Is it the dying exec’s cancer or conscience playing tricks on him? Or too much TV? 2,716 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
"Hence, horrible shadow! Unreal mock’ry, hence!" That’s uttered by Macbeth in Macbeth. Anyone who believes you can read every tragedy ever written by William Shakespeare and still plot a murder without seeing a ghost hasn’t, well, read every tragedy ever written by William Shakespeare. You cannot escape your ghost, even here in Hollywood.
I’d like to apologize in advance for this ghost. Like all apparitions, mine hails not from somewhere in the ether but from the mind. It can be no more inspired than my own imagination — and my personal knowledge of ghosts is pretty much limited to the Mr. Magoo version of A Christmas Carol. If I were put on the spot about optioning this script, I’d have to say my ghost is not a believable character. But please believe me when I say that seeing a ghost, any ghost, shoots white-hot molten terror into the very marrow of your bones, no matter how poorly that ghost is written.
At least Shakespeare’s ghosts had the decency to appear in the dead of night. Mine shows up at rush hour while I’m on the 101 on my way to the studio lot in Burbank.
Hitchhiking, no less — shit, I almost hit a truck. I would have just kept on driving, except the ghost was holding up a brown cardboard sign with the words “Stop, Kenny” written on it in red marker, like a guy selling oranges by the road. By that point in my strained relationship with Fate, I’d learned never to ignore signs.
Besides, I’m not sure if providing Uber car service to a phantom was much worse than spending another day after my demotion from Kenneth C. Harrison, Vice President, Comedy Development to my network’s moribund Movies & Minis department. I was trying to coax some kind of a workable story out of my current — and by that I mean only — project: A Matter of Months, a “very special” TV movie about a cancer patient who regains the love of her unfaithful husband during her brave ordeal. This movie had resided in development hell since 1979, the year I was born.
So I pull over and into the passenger seat slides the ghost dressed in a big black hooded robe. I would have tried to strike up a conversation, but judging from what I could catch in the rear view mirror, the thing had no face. We rode in silence, except for Diana Ross. I’d been listening to the traffic report, but almost immediately the ghost reached out a drooping black sleeve and, with one invisible finger, started punching radio buttons until it settled on oldies station KRTH 101. Satisfied, it leaned back in the seat, grooving a little to “Stop! In The Name Of Love.”
Was this specter going to kill me? Maybe there was a dagger under that robe (and, I hoped, some kind of underwear). Perhaps this was my cosmic punishment for getting myself involved in a murder plot so ridiculous that it might actually happen. You know, in that same Hollywood-miraculous way that Tom Cruise can run safely through the same hail of bullets that kills every terrorist in sight.
I should probably pause here for backstory: Like the character in the TV movie, I have cancer. Unlike the character, there will be no scene where I recover and rollerblade happily down the Venice boardwalk in the Southern California sunshine. Dr. Hugh Goldberg at Cedars-Sinai has suggested that I “get my affairs in order.”
During eight long lonely months of chemotherapy, I finally read my unopened undergrad copy of The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (at UCLA, I’d aced the course with Cliff’s Notes). There I discovered Shakespeare’s mysterious Dark Lady of the Sonnets, and felt compelled by Fate to find my own Dark Lady right here in Hollywood. That’s when I met the lovely Ophelia, a breathtakingly untalented but staggeringly beautiful biracial actress who works as personal assistant to TV’s most popular and insufferable daytime talk show hostess Jazzmin Jenks.
I’d managed to wangle Ophelia a bit part on a sitcom that I’d shepherded to ratings success in my former job: Bite Me, the story of a sexy young veterinarian who doesn’t like animals and animals don’t like him. It’s our only primetime hit. But her jealous and powerful Miss Bossiness nixed Ophelia’s one-line role as Woman with Cat #2. That’s when Ophelia asked me to kill Jazzmin Jenks.
In my head, I’m like what the fuck? I couldn’t believe that Ophelia was standing before me in her expensive granite countered kitchen, clutching a Henckels 12-inch bread slicer in one hand, threatening to turn herself into cold cuts if I didn’t murder Jazzmin immediately. But in my heart, I couldn’t stand the idea of losing Ophelia, not now when I have so little time left. If I said no, I feared Ophelia would be out of my life forever.
So I agreed to this madness — but only because I thought I’d be dead before we could commit the crime. I’m very proud of this solution. In fact, I wish I could come up with a story arc that clever for the awful TV movie I’m stuck on. But now, with a ghost sitting beside me, screwing around with the pre-sets on my Bose sound system, I suddenly wasn’t so sure.
