A teen has a close encounter with a movie idol and learns more about her than he wants. 3,101 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Danny and his only friend at West Lynn High, Joanie, take their balcony seats at Boston’s Colonial Theater. They’re in a sea of matinee ladies who unwrap candies and chatter about the Broadway-bound musical they’re about to see. (“Isn’t Auntie Mame a little naughty for a musical?” “Who knew Angela Lansbury could sing?") Suddenly a hubbub in the orchestra as a late arrival makes her way down the aisle. The word wafts up to the balcony. "It’s her! So tiny! She doesn’t look so bad from here!” Danny leaps from his seat to peer over the railing. He’s mesmerized, tries to find his breath. The Hollywood legend turns and gives the audience a little wave before her escort helps her into her seat. The houselights dim with the first notes of the overture. Joanie tugs at Danny’s arm, forcing him back down.
"I think I saw that pink suit in Life magazine," he whispers.
“Danny, she’s a huge star. She’d never wear the same thing twice."
"What I hear, she’s not exactly flush."
"Are you kidding? She must have millions!"
Four nights later, the legend is passed out across her bed at the Ritz-Carlton, still in her pink suit. The house phone rings. It’s the manager reminding her once again her bill is overdue. No amount of charm will put him off at this hour. He’s immune to Big Names on the skids trying to pay their way with promises and capped smiles. The lady in Room 1214 is particularly notorious on that score. He knows all the stories, who doesn’t by now? All those movies, headlines, breakdowns, comebacks and husbands. As she once said about all the men in her life – they steal her heart, then her checkbook, then her pool boy.
She slams down the receiver, in desperation now, and searches for her purse containing the all-important address book with the numbers of hangers-on to assist in her hour of need. To her growing irritation, it’s nowhere to be found in the rubble of empty bottles and overturned prescription vials. All she’s managed to come up with is a schoolbag full of homework. "What the hell have I been doing?" she mutters to herself.
She flops into a chair, runs a hand through her sweat-soaked hair as the previous night comes into focus. A gaggle of adoring young men had taken her on a tour of the blue-light district, a neon-dazzle of strip joints, porn shops and Boston’s idea of sin as defined in 1966. They’d stopped for one last nightcap at a queer bar, “The Bait Box”. The boys were beside themselves as she strolled through the door. This was the crowd she was most comfortable with, the lost souls who understood, even celebrated, the rip of unhealed pain and the strange glamour of longing.
"Please, please, sing something!" they screamed. A drunken drag in cheap heels slapped her hand on the top of the piano and cried, "Do the one, you know the one," before sliding to the floor in a stupor.
"Well, I… I… I certainly know the choreography!" Her deadpan delivery was rewarded with an explosion of laughter. She turned to her entourage. "We really just came by to say hello. I get paid to sing!"
On cue, the crowd emptied its pockets and a hillock of pills and poppers rose on her tabletop. “Well, in that case…" She was gallantly led to the piano where a pudgy, angel-faced boy at the keys sat wide-eyed and overwhelmed.
"Don’t be nervous, sweetheart, it’s only me."
She clutched his shoulder and he began to plunk out the sheet music in front of him, "Nothin’ Could Be Finah’ Than To Be In Carolina".
"Perfect", she said, and her iconic voice slid into the melody as if it were a comfy old sofa. She swooped into a final held note that seemed to encapsulate every moment of her career. She patted the angel-faced boy on the head. "Why, you’re… you’re just a baby! Shouldn’t you be home in bed?” He wasn’t able to form intelligible words. She leaned down and gave him a hug. “What’s your name, baby?”
“Danny,” he sputtered.
“Nighty night, Danny.” One of her escorts took her arm and whisked her away as she grabbed what she thought was her bag off the top of the piano.
Danny hasn’t slept. How could he? He wishes he could tell somebody about the most astounding night of his life. But he knows he can’t. Not even Joanie. His Sunday night stint at The Bait Box is a secret that once revealed would be the end of all his secrets. He loves it there. Though he only knows a handful of songs, the tip jar is always full. And the compliments make him tingle. He’s been told he’s handsome, or that he’s going to be, and special — something he never hears at home.
Later that afternoon, Danny is running for his life in a blind panic. Half the varsity football team gives chase screaming "faggot!", closing in on all sides. Danny goes for the only opening available – a dirt path leading into the woods. He makes it as far as the creek before they catch up with him. He’s tackled from behind and falls forward on his face. They grab at his clothes, tearing them off along with his shoes and socks. Danny is convulsed by cold and fear. Yanked up by his arms, he’s forced to stand legs apart, his genitals exposed. One of them pulls out a Polaroid and begins to shoot. Danny tries to twist his face away but his jaw is immobilized by an angry hand. Finally, it’s over. Danny is pushed to the ground and his clothes are tossed into the water. He’s left to freeze naked in the darkening woods. A trickle of blood runs from his nose. He’s not sure if it’s safe to move and if he does, where? He curls up in a protective ball.
"Danny, Danny!”, Joanie screams.
