He spent his showbiz career loving only creepy crawling stars. Then she came into his life. 4,036 words. Part Two tomorrow. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
“That’s it, Lucy. Show me some leg. Kick higher. Now, a sexy little pose for the camera. Give it your all, sweetie. Awesome!”
I can’t help but hum that familiar tune. I love Lucy and she loves me…
Yes, I love Lucy. Especially this Lucy.
Those legs — all eight of them.
She’s the best little tarantula in the biz and does she know it. How do I know she knows it? Because I’m paid to get her to perform on cue.
“Hey, insect wrangler? You ready?”
“Quiet on the set! Everyone ready? Okay, and action!”
When I found her down in Red Rock, Lucy was just plodding along through scrub and sands looking for a place to bed down for the morning. She could sense the simmering heat rising with the dawn. She also knew I was hovering overhead. I had to be careful or she might have grabbed my finger with her legs and tried to paralyze me with her venom the way tarantulas strike their main prey. You know, toads and mice and such. But humans, they don’t die from a tarantula bite. Still, I wouldn’t want get her angry and try.
Let me introduce myself. Name’s Brody. Les Brody. Never Lester. I’m no sissy. I own Kingdom Of Insects out of Calabasas, California. For the past two decades, I’ve been the go-to insect wrangler in Hollywood.
What’s an insect wrangler, you may ask? Simple, I used to get rodents to navigate mazes, snakes to coil and hypnotize, worms to squirm, woodpeckers to peck. But I found there is less competition in orchestrating moths and bees and, hell, even butterflies and cockroaches. Praying mantis. Now, that’s a specialty.of mine. So are, thrips, mayflies, crickets. All performers on the big screen, whether it’s monster, horror or sci-fi flicks. CGI might be all the rage but I’ll defy anyone to find a more realistic substitute for real swarms of living locusts released in a controlled environment or a spider crawling up a leggy blonde stretched out on satin sheets.
You take Lucy here. Tarantulas are, by their very nature, pleasant enough creatures. They go along to get along. And they don’t ask a lot of this world. Just to eat their meals on a regular schedule and have a place to birth their babies. Sex to them is a necessary part of living, nothing more.
Did I mention that Lucy is a virgin? As her manager, got to keep her that way because, hell, she’s my bread ticket. I need her to perform on any day at any hour of the day, whenever producers call and say they need a tarantula on set pronto. Don’t want to fill her mind with other obligations.
Being an insect wrangler is a crazy business. I’ve been stung a few hundred times, mostly by wasps. Can’t never trust a wasp. Nearest thing to pure evil I know. And hornets. Hoo, boy. Had my head swell up once like a balloon all because I got too close to a nest of wasps and forgot my gear. That was down in Missouri.
Spiders are my specialty. You name it, I’ve trained it. Even black widows. Listen, I’ve messed around enough with black widows to know that they can be mean just for the sake of being mean. But they’re kind of stupid. I mean, what else does a black widow have to do—except kill it’s mate?
But tarantulas are different. They care about us humans. At least, they care about this human. Lucy will come up to me on whispered commands. She’ll take her front leg, gently touch my wrist in a loving manner, then walk up my arm, sniff my armpit, cross my shoulder blade, scale my neck, tickle my cheek and sit on my ear. You heard me. She sits on my ear. Doesn’t bother me one bit. She has the run of me, you might say. Hell, I could be her sex slave. Ha!
Insects have been so damn good to my company. Like I say, I live in Calabasas. Quiet life, for the most part. Nearest freeway, oh, about two miles south of here. It’s a one-acre spread all paid for, thanks to Lucy and the others. I live all by myself in a canary yellow one-story ranch-style I built from scratch, thank you. Never married. There’s a large shed out back where I keep most of my performers. I have a sign nailed to the door warning folks: This place is crawling with spiders.
