A child’s fourth birthday becomes a battlefield for two fathers waging Hollywood’s agency wars. 2,907 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
Derek is supposed to be listening to his client’s pitch, a mini-series for Syfy, and he knows it’s something about global warming. Or a pandemic. Maybe both (“a contemporary dystopian take on Noah’s Ark”). But instead Derek finds himself looking at a photo of his daughter Sierra taken in Maui on a family trip last spring. Three-year old Sierra stands on the beach looking at a man in a yellow Easter Bunny suit, staring him down. Come on, bunny. Bring it on. He wonders what she’s doing at preschool right now. Gluing nuts to construction paper to spell out her name? Taking a nap?
He wants to yawn, but that would be disrespectful to Tyler, his client. Derek nods and smiles. He hasn’t been paying attention for five minutes which is dangerous in these cutthroat times when, in a blink of an eye, agencies are losing even their unsuccessful showrunners to unscrupulous competitors on the prowl.
Tyler stops and looks down at the pitch pages on his lap. “Albino twins with telekinetic powers? Too much?” says Tyler, making a quick slash with his pen. “Let me tell you about the shipping crate they find filled with Red Trolley Ale. I was thinking product placement.”
Derek nods blankly. He is thinking about the conversation he overheard his wife Kiki having on her cell in line at Starbucks with another mother over the weekend. “Dylan’s birthday isn’t until the 18th, and Sierra’s birthday is the 10th, so the 13th and the 14th are Sierra’s days. It’s the rule. I’ve booked a Bollywood dance teacher. Non-refundable deposit.”
Tyler won’t get in to pitch to Syfy. Derek has already come up with a good excuse. Staffing change. They need to sort things out in Syfy development. Oh, shit. Did he say that last time about Tyler’s canceled Sony meeting? Derek isn’t interested in Tyler anymore. Another agent warned him, pre-signing, “Tyler had one good idea five years ago, always late with drafts, bad in a room,” but Derek enjoyed the challenge of luring Tyler away from a boutique agency. Boutique means bullshit, that was Derek’s pitch. People will take you seriously, Ty. Once you’re with us.
And it worked. Except the other agent was right. Dystopian Noah’s Ark? Fuck me. Derek can’t take that to Syfy. He has his reputation to think about. Unless he has Tyler rework the pitch pages and make the concept less muddy. And add zombies. No, werewolves. Or he could stop taking Tyler’s calls and wait until he gets the hint.
Derek’s phone buzzes. His wife is texting. Probably more insanity about Sierra’s birthday party. Kiki has abandoned the Bollywood dance teacher in favor of a Hollywood Glam Gal Party. Sierra will be the first in her pre-school class to have one so it’s a major coup, his wife insisted. But all Derek wanted was to have a clown come and make balloon poodles in the back yard. And Kiki had laughed. (“That’s a joke, right? We have to do better than last year when Cinderella showed up stoned with a giant goat tattoo on her wrist. And Snow White never came so they sent over Porky Pig. Cinderella and Porky Pig aren’t even in the same cartoon family.") Kiki sends another text. He hasn’t had time to answer the first one.
That night Derek follows Sierra into her bedroom. He loves that the just turned four-year-old is a sweet girl, with wide blue eyes and small even teeth. And that her favorite bedtime stories are the Carl The Dog books which have no words so she invents her own.
“Carl is watching the baby. And he thinks the baby might be hungry so he goes into the kitchen to get milk,” Sierra says.
Derek snuggles with Sierra as they look at the picture book. “Can a dog open a refrigerator?” he asks.
Sierra looks at her father and giggles, “No, silly. Dogs can’t open refrigerators.” She thinks. “Cats maybe. Cats are smart.”
Derek thinks Sierra is the smartest girl in her class. He keeps waiting for the call. (“Your daughter needs to be in an academically gifted environment, Mr. O’Brian. Have you had her tested?”) But the call hasn’t come yet. Or maybe Kiki took the message and forgot in the midst of her birthday party planning. Entirely possible.
He likes to watch Sierra fall asleep. Her hair is spread out on her pillow like rays of the sun and she would look like a princess except she’s kicked all the covers to the foot of her bed and her legs are splayed out over the edge. Derek rearranges her and tucks the covers close. Sierra is an angel, a character in a fairy tale, a miracle, magic.
He checks his cell when he leaves her bedroom. Tyler has texted twice and emailed four times. Derek wonders if he should tell Tyler that the boutique agency has been getting some heat lately and Tyler could consider going back.
The day of the party is sunny and not too warm and the Hollywood Glam Gal ladies, Misty and her assistant Chloe, arrive 45 minutes ahead of time. Their job is to wrangle the little girls. Derek’s was to pick up the cake earlier at Hansen’s in Tarzana. (Kiki told him about mothers who present a Costco birthday cake in a Hansen’s box. "Pathetic.") Sierra’s cake is shaped like a hoop skirt — light blue, with tiers of white frosting that resemble lace. A Barbie-like doll sits in the middle seemingly delighted to be wearing a skirt make out of white cake with frosting. “Happy 4 Sierra!” is piped in icing.
