The house was white stucco, ranch-style, with tall hedges and a large semicircular driveway. There was a crumbling pool out back full of rust stains and carcasses of squirrels that had fallen in and slowly starved to death. I used to tan out there on a lawn chair before auditions, fantasizing about getting rich and famous. My room had green shag carpeting and a twin-size bed on a plywood frame, a little nightstand with a child’s lamp in the shape of a clown. Above my bed hung an old framed poster of Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. It would have done me well if I’d prayed to that poster, but I’d never even heard of Marlon Brando before. I was eighteen. I was living in an area of Los Angeles called Hancock Park: manicured lawns, big clean houses, expensive cars, a country club. Walking around those quiet streets, I felt like I was on the set of a soap opera about the private lives of business executives and their sexy wives. One day I’d star in something like that, I hoped. I had limited experience as an actor in high school, first as George in Our Town and then as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet. People had told me I looked like a sandy-haired Pierce Brosnan. I was broke, and I was a nobody, but I was happy.
Those first few months in Los Angeles, I lived off powdered cinnamon doughnuts and orange soda, fries from Astro Burger, and occasional joints rolled with stale weed my stepdad had given me back in Utah as a graduation present. Most days I took the bus around Hollywood, listening to the Eagles on my Walkman and imagining what life was like for all those people way up in the hills. I’d walk up Rossmore, which turned into Vine once you hit Hollywood, and then I’d get on a crosstown local down Santa Monica Boulevard. I liked to sit with all the young kids in school uniforms, the teenage runaways in rags and leather jackets, the crazies, the drunks, housekeepers with their romance novels, old men with their spittle, whores with their hairspray. This was miraculous to me. I’d never seen people like that before. Sometimes I studied them like an actor would, noting their postures, their sneering or sleeping faces, but I wasn’t very gifted.
I was observant, but I couldn’t act. When the bus reached the beach, I’d get off and run up and down the stairs that led from the street to the shoreline. I’d take off my shirt, lie out on the sand, catch some rays, look at the water for a minute, then take the bus back home.
In the evenings, I bussed tables in a pizza parlor on Beverly Boulevard. Nobody important ever came in. Mostly I brought out baskets of bread and carafes of box wine, picked up pizza crusts and grease-soaked napkins. I never ate the food there. Somehow that felt beneath me. If I didn’t have to work and there was a game going on, I’d take the bus out to Dodger Stadium and walk around just to get a feel for the crowd, the excitement. Nearby, in Elysian Park, I found a spot on a little cliff where I could listen to the cheers from the crowd and watch the traffic on the freeway, the mountains, the pale gray and sandy terrain. With all those ugly little streets in the ravine down below, LA looked like anywhere. It made me miss Gunnison. Sometimes I’d smoke a joint and walk around the swaying eucalyptus, peek into the cars parked along the fire road. Sedate, unblinking Mexicans sat in jalopies in shadows under the trees. Middle-aged men in dark glasses flicked their cigarettes out their windows as I passed. I had some idea of what they were doing there. I did not return anyone’s leers. I stayed out of the woods. At home, alone, I concentrated on whatever was on television. I had a black-and-white mini Toshiba. It was the first big thing I’d ever bought with my own money back in Gunnison and the most expensive thing I owned.
My landlady’s name was Mrs Honigbaum. When I lived with her, she would have been in her late sixties. She wore a short dark blond wig and large gold-framed eyeglasses. Her fingernails were long and fake and painted pink. Her posture was stooped in the shiny quilted housecoat she wore when she walked around. Usually she sat behind her desk in a sleeveless blouse, her thin, spotted arms swaying as she gestured and pulled Kools from a tooled leather cigarette case. Her ears and nose were humongous, and the skin on her face was stretched up toward her temples in a way that made her lookstunned all the time. Her makeup was like stage makeup, or what they put on dead bodies in open caskets. It was applied heavy-handedly, in broad strokes of blue and pink and bronze. Still, I didn’t think she was unattractive. I had never met a Jew before, or anyone intellectual at all back in Gunnison.