Every once in awhile, I like to show strangers what it’s like being an insect wrangler. They’ll go, “Insect what?” Then they’ll stare wide-eyed as I let Penelope—that’s my sweetheart of a Brazilian beetle who’s nearly as big as my fist—crawl up my leg and attach herself to my crotch. I watch the visitors cringe. Penelope is every bit as beautiful as any human actress, to my way of thinking. She has this coat that’s bright yellow with these cute stripes. Real stunner. She’s prettier than any Lana Turner. But the sight of her causes some visitors to shrink back in horror and duck out of the shed and never look back. I have to shake my head. Imagine being scared of an ol’ Brazilian beetle.
Lucy and Penelope and the rest, they all love me.
I guess you could call me their talent manager. I know that’s the way I think of it. Instead of collecting a percentage of their fees, though, I collect it all and don’t have the headaches of dealing with neurotic human actors.
Then Jill Farnsworth comes into my life, and Lucy and Penelope get all jealous.
What can I say about Jill? Well, let me try. She has these Audrey Hepburn brush strokes for eyebrows. Her hair is more amber than Audrey’s. And she’s not as skinny.
That first day I met her, Jill had her eyes hidden behind cat-eye sunglasses. So sexy in a 1950s sort of way. But she didn’t mean to be sexy. She’s not Hollywood, mind you. It’s just that with those sunglasses, she gave off a little Ava Gardner sass.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Jill is a cowgirl. Hard-scrabble roots with no pretensions. Not a city girl but not all-in country, neither. I guess that’s what I like about her.
That first day — and I can still visualize her dusty Toyota pickup pulling up out front on a sweltering day when the thermometer hovers at 108 — she climbs out from behind the steering wheel and stands there with her shadow stretched out longer than her along the ground. And she’s wearing cut-off jeans, mid-calf boots, a paper-thin sweat-wrinkled blouse showing firm nipples, and this red bandana wrapped around her forehead like she’s Willem Defoe in Platoon.
I open the screen door without hesitation. Don’t want her having to hit the buzzer.
“You Les Brody?” she asks behind those ‘50s cat frames as she puts one foot on the porch and studies my shadow beard. Her legs are tan and athletic. She has rings on four fingers and a thumb.
“I am,” I reply after swallowing what’s left of the Red Vines. “And you are…?”
She extends a hand and I step out onto the porch and accept it. Her hand feels crusty, like she’s been driving awhile.
“Sent you an email awhile back that I might be coming by this week.”
“That a fact?” I scratch my stubble with my middle finger until I vaguely recall getting some kind of email from some Texas grad student. “Oh, you’re the gal from College Park, right?”
“Right. A-and-M. Graduated in June. Masters of Science in entomology.” She swivels and turns her head toward her parked vehicle. “Bought this new to pamper myself. Headed straight to Hollywood and Vine and haven’t looked back since.”
“What took you so long to come out to Calabasas? Hell, it’s end of August.”
“I wanted to soak in some atmosphere.”
“Of Hollywood and Vine?” I lift my head and laugh. Kid’s got a sense of humor. I like that. When my laughter fades with my smile, I look at her again, “How’d you hear about me? If you mentioned it in your email, I must have forgot.”
“Trade publication. They had a big piece on you with a double truck. Ever see it? Got a copy in the truck.”
“Where you say you’re from?”
“So, why aren’t you out in the Permian Basin hunting shale oil deposits? Instead you’re studying insects? Don’t figure.”
She shrugs like a Texan.
Staring at her tan legs, her ponytail dangling like a colt’s tail in the pasture, she explains, “Just always loved bugs, I guess.”
“Well, don’t stand out here in the heat. You’ll blister. Come on in. I think I can rustle up some lemonade and a few Oreos. After that, if you’re still interested, I’ll introduce you to my boys and girls.”
And that’s how Jill Farnsworth comes into my life.
She steps inside the living room and removes her cat frames and puts on these bifocals that transform her from Ava Gardner to Barbara bel Geddes in Vertigo. I tell her to make herself comfortable while I head to the kitchen. I soon return with a glass of lemonade and a plate with vanilla Oreos. I take a moment while she plunks a few ice cubes into the glass and thanks me. Then I sit and listen to her go on about ticks and mites—her college specialty.
When she finishes with the college crap, I inform her, “You know, ticks and mites can’t be trained.”
She chuckles and wrinkles her nose. “I know that. Didn’t say I trained ‘em. Said I studied ‘em.”
