TV’s top actress helps the struggling writer – but can he help her? 3,268 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Suicidal and in denial? Hysterical bleeding? This is way beyond everything I thought I understood about actors, women, anything. Jill Racine – if there’s been another actress who draws on a combination of comedic chops and sex appeal to such great effect since Carole Lombard, I’ve never seen her — is a danger to herself and me and anyone else unfortunate enough to find themselves in her orbit.
I figure I’m here because Jill had sensed my vulnerability and desperation at pre-school and assumed I’d do anything. I feel like the sap in some perverse religious film noir.
“Do we have a deal?” she says. “You don’t even have to believe me.” She grimaces in pain again. “Say yes fast,” she adds, “I need a clean fucking towel.” The moment the ink on my deal is dry, I’ll call her doctor.
The next day, I drop Ryder off at pre-school and park in what my hotshot new agent described as a spot on the studio lot “that four guys I know would kill for and one actually did.” The deal’s still verbal, nothing’s signed yet so they could theoretically take it back, but I’m not a Producer, my previous credit. I’m an Executive Producer, a huge jump in salary and status. With no history on The Jill Show and a modest reputation in the industry, I outrank everyone but Ivan, the creator and showrunner, and, of course, Executive Producer Jill herself, on the most popular television show in the land.
I’m ushered into Ivan’s enormous office. Shaking my hand and introducing himself, Ivan – a boyish, prematurely gray fellow a couple of years younger than me whom I hear is a decent guy – smiles as he asks me, on behalf of his staff, his cast, his crew, twelve million fans and a gossipy Hollywood community, what the fuck I’m doing here.
“Jumpstarting my dead career” is not the answer he’s looking for; neither is “Paying my toddler’s medical bills – did I mention he has cerebral palsy?” Following through on my resolution to tell him the truth as often as I can, I say, “You know what I’m doing here — wrangling your fucked-up star.”
“I know that’s what you’re supposedly doing here. But the network brings in people for that. Against the fucked-up star’s will.” He’s still smiling. “So I figure you’re either the fucked-up star’s spy or the fucked-up star’s lover, and I don’t think you’re her lover.”
If I smack him I’ll get canned, even with the fucked-up star behind me. “I’m not a spy,” I say. But I can’t fault the guy for thinking I am. At this point a man with integrity or self-respect or talent or a healthy kid and wife would tell Ivan that Jill Racine’s life is in jeopardy, then return home with his bank book empty but his soul undespoiled and Jill’s personal and professional families significantly less endangered.
What I tell Ivan is, “I’ll try to make her human, make your life easier. But she has to wear gloves this episode, she burned her hands pretty badly.”
“Another injury suffered in an alcohol- or drug-induced haze.”
“She swears she’ll make it funny.”
“Yup. She does make things funny.”
Ivan swings his body toward his computer; he’s done with me. I have no scripts in my tentative deal or the privilege of working on the show as a writer, but I’ve read the current script closely and opt to demean myself further by pitching Ivan a few ideas for his gloved rewrite. He never looks away from his computer screen or acknowledges me in any way. I go off to find my meal ticket.
It’s nearly 2:30 p.m. so rehearsal should be in full swing. But the only action on The Jill Show stage is around the craft services table, familiar faces in the cast mixed with below-the-line. No Jill. They spot me before I can approach. All speech ceases, though I don’t see anyone stop chewing. The laborers in The Jill Show vineyard eye me with the scorn Ivan led me to expect. The director, Bob Ianucci, whom I’ve never met, takes his sweet time strolling over and says to me, “Won’t come out.” He nods toward a door on the other side of the stage, then grants himself a small smile and adds, “Not the first time, amigo.”
I make the long trek across the stage and, as the jabbering begins behind me, open a door to an off-white hallway decorated with framed Jill Show posters. I go in and knock on Jill’s door, the first on the right.
“Go away, please.” Jill’s voice is hushed, strained.
