By Chris Keyser
There was no time for basking in it. Perks Cafe couldn’t endure Ken Stagman for long before oscillating into hysteria. And he knew it. They knew it too. A single iphone camera’s shutter flash would dash the collective hope that the moment would survive to blossom to its fullest flower. So far, the general restraint had been maintained. The tension, however, was becoming palpable, and emotions were stretching thin. Then, as if divining Mary Murphy’s thoughts while she fumbled in her purse, Ken Stagman cleared his throat, slid the ostensible script into a beautiful leather saddlebag, stood, and crossed the peuter floor. At once, they began following him, no longer with their eyes alone, but with necks craned in awkward bend, and with faces bespectacled with glinting smartphone eyes. As he left, the bells on the door tinkled as they would have for anyone. Those bells, cheap tin bells on a faux-leather strap, bells no one on Earth apart from Beau, the barista, would have given a second thought, now meant one thing only: Stagman.
After the last reverberation of Stagman shock wafted out through the closing door, the entire cafe experienced a sense of relief. All at once patrons and staff eagerly disclosed their emotional tribulations whilst carrying on that collective act of nonchalance. Mary Murphy confessed that her heart was pattering like a boiling kettle and that she couldn’t wait to tell her sister that she met The Ken Stagman. Of course, she knew that she didn’t actually “meet” him, but Gretchen would just eat her own pudding if she had. Luca Disgraziato lamented, in no uncertain terms, his pitstop at the Mobile Mart before coming in for coffee. The brief, unplanned delay resulted in missing the event by moments. “The Ken Stagman? Oh, the ladies must of gone putputputputput, no?” He’d heard he was going to be in the area, scouting a film location or looking at some vacation property. He’d heard that, he swore. But here, in this little place on the way to nothing and going through nowhere. At Perks? No, that does not happen.
Perry almost asked for his autograph, but, “Hell, who wants to bother a chap just getting coffee?”
“He must get it all the time.”
“Must have been nice for him, you know, not being pestered by the local yokels.”
“Bet it happens all the time.”
The whole cafe baked in the glow of their own restraint and self-abnegation.
Beau couldn’t wait to tell them how he liked his coffee. “Just black, if you can imagine that!”
“A regular guy. Not like that Grover jerk. I heard he, that’s right, Nelson Grover, he was the hitman in that, what the hell’s the name of that flick?”
“Stagman was in that one too. Bombay Way.”
“That’s it, Bombay Way, great flick, but that Grover…”
“I heard he got paid six million dollars for that.”
“A million dollars a minute for that one.”
Tricia Yeats had forgotten he was even in that one. Someone reminded her that it was called a “cameo.” She knew that, of course, but she couldn’t recall the word at the moment.
With each new customer the commotion rekindled, the tinkling of the bells tittering “Stag-g-g-g-man” each time. Laughing with his lips, Perry suggested they block off the table with ropes and take tickets for admission. Mary Murphy scolded that was taking it just a little too far, don’t you think? But Perry only mubbled again, sucking in a mist of spittle off his under lip. Everyone in the cafe, even Mary herself, had considered suggesting the very same thing.
Everybody felt just wonderful. Later on, after the scintillation and gaiety had faded away, anyone who sat in his chair, the one Perry christened “Stagman’s Stool,” was ribbed as an aspiring movie-star. The resulting confusion mandated that the story be re-told again and again and again.
That evening, while Perry Cummings rested in his recliner, he mulled over the missed opportunity ask Stagman for his autograph. That’d be something alright. Could have told him a joke, hell, he knew a million of em. Just watch him use the same joke in his next multi-million dollar picture. No-one would believe him. Ask the folks who were there. The Ken Stagman, hell, you don’t get much bigger than him. Shorter than you’d think. Nice guy too. Seemed it, no nose in the air, but see those boots, silver tipped and everything, hell, he is Hollywood. Should’ve gotten a picture, at least. Put it on the Facebook. Damn why not? Rich and famous guy like that wouldn’t grudge a poor slob a minute for a photo. It’s like the little guy…you know. Sometimes it’s just…but the little guy gets it. Boy, that’s true.
Perry got himself so worked up about the whole thing that his wife, quietly watching him wallow over his pork chops, couldn’t remember the last time she had seen him in such a foul mood. Perry was mostly pleasant and agreeable at dinner, always making nice little wisecracks about the food. That was enough. She noticed that night that he didn’t even mention the fact that one of his chops conspicuously resembled female genitalia. She gave him that piece specifically for that reason. She was worried. Her Perry didn’t usually act like that. When he told her about his adventure at the coffee shop she could share in Perry’s elation, but she couldn’t grasp why it should make him so gloomy.
“How are the chops?” Nancy peeped across the table.
“How bout that one?”
“Like the other.”
She was worried. “Maybe we should have Ken Stagman over for dinner, since you’re pals and all.” Nancy couldn’t endure her husband’s temper any longer. She knew that it had something to do with what happened at the cafe.
“Stagman can eat it,” Perry growled, and he threw down his fork with a thud on the thick table linen. “Wouldn’t even take a moment for a picture. Rich Hollywood asshole. That Stagman.”
