The two most important females in his film life betrayed him — the human and the spider. 3,657 words. Part One. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
The weeks pass and we find ourselves on an indie shoot in Hawaii. Some of the crew needle me about the young chick at my elbow. I put on a serious face and tell them to f-off.
The production is called Early Warning System and it’s being financed out of Hong Kong by two Chinese brothers who may or may not be Communist spies. At least, that’s the rumor circulating on the set.
The brothers are constantly in our faces. The director, who is also Chinese, would like to quit and return home but rumors persist that he could be shot if he did so.
Anyway, the brothers wrote the script, which centers around these Cadillac-sized insects — Lucy, Penelope and a bunch of hoppers — taking over the Big Island of Hawaii. The bugs have been super-sized by all of the lava flowing into the sea from Kilauea. Hey, they’re paying for this picture, so who am I to complain about the plot?
The film features Chinese actors and anyone we can get on the Big Island as atmosphere.
For our big scene, Lucy is to attack the hoppers.
The director, who I’m told is known on YouTube for his car crash simulations, is in his twenties and every few minutes spews spittle as he yells, “Don’t you fuck with me!”
I finally have enough and yell back, “Yeah, well don’t fuck with me asshole or I walk! And then where will you get another insect wrangler on such short notice?”
Jill wedges herself between me and the director. “Boys! Boys!” She then says she’ll handle everything and tells me to go grab a sandwich and cool off while she tries her hand at coaxing Lucy.
While I’m off sulking, I notice Jill get down on her hands and knees and gently prompt Lucy to raise her front legs. Lucy, of course, is hesitant at first. Why shouldn’t she be? This is the first time she’s taken direction from a female.
Besides, Lucy wants to hear my voice.
Jill is soothing and patient. That’s the word. Patient. And with the cameras rolling, Lucy walks forward against the hoppers raising three legs in a defiant gesture. Then the hoppers scramble and it’s the wildest scene I’ve ever witnessed.
The director is ecstatic. “Winner! Winner!” he keeps shouting. Springing out of his director’s chair, he comes up to me and shouts, “Winner!”
He’s lucky I don’t slug him. Bastard. But I need the bucks. So, I head over to Jill and place my arm around her waist. “You done good,” I tell her. And now she lets me kiss her cheek and she doesn’t flick it off with her fingers.
But deep down I’m hurting. Lucy took orders from Jill. That won’t do. That won’t do at all. Got to figure a way to end this right now.
“Um, so, that was good, like I was saying. But it was all, well, sort of, mechanical.”
Jill looks puzzled. “Mechanical?” She points to the camera. “You heard him. He said it was a winner.”
“Sure, but I know Lucy. She was just going through the motions. She wasn’t responding properly. I mean, any old spider can lift its legs and look terrifying but I could tell her best just wasn’t coming out. I mean, deep down inside, she is a movie star. What you saw just now was soap opera stuff. Lucy is capable of Academy Award-worthy performances and I just didn’t see that.”
“Shit, Brody, she was damn good,” Jill protests.
“Good don’t hack it, Jill. She’s got to be her best every time she walks before the camera. . And, well, it’ll take time but you’ll get the hang of it. You’ll be able to judge for yourself.”
“I don’t understand,” Jill mumbles as she shakes her head and walks off deep in thought.
I walk over to the traveling terrarium where Lucy relaxes. I reach down inside, and lift her up with my palm. I stare into her eyes. “Babe, you could have been better, you know,” I whisper. “But you need my direction. You understand, dear? I mean, Jill has you doing stuff that I had you doing the very first week we were together. Remember? But you’ve come a long way since then. You’re well past that lift leg and charge forward routine. You’re a star and you got to act like a star. You think Garbo let a scene go to waste like that? I told you about Garbo, remember? You’re the new Garbo, Lucy. Don’t you ever forget that.”
When we arrive back in Calabasas, I’m standing in the shed. It’s hot as hell, just the way my actors like it.
Jill accepts a can of beer and I say, “Let’s sit outside a spell, Enjoy the moon while it’s out.”
Seated on wicker chairs I bought at Costco, I decide to bring up the film that just wrapped. “You still hurt I didn’t praise your direction?”
“It does register with me, Brody.”
“It takes time. I mean, Lucy’ll go through the routines for anybody but you won’t get her deep down emotions to come out on camera unless you get to know her moods. You haven’t been around her long enough to know them, that’s all. She’s a complex actress.”
“Oh, I think I know her moods pretty good. Women can sense that in other women. Men are usually too insensitive.”
I can tell Jill’s jealous. Women get that way. Best I put her in her place.
“Can you get Lucy to jump on command?”