I glance back at the stage door — it’s all the way closed, no one’s eavesdropping. Ten seconds of silence, then subdued shuffling in the dressing room. Ten more and a lock turns. The door cracks open; there’s Jill’s face, very pale. The face disappears behind the door, which opens, as if by itself, just enough for me to squeeze inside. Jill slips onto the end of a couch and leans back, too tired, maybe, to move her body enough to lie down. Casual rehearsal clothes and a pair of woolen winter gloves I know are padded by bandages. Her feet wrapped in bloody towels. The lights are dimmed. I pull the door closed and lock it.
“I’m telling them to start rehearsing and not expect you today,” I say, and take out my cell to call Ivan.
I’m surprised she’s not fighting me. I punch Ivan’s name — I’ve already installed him, comically, on my “Favorites” list. He answers and I hear voices in the background and laughter; he’s in the writers’ room I’m dying to be in. I tell him his star’s sick and the cast should rehearse what they can without her. Is she drunk? No. Did she overdose? No. Nervous breakdown? I’ll be in touch — don’t call or come over. My pleasure, the bastard says.
I kneel before Jill and unwrap the towel on her left foot just enough to see the bloody hole between her ankle and toes. The woman is carving herself up bit by bit.
I run to the bathroom, run back, replace both towels with fresh ones and help Jill lie down on the couch, carefully resting her feet on a pillow that reads “World’s Greatest Mom.” I breathe in the smell of her perfume, flowery and stronger than yesterday.
Being a smart Jewish writer, I researched stigmata. The bleeding usually begins with hands, then sometimes spreads to feet. And in almost all recorded cases, supposedly “stigmatic” blood gave off a sweet flowery odor. My actress has also read about this and applied perfume accordingly. This is too scary, whatever happens with this job happens, and I ask for her therapist’s and doctor’s numbers as calmly as I can.
“I told you ‘no’ yesterday.” She seems calm.
“Jill, this is very fucking serious.”
“I can’t watch you commit suicide.”
“Do you really think I’d cut holes in my own hands and feet?”
“If you’re sick enough. And it wouldn’t be the first time someone did it.”
Jill closes her eyes. “You’re right about that.” She’s in pain, I’m pretty sure, and trying to hide it.
It’s hot in here. I check the thermostat, it says 72, and I realize it’s cooler by the thermostat than by Jill. I touch Jill’s arm, then her forehead. I’ve never felt a body this hot, not even Ryder’s. Another symptom reported by “stigmatics.” I hurry to the bathroom and back and slap a cold wet washcloth on her forehead and pour her some water. She says she’s not thirsty. I nudge damp strands of hair off her forehead. A moan. “You have painkillers?” I say. “Percocet? Vicodin?”
It takes a while to find them but there they are, in her bag in a hidden pocket. So it’s pills, too; like Ivan said, she’s freaked out, drink and dope plus an actress who was probably already crazy. Like my wife, I think, before I can stop it. I take out two pills and pour a glass of water. Jill grimaces as I adjust her on the sofa. I see blood on my hand and lift her blouse at the rear of her neck. Jill’s back is streaked with long narrow wounds as if she cut or whipped herself. I tell her I’m calling the hospital.
My phone isn’t in my pocket. I’m sweating, I scurry around the room, I’m panicking. This is my fault: I’d wanted a job more than I’d wanted to save her life. “Bring everyone in,” Jill says. “Cameras. Everyone has to see.” She has to be doing it to herself; it’s like it’s not enough for her to be a star, she needs to be a god. I unwrap one foot, and Jill’s pedicured nails match the shade of her blood. Did she hire a stigmata stylist? The wound shows no signs of clotting. “Stigmatics” don’t clot. I throw a clean towel around the foot, unwrap the other one, grab the pitcher and pour water directly onto the wound. I spot my phone on the floor and punch “UCLA NURSING,” another new Favorite. I wait for them to answer and could swear that Jill’s blood is flowing up.
