic logic. Deep down. The kind that was way beyond the mere gathering of tips. Questions unasked with a smile. Affability in an apron. The utensils were clean. There were three truckers smoking at the counter. The PC nation hasnít gotten to this place yet. A sighed relief of nicotine hovered above our table. The truckers were trading friendly obscenities with the cook who could have been mistaken for a trucker sans the paper piss cutter. And here was Thornton. "Iím so full of shit I make myself laugh. Who are we? Really?"
"I donít know, Thornton. Nobody yet, I guess."
"And who will we be then? After the yet? Will a sea of sunshine light our every step? Will our ageless wings never tire in the beyond? Thereíll be a learned glow to our halos?"
"You know there is no point to that point. Why bother?"
"Exactly. Why did we bother leaving the panpipes and wine to make a grab at glory?" His eyes started to leave. "To decay among the puffy Polaroids of yesterdayís child? Two little goats. Wide-eyed eager to show how vain and shallow they too can be?"
"You want purpose?"
"Well . . . " I picked up the check. "I believe that is why we came out here in the first place. Weíll have plenty of time to find a purpose before we grow up."
"I donít care if I grow up as long as I grow."
"Are you done filling your lungs with black void? Hi, Phrygia."
"Ms. Glace, you look a fret."
"Has the light come on already?"
Stamping feet syncopate with the iridescent din of a No. 2 tapping on a clipboard. The pencil isnít sharpened. Glace always carries that pencil around, but I have yet to see her actually write with it. She doesnít have to. They bark. She bites. $800 a week. Another $800 as a monthly expense account. Prime parking spot. But not as good as mine. A small apartment in Westwood. $1200 a month. Barely ample enough for her pedigree cockatiel. The only salvageable keepsake from her lengthy divorce proceedings. Six messages on her answering machine and Iíll pay five to one if at least four of them arenít from her mother. Still paying on that old college loan. Five years removed from that black void habit I so happily keep. And five minutes away from a nervous breakdown.
"Whatís on the menu today, mein Fuerher?"
"Weíre taping the Anson Twinís Episode in five. Editing procedure. The censors wonít let us go live on that one. In five." A dainty never-seen-hard labor hand projects five digits. A visual aid as if I have forgotten my days of Sesame Street.
"Twins? Must be sweepsí week, huh?"
"Our contract with the current affiliate subscribers ends this months. Jeffery wants to get the highest bid we can get. It will buy you more nicotine. So everyone is going to have to do their part and take it up a notch. Four minutes."
"The Anson Twins? Are they the ones that share the same boyfriend and he doesnít know it?"
"That would be them."
"Does Doc have the lowdown?"
"Iíll be there in a sec. Phrygia stills needs to enlighten me. Iím always there on time. Today wonít be any different. Promise." "Everything is ready except you."
"Three minutes. And donít forget next week. Weíre going live with the Tyler girl. You remember her. Sheís come back for an encore."
Back to Thornton. He too has his own television show. God bless America. Network exposure. To boot. Not of the Big Three. Yet. One of the lesser networks. The Burbank equivalent to Off Broadway. He still wows them on the TeenBeat circuit. The Sammy Maudlin Show. Real cheesy crime show with an even cheesier story line. Sammy Maudlin is this hip, very 90's private investigator that gets sucked in a worm hole while on one of his routine investigations for NASA and ends up in a dimension quite like that of planet earth circa 1955. They do have some witty dialogue. Even the theme song. "Heís Sammy, Sammy Maudlin. Always ready for a case, always ready for a brawling. Heís Sammy, Sammy Maudlin. Always matter of fact. His girlfriend is quite stacked. Heís Sammy." Cue Thorntonís $25,000 per episode smile and his buxom co-star, Chicago Landers. Everybody calls her Chi Chi. Except for Sammy. Heís too busy trying to get back to his Brownstone in Tribeca, bottled water, and therapist. And as far as Sammy can see, they didnít start manufacturing Prozac till the late 80's. Beats the gig Thornton was doing before that. He was an extra for a big network crime show, Thunder Beach. A regularly reoccurring extra. Got beat up by a lot of scantily clad beautiful women safely protecting the beaches of Australia and their tan lines at the same time. Thornton always said if time were to stop still, and whatever moment you were in would keep repeating itself in a never-ending loop, it would be a nice fate if it happened while taping that show.