Jill furrows her brow. “Huh?”
“Or get her to step backwards on cue?”
“What are you saying, Brody?”
“Lucy’s done that and more for me, that’s all. She also had a love scene once where I actually got her to romance this other tarantula. That takes months to learn.”
Jill shakes her head. “You know what?”
“I think you’re jealous.”
“You’re jealous because a woman got her to perform and you couldn’t.”
That’s it! Time to put an end to this. Time to cut this little lady down to size.
I get up and go back inside the shed where a sliver of moonglow slips through a crack of the slanting roof.
Jill, damn her, follows me in and doesn’t let up. “Can’t take it, can you, Brody?”
“That I got Lucy to perform in no time.”
“The hell you did!”
I thrust out my arms and give her a double dose of middle finger.
“Yeah, well, you can go straight to hell!” she yells in my face.
Before I can think of a response, Jill is out the door and kicking at the dirt with her mid-calf boots.
One day I enter the shed to find Jill standing by Lucy’s terrarium.
I get the shock of my life when I notice Lucy perched on Jill’s left ear. Then I notice that Penelope is standing on her right shin.
“Ta da!” Jill raises an arm in a Bardot pose
“What in hell is this?”
“I wanted to surprise you, Brody.” Jill gently plucks Lucy off her ear and places the tarantula on her right wrist. “Ain’t this a kick? She accepts me totally.”
I don’t know what to say.
“And don’t think it hasn’t taken some work, Brody. In fact, while you were inside the house doing paperwork or off talking to producers and directors, I’ve been working with Lucy and Penelope.”
“What can I say? Chicks bond.”
“Okay, that’s enough.” I step forward and remove Lucy from Jill’s wrist. “I mean….”
“What’re you doing, Brody?”
“Fun time is over. Now, hand me Penelope.”
“Come on, give her to me.”
Jill is upset. She watches me pluck Penelope from her shin.
Then she explodes. “You are such a male prick, you know that?” Jill fumes as she storms out of the shed. “Have I heard your ego? Huh, Brody? Is the big, bad insect wrangler all jealous of girls?”
I place Lucy and Penelope back in their enclosures.
They deserve something special. I walk over to another terrarium and remove two special crickets that I’ve been saving up for Valentine’s Day.
I drop the first cricket in front of Lucy and linger. “Go ahead. It’s an early Valentine’s present.” Then I drop the second cricket near Penelope. “You like this? I saved it for you.”
Before I turn off the light and lock the shed, I whisper, “Happy early Valentine’s Day, ladies.”
“Quiet on the set! And camera….”
“Here you go, Lucy. Show some sass, baby. Kick it.”
Lucy remains motionless.
“It’s okay, dear. Don’t be nervous. Do it for daddy.”
Lucy still doesn’t move.
I don’t understand. What’s wrong with her? She isn’t sick, is she?
“What is it, baby? Don’t you feel well? Is that it? Got the sniffles today?”
I coax her, cajole her, tell her she’s the most beautiful actress in Hollywood.
Still nothing. How odd.
After a few more minutes, the director approaches. Another snot-nosed dick.
“Time is money,” he reminds me. As if I don’t know this business. His voice is low enough so no one else can hear.
“Not sure what’s going on with her. She was perfectly fine this morning. Ate good. God knows how much she loves to perform.”
“But she’s not performing now, is she?” the dick replies. “How much longer do you need?”
“Um, gimme ten.”
“And if she doesn’t move by then? Do we get another tarantula?”
I turn and stare daggers at the dick. “Look, she doesn’t need a replacement. I travel only with one tarantula.”
“Well, you have ten minutes. After that, we have to make decisions. I got a whole crew waiting and the producer is nervous. Everyone goes on overtime in just about an hour and we’re already over budget.”
During the break, I cup my hand and scoop Lucy into my palm. I raise her to eye level and have a serious heart-to-heart talk with her. “What’s wrong, baby? Tired? Upset stomach? We can get through this. Right after we’re done, we go straight home and you can rest. But for now, gorgeous, you got to perform. I mean, these assholes are on my case. Understand?”
A voice from behind curls my toes. “What’s wrong with Lucy?”
It’s Jill. She’s been standing off to the side taking notes on her iPad. She’s been reluctant to interfere — until now.
“She doesn’t seem interested in performing today, for some damn reason.”
“Has she done this before?”
“Never. With her, it’s always, the show must go on. That’s what makes this change in attitude so frustrating. I’ve never seen her like this before.”
Jill places her hand on my shoulder. “Mind if I have a talk with her?”
I glance at Jill, then at Lucy, then at my watch. “Sure. If you think you can make it work.”
