She was a nasty vengeful Hollywood publicist. It’s hard to change even after retirement. 2,571 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The children at Franklin Elementary School in Santa Monica waved to the aging woman as she passed by their playground every morning at ten. Wearing a sun hat and denim sneakers, she reminded them of a grandmother. They had no way of knowing that she had been, until recently, the most feared woman in Hollywood.
The name Kit Perkins used to bring on a sickly dread among the studio executives who had to deal with her. She had been the first publicist to recognize the power of celebrity in modern culture. Kit understood that if you controlled the star, you could control the story. So she had ridden herd on an enviable movie posse, forcing print and TV journalists to sign over writer approval, photo approval, and quote approval. And, of course, to make her clients always the cover story.
Along with control, vengeance was her mantra. “Don’t cross me,” Kit used to warn people, “because I’ll get you in the end.” Raised on a West Texas ranch by an alcoholic father and an Avon Lady mother, Kit learned early on to take care of herself. At ten her father taught her how kill the rattlesnakes that turned up in the backyard; after that, the Hollywood publicity wars were low cotton to her. Asked one time how it felt to be called “tough as nails.” She replied, “Untrue. After all, nails bend.”
Her game began to go south when the trifecta of social media, the paparazzi and tabloid TV took over coverage of Hollywood stars 24/7. “You can’t control anything anymore,” complained Kit.
The buyout offer came at the right time. Kit never thought she’d enjoy being idle, but now it thrilled her to wave to some schoolchildren. She had divorced her husband twenty years ago, her two sons had their own lives, the stars never called her anymore, and three years ago she quietly ended the discrete relationship with a female tennis player that had lasted for over a decade. For the first time in her life, Kit was responsible for no one but herself. The surprise was how much she enjoyed it.
Walking towards her home, she saw a large manila envelope resting against the front door. She reached inside and pulled out a set of galley proofs entitled Jury Of One. There was a note attached:
Dear Kit, Can you read this and have lunch with me tomorrow at one? Been missing you. Love, Van.
That bastard, she thought as she leafed through the manuscript. Just like him to pop up out of nowhere. Van Stevens had been Kit’s greatest accomplishment as a publicist. He had come to her as a client after starring in a series of teenage exploitation movies, explaining that he wanted to break into quality films and create an adult image for himself. With Kit’s iron fist behind him, he moved from Tiger Beat to Vanity Fair, and starred in Scorsese and Spielberg films. He also married a succession of ever more glamorous actresses. As the country fell in love with him, Van and Kit bonded like younger brother and older sister.
And then suddenly, twelve years into the relationship, Van’s business manager told Kit that “Van is looking to go a different way.” The publicist knew what that meant: his third wife, Miranda, an Italian shrew who had taken an instant dislike to Kit when they met at Cannes, believed she knew what was best for Van. She also believed in a religion preaching that the use of herbs and high colonics would lead to world peace. Van dropped Kit, joined the cult, and then had to reply to Matt Lauer whether it was true a good bowel movement could end the Iraq War.
Kit howled at that. But it didn’t make up for the hurt Van had caused her. Worse, it marked the start of an exit of stars from Kit’s company. The publicist kept working with the stars she had left until her buyout came.
And now this! The bastard wanted her to read a book and have lunch with him. But, against her best instincts, Kit was intrigued. She settled into an armchair with the manuscript that afternoon, earplugs in place to block out the endless yip yip yip of that damn dog next door.
She finished the book just before midnight, filled with respect for what it managed to pull off. Jury Of One was a legal thriller cleverly interwoven with moral and emotional issues. A middle-aged attorney, now drunk and working as a public defender, inherits the case of a poor mill town girl who claims she has been raped by a group of rich fraternity boys. It was all there: the individual taking on the system, the conflict between rich and poor, the politics of rape, and, since the hero had become an alcoholic after his son overdosed, redemption. Basically, it was The Verdict with torn panties. It couldn’t miss. Kit knew this was the role that would finally bring Van the Academy Award that had so long eluded him.
