A mother leaves her young son to take a movie role and pays a huge price for her ambition. 3,044 words. Illustration by John Mann.
During Grace’s divorce hearing five years ago, her husband Ted described her as follows: "If Grace was late for an interview at the studios and our son George, who she loves more than anything in the world, had a heart attack, she’d wait till she got back from the interview to call 911."
As fate would have it, the judge had also been married to an actress when he was young. Ted got full custody. Things changed. A truck lost control and hit Ted’s car, broadside, at a stop sign. It took five hours for the jaws of life to pry him loose and he was confined to an assisted living facility ever since.
As a result, George moved in with Grace full time.
Since his upcoming birthday, his sixth, was their first together, Grace was determined to make it the best ever, assuring Ted he had nothing to worry about and she cared more about their son than any interview. She bought George a shiny red-and-white Schwinn, the same one Pee-wee Herman had in Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, on sale in the Bloomingdale’s Christmas catalogue. Since George had never ridden a two wheeler before, Grace led him outside to a secure area, stood behind the bike and held onto the seat while he tried to pedal. White-faced with fear, the boy wobbled and fell but, after countless failed attempts, broke free. Picking up speed till he was little more than a blur, his smile increased proportionately to the realization of his achievement.
Eventually, he doubled back to where his mother was standing. Only Grace wasn’t smiling. She was inspecting her right hand, the one that held the bike, punctured by the metal spring that attached the seat to its frame. Having severed a small artery below the skin, she saw her blood spurt everywhere.
Since she had an audition that afternoon for the Lee Marvin part in the all-female remake of The Dirty Dozen, Grace stayed calm. She stopped the bleeding. She cleaned the wound. She disinfected and bandaged it. In her haste to make her appointment, however, she overlooked the most important precaution.
A tetanus shot.
One week later, her jaw muscles began to stiffen. After three weeks, she developed painful body spasms. During the fifth week, she had severe breathing problems. At the end of the seventh week, she ran such a high fever that she had to be submerged in ice — hidden from studio executives and producers after she got the part instead of Julia Roberts. Not till three months later did doctors discover bacteria embedded deeply into her hand tissue and was traced to soil at a factory in Karachi where the bicycle seat had been manufactured.
The second Sunday of the fourth month, three weeks before Grace started shooting, she watched a news special about an East Indian guru who’d moved to Colorado and lived in a cave. People throughout the world, from all walks of life, came to see him with mental and physical ailments.
Their enthusiasm was justified. If the holy man laid hands on you, healing energy from his body was transferred to yours, curing you instantly. They had documentation. They had photographs. They had testimonial videos showing before and after transformations. They even had a catchy slogan: "Life is a great novel and those who fail to seek enlightenment read only one page. "
If legend was to be believed, the guru could also materialize objects from his fingertips. This included food, wine and a 1971 Camaro SS350, voted one of the ten best cars of that year by Road & Track magazine, which he drove across India on a pilgrimage before climbing the Himalayas.
Grace didn’t believe these claims for a second. It was all new age bullshit as far as she was concerned. On the other hand, she whole-heartedly believed her doctors had abandoned all hope for her recovery and didn’t give a flying fuck about The Dirty Dozen.
It took Grace two weeks to wangle an appointment with the guru’s representatives. In spite of her frailty, they insisted she come to his Colorado cave alone, her odyssey considered part of the healing process. Nevertheless, Grace paid one of her production assistants to guide her through the Rockies, a trek that took the better part of a day. When she arrived, the holy man’s disciples were so upset she ignored their instructions, they confiscated Graces iPhone, iPad and Kindle, and required her to spend an extra six hours preparing for her interview.
The guru’s powers they explained with music to help actresses, who they considered spiritually challenged and unable to understand. "Every note, regardless of the instrument it’s played on, produces a distinct hue. Take a simple C scale: C = Blue, D = Green, E = Yellow, F = Red, G = Purple, A = Gray, B = White,” they said. “Because there are no flats or sharps, these shades “stay true and do not vary. The more precise the tone, the more brilliant the color. Notes an octave apart have the same hue but differ in brightness. Minor keys have the same shade as major ones but are darker. Once you depart from the C scale, colors combine and are muddled. C sharp or D flat become brown. D sharp or E flat change to orange. The intervals between A and B or B and C are different than the rest because they interject white, softening rather than darkening the tone.
They noted, “Tempo also has an influence. Rock produces a variety of browns, primarily chestnut, mahogany and cordovan. Crimson and olive typify jazz. Classical, interestingly enough, combines white with notes other than A, B and C, although no one knows how, creating shades such as aqua, lime, pale yellow, pink, persimmon, light gray and lavender. Only high speed, sophisticated spectroscopy machines are able to see and identify these colors. And the deaf. A great musician like Shostakovich, for example, claimed to see the notes when he played or conducted. He was incredibly demanding, but his skill was unparalleled; he had interpretation and control others only dreamed of.”
