A civilian has a close encounter with a world famous actress. Is it an act of fate or grace? 2,948 words. Illustration by John Mann.
I’d been lucky once before when I got the scholarship. The Hanover prepsters tagged me “Feather.” And they called the kid from Calcutta, “Dot.” As if they had a hard time telling us Indians apart. They had a lot of fun with us. It’s one of the things I liked about her. She was different. She could care less where I come from. Or what I do. And when I think back on how we met it seems like a chance encounter. Random. But lately I wonder if fate played a part.
It’s only 10 AM. I swap out the igniter in a tub at Ten Thousand Waves. The Japanese spa up on the hill. I usually keep some spares in the truck. So it’s a simple fix. And I finish my first job of the day. It’s slushy in the parking lot. When I see her she’s having trouble starting her car. A rented Cayenne, shiny and white, but caked with red road mix from the thawing and re-freezing in the wake of a brutal winter storm. It’s that storm. More chill than snow and ice. A hundred-year hard freeze that leaves a trail of burst pipes from Roswell to Taos. My bread and butter. I can make my year in those two weeks alone. She throws her hands in the air as if to say, “What’s the use of even trying?”
Of course, I’d seen that wild dark mane and those huge eyes staring out at me before on movie screens. Mostly foreign films. But here she is right in front of me. Spewing a stream of curses. En Espanol. So how can I not offer to help? It’s all so easy. I pop the shifter from Drive into Park, turn the key, and the Porsche fires right up. Anyone else in that situation would feel slightly embarrassed. But not her. You can tell she’s privileged like those Texas tourists who waltz into town for the summer. Expect to be waited on hand and foot. Only she’s Euro, not Anglo. When you make that kind of bank isn’t it all the same? She’s more relieved than anything. Asks if I would accept something in return. A tip?
I say no thanks. But if you got a few minutes to sit down over a cup of coffee, I’ll call us even.
Where that comes from or how I get the nerve, beats me. But she follows me over to Starbucks. We nab a corner table. Don’t ask me why I’m not taking her someplace nicer, a teahouse with a warm fire to get cozy, maybe to impress her, I don’t know. It’s just casual. Spur of the moment. So I stare at her through the steam of my latte and her chai while she rambles on in broken spanglish about the movie they’re shooting in town. It’s some kind of modern day Western. She’s having trouble with the script and her character.
She’s tiny, much smaller than she appears on screen. She speaks with her hands and hair flying in every direction. And her wild eyebrows. They’re moving all over the place too. For emphasis. I only get about every third word, but it doesn’t matter. I’m taking her in visually.
They say, with a little imagination, everyone looks like a particular animal. If you study a person long enough, it’s not hard to come up with at least some comparison. They’re a dog or cat. Or a deer. The elders say that on a deeper, more ethereal level, the animal in question is a totem, a kind of spiritual counterpart with specific traits that describe the inner nature of that person. And it’s right then and there that I realize she’s a hummingbird.
I probably say it out loud. Either that or she’s reading my mind because suddenly she gets all quiet and still. “La chuparosa,” she says. “That’s what we call this bird."
People are starting to hover and stare. I’m worried this redneck in the next booth, who makes a big deal out of tipping his Stetson to her when we arrive, will come over and ask for an autograph or something. Break the spell. She could fly away any second.
“And what ani-mal are you?” she says. She thrusts out her chin for emphasis, as if I had met her with a challenge and she’s game.
“No one can see that about themselves,” I tell her. “It’s for other people to say.”
“Your problem is you don’t know how to play,” she says. “You don’t give up a thing. You Americans are all about your politics. So, how do you vote in the election? Which party?”
“Neither. I vote Indian.”
“What’s your name, Indian?”
Not sure how to come back after that. But maybe she’s looking for a little strange.
“Ike,” I tell her.
She bursts out laughing. “You mean like Bill Murray in the haunted house?”
I wait as the hysterics fade to a sad look of concern.
“It’s okay,” I say. “Been getting that since the fifth grade.”
Then I explain the family name. How one of my Cree ancestors was called in to look after the corpse of an old woman. It was late October up in Manitoba. But already the ground froze so hard they weren’t able to bury her until spring. So he stayed with the body all winter long. Looking after her hovering spirit until the dirt thawed and he could send her on her way.
New drinks begin showing up at our table. Freebies from the barista. So that’s how it works, I say to myself, on this side of the divide. And then I catch myself daydreaming. I imagine my ex walking through the door. Seeing me with this knockout movie star. I think about snapping a selfie. Just so I can prove it to my friends. Except I’m sure that would not be too cool. And she keeps going on about her leading man and the director. She’s involved with both. But she’s still working out how to “handle the dynamics.” Just what I need to hear.