Am I really seeing this? Her heel is resting on the couch, her toes are in the air and the blood looks like it’s flowing toward her toes just as I read it happens sometimes with stigmatics lying on their backs. The blood flows over their toes like Jesus of Nazareth’s blood did if – when? – he (He?) was hanging on the cross. I touch Jill’s big toe, her blood is flowing up, defying gravity, over her toes and between them, into the crevices formed by her red toenails and under her toenails, onto the bottom of her toes and only then dripping down onto the soles of her feet and the sofa below in her TV sitcom dressing room. Jill groans. Her eyes close. I cradle her head and dab her forehead and kiss it.
I think the room is cooler. It’s definitely cooler. I touch Jill’s forehead and she’s cooled down, too. I glance over at her feet and the blood is no longer flowing up over her toes. It’s barely flowing at all. Her hands, too. I refill the pitcher and bathe the wound on her right palm, then her left, then her feet. Jill’s eyes are closed, her heart’s beating, I think she’s asleep. By the time I cleanse her feet of blood, her right palm is dry and looks like it’ll scab up.
I smell ammonia. I move my arms and feel stiff. I open my eyes, and I’m scrunched up on a loveseat. I’d fallen asleep, too. I’m disoriented. The lights seem extra-bright. There’s no blood anywhere. The covers are off the sofa and sofa cushions. The floor shines; it’s just been mopped. A slender Latino with a cross dangling from his neck slings two bulging black garbage bags over his shoulders.
Jill treads carefully out of the bathroom in a clean white robe. She’s wearing pink fuzzy slippers so I can’t see her feet and neither can the janitor. She rubs her wet hair with a towel (with her fingertips) so we can’t see her hands, either. “Car keys on the chair, Manuel,” she says brightly. “Just throw those in the trunk, please, and leave the keys outside the door.”
“You got it, Miss Racine,” Manuel answers in accented English.
“Thanks. And please, it’s Jill.”
Janitor Manuel is delighted to be doing a personal favor for a star, especially one he’s on a first-name basis with. He glides out with the garbage bags and the door swings closed.
Jill immediately drops her towel to the floor and locks the door behind him. I regard the scabs on her hands, reddish-brown, lightish, not cracking yet, as she sits at the table and opens one of two cardboard food containers flanking a looseleaf notebook with The Jill Show and her name on it and a couple steaming cups of coffee. She picks up her fork with care and digs into a heaping breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast and bacon.
I sit up on the loveseat and watch her eat. The girl is ravenous. “When’d you eat last?” I ask.
Through her food she says, “Saturday.”
Stigmatics don’t get hungry or thirsty. I watch her swallow and hawk down a piece of bacon. As a star, she’s used to knowing that people are staring at her and not reacting to them. I ask her if she’s okay.
“I’m fantastic.” She swallows and quickly loads up her fork with eggs and gestures at the other cardboard box that she ordered for me, too.
I gesture toward the couch. “You strip the covers yourself? Mop up with towels? Bag it all?” She doesn’t answer, just eats. Eventually I ask her, “What now?”
She opens her notebook. “Rehearsal. Lots of new lines.”
I laugh, a nervous laugh. “You do remember?”
“Remember what?” She keeps her eyes on her notebook, filled with blue pages instead of yesterday’s white; Ivan and his writers had indeed been busy. I open my carton of breakfast and throw it against the wall.
Jill doesn’t even glance at the mess. I ask her if she saw her blood flow up.
“No, Eric. And if I did, who’d believe it?”
“Are you still going to tell me it was real?”
“I’m not going to talk about it. Ever.” She pauses, then says, “I’m very grateful to you.” Takes my hand, seeming affectionately, smiles, and adds, “I’ll see you get paid. That means a lot, right? For Ryder?”
Under the circumstances, it takes me a moment. “Jill. Are you firing me?” I used to hear she got a kick out of firing people. Is it possible she still does?
“Please go. I’m sure they’re waiting for me.” She stands and drops her robe to the floor. She’s naked, and shockingly beautiful. Is this part of her Thank You or is she punishing me? She walks away and opens the door to her closet. Naked Jill Racine leans slightly forward as she flicks through her clothes.