Mine would be the Tyler girl episode.
"Phrygia, I better get back before Glace has an aneurysm."
"Honey, Iím not keeping you."
A funny thing about Phrygia. Why this rooftop? The doves and such. Not that sheís a mystery. I ask. I just donít pry. A historied closet. That could be true about anyone at that age I suppose. At least the ambitious ones. The odometer has turned over a couple of times on her road of life. Still runs clean. Clean with an upright class. The kind that only old money can buy.
"On time as usual." Glace broods over a waving clipboard. "We go on ten." Her pencil dances in the air like a Duchamp painting. "Makeup. Quickly, please."
Lights at my cheeks. Cables at my feet. A wavy man nervous from coffee resonates before me handing over the precious dossier of the two fine Sisters Anson.
Fingers down to one. Teleprompter rolls.
"Good evening, my fellow dysfuncts, to another rapturous exposé on the good old shenanigans of the American Dysfunctional Family. Tonight on the menu we have a double entrée. Separated at birth by only eight seconds, our two lovely guests, Shona and Donna Anson give new meaning to the phrase, Ďshare and share alike.í Waiting backstage is Donnaís boyfriend, Craig. Incidentally, he also happens to be Shonaís boyfriend. He just doesnít know it yet. Unbeknownst to him, he will find out, as well as you the viewer, what dysfunction our shell gaming hucksters suffer from, if any at all. If I was Craig, I probably would not get too upset. On our esteemed panel. The effervescent Marc Coulden. Comedian Extraordinaire. Fresh off a stint in Vegas. Needless to say, he should be well qualified for this one. The vivacious Lynda Roame. Queen of the softcore. Tonightís case should be old hat for her. And finally, the sojourned Tommy Cassel. Because he needs the money. Youíre drooling Tommy. Together, our virtuous jury will hand down the fate of these Hayley Mills wannabes. All this and more right after the break."
The 5:15 sun leers through a Holland-like haze at the stop and go motorists to Malibu. The best way of knowing your life is infinitely more important than your job is by the calmer attitude you exude on the way home. I live a couple of streets down from Mercedes Blvd. and Diablo Drive. Thornton and I collected our resources together and splurged on a small mansion or a large house. Take your pick. The house is melodramatically located on a fault line. Even worse, we have company. Thorntonís kid brother, Brandon, was recently paroled from Glen Forest. I got him a job on my show. Heís the bandleader. Plays a really mean bass. But he doesnít clean up after himself very well. Eats his weight in gold. His choice of friends is questionable. Iím quite sure most of them are on the D.E.A.ís mailing list. He has become a permanent fixture in the entertainment room. And he kicks my ass on every video game we have. On the plus side he has a photographic memory and handles my phone messages rather efficiently.
"Thorntonís been trying to get a hold of you all day. Said they wouldnít put his calls through at your studio. Said you were in production or something. Anyway, he said to get your ass over to The Paíanga A.S.A.P. The dinner reservation is at seven. Said heíll explain and he knows that he owes you big time for this. Oh, and he said to bring a date."
"Christ. Thatís an hour away. Doesnít give me much time, does it?"
"Like I said, heís been trying to get a hold of you all day." All day to Brandon starts around one or two in the afternoon when he wakes up. Dog hours. Has it pretty easy at work. The band plays in a separate stage then the show. So they tape their songs any damn time they feel like and then editing takes over from there.
"Where the hell am I going to find a date at this hour?"
"I already called Glace. She said she would meet you there. Go get Ďem stud."
So much for vegging on the couch watching the Tyler girl episode on a continuous loop. There are sixty-three indexes on that tape. And it stays in the VCR. Perhaps I should get out tonight. "Hey, Bran, is the Paíanga casual?"
I get a puppy sarcasm from his eyes. "Are you kidding? You do know this is Hollywood, right?"
"Not much time. Guess Iíll have to go as is."
A swaying head. "Shame. Shame. Shame."
"By all means, share your wisdom."
