A Hollywood publicist rushes to the hospital when her long-time client makes another mess of his life. 3,125 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
Kevin told her what.
“How soon can you get here?”
“It’s 3 AM.”
“There won’t be any traffic.”
“This can’t wait till the morning?”
“It is the morning…”
Kevin shifted a little phlegm around his throat and said, underplaying the line, “He may not make it.”
At 3:20 AM Hillary Boden had the fast lane of the 10 East pretty much to herself, roaring through the San Gabriel Valley on cruise control in the SUV, the wrong vehicle to be doing ninety in, like a broad-beamed sailboat tacking into a strong headwind. There was a pint of bleak 7-Eleven coffee in the cup holder, Bruce on the CD. Bruce was better with a tequila buzz, but she’d take him with over-roasted coffee. If a CHIP radared her, she’d hand him her card with her license and registration, dredge up a cracked smile and explain why she was breaking the speed limit in an unwashed Range Rover (she just didn’t have the time), offer him a couple of head shots and a visit to the set – provided, of course, that Lawrence pulled through.
Which, according to Kevin, was not altogether certain.
Kevin tended to be overly dramatic. The night that Lawrence got edged out of Best Supporting Actor by a recently-dead Brit and had somewhere between six and nine vodka shooters before taking a punch at a trade reporter who’d made the mistake of asking him if he thought that the loss would affect the grosses, Kevin had him in the drunk tank downtown instead of in the hotel security office, where Lawrence actually was, sleeping on a couch.
This time, however, Kevin was talking about the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital in San Bernardino.
Lawrence, apparently, had driven the 500 SL into a ravine coming out of a rest stop near Victorville, where they had stopped for gas and where Lawrence had taken a few more hits off the Stoli bottle hidden under the seat and had gotten behind the wheel, not bothering with the seatbelt, and proceeded to drive into a ditch. The fact that Lawrence had hit the ditch at 30 mph, instead of another car on the highway at 75, no doubt saved Kevin’s life. He came out of it with a wrenched shoulder, from trying to pull Lawrence from behind the wheel, and a bruised forehead.
The big job was going to be dealing with the Highway Patrol on a DUI — if they had him on the books. It seemed to Hillary that this should have been handled by Lawrence’s lawyer, but that man was smart enough not to give his home number out to his clients. All her clients had her home number, as well as her beeper and her cell. Sometimes she felt like a goddamn obstetrician, getting beeped out of dinner parties, movies, and once, out of the embrace of a marketing executive from some piddling European distribution company, whose embrace she had no business being in to begin with.
Lawrence Grey, née Groshuk, had been a client for nine years. He was a self-centered, insecure, passive-aggressive actor in his sixties. Past his prime, but not that much past it, he was still getting character work that paid him enough to pay her to keep his name in print. Though he couldn’t open a picture, he could put enough asses in the seats to keep him high on the casting directors’ B list.
His fan base tended to be older and non-coastal. They read the entertainment sections of magazines and watched ET. It was in a large part thanks to Hillary that Lawrence’s fans thought of him as an aging but virile ladies man, his name mentioned in connection with a number of attractive women, and not what he really was — a vain alcoholic who had been in a long-term relationship with Kevin Whitten, the realtor who had sold him his house years ago and stayed on as Lawrence’s live-in amanuensis and lover.
Her cell went off. She fished it out of her pocketbook one-handed.
“Where are you?”
“I just passed Pomona.”
“I’m doing 90, Kevin.”
“He’s taken a turn for the worse.”
“And a police beat reporter from some local paper is hanging around.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll handle him… What were you doing in Vegas anyway?”
“Kevin, I’m his publicist.”
There was a moment of cell phone static before Kevin said, “He was getting his ass lifted.”
“He had to sit on a pillow on the way back…”
“Why didn’t you fly?”
“He doesn’t like the way he looks in fluorescent lighting.”
At first they didn’t want to let her into the ICU. The word ‘publicist’ didn’t impress the night nurse who ran the unit. It wasn’t until Kevin identified her as a close family friend that she was allowed access to her client.
Kevin led her to the cubicle where Lawrence was lying hooked up to machines.
The actor looked better half dead under fluorescence than a lot of healthy people look by candlelight, thanks in no small part to a couple of hundred thousand dollars worth of top-of-the-line cosmetic surgery, which she had successfully explained away as back surgery, kidney stones and pneumonia.
“Is he conscious?”
“He doesn’t talk but he understands when you talk to him.”
“How do you know?”
Kevin bent closer to Lawrence and whispered, “Look who’s here, Larry – it’s Hillary.”
She could detect no discernible sign of recognition on his part, but she smiled and waved, “Hi, Larry.”
“He’s glad to see you,” Kevin said, his eyes still on his lover.
“You’re going to do fine.” Her inflection was the one she used with relatives at funerals.
“You see how he’s looking at you?”
As far as she could tell the actor was looking at the light fixture in the ceiling.
She could detect a faint odor of stale vodka even in the ammoniated atmosphere of the hospital. “Did you talk to the doctor?” She asked Kevin.