“They come back sometimes,” I say. My voice sounds strange to me. “The wounds. Did you get that far in Wikipedia?”
Still nude, Jill turns and faces me, hands on her hips, and says, “Please. I have to get dressed.” I walk behind the sets along the edge of the stage on my way out. Rehearsal is underway and I’m close enough to hear a joke I pitched to Ivan yesterday.
I’ve written what I saw but I can’t help it, I’m wondering whether it was what I thought I saw. I just Googled “hysteria,” and Wikipedia – yes, that’s where I got my information, who cares? – defines it as “a mental disorder, arising from intense anxiety, in which the patient loses control over his or her acts and emotions.” “Intense anxiety” is an understatement to describe what I’ve been feeling about my son and wife — so couldn’t my senses have lied to me about which way Jill’s blood was flowing?
But if Jill faked the bleeding, why?
If she didn’t and she wasn’t bleeding hysterically, if she truly received the stigmata, why her?
Could it have been for my benefit and not hers?
Because why did Jill call me, a virtual stranger to her? Could the whole thing have been for my benefit, and the benefit of the people I love? I hated Hebrew school, I got suspended for making vomiting noises and throwing fake puke onto the floor. Am I supposed to believe in God now? And of all the thousands of gods of all the cultures in the history of the world, am I supposed to believe Jesus is the one that’s true? Am I supposed to drop to my knees now like Christians do and no Jew ever does?
Five days ago, just before dinner, Ryder was sitting on the living room floor happily building a truck with his rubber blocks – a garbage truck, he told my wife and me, and proudly pointed out the “part in back that moves” — when he keeled over and his head and arms and shoulders and hips started twitching uncontrollably. I scooped him up and hugged him, put my face right in front of his and told him it was okay. But he wasn’t seeing or hearing me; his eyes were rolled up in his head, he was blinking and drooling and his mouth was closing and opening over and over, his fists and elbows and neck locked. He writhed in my arms and he was burning up and I could feel the short guttural “Aah! Aah! Ahh!” he made with every convulsion. He was somewhere else, we didn’t know if he was dying, the doctor had warned us he might get seizures but no warning could prepare us for what we were witnessing. He was completely absolutely helpless, it was horrible, the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I yelled to Leslie to call 9-1-1 and when she didn’t, I should have gotten a hint at what I was in for. I made the call myself holding Ryder and while waiting for the ambulance I left a message for Dr. Botstein. By the time Dr. Botstein called back two minutes later Ryder, still wasn’t responding to me but he’d stopped convulsing and his breathing was getting regular, and Botstein said Ryder would probably be okay but to have the paramedics check him out and I should bring him in the next day so she could do a complete exam. The ambulance arrived a couple minutes later and the paramedics checked his vital signs and he was fine, wasted but back with us. Back with me, because Leslie was sitting still: she was in the red chair in the corner and she wasn’t responding to anything we said or did.
So I called Mom to stay with Ryder while we took Leslie to the ER, where an intern who knew he was in over his head told me my wife should stay there that night and get a psychiatric evaluation the next day. After the exam and a second opinion, I brought her to Resnick Neuropsychiatric at UCLA where, still silent, she remains. She fucking got still. My wife got still and they won’t let me talk to her.
I’m not sure what I expected Jill to do, but she wants the star’s life she’s made and I forgive her for wanting to move on. If there’s a God he obviously has a sense of humor, so maybe with her show she’s doing the Lord’s work after all. And maybe she’ll forgive me when she sees I’ve written about this after I’d promised to keep her secret. It’s not like anyone will believe me anyway. People will assume this piece is a desperate career move, a pathetic attempt by an unemployable comedy writer to gain attention and get back in the game, and I accept that.
I feel ridiculous but here I go, although I’m not getting on my knees:
God have mercy on my wife and child
Let Ryder thrive and laugh and not hurt
Give Leslie her self back to her and to us
As James Brown sang, “Please, please, please.”
The last part I say out loud. Then sing out loud, over and over, which brings me to my knees like it did James Brown.