The next morning, she marched into the kitchen and whipped up a pan of blueberry muffins and then headed upstairs for a quick shower. At one p.m., a sleek black Bentley pulled up to her house. Kit opened the front door to see Van bounding up the steps, a hank of his thick blond hair hanging over one eye, a huge smiled brightening his face.
“It’s been so long,” he said, hugging her.
“Longer than that,” replied Kit. “Come on in.”
“I’ve never been in your home.”
“Let me grab my purse,” she said as Van followed her into the kitchen.
“Oh, wow, blueberry muffins.”
Kit slapped his hand away from the tray. “Don’t touch. Those are for a church bake sale.”
“Do you believe in God now?”
“Let’s just say I believe in blueberry muffins and I like the people I meet there.”
She marveled at his ability to converse as if he had never stabbed her in the back and left her to bleed to death in the trades.
“Does that dog ever shut up? Damn,” he remarked.
“Do you still have those Russian Wolfhounds you were so crazy about?” she asked.
“I had to put them down. They bothered Miranda.”
“That’s a shame. I know how you loved them.”
“So then I put Miranda down,” he joked with a lopsided grin.
“Probably would have cost you less than the divorce,” Kit replied. She was secretly pleased that her rival was gone, and only wished that Miranda had suffered a long and agonizing death.
“We live, we learn, we keep on marrying,” shrugged Van.
“You have a replacement picked out already?”
Van nodded happily. “Rita. She’s gorgeous, a model on a daytime quiz show. Very spiritual. We’re getting married this winter.”
Another bimbo headed to the bank, thought Kit. “So where are we going to lunch?” she asked as she picked up her purse.
An hour later, she was sitting in the cockpit of Van’s Cessna Skylane as it dipped to the right and circled over Zuma Beach. Moving faster than the surf beneath it, the sporty four-seater swooped and whirled over the ocean. Van was exhilarated. Kit was terrified.
“We’re fine,” Van reassured her. “I have over 2,500 hours in this plane. I’m not going to go all JFK Jr on you.” He straightened out the Cessna and headed it towards the horizon. “Right now. Just reach behind you,” instructed Van as he set the controls on automatic.
Kit reached behind her and found two thermal pacs. Van pulled out individual tray tables for both of them. “My cook prepared this lunch for us this morning,” he said as he pulled out a plate containing a steak and bake. “New York strip and a potato with beluga caviar,” he said proudly.
“My Lord,” marveled Kit, thinking it was becoming harder to hate Van. “What’s the occasion?”
“We’ll get to that. Now reach back again and you should find a chilled split of champagne for you. I’m driving.” Van popped the cork on the bottle and poured Kit a glass. Then they mock toasted. “To us,” he said.
“Did you read the book?” asked Van as he dug into his meat.
The sky was flying rapidly by Kit, a vast blue screen that happened to be real. “Yes, I did. I liked it a lot. Are you going to do it?”
“Looks that way. Sony has optioned it for me and we’ve got an offer out to David Mamet to do the screenplay.”
Van shot her his big grin, the one he saved for close-ups. “Me. I figure this is the time for me to make my move. I’ve always wanted to be Beatty and Redford, direct and act, make the whole picture my own.”
“Then here’s to you,” said Kit as she drained her glass.
He wasn’t going to ask her to publicize this, was he? Because she wouldn’t go back to that, not for anything.
“You know, Kit,” Van continued, scooping the soft white of the potato out of its skin, “you’ve never won an Academy Award.”
“Well, I’ve never really needed one. Besides, publicists can’t win one.”
“What if I asked you to go beyond publicity on tis film?”
“If you think I’m going to play your mother…”
They both laughed and then Van put his hand on Kit’s arm. Now he was really working her with his grin and his touch.
“Kit, I’d like you to produce this movie for me. I think you’re more than ready to do it.”
She took it in slowly. Produce a movie. The big enchilada. The thing everyone in town wants, especially with a bankable actor attached to star and direct.
“But you have your brother,” she protested, referring to Roger who’d produced Van’s last three films.
“He’s a lightweight and we both know it. He just cozies up to the creative executives while we’re shooting. If I’m going to star and direct, I need someone who really has my back, who can fight my battles, who will scare the hell out of anyone who tries to cross me.”
“And you think that’s me?”