“You know, I’ve been saying this for years, Nance, the little guy.” Nancy was fully versed on Perry’s notion of “the little guy.” His point didn’t require elaboration.
“You shoulda seen the way everyone was just drooling over him. Stagman, oh Stagman. Christ below, you’d think, you know the little guy, Nance. And Luca, he missed him. He was showing off his new truck to the monkeys at the garage, see. You know that Luca was whimpering like a little kid. What the hell did Ken Stagman do for him? Second rate actor with a pretty face, is all. It’s the little guy who gets it. Stagman.” With a wave of his bony hand he swept Stagman off the kitchen table linen like a swatted fly.
“Of course dear.”
“Couldn’t even give a poor slob an autograph. He’s no Bob Hope, but Bob Hope, no, they don’t come like him anymore.”
“But, Bob Hope, dear. Golly, that would be something.”
“Sure as shit, Nance, he’d probably do a whole routine for us.”
Perry wasn’t hungry anymore. He was going to go out into his wood shed and work on that tabletop he’d been meaning to get to.
The next day, Perks was abuzz with speculation. By that point mostly everyone had read in the local paper about Stagman’s appearance. The short blurb included Mary Murphy’s first hand account as well as the competing theories explaining his visit to town. More than that, no one knew. Max Wade worked for The Florencetown Herald as an entertainment reporter. He also wrote the classified ads and the obits. Max sat in “Stagman’s Stool” all morning with his laptop, listening to the tinkling bells with apprehensive scrutiny.
It wasn’t that he expected him to return. He knew that Perks was probably the last place he would appear, but the nearness of the event drew him in like a tourist. He had talked to nearly everyone who had been in the cafe at the time and each gave their own account. But they were simple people, clearly unable to comprehend the magnitude of the event. In college, Max had the opportunity to sit down and interview Larry Flynt for the university periodical. His wheelchair was made of solid gold. When he asked Mr. Flynt if he had any regrets, that really struck a nerve. Max never tired of telling people that, that it struck a nerve. For that reason, along with being The Florencetown Herald’s first and only entertainment reporter, he found it incumbent upon himself alone to document the experience first-hand, and that was why he was there.
Mary Murphy crashed through the front door with her phone to her ear, and a small, dazzled purse dangling at her shoulder. The whole cafe heard: “…and I told him that! Could he possibly think…oh, hold on sweetheart.” She marched up to Max Wade who distractedly sipped at his cappuccino. “What’s the word, honey, any Stagman sightings today?”
“He is elusive.”
“I still can’t believe it. Can you send my sister a copy of that article you wrote?” (in a whisper) “She still doesn’t believe me.” (loud!) “Yes, I’m still here. I’m just talking with our reporter. Yes, right here. You know you simply must come and visit. Our town is having something of a renaissance.” (nearly mouthing) “Let me know if you need me, honey.” (loud) “Why of course I’m coming! I told you six weeks ago!”
Simple people, yes, but you couldn’t blame them any more than you can blame the moss for growing on the easterly half of the pine, or a fish swimming in a stream. That one was good. Max made a note of it on his laptop.
If Tricia Yeats didn’t have all three kids stuffed in the back of the minivan, she might have stopped into Perks for her iced caramel latte. The effort of dragging three kids, eighteen months to eight years out of the backseat of minivan just for a coffee was ludicrous. No sane person would do that, and Tricia Yeats, everyone would tell you, is an unquestionably sane person. It tickles one to picture her doing anything that is not demonstrably sane. Her opinions were opaque but secure; her education was a closed book. Not only did she not desire new opinions or beliefs, she considered any level of curiosity patently ridiculous because you could just watch it on the news. It’s confounding to imagine people reading books not for pleasure, or writing books that aren’t even entertaining. As a thoroughly settled wife and mother of early middle age, Tricia knew what she needed to know, and what sort of lunatic would need to know more than that?
She had several pairs of knee-high boots with ornamental buckles and straps; she had a wooden key hook which also served announced her affinity for wine; she had a tattoo on her foot of a shamrock, but she didn’t get it when she was young; she liked the television and music that was most popular; she drove a sensible car and had sensible opinions. She saw no need to complicate her life. Having three kids was work enough.
Her daughter, Helena, was just dropping off to sleep, while Baxter and Hunter wrangled over a tablet. Boys. Although she had a bumper sticker which read “BUY LOCAL” on the bottom right corner of her back window, the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru was her only option. No sane person would do otherwise in her situation. And Tricia Yeats was completely and irrevocably sane.
Bombay Way was on cable the night before. She just had to watch it even though it kept her up later than her accustomed bed-time. Alright, that’s not true. She looked it up on her laptop the moment her husband had gone to bed. She watched the whole thing and even paused it several times when Stagman appeared in closeups on screen. She wondered why he was in the film so briefly, why the writers forced her to follow so many Stagman-less scenes for a “cameo” near the end. He was the most prominent figure on the theater poster, if she recalled correctly.