She leans in and whispers, “It’s bringing me down.”
I can smell her perfume. We’re that close. She puts her hand on mine. And I don’t want her to release it. To lose that touch. The feeling that makes it all real. I begin to resent the prying eyes at nearby tables.
“So low sometimes I no longer want to be here,” she says.
“You mean quit the movie?”
“No, la vida.” She gropes around for words and opens her arms into a big empty air hug. Her silver bracelets jingle. “In, life.”
She doesn’t seem that depressed. Just dramatic. But I believe her anyway. Like I believe her on the screen.
“It’s only sometimes. It comes and goes,” she says, trying to laugh it off. “Like these loco movie people. You work for a few months. Then finito!” She snaps her fingers. “Asi! You move on. Like the circus.”
I’ve watched hummingbirds hovering in midair at the feeder outside my workshop. They’re very busy creatures. According to my field guide they flap their wings up to ninety times per second.
I see her iPhone go off. A stream of incoming texts and calls that she fields without losing a beat while she chats and sips her tea.
Like bees, hummingbirds drink nectar. The book says they assess the sweetness of their food, reject any plants that produce liquid less than ten percent sugar. And prefer it stronger.
I watch her rip open five packets of Sweet’N Low and dump them into her cup.
Hummingbirds move extremely fast.
She gets up twice to use the ladies room. Signs some autographs. Runs out to her car. Signs more autographs. Runs back in with a New York Times. Sits down. Pages through the paper looking for the Arts & Leisure section. Finds what she’s looking for, tears out an article, then jumps up again to throw it away. Chats with some tourists. Signs some more autographs. Sits back down. Gets up, pulls the article from the trash and tells me to read it. It’s something about another leading man she was famously linked to, an actor she worked with in Italy who’s rotting in jail for tax evasion.
By this time I have it up to here with the autograph people. “Can you give the lady a little space?” I say to the dude in the hat who finally does come over. I stare him down. He backs away.
“These fans,” she says. “Basta. I like how you protect me.”
Hummingbirds change course unpredictably.
She jumps up again when a call comes in from her producers. It’s her day off. But there’s been a change of plans. They have to rush her back to the set. Get her into hair and makeup. Before she runs off she invites me to come visit. They’re filming at a ranch out on the mesa. I should drop by for lunch later that week. She leaves a whole lot perkier than when we walked in. Maybe it’s the caffeine. Maybe she just needed to talk. I don’t think to get her number. Now I’m alone with thoughts. Did this thing just happen?
I ask around and a few days later I find out where they’re shooting. Emilio tips me. He’s a heating and air conditioning guy. Not bad with ductwork. But that’s as far as it goes. We shared the same home group a few years back. Two dry drunks. He fell off the wagon. And I’m still trying.
So it’s not like I can blame it on a slip and can’t hold back when I out and out tell him about her.
“That would be the twelfth and a half step,” he says. “Suppress the urge to get jiggy with celebrity.”
“I guess it did make me feel a little special,” I tell him.
“Snuggling up to fame. It’s just another drug of choice. How you choose to use. Or not. Your choice will change you.”
“They say it reveals you. And that’s when you get famous,” I say. "Anyway, what if I’m not trying to change?”
“Then excuse me for enabling you. Your hummingbird offers it up. You get some. Maybe. But you won’t never know unless you take your shot.”
“What does she want with a plumber?”
“Like that matters? It just is.”
Next day I drive out to the location.
I stand off to the side while they move the camera around on dolly tracks. No one bothers me. Film crews pick up local hires all the time when they’re short handed. Need to farm out their scut work. I’m just scruffy enough to look like maybe I belong.
Then I see her. It’s close to freezing, but a guy in cargo shorts is walking her over to the set. He’s wearing a satin jacket and a headset wrapped around a Dodgers cap. I watch them rehearse a scene. Once or twice between run-throughs she seems to look over in my direction and maybe nod, "Hey."
That’s all I get.
What happened to this thing we had? Not even a smile. Did I dream it?
They reposition the flaps on some lights. Hard to make out any dialogue. Or see what they’re filming. Someone yells, “We’re good here.” Headset guy throws a coat over her shoulders and hustles her back to her trailer.
I make a move in that direction, but security jumps in and blocks the way. Skinhead rent-a-cop. Huge. Bug-eye wraparound Oakley’s. Not to be messed with. Demands to know who I am. What’s my business here? I tell him me and the lady are previously acquainted. Dropped in for lunch to say hi.
