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.’
Mrs Honigbaum was a writer. Her gossip column, ‘Reach for the Stars’, ran in a weekly coupon circular distributed for free in strip malls and car washes and laundromats around town. The gossip she reported was unoriginal – who got engaged, who had a baby, who committed suicide, who got canned. She also wrote the circular’s monthly horoscopes. She said it was easy to steal predictions from old newspapers and switch the words around. It was all nonsense, she told me.
‘You want voodoo? Here.’ She pulled her change purse from a drawer and fished out a penny. ‘The first cent you’ve earned as an actor. I’m paying you. Take it, and give me a smile.’ Once she even made me sign one of my headshots, promising that she wouldn’t sell it, even when it was worth millions. ‘Don’t get too attached to who you are,’ she said. ‘They’ll make you change your name, of course. Nobody’s name is real out here. My real name was Yetta,’ she said, yelling over the clamor of her TVs. ‘Nobody here calls me that. Yetta Honigbaum, can you imagine? First I was Yetta Goslinski. Mr Honigbaum –’ She pointed to a small golden urn on top of her filing cabinet. ‘Now I have no family to speak of. Most of them were gassed by the Nazis. You’ve heard of Hitler? He had the brains but not the brawn, as they say. That’s what made him crazy. I was lucky. I escaped to Hollywood, like you. Welcome, welcome. I learned English in six days just reading magazines and listening to the radio. That’s brains. And believe it or not, I was a very pretty girl once. You can call me Honey. It’s a lonely life.’
She said she didn’t believe in fate or magic. There was hard work and there was luck. ‘Luck and hard work. Good looks and intelligence. In this city, it’s rarely a two-for-one.’ I remember her telling me that the day I moved in. ‘Any fool can see you’re handsome. But are you smart at all? Are you at least reasonable? That counts for a lot here. You’ll catch on. Did you see this?’ She held up the cover of a flimsy magazine showing Jack Nicholson picking his nose. ‘This is good. This is interesting. People like to see celebrities at their worst. It brings the stars back to earth, where they belong. Listen to me. Don’t go crazy. I should warn you that there are cults in this city, some better than others. People ask you to open a vein, you walk away. You hear me?’ She made me fill out a form and sign my name on a letter stating that if anything happened to me, if tragedy struck, she would take no responsibility. ‘I don’t know what they teach you in Utah, but even Jesus would get greedy here. The Masons, the Satanists, the CIA, they’re all the same. You can talk to me. I’m one of the good ones. And call your mother,’ she said.
I had no desire to speak to my mother. I took a mint candy from the crystal bowl on Mrs Honigbaum’s desk. ‘My mother and I don’t really get along,’ I said.
Mrs Honigbaum put down her pen. Her shoulders slumped. I could see the fringe of her real hair poking out from under her wig in short gray tufts across her forehead. Tight bubbles of sweat, murky with makeup, studded the deep lines of her wrinkled cheeks. ‘You think you’re the first? My mother was a terror. She beat me black and blue, made me chew on bars of soap any time I mouthed off. She forced me to walk miles in the rain to get her plums from a tree, then beat me because they were full of worms. And yet I mourn her passing. I’m a grown woman, and still I cry. You only have one mother. Mine got starved to death and thrown in a trench full of rotting corpses. You are lucky yours is still living. If I were a Christian I would cross myself. Now go call her. You know she loves you.’ And still I didn’t call.
I felt safe at Mrs Honigbaum’s house. I trusted her. She said there’d been an incident only once. A girl had stolen one of her rings. ‘It was a ruby, my mother’s birthstone,’ she told me dolefully. Because of that, it was forbidden to bring guests into the house. I had a lock on my door but I never used it. There was a guest bathroom all the tenants shared. We had to sign our name to book shower time on a piece of paper taped up in the hallway. Mrs Honigbaum never gossiped about the tenants, but I had the sense that I was the one she liked best. One tenant was a voice actor for some cartoon show I’d never heard of. He walked around barefoot and shirtless, perpetually gargling and speaking in a falsetto, to keep his vocal chords from seizing, he explained. There was also a man in his thirties, which seemed ancient to me at the time. He was always widening his eyes as though he’d just seen something unbelievable. He had deep creases in his forehead as a result. I saw him carrying a painting to his car once. It was a portrait of Dracula. He said a friend was borrowing it for a music video. Another guy was an aspiring makeup artist. He always wore flip-flop sandals, and I could hear him flapping up and down the hall at odd hours. Once I caught him without any clothes on, thrusting his genitals into the cold steam of the refrigerator. When I cleared my throat, he just turned around and flapped back down the hall.
