A TV writer watching his son at preschool also watches a TV star who could help his career. 2,219 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
I sing and put my left foot in and out, careful not to stare at Jill Racine as she and her three-year-old daughter grin and sing and put their left feet in and out, too. Two other parents do stare at her – she’s dressed down in sweats with no make-up, or hardly any, I’m not an expert — and two others decide it’s more acceptable to stare at my son Ryder, who lets out a queer cry of joy as he twists his body and jerks his left foot in as the other kids are already shaking theirs about. Two other parents give Ryder the side-eye, another glances at me pityingly. By the time my boy yanks his left foot out, Jill Racine, her daughter and everyone else have turned themselves around and are putting their right feet in.
Jill Racine must be on a hiatus week from her show, since this first day of preschool is the day after Labor Day. If Denny had been on the ball I’d be enjoying a day or two off, too, instead of not having a sitcom staff job for the first time since I started out. No script assignments, either. He got me a meeting last month but I’m sure it was a favor to him, since I had to pitch my story ideas to some lame insecure co-producer with whom I was wasting my time, at best. I’ll force myself to watch that piece-of-shit show every week to make sure the guy doesn’t rip me off, although it’s hard to imagine Denny or my useless lawyer standing up for me against the studio if he does. I clearly need a new agent but everyone knows the worst time to look is when you’re unemployed.
Jill Racine seems to be enjoying the Hokey Pokey. I hear she’s a monster. Amazing what some people do when they get power. Supposedly she fires The Jill Show writers herself, won’t let the showrunner do it, because she gets off on it. Last year some writer told me that at run-throughs she’s into humiliating her stand-in, one of the most vulnerable people on any set; even making fun of the woman’s ears, which are apparently sizable. (They say Jill’s clever nickname for her is “Dumbo.”)
Because Jill Racine is invulnerable. She’s such a huge star and her show such a massive hit and she’s so rich that she can say or do anything she wants to anyone.
As my boy puts his left hand out, I put my head in like everyone else. He has above average intelligence and we’re sending him to regular schools I hope, starting today. When the doctor gave us the diagnosis Friday, she told us not to slow down to Ryder’s speed, that we should try to motivate him to “maximize his potential,” and at any rate he had to get used to being different.
Jill Racine’s daughter is beautiful like she is, the same green eyes and wavy chestnut hair. And the cheekbones. Those fucking cheekbones.
I’ve been trying to write the spec pilot Denny asked for but I can’t get going on it. He said ABC is dying for a new family comedy for Wednesdays at 8 and that it’s right in my wheelhouse. Can’t even settle on the lead character, or what story I want to tell. I’m learning being on staff’s easier; sometimes you have to create guest characters but even then you’re not doing it alone. Now you’re doing it alone and it’s new characters, a new setting, a new tone, a new world. People think it’s all about jokes but they come last; they’re the easy part. Maybe I’ll be able to focus better with Ryder out of the house every morning and that’ll carry into the afternoon with Leslie taking care of him, unless she gets the job she’s interviewing for today, as we’re living on savings. Her job would of course pay shit compared to what I was making, and then I’d be dealing with Ryder afternoons instead of writing the pilot I’m having trouble writing. The Jill Show. Never work on a show with the star’s name in the title. Unless you can’t find anything else.
Spent most of the Labor Day weekend watching old movies – Sweet Smell Of Success, In A Lonely Place and other side-splitters — because I didn’t take wife and kid to either of the barbecues I was invited to. I was leaning against going and decided for sure Friday on the way home from the doctor. I admit it, I was embarrassed. I didn’t want to have to explain to friends what I’m doing or what I’m working on, “My agent’s begging me for a pilot, it’s coming along great, so-and-so’s dying to do the lead, ABC’s foaming at the mouth.” Act like I’m not on staff by my own choice, laugh and make jokes as if this were a Labor Day weekend like any other Labor Day weekend. Although who knows, if I went maybe I’d have tripped and busted an arm and someone could’ve felt sorry for me and hired me. Everything and anything’s a career move now: horrible injury, sex tape, alcoholism, drug addiction, getting arrested, athlete’s foot. I can’t help but wonder – to my shame — if it would be worth it.
None of the kids are staring at Ryder, just parents. Stealing glimpses, actually, pretending they’re not noticing and thanking whatever god they do or don’t believe in that it’s not their kid. Not Jill Racine, though, she’s watching only her daughter, with the cheekbones.
It’s sort of a suicide mission but I have to figure out a way to approach her. Unlike the people I avoided at those barbecues, she doesn’t know me so I can be anyone she wants me to be. Today I should just introduce myself, ideally make her laugh. You have to be her friend or make her think you are, then wait for an opportunity to pitch yourself to her. The problem is that, realistically, it could take months.
This is the first day so the parents are hanging out, and we’re always allowed to be here. But from what I’ve heard most days we’ll just drop off the kid and leave. Especially Jill Racine, if it’s even her driving her daughter instead of one of the nineteen nannies she probably employs. She’s in production five days a week nearly every week and her show’s a hit so they’re making 26 episodes. They’ll be working through mid-March. Since she’s a producer, she can stick her nose into anything she wants to, any time, so her involvement can accordion out as much as strikes her mood, which is a dangerous, dangerous thing.