He orders me to pull my Tacoma out of crew parking while he checks the visitor list. But the whole thing makes me feel I don’t know what. Diminished. And all right, I’ll admit it. Rage. So I decide to bag it. It’s muddy in that lot. I run a few doughnuts in the truck just to tear up some tracks. Leave my mark before I’m out.
Later that evening I get word my meeting is canceled on account of the pipes froze and burst in the church. More of that going on. I call Emilio. Tell him I’m loaded for bear. Ready to tease my disease.
“You medicate,” he says, “and cops will crack you again for sure.”
“Ain’t touched a drop. Yet. No DWI in that.”
“Driving while Indian,” he says. “That’s all they need.”
We debrief at Tiny’s. This joint off Early Street where we used to hoist a few. I know. Bad choice. But I’m in no mood to call it a night. I guess Emilio can’t wait. When I get there he’s already working a shot of Wild Turkey and a Stella back. All smiles. He starts right in.
“No two ways about it, Ghostkeeper. You been ghosted.”
“Not sure how to take that. Amigo.”
“Played,” he says. “You her toy, boy!”
There are certain times in a bar when time stops. Everyone waits to see what happens next. This is one of them.
“Anyone can see it. Hell, you probably made the whole thing up,” he says. “Star-fucker in your own mind.”
I’m set to bust him one. And chug that shot he’s nursing. Which of the two would make me feel better, I don’t know. But I’m about to find out.
But then I see it up in the rafters. In a corner. The rotating illumination of an ancient Bud Light display shines it up. A hummingbird, trapped in a spider’s web. Frozen in place. Like a mummy.
The bartender comes over. “She’s been up there since summer,” he says. “All dried out now. A stiff.”
“Take her down,” I say.
“I do that and you walk away?”
A few weeks later, after the film company leaves town, I’m working another job at the Waves when the concierge brings over a hand-written note.
Hola, Senor Ghostkeeper. They tell me you stop by. Wish I know you plan to visit. You wait around while they light a scene with my stand-in? This making movies is like they say. Watching the paint dry. I love to see you again. If only. Two words I know so well. We wrap the film. I go to the next. Like I say. We are Gypsies! You have a gentle way, Ghostkeeper. Gracias. After we talk I feel lighter. Free. Adios, Tu Chuparosa.
I blame myself for violating my own rule. Call before you haul. And I keep going over her letter. Playing back in my mind what happened. Questioning what could have been. If only.
Then I pick up on something I hadn’t considered. Maybe it’s not fate that brought us together. What if it’s an act of grace? Allowing her to show me what I’m hiding from myself.
She thanks me in the note. For what?
The gifted ones like her are born knowing what they’re cut out for. Their true calling. No problem for them. For others it can take a lifetime to discover. Or never. For me it’s been lurking there all along. Written into my name. Like DNA. An imprint waiting to be decoded.
The first snow is falling early this year. It’s October. A single hummingbird keeps returning to my feeder. All the others are long gone. Flying south. It snows throughout the night. And every day I still see her at dawn. Like clockwork. This tiny bird buzzing and flitting around the feeder. Ignoring winter. With the big flakes descending around her, she’s illuminated in a burst of pink by the fading rays of the sun. Looks like a Chinese painting. I keep refilling the feeder with sugar water. But it gets to the point where I’m worried I’m keeping this lone hummingbird from migrating. So I go back to my field guide. I feel better when I read that a hummingbird knows precisely when to leave for warmer climates. Based not on temperature, but on light and the length of day.
The next morning I go to the feeder. She’s gone.
I’m waiting in line at the checkout counter at Albertson’s when I see that perfectly proportioned face. It’s the dark brown eyes that draw you in. She’s on the cover of People. Her big hair pulled back in a tight bun. Eyes like the hummingbird. Still for the moment. But tense and watchful. Acutely observing her surroundings. Poised for flight. The cover story is about a car crash that killed her when she sailed off the Yungas road in Bolivia. It’s a steep mountain highway so notorious for deadly accidents, they call it El Camino de la Muerte. Police say the conditions were dry and clear. No skid marks. So they can’t rule out suicide.
Either way, I’m relieved for her now. And grateful. Maybe I’ll take some time off. Head up to Peg City. Get back in touch with my people.
When the film comes out there’s talk about awards. I don’t usually follow that stuff. And to tell you the truth I didn’t think I could get myself to go see it. Not sure I could handle it. But it’s a slow Wednesday and a re-pipe cancels at the last minute. So, in the middle of the afternoon I sit there by myself. No one else in the theater. Just me watching her up on the screen. She’s only an image flickering in the dark. But she’s as glowing and full of life as the day I met her.
This short story first posted here on December 14, 2015.