A struggling actor has a career epiphany made possible by a pooch with an unexpected plan. 2,377 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I was in the bathtub about to slide the straightedge into my wrist when I heard Marlon Brando call out, “Don’t do it, Paul.”
“Ronnie?” I called back in a voice that alarmed me when I heard it. Ronnie, the closest thing I have to a friend, is an impressionist. I thought maybe Providence had made him afraid for me and sent him, like the angel Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life.
“It’s not Ronnie. Come here, I want to talk to you.”
I laid down the blade on the side of the bathtub, pulled my body out and sloshed into the main room of my studio apartment. I didn’t bother drying or covering myself. If it’s Ronnie, who cares. If it’s the ghost of Marlon Brando, let me present myself as God made me.
I didn’t see Marlon Brando or his ghost in my apartment. Only Bella, gazing up at me from the kitchen area faithfully and – I knew her so well – hungrily. I stared at my dog. A mutt, delicate, pure white, forty pounds give or take, her fur hanging down her sides long and fine but, on her head and face, short. I’d almost left her alone in the world, my personal Old Yeller to whimper endlessly over my grave. I scratched her behind an ear and sobbed as I pulled her head against mine. I’d bathed her recently and she smelled like vanilla cookies.
“I love you too, Paul,” she said in Brando’s voice. Her mouth moved, like the talking dog in Babe. She glanced behind herself and added, again in Brando’s voice, “Jeez, I wish I had balls to lick.”
As an actor, I knew there’s a time to stop thinking and go with my gut to wherever it takes me. So I went with my impulse. If my subconscious or life force or whatever you want to call it had commandeered my love and respect for the greatest actor who ever lived in order to stop me from killing myself – in other words, if I’d gone crazy – so be it. If my four-year-old mongrel was actually talking to me, fuck it, I’d earned it with my dedication to her. Either way, I felt strongly I had nothing to lose.
“Everyone gets desperate and afraid,” said Bella/Brando. “Look at me.”
Then Bella started to sob. No tears, just sounds, sounds like Brando’s character in Last Tango – also Paul! – made over his dead wife laid out on that garish bed of flowers. I remembered Brando saying he’d never do a part again where he had to dredge up profound emotions like in that scene, he didn’t want to feel that kind of pain. The feelings were real to him, he wasn’t pretending, and goddamn if it didn’t show. I strained for that depth of feeling in my own work and in my life, too. I’d seen Last Tango at least twenty times.
Now Marlon Brando, if it was him, was feeling that kind of pain. I hugged Bella, clutched her, consoled her, and she was consoling me, too. After a few minutes she pulled herself together and said, “Got any food?”
Bella had gotten chubby and the extra weight threatened her joints and her health in general so I’d had her on a diet. But along with her kibble I now gave her a huge chunk of steak, medium rare. While she scarfed it down with masculine grunts and – no disrespect to Mr. Brando – unusual fervor, I contemplated Marlon Brando, acting, and me. In the eleven years since I’d graduated from Julliard, I’d learned to live with failure, frustration, humiliation, poverty and anonymity, at least until a few minutes earlier. I was 33-years-old. I had classically handsome features and a deep voice but was getting only small character parts for money and doing Shakespeare for love. No girlfriend, I was too focused on my craft. I still waited tables; hence the steak, left over from the previous evening’s gig at an industry party. My parents were telling me it was time to take a job in my father’s insurance agency – and, by the way, to think seriously about giving them grandchildren. It was hard to argue with that. Hence the straightedge.
Bella finished her steak. Licking her chops happily, she padded from the kitchen to her bed in the corner of the apartment and lay down on her side. “Bella?” I said. Nothing. “Mr. Brando?… Marlon?” No response.
I approached Bella, I sat next to her on the floor, I looked into her eyes. There was no one for me to be embarrassed in front of.
