EXCLUSIVE: Bruce Wagner debuts an excerpt from his new Hollywood novel about secrets hidden beneath the glamour of a couple’s lavish celebrity life. 2,899 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
On Saturday, Dusty threw a dinner party in Trousdale. The dislocation between the Oscar-winning actress and her wife Allegra was still profound but the renewal of physical vows had kindled a semblance of normalcy — a tenuous cessation of hostilities, anyway, with a tang of the good ol’ days. The get-together was a small coming-out of sorts (they hadn’t really been social for months) attended by Jeremy, Larissa, Marilyn, Tuesday, and Dusty’s forever hair guy Patrice.
Patrice had a passé but fun Heathcliff look, all broody-gaunt and windswept rocker, swathed in beat-up motocross leather. Jeremy said, "You look just like Artaud!" (He knew the reference would be lost but didn’t care.) The laconic hairdresser possessed a vacant, guru-like open-heartedness that pulled guests into its gravitational field whenever a place opened up on the couch beside him. Marilyn’s long, respected career in New York theater preceded her fairly recent successful run as a character actress in film. She was single at the moment, a tough New Age cookie known for her storied marriages to celebrated, difficult men, and reminded Allegra of the cracked, charismatic earth mothers she’d met in the caravan of her cultish travels. Marilyn and Larissa were the same age with the same kind of sunflowery, gregarious energy, though the stand-in, ever mindful of her place in the firmament, erred toward holding back. When Dusty joined the ladies for an impromptu boogie, Jeremy, in an aside to Allegra, said, "Those three broads are a real pussy riot."
It was the first time Tuesday Weld had been to the house, and the guests were starstruck. Dusty liked throwing a wild card into her party mixes, like Dylan (a Point Dume neighbor) or J.K. Rowling (Dusty called her "Joey") when she was in town; she adored watching the look on the faces of the unsuspecting when she made out-of-the-blue, ultra-downplayed, homespun introductions to sundry unnerving, nearly mythic folk heroes. Allegra had a long-time Tuesday Weld fetish — Ann-Margret, Joey Heatherton, and Yvette Mimieux were satellites around that moon — and of course knew that Tuesday would be there tonight. (She was Dusty’s old friend and sometimes joined the couple for dinner at Matteo’s.) Allegra also knew how fabulously freaked Jeremy would be to meet her — he was more into Tuesday than she was, if that was even possible — and impishly withheld the surprise.
When he laid eyes on Ms. Weld, he went stone-cold giddy, inanely shouting "T.G.I.T."! — Thank God It’s Tuesday — over and over.
Halfway through the party, he called Allegra into a bedroom. He’d snuck away to find a clip from Play It As It Lays but uncovered a crazy Roddy McDowall home movie on YouTube instead: Malibu beach, circa 1965. A bikinied Tuesday, around thirty but looking ten years younger, scrutinized a dragonfly on a windowsill with wide-eyed, virginal wonder. The very loaded Allegra couldn’t believe the magical, soundtrackless majesty of what they were watching: a hairless Kirk Douglas lolled on the deck in a scanty swimsuit, a sunlit caliph, as the waves crashed behind him — endless OMG-miracle of the Internet! — as Lauren Bacall made an entrance in prototypical erotic/sardonic splendor — followed by a passel of towheaded surf kids then a bearded Paul Newman then Janice Rule and Jane Fonda — holy shit — a parade of shades and sylphs on a stolen prehistoric Colony afternoon, locked and loaded for futureworld’s iMasturbatory viewing pleasure. And Jane was still getting it up for a party — Allegra sat with her and Taylor Schilling at a gala not too long ago, vaping hash oil, super-present and alive and going on eighty… still sexy. Allegra marveled at the energy, the drive. It was crazy! True movie stars were like vampires that way.
There was a noticeable lull when she and Jeremy returned.
Tuesday was sitting by herself, spacey and contemplative. She was past seventy now and grossly overweight. There was something reserved and melancholy about her, a quality of being mortal, spiritually wounded, spent, as if living on borrowed time since she’d solved the riddle of the dragonfly, and had the follow-up realization that nothing else would be revealed. Allegra was about to make an overture when Tuesday announced to no one in particular that she’d never had plastic surgery.
"I don’t have any lines in my face because I’m fat. You lose wrinkles when you’re fat."
Jeremy spoke up, his face shiny with disposable intimacy. A zealous serf in the kingdom of Future Anecdote, he decided to ask about Elvis. Their legendary alliance was well known, but when the fuck else would he get the chance to hear about it firsthand?
"I was at a party," said Tuesday, "and someone kind of grabbed me and walked me over. But Elvis didn’t say anything so I got bored. I did what I used to when I got bored — went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, and let the cool breeze blow." Jeremy’s eyes bugged from his head like an ecstatic devotee. "He walked in and said, ‘Hungry, little girl?’ I remember what I was wearing: toreador pants, sandals with heels, and a windbreaker tied around my neck. A tight periwinkle sweater. He wore black. I was sixteen."