"Oh, my God!” She has been searching for him for the past hour. She takes off her coat and hands it to him, daring herself not to look. She helps him up and he cups his genitals in his right hand. She guides him back onto the path that leads to the students’ parking lot. By the time they reach his car the sky has turned dark November gray. Joanie settles him into the passenger seat and gets behind the wheel. His keys are in his pants now floating downstream. She pulls a bobby-pin out of her hair, jiggles the slot under the steering-wheel and starts up.
"Go, Joanie!" He tries to smile but his lip hurts.
The next night the kitchen wall-phone interrupts a listless dinner of overcooked chicken. Danny’s mother rises wearily to answer. She listens for a few seconds before her expression of exasperation turns to bewilderment, then “Sure you are! And I’m the Wicked Witch of The West!” She hangs up and returns to the table.
Danny’s heart flips so hard he can hear it. His missing homework bag. His name and address and phone number are all over it. It has to be her! Her! Her! When the phone rings again, he nearly knocks over his chair to get it. "Hello?… uh, yes!… yes…" He lowers his voice. "Yes, yes, yes… as fast as I can… Yes, yes!“
Danny hangs up and rushes toward the stairs to his room. “And where do you think you’re going, young man?” Bev asks without real interest.
“Yearbook committee. Emergency meeting!”
“At this hour? They run that school like a nightclub”, she mutters as she sips her Rob Roy.
Less than an hour later, Danny strides into the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton. Beneath his good wool suit is a lighter summer one. In his pocket, an extra tie, rolled-up belt and jaunty cap. He nods to the bellhop and moves quickly to the bank of elevators.
Danny’s knock is answered by a bare skinny arm pulling him into the room. She gestures for him to begin undressing. No sooner does he remove the wool slacks, than she climbs into them. “And… and you’d think all those years just giving myself… giving myself to those people… you’d think it would be more than enough to compensate… I mean… now they want money, for Godsake! Money, can you believe it, darling? What money? They’ve taken it all! Every last one of those rotten…”
She flattens her greasy hair and helps him out of his jacket. "We take our poets, our artists, and just wring them dry. Dry, I tell you. Until there’s nothing left but a shell… and this little shell has just about had it up to here.” She leans into the bureau mirror and draws on a mustache with eyebrow pencil.
"You look like you do in that number with Fred Astaire."
She hitches up the pants and tightens the belt to the last notch. "Ready, darling?"
"Shoes, darling. Shoes make the man. Shoes, shoes…"
"Oh, no! I forgot!"
They get off the elevator and maneuver half-barefoot across the plush lobby until finally pass the doorman and onto the street. With a silent nod of agreement, they make a mad dash for Danny’s 1957 Bel Air around the corner. Once inside, they burst into giggles.
"Oh, my!" She grips his knee with a badly manicured hand.
An hour later, they sit in a diner, the remains of a cheeseburger and fries in front of her as she delicately sips her martini. Danny memorizes every move. "And… and… of course, I have a million pals here in… Boston! What the hell am I doing in Boston, for heaven’s sake? But the problem, I mean the difficulty, of course, is all those numbers are in my… my bag!”
"We could look them up in the phone book," he offers.
"My divine little…Davey…"
"Darling… one needs last names. Clearly I’m going through a bit of a… a patch and I’m rather at your… your mercy." She flutters her lashes like a silent movie heroine.
"Anything I can do."
She taps her empty glass. "Another one of these, baby."
Three hours later Danny pulls into the driveway. Luckily, all the lights are out. He manages to pull his drunk partner-in-crime out of the car and through the back door. "Well, isn’t this just. Where are we, darling, the Macambo Room?"
She begins to sing in a loud voice. He shushes her with a cupped hand and she falls back into his arms. He struggles to get her up the stairs and into his room.
Next morning, Danny waits until his parents are gone before bringing his guest down to the kitchen. He makes her a Bloody Mary, lights her cigarette and goes about the business of pancakes. She’s not talkative, has no curiosity about his managing to skip school with a faked cough.
After staring at a pancake, she falls dead asleep in front of the TV. Danny is unaware she’d raided the medicine cabinet and taken at least two of everything. Danny is content to simply stare at her, trying to discern what separates this tiny woman from the rest of dull humanity. He jumps when the front doorbell rings. In a panic, he covers her up with an afghan and peeps through the window. It’s Joanie. He opens the front door a crack.
"God, Danny, have you been chain-smoking in here?"
"Joanie, you have to help me! I mean, can you keep a secret? The biggest secret you’ll ever hear in your life?”
Danny quickly slams the door behind her. She looks at the fragile little figure on the couch, then at Danny, then back at the couch. She takes a step forward, leans in close, then jumps back as if she’s been burned.
“Oh, my God!”
"I don’t know what to do. She has nowhere to go and I think she might be sick or something."
"Danny, what is she doing here? What if she dies on your couch?”
“You gotta help me, Joanie.”
The pair frog-march their charge through the front door of the West Lynn ER. The Admissions Desk nurse barely looks up. "Your mother?"
Danny stumbles. "Ah, sure… I mean, well, I’m adopted."
He has her full attention now. "What’s the problem with her?"