Jill holds up her palm and to my surprise Lucy quickly transfers from my hand to her’s.
Jill raises her palm and asks Lucy, “What’s wrong? What is it?”
Lucy lifts a leg.
Jill carefully places Lucy on her shoulder and then takes her iPad and goes to iTunes. She selects a song by Sinatra. “My Way.”
“…Regrets, I’ve had a few….”
The song ends and Jill lets the tarantula linger on her neck before Lucy tiptoes up the neck and rests on Jill’s ear.
The director walks over and says, “Well?”
Jill confidently tells him that Lucy is now ready.
The Wild Turkey burns my throat as I remove the cigs from my shirt pocket. You know, I never smoke. Not around the shed, that is. Fire hazard. Can’t have that. Besides, my actors need to stay in tip-top shape and tobacco smoke scrambles their brains.
I light up anyway. Flicking off the ash, I watch it settle on the floor next to Lucy’s terrarium.
I got to tell Jill. That’s all there is to it. Got to inform her that I am no longer in need of an assistant.
“You betrayed me,” I whisper down to Lucy as my bloodshot eyes try to focus on the motionless spider. “What are you doing this? Whatever you do, don’t do it again. You hear me?”
“Hi!” Jill greets me with a smug smile as wide as west Texas. There’s a spring in her step, a bounce in her ponytail, Any other time I’d like the way she greets me in the early morning hours but I have business to attend to. She must be let go. Today.
She hands me a cup of Starbucks.
“Thought you should have something to kickstart your day,” she replies as removes a scarf
that reveals a tan line.
“That’s mighty nice of you.”
“Well, Brody, the way I see it, we deserve it. Seems like all we do is fight these days.”
“Yeah, we have had our moments, haven’t we?”
“I just thought we should try and make up.”
“Well, I have to admit, you’re a good learner.”
She reaches out and touches my arm. “Hey, thank you. Even for a woman, right?” She elbows my rib. Without waiting for a reply, she says, “I’ve been thinking. You know that movie we got coming up. The one with director Peter Shanks?”
“You were saying that Shanks wants to have Lucy do things she has never tried before. You know, escape from a burning structure.”
“Well, I was trying to talk him out of that.”
“Good. It’s insect abuse. That’s what it is. Pure and simple insect abuse. But I was thinking. He is the reigning king of monster movies, right?”
“And this movie would cement Lucy’s credentials as the best of the best, right?”
“To my way of thinking, yeah.” What is she getting at?
“So, we really got to impress this Peter Shanks, right?”
“Right.” I pause a moment. “You know, he’s coming out here this morning.”
“Wants me to show him Lucy.”
“You never mentioned that to me.”
“Well, meant to. Must have slipped my mind.”
I can tell I’ve hurt her feelings. Good. They deserve to be hurt. The way she’s been treating me lately. Got to put her in her place.
“Slipped your mind? Slipped your mind, Brody? Listen, here, I’m still your assistant….”
“Was my assistant.”
That cuts her deep. “Was?”
“I just think we need to have a talk, little lady.”
“Listen, Brody, nobody talks to me like that!” She gets in my face. “Understand? Nobody!”
I snarl. “This guy does!”
“Who do you think you are? Some college chick comes here and suddenly thinks she’s the world’s best insect wrangler. Well, let me tell you something, little lady, you got years to learn what I know!”
“College chick? Brody, look at yourself. Twenty years and you still live alone with a shed full of bugs.”
“Bugs, my ass! These are stars! I’ve built their careers!”
“You’ve exploited them, Brody! You hear me? With you, it’s all about the Benjamins! It’s all about making money off of their work, not yours! And what have you done for them?”
“I give them a good living! Better than living out in the wild and getting killed or eaten or sprayed with insecticide! Besides, I’ve made Lucy a star!”
“Yeah, well, maybe she’s sick of you. Maybe she doesn’t want to perform for Les Brody anymore!”
“She’ll perform for Les Brody or she’ll go back into the wilds!”
That shuts her up. Jill doesn’t know what to say.
After a few seconds, her lower lip begins to tremble and she speaks in a lowered voice. “You don’t love Lucy. Talent managers get a cut of an actor’s wages. You take it all and give them this shed!”
“Oh, yeah? Well, it’s a lot better than turning Lucy into some academic sideshow freak? Oh, look at Jill Farnsworth. Famous author and lecturer. See her on the talk shows gabbing about tarantulas and how she figured out what makes Lucy tick? Ha! You don’t want to admit it, but you want to exploit her just as much as you say I do!”
Jill turns and leaves the shed without saying another word.