My room was next door to Mrs Honigbaum’s office, so from morning to night I could hear celebrity news blaring from her six or seven televisions. The noise didn’t really bother me. Every morning when I passed her open doorway on the way to the shower, her maid would be spraying the carpet where the poodle had shat. Stacks of old tabloids flapped in the breeze from an industrial-sized fan. The poodle was old and its hair was yellowed and reddish in spots that made it look like it was bleeding. It was always having ‘bathroom mishaps’, as Mrs Honigbaum called them. Whenever Rosa the maid saw me without a shirt on, she covered her eyes with her hands. Mrs Honigbaum sat at her desk and stared at her television screens, sweating and taking notes. It seemed like she never went to bed.
‘Good morning,’ I’d say.
‘A sight to behold,’ exclaimed Mrs Honigbaum. ‘Rosa, isn’t he beautiful?’ Rosa didn’t seem to speak English. ‘Ah! My menopause,’ Mrs Honigbaum cried, shoveling barium supplements past her dentures. ‘Thanks for reminding me. Look at you.’ She shook her head. ‘People will think I’m running a brothel. Go get yourself some lemonade. I insist. Rosa. Lemonade. Donde está la lemonade?’ With all the rejection I got at auditions, it was nice to be home and be somebody’s favorite.
One afternoon, as I was coming in from tanning, Mrs Honigbaum invited me to dine with her. It was only five o’clock. ‘Someone was going to come, so Rosa cooked. But now he’s not coming. Please join me, or else it will go to waste.’ I had the night off from work, so I happily accepted her invitation. The kitchen was all dark wood, with orange counters and a refrigerator the size of a Buick. The white tablecloth was stained with coffee rings. ‘Sit,’ said Mrs Honigbaum as she pulled the meat loaf from the oven. Her oven mitts were like boxing gloves over her tiny, knobby hands. ‘Tell me everything,’ she said. ‘Did you have any auditions today? Any breaks?’
I’d spent most of the day on a bus out to Manhattan Beach where Bob Sears said a guy would be expecting me at his apartment. I arrived late and rang the doorbell. When the door opened, a seven-foot-tall black man appeared. He plucked my headshot out of my hands, pulled me inside, took a Polaroid of me without my shirt on, gave me his card and a can of 7-Up and pushed me out the door. ‘It was a quick meeting,’ I told Mrs Honigbaum. ‘I didn’t have many lines to read.’
She slid a woven-straw place mat in front of me, plunked down a knife and fork. ‘I’m glad it went so well. Others have a harder time of it. They take things too personally. That’s why I know you’re going to make it big. You’ve got a thick skin. Just don’t make the same mistake I made,’ she said. ‘Don’t fall in love. Love will ruin you. It turns off the light in your eyes. See?’ Her eyes were small, blurry, and buried under wrinkled, blue-shadowed lids and furry fake lashes. ‘Dead,’ she affirmed. She pointed upward to the ceiling. ‘Every day I mourn.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Now here, eat this.’ She returned to the table with a dinner plate piled high with meat loaf. I hadn’t eaten a home-cooked meal since Gunnison, so I devoured it quickly. She herself ate a small bowl of cottage cheese. ‘That is kasha,’ she said, pointing to a boiling pot on the stove. ‘I would offer you some, but you’ll hate it. It tastes like cats. I make it at night and eat it for breakfast, cold, with milk. I’m an old lady. I don’t need much. But you, you eat as much as you can stomach. And tell me more. What did Bob say? He must be very proud of you for all you’re doing. I hope you’re going to call your mother.’
I still hadn’t called my mother. By then I’d been in Los Angeles for several months.
‘My mother doesn’t want to talk. She doesn’t want me to be an actor. She thinks it’s a waste of time.’
Mrs Honigbaum put down her spoon. Under the harsh light from the hanging lamp over the kitchen table, her fake eyelashes cast spidery shadows on her taut rouged cheeks. She shook her head. ‘Your mother loves you,’ she said. ‘How could she not? Just look at you!’ she cried, raising her arms. ‘You’re like a young Greek god!’