"Well, if the reservation was at six youíd be in vogue with an oxford, jeans and sunglasses. Anytime after that you had better bring along a sport coat."
"A tie is too much then?"
"Accessorize away. Here, wear one of my Hilfilger tweeds. Youíll be fine. Anyway, itís only Thornton."
Fashion acumen for the paronomastic.
Driving and thinking. The Algonquin of our time. Beats paying attention. Traffic lights and egos on wheels. Lip balm and maps of stars. Dental hygiene advertisements. Feminine for that matter. A different beer for every social clime. Limousine-tinted agoraphobes lurk in the shadows of underpasses. A lawyer in every trunk. Cellular headsets. The brand of importance. Lacking a certain something? Take a stroll down your local highway. Choose your products well and friends will follow. This Sunday treat your family to the joy of self-enlightenment at our Temple of the Patron Saint of Convenience. So and so for mayor. Or vice chief of political attire. Floral patterns and coconut oil. An unmistaken summer tanned for all year long. Let your loved ones be bereaved in beauty at Sunny Hills Cemetery. Give at the office. Yield to oncoming traffic. Hitchhiking is prohibited. Eat your Wheaties. And milk does what? Placated in this age of absorption, one takes discriminately. I see the same trash on the same streets everyday. Why the constantness of my daily routines? The religiousness of my secular boredom. Why here? Anywhere.
Veronica Tyler is twenty-three. Hails from Branson, Missouri. The Next Vegas. Or Nashville. Perhaps both. Called the phone lines during one of our live shows. Audience participation. One of my ideas. The topic that night was shamelessly exploitive. Abusive people and their co-dependent spouses. The crowd got rather ugly. Turned the tables on both parties. Booed the tank-topped, brass-buckled, white-trashed, beer-stained boys of hate who referred to themselves as the men of their respective families. The winners of bread. The bringers of bacon. There is a debt owed to them the world needs to start paying. And their spouses. The crowd was unmercifully clear. Ridiculed and berated. The timid wivesí excuses went unaccepted. What about the children? Heís just going through a phase. His job is very demanding. How could I possibly leave now? He needs me. I would go if only I had both feet on the ground. I donít even have my own line of credit. At the end of each show we have a Question and Answer segment at which point we open the phone lines. The particular subject Veronica jumped into was hate. One of the wives offered the question. A mousy mother of three. Susie something. Cute but not enough to be in any position to think fuck all this shit Iím out of here. The crowd wondered why she didnít reserve a high amount of contempt for her husband. Canít she see? What a horrible man. Obviously there were no residents of glass houses that night. Susie asked, "How can I hate the man I love?"
Well, our Ms. Tyler was all over that one. "Hate, like love, represents the highest manifestation of passion. They are our most reverent forms of expression. Because of that they intertwine. Cut from the same stone, if you will. And sadly enough, they are at times confused for one another. It is up to the individual to separate these two pure emotions. To distance them from oneself. I would have to say, actually, their difference lies in that hate is more exact. A truer feeling. Love is cumbersome and antiquated with responsibility and a conscientious effort to be requited. More importantly, love is saddled with guilt. But hate is naked. Alone on its own. No hidden agenda. Frankly put, hate is simple ardor. A hell of a lot easier to do. To be at peace with yourself and the other person in question, you must know where you are in relation to love and hate and what each of these emotions means to you. It takes a clear understanding of hate to appreciate love. And to answer your question, well, to say that you love your husband therefore you canít hate him is pure bullshit. Thank you for listening."
By the time the credits rolled Glace already had our Ms. Tyler booked on the redeye that evening. The next night the show was more of the same. A campfire feel. Our ratings have never been higher. I felt as if I was merely a guest and not the host. She did all the driving. Disorders were discussed. Myths were dispelled. But no labels were thrown. And ultimately that would not sit well with the crowd. That is what they came for. The judges were at a loss. Doc was befuddled. "She seems fine to me." Yet the crowd wanted a name. To stand around the water cooler and ramble off all the new flashy problems that they donít suffer from. So one of the judges said Veronica has what is referred to as a Jesus Complex. Seemed more like a goal than a disorder to me but the crowd was content. And that is what matters.