Just then, Shanks pulls up outside and gets out of his Jeep Wrangler. He sees Jill wiping away tears as she heads for her truck.
“What’s wrong with her?” Shanks asks as he hooks his thumb in Jill’s direction.
“Oh, you know dames. They get all emotional at odd times. So, Peter, come into the shed. I’ll introduce you to Lucy.”
That evening, I telephone Jill and leave a message.
“You know, I think things just aren’t working out. You’re probably thinking the same, so like I said, I think we should end this gig. You still got some stuff stored out in the shed. If you want to drop by I’ll help you gather it up and settle things with a check I owe you. Well, that’s it.”
I guess I’m not that surprised when Jill returns that night around dinnertime. We don’t say much as I stand on the front porch and hand her the money I owe her. Then we head in silence to the shed.
Jill rolls up her sleeping bag and then walks once more around the bug enclosures saying goodbye. She taps the top glass of each one silently telling them she’ll miss them.
There isn’t much more I can say. She’s a good kid, I guess. She’ll be a success at whatever she chooses to do. I fully expect her to write that damn book and I wasn’t lying when I said she’d turn up on talk shows. She’ll become a famous lecturer and talk all about Lucy and Penelope and the others.”
Jill stops at Lucy’s terrarium and a look of shock comes over her. “Hey, Brody, come here.”
“What is it?”
“Lucy. I don’t see her.”
“What do you mean?”
I quickly lift the lid and scan the enclosure. My hands dig and claw and search. “She’s not here.”
Then Jill looks up at the nearby window. It’s slightly ajar. “Shit, Brody, you must have left the lid open? She’s escaped!”
We both grab flashlights and head outdoors.
“Where could she be? What could she be thinking?” Jill says worriedly.
“There’s a place I take her every once in awhile to stretch her legs,” I tell her. “Maybe she’s gone there?”
It takes about twenty minutes and the climb nearly leaves me out of breath.
The beams of light crisscross the scrub and rocks.
“Lucy!” Jill calls out. “It’s me! Jill!”
“Lucy!” I shout. “Come here this minute! I got some more crickets! They’re beauts!”
Jill looks over at me and says, “You’re a bastard, you know that? Leaving that window open like that.”
I scan the area with the flashlight. “She doesn’t know how to fend for herself.”
“Well, she’s not around here. She’s gone, Brody. You stupid asshole of a man.”
Yeah, she can call me all the names she wants. I don’t give a shit. What the hell does she know about anything? Sinatra my ass. Jill can go straight to hell.
But the reality sets in.
Lucy is gone.
The months pass in a blur and the day comes when I get this weird phone call from Jill Farnsworth. She’s back in Texas writing that damn academic paper on insect wrangling.
“Brody?: she says, her voice not quite sure what to expect. “That you?”
“How you doing, Brody?”
“Yeah? You okay?”
“House is up for sale.”
“Really? What about the shed?”
“Freed ‘em all.”
“Yeah. Sold her to a guy in Pensacola after I got out of the business.”
“Shit, Brody. I wish you’d told me.”
“Do you remember that director? Peter Shanks.”
“I hear he has a new film coming out.”
“So, I hear it features a tarantula in a burning structure.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Um, from him.”
“What do you mean?”
“He said he tried to call you but you don’t answer your phone.”
“Nah, I’m through with Hollywood. Thinking of doing something else for awhile. Now, what did he call you about?”
“He told me that the weirdest thing happened. That day he was up at the Calabasas house. You remember, we had a fight that day and I guess I just sort of stormed off crying. At least, that’s what he told me he remembered. I don’t remember him, actually. But he said he visited with you and you introduced him to all the insects, including Lucy.”
“Yeah, so? What’s weird about that?”
“Just that he told me when he got back home, he found a tarantula in his Jeep Wrangler. And now, well, are you sitting down?”
“It was Lucy. And he said they’re friends now. She’s living up at his Bel-Air mansion and he’s planning a big publicity stunt at Cannes this year. Says he’s going to announce that she’s Hollywood’s newest starlet. They’re going to pose on the beach just like Bardot used to do. He said the press will eat it up. Is he crazy or what?”
“Brody? Did you hear what I just said? Can you believe this? I warned him that you’d sue him, but he just laughed and said, ‘Let him sue! Since when do spiders have contracts? Besides, Lucy is like any other actor. She decided her career needed a boost so she voluntary jumped from you guys to me!’”
“Lucy ditched us, Brody. Guess she was sick and tired of us always arguing. And you got to admit, you can be pretty chauvinistic at times. But looking on the bright side, I now got a whole new ending for my book… Brody? You still there?… Brody?”