‘She’d be happier if I came home. But even if I did, she wouldn’t love me. She can’t stand me most of the time. Everything I do makes her angry. I don’t think she’d even care if I died. There’s nothing I can do about it.’
‘It’s impossible,’ cried Mrs Honigbaum. Her rings clanked as she clasped her hands together as if in prayer. ‘Every mother loves her son. She doesn’t tell you she loves you?’
‘Never,’ I lied. ‘Not once.’
‘She must be sick,’ said Mrs Honigbaum. ‘My mother nearly killed me twice, and still, she loved me. I know she did. “Yetta, forgive me. I love you. But you make me mad.” That’s all. Is your mother a drinker? Does she have something wrong with her like that?’
‘I don’t know,’ I answered. ‘She just hates me. She kicked me out,’ I lied some more. ‘That’s why I came here. I just figure acting is a good way to make a living, since I can’t go home. And my dad’s dead.’ That was true.
Mrs Honigbaum sighed and adjusted her wig, which had fallen off-center with all her gesticulating. ‘I know what it means to be an orphan,’ she said gravely. Then she stood up from her chair and came to me, the sleeves of her housecoat skimming the table, knocking over the salt and pepper shakers shaped like dancing elves. ‘You poor boy. You must be so scared.’ She cradled my head in her thin arms, squishing the side of my face against her low-slung breasts. ‘I’m going to make some calls. We’re going to get you on your way. You’re too handsome, you’re too talented, too wonderful to be squandering your time working at that pizza place.’ She leaned down and kissed my forehead. Then I cried a little, and she handed me a chalky old tissue from her housecoat pocket. I dried my tears. ‘You’ll be all right,’ said Mrs Honigbaum, patting my head. She went and sat down and finished her cottage cheese. I couldn’t look her in the eye for the rest of the night.
The next day I picked up a copy of the coupon circular where Mrs Honigbaum’s columns were published. I found one at the pawnshop across from the bakery where I bought my cinnamon doughnuts. Then I boarded an express bus going east on Melrose. I took a window seat and lay the circular across my lap. Mrs Honigbaum’s columns ran side by side on the last page. I found my horoscope. ‘Virgo: You will have trouble with love this week. Beware of coworkers talking about you behind your back. They could influence your boss. But don’t worry! Good things are in store.’ It was nonsense, but I considered it all very carefully. The gossip column was just a list of celebrity birthdays and recent Hollywood news items. I didn’t know anybody’s name, so none of it seemed to be of any consequence. Still, I read each and every word. Suzanne Somers is suing ABC. Princess Diana has good taste in hats. Superman II is out in theaters. As I watched the people of Los Angeles get on and off the bus, I felt for the first time that I was somebody, I was important. Mrs Honigbaum, who cared so much about me, wrote columns in this circular that traveled all across the city. Hundreds if not thousands must have read her column every week. She was famous. She had influence. There was her name right there: ‘Miss Honey’.
Oh, Mrs Honigbaum. After our fourth dinner together, I found myself missing her as I lay on my bed, digesting the mound of schnitzel and boxed mashed potatoes and Jell-O she’d prepared herself. She made me feel very special. I wasn’t attracted to her the way I’d been to the girls back in Gunnison, of course. At eighteen, what excited me most was a particular six-inch length of leg above a girl’s knee. I was especially inclined to study girls in skirts or shorts when they were seated beside me on the bus with their legs crossed. The outer length of the thigh, where the muscles separated, and the inside, where the fat spread, were like two sides of a coin I wanted to flip. If I could have done anything, I would have watched a woman cross and uncross her legs all day. But I’d never seen Mrs Honigbaum’s legs. She sat behind her desk most of the time, and when she walked around, her thin legs were covered in billowy pants in brightly colored prints of tropical flowers or fruit.
One morning, I stopped off at Mrs Honigbaum’s office on the way to the shower as usual.
‘Darling,’ she now called me, ‘I have something for you. An audition. It’s for a commercial or something, but it’s a good one. It could put you on the map quick. Go wash up. Here, take this.’ She came out from behind her desk and handed me the address. Her handwriting was large and looping, beautiful and strong. ‘Tell them Honey sent you. It’s just a test.’
‘A screen test?’ I asked. I’d never been in front of a real movie camera before.
‘Consider it practice,’ she said. She looked me up and down. ‘What I wouldn’t give,’ she said. ‘That reminds me.’ She went back to her desk and rifled through her drawers for her pills. ‘To be young again! Well, go shower. Don’t be late. Go and come back and tell me all about it.’