“I’ve heard you say it,” I said. “‘Everyone thinks they coulda been a contender.’” I was in fact embarrassed and humiliated, hearing these words come out of my mouth. “You were the best,” I said. “The best ever.” I suppressed tears as long as I could. “I love to act. Please help me. I don’t want to sell insurance. Help me be better.”
Bella held my gaze but emitted no sound. I waited. One minute, two, who knows… I was despairing, pathetically so, but not surprised the talking had ceased. I might be crazy but I was now safe, the suicidal moment was over, back to normal: walk the dog, eat, see a movie, envy, repeat. If Marlon Brando were to return from the dead, why would he return to failed actor Paul Quinlan?
I pushed myself off the floor and Bella said, in Marlon’s voice, “Please walk me past trees. Palm trees.”
I hugged and kissed her. I felt bad about leashing her but Brando, whom I knew hated all authority, told me it was okay. We walked up Cherokee Avenue to De Longpre Park in silence. I sat on a bench near the Rudolph Valentino statue. No one else was around. Bella hopped up next to me and asked, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare film?”
I’d heard Brando hated talking about movies and acting. Now I was talking to the greatest actor about the greatest playwright. I was trembling.
I knew he’d played Marc Antony in Julius Caesar. “I love the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet,” I said. I hesitated, then took a chance. “Probably the Branagh Henry V.”
“Julius Caesar was shit. No one’s ever got the tragedies right,” Marlon said.
I laughed with relief and at the spectacle of me and Bella having a conversation. For a moment, I pictured her as Don Corleone, with cotton stuffed in her downy white cheeks and a thin black mustache beneath her snout.
Then I saw what it looks like when a dog takes a deep breath. She said, “I died a broken man. It was fucking Shakespearean. Fifteen kids and I never knew any of them, really knew them.” Brando was mumbling but I chose not to mention it. “I was a terrible fucking father. Cheyenne’s suicide, Christian in prison for fucking murder…” He started to weep again.
I felt a jolt of adrenaline, not the good kind. Wherever Marlon Brando had been since he died in 2004, he didn’t know his oldest child was no longer in prison. Christian Brando had died four years after his father. I’m not that brave. I decided to tell him only if I had to.
Still crying, Bella continued. “I don’t know how I got here, or why I’m your fucking dog… You must be able to help me. Help me find some peace.” A couple of teenagers walked past us indifferently, meaning that only I could hear Bella talk. “Maybe because I can help you. I know you’re a fucking actor.”
That took my breath away. “Help me be a better actor?” I said.
“Not that it matters. Want some real advice? While you still have your looks, find a producer with juice who’s in the closet, give him the best blowjob of his life and hope he gives you a part. The right parts, the right agents, maybe you’ll get lucky, if that’s what you think is lucky.”
I barely heard that, my mind was racing. Marlon Brando would be my acting teacher. This whole thing was insane: what was I doing, what was the catch? It didn’t matter, I had to go all-in.
I looked at Bella, who gazed back with her usual reverence. That calmed me down, I grew somber, compassionate, and decided to use an acting technique that sometimes helped me with motivation. If this were all in my head, I would assume that whatever “Brando” wanted me to do for him, I would be doing for Bella. If I weren’t miraculously helping Marlon Brando “find some peace,” in my mind, I’d be doing that for my dog.
“Thanks for the advice,” I said, “but I’d prefer acting tips.” I said that to Marlon but I was looking at Bella. “What do you want me to do for you?” I asked her.
“I know my kids can’t hear me so you have to write letters. I’ll dictate. And take me to see Christian, I have to see Christian. You know where he lives now?”
I knew he’d returned to Hollywood to die and was buried in Washington state. “No,” I said.
“Shouldn’t be too hard to find.”