I try some more humor to get her to reenact that wrinkled nose. “They’re also anti-union,” I quip.
But now she frowns. Damn. Makes me wonder how her mind works? That’s my problem with women. I’m always trying to figure out how their minds work? Still haven’t a clue.
“Um, you got any other specialties, Jill?”
“I just think I have it in me to train all kinds of bugs.” There’s confidence in her voice.
“Thought it would be a blast.”
A blast. They still use that word? I’m two decades past my youth and even I know that nobody says blast anymore. Maybe it’s Midland-Odessa.
After each of us runs dry on conversation, I say, “So, let me tell you a little about me.”
She perks up. “Oh, I already know about you/“
“Remember? I said I read about you in the trade publication. You’re name is Les Brody. You come from Portland — that’s Maine, not Oregon. And they don’t have tarantulas in Maine. Isn’t it ironic? I found it ironic. Anyway, the article didn’t make it real clear why you … why you…?”
“Fell into this line of work?” I interject. “Well, see, I come out to Hollywood just to see what it was like. That’s when I saw a job advertisement for a dog trainer’s assistant. Guy’s name was Applebee. Ever hear of him?”
She nods. “That was in the article.”
“Brewer Applebee was a pretty good trainer. It was his calling, he often told me. Got his first nickname Brewer from living in Milwaukee. He hired me on the spot. It didn’t pay too good. I learned I could make more money if I went out on my own and specialized. And, it so happened that one of the line producers in town became a drinking buddy of mine. He linked me up with an insect wrangler named Clyde Smith. Ever hear of him?”
“Yep. Story mentioned him, too.”
Damn girl knows more about me than I know about me. I press on knowing that I’m probably repeating my life story, so I decide to spice it up a bit.
“Clyde was an alcoholic and a womanizer to boot. And, so, after six months he up and dies in a Nevada brothel. Mention that in the story?”
She shakes her head. “And the moral of his story being?”
Sarcastic girl. I’m beginning to like this Jill Farnsworth for more than cat frames and tan legs.
“The moral of the story is drinking booze in a Nevada brothel is never good for your health.”
She doesn’t laugh.
Yes, I don’t understand women.
But I am beginning to like Jill Farnsworth.
“In here are the hoppers,” I explain as Jill takes notes on her iPad. “You hear lots of funny stories about filming with insects.”
“What do you mean?” she asks, adjusting the Barbara bel Geddes bifocals.
“Way back, oh, I’d guess this would be the mid-1950s, there was this film. It was called Beginning Of The End. Starred Peter Graves. Remember him?”
She shakes her head.
“Mission: Impossible. It was a big hit TV series. Well, anyways, before your time. The movie was about these giant locusts that attack Chicago. And from what I read, filming the insects was part brilliant and part hilarious. The director — his name was Bert Gordon — used all kinds of tricks to coax the hoppers. Even used a photograph of the Wrigley Building and he had the hoppers crawling on top of it. Everything looked good until that scene was shot. Gordon tipped the photo and damn if the hoppers didn’t slide off!”
Jill doesn’t laugh but retelling the story of Bert Gordon sends me into stiches.
“So, don’t use photos. Got it.” Jill pauses and I can see her mind whirling. “Where do you get your grasshoppers, Brody?”
“Supplier over in Abilene. Name’s Wilkie. Has one eye. Lost the other one at San Juan Hill.”
Even an A-and-M grad can tell a lie when she hears it, but she doesn’t call me out.
“Actually,” I continue, “the way he tells it, he lost the eye from a wasp sting over in Alabama.”
She lowers the iPad and cranes her neck to look inside one of my beetle enclosures.
“Oh, this here is Penelope,” I tell Jill.
“Brazilian beetle,” she says, suddenly perking up. “I love them. I had a class in the Amazon rainforest a year ago and we collected seventeen specimens.”
“Specimens. Yes, well, I only have the one specimen here in the shed. Penelope here has already been in four films. Three European productions and one shot in Thailand with a Mickey Rourke lookalike. They had Penelope enlarged about a thousand percent so she could terrorize a Buddhist temple school. The film was a big hit in Bangkok.”