The guests appear, and the invitations make it clear that the Hollywood Glam Gal fashion show begins promptly at 2:30 p.m. The girls are herded by Misty and Chloe (who already have slipped Derek their headshots and resumes because he’s an agent and they’re actresses) into the dining room where plastic bins on the table are open to reveal beads and wire. Soon nine little pairs of hands are busy making necklaces and bracelets.
One girl at a time is pulled away for make-up and hair in the guest bedroom where Misty and Chloe have placed two stools with faux leopard trim and a mirror bordered with white lights “just like the movie stars use,” says Misty. The Birthday Girl goes first. The make-up is innocent: powder blue eye shadow, pink blush with matching lipstick, and lots of sparkle. Misty teases a pouf atop each girl’s hair and fits a small silver sequined tiara to wear today and then take home. Sierra’s tiara is bigger than the rest and studded with rhinestones.
Then the girls go to “wardrobe” where they pick a princess skirt, fluffy with netting, and a pastel-colored tube top decorated with ribbon straps. The girls choose to wear gold low-heeled slip-on sandals. Finally, their picture is taken for the goodie bags which will contain a clear plastic frame personalized with a photo of each birthday guest.
Misty gives last minute instructions to the girls. “Walk with your pelvis out.” After showing the girls where to find their pelvis, she demonstrates the walk. “Like a cat, you are slinky.” Derek finds this creepy, like the adults are grooming child prostitutes.
Throughout the dress-up process, Derek stays out of the way. The mothers especially make him nervous, moving together like a pack. He takes an occasional photo, mostly of Sierra. At 2:30 p.m. sharp, the fashion show begins on a red carpet leading from the hallway into the living room.
Just before the boombox plays, Derek notices that another father has appeared. He is wearing a business suit. On a Saturday. Something about him seems familiar. Derek realizes it’s a rival agent who last week stole one of Derek’s top TV comedy writers.
A blast of Katy Perry and the girls start their fashion parade. Most seem to enjoy it. One is shy and has to be bribed with a cookie just to walk to the end. The next girl is taller than the rest and incredibly beautiful. She could be a model, thinks Derek. At the end of the red carpet she whips her head toward her parents and gives them a smile. “Bravo,” shouts the agent thief. “Bravo, Tiffany.” When Tiffany blows a kiss to her father, Derek’s hands are making fists.
Derek is annoyed that Tiffany and her father have made such a fuss. Especially because Sierra is next up. Please let Sierra do a good job, Derek thinks, please let her blow Tiffany out of the water. Sierra appears, tentative at first. Then Sierra raises her chin just enough so the rhinestones glimmer, and she begins her walk. She is not as obvious as Tiffany, thinks Derek, but she has grace and style. She wants to be perfect. And she is. Sierra knows she’s done a good job and throws a relieved look at Derek, who feels tears in his eyes.
The girls gather around the dining table for cake. Derek has photo duty again. Everyone sings “Happy Birthday” before Sierra makes her wish and blows out the candles. Derek distributes slices of cake to the grown-ups including the other agent who says, “Hi, I’m Todd Perez. Sorry about taking your client Kevin. But I think we’ll do a better job for him.”
“He was doing fine with us.”
“We can offer him more opportunities,” says Todd, taking a bite of cake. “Yum, Hansen’s is the bomb. We want to move him out of TV and into features. We’ve already set meetings with Jason Sudeikis and Melissa McCarthy. Kev’s got this dynamite feature idea about a man who turns into a dog.”
Derek doesn’t say anything. Kevin had mentioned the feature idea to him and Derek had dismissed it without much discussion. ("Think about TV development, Kevin. That’s where the money is.") Derek is determined to be a gracious host today. Even to this asshole agent.
But then Tiffany runs up to her father. “Did you see me, Daddy?”
“How could I miss you?” Todd says. “You’re the prettiest girl here. The queen.”
Derek grits his teeth. At that moment Sierra is handed the doll from the cake. Its body is covered with frosting which Sierra starts to lick. Derek is the first to notice Sierra pushing open the doll’s legs with her tongue. She licks the doll’s calves, then thighs. “Honey,” says Derek. But Sierra doesn’t notice. “Sierra.” Derek’s voice is louder this time. Sierra looks over at him, her mouth covered with frosting. All the other moms and Todd now watch as Sierra licks the doll’s crotch.
Derek silently walks over and moves the doll away. The party ends.
Derek is in the front yard taking some last-minute photos when Todd, his wife, and Tiffany signal they’re about to leave. Tiffany’s mom prompts her and the little girl courtsies and says, “Thank you, Mr. O’Brian. It was a lovely party.” Little automaton, thinks Derek, but he replies, “Thanks for coming, Tiffany.” She turns to her mother. "Can we have a playdate with Sierra soon? She’s my best friend.”
“Anytime,” says Tiffany’s mom.
They head toward their car, but Todd turns back with some parting words to Derek. “Better luck next time, old man.”.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Derek asks.
