A self-satisfied agent who stubbornly doesn’t want to change his life gets a surprise. 3,113 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
Jack was looking through his picture window at the neon radiating up from the Sunset Strip below. It was getting tiring to be alone. Not that he noticed that often, and not that he was alone that often. In fact, hardly ever. He was supposed to be at some club tonight for an after-screening industry party. Nothing better to make you feel alone in public. Jack knew some European philosopher had gone on about this. But he couldn’t remember which one. His mother had been far less interested in philosophy than in Shakespeare. She had just turned sixty and was a professor of literature at a small New England college. Anyway, he really believed it would be nice to have someone he could trust. Maybe he should get out of the industry. Life didn’t seem to be getting any easier as Jack got older. And no matter how much he skipped thinking about starting a family, it leeched in anyway.
“Don’t you think it’s time to think about settling down with one woman?”
“Why? I already have a cat that interrupts me when I’m doing something I want to do.”
Jack’s mother laughed. She had a healthy sense of humor. She and Jack had always gotten along. At least after he’d grown up. She was smarter than he was, but he had an advantage. She was his mother. No contest
“I’d like to have a grandchild to spoil in my dotage.”
“You? When I was growing up, you walked around saying, ‘Sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a thankless child’ — and ‘I should have raised Dalmatians’.”
“I didn’t say I wanted to raise another child. I said I wanted to spoil one.”
Now Jack laughed. He could hear her pleasant, knowing, just shy of arrogant smile through the phone. He could picture her sitting in an overstuffed chair by the fire in her colonial house while the spring rain drifted outside the windows. Miserable weather most of the year. Jack swiveled on his chair so he could see the the flats of L.A. spread out in geometric light patterns under a clear desert night sky.
“How did we switch from steady girlfriend to grandchild, Mother dearest?”
“You’re ready for a big leap. You’ve more than mastered casual girlfriend.”
“I think you’re confusing ‘casual girlfriend’ and ‘conniving starlet.’”
They both laughed. It was pretty easy for him. He was thirty-five and a successful agent and he still looked like the high school quarterback he once had been. Jack was also smart enough. His mother had resigned herself that her only son was not a scholar, but had a “first rate second-rate mind.” Nonetheless, she’d stuffed it full of things that mattered to her and smugly felt it did a lot for the quality of their conversations now. She also wryly recognized that his charm and beauty had served him far better in the vicious world he had chosen and she largely ignored. When he was young, she’d called him “Achilles,” because he was perfect, except for one little flaw — the nail on one of his toes was wavy and bent. It annoyed her because it was a constant reminder of the other half of his genes: his father’s toenail was the same. And his father’s father’s, and so on.
“You sound like you’ve been talking to your father?”
“The other week.”
“Any great words of wisdom from the carpenter hyphen shaman hyphen bum?”
His parents had split up when Jack was small. Instead of academia, Jack’s father never gave up on the flower child way of life and lived in Venice Beach and was sane enough — on the surface, at least.
“He said, on the whole, pot was cheaper and more reliable than women.”
“He would. You were talking about women with him?”
“Well, he is my father, as much as you try and skip that. No, really, Mom, I would settle down but I don’t want a starter wife. Don’t tell anyone. It would ruin me professionally.”
“That might be for the best. Maybe then you’d meet a better class of women.”
“You thought Felicia was all right.”
Felicia had been the first, longest lasting, and probably nicest of the starlets. But that was eight years ago.
“You said you liked her at the time.”
“I said she was a rhinestone in the rough. What happened to that smart girl you were with? The architect?”
Jack debated what to say. He decided to go with the truth, the brief version at least. He thought it might bring him sympathy points. After all, she was his mother.
“She dumped me.”
“The world shudders on its axis, then recovers.”
But he could hear kindness and maybe even a touch of outrage in her tone. But only because he knew her well.
“I don’t know. I guess she wasn’t that into me.” Jack let the silence ride for a second. He did think it was too bad about Brittany. Or too bad about somebody like Brittany. “Well, just the same, I’m not sure I’ll have kids.”
“We shall see what we shall see. Goodnight, honey.”
Jack tossed the phone on the table. He did like talking to his mother, but it was wearying just the same. And sometimes, like tonight, it made him think more than he enjoyed. Even as a boy, he couldn’t wrap his mind around having children. He just had to look at his folks. Clearly, about three weeks a year was his Dad’s capacity for involved parenting. And his Mom went through days with this “how did I get here?” expression on her face. To Jack, parenting seemed like it might be way too much work for questionable rewards.
Brittany was old news-. He hadn’t even talked to her in… well, since the night of goodbye sex. And that was about a year and a half ago. Wow. One of the details he hadn’t told his mother was that Brittany had gone back to her ex-husband, a mediocre actor with a mediocre career. And a much crappier agent. She must really have not been that into him. Jack figured it was time to stop thinking about her and show the flag at that party. It was at a place on the Strip, which meant he could walk. People thought he was nuts — well, as nuts as agents are allowed to be and still succeed, which isn’t very eccentric — but Jack didn’t like valet parking. At least the parts that involved waiting and then paying for the privilege. Jack reminded himself that he should move somewhere without constantly crawling traffic before he was old enough to need an ambulance.