It was a killer story, even if the details were too perfect, too rehearsed. Allegra and Jeremy traded glances with the same thought: Did she write a memoir that we missed?
Need to Amazon that…
Dusty and the others joined them. Marilyn caught the tail end and said, "Sixteen? Where were you living?"
Allegra thought it was a goofy question but whatever.
"The Hollywood Hills," said Tuesday. "With my mother. We had a split-level and I told her I needed my privacy. I was starting to bully her — you know, threaten that I wasn’t going to act anymore. Her ultimate nightmare because I was the woman’s only source of income. I told her I’d leave if she didn’t build this floor over the stairs that led to the lower part of the house, where I had my room. To wall it off.
So she did — and I had a separate entrance for my friends! Lenny Bruce lived really close. We used to do peyote together. I saw Elvis at night and Lenny during the day."
It was almost too much for Jeremy to take — like one of those wack plays from the sixties where Jean Harlow meets Billy the Kid. (Allegra noticed Dusty’s and the stand-in’s arms "randomly" touching; Larissa had tangles of red hair there). He tried getting Tuesday to talk about Lenny but she wouldn’t. She suddenly shut down; she was funny that way. An element of paranoia could drive her to abruptly curtail reminiscence, as if an invisible lawyer had told her to say no more.
The peyote mention got Marilyn riffing on mushrooms. She said that on the last winter solstice, she went "journeying" in New Mexico.
"That’s amazing!" said Dusty, drunker than Allegra had seen her in a while. "I’ve always wanted to go to Burning Man," she added, apropos of not very much. "But I think I’m too old for that shit."
"My daughter wants to go," said Larissa. "She’s been on a campaign. I said, When you’re eighteen!"
"How old is she?" said Tuesday.
"Almost old enough for Elvis," said Jeremy. He was really high. Tuesday winced. "Burning Man is insanely great," he said authoritatively, as if to clear the air of flip sacrilege.
"I would totally go if you want to," said Allegra to Dusty, and she meant it. Going to Burning Man together sounded like the bestest, onliest idea in the history of the world.
"You would love it," said Jeremy. "We had a trailer and a driver — the whole thing was, like, four grand including tickets. For three of us. Or you can do the Snapchat-camp-Sherpa-helicopter thing."
"What is Burning Man?" said Tuesday.
Jeremy sweetly broke it down for her à la the Idiot’s Guide, as a kind of amends for being naughty about Elvis.
"I think it’d be amazing," said Marilyn. "We should all go; wouldn’t that be so crazy? All my friends say it’s totally life-changing. If you’re over fifty, there’s kind of a shame factor though, right? The Madonna Syndrome? I mean, no one wants to be pathetic. But apparently I still need to do my counterculture, rich-hippie thing."
"Love me a rich hippie," said Dusty. "So you did ayahuasca?"
"Not ayahuasca, mushrooms. I’m fucking terrified of ayahuasca! I do mushrooms with this amazing herbalist and bruja, in Taos. I try to do it every three years. You know, for a tune-up with the Goddess."
"On the solstice?" said Larissa, throwing in.
"Uh huh. It was amazing."
"What happened?" said Dusty, eyes aglow and leaning in, leg pressed against Larissa’s.
"Well, it’s always — whenever I take mushrooms, there’s always this palace, I kind of go to this palace, like, where the Goddess lives. I go into this palace, with all these rooms and courtyards, and — festivals. There’s all these festivals going on… like Burning Man probably! Ha! But oh my God, these festivals, with this music and drumming. There was one — I remember there was one that had a procession, made up of this . . . triumphant battalion of women who never had children –"
Dusty didn’t flinch but Allegra did. She figured Marilyn was too blazed to register her borderline faux pas, before quickly hypothesizing that the gal actually might not know about the miscarriage. Yet how would that even be possible? Dusty and Marilyn were obviously close — plus all those shooting days that needed to be rearranged when Allegra got "sick." Of course she would have known, or at least found out, whether Dusty told her or not… it suddenly felt sucky and appalling to Allegra that she’d been too self-involved to have bothered asking her wife about whatever cover story she’d decided to use — or if in fact she’d simply told everyone the truth.
"– which was, like, incredibly healing for me because I never had kids… some of the strongest, most beautiful women I know haven’t. The Goddess was trying to tell me it’s impossible to be ‘childless’ — you know, the moment a woman is born we already have countless children, like, even before we’re born… countless children and mothers are contained within, you know, we’re multitudes. But the world says we’re less than, if for whatever reason we don’t have kids, which is so deeply fucked! ‘Have’! And they have to be biological! If you don’t have a biological child, it’s just not real! Too bad for you, you’re not a real mother! And I just, on the mushrooms, I just sort of dip into these courtyards, in and out of these rooms… these mushrooms — they’re like kingdoms or battlefields. And I remember there was this province — this ‘protectorate’ — that’s a word I totally never used before this last journey; the Goddess must have given it to me — this protectorate of villages and townships or whatever, filled with those who cannot protect or fend for themselves."
"Oh my God!" said Dusty. "That is so beautiful."
