TV FICTION PACKAGE: A soap opera actor’s father visits at the worst time possible. 3,788 words. Illustration by John Donald Carlucci.
As he slathered lotion on his face and scrubbed to remove the morning’s heavy makeup, he couldn’t help imagining what his father might say about a grown man who worried over his appearance. Van blotted with tissues and and began to brush his hair, stiff with spray. He thrust his jaw forward and studied his reflection. He wondered about his weak chin and if that was the reason he was stuck in this network daytime soap opera with no offers for anything better.
"You there, Van?" A soft tap accompanied the meek voice. It was the new production assistant on As God Is My Witness. "I thought maybe you’d already left to pick up your father. I brought the scripts for next week."
"I was just getting ready to leave," Van said, thumbing the pages. "What betrayals does Alexandra foist on our eternally-dim Dr. Blair Blanton next week?"
"I’d never treat a man the way she does," the assistant replied, averting her eyes, blushing, then turning to make a quick exit.
Van scanned until he found Dr. Blanton’s dialogue, and began to read aloud: "Of course I’m not accusing you, Alexandra. But a colleague mentioned to me at the hospital that he ran into you at Capriccio having dinner with Tony Agnello, when you told me you were playing mahjong with the girls at the club. And you’ve been so outspoken about how arrogant you thought Tony was, always bragging about his airplane and his polo ponies and beach house. You never mentioned any benefit for the homeless that the two of you were co-chairing — "
Van dropped the material on his dressing table with a scowl. No one except for his sister and a few seldom-seen cousins back in Indiana, and the nation’s unemployed, was impressed with the soap or his role. His father thought Van was wasting his life.
After Colin made the jump to nighttime TV with his own weekly series, the trade papers wrote that his partner’s strong jaw with the cleft chin had "propelled him to stardom." Never mind that Colin’s pilot received scathing reviews. Van knew there was nothing really wrong with his own looks: he was tall, fair-skinned, with a straight nose. But his eyes were a muddy green, and Colin had enjoyed calling his hair dirty blond. By rural Indiana standards, Van was good-looking, but here in Hollywood he was merely average.
Van made his way down the hallway and along the back of the hospital set. He saw the executive producer, a small severe woman who ruled with absolute authority. During taping, she almost lurked behind the cameras, mentally firing someone. Van put his head down and kept far enough away to avoid being stopped. He had no desire to listen to her picky remarks about the morning’s show. He slipped through the rear exit and into the parking lot.
Van had just enough time to make it to the airport and park before his father’s flight arrived. It wasn’t the best time for his visit. But it was typical of his father, who had been refusing a plane ticket to L.A. for seven years, to now insist on coming this Memorial Day weekend. He was a man of the earth who sat atop a tractor for hours every day plowing the 250 acres of family fields in straight brown furrows. He was not a man who worried about skin damage from UV rays. "Daddy says he got done with the planting early, and he doesn’t want to be around Indianapolis during race weekend," Van’s sister had emailed. Their mother died years ago.
The sun shone with intensity this spring day. The weather had drawn Van but really he’d come because of the money in Hollywood. His father hadn’t approved of his going to drama school in the first place. Van and his father were baling hay the day Van decided to break the news. He stood at the front of the wagon stabbing the bales with his hay hook, dragging them to the back, and stacking them neatly s to form rows. Up ahead on the tractor, his father wore a contented smile for baling was one of his favorite jobs on the farm even if it was also one of the most punishing.
"Dad," Van began, "I’ve been accepted for the fall term of the drama department at Northwestern. Orientation starts the end of August, but I could miss it if we don’t have all the crops in."
His father hadn’t said a word.
When Van graduated, he moved west with unpaid student loans. Los Angeles had been a good choice financially. It only took a few years for Van to clear his debts. But now that he was solvent thanks to his role on the soap, he was looking for something better.
The early afternoon traffic was heavy. At La Brea, while waiting for the left turn arrow, Van inadvertently locked eyes with a muscular blond on roller skates dressed only in a Speedo. The teen flashed him a twisted smile. Van grinned back. When the light changed, he found the Sibelius CD: Symphony No. 5. He hadn’t been to a concert since he took Colin to an all-Brahms program at Disney Hall. Colin had fidgeted and cleared his throat during the performance. And when Van complained to Colin at intermission, his partner merely looked at him with an odd expression and said: "Have you thought about getting a chin job?”
"You worry about your acting. I’ll worry about my chin," Van replied. “Some people out here have had so many facelifts, they look like they got sucked into a combine.”