Mrs Honigbaum rented rooms in her house for forty-five dollars a week to young men who came to her through a disreputable talent agent – my agent. Forty-five dollars a week wasn’t cheap at the time, but my agent had made the arrangements and I didn’t question him. His name was Bob Sears. I never met him face-to-face. I’d found him by calling the operator back in Gunnison and asking to speak to a Los Angeles talent scout. Bob Sears took me on as a client ‘sight unseen’ because, he said, I sounded good-looking and American over the phone. He said that once I had a few odd gigs under my belt, I could start doing ad work on game shows, then commercials, then bit roles on soaps, then small parts in sitcoms, then prime-time dramas. Soon Scorsese would come knocking, he said. I didn’t know who Scorsese was, but I believed him.
Once I got to town, I called Bob Sears nearly every weekday morning to find out where to go for auditions and what time to be there. Mrs Honigbaum let me use the phone in her bedroom. I think I was the only tenant to have that privilege. Her bedroom was dark and humid, with tinted glass doors looking out onto the swimming pool. Mirrors lined one wall. Everything smelled of vanilla and mouthwash and mothballs. A dresser was topped with a hundred glass vials of perfumes and potions and serums I guessed were meant to keep her youthful. There was a zebra-skin rug, a shiny floral bedspread. The ceiling lamp was a yellow crystal chandelier. When the door to the bathroom was open, I saw the flesh-colored marble, a vanity covered in makeup and brushes and pencils, a bare styrofoam head. The light bulbs were fixed along the edges of the mirror, like in backstage dressing rooms. I was very impressed by that. I went in there and studied my face in that lighting, but only for a minute at a time. I didn’t want to get caught. While I was on the phone with Bob Sears, the maid sometimes flitted in and out, depositing stacks of clean towels, collecting the crumpled, lipstick-smeared tissues from the waste bin by the bed. The phone was an old rotary, the numbers faded and greasy, and the receiver smelled like halitosis. The smell didn’t really bother me. In fact, I liked everything about Mrs Honigbaum. She was kind. She was generous. She flattered and cajoled me, the way grandmothers do.
Bob Sears had said I’d need a headshot, so before I’d left Gunnison, my mother drove me to the mall in Ephraim to have my portrait taken. I had a lazy, wandering eye, and so I wasn’t allowed to drive. She drove me resentfully, sighing and tapping her finger on the steering wheel at red lights, complaining about how late it was, how hard she’d worked all day, how the mall gave her a headache. ‘I guess in Hollywood they have chauffeurs to drive you around and servants to make your food,’ she said. ‘And butlers to pick up your dirty underwear. Is that what you expect? Your Highness?’
‘I’m going to Hollywood to work,’ I reminded her. ‘As an actor. It’s a job. People really do it.’
‘I don’t see why you can’t be an actor here, where everybody already knows you. Everybody loves you here. What’s so terrible about that?’
‘Because nobody here knows anything,’ I explained. ‘So what they think doesn’t matter.’
‘Keep biting the hand and it might slap you across the face one day,’ she said. ‘Boys like you are a dime a dozen out there. You think those Hollywood people will be lining up just to tie your shoes? You think you’re so lucky? You want an easy life? You want to roller-skate on the beach? Even the hairs on your head are numbered. Don’t forget that.’
I really did want an easy life. I looked out the window at the short little houses, the flat open plains, the sky purple and orange, blinding sparks of honey-colored light shooting over the western mountains where the sun went down. ‘Nothing ever happens here,’ I said.
‘You call fireworks over the reservoir nothing? How about that public library you’ve never once set foot in? How about all those teachers who I had to beg not to fail you? You think you’re smarter than all them? Smarter than teachers?’
‘No,’ I answered. I knew I wasn’t smart back then. Being an actor seemed like an appropriate career for someone like me.
‘You’re running out on your sister, on Larry,’ said my mother. ‘What can I say? Just don’t get yourself murdered. Or do. It’s your life.’ She turned up the radio. I kept quiet for the rest of the drive.