She can make everyone’s life miserable. The writers, by okaying stories and then changing her mind after the stories have been broken, outlined, written, rewritten, rehearsed and punched up. The director, by contradicting and belittling him. The other actors, by hijacking their funniest lines, ignoring them or otherwise treating them like shit. Or getting them fired. Actors she probably has someone else fire for her.
The mom who was watching me before with pity looks me in the face and smiles as if to say, Buck up. The bottom line is that I can’t expect many chances with Jill Racine.
We stop doing the Hokey Pokey – snack time. That is, everyone but Ryder stops because the kid insists on getting to do what everyone else already did. Ryder puts his ass in and out and cries out with pleasure again, then “jumps” in with his whole body. The parents are all watching him now; they’re relieved they no longer have to pretend they’re not. My boy’s rhythmic cries of joy make him sound like a seal. Jill Racine’s watching him, too, without even glancing at the boy’s father. It’s excruciating. Ryder finally finishes and beams. The two teachers applaud all the kids and herd them to two little tables and gently but firmly shoo the parents off into a nearby alcove next to shelves of rubber blocks.
Ryder, a few seconds behind as always, lurches toward the only empty seat, next to Jill Racine’s daughter, and falls into it gleefully. Literally falls into it. I hope Jill Racine’s daughter’s not a beautiful little snotnose bitch to my kid.
We parents watch the pretty teacher place a paper plate of cheese cubes and a paper cup of apple juice before each kid. Jill Racine’s just one of the crowd; the other parents are demonstrating how cool they are around celebrities by ignoring her except for shooting even less discreet side-eyes at her than they did earlier at Ryder, although I think one dad’s trying to smell her. Or they’re avoiding Jill Racine because they’ve heard about her reputation, which is likely considering all the entertainment “news” shows on TV and the fetishistic celebrity jerk-off magazines you can’t go to the supermarket without seeing. They’re accurate sometimes. I know one makeup artist on a show I was on was getting paid to slip the National Enquirer information about the star’s unusual sexual proclivities, something about a gorilla mask and plastic bananas.
I suck it up and ease next to Jill Racine. I’ve pitched myself to major assholes before and I can pitch myself to this one.
Just then, I remember my dream from this morning. It was almost exactly like an old Warner Bros cartoon I haven’t seen in maybe 25 years, since I was a kid. One of the few they made that didn’t feature Bugs or Tweety or the other regulars. In the cartoon, relentless, maniacal machine music plays as a naked baby is plopped onto a moving conveyer belt and gets bathed, powdered, diapered and bundled by shiny robotic hands which then stick the infant in the beak of a stork that flies off to deliver it to its parents. Same as in my dream, except I’m the baby, lying on my back, getting passed from metal hand to metal hand with my eyes closed, a big smile on my face, my skin smooth and not hairy, my little pink legs splayed apart revealing a mature adult pud. What the fuck is wrong with me?
Time’s a wasting. I smile and say “Hi” to Jill Racine, hold out my hand and introduce myself. “Eric Ornstill.”
She smiles back, shakes my hand back and says, “Hi. Jill Racine.” It’s hilarious the way stars introduce themselves as if you don’t know them and they’re just like the “little people” they’re always thanking when they get awards. Jill, her eyes focused on the kids, asks me, “What’s his name?”
“Daisy.” Her eyes gleam as she watches her gorgeous daughter hawk down a cheese cube. I notice other parents watching us, desperate to join the star’s conversation.
“Sweet boy,” she says to me, eyeing Ryder.
He stuffs a cheese cube toward his mouth but pushes it into his cheek. Then into his mouth and starts to chew laboriously. I watch closely to see if he chokes.
Jill asks me, “What’s with him?”
“What do you mean?” I say.
Except for Leslie, I haven’t talked about it with anyone. My beautiful son needs physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, drugs to control seizures and relax muscle spasms and ease pain, surgeries to “fix” structural abnormalities and relax muscles, a lifetime of all that, and the sooner treatment begins, the better. No knowing how bad it will get or how expensive. (Writers Guild will cover some, as long as I work enough to keep the insurance). Braces if he can’t walk well, wheelchairs if he can’t walk, voice synthesizers if he can’t talk. Life expectancy won’t be affected, just life. Some actor’s teenage son who was in a wheelchair from polio killed himself the other week.
“Cerebral palsy,” I answer.
I’m able to hold back a moment then start to sob. I can’t stop, huge sobs, barks. I can’t catch my breath. The noises I make are disturbing, frightening, grotesque. Everyone’s watching — the parents, the kids, they’re all aghast. Ryder’s terrified, the chubby teacher’s saying something to me, leaning me forward. Jill Racine puts her hand on my back, I think. Now the other teacher’s putting a paper bag over my mouth. I’m worried for Ryder; I start to catch my breath for him. I ease the bag away from my face.
I haven’t completely caught my breath but I walk over to Ryder, tell him I’m okay and kiss him on the forehead.
The pretty teacher tells the kids that Ryder’s dad felt sad but now he feels happier and they can go back to enjoying snack time.
I breathe deeper and easier, and out of the corner of my eye I see Jill Racine step back into the crowd of parents. I can’t see the mother next to her as she musters her courage and introduces herself to Jill and they start to chat.
Ryder’s laughing now, he sees Daisy’s plate is empty and offers her one of his cheese cubes. She takes it and she laughs, too. Maybe I’ll get lucky and run into her mom here another day.