“What do you feed her?”
“Seeds. Some fruit now and then. She’s a picky eater. Actually, I just started feeding her coffee beans a week ago. She’s now hooked.”
“Coffee beans,” Jill types on her iPad. “Got it.”
“Now, let me take you to the spider pavilions.”
Jill stops and scans the shed. “Hey, Brody, I notice you keep it hot and dark.”
“Only because my actors prefer it that way. Just one 25-watt bulb, as you can see. No window air conditioning units. It would be uncomfortable for them to be artificially cooled.”
We walk up to a glass terrarium. “Here’s Lucy.”
“Yes, I read about her in the article. She’s been in how many films again?”
“Films and TV shows? Forty-two in all. And she’s a regular on a podcast that this monster film fanatic does out of his basement.”
I lift the top of the fish tank and reach in my hand to tenderly scoop Lucy up from her perch. Her hair tickles my palm as I carefully remove her from the enclosure.
“Here’s my little Vivien Leigh. Ain’t she a beaut?”
Jill studies the spider astutely. “She’s smaller than I expected.”
Lucy raises two legs and points them menacingly at Jill’s nose.
“You hurt her feelings. Don’t say unkind words in front of her. She’s sensitive.”
Jill gives me a weird look and cocks her head. “How do you train her?”
“Coaxing, mostly. And being patient. See, especially with the little ladies, you got to be patient in order to get them to perform on cue.”
Jill repeats, “Be patient.’ Got it.” Then she asks, “What makes her so special? I mean, aren’t all Theraphosidae roughly the same?”
Lucy raises three legs this time and points them at Jill’s eyes.
“You better apologize,” I tell Jill.
“Come on, Brody.” she smirks. “I’ve studied arachnids for two solid years and I have never once apologized to one.”
“Well, Lucy’s different. We had this scene we filmed over in Durango where she was crawling across this hardwood floor toward this little gal doing yoga. And the little gal—this airhead, I call her — she kept complaining that Lucy wouldn’t crawl in the right direction. Anyway, Lucy just waited and waited and pretty soon the director yells ‘Cut!’ and Lucy wouldn’t perform. This went on for several hours.”
“The point being?”
“The point being that you better stay on Lucy’s good side. See, what should have been a quick shot on a small-budget indie production ended up lasting all day.”
I place Lucy back in her terrarium. “Say, Jill, how about us having a beer? There’s a great cowboy-themed dance hall just up the way. They play zydeco on Thursday nights.”
“Have another. It’s on me.”
She tips what’s left of her third Lone Star bottle to her lips and forgets to thank me.
I ask if she has any brothers or sisters?
“Brother,” she replies. “He’s in the Air Force.”
“Parents in Midland-Odessa?”
“My father left us when I was nine. Stepdad is named Vince. I don’t speak to my father and I hate the name Vince for a dad.”
“Sounds like prince.”
“Well, I’d be proud to be your dad.”
She perks up. “Hey, what a nice thing to say, Brody.”
“And, if I might say so, you’re too pretty to study bugs. You ever think of being in movies?”
She shakes her head and her nose crinkles again.
The bar gets noisier and she sighs. “So, this job you’re offering. The one we were talking about before. Pay seems adequate. Does it comes with any health benefits?”
“Not a full-time job. I’d hire you as an independent contractor. But you could write off a bunch on your taxes.”
She shrugs. “And you promise to teach me how to train everyone of your roster of performers?”
“You’ll be right there with me every step of the way.”
“Film and TV shoots?”
“You watch and you’ll learn.”
“What hours would I work?”
“Whatever is required.”
She scratches her neck above the tan line. “You’re pretty accommodating. You don’t even know me.”
“You like insects, that’s all I care about.”
Again she smiles and again I like the way her nose crinkles.
“Hey, they’re starting up again. Care to dance, Jill?”
We park my truck outside the house.
I shake my head and laugh under my breath.
“What is it?” asks Jill, glancing over from the passenger seat while the engine still idles.
’“Empire Of The Ants.”
“I was just thinking. That’s another Bert Gordon movie. Ever see it?”