Grace never said a word, nor did her expression change. Realizing her understanding was decreasing the more they explained, the disciples cut to the chase.
"The identical concept applies to the human body. At birth it’s filled with the same pigments of a C scale, only starts off tinged with white. aqua, lime, pink, etc. As we age, life rather than tempo intervenes. Pain. Loss. Disappointment. Failure. Heartbreak. Shame. Fear. Especially shame and fear. They muddy the colors till all traces of white disappear and everything turns black. That’s what causes disease. The reason there’s so much cancer, H.I.V., and God knows what else in the West has nothing to do with lifestyle or the fact that Americans don’t turn out lights when they leave a room. It’s because doctors focus on the deterioration of the body instead of colors. To be fair, it isn’t entirely their fault. Thousands of years go by before someone like the guru is born who’s able to see bodily hues that don’t exist in a normal person’s monochromatic field of vision. The guru’s own body, remarkably, is filled with white light only. This gives him a strength that inspires awe in even the most enlightened Easterners – the power of restoration. He removes life’s impediments and gives you back the innocence you were born with.”
When the disciples felt Grace was ready, the eldest, who could have been forty or twice that, escorted her to the guru’s cave. As they approached the entrance, the disciple made a remark in such an intimidating and morally superior tone, it caught her off guard.
“There’s no one else in the world who can do what he does. I hope you can understand that. "
Grace nodded politely.
"He’s always enjoyed helping people because he felt he was doing more than just curing them. He was facilitating change. Nobody’s the same after their interview. When you’ve come so close to death, you wake up in the morning and realize it isn’t just another day. It’s a day that was given to you. You relate to the world differently. You can live without fear and focus on what matters most. Mankind. If one person is willing to reach out to a second, the second will reach out to a third. Before you know it, everyone’s relating differently."
For the first time, his voice was tinged with sadness.
"At least that’s the way it used to be. I don’t know why, but people in show business, instead of feeling love and gratitude for their new lease on life, feel entitled and take it for granted. You say all the right things, you act like you’re grateful, but you have no intention of reaching out to anyone. "
There was a slight pause while he tried to calm himself.
"If people don’t care enough to save themselves from a life that makes them sick, why should I care enough to heal them?"
The disciple’s voice was trembling.
"If you told me ten years ago those words would become his rallying cry, that he could undergo such a drastic personality change, I would have laughed in your face. "
Grace started to say something, but it was impossible.
"Last year, he cured a studio head of pancreatic cancer who’d only been given a few months to live. She seemed like she was appreciative. She donated money and promised to make her life meaningful. We all believed her. There was no reason not to. She was positively glowing."
He could barely form his sentences.
"The night she got home, she slashed the throat of her eight-week-old Yorkie. She stabbed her husband ninety-five times after that. Then she skinned him, hung his hide on a hook in the pantry, decapitated him, put his head in a pot on the stove, baked his heart and made gravy, sweet potatoes and honey-glazed carrots which she served to her children on Thanksgiving, a time for quiet reflection with an entree she called man meat. "
Five minutes later Grace was inside the cave, engulfed by an old recording of Wagner’s Rienzi and the stench of stale cigarettes. She bowed, as instructed, when she saw his holiness shuffling toward her in slow gliding steps, the same way she once marched into her high school auditorium to Pomp And Circumstance. For several minutes she just stood there, waiting for something to happen. The guru didn’t look at her during this time, staring at the ground as if he didn’t know she was there – although he was aware of her every breath.
While Grace waited, she observed her surroundings. It was pretty much what she expected. Everything served a purpose and comfort was an afterthought. A small metal desk, chair and futon, plus hundreds of books, paperbacks mostly.
It was all fairly innocuous till Grace noticed the guru’s bare feet, which had tattooed letters between his toes. The right foot spelled G-O-O-D, the left E-V-I-L.
She wanted to turn and run, but couldn’t move a muscle. She should have stayed home, spending what little time she had left studying her lines. At least the maid was there for George’s semi-final soccer game. She hated children’s sports. Their parents even more.
Forlorn, Grace glanced at the Guru’s face again. Much to her surprise, he didn’t have the look of most people who wasted her time. As a matter of fact, he was aglow with a love and tenderness she’d never experienced before. The longer she stared, the more comfortable she became. The more comfortable, the more her opinion of him began to shift. The moment it did, and not a second before, he raised his head and smiled.
"We spend so much time worrying about the wrong things. "
His voice was hypnotic, although she didn’t actually see his lips move.