When he did appear, she gazed with a vacant stare. She touched his lips with her fingertips. It was like when she was an undergraduate and there was that boy in her freshman psychology class. He was a little older than the others, shoulder length chestnut hair, green eyes like a wet bar of soap, and his smile. Her husband, Charlie, had a dimple on his chin. But the boy from her class had them on his cheeks. That’s much nicer, she thought. The boy didn’t look much like Stagman, but there was something ethereally Stagman about him. They both made her feel the same way, like her body was this light stuff, like seafoam, rich and fluorescent, controlled and chaotic, porous yet dense.
College was a long time passed. Tricia wondered if she couldn’t look him up. But she couldn’t; she never could. How would she feel is Charlie was looking up his old flames. It’s horrible to think of it. The thought darkened her pleasure. Of course, Stagman doesn’t count. It’s silly, really, like the time he told her he always had a thing for Cyndi Lauper, as if the very thought just didn’t make you feel like a child.
“You’re still up?” She felt Charlie’s groggy voice on her bare shoulders. “Stagman, hey.” He coughed. “Don’t you go running off to Hollywood. Someone’s gotta get Baxter to soccer practice on time.” That was a joke. Baxter quit soccer two years before. For two years Charlie had been refashioning the same joke to apply to almost any situation. Tricia always smiled for him.
“I’m coming right in. You know, it’s so strange to see him on the television like that. It’s almost like, I don’t know, like, I never believe those actors really exist. Do you know what I mean? Then, you see one and all you can think it how much they look like that guy from that movie, but it’s not the same.”
Charlie came around and sat next to his wife on the couch. He had the same mustache for ten years. Now that it was graying, it looked as unchangeable as the nose on his face. “He’s not a bad actor, but, boy, what a million-dollar face.”
“It’s exactly the same in person.”
“I can believe it. And all you got is this old mug.”
She smiled. “I love that mug.” She kissed his lips. His mustache no longer tickled her.
“Well, don’t be long. See you in there.”
“I won’t be, dear.”
She watched for a few more minutes, trying to recapture the feeling, but not only was she unable to, she found that she could no longer describe it to herself. It was the memory of a dream darkened in the penumbra of waking life.
When she pulled up to the window at the Dunkin Donuts and waited for her coffee, she thought of the night before and about Stagman, and how nothing seems to exist until it touches you, like the warm styrofoam cup she then took into her hand.
Luca Disgraziato sold his half of the family home to his ex-wife and bought a new utility truck. He’d been working out of a conversion van for too many winters. The new truck, a Utilimaster Trademaster, had just been decaled with big red letters:
Disgraziato Repairs: Let LUCA take a LOOKA!
He came up with the slogan himself years before, but now seeing it on the side of that beautiful truck, he had finally made it happen. He had wanted to have an image of two eyes peeping through two holes of a wooden fence beneath the words, but his son, Salvatore, dissuaded him. It would have doubled the price, any way.
Sal was invaluable to him. Not only was he a cheap laborer, but since neither of his daughters wanted anything to do with him, he was the only connection he still had to his ex-wife. She had grown pig-headed and new-fangled over the years, but he loved her in the only way he knew how. Eighteen years of marriage, gone. Eighteen years. And for what, he wondered, he never cheated, never bruised her up. He was a better father and husband than his own father, of that he was certain.
She’s been talking to this psychologist or psychiatrist, shrink, whatever, who’s been putting all these crazy ideas in her head. Says he doesn’t listen to her needs, when he’s given her everything she could ever ask for, he doesn’t listen to her needs. Pah! Working twelve hour days, breaking his back, his hands all knotted up and scarred putting food on the table, a roof over her head and keeping the house warm, goddamn it, he doesn’t think about her needs. That’s a laugh, her needs? His needs? No, no, no. Luca needs to be perfect man with thirty-five hours a day and the patience of a Franciscan order. And Sal’s tired of talking about it. “Give her some time,” he says. Well, what the hell for? More time to moan to her goddamn shrink about what a caveman he is? Wish someone would give him some time, but now he’s gotta pay for a dump of an apartment and alimony too, child support for the girls. Hell, he’d love some time to sort some things out, but that’s not happening today or Wednesday or six months from Sunday! And Sal makes him pick him up on the corner so as not to upset her. “Fine,” he thinks. “Have it your way.”
“Sally! Climb on up. It’s higher than the last one, huh?”
“It’s real nice, dad,” he says as he slides into the new vinyl seat. “The letters look good.”
“Next year, we get the fence.” Luca laughs.
“The fence is creepy, dad.”
“Ah, well, you know, right? Young people always know everything. How’s your mother?”
“She’s good, dad. What are we doing today?”
“Just a couple small jobs. You hungry?”
“Nah, I’m fine.”
They drive in silence.
Outside of downtown, where the suburbs border on the expanse of the countryside, they pull up to a small ranch-style home tucked away at the end of a gravel driveway. The loose stones crackle under the soft, pillowy tires. “This is it.”
Salvatore always felt uncomfortable meeting clients with his dad. He’d prefer to be left in an open yard with a rake, or clean up construction debris, or power wash a deck on some vacated rental property. When meeting with clients, he never knew where to put his hands or what to look at. He felt young and without identity, another tool in the toolbox, not a bright, strong, eighteen-year-old man capable of achieving anything. He wondered why his dad didn’t just leave him in the truck and come and get him only when something needed to be lifted or swept.