It took me several hours to get to the studio in Burbank. The audition was held in a small room behind a lot that seemed to be a place where food deliveries were made. The whole place smelled faintly of garbage. Two slender blond girls sat in folding chairs in the corner of the room, both reading issues of Rolling Stone. They wore tight jeans and bikini tops, huge platform sandals. The director was middle-aged and tan, his chest covered in black curls, eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses. His beard was long and unruly. He sat with a script open in front of him on the table, and barely lifted his gaze when I walked in. ‘Honey sent me,’ I said. He didn’t stand or shake my hand. He just took my headshot and flicked his cigarette butt at the floor.
He must be doing Mrs Honigbaum a favor by allowing me to audition, I thought. He could have been a former tenant of hers. If he’d be reporting back to her, I wanted to perform better than ever. I had to be perfect. I slowed my breathing down. I focused my eyes on the blue lettering on the cameraman’s T-shirt. grand lodge. The cameraman had huge shoulders and hair that flopped to one side. He winked at me. I smiled. I chewed my gum. I tried to catch the eyes of the girls, but they simply sighed, hunched over their magazines.
It turned out to be the longest and most challenging audition I’d ever had. First the director had the cameraman film me while I stood in front of a white wall and gave my name, my age and height and weight. I was supposed to say my hometown and list my hobbies. Instead of Gunnison, I said, ‘Salt Lake City.’ I had no real hobbies, so I just said, ‘Sports.’
‘What do you play – tennis? Basketball? What?’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I play everything.’
‘Lacrosse?’ the director asked.
‘Well, no, not lacrosse.’
‘Let’s see you do some push-ups,’ he said impatiently. I did ten. The director seemed impressed. He lit another cigarette. Then he told me to mime knocking on a door and waiting for someone to answer it. I did that. ‘Be a dog,’ he said. ‘Can you be a dog?’ I sniffed the air. ‘What does a dog sound like?’ I howled. ‘Not bad. More wolf than dog, but can you dance?’ he asked. I did a few rounds of the Electric Slide. The girls watched me. ‘Needs work,’ the director said. ‘Now laugh.’ I looked around for something funny. ‘Go. Laugh,’ he said, snapping his fingers.
He made a mark on the paper in front of him. ‘Now be sexy,’ he said. ‘Like you’re trying to seduce me. Come on, like I’m Farrah Fawcett. Or some chick, whoever, some girl you want to lay. Go.’ He snapped his fingers again.
I’d never had to do anything like that before. I shrugged and put my hands in my pockets, turned to the side, pursed my lips, winked at him. He made another note.
‘Come in for a close-up,’ the director said to the cameraman. ‘Stand straight, dammit,’ he told me. ‘Don’t move.’ The camera came about six inches from my face. The director stood up and came toward me, squinted. ‘You always got zits up there between your eyebrows?’
‘Only sometimes,’ I answered. I tried to look at him, but the lights were too bright. It felt like I was like staring into an eclipse.
‘Your eye’s messed up, you know that?’ he asked.
‘Yeah, it’s a lazy eye.’
‘Work on that,’ he said. ‘There’s exercises for that.’ He sat back down. ‘Now be sad,’ he said.
I thought of the time I saw a dead cat on the street in Gunnison.
I thought of the time I slammed my thumb in the car door.
‘Be brave. Be goofy. Be stuck-up.’ I tried my best. He told me to stick out my tongue. He told me to close my eyes, then open them. Then he told me to kiss the two girls. ‘Pretend they’re twins,’ he said. He clapped his hands.
The girls stood up and came toward me.
‘You. Stand on the line,’ the director said to me. ‘That line.’ He pointed to a length of black tape on the concrete floor. The girls stood on two Xs marked in red tape in front of me. They looked young, maybe sixteen, and pretty in a way girls hadn’t been back in Gunnison. The skin on their faces was orange and as smooth as plastic. Their eyes were huge, blue, with wide black pupils, white liner drawn across their lids like frost. Their heads were big and round, necks and shoulders narrow and bony. I chewed my gum and put my hands in my pockets.
‘What are you chewing?’ one of the girls asked.
‘It’s gum,’ I said.
‘Get in the shot,’ said the director. ‘On the line. Jesus.’
‘That’s rude,’ the other girl said to me.
‘Take out the gum!’ the director yelled. ‘Let’s do this. We haven’t got all day.’