Struggling to his feet, he took a step in her direction and motioned for her to kneel and shut her eyes. When she did, he laid his right hand on her left shoulder. Immediately, she felt a power inside her, like Sigourney Weaver in Alien, rising from her toes to her head. She couldn’t explain it, but something was changing and she knew, instinctively, she would put Lee Marvin to shame; although she never actually saw the original film.
It’s difficult to say exactly how long this went on. It could have been minutes, it could have been hours. But when the energy reached her neck, Grace felt like she was made of air. Her thoughts drifted to the fame she would, undoubtedly, have if the film made half what they predicted. She could finally afford to send George to boarding school in Switzerland. Fuck Ted!
Impossible to contain the emotion welling inside her, tears began to flow – like Debra Winger in Terms Of Endearment when the oldest son finally talked to her while she was waiting to die.
So Grace opened her eyes.
The guru was still standing in front of her, although a few steps closer. He was still filled with love and tenderness, only now he was masturbating on the shoulder he’d touched, just a short time ago, while trying to perform a miracle.
Grace ran from the cave, climbed down the mountain in half the time it took to ascend, checked into the first motel she passed, tore off her clothes and took a two-hour shower. Still feeling unclean when she emerged, she staggered into the bedroom, as she often did when she was married to Ted. Having left her mobile behind, she used the motel phone to call her agent but got his voice mail message urging everyone to leave their name, date and any pertinent information.
And though she tried not to panic, Grace was so distraught, she did something she hadn’t done in ten years. She called her mother.
She apologized, as best she could, for being out of touch since she ran away from home, and described everything, in graphic detail, that just happened. Her mother, in turn, listened politely and responded as best she could.
"I told you that you should have gone to college. "
Slamming the receiver down, Grace felt a sudden shortness of breath as she rushed for the exit, inadvertently catching a glimpse of herself in a full length mirror next to the door. It stopped her cold. She thought she’d seen a stranger but, upon further examination, there was no one else there. So, leaning forward, she studied herself carefully. Bit by bit. Feature by feature.
It took a moment, but she gradually realized the person in front of her bore a striking resemblance to the promising star she once had been.
As she continued staring at the unfamiliar color rising in her cheeks, she also realized her jaw muscles were no longer stiff. She didn’t have trouble swallowing. Painful body spasms had ceased. Breathing was normal and so was her temperature.
Unable to contain her joy, Grace leaped into the air, rushed back to the phone and redialed. This time, she called George and left a message on his cell phone without the explicit details of everything that had transpired. Just a sentiment she’d been unable to feel till that very moment.
"My darling son, nothing is more important than you. Please forgive me for all the times I should have been there and wasn’t. And know I can’t stand leaving you for even a minute now. "
Before she could bare the rest of her soul, she was interrupted by Wagner’s Rienzi.
And an amazing thing happened.
Spellbinding swells of color began wafting into the room through the open window. Aqua, lime, pale yellow, pink, persimmon, light gray and lavender. Grace could even identify the sharps and flats. She had no idea how, but she did and there was no doubt. She felt so overwhelmed, she dropped the phone, ran to the door and rushed outside. The trees. The grass. The sky. Everyday sights she’d taken for granted were completely different. She was filled with gratitude for the gift of life she’d been given and wanted to reach out and tell the rest of the world. She was so exhilarated by the wonder of it all, she failed to notice that she’d stepped into an intersection against the light.
The first car that approached nearly ran her down.
The second missed her by inches.
The third, radio blaring, hit her dead on, launching her twenty feet into the air.
When she landed, every bone in her body was broken and Grace knew she had only seconds to live. Oddly enough, her life didn’t flash before her. Nor did she think of her son. No. The last thought that crossed her mind was simple.
She hoped Julia Roberts didn’t get her part after she was gone.
As colors began to fade and turn black, it was the last thing she whispered to the man who witnessed the accident and briefly revived her.
Overcome by grief, George listened to his mother’s phone message every day for the rest of his life, obsessed with the irony that she couldn’t stand leaving him for more than a minute and then left forever.
Haunted by his loss, he never gave up searching for the driver of the car that killed her, identified by witnesses as an unlicensed 1971 Camaro SS350, voted one of the ten best vehicles of that year by Road & Track magazine.
George couldn’t possibly have known the ramifications of his mother’s death, certainly not at his tender age. If he did, he would have been shocked to learn that the best of him died along with her and it was as much an indication of things to come as maternal loss. He, too, would go into "the business" and meet actresses like his mom who would vanish from his life, a pattern of abandonment that would not only make him desperate to be loved but, eventually, convince him that he had the Midas Touch in reverse.
Every Hollywood relationship he was privileged to be a part of turned to shit.