He turned to her and said, as if not wanting Lawrence to hear, “He’s some Vietnamese resident who barely speaks English. I’m waiting for the day shift to come on.”
“Can we talk?”
He turned back to Lawrence and said, “Hill and I are just going down the hall for a cup of coffee. We’ll be right back, okay?”
They walked to a vending machine area with some tables on the other side of the elevator, passing a man who was talking to one of the nurses at the nurses’ station.
“That’s the local guy.”
“How do you know?”
“He tried to interview me.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him to fuck off.”
“That’s never a good idea.”
“I’m sorry but I’m distraught.”
They sat at a table in the rear. Kevin looked like he was an inch from dissolving into a puddle. She put her hand on his and said, “He’s going to be all right.”
“Dr. Minh wasn’t very encouraging.”
“Why was he driving? Didn’t he have surgery in Vegas?”
“He doesn’t like the way I drive.”
“The doctor in Vegas said he was okay to drive. It was 36 hours since the anesthesia. It was just a tuck. I didn’t ask him to do it. I said to him, ‘Larry, you’re not working in a bathing suit anymore, why put yourself through this?’ But he wanted it done. This guy was highly recommended… So we made it into a little vacation. The clinic has a pool and big screen TVs in the suites. You can even play Keno. You can’t imagine what it cost.”
“He’s not as well off as everyone thinks he is. He took a bath on some real estate in Encino. I should have known the vodka bottle was under the seat. He hides them everywhere. I find them all over the house… in the laundry room, under the sink…it’s like the Days Of Wine And Roses for chrissakes…”
“Look, I better get to this guy before he files a story. Why don’t you close your eyes for a few minutes?”
She left Kevin talking to himself and went back out to the nurses’ station, where the local guy was still chatting up the nurses. She introduced herself and handed him one of her cards, which said, in bright blue raised letters HILLARY BODEN, PUBLICITY. She led him to the hallway near the elevator, away from the nurses.
“What can I tell you?”
“That is Lawrence Grey in there, isn’t it?”
She smiled – her disarming smile that she took out of her pocket like a concealed weapon.
“Is he going to be okay?”
“He’s going to be fine.”
“He’s in Intensive Care.”
“That’s just a precaution.”
“I hear he was driving drunk.”
“Where did you hear that?”
“Did they put a breathalyzer on him?”
“I don’t know. The cops do that.”
“Pending a police report, I wouldn’t go with that.”
“The nurses said he has surgical stitching in him.”
“They’re not allowed to talk to you. You know that. You cite them and they’re going to lose their jobs.”
“Who’s the guy with him?”
“It’s his agent. They were in Vegas to meet with some independent financing people on a new movie.”
He stood there sifting the story for truth.
“Look,” she said, ramping up the sincerity in her voice, “I realize you’ve been up all night and you want some story to show for it. So here’s what you can go with. Lawrence had some arthroscopic knee surgery in Las Vegas that he and his agent turned into a little bit of a combination vacation and business trip. On the way back, he pulled out of a rest stop in Victorville, was blinded by a semi that didn’t dim its lights, and drove into a ditch. He hadn’t had time to put on his seatbelt and banged his head badly on the dashboard, suffering a concussion, and they decided put him into the ICU as a precaution.”
He smiled, displaying some bargain dental work, still dubious.
“Okay, tell you what — you’ve been here for a few hours, so, the hell with it, I’m going to give you the scoop on the movie deal, even though I’m not supposed to talk about it until the money’s in place.”
“It’s an action movie with Mark Wahlberg entitled Body Count. They’re talking to Michael Bay to direct. Shoots in London and Kenya. Next summer. I really shouldn’t have told you that because the deal’s not set, but if you want to leak it, I guess it ‘s okay, okay?”
And she flashed him a little wattage and watched him bite down hard. It still gave her a kick to do her job well, even though this wasn’t jerking off a night-shift veteran on the Times or even someone from the trades. This guy worked for a fourth rate daily in a fourth rate city that you passed by on the way to Vegas. She could have sold him Century City if it weren’t four in the morning and she’d put some eye makeup on.
After he went off to write up his scoop for the Family, Life & Entertainment section of the San Bernardino Register, she went to work the nurses.
“Hi,” she said to the hard-ass who hadn’t wanted to let her in. “I’m Mr. Grey’s sister-in-law, Hillary. Can you give me an update on his condition?”
“You’ll have to talk to Dr. Minh.”
“Where can I find him?”
“He’s not available right now.”
“Well, can you give me a general sense of his condition at least?”
The woman didn’t blink. Didn’t even quiver. Your brother in law is at death’s door. Have a nice day.
“Was there a police report filed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who would know?”
“What is it — the bag?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“It’s the Prada bag, isn’t it? You’d never buy yourself an $850 purse, would you?”
Jesus. She was starting to lose it in the ICU unit of Our Lady Of San Bernardino. Granted it was 4 A.M. and she had an incipient sinus headache, but this wasn’t like her. Her job was to put out fires that her clients started, not to make them worse. So she started to back and fill.
“I’m sorry. It’s the stress… Larry’s very dear to me…”
But the woman’s eyes were on the monitors.