"What’s wrong with my acting?" said a petulant Colin.
In spite of the traffic, Van made most of the lights. And when the strings swelled at the beginning of the final movement, the Allegro Molto, he stepped on the gas to match the tempo. The score plunged and soared, and goose bumps rose on his arms. He pulled into the parking structure with ten minutes to spare. As the full orchestra stormed through the coda, he imagined the thrill of leading a philharmonic. He wondered if Gustavo Dudamel ever worried about his chin.
Inside the airport, Van spotted his father. His hair was now completely white, and years of working the fields had left him with a permanent tan. But, up close, his face sagged with fatigue.
"I wouldn’t slop hogs with the food they dished out," said his father. Van smiled and took the carry-on bag.
Van’s father stood close to the exhibit of fossilized wolf skulls, , four hundred in all, arranged in a matrix that covered the entire wall. That morning, over a breakfast Van no longer ate — sausage, biscuits, and fried eggs prepared by his father — the two had talked about how to spend the day.
“No Disneyland," said his father.
"We could go to a taping of Cooking For Cash," suggested Van.
"I never heard of most of those things they end up making."
"How about the Chinese Theater with the footprints?"
"Let’s go to the La Brea Tar Pits," his father decided.
Van now sat on a bench by the museum window. The displays reminded him of a long-ago family trip to the Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Van decided afterward that he wanted to live in a big city in spite of his father’s complaints that Indianapolis was too crowded. Van recalled the time Dad got lost in Indianapolis and ended up driving his tractor in circles around the downtown center.
"Did your sister tell you the news?" asked his father who now was sitting next to Van on the bench. "You’re going to be an uncle again."
"She wrote me. Are you excited?"
"The more the better. Like sons on a farm."
"And sons must work on farms?" Van asked. He saw the color rise in his father’s cheeks and looked away. Van had recently seen a television documentary on coal mining. All of the blackened-faced miners talked about safety and management problems, but even the ones who kept coughing said they wanted their sons to be miners. "I guess people need reassurance they haven’t wasted their lives."
"You think I wasted my life?"
"Well, you think I’m wasting mine," answered Van, "and I’m starting to wonder if you’re right."
His father became silent. Van’s mother would have asked Van not just about his career but also his boyfriend Colin. She’d been the first person Van had told. One night, Colin and two friends had come into Giselle’s where Van was waiting tables and asked to be seated in his section. Colin took every opportunity to flirt with him. At the end of the meal, Colin asked Van to go to a movie later in the week.
Then the day came when they both had rushed home one evening with the same news that each had landed a role on a soap. At the time, it had drawn them together.
"No more equity waiver, and no more waiting tables," said Colin.
"I’ll still do plays."
"Why? You’ve already made it."
"Playing a gynecologist on TV hardly makes me Sir Laurence Olivier," said Van, then laughed as Colin did an improvised tap dance. It felt so good, seemed so logical, to be happier for his boyfriend’s success than Van did for his own. When Colin abruptly stopped his dance and came toward Van to place his hands on his shoulders, it was if Van had been awakened from a dream.
"I think I love you," Colin said.
Van looked into Colin’s eyes. "I love you, too."
At that moment, Van thought they would always be together.
Things were so good for so long. Colin did consider himself higher on the socioeconomic ladder, since his father was a lawyer. He took to calling Van the "hayseed who came to Hollywood." But no one had ever made Van’s life so fun. Colin one time completely surprised him with a birthday party. Van had been amazed to find dozens of friends gathered around the table, standing by the refrigerator, and sitting on the countertop, all blowing toy horns and throwing streamers. There were balloons stuck to the ceiling, a huge chocolate cake on the table, and roses everywhere.
There were unpleasant times, too, as in any relationship, marked by quarreling and bitchiness. But the last party they’d thrown, the one celebrating Colin’s new movie contract, had been something else altogether. As Colin imbibed more and more champagne, he began poking fun at Van for the benefit of their friends. “Did you know he was named after Van Johnson? That was his momma’s favorite movie star.” And then “I’m surprised that Van had time to be the lead in his senior class play with all the farm chores he had to do after school."
Van had replied nastily, "Do your parents have any talent other than attracting malpractice suits? Your father’s pretty good at that."
Colin had reacted as if he’d been slapped with an open hand.
Van closed the car door and walked out of the garage. His father stood in the driveway looking out across the canyon. The Hollywood Hills were dotted with houses of every color and architectural style. His father remarked that the setting reminded him of a travel brochure from Europe. Such a positive reflection about SoCal from his Dad felt like a personal compliment.