“Come on. I gotta check out a water heater.” They approach the front door and Luca knocks with three light familiar taps. “Wipe your feet,” he says as they listen to the fast shuffling footsteps approaching.
A small, still attractive woman in her fifties opens the door and smiles. She’s wearing a beige dressing gown, but her thick black gray hair is pulled up with pins and her eyes fume with freshly applied mascara. “Luca, you said you’d be here yesterday.” She laughs and touches his shoulder. “I feel like I’m becoming the plumber’s wife. You know, always the last one to be taken care of.”
“Carol, I tell you.” His accent invariably thickened talking to clients, who are, invariably, it seemed to Sal, named Carol. “I tell you that ‘if not tomorrow then the day after.’ I tell you so.” Luca laughs and shakes his head. “You women, you never know when you have a good man.”
“Well now, that’s not true,” is the coquettish reply.
“This is my son, Salvatore.” Sal shuffles his feet and nods. Carol extends her hand and he timidly takes it.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’d offer you tea, but there’s not a drop of hot water in this house.”
“I could boil some,” Sal answers with sincere intent to help, but instantly realizes his blunder and blushes.
“Come,” Luca says. “Let’s go to basement. We’ll have tea after I fix it.”
“Oh, did you hear about Stagman? Were you there?” Carol breathlessly asks.
“I missed him by moments. Sally, wipe your feet and let’s go.”
“I still can’t believe it. Just imagine, Ken Stagman.”
“You see, Salvatore,” Luca says pointing at Carol. “This is the women. They think the world has only enough room for movie stars.”
Sal blushes again and averts his eyes from them both.
“Oh dear, Luca, but Ken Stagman? Surely, it’s not everyday…”
Every day was the same. Perks was a recurring blazoned mockery of itself. The neon sign goes “OPEN,” the espresso machine buzzes and clicks and hisses, the tin bells jangle as the door creaks, the people come back, each anticipating the perfect reproduction of their very first time. Beau knew the cycle. He knew that his words were timed to meet audience expectations, that his black bistro apron must collect powdered sugar prints and steamed milk slashes as the shallow hours of the day dim into the deep recesses of the opaque night, when his reflection in the window pane begins to materialize. Everyone knew Beau. He was the guy at the coffee shop. Although there were others, there were no others. Beau was Perks.
That morning, he was the first to hear Stagman coming. No one else would have noticed, but the door opened at an odd time. Attorney Geoffrey Breen had just left, leaving his half finished crossword puzzle folded on the rim of the waste bin, and Perry Cummings had just arrived, the sharp odor of disinfectant creeping in behind him. Who else could it have been? There was a chance of it being Jolene, Rockland county’s seventeen-year-old track-star, newly accepted into Texas A&M on a full athletic scholarship. It was that time of the morning, just after the start of the school day, when she would come in, flouting her star athlete status with disregard for rules meant for those who could not run nearly as fast as she could. He knew it couldn’t be her. She had sallied in only two days before. Far too soon. Beau stared like a jackdaw at her wide, white headband which left only her sharp widow’s peak exposed. Her languid eyes settled on nothing while she slurped her iced coffee like a toad sliding down a wet stone.
It might have been Tyra. But, Tyra wouldn’t open the door like that. She would smack the glass with a sweaty open palm, and push it open as if the corner had been slightly jammed on a rug. Then he’d hear that uncertain step followed by the squeak of her cinereal ballet slippers. Nor would Luca, who’d open the door so gingerly, as if he were afraid it would slip off of its hinges and shatter on the floor. No, that was the sound of a door opened by someone who happened to be passing by, who did not leave the place they last were with the intention of ending up there, who may not have known that Perks even existed, much less that they would soon become absorbed into its legacy. This was someone new.
Although he did not instantly know it was Stagman, he knew it was someone. It was not so unusual that some stranger to Perks would hazard their way inside. However, it was just unusual enough for him to take notice instantly. In that split second between the opening of the door and turning his eyes in that direction, Beau had already determined that this appearance was special.
Stagman had crossed half of the floor before Beau allowed himself to realize who it was. For the briefest moment, Beau was transported out of Perks into the theater three years earlier. Bombay Way had just been released amidst mixed reviews. The internet sleuths had been trashing it pretty hard because the trailer made it appear that Stagman had a lead role instead of a seven minute walk on cameo. Not only that, Nelson Grover’s first attempt as an action hero was paper mache at best. Everyone agreed that he was no Stagman. Overall, the film was deemed a bloated and over-cooked remake of The Cracker Barrel Lean, a rather obscure Jinal Finalope movie made in the early nineteen-eighties.
Beau couldn’t make it to the theater on opening night, but he caught the first showing the next morning. It was his girlfriend’s, now ex-girlfriend’s, fault. She asked him if he could take Friday night off to help her sort through some of her grandmother’s things. The grandmother was dead. He made a pathetic show of agreeing to help her, but that was all an act. He loved rifling through dead people’s stuff. Otherwise, there’s no way he’d miss the premiere of Bombay Way. As the recognized film aficionado, “Beaudacious” on slopcornjunkies.net, Beau had an obligation to his near two hundred followers to provide them with the most current cynical movie criticism the internet has to offer.