“Next time maybe you should hang onto your client.”
“There won’t be a next time.” Derek says. He wants to shove Todd’s face onto the driveway and scrape it raw with brick-burn.
“Hey,” Todd says. “why doesn’t one of your other writers do a sketch about your daughter licking that doll?"
“What did you say about my daughter?” Derek demands. The backs of his eyes are starting to blur. Something is wrong with his vision. The backyard has gone blood red.
“That tongue action, what a goof," Todd adds. "You could sell it as a scene from a sketch comedy, something about muff divers.”
Derek shoves him, hard. Todd stumbles and looks surprised. “Don’t you have a sense of humor? You represent comedy writers, jeez,” Todd shoots back, now giggling. “Man, hilarious.” He makes a licking motion with his tongue.
Derek throws the first punch. He swings wide and misses Todd completely.
“Derek?” says Kiki, who has now appeared on the porch. "Derek?” she says again, an icy tone in her voice.
Todd lets a right hook fly. It glances off Derek’s chin. But as Derek jerks his head away, it slams against a porch pillar. Derek touches the back of his head. He can feel the beginning of a goose egg. He takes a step towards Todd who laughs again. “Come on, macho guy, show me some Mark Wahlberg action. Oh, wait, you guys don’t represent Mark, do you?” He waves his hands in Derek’s face, mock boxing style.
"I don’t rep second-rate film actors," replies Derek. "But I do represent brilliant comedy writers and I hear Tina Fey isn’t thrilled with your pissant agency and is looking to make a move…" With that, Derek leaps forward and grabs one of Todd’s fingers and bends it back and bites it, feeling flesh and bone.
Todd yelps and yanks his hand away. He hurls himself at Derek, not gracefully but with force, and his thigh connects with Derek’s balls. Derek folds in half, his crotch on fire, a thousand degrees hot.
Several other parents have stopped in the driveway now to watch. One mother covers her daughter’s eyes.
Derek, in agony, reaches for Todd. But Todd pivots his elbow at Derek’s head, just missing his eye. Derek claws at Todd’s face and red scratches appear on Todd’s cheek. Todd feels his throbbing face and makes a low growl in his throat. “I just had a facial yesterday.”
“I’m going give you a brick facial, fuckhead,” Derek says and leaps for Todd’s neck and wrestles him to the ground. Todd falls nose first and groans. Derek’s balls are still stinging and Todd is shrieking. Derek is pleased that Todd screams like a little girl.
“Stop it right now, Derek. I mean it,” hisses Kiki.
But it’s too late. Derek wants to mash Todd into a pulp. Instead, Todd grabs Derek’s right bicep and won’t let go. Todd’s ragged unmanicured fingernails dig into Derek’s skin. Derek grips Todd’s left thigh, pushing his fingers into muscle, hoping to rip apart sinew and tendons and tissue. Derek and Todd hang like that, breathing hard, unable to move. Middle age has taken over. They flop onto the grass and thrash weakly at each other.
“Derek!” Kiki is yelling now.
“I fucking hate your agency, dickwad,” says Todd.
“I hate your agency more, fart face” says Derek.
Kiki grabs the garden hose and turns it on full force. The spray of water surprises the men and they separate.
“Honey, you didn’t have to – ” says Derek, getting to his feet.
“Whoa, that’s cold,” says Todd. Blood drips from his smashed nose.
Todd’s second wife is standing at the end of the driveway, her hands on her hips. She sighs because she’s seen her husband like this before. “Get in the car, Todd,” she says in a low voice.
Todd looks at Derek. Derek looks at Todd. Neither of them speak. Kiki raises the nozzle, signaling she’s ready to use the hose again if provoked by either man. It’s over.
Later, inside the house, Sierra is impatient to open her presents. Where is Daddy? Taking a shower, says Kiki who will have to make phone call after phone call tonight to explain the fistfight on the front lawn. But she’s loyal to her husband and his agency which provides her family with a very comfortable living. She’ll say Todd was on coke or meth. And she’ll ask the other mothers if any of them noticed that Tiffany had at least three pieces of birthday cake. Oink, oink.
When Derek appears, he is unable to look Kiki in the eye. But, to his surprise, she smiles. Sierra turns away from the presents and joyously hurls her body at her father. He scoops her up into his arms and gives her an Eskimo kiss.
“Did you have fun at my party?”
“I sure did, princess.”
“Was it the best party ever?”
Her eyes are bright and excited from party adrenalin and birthday sugar. The tiara hangs crookedly on her head and Derek is sure that she will insist on sleeping in it all night long. Perhaps she’ll dream about castles and princes. Dragons? Witches? Derek will be there to protect her from anything bad. Because when it comes to his daughter, nobody and nothing will stand in his way. He vows yet again that Sierra will grow up safe, content, loved.
Oh, and tomorrow he’ll give Tyler a call. Warn him about predatory pricks like Todd Perez and, no worries, Derek will get that Syfy meeting set up ASAP.
This short story first posted here on September 23, 2015.