Jack really wasn’t looking forward to this party. It was for a film that he’d seen a cut of already and hadn’t liked at all, a remake of an old Marlene Dietrich creaker, Shanghai Express. There was another thing he disliked about the picture — Tom, Brittany’s ex or husband again by now, had a small part in it, too small to entitle him to an invite to this party. Small mercies. It would still be an evening of congratulating people Jack didn’t particularly like for a movie that he pretty much hated. He supposed he could always chat up some actress-model, but he wasn’t really in the mood. Jack blamed his mother entirely for that.
Jack stood in the entrance to the main room and surveyed it. Talk about round up the usual suspects. Physically, it was a big sea change from the coffee shop. People were beautiful and seriously coiffed. He decided that he was going to make one circuit and get the hell out. His mood was still too fragile for the long haul.
A willowy blonde sidled up next to him. She swept her hair back with one hand. “Hi! I’m Summer, and I’ll be twenty-one in six weeks.”
“Hi, I’m Jack.”
He still wasn’t sure he was in the mood. She did seem sweet as well as breathtaking.
“Were you at the screening? Did you like the film?”
It would be too much of a giveaway to say he’d seen it already.
“It was good.”
He could see that she took that to mean he didn’t like the film. She was clever as well as sweet. And breathtaking. There was only that one call right before lunch that he really had to be made. So he could deal with the morning if he wanted to.
“It was good, except for the full frontal nudity,” she told him. “Unless there’s a cock ring in it, I don’t want to see it.”
Clearly she’d been in L.A. too long. Jack decided to stick to not being in the mood.
One quick circuit with a drink in his hand covered all of Jack’s bases. From experience, he knew that if he kept moving, he could wave instead of having to stop and spout platitudes. And at these things people coalesced in their cliques and circles. Like high school.
Jack had the door in his sights and set his barely touched drink down on a shelf.
“Hey Jack, you’re not leaving already, are you?”
Abe was around fifty and one of the agency’s senior partners, and not a bad guy, which was saying something in itself even if he drank too hard for someone his age. Jack liked Abe. And, of course, Abe could crush Jack like a bug. But Abe seemed to like Jack.
“Abe, I wanted to check on my mother before it gets too late. She’s starting to get a little forgetful.”
In high school, Jack’s teammates had called him “Slip” for slippery because he hardly ever got sacked, even when trapped in the pocket. Jack smiled to himself and figured he hadn’t lost his touch. The air felt good as he walked past the idling cars clogging Sunset.
By noon the next day, Jack felt like the master of all he surveyed. Since he’d had an early night, he’d made it to the gym before his breakfast meeting. Everything else had either cancelled or gone as scheduled. If this last call went quickly, he could maybe walk to his lunch meeting. Twenty minutes later, Jack‘s hopes were hanging by a thread. Sometimes he hated actors. To take this part or not, that was the petty question. As if it mattered. For fifteen minutes, he had listened to this action star argue both sides. If Jack was going to walk to the restaurant, he had to get off the phone. So far, Jack hadn’t been able to get in a word edgewise.
But then came the magic moment.
“What do you think I should do?”
“Dude, you’re fucking the cat. I’m just holding the tail.”
Dead silence. Jack began to wonder if he’d miscalculated. That’s how it goes, one minute you’re cock of the walk, then a client dumps you, and all of the sudden you’re selling cars in the Inland Empire. Then laughter. Fits of laughter. Almost hysterical laughter. Jack’s mother had impressed upon him the worth of a cleverly turned phrase. He’d saved that one since college for just the right time.
Slowly, the laughter subsided.
“I love you. And you’re right. I’ll do it.”
“Great! I’ll set the wheels in motion.”
There were moments when Jack fell in love with himself all over again. This was one of them. And it crossed his mind that maybe he should send his forgetful old mother flowers. Let her wonder.
Five minutes later, Jack was out on the street. It seemed like he was good at what he did without having much blood on his hands. Sometimes he wished he’d had a normal mother because then fewer Shakespearean phrases would pop into his head and sometimes out of his mouth. Fortunately, no one recognized them so they didn’t think he was a weirdo.
He wondered why he’d been so down last night. Probably because he was whiny and self-indulgent. Maybe he should have become an actor. What was today, Wednesday? Maybe he should go to the Bahamas on Friday. Jack felt like he was having an epiphany. This was how he wanted to live. And he saw no reason why it had to change anytime soon. Sorry, Mom.