The event glowed in his mind like the ambience of movie screen darkness.
“Um, for here, sir?”
“Yeah, I’ll sit right over there.”
“Costa Rican or Buzzed Blend?”
“I don’t care. Costa Rican.”
“Room for cream?”
Stagman paid in cash with two neat, newish one dollar bills. Beau felt a slight sinking in his groin as he touched them. Had he expected George Clooney instead of George Washington? He used the same money that Perry used, that Mary Murphy used, same as everyone he knew. He put the bills underneath the change compartments, where all the large notes and personal checks go, gave him a quarter and a dime in coins, and kept a careful eye on where they landed as they tinkered through the bills in the tip jar.
Beau reflected on the event with pride. He contemplated how he could casually weave the story of the encounter into his next Stagman film review. But what could he possibly be doing there? What god-awful obligations dragged him away from his world of glitter, glamour, and paparazzi flashes, of two-hundred dollar steaks, and close quarters to Hollywood cleavage, of champagne and scotch and cocaine in absolute mounds?
Stagman was an artist. Preparing for a role, obviously. But what role could he be researching for aside from that of the most nondescript, undistinguished, run of the mill slack jawed member of a city populating the most unimportant place in the history of unimportant places? Who’d want to watch Stagman playing that role? Ken Stagman as Perry Cummings? Or maybe, maybe he read his review for Gambit, his most well-known picture, and tracked him down. It was one of his best, most glowing reviews with over four-hundred hits. Maybe he came for him?
Everyone was wondering why he came. No one knew a thing about it, and if they claimed to know, they were lying. Max Wade scoured through months of online gossip forums, TMZ, National Enquirer, GabBag, FedCeleb, Truncator.com, anything, even public records and legal announcements. He read through the obituaries of surrounding counties and cross-checked ancestry for anyone dying who could be remotely connected with Stagman or his on again, off again girlfriend, Ecuadorian fashion model, Gloriana Yearling. He found nothing. There was no reason in the world for Stagman to walk into Perks on that morning. He had not found any film contracts or endorsements or publicity tours that might bring him anywhere within five-hundred miles of Perks. He simply should not have been there. The two motels in walking distance saw nothing. The nice HoJo outside the city only had three rooms rented, and two of them were occupied by long term tenants. The third one was being used at an hourly rate. They wouldn’t say who it was, but they knew it was Brandy Benson and a gentleman friend.
What if it was an imposter, some jerk who just happened to look like Stagman, laughing at the yokels getting all orgasmic? He had not seen him with his own eyes and none of the pictures turned out clearly enough to be certain it was him. No one asked him if he was the Ken Stagman, and he certainly never volunteered the information. What if was all just a ruse, a scheme to increase traffic in the coffee shop, make it a local tourist destination? And he played right into their hands, writing that stupid article. He was supposed to trust Tricia Yeats and Mary Murphy? Christ, what an ass he was. Beau swears it, but he’s got a horse in this race too. How many more followers can he get with even the slightest association with Ken Stagman?
It didn’t take long for Max Wade to convince himself that the whole incident was designed with the sole intention to make him feel foolish. Even so, it made him feel special too. And he wasn’t alone. Perry Cummings often bragged about never having had a sleepless night in his entire fifty-seven years, and that night he experienced insomnia for the very first time. Nancy, who hadn’t slept a full night through since the birth of their first child, was nearly in tears with anxiety over her husband’s restlessness. What made things worse was that any indication of acknowledgement regarding Perry’s condition would be catastrophic. How could Perry not be sleeping? He hadn’t had a sleepless night in his fifty-seven years.
There was no doubt about it. Perry could not sleep. It was all that son of a bitch Stagman’s fault. They think they can do whatever they want. They got it all, but the little guy, the little guy gets a herniated disk, a damned homely wife, a piece of junk truck that smells like cat piss winter and spring. That’s what the little guy gets.
And Tricia Yeats, too, was affected by it, although she hardly knew it. Her encounter with Ken Stagman inflated a void in her heart she hadn’t felt in years. She found herself staring out of the window while the children wrangled with their food on the breakfast table, while the little one threw her sippy cup onto the floor, as she blankly stared at Ellen on television. There was an old well, still filled with fresh water, but no longer used in their backyard. The worn stacked stones had turned green. She could see it clearly from the kitchen window. Again and again Tricia caught herself looking at the well, thinking of nothing at all, slowly and regularly realizing that something was missing.
Her husband would be home at three-thirty. She rarely looked forward to his return with any great anticipation, but she never dreaded it. She did on that day. The dread was subtle, inarticulable, manifesting itself in unconscious gestures of the hands and the eyes. While the baby was napping and the other children were occupied by the television, she went into her yard, perhaps she told herself that she wanted to check on those Colorado Blue Spruces she planted last year, but she breezed right past the saplings without even glancing at them and walked over to the well. She looked inside. Out of the darkness, the light ripple of the water made tiny twinkles on the surface. Tricia dropped a pebble and watched for the effect. Nothing changed. The well was so dark and the water so deep, the twinkles looked as dim and distant as the stars over Los Angeles at twilight.