Glace looked stunning. Apparently she did not consult with Brandon. Thornton already had a table. He was sharing it with a plastic blond. Familiar looking. Arenít they all? Probably saw her in a movie. Somewhere in between The Valley of the Dolls and The Stepford Wives. Introductions. Vasha Devancourt. The Girl of Our Dreams. Second-rate television show. One of the lesser networks. Cocktails. Perused the menu. Small talk. Appetizers. More cocktails. Continued small talk. Main course. Thornton dabbled into why we were here. Impress some studio bigwigs. Dessert. Headed to the bar for more cocktails. The girls went off to trade makeup secrets.
"Isnít Vasha something?"
"Sheís smart too. This is her idea."
"What is?" Dinner? Genius.
"You see, sheís the star of her network and I am, so she says, the star of mine."
"Are you taking that as a compliment?"
"Be nice for a change. Anyway, she came up with this incredible story line for a movie. Get all the stars of every network and put them in a movie acting as their character. Sound good?"
"Sounds like a two hour long commercial. Who you got?"
"So far we have all the lesser network stars. Getting the Big Three stars, well, thatís why we are here."
"And then what?"
"Get this. The plot is centered around the mysterious death of a famous game show host. Everyone is a suspect and everyone is looking for the murderer. Pretty nifty, huh?"
"Whoís the game show host?"
"Thatís where you come in, buddy."
"Oh, great. I get to be murdered."
"You get mentioned throughout the movie. Thereís this thing about all your dirty laundry surfacing in the courtroom but weíll have that. You donít have to say much. I think you only have a couple lines. But one really good soliloquy."
"Hey, no offence, but youíre no actor."
"Thanks. Whoís funding this Love Boat meets Agatha Christie farce?"
"Well, thatís another reason why we are here."
"No backing. Nice. Ground zero is good."
"Hey, itís going to happen."
"Youíre doing all this to get in her pants? Iíve underestimated you desperateness."
"You still donít believe in love, huh? Maybe you should go home and watch that Tyler girl episode again."
"Love? Her tits are going to outlive your grandchildren."
"Hollywood is one big masquerade. You havenít realized that by now?"
"Iíve realized quite a bit since weíve moved here."
"Sheís a climber. Youíre a rung."
"A cynic is born every minute and every minute a cynic dies."
"Weíll have that."
"Get us another round. I have more to say."
Glace and Vasha sauntered our way. Heads turned. Not bad as ornaments go. Must say though, Glace has a little depth. But Vasha can walk.
"Hello, boys. Did you miss us?" Wink wink. Nod nod.
Iím on that edge of alcohol where good becomes great. Glace was looking good sober. "So, Vasha, Thorntonís been telling me you have a screenplay? Sounds interesting."
"Yes. Thank you. Thereís a part in it especially for you."
"The chalk-line guy. Heard about it."
"The role is very flattering. Your people would be foolish not to back it."
I looked at Thornton. Like a child would look at his parents as they told him on Christmas day what his presents were before they were opened. "What?"
"That was the more I was going to get around to saying."
"You want Gamma to foot the bill? The same Gamma I work for?" Iíve never laughed so hard.
"The whole plot is centered around your show." Some people have their own something that distinguishes them from the rest. Good or bad. Vasha has her smile. "Thornton says you are very in with your people. What do you say?"
"My people?" I shared a dumb look with Glace that filled my soul with humor. Then she looked away. And Thornton with his love and eagerness and who knows what else looked at me. Blank with a purpose. I canít win. "Iíll see what I can do. Thatís the best I have to offer." How many towns will I have to live in before I donít have to say this is not the town for me?
I walked Glace to her car and out of nowhere kissed her goodnight. Innocent protocol. Perhaps something behind it. Wasnít bad. Nervous smiles and awkwardness. Jumbled keys. Fidgeted gearshift. Drove off. I stood there for a moment and thought. Reflection usually conjures up prior poor decisions. I felt numb. Veronica said thatís how she felt. The closest she came to alluding to a dysfunction.