“Sure do, Ma’am,” he said in a parody of the voice he had used for his young teen roles. Was this his way of making up to her? To hand her a dream job after he had publicly betrayed her years ago?
“You and I were a team,” he continued. “I need that team back in place to make this movie work. Besides, when you produce a movie, there’s lots of money to play with. We can do stuff like this, steak dinners over the Pacific. It all becomes part of production. I’ll offer you a million to do the job, but I’ll show you how to walk away with a lot more.”
Kit settled back in her seat as Van turned the plane towards shore. She concentrated on the specks that grew into skyscrapers and the squiggly lines that become major roads because she didn’t know how to answer him. His proposition was overwhelming her. When they landed at Santa Monica Airport, they deplaned and stood on the tarmac, the heat rising.
“I guess you want some time?” Van asked.
“Absolutely,” she replied. “This was…. unexpected.”
“Hey,” he said, bringing out the grin again, “life is full of surprises.”
Kit thought they’d better get Mamet working on that dialogue now.
Van reached over for her hand. “Rita and I are flying down to Puerto Vallarta for the weekend. We have a little hideaway there. No calls. No business. So take until Monday to think about it. Then call me.”
Kit managed a smile.
“Let me drop you off. You’re on the way,” Van offered.
“I’d like to walk home from here,” said Kit. “Give myself a chance to think about all this.”
“Then just think good thoughts,” replied Van. “We made magic before, we can do it again.” Then Van did something that millions of women had dreamed about for decades. He leaned over and kissed Kit on the lips. She smiled at the intimacy of the gesture. “Yes. Magic.”
Walking home, Kit was still stunned by Van’s audacity. Six years ago, he had dropped her like a stone. Now he had reemerged, bubbling over with plans for their future. And he had never mentioned his betrayal, not with an apology or an admission. And of course she’d never gotten even with someone who’s King Of The Hill which, damn it, he still was.
Kit sat on the bench across the street from Franklin Elementary and tried to sort it all out. Yes, she’d love to pay him back. But producing a movie, a Van Stevens movie, was an enormous coup for her dormant career. And there were all those extras he’d promised her, those steaks on a plane.
She looked over at the athletic field of the school where two young boys were tossing a football back and forth. As the first one grabbed the ball, the second charged towards him to take it away. But he stumbled forward and plowed into the first boy, who began to wail.
“Hey Ethan,” screamed the boy on the ground, “that’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry, Jacob. I tripped. I didn’t mean to push you down.”
“Really.” Ethan then stuck his hand out and helped Jacob back on his feet.
“Thanks, buddy,” said Jacob.
They’ll never make it in Hollywood, thought Kit as the two boys walked off the field arms in arm. It was actually quite sweet. Was it really so corny to think this way? So what if she didn’t get revenge for every perceived wrong. Maybe it was better to be friends and get on with it.
Kit reached into her pocket, grabbed her cell, and dialed Van’s private number. Cindy, his assistant of over twenty years, answered the call.
“Kit, it’s so great to hear from you again.”
“I wondered if Van was there.”
“No, he and Rita took off for Puerto Vallarta right after he saw you.”
“I wanted to give him a message.”
“Well, you can give it me but he won’t be calling in. I have no way of reaching him till Monday.”
“Just tell him I said, ‘Yes.’”
“This is about the Jury Of One project?”
“Yes. Tell him I’m in,” said Kit, trying to get used to being forgiving.
“Oh Kit, that’s great. It’ll be just like old times having you back,” Cindy said warmly. “Welcome back to the family.”
Kit didn’t want to admit it but she felt good. Warm all over. She put away her phone and rounded the corner to her place, passing the neighbor’s house. The dog was lying on the lawn. Well, actually, he wasn’t just lying there. More specifically, he was dead. Kit smiled grimly, happy that the blueberry muffin had done its job. Nasty little dog barking all the time.
There was still a little bit of vengeance left in Kit’s new world view.
She saw a note taped to her front door and read it:
Dear Kit, It was so great to see you again. I hope we can work together on this project. Love, Van. P.S. I took those blueberry muffins so Rita and I could eat them on the plane down to Puerto Vallarta. Couldn’t resist.