She thought about Stagman. She also thought about the time when she was pretty and thin. Everyone is pretty and thin in Los Angeles, even the busboys and bus drivers and gas station attendants. Tricia had never been to Los Angeles, of course, but everyone knew that it was true. She was pretty and thin when she was in highschool. She wasn’t cheerleader or anything, in fact, she was what they called the “goth kids.” The goth kids had to hate the cheerleaders and other popular school athletes for some reason. She could even remember why. All of the music she listened to was sad and she wore mostly black, baggy clothes and put on black lipstick, and wore her dyed dark red hair in such a way that it covered her face so that no one could see how pretty and thin she was.
When she got to college, she gave it all up. She was accepted into a nice private school a few hundred miles from home. None of her goth friends were going there, so she felt silly doing the goth thing. It wasn’t her personality at all. She was always very bright and positive, even while she was trying to convince the world that she was dark and angry. It was exhausting sometimes to keep it up. She knew that most of her friends felt the same way, but they wouldn’t talk about it either. So, when she got to college, she decided to reinvent herself in the image of all those around her. She was still pretty and thin and for the first time she realized that being so came with a host of advantages. Intoxicated by the advantages, she became promiscuous. Then she became pregnant. Then she had an abortion. Then she actually felt dark, and she did not like that at all. She never told anyone, not her mother, nor the boy with the wet green eyes, not even her husband later on. She would never tell him, because then the darkness would return, and she could not handle that.
She wasn’t thinking about this while she peered into the well, but she may have been feeling it because down there it was so far away and black.
They didn’t stay for tea after the hot water heater was repaired. Luca had another job to get to out in the middle of nowhere. Salvatore took up space in the kitchen while his father and Carol bantered with each other. Carol still wanted to talk about Stagman, and Luca was enjoying pretending not to care at all about Stagman too much to let the conversation end. Salvatore listened in unsmiling silence.
“They say he’s looking at property out here,” Carol told him.
“Too bad for him. The taxes are too high here.”
“Oh, like he’d be concerned about that.”
“You think he’s made of marble? Sally, you know these women.”
“Come on, Luca, you know what I mean.”
“I know the only man that not care about taxes is a dead man.”
“Ah, but he’s so rich!”
“You see, Sally.”
Salvatore wasn’t expected to respond, only to nod and grin.
“Who knows, maybe they’re shooting a movie out here? How exciting is that?” Carol put both hands on her chest and looked excited.
“Going in for an actress, huh? Sofia Loren, right here. You don’t know her, Sally. Before your time.”
“Now Luca, it’s impossible to have a conversation with you.” Carol was obscenely flattered by the comparison. “You don’t take anything seriously. Does he, Sal?” Head shake and grin.
“I care about this,” he suggested money with two fingers and pointed at his small, rough palm. “What I can put in my hands and put in my pocket. If you don’t take that seriously…poof.”
“But there’s more to life, surely. There is excitement and pleasure that you just can’t buy.” Carol smiled. Her husband left her quite a comfortable fortune.
“You know what they say, ‘Soldi fan soldi, pidocchi fan pidocchi.’” Luca laughed and coughed. Carol did not know a word of Italian.
“Not what on Earth does that mean?”
“‘Money makes money,” Luca prodded Salvatore with his knobby knuckles. “‘Lice makes lice.” And he broke out into loud, obnoxious guffaws that made Salvatore feel sick to his stomach.
“Oh, Luca. You just refuse to understand a word I say.” Carol was very happy and very comfortable at that moment.
“Come, Salvatore. We go.”
“You’re coming back tomorrow to look at that window, right?”
“If not tomorrow, surely next week.”
“Now, Luca. Bye bye Sal. It was a pleasure meeting you.” Salvatore nodded and grimaced, accidentally kicking the screen door on his way out.
The new vinyl creaked under his weight. “Alright,” Luca said as he took out a clipboard and made a few notes. “Just one more stop. You have time?”
“Okay. These women, you know.” Luca shifted in his seat and started the truck. “All they care about is money and good looks, hey?”
Salvatore knew what was coming.
“Your mother, she won’t even talk to me. What’s her problem? It’s that fucking shrink she goes to. Puts all these ideas in her head. ‘Oh Antonia, your husband’s a caveman. You’re a modern woman, you’re a goddamned princess.’ I know that she talks about me.”
“Not to me.”
“And why you don’t stick up for your father, huh? Everyone’s afraid to hurt you mother’s feelings. What about me, huh? Your sisters are one thing, but you’d think my son would look out for his old man.” Luca was starting to get hot.
He knew that his son had nothing to do with it. He even knew that his son absolutely abhorred conversations with him about his mother, but he couldn’t stop himself. All of the pent up rage and frustration, completely hidden in every other sphere of his existence, came out like steam from a boiler when he was with his son.
“What does she want from me?” He finally cried with an abject crack in his voice.
“I don’t know. I don’t know, dad,” Salvatore managed to groan. Luca turned the truck down a country road.