Hillary walked over to Lawrence’s cubicle, where Kevin was bent over the bed, holding his hand and nodding gently. “Here’s Hill,” he said. “Should I tell her what you told me?” Kevin waited a moment, reading some sort of response in Lawrence’s comatose eyes, then turned to her and said, “He wants to be ten years younger.”
She smiled at the joke and said, “Wouldn’t we all.”
“It’s not a joke, Hillary. Larry’s serious.”
“Should I tell her, Larry? About the four instead of the five?”
Again Kevin looked at Lawrence. He didn’t move a muscle. Kevin nodded.
However it was that Kevin was communicating with Lawrence she couldn’t see it.
Then Kevin turned to her and said, “This is not generally known in the business but Larry is actually fifty-three, not sixty-three. You see, they have the wrong year of birth down for him, actually the wrong decade…” Hillary nodded, dying to know how this had happened. “This was like in the mid Seventies, when Larry was just breaking in. He was barely twenty-five at the time and he wanted to go up for a role on ‘Barnaby Jones.’ The breakdown said they were looking for actors thirty-five to fifty for this role, so his agent at the time, Charlie Sylvester, put him up and he got the job… Well, when it came to filling out the W-2’s , Charlie didn’t want to tell the casting director that he’d lied about Larry’s age, so they put down 1949 instead of 1959 for date of birth… and… the next thing you know, Larry’s in a pilot for the studio and they don’t want to go back and admit they falsified the date on the ‘Barnaby Jones’ job and so it sort of just happened."
Still not entirely sure that Lawrence wasn’t able to hear them, she beckoned for Kevin to move a few feet away and, her back to the actor, whispered, “Is he serious about this?”
“Totally. He just told me.”
“Well, he had told me the story before, just after I met him, but he repeated it just now while you’re weren’t here.”
“The man’s in critical condition, and he’s worried about his age?”
Kevin took a deep breath, exhaled and said, with a great deal of solemnity, “Hillary, it could be his last request.”
As it turned out, it was.
Lawrence Grey was pronounced dead by the dayshift attending physician at 7:10 in the morning. Hillary held Kevin as the ICU team disconnected the tubes and offered their condolences. He sobbed as they took the body away, and she fed him tissues out of the Prada bag. They sat together at the table near the vending machines, the desert sun pouring in through the windows. An orderly mopped the floor around them. She was exhausted and empty, sucked up into the vacuum that death creates around it. Kevin began to babble.
“Why the hell didn’t he wear his seatbelt?”
“That was his style, wasn’t it? Fast and loose.”
“He really wasn’t, you know, except when he drank. He was actually anal compulsive. God forbid you should leave a dish in the sink. He always made me get receipts for everything. I have file cabinets full of receipts, two-dollar parking garage receipts, seven bucks for a bottle of Tylenol…”
There was at lot of work to be done; there were statements to be made, obituaries to be vetted. She let him go on for a while more and then said, “Why don’t you leave the car here, drive back with me?”
He shook his head.
“You’ve been up all night…”
“I don’t want to leave him alone.”
“Okay. I’ll go make the arrangements…”
She had started to get up when he looked up at her suddenly and said, “There’s one more thing.”
“Larry has a sister and brother and two nephews he adores in Ohio. They don’t know.” Kevin did not have to explain what it was that Larry’s family in Ohio didn’t know.
“I’ll take care of it.”
She gave him her remaining tissues and went out to deal with the disposition of the body. The elevator down to the hospital morgue stopped at the lobby, and the local night shift reporter got on.
“Don’t you ever sleep?”
“They called me.”
“So what do you need? You’ve got the medical stuff.”
“Just some boilerplate.”
He opened his notebook and said, “Let’s start with his real name. I have it as Lawrence Groshuk.”
He spelled it. She nodded.
“I have his age as 63 and five months…” he continued.
Hillary didn’t hesitate for a second. “You have it wrong.”
“Really? I got it off the net.”
“I’m going to give you another scoop…”
By nine she had handled the arrangements. The body would be shipped to L.A., the car left at a local body shop. Kevin would travel back in the ambulance with Lawrence.
She drove to the Sheriff’s substation, where she convinced them that a post facto DUI was completely unnecessary. Although Lawrence’s judgment may have been impaired by some codeine cough medicine he was taking, there had been no breathalyzer given on the scene and no other vehicle involved in the accident. What was the point of going over the hospital’s blood work to determine alcohol level?
She phoned in the story to the trades. When she gave them date of birth, she explained that there were erroneous birth dates for him all over the place due to a mistake in filing a tax form nearly thirty years ago. She did it clean and straight, without a bobble. She did this on the cell from the fast lane of the San Bernardino Freeway, whizzing past the trucks.
At 3 P.M., almost exactly 12 hours after she had gotten the call from Kevin, she sat in the den of her house off Coldwater and made a couple of more calls. She had two clients whom she handled on a cut rate basis. They were actresses nearing 50, who couldn’t get arrested if they tossed a grenade into the White House. ET would have a camera working Lawrence Grey’s memorial service.
She would make sure her two clients would be sitting in the front row. Wearing black. Tissues wadded up in their fists. They would even stifle a sob or two for the B roll.