“I dunno, I think maybe she took something.”
The nurse snaps her finger at a passing male nurse. "Alan, a wheelchair."
The orderly languidly rolls a chair over from a far wall. As he deposits the star into it, he does a double-take.
Alan races the chair down the hall and stops at the bank of payphones, takes a surreptitious look around and fishes a dime out of his pocket. His party picks up after the first ring. "Edwina, you will not believe who just got dragged in here like a sack of turnips!"
Four hours later, Danny and Joanie return to his darkened house with their charge. They’re able to half-walk, half-drag her through the kitchen and past the dining room table where sits the remains of a dry meatloaf. They tiptoe down the hall serenaded by a chorus of snoring from the master bedroom and up the stairs. They plop her down on Danny’s bed and she finally stirs. “Just drop me off at a taxidermist, darlings. They’ll know what to do."
After Joanie leaves with a promise never to say a word of this to anyone ever, the star sits up in bed. She watches Danny settle into his sleeping bag on the floor. "I have a son not too much younger than you."
She points to one of her movie posters on the wall. "I guess you know everything about me, don’t you.”
“I think you’re amazing.”
“Oh, I am! For about 37 hours of film. It’s… it’s the rest of the time I worry about. And right about now, sweetheart, the lady is a little thirsty.”
"I’ll get you some water."
"Not water, baby."
“I think we have bourbon."
"The bottle, honey. And, Davey… Danny… I don’t want you on the floor." She looks down at him, unblinking, a streak of defiance. She wants what she wants. A bottle, a smooth young shoulder to snuggle against, a pill, a night of sleep without dreams.
The next morning, Danny and his legendary bedmate are woken by the tumult of press and flashing cameras outside the house. She runs one hand through her hair and with the other, gropes for a cigarette. "Sounds like the jig is up. Now be an angel and… and rummage through your mother’s closet for something that says ‘Meet the press at an ungodly hour on the front porch with a hangover’."
He hops out of bed and heads for the door.
"Oh, and lipstick, hairbrush, eye things."
Fifteen minutes later, she glides down the stairway as if it were an MGM set. Through the open front door, the reporters get a glimpse of her. She tosses them a half-wave suggesting mega-star ennui. "Out of your cages early, boys. Had your coffee yet?"
“You’re lookin’ great!"
She puts an arm around Danny as the flashbulbs crackle. "Now, now, boys. You must be awfully starved for news… I mean, I’m just visiting my dearest old friend in the whole world!"
“He’s a little young for an old friend,” one of them sneers.
“His mom…” She leans into Danny for a name.
“Bev,” he whispers.
“…Bev and I … well, we were … we were in kiddie vaudeville together! She was simply marvelous, much more talented than I was – at the time!”
That earns a laugh.
A shout from the rear of the pack. "What about the O.D. last night?"
"You boys want big news? You got it. We went out for… for Chinese… Bev and I… and her darling son, here. And I just adore Chinese… I really do… but it must’ve been the chop suey. I… well, I just doubled right over. And off we went to the ER. There’s your headline, fellahs — food poisoning. Next time, we’ll do our level best to make it a bit more thrilling for you."
"How about a shot of you and your old pal, Bev?"
“I’m afraid you’ve just missed her!” She leans into Danny. “She’s not anywhere around, is she?”
“No,” he whispers.
“Okay, now, one last shot, boys, then we really must…”
“Hey, kid, your Ma teach you any of her old routines?”
The star answers for him. “Well, of course, she did! Danny, dear, how about a little high kick for the camera and then off they go!”
Danny beams, puts an arm around her waist and instinctively kicks out his right leg in sync with hers.
The flashbulbs light up the doorway and suddenly it’s over. The reporters head back to their cars and it dawns on Danny he’ll have a lot to answer for when the papers come out tomorrow. Still, this was all worth it. His life has changed forever now that she’s come into it. He imagines a deep and abiding friendship as he sets about making coffee for her. Maybe he and her son can help her whenever she…
The ring of the kitchen wall-phone intrudes. "Somebody named Andy for you.”
She extends her arm for the receiver without getting up. "Well, darling!… Of course I meant to but I… yes, yes… how clever of you to track me down through…" She laughs, "They just left, a whole pack of them!… uh huh…mmm… yes, that would be utterly… just divine… I’ll have my lovely little friend here drive me in. Oh, no, no, darling, not the hotel. Yes, yes, I’d love to… Beacon Hill and, yes… perfect, darling! Now here he is and you can give him all the lovely directions.“
She’s ready to go after a final pillage of the medicine cabinet. Danny anxiously jiggles the car keys in his pocket. He hopes what he wants to say to her comes out right.
A few moments later the Bel Air turns onto the highway. Even after all that’s happened between them, Danny is too shy to look at her directly. "Where will you be going next?” he finally asks.
"New York maybe… or…"
He’s quiet for a moment, but as he turns onto the Boston exit, "Do you think I could come to see you when I… I can’t stay here?"
She lightly pats his hand as she looks out the window. Her mind is already very far away.
This short story first posted here on August 20, 2015.