“I know. Some more of this,” Luca took his eyes off of the road to give his son his two-finger money gesture. “She won’t get anything more, not from me. She’s an independent woman, so work for it, uh, the girls will be eighteen soon. You pay for their college, huh, you pay for it. You own that house, that house I built with these two hands,” Luca took his hands off of the wheel to show his son the hands he built it with. When he did so he veered off of the narrow pavement and skidded on loose gravel.
“You’re mother, Sally,” he continued as he corrected the truck. “Your mother is the most stubborn pig-headed woman I have ever met. You see, ever. You don’t know. You just think…” But Luca didn’t get a chance to tell his son what he thinks because at that moment he sideswiped a small blue sedan that was pulled off to the side of the road.
The sedan slid on wet mud into a shallow ditch, but it wasn’t a direct hit. The Utilimaster bounced back and forth as Luca tried to regain control and bring it to a stop. Salvatore hung on for his life. He closed his eyes and felt a bottomless regret that he had never lived and would die now feeling as terrible as he could imagine feeling. Then the truck stopped.
No one was supposed to know why Ken Stagman appeared at Perks the morning before. There were many things that no one was supposed to know about Ken Stagman. Sure, tabloids wrote all sorts of things about him, and some people believed them. For instance, when The Examiner wrote about his brain cancer, he received tens of thousands of letters wishing him well and several hundred wishing him a swift and painful death. It was odd, surreal to read those letters and wondering what it would be like to really have a terminal illness. What would it feel like? There was something there, but his doctors assured him his CAT scan was cleared of any threats or anomalies. But how could anyone know that? Somehow it got out that he had eight months to live, though it was absurd. He was amazed by the degree to which strangers felt like they knew him and create him in their image.
As time went on and his fame grew so much that his name became a euphemism for rich and gorgeous, he saw more and more of this. The name “Ken” (not Kenneth, mind you) skyrocketed to the top of this list of new baby names. People, strangers he never met, never knew existed, had named their child after him. Once Bombay Way and Flash Fire II were released, the name “Ken” had shot up from 1,054th in ranking to thirteenth. It was absurd. His manager joked that he gave birth to three million kids a year, and he made enough to send them all to Stanford. There was no better known or more readily recognizable actor alive. Stagman was monolithic.
Which made many people very curious to know all the things that no one was supposed to know about Ken Stagman. When they couldn’t discover anything, they mostly made up things, depended on hearsay and speculation. His visibility demanded it. How are people expected to worship something they know nothing about?
Ken had long ago acclimated to his status as a minor god. Not to suggest that he accepted it. He was aware of the human tendency to elevate the most familiar faces to the highest plateau of individual value, but he was equally aware of the orgasmic frenzy they experience while pulling them down from it.
He had seen it happen with Nelson. Although Nelson Grover was still relatively new to the A-List of Hollywood actors, he was well liked and highly sought after. It wasn’t his fault that the dialogue for Bombay Way read like it was written by a fourteen-year-old boy who had just come back from seeing his very first James Bond movie. God, it was awful, even by Hollywood standards. When the casting director sent him an email along with the script, offering him the lead role of Butch the self-reflective assassin, Ken read twenty pages before he wrote back and rejected the offer. He received an email the next day from the executive producer pleading with him to take the part and nearly doubling the money. This is how he replied:
While I’m not surprised by your generosity, I’m shocked by your laziness. Had you actually read the script you’d plainly see the only part I am suited for is that of the nameless “knucklehead” who calls the lead a “bloated powderpuff with an M & M brain.” Thank you for your offer.
Within minutes, the executive producer wrote again offering 8.5 million dollars for the part of the “knucklehead,” which would take no more than three hours to shoot. He took the offer on the condition that he would not have to actually use the word “powderpuff.”
So, they sent it over to Nelson, and he jumped on it. He didn’t blame him or think less of him as an actor. It was his first action lead in a big budget production. Stagman was proud of him. And Stagman thought he did a decent job for what he had to work with. The public, however, was infuriated. With heavy saturation in advertisements, countless publicity tours, late-night talk shows, an interview with Hadley Greenbush on a Friday evening, they threw everything they had at that film. Times Square looked like a single screen theater lobby. Bombay Way was everywhere, and in every promotional photo Stagman was prominently featured in both name and face. It drove Nelson Grover crazy.
It was understandable that when the movie actually premiered and Stagman’s seven and a half minute scene unveiled the limited extent of his involvement, critics and fans alike raged over the false advertising. The bulk of the animosity landed in Nelson Grover’s lap. It was as if people believed that he, for some reason, colluded with the production company to undermine his own role in the film which should have made him a big success. It didn’t matter to them that he had nothing to gain and everything to lose by doing so. And like that, Grover’s name became a euphemism for a hack riding on the coattails of true talent. And his stock plummeted.
Stagman, on the other hand, surged in popularity. It was as if the world just been shown what movies would be like if Stagman took a backseat to a two-bit hack. The public demanded Stagman and nothing less, which prompted production companies to start work on Flash Fire II, the sequel to a moderately popular action film that was generally thought to lack enough substantive quality to justify a sequel. Stagman was offered an undisclosed amount of money, but everyone knew it was record breaking.