Down the block was the restaurant and a small but impatient queue circling the valet stand. Jack smiled and took that as a validation, pun intended. In the foreground was another validation — one of those double strollers, both seats filled with boys at that perfect baby stage. Jack figured them for about nine months. The work rules for nine-month-old babies were a pain in the ass. It looked like they were staring at him but Jack wasn’t sure they could see that far. It ain’t me, babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for. Along with Shakespeare, his mother had planted the music of her times deep in his synapses. Some days he thought it was a miracle he could work in Hollywood with those twin handicaps. He looked up at the woman pushing the stroller. It was Brittany.
Of course, she’d already seen him. For just a second, Jake’s mind went blank. Fortunately, in his profession, he’d learned not to let his thoughts show on his face. But Brittany, lacking the benefit of such training, visibly braced herself. She seemed simultaneously happy and unhappy to see him. He was less clear on how he felt.
Relentlessly, the distance between them closed. She looked good in what seemed like an effortless way but undoubtedly wasn’t.
What should he say? What would a Hollywood big-time player do?
“Hey! You look great. It’s wonderful to see you.”
All he got was a tight smile. She stayed on her end of the stroller. No hug. In L.A., that was an even worse sign.
“You haven’t changed much,.” She broker her silence.
“Less than you, it seems. They’re yours?”
Jack sat down on his haunches in front of the stroller. “What are their names? They don’t look like twins.”
“They’re fraternal twins. Their names are Jonas and Ethan.”
Because Brittany wasn’t saying anything, Jack was talking to the babies. He figured it would cast him in a good light. Ethan burbled happily at Jack, earning a glance from Brittany, while Jonas seemed a little sullen and started pushing out his lower lip.
“Jonas is the spitting image of Tom. You’re are still together, right?”
“His brother, not so much.”
Ethan laughed and extended his hand toward Jack who stuck out his index finger which the baby grabbed. Jack thought it was sweet, but he was puzzled just the same. He would’ve thought that her child, at least one of them, so obviously liking him would be a positive to Brittany. But it almost seemed like it was bumming her out.
“They’ve got a doctor’s appointment. I have to get going.”
Jack guessed that was that. He started to straighten up. But Ethan refused to let go of Jack’s finger.
“He doesn’t care that I’m agent. Which is a refreshing experience for me,” Jack joked.
He was being at least a little charming, but Brittany didn’t even look at him. She was too intently watching Ethan.
“He’s usually not that way at all.”
Jack tried to retract his hand with a little more force. Ethan made this odd wildcat yelp and his blondish eyebrows collided at the center from the force of his frown. It reminded Jack of his mother going on about how, when Jack was a baby and mad, his eyebrows would lurch like frigates in a storm. And she’d also said he’d had a wildcat cry. Jack looked at Ethan and up at Brittany. Her eyes met his squarely but there was a quiver behind them. Jack felt like he was on an out-of-control roller coaster.
“Brittany, could I take off Ethan’s bootie for a second?”
“You don’t have to. One nail is all wavy and bent. His middle name is Achilles.”
This time she met his stare. Dozens of questions were bursting in Jack’s head like star shells. Brittany watched him. She’d always been a little too good at using the power of silence for his taste. But all the smart ones were. Except for maybe his mother.
“So were you going to tell me, ever?”
“Yes. I was trying to figure it out. It’s kinda fucked up.”
“No kidding. Does Tom know?”
“He doesn’t. Look, I didn’t know how you’d react. But I was trying to figure something out. I thought about it every day, every time…” Brittany’s voice trailed off. Tears started to roll down her cheeks and they melted the cutting edge of Jack’s anger into dullness.
If she’d been a starlet, he’d have called bullshit. But she was an architect.
“Well, good news. Now you’ve told me and I still don’t know how I’m going to react or what I’m going to do. What’s fair for Ethan?”
“I don’t know.”
Jack looked at the boy, who was watching him intently with his little hand still wrapped around Jack’s finger. Brittany cried soundlessly but harder for a few seconds before her shoulders straightened and her chin began to stick out. It was a part of her that Jack had always liked and admired. But, right this second, there was a righteousness to it that Jack thought was undeserved. In fact, his anger surged again, the kind of angry a guy like Jack doesn’t get very often. As a point of fact, this was his son. And that meant every edifice of Jack’s life was shifting under his feet in his personal Northridge quake on a sunny afternoon on Robertson. He looked at the baby, whose smile then broadened, and tears welled in him and that softened the tension between Jack and Brittany. They looked at each other.
“So, was the doctor’s appointment thing bullshit?”
Jack bent over and disengaged his finger from Ethan.
“Dude… I’ll see you around. You hang tough.” He ruffled the boy’s hair before straightening up. “When I figure out what I’m thinking, I’ll let you know. I’ll send you a friend request.”
She laughed, and Jack was glad that he hadn’t completely lost his touch. If that still mattered. He wasn’t sure about anything anymore. And now he was supposed to go make small talk over salads and pay attention to a pitch about some project. Maybe a remake of Look Who’s Talking, if he were really lucky. Then Jack knew what he was going to do. He was going to walk into that restaurant and make small talk over salads and try to pay attention to the pitch.