Van unlocked the front door and announced that he had a meeting with his agent at 4 PM.
"And what the heck’s so important that you have to meet with your agent at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon?" his father asked.
"He knows I’m tired of the show."
"Now that you’re a star, you want to be a bigger star?"
"I’m not a star. I go to work in the morning, I come home at night, and nothing I do takes much talent," Van confessed. “In fact, all I do is stand in front of the cameras and read dreary writing.”
His father leaned back against the kitchen cabinets, resting the palms of his hands on the edge of the counter top. "So why’d you take the job?" he asked.
"It takes guts to be a starving actor."
"I thought being an actor and being a star were the same thing. Why did you want to be an actor in the first place?"
"I don’t know. Why did you become a farmer?"
"I was proud of my Daddy. What’s wrong with doing what he did? You always needed someone laughing at your jokes and fussing over you. Don’t they do that to actors like you?”
His father’s words stung just like they had when Van was eight: Why do you need so damn much attention? When the Welch family down the road lost their farm, they offered the old upright piano to Van’s father. Van had pleaded with for piano lessons. "If the Welches had tended to their business instead of fiddling around with a piano, they wouldn’t have lost their damned farm," his Dad replied. Ultimately, his mother spoke up so he could learn to play.
"I’m thinking about moving to New York," said Van.
"New York?" His father’s voice was like an unexpected clap of thunder. "Every time you want to change your life, you don’t have to go and change your surroundings, do you? Hell, at least it’s pretty up here in the hills." On this point, perhaps, his father was right.
The next morning, Van sat at the kitchen table while his father stood at the counter slicing a pecan roll into sections.
"I could go for some coffee," said Van. "Strong."
"No point in making it any other way."
One of his father’s first acts upon arriving had been to clean the coffee maker with baking soda, and now he put tablespoons of coffee into the filter basket and topped them with a pinch of salt. “Salt,” he explained, “takes the bitterness out.”
"Are you sleeping all right, Dad?" he asked. "It’s a new mattress in the guest room." When Van and Colin lived together, they pretended to have separate rooms.
"I slept fine. The bed is real firm."
Van’s father took two mugs from the shelf and brought the plate of pastry to the table. "I’d like to see the ocean," he said. Van took a sip of coffee, then suggested driving to Malibu for lunch.
Kiri Te Kanawa, singing a particularly optimistic rendition of Verdi’s E strano — ah fors’ e lui filled the house. sigh.
"How did your meeting go yesterday?" his father asked.
"I didn’t think you ‘d be interested," said Van. His father peered at him through milky blue eyes. "He has a television pilot for me. If the ratings are good, they’ll make it a series."
"What part do you play?"
Van explained that if he took the role, he’d be the son of a wealthy industrialist — a playboy who didn’t care about the business and whose only ambition was to have a good time.
"Perfect casting for someone with a weak chin?" Van said.
Arriving in Malibu, Van walked the empty stretch of beach, then looked back to check on his father who sat on the sand near the water’s edge. His Dad had taken off his shoes and rolled up his pants legs. Van continued to walk.
Up the shore, a boy played with his Labrador. Van and Colin had talked about getting a dog. During the summer, they came to this section of beach regularly because it was secluded and one of the few areas where people brought their pets despite the signs that proclaimed: No Dogs Allowed. Van wanted a Chocolate Lab because he’d read that Labrador breeders put down the chocolates as soon as they were born and kept only the black and yellow puppies. Colin wanted a Dalmatian. It was always here that the subject came up. Five months ago, they’d discussed it for the final time.
"So let’s get a dog," said Van. "If you have your heart set on a Dalmatian, that’s okay."
Colin rolled over onto his stomach. "Put some lotion on my shoulders," he said. "I don’t want to fry."
"Well?” said Van. Colin tensed. Something had been wrong ever since he started the movie. Van grabbed his shoulders and attempted to turn him over. "Talk to me.”
"I think we should just be friends," Colin announced.
"That’s right to the point. There’s someone else?"
Van heard his own voice quiver.
"Not a guy."
"You’re seeing a woman?"
"The girl in the movie with you? Are you pretending you’re bisexual? Does she know about you?"
"Why don’t you tell your father?"
Van waited for the vendor to bring his change for the strawberries he had purchased at the perimeter of Farmer’s Market. Van had called his sister that morning.
"Is everything okay with Dad?"
"He’s not sick," she hesitated. "But he went out so he could talk to you. He wouldn’t tell me why. I shouldn’t be saying anything."