Bella hopped down off the bench. “We’ve got fourteen letters to write, each different,” Brando said. “We start now. I don’t know how much time we have.” That alarmed me, and Marlon knew it. “Your dog’ll go back to being your dog,” he said, “and I’ll go back to where I was, which is fucking nowhere. I don’t know how I know, I just know.” Bella tugged on her leash and I rose and followed her. Brando told me to call him “Bud,” which I knew had been his nickname since childhood and used by only his family and closest friends.
We talked acting and wrote letters and ate and slept for three days until the work was done. Bud clearly hated talking acting but to his credit didn’t complain. I tried to brush Bella once but he asked me to stop, preferring to be natural like Tahitians with their “unmanicured faces.” He gave me insights into my craft I couldn’t have gotten from a thousand teachers or books. I’m not going to tell you what they are.
Dearest Rebecca, Dearest Miko, Dearest Simon, Dearest Tarita, Dearest Maimiti, Dearest Raiatua, Dearest Ninn, Dearest Myles, Dearest Timothy, Dearest Stephen, Dearest Warren, Dearest Dylan, Dearest Angelique. From your loving father. And finally Dearest Christian, which was particularly painful to write down, it cut so deep. Bud could barely get through a sentence without weeping.
In fact he labored, agonized, over each letter. They were all profoundly heartfelt and had the same gist: I’m so sorry, I really did love you, I miss you, I wish you all the happiness in the world. To encourage belief in the impossible, each included information only Brando and the child knew.
We finished the letter to Christian just before sunset on a Friday. I asked Bud if he wanted to go for a walk. Bella sat down where she stood, didn’t make eye contact and Bud started to weep again. I thought Jesus, I’m getting a little tired of this, and the thought crossed my mind that my idol was acting, that he hadn’t been sincere, that he’d been playing scenes to achieve what his character needed. After all, hadn’t I heard him say in some documentary, “To act well, don’t give a fuck about anything”? Or, I thought with apprehension, anyone.
“I should’ve found Christian first,” he said. I was about to get nervous all over again about Christian being dead when Bud suddenly stopped crying and asked me, “Have you played Hamlet?”
“Someday, I hope. I’ve done Horatio and Laertes.”
“Why does Hamlet hesitate to kill the king?”
I’d grown used to this, Bud liked to teach by asking questions. I think I knew exactly where he was heading this time but I couldn’t admit it yet to him or myself.
I said, “He’s a man of words, not action.”
“He knows there’s no sin worse than murder.”
“Yeah, yeah. But who told him to do it?”
I said nothing. I was losing control, my mind was in chaos, I felt my future closing in on me. I said, “His father’s ghost.”
Bud softened. “Is Hamlet sure about that, Paul?”
I was silent for a long time, then responded, “He’s afraid his father’s ghost is a devil.”
Bella struggled to walk over to me. Bud said, “I don’t know what I am, Paul. I do know I didn’t want to hurt you.” Yes, he began to cry again. “I needed some peace, you helped and I’m grateful, so grateful.” He collected himself and said, “I’m sorry.”
Bella looked calm, but I felt a horrible sense of dread. My beloved dog collapsed and died before I could kneel to hold her.
I didn’t leave my apartment for two weeks. Then I sent the letters anyway. I went to auditions with a new sense of purpose and hope but got nowhere. One day I was serving at a party and the producer of a major action franchise was present. Everyone knew he was gay. It was easy to seduce him, especially since I’d become a better actor. Going down on him was tough at first, but I pretended I was acting and it got better. He didn’t offer me a part but it seemed promising so the next night I went down on him again. The third night I understood that I liked him and it. Now I have my pick of lead roles, at least for the moment.
Was “Marlon Brando” a devil? An angel? Did he care about me or was he acting like he cared? Was he a figment of my imagination, a creation of my desperation? Was he a device that my subconscious used to tell me I was wrong about the kind of person I should love?
I’m rich and I’m famous. I have a boyfriend who says he loves me and who I think I might love. Bella died before my eyes but I have another dog. I ask myself, over and over, what is success?
This short story first posted here on May 2, 2016.