I took out my gum and held it on the tip of my finger and looked around for a place to throw it out. The girls sighed and rolled their eyes. The camera came closer.
‘Action!’ the director cried.
The girls lifted their chins.
I just stood there holding my gum, looking down at the legs of the table where the director was sitting. I was paralyzed. The girls laughed. The director groaned.
‘Just kiss,’ he said.
I couldn’t do it.
‘What, you don’t like blondes? You’ve got a thing?’
I waved my finger around helplessly. I suddenly felt I couldn’t breathe.
‘I’ll count to ten,’ said the director. ‘One, two, three . . .’ I looked into the lens of the camera and saw my upside-down reflection. It was like I was trapped in there in the darkness, suspended from the ceiling, unable to move. I looked at the girls again. Their lips were frosted in pale pink, mealy and shimmering, nothing I’d ever want to kiss. Then one of the girls bent down to my finger and sucked my chewed-up wad of gum into her mouth. I took a step back. I was shocked.
I tripped on a cord. The girls tittered. ‘Ten!’ the director shouted.
I did not get the part.
On the way home, I boarded two wrong buses, going east all the way down through Glendale and Chinatown. I walked through downtown Los Angeles, past all the bums and garbage, then finally found a bus on Beverly back to Hancock Park. At home, I walked straight into Mrs Honigbaum’s office. I could have been irate that she’d sent me there. I could have blamed her for my humiliation. But that didn’t occur to me. I just wanted to be soothed.
‘It was bogus,’ I told her. ‘The director was some hippie. There wasn’t even a trash can to throw my gum out in.’
‘You win some, you lose some,’ is all Mrs Honigbaum said.
‘I’m a good kisser too,’ I told her. ‘Do you think Bob Sears will be mad?’
‘Bob Sears doesn’t know his face from his armpit. Let me see your mouth.’ She got up from her desk and pointed to a chair. ‘Sit. I promise I just want to take a look. Now open up.’ I did as I was told. I closed my eyes as she peered inside. I could smell her breath, acrid from cigarettes and those harsh mints I’d grown fond of. She hooked a finger into my gums, pulled my bottom lip down, her long nail tapping against my two front teeth. ‘All right,’ she said finally. I opened my eyes. ‘You have nothing to worry about.’ She removed her finger, turned and went and sat back down at her desk. I took a mint. ‘I’ll tell you a secret,’ she said, sharpening her pencil. ‘Teeth are what make a star. Teeth and gums. That’s the first thing they look at. That director is a fool. Forget about him. You?’ She shook her head. ‘You’re too good for that guy. Good gums. Good mouth. The lips, everything. My teeth are fake, but I know a thing or two, and you’ve got the proportions.’ She turned back to her pad of paper, flicked a page of a magazine, lit a cigarette. I stood. It was a relief to hear I wasn’t doomed for failure, but I was still all torn up inside. If I failed to make it as an actor, where would I go? What else could I do with my life? Mrs Honigbaum looked up at me as though she’d forgotten I was still sitting there. ‘Are you going to cry, darling?’ she asked. ‘Are you still upset about the kissing?’
‘No,’ I answered. I wanted her to embrace me, hold me tight. I wanted her to rock me in her arms as I wept. ‘I’m not upset.’
‘Is that what you wore to the audition?’
I was in my usual getup: leather loafers, tight jeans, and a loose Indian shirt that I thought made me look very open-minded.
‘Stuff the crotch next time,’ she said. ‘You’ll feel silly but you won’t regret it. Half of a man’s power to seduce is in the bulge of his loins.’
‘Where’s the other half ?’ I asked. I was completely sincere. By then I’d kissed half a dozen girls in closets at parties back in Gunnison but had never gone all the way. I never had enough enthusiasm to do all the coaxing and convincing it seemed necessary to do. And I was too anxious, too attached to my dreams of stardom to get tangled up in anybody’s private parts. Of course, I thought about sex often. I kept a condom in my wallet, like an ID card. My stepfather had given it to me on my last night in Gunnison. ‘Don’t go and pierce your ears or anything,’ he’d said, and punched me in the arm.
‘Power is in the mind,’ Mrs Honigbaum was saying, patting her head, jangling her bracelets. ‘Read an hour a day and you’ll be smarter than me before you turn twenty. I used to be too smart, and it made me miserable. So now I spend my time on soft stuff, like gossip.’ She held up a copy of the coupon circular. ‘It’s all fluff, but I’m good at what I do. So-and-so is retiring, this one has cancer, that one is going crazy. The Love Boat, can you believe it?’