Phrygiaís blood is blue. Not in her manner. Or style. Just by what she doesnít say. I was working at Sapagoís down the street. Lunch delivery. This building was one of my regular haunts. The boys in editing are a hungry lot. Vincent Sapago was notoriously anal. Clean this. Straighten that. No sneakers. Polish. Shine. Ruled an antiseptic kingdom. If you lit up a cigarette in front of him, by his reaction, youíd swear you just clubbed a baby seal. So I would go up on the rooftop to get my fix. The wind would take the smell away. Thatís how I met Phrygia. I was into menthols back then so she took an instant liking to me. Iím not much of a judge, but I thought she was a wise fool. Still do. A Goodwill look with Neimen Marcus tags. Yellow tar marks on manicured cuticles. She reminded me of someone I never knew. Born in Ohio. Raised in Europe. She used to dance in Paris. And taught in Milan. Etceteras. So smart she seems dumb. Aware of everything except herself. Not all mirrors are made of glass. I worked at Sapagoís for over a year and made it to the rooftop everyday. And everyday she would know more about me. Thornton too. And our ideals. So, one day I get up on the roof and a job proposal is waiting for me. This show. Never saw it coming. Somewhere in between Paris and Milan Phrygia managed to marry a very rich entertainment mogul. He gave her anything she wanted. She just wanted him. He fell short of that promise. Died after three years of marriage. She must have been a demon in the bedroom. Moved to Hollywood and carved a niche. Developed a golden touch as far as knowing what the audience wanted. Never bowed to the Big Three. Her weakness for rooftops is the only thing that keeps her from owning this town. "What is the matter with you, my boy? You have a look of purpose. Not like you."
I pitch the story to her.
"Iíve always been telling Jeffery that we need a side venture. Spin-offs. This is cute. And perhaps profitable. Whatís her name again?"
"Thatís what I thought you said. Well, weíll have to get it rewritten. Other than that, itís workable. Tell your friends itís a go."
Monday comes and brings Ms. Tyler with it. The Vasha movie deal makes this episode seem more important. We start production next week. The staff is giddy. The lights seem brighter. The cameras wider. Glace will be sitting in the producerís chair. That kiss feels years removed. We have purpose now. Even Doc has a part in the movie. He has more lines than I do. Saves me from getting an agent I suppose.
"Good evening, my fellow dysfuncts, to another rapturous exposé on the good old shenanigans of the American Dysfunctional Family. Tonight, back by popular demand, we have our good friend, Ms. Veronica Tyler. Doc, youíd better start looking in the classifieds. Welcome back, Veronica. How have you been?"
"Just fine. Itís good to be back. Iíve missed our conversations."
"Good. Are you ready for your inquisition? The last time around, I think the audience was cheated out of a verdict."
"Actually, no. I was sort of planning on deliberating your dysfunction."
"Mine? But I donít have one. Iím the host."
"Of course you do. We all have a dysfunction of sorts."
Glace erupts in the background. Frantic without movement. "Cut to commercial. Cut to commercial."
Jeffery seizes his golden moment to be. "No, let it roll."
"Ok, Ms. Freud. Enlighten me."
"What frightens you?"
"What? A few things."
"Would you mind being a little more specific?"
"Well, your question was rather vague."
"Fair enough. What scares you about me?"
"Besides taking over my job? I guess what scares me most about you is, well, me."
"When you called our phone lines, I thought to myself, what a crackpot. Probably just got her Associateís Degree in Psych and wants to showoff before she forgets it. And that thing about love and hate. A bohemian too. But then you came on the show and you displayed a learned numbness. As if youíve seen too much but havenít been able to decipher any of it. So you turned off that part of your brain that feels. Like those battered wives. After awhile, they stopped feeling the punches. Started smiling to the rest of the world and sewed a pretty dress of denial. To me, the world I live myself in has the texture of a sieve. Only the big bad ugly pieces are kept. And the vices I find along the wayĖ people, places and thingsĖ anything to make me feel, well, theyíre all just foolís gold. My claim is in me and I am not doing a very good job of mining. This numbness you haveĖ that I haveĖ is an ironic mask. It hides our true dysfunction."
"And this dysfunction you say we share?"
"The ability to be sensitive to everything around us except for ourselves."
And as far as the movie goes, I just gave away the perpetrator.