My life in Gunnison really wasn’t that bad. I was popular and I had fun, and pretty girls followed me around. I’d been like a celebrity in my high school – prom king, class president. I was voted ‘most likely to succeed’ even though my grades were awful. I could have stayed in Gunnison, gotten a job at the prison, worked up the ranks, married any girl I chose, but that wasn’t the kind of life I wanted. I wanted to be a star. The closest movie theater was in Provo, an hour and a half away. I’d seen Rocky and Star Wars there. Whatever else I’d watched came through one of the three TV channels we had in Gunnison. I didn’t particularly like movies. It seemed like hard work to act in something that went on for so long. I thought I could move to Hollywood and get a role on a show like Eight Is Enough as the cool older brother. And later I could be like Starsky in Starsky and Hutch.
I explained all this to the photographer at the mall. ‘People say I look like Pierce Brosnan,’ I told him. He said he agreed, handed me a flimsy plastic comb, told me to sit down and wait my turn.
I remember the little kids and babies in fancy clothes in the waiting room, crying and nagging their mothers. I combed my hair and practiced making faces in the mirror on the wall. My mother went to Rydell’s and came back with a new rhinestone belt on. ‘Discount,’ she said. I suspect she lifted it. She did that when she was in a bad mood. Then she sat down next to me and read People magazine and smoked. ‘Don’t smile too much,’ she said when it was my turn with the photographer. ‘You don’t want to look desperate.’
Oh, my mother. A week later she drove me to the bus stop. It was barely five in the morning and she still wore her burgundy satin negligee and curlers in her hair, a denim jacket thrown over her sunburnt shoulders. She drove slowly on the empty roads, coasted through the blinking red lights as though they didn’t exist, stayed silent as the moon. Finally she pulled over and lit a cigarette. I watched a tear coast down her cheek. She didn’t look at me. I opened the car door. ‘Call me,’ is all she said. I said I would. I watched as she pulled a U-turn and drove away.
Gunnison was mostly empty fields, long gray roads. At night the prison lights oriented you to the north, dark sleeping wolves of mountains to the east and west. The south was a mystery to me. The farthest I’d ever gone down Highway 89 was to the airport, and that was just to see an air show once when I was a kid. I had never even left Utah before I moved to Los Angeles. I fell asleep on the bus, my little Toshiba under my feet, and woke up in Cedar City when a fat man got on and took the seat next to me. He edged me against the window and chain-smoked for three and a half hours, his body roiling and thundering each time he coughed. In the dim bus, flashes of light bounced off the mirrored lenses of his sunglasses, smudged by fingers greasy from the doughnuts he was eating. I watched him pick out the little crumbs from the folds of his crotch and lick his hands. ‘The Garden of Eden,’ he said. ‘Have you been to Vegas?’ I shook my head no. All the money I had in the world was folded up in the front pocket of my jeans. The bulge there embarrassed me. ‘I go for poker,’ the man gasped.
‘I’m going to Hollywood to be an actor,’ I told him. ‘On television, or in movies.’
‘Thatta boy,’ he replied. ‘The slimmest odds reap the highest payouts. But it takes balls. That’s why I can’t play roulette. No balls.’ He coughed and coughed.
This cheered me to hear. I was bold. I was courageous. I was exceptional. I had big dreams. And why shouldn’t I? My mother had no idea what real ambition was. Her father was a janitor. Her father’s father had been a farmer. Her mother’s father had been a pastor at the prison. I would be the first in a succession of losers to make something of myself. One day I’d be escorted through the streets in a motorcade, and the entire world would know my name. I’d send checks home. I’d send autographed posters from movies I starred in. I’d give my mom a fur coat and diamonds for Christmas. Then she’d be sorry she ever doubted me. We crossed into Nevada, the blank desert like a spot on a map that had been rubbed away with an eraser. I stared out the window, imagining, praying. The fat man caressed my thigh several times, perhaps by accident. He got off in Las Vegas, at last, and a black lady got on and took his seat. She batted the smoky air with a white-gloved hand. ‘Never again,’ she said, and pulled out a paperback Bible.
I put on my earphones and busied my mind with the usual request: ‘Dear God, please make me rich and famous. Amen.’