‘It’s nothing. Go have a cry, then come back and I’ll tell you a story.’
‘But I’m not going to cry,’ I insisted. I flashed her a big smile to prove it.
‘You go. Have a cry. If you want to talk after, come back. Have another mint.’
I retreated to my room to smoke a joint out the window and listen to the Eagles for a few hours. And I did cry, but I never told Mrs Honigbaum. In the evening, I went to work and tried to get those blond girls out of my head. Women left lipstick smears on their pizza crusts and the rims of their wine glasses, cigarette butts rattling in their cans of diet soda, phone numbers scribbled on cocktail napkins, smiley faces, Xs and Os. Their winks and tips did nothing for my low spirits, however. At home, I stared at my headshot and tried to pray for solace: ‘God, make me feel good.’ I cried some more.
In the morning I called Bob Sears. He mentioned nothing of my failure from the previous day. ‘I received a call from your mother earlier this morning,’ he said instead. He told me that she’d threatened to call the Los Angeles police. If I didn’t call her that day, she’d open a missing persons case. ‘She seemed very upset and inquired as to my qualifications as a talent agent. I told her, “Madam, I’ve been doing this work for forty-seven years and none of my boys has ever gone missing. Not under my watch.” I’m not going to send you out into the lion’s den now, am I? How could I profit? How?’
He gave me the addresses for two casting calls that day, neither of which I went to. I still didn’t feel good. My head hurt. My face was swollen from crying. I spent the rest of the morning in front of the Toshiba, watching Hollywood Squares, Family Feud, all the while imagining my mother’s rage. ‘It was Larry’s birthday last week. What, now you’re too good to call? You think you’re better than us, than me, your own mother?’ I knew she’d be furious. I had nothing to say for myself. I had promised to call, and I hadn’t called. Maybe I wanted to make her worry. Maybe I wanted her to suffer. ‘I’ve been scared to death,’ I imagined she’d say. ‘How dare you do this to me. What have you been doing? Ballroom dancing? Champagne and caviar? Fooling around with who – whores?’ I walked back and forth to the doughnut shop, feeling like a criminal. I didn’t go out to the beach. I just crawled back home into bed, under the covers and listened through the blanket to Days of Our Lives, Another World, Guiding Light. Again I cried. At six o’clock, Mrs Honigbaum knocked on my door.
‘I just got off the phone with Bob Sears,’ she said. ‘It’s time to call your mother. See if she still hates you. Use the phone in the bedroom. Follow me.’
Mrs Honigbaum led me down the softly carpeted hallway and ushered me into her chambers, which I’d never seen at night before. The poodle scurried under the bed. Mrs Honigbaum turned on the chandelier, and suddenly everything was cast in dappled yellow light. The perfume bottles and crystal decorations glinted and winked. She slid open the heavy glass door to the backyard to let in some air. ‘It gets stuffy,’ she said. The room was filled with a fragrant breeze. It was nice in there. She pointed to the bed. ‘Have a seat,’ she said. Just then the phone rang.
‘Who’s calling me now?’ she murmured. She plucked off one earring, handed it to me, and lifted the receiver. ‘Hello?’ I held the large golden earring in my open palm. In its center was an opalescent pearl the size of a quarter. ‘All right. Thank you,’ she said quickly, and hung up. ‘It’s my birthday,’ she explained. She took the earring and clipped it back on. ‘Now, sit here and call your mother. I’ll be your witness. It’ll be fine. Go ahead.’
She stood there watching me. I had no choice but to pick up the phone.
‘Very good,’ said Mrs Honigbaum after I’d slid the tip of my finger into the number on the rotary. ‘Go ahead,’ she said again.
The phone rang and rang. Nobody was answering. It was a Saturday night.
‘See, no one’s home,’ I said to Mrs Honigbaum, holding the receiver out toward her.
‘Leave a message,’ she said. She lit a cigarette. I nodded and listened to the brassy bells dinging on the line, ready to hang up if my mother answered. Mrs Honigbaum exhaled two huge plumes of smoke through her flared nostrils. ‘A good message.’
Finally the machine picked up. I heard my mother’s voice for the first time in months. I held the phone out to Mrs Honigbaum again. ‘That’s her, that’s what she sounds like,’ I said. ‘She always sounds so mad.’