The spirit slid out of the car and followed me to my cramped offices on the network lot. I tried to concentrate on my work as the ghost helped itself to a Keurig Cup in the reception area, then sat down in the chair in front of my desk and picked up the latest shooting script. You can’t exactly say that a creature without thumbs thumbed through the pages of the TV movie, but I could something turning briskly. Although the presence was still scaring me half out of my skin, I couldn’t hide a smile when it tossed A Matter Of Months into the wastecan before even finishing the first act.
Apparently no one else in the office could see this ghost, although it made itself four mugs of coffee total. Great. Now it would be up all night.
The specter waited patiently, black sleeves crossed, as a newbie came in to pitch a few TV movie ideas. It took all the effort I could muster not to suggest a ghost writer. You see, I worked in sitcoms for a very very long time. The ghost watered my wilting bromeliad while I returned a few calls. It even did lunch in the commissary with me and the department head who asked what plans I had for the Labor Day weekend. Staring pointedly at the ghost, I said a friend had dropped in unexpectedly from out of town. I ordered one plate for both me and it. I figured one sandwich was plenty since my appetite is practically gone, and as for my guest — no mouth.
It was the Friday before the holiday, so, like everyone else in the office, the ghost and I left early. Traffic was bumper to bumper, but I didn’t have a problem with that because the ghost drove us home. (No, I can’t explain that.) As we entered my apartment together, I’d have bet a million dollars that cat would never come out from behind the sofa.
For a long moment, we stood there just inside the door, the ghost and I. Then, out of habit, I said, “Let me take your coat.” Christ, I’m an idiot, because the thing was a coat. But much to my terrified surprise, and oh so very slowly, off came the long black robe. First the hood flipped back. Then the shoulders came down. The rope around the waist untied itself and dangled in the air for just a moment before it fell. Finally the entire garment sagged into a crumpled pile on the floor and just lay there. It looked like a melted monk.
The mound of black fabric began to heave and pitch alarmingly. The cat hissed from behind the couch. From somewhere under the empty robe came a cloud of vanilla smoke — the kind they use on set mostly for dream sequences. And then, as the mist cleared, there stood my ghost. It wasn’t invisible anymore. It was a woman.
. Instead of the black robe, she was now resplendent in a silken gown of powder blue. Her back was to me; her long wavy hair cascaded to her waist. It was blond, bright blond. I saw that the roots were blond, too. I knew then that this creature could not be from Hollywood.
She seemed a terrifying mix of the two women currently complicating my life: My Dark Lady with the Shakespearean name Ophelia, and bottle-blond silicone-breasted mini-bitch Jazzmin Jenks. That’s right, silicone. As Jazzmin had told me, saline is safer but silicone has more bounce.
“Kill me, Kenny,” the ghost whispered softly. “Kill me.”
“You’re a ghost,” I whispered back — logic, for the moment, getting the better of panic. “Aren’t you already dead?”
“Stop asking so many fucking questions and do it!” the ghost shrieked.
“Who the hell are you?” I sobbed out, clutching both arms of the chair. “Put your black robe back on and get your ass out of here.”
“You watch your language,” the ghost chided. “You know who I am. I’m the woman you will poison, the woman you will kill. Kill me, Kenny . . .”
“Why, because I’m beautiful?” The ghost gave a ringing laugh.
“No — because I don’t know who you are. Please, just go away,” I begged.
“You have to kill me. You promised,” the ghost reminded. “You have to kill me no matter what I look like. Even if I look like Ophelia — except fair instead of black, still so much more marketable in Hollywood no matter how many articles idiots write about Empire.” Gracefully, the barefoot ghost walked toward me, holding out her lovely arms.
“Nooo,” I pleaded. “I’m not ready for murder yet. We decided after Labor Day, remember?”
“You wouldn’t want me to start crying, would you?” She caressed my face with one finger. “You hate it when I cry.”
“How can I hate it when I don’t know who you are.”
The ghost took my hand; it was soft as Ophelia’s honey skin — but even colder than my own. “Come on, Ken. Show me where it is.”
“The poison, dickhead. What kind of a murderer are you?” The screeching voice of Jazzmin Jenks had returned.
I’d already shown Ophelia where I kept my many cancer prescriptions, which were soon to become the weapons for a murder that would never happen. It seemed right that Jazzmin should die from the same poison that had failed to save my life. Surely, then, this specter was someone else. Maybe I could kill her after all. In fact, it might be good practice.
“It’s in the bathroom. Check out the medicine cabinet. All the pills you could possibly want.” I gave the ghost a defiant stare. “Go ahead, knock yourself out.”