Jill shakes her head and her ponytail sways.
“There’s this colony of ants, see, and they feast on some radioactive waste. Anyway, they grow into these humongous monsters the size of humans. And Joan Collins is in it. She’s great, by the way. She gets gassed by this big ant and comes under the ant’s control. It’s so bad it’s good. A real cult film. I laugh my friggin’ head off every time it comes on late night TV.”
“Sounds weird,” Jill responds. She goes to climb out of the truck but I stop her with my hand.
“It’s got this great cast. Besides Collins, it has like Albert Salmi and Robert Lansing and Pamela Susan Shoop.”
Jill now has one leg on the ground, the other in the truck. She turns her head and asks, “Who are they?”
“Actors. I mean, is that a cast or what?”
“Hey, come back in and shut the door.’’
Jill pulls her leg back in the truck and quietly closes the passenger door.
“Anyway, it was Empire Of The Ants that first got me thinking about insect wrangling.”
“That wasn’t in the article about you.”
“Well, I didn’t tell everything to that trade publication. So, anyway, I’m just starting out doing dogs and cats and horses and pigs and shit. You know, usual stuff. But here were these ants strutting their stuff on the big screen. It was great. Of course, Gordon had these giant rubber ants he used for close-ups—and they were hilarious in their own right — but he also utilized special effects to make real ants look as big as a phone booth. It’s a kick to watch. Download it sometime. But I warn you, the dialogue is pretty awful.”
I notice Jill doesn’t share my enthusiasm for cult sci-fi. “What’s wrong?” I ask her.
“It’s…oh, I don’t know.” She grows silent.
She gives me a look like I’ve failed her. “Don’t joke about them, okay?”
“Look, Brody, I want to study them, not exploit them. Not poke fun at them. Does that make sense?”
“You think I’m exploiting them?”
“Wait a sec. I thought you were thinking about becoming an insect wrangler?”
“Oh, I am. But it’s because I think it’s a great way to study them. Don’t you see? If I can figure out why some can be trained and others not, well, I think it would make for a great scientific paper. You know, by working with these insects and by studying how it’s done, it may point a light on what they’re really like. How much is habit? How much intelligence is engrained in them? I don’t want people sitting in darkened theaters laughing at them, Brody. Don’t you see? Can’t you understand?”
“Scientific paper?” I want to chuckle but decide I better not or she’ll storm off. “Hell, Jill, I make a living getting spiders to tap dance on cue. It’s a great day if I can get a mantis to look like he’s terrorizing Tokyo.”
“Yes, I know, but don’t you want to know why they are obeying you? I mean, think of it, Brody. These creatures are able to survive in the wild on their wits yet with a little coaxing we can actually get them to follow a script. Lucy, I mean, she’s incredible. I’ve watched some of her clips. They are truly amazing. Don’t you want to know what it is inside her that makes her act?”
“I’ll tell you why she does. It’s instinct combined with repetition. And it’s rewarding her for a job well done. Giving her her own terrarium. It’s all those things and a lot more. Keep her well fed and living in the right temperature. Pamper her. Tell her she’s beautiful. Tell her she gave an Oscar-worthy performance. Hell, I don’t have the time or the patience to psychoanalyze Lucy. She just does what she does. It’s sort of like Trigger and Roy. To hear Roy tell it, Trigger loved the camera. It came natural to him. Well, Lucy does, too. Gotta respect that. Encourage that. But I don’t have time to psychoanalyze it.”
“But Brody, you have all these insects right here for one purpose. Think what a great opportunity it is to study them. Truth is, that’s what intrigued me when I read about you. They never do this stuff back at college.”
“You mean you don’t have spiders doing leg kicks?” I chuckle.
“You’re making fun of me,” Jill pouts.
“No I’m not. I would never do that.” I slip my arm around her tiny shoulders. “Now, come on, let’s not get too serious. We just had fun line dancing, didn’t we? Maybe we can have another beer inside and talk some more about it. I’d like to hear your theories. I really would. I could use some keeping up with what’s going on in academia. Being out in that shed as much as I am, I don’t have time to study. I just do.”
Part Two tomorrow.