‘Never mind,’ said Mrs Honigbaum.
After I heard the beep, I started my message: ‘Hi, Mom, it’s me.’ I paused. I looked up at Mrs Honigbaum.
‘I’m so sorry I haven’t called,’ she whispered. She waved her hand at me, smoke dotting the air, as though to spur me ahead.
‘I’m so sorry I haven’t called,’ I repeated into the phone.
‘My life out here is fabulous. I am making some major progress in my acting career.’ Mrs Honigbaum widened her eyes, waiting for me to proceed.
I repeated what she said.
‘And I’m meeting lots of fascinating characters.’
‘I’m meeting fascinating characters.’
‘I’m safe and eating well. There’s nothing you need to worry about.’
I delivered these lines word for word.
‘Please don’t call Bob Sears again. It’s not good for me, professionally.’
‘Please don’t call Bob Sears again. It’s not good for me, professionally.’
‘I love you, Mother,’ said Mrs Honigbaum.
‘I love you,’ I said back to her.
‘Now hang up.’
I did as I was told.
‘There, that wasn’t so hard now, was it?’ Mrs Honigbaum extinguished her cigarette and sat down beside me on the edge of the bed.
‘She’s not going to like it,’ I said.
‘You’ve done your duty. She’ll sleep better now.’ My heart was racing. I bent over and put my head in my hands. ‘Take some deep breaths,’ Mrs Honigbaum said, a hand rubbing my back. I sat and breathed with her and I felt better. ‘Now listen. I have something I’ve been meaning to show you,’ she said. ‘I don’t show this to many people. But I think you deserve it. It’s something to make you smarter.’
Then she reached across my lap and opened the drawer of her bedside table. She pulled out a sheaf of index cards. ‘It’s a special deck of cards I made myself,’ she said. She shuffled through them. They were blank on one side, and on the other side they bore strange symbols – mostly shapes, solid or outlined or striped or polka-dotted, in different colors. Mrs Honigbaum had drawn them all in Magic Marker. One card had three green diamonds. Another had two empty red circles. A black solid square, a striped purple triangle, and so on. The point of the game was to set the cards down in rows and find patterns between the shapes and colors, what have you. ‘This game is a metaphor for life,’ Mrs Honigbaum explained. ‘Most people are dumb and can’t see the pattern unless it’s obvious. But there is always a pattern, even when things don’t make sense. If you build your brains up, the people here will think you’re a genius. Nobody else is going to teach you how to do this. You’ll see what I mean.’
She laid out three rows of three cards each on the bedspread.
‘The pattern here is easy. Three of the cards have wiggly lines on them.’
She collected the cards, then laid out three more rows. ‘This set is a little more mysterious. You see these three?’ She pointed to three of the cards. One was an empty blue square. One was a solid red rectangle. The other was a striped green star. ‘Sometimes the pattern is that they’re all different. Do you see that? These three have nothing in common, and that’s exactly what they have in common. Understand?’
I said I did.
‘This is how to succeed as an actor. Point out the hidden pattern. Find meaning in the mess. People will kiss your feet.’ I watched her pick up the cards again. I didn’t understand what she meant at the time, but I could tell that what she was saying was true. ‘Practice practice practice. You’ve got the brawn, now work on the brain. You want the big time, don’t you? The big roles?’
‘Yes,’ I answered, though by then I really didn’t. When she looked up at me, I stared deep into her small, blurry eyes. ‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘No need to thank me,’ she replied. She shuffled and laid down more cards, pointed to three circles. ‘Easy,’ she said, and clucked her tongue.
Then she was quiet. She shuffled the cards. She looked at me and shook her head. I thought maybe she was lost in her own reveries and would tell me a story about her dead husband or something funny that happened when she was young. But instead, she put down the cards, placed one hand on my knee, the other over her tanned, bony chestplate. ‘Your mother is a lucky woman to have such a boy,’ she said, exhaling as though it hurt her to admit such a painful truth. She lifted her hand from my knee and caressed my face, lovingly, reverently, and shook her head again.
Nothing ever happened under the covers of Mrs Honigbaum’s bed, but from then on, each night before I fell asleep, she recited some prayers in Hebrew and put her hands on my face and shoulders. Whatever spells she cast, they didn’t work. Neither of us was very surprised.
Image © Josep Prat Sorolla