“I know where that stuff is,” the ghost scoffed. Impatient, she searched the room. “Ahhh. There it is.” She crouched down in her silken dress and, from underneath the very chair I occupied, dragged out a thick writhing snake about three feet long. Triumphantly, she held the twisting reptile aloft in one hand. “This is what I’m talking about. An asp. A deadly asp, like the one that killed Cleopatra in the Shakespeare play. All you have to do is take this asp, place it on my breast to deliver its poison – and I will become, like Cleopatra, ancient history.”
“As I recall, Cleopatra placed the asp on her own breast before it bit her. Why do I have to do it? It’s your snake,” I said, looking for a way out.
“It’s your murder. Don’t be afraid, Kenny," she cooed. I watched in rapt horror as she allowed the snake to nuzzle her neck, then kissed its thin scaly mouth in return. “Besides, you may not have anything to fear.”
“I have a ghost in my living room. I’m concerned.”
“Yes, but what ghost?” she asked. “My hair is Ophelia’s, but its color belongs to Jazzminn Jenks. I’m the same height as Jazzminn, but I’ve got Ophelia’s eyes and face.” The ghost and the snake did a jerky little waltz together across the room. “Sometimes my voice sounds like Ophelia’s, and sometimes it sounds like Jazzminn’s. Sometimes, I sound like them both — or neither one. So I’d say you’ve got about a 50-50 chance.”
“The breasts, Ken,” she snapped. “If they are real like Ophelia’s, I die instantly when the snake bites. However, if the tits are Jazzminn’s, the asp ends up with a mouthful of silicone, ad I don’t die but you’ve held up your end of the deal and are off the hook. Like I said, 50-50.”
I squirmed in my chair. “Any chance you’ll go away if I make no choice at all?”
“Not a chance. Hey, can you get us some food for a Labor Day barbecue? I should tell you that I don’t eat red meat or gluten. How abut veggie kabobs?”
Surely this weird sister had to be more Jazzminn than Ophelia, I pondered. Ophelia would never talk this way and insist on impossible choices, much less waltz with an asp. But then, unlike Ophelia, Jazzminn Jenks had never asked me to murder anyone over a one-line bit part.
Well, I would have run but there was no place to go. I drew in a breath and squared my shoulders. “All right. I’ll do as you say. Give me the fucking snake.” The ghost handed me the animal. My skin crawling, I allowed the asp to loop its scaly length around my neck, trying not to gag. Both the ghost and I watched, frozen, as the beady eyes and flickering tongue made their way slowly, very slowly, down my chest. Then, just as the diamond-shaped head reached my heart, I grabbed its jaws in one hand and with the other hand ripped open the front of my shirt. The snake’s mouth gaped. I could see drops of poison beginning to form from its fangs.
“Now look — if you don’t get out of here right now, I’m going to let this thing bite my breast, and you’re going to have to deal with the body. Trust me, this is a scene from Bite Me that you don’t want to see. Now go.“
She hesitated. “No fair. That was not one of the choices. Besides, you’d never do it.”
“Oh, I’d give it about 50-50. I don’t have a whole lot to lose.” Sweat poured off me. I felt my lungs would burst from sucking so much vanilla smoke. And I couldn’t look away from those fangs.“I’m going to count to three . . .”
The ghost thought it over for what seemed like an eternity. “All right. Fine. Get your hands off my asp.” I handed back the snake, only too happy to oblige. “You win. I’m leaving. But you know what? I’ll bet you’re going to have a really crappy barbecue. I bet you can’t even cook.”
That hurt. I happen to be an excellent chef, working with only locally sourced and always organic ingredients. “Go,” I shouted.
“But now you’ll never know who I am, will you?” The ghost gave a hollow laugh. Very convincing. Unlike Ophelia, this ghost was a good actress. She slung the thick snake around her shoulders like a stole, slipped the black robe over her silky powder blue dress, and awkwardly adjusted her panties under the skirt. “By the way, I wish you’d imagined me as a vampire instead of a ghost,” she snapped. “Then I’d be able to work in Hollywood forever.” With that she disappeared in a puff of smoke.
She was gone. Somehow, I’d managed to frighten off my very first ghost. I was still scared to death.
As I sat there, shaking and staring, the phone rang. “Kenny? It’s me.” This time, I knew who it was. This fact did not make me feel any more comfortable, however. “Hi, Ophelia. How’s it going?” I choked out.
“What’s wrong? You sound like you’ve seen a ghost.”
She said it, I didn’t.
Adapted from the novel Dark Lady Of Hollywood by Diane Haithman.