Van’s heartbeat had quickened. Now he took his father by the arm and headed inside to find a secluded spot where they could talk. As Van squeezed past a heavy-set woman, she glared at him and then her eyes glowed with recognition.
It was too late for Van to escape.
"You’re Doctor Blair Blanton," she said. "From As God Is My Witness. Look everyone. It’s Doctor Blanton."
Van stepped back. The woman’s eyes were tearing. "I can’t believe it’s you," she said at a near shout. "Don’t you realize what Alexandra is doing behind your back? My God, you’re a doctor." She spun around and stepped in next to him. “Let’s take a selfie. Nobody’s going to believe me if I don’t have a picture."
Afterwards, back in the car, his father asked, "All that carrying on — do people recognize you often?"
New-age music from KTWV filled the station wagon. "Not if I wear sunglasses and a baseball cap. It’s my disguise."
"You wouldn’t have to wear a disguise if you were working out in a field of soybeans."
Van glanced over at his father to see if he was joking. He was looking at a window display at a shop that sold leather underwear.
After the incident at the market, Van’s father had avoided him, as if he was disgusted or intimidated by his son’s notoriety. The two had eaten supper that night in almost total silence.
It was almost bedtime when Van went into the guest room. He walked in just as his father was finished packing. Everything was put away except for his toiletries and the clothes he would wear on the plane the next day.
"Why did you come, Dad?” Van asked. “Are you going home without telling me?"
His father sat on the edge of the bed and stared down at his hands. He looked up at Van and began to speak about problems with the tractor, the cultipacker and the planter. He told Van about the bids to repair the barn roof and mend the fences. He explained how much it would cost to replenish the fields with the fertilizers and nutrients that he’d neglected for lack of cash. He admitted that the banks would no longer extend him credit.
And then, in one short gasping breath, his Dad said, "I was going to ask you for money. And I would have paid you back.”
Van put his hand on his father’s shoulder.
“If you still want the money, I’ll get it.”
When Van had been too young to work in the fields, he had ridden on the fender of his Dad’s tractor. His favorite time had been during spring plowing; he loved watching the blades slice through the wet cool earth. His father’s left hand steered the machine, his right resting next to Van’s. Sometimes, when the ground was sliced open, a small underground spring would trickle forth. But the best times were when Van or his Dad saw the glint of flint stone reflecting the sun. If his father saw it first, he would stop the tractor and Van would know he had spotted an arrowhead. A few times, Van saw the glint first and would yell, "Dad, it’s an arrowhead." They would sit on the unplowed ground, with their feet resting on overturned earth and examine their buried treasure.
"What do you think it was like, Dad. when the Indians lived here?" Van would ask.
His father would tell him, "This was all forest. They didn’t have much land cleared. They hunted deer with these arrows. They lived up yonder on the rise away from where the creek floods."
Van was driving to LAX now. He looked over and almost wished he was going back home with his father. Dad hadn’t come right out and said he could no longer manage the farm without Van, but had implied as much when he said he had decided to retire and sell the land. Van really saw the depth of his father’s love for farming, and knew it had taken great courage for him to make the trip.
"Now you’ll have more time to come and visit," Van said.
"Be good to get home," his father replied, clearing his throat. "When are you coming out?"
"In a few weeks, Dad."
Van got out of the car and motioned to one of the skycaps. Then he looked up at the sound of a woman laughing. Van saw Misty less than ten yards away, and then Colin who was a few steps behind. Colin pretended not to have seen Van. But, in that split second apparently before he could catch himself, Colin and Van made eye contact. This was the kind of coincidence that only happened in the soaps. Without a smile, Colin rushed after Misty.
"Let me know your plans," his father said. “I wish you lived closer."
"Maybe you can come out and visit again," said Van.
So weird it all was. So many roles. Van was a married doctor on television and now they wanted him to be a wealthy, young and straight industrialist. He’d been a murderer, an adulterer, a father, a peasant, a soldier and a hero. A Russian, an Englishman, a Southerner, a Yankee. He’d played smart, dumb and disabled. What indeed was reality? He’d been acting his entire life.
"I miss you, Dad." Then for the first time since he was a boy, Van put his arms around his father and gave him a hug. He decided that, in the not too distant future, he’d tell him everything.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season
2 comments on “It Takes Guts”
Beautiful story. A thin shell of jaded cynicism wrapped around a warm, positive (but not sentimental) center.
I loved this story. The author’s writing brought the characters to life