"It’s one of the most sacred places! I mean, it was to me. And it’s — I was just so honored to be there. In that presence."
"I can’t believe that you go and do this," said Dusty, in awe. "You are so courageous, Marilyn!"
"I’d never be able to," said Larissa.
"I didn’t think I could either. But if you met my guide, you would totally change your mind."
"We should all do it!" said Dusty, with can-do cannabis-vaping energy. "Like, a women’s workshop! Leggy, should we do it?"
"I love it," said Allegra. "We should go tomorrow!"
"I think it would make me sad," said Larissa.
"And after a meditation about Mom," said Marilyn, "I said to my guide –"
"How do you even remember all this?" said Dusty, still awed.
"I took notes! I had someone taking notes in case I said something good!"
"I said to the bruja — about my mother — ‘What a terrible bind she was in. What a terrible bind we’re all in.'"
"You said that? That is so incredible."
"And the Goddess had me dance with my mother! It’s like you’re literally dancing. And in that moment I was a thousand percent certain the whole fuckin’ deal with this crazy life began and ended with her. Of course it does, right? Because she’s my mother, I came from her body, how could it not. But then my father cuts in — Daddy tapped my shoulder and took her place — then I’m dancing with him and suddenly I’m a thousand percent certain he’s the one! He’s the key to the mystery! So I’m dancing with Daddy then Mom cuts in again and I’m dancing with her… everyone likes to have their dance. I remember saying that, telling them to write it down: ‘Everyone likes to have their dance.'"
Tuesday was the first to leave.
Patrice escorted her because she was worried about falling on the slopey steps. Dusty thought that by the time they got to her car he’d have booked a house call for her hair. Good — she could probably use a friend like Patrice, and a little styling wouldn’t hurt either. Marilyn and Jeremy left soon after. Jeremy had a hot date with "a special boy" he’d been seeing. (She couldn’t tell if he was being ironic.) She felt a tug of possessiveness.
Dusty took Larissa on a belated tour while Allegra stayed downstairs, sidetracked by email.
"Your house is so beautiful."
"It’s a Neff. Took me three years to restore. I was going to flip it. Pink wanted to buy it, she begged me, but I couldn’t bear to part with it."
"It’s just so gorgeous."
"Thank you. You okay?"
She’d picked up on Larissa’s distractedness.
"No! I mean yes!" They laughed. "I’m just — I guess I’m just a little nervous. Shy, maybe?" She squinted at her inscrutable hostess. "I feel a certain energy coming from you."
"And what do you think about that?" said Dusty, perversely reminding herself of Ginevra.
"I don’t know," she said. "I’m not sure! I guess I’m not used to it. The attention?"
"Well, you should be. Because you’re fucking hot."
"Oh come on, Larissa! You know you are. It’s kinda criminal if you don’t."
"I wish my husband would have thought so!"
"Not worthy, babe."
She continued her improbable docent chores as they walked onto the bedroom terrace — the architectural influences behind the unique bespoke balustrades, the months-long search for the perfect shade of ochre — but the fix was in and Larissa had gone deaf. Dusty took in the Trousdale sky and said, "Full moon." Larissa said, "Of course it is," and the heavenly body seemed to wink its endorsement of her imminent abandon. "I keep forgetting to give you your earring –" At the end of the ambushed kiss, Larissa still couldn’t breathe. She sneezed a laugh like a cork blowing off, and thought the outburst ugly. Dusty smiled like a mystic and the double felt her own wetness. They came together again but this time the moon was indifferent, a chaperone on leave.
When Allegra got back, they were dancing. Dusty was still dressed but Larissa was topless; all night long the young wife had prepared for this, inoculating herself against jealousy. Seeing her, Larissa covered her breasts in modesty, taking some comfort in the assumption the duo had enacted this scenario many times before (she would never know how wrong she was). She knew she was in good hands. Allegra welcomed Dusty’s maverick impulse because she’d been feeling so guilty over how she had treated her these last few months. There was something dangerously sexy about it too, because they were in uncharted waters. Sometimes bringing in another person was a point of no return.
Dusty changed into a robe while the others danced. Allegra kissed Larissa’s neck, watching the carotid pulse like a samba-school Carnaval — fiftysomething virgins were the wildest of tigers. She moved to the double’s mouth and got an amateur’s sloppily passionate response. Dusty reemerged and stayed where she was, to observe. Allegra took their guest by the hand and led her to bed. She draped up her skirt, tugged at her panties, and ate her. Larissa literally shouted and staccato-wept. After a while, Dusty knelt by the bed and stroked Larissa’s hair. She kissed her face and said, "It’s okay, it’s okay," like a hypnotist. "It’s just a festival. Big festival in the palace…" Then: "What was the word? What was the word the Goddess gave Marilyn?"
Larissa struggled to find it amid the butchery, finally whispering, "Protectorate."
Dusty said, "Yes!" and kissed her some more and said, "A protectorate . . . it’s just a protectorate. Can you hear the drums? Babe?"
From I MET SOMEONE by Bruce Wagner. Published by arrangement with Blue Rider Press, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2016 by Bruce Wagner.