But all that everyone already knew about Stagman. In fact, one could find that and more in his unauthorized biography, Running the Gamut: The Unprecedented Rise of the World’s Most Recognizable Face. The book was authored by his management team under the name of Freddy Newcomb, a previously unknown imaginary person. The picture on the jacket flap was a bartender Stagman met in Sweden named Klaus.
But no one was supposed to know that. Not like it would have mattered. No one would have cared. If it had Stagman’s face on the cover, it was made of gold.
Perry Cummings was exhausted. He stumbled into Perks much later than was his custom. He noticed that Wade sat in “Stagman’s Stool,” looking like a damned beetle rocking back and forth on his fat ass.
Perry was still awake when he heard Yola drop off The Florencetown Herald on his porch that morning, so he got up and went to get it. Nancy sighed and shut her eyes. Her night had been agony. Now that Perry was gone she could still get an hour of sleep before daybreak. And she fell asleep instantly.
It wasn’t long before he came upon Max Wade’s article reporting the Stagman sighting the previous morning. Perry muttered, “That son of a bitch,” without even knowing it. He read the whole thing through, then he read it again, flipped through the pages of the paper to see if it continued later on. Nothing. It was like he wasn’t even there. And he talked to Wade about it, told him everything he saw, and that asshole didn’t even throw his name in there like he might of been at part, a big part, he named the damned stool for Chrissake! And that fat ass didn’t even mention his name? “Perry” would have done just fine. Everyone knew who he was!
He was tired of being the little guy. Everyone laughed at Perry, bald old janitor at the middle-school. He kept his head down, did his work, never hurt nobody, and there he was, not even worth a name in the local paper. Living in a dilapidated house, no better than a shack, really. Nagging wife always sweeping up the crumbs right behind him, laughing at him; she never respected him. No one respects the little guy. But, Stagman, his shit don’t stink like nothing but French perfume. He got it all, so he gets it all. Son of a bitch, Stagman. Perry couldn’t get anyone to even fry him up an egg on a Saturday morning. That fat, lazy bitch snoring away in there like a goddamn pig. He’d see about that. He’d see about putting up with all this bull for one minute more. Day’s too short. He’d show her what the little guy’s made of.
Without knowing exactly what he intended to do, Perry got up from the kitchen table and went into the bedroom. Nancy had just slipped into a deep sleep. She was breathing through her mouth with her head thrown back over the pillow. Looking at her filled him with disgust. Her yellow teeth, that soft blonde mustache, her hair all messed up and thin, her paunch drooping onto the bed, all of it suggested a woman who was well satisfied with the way things are going. Hope she had a good time with it, because things are about to change. Perry was frustrated and disappointed with his life, and like most people who feel that way, he couldn’t tolerate the sight of someone content with theirs.
Perry wanted to yank her by the hair and drag her onto the floor. Get enough of your beauty sleep, Nance? No woman’s gonna laugh at me. You think I don’t see it? Do you think a little guy like me can see the fat nose on your face? No, I’m no pretty boy, but I have my pride. The little guy gets it. Do you forget that while your sleeping there like a stuffed pig. Perry had no specific complaint against his wife, but just the sight of her drove him mad. It didn’t matter at all what he did or said, it only mattered that she humiliated him.
He glared down at her, the rage swelling in his throat, while Nancy, peacefully unaware of her husband’s distress, slumbered quietly. Perry leaned over her and stared deep into her pores. Finally he muttered between his teeth, “You think I don’t know it, Nance?” He reached his hand out and was about to shake her awake and really give her what she had coming to her when he stopped. “Aw, to hell with this!” and he stormed out of the house. Matty’s Pub wouldn’t open until eleven, and it was just getting on nine O’clock, so he paced around the park grumbling to himself and spitting at the trees.
At eleven, Matty unlocked the front door and Perry, lying in wait, strode into the pub without saying a word. “Perry,” Matty laughed. “You been waiting out there all night.”
“Double whiskey, Matty, and no fucking jokes for once.”
“Whoa, Perry. Whatever happened to ‘Good morning, Matty’.”
Perry didn’t answer and parked himself at the corner of the bar. “Not in all my fifty-seven years,” he muttered into his rocks glass.
Charlie Yeats pulled into the driveway around one-thirty in the afternoon. Tricia was laying on her bed with her forearm draped over her eyes. Helena was crying in her crib and hungry. The boys were playing video games. Normally active around that time with laundry and dinner preparations, the house was eerily still. Charlie heard Helena crying in her crib and went to check on her. “Oh, sweetheart, what’s wrong?” He scooped her up and smelt her diaper. “Oh boy, that’s quite a stinker.” He put her on the changing table and began to clean her. “Tricia!” he shouted in the air. When he finished he put the toddler down and she waddled unsteadily out of the room. “Tricia?” He was concerned.
The boys were sitting next to each other on the couch, absorbed in the game play. “Hey, where’s your mother?” Baxter shrugged. Hunter wiped his nose on his sleeve. As he walked up the stairs he felt a vague dread. The bedroom door was slightly ajar and he could see his wife’s reposed figure. “Hey, are you okay?” he asked, stepping timidly into the room.
“You’re home early,” Tricia replied, not removing her arm from her face.
“Yeah, my late client cancelled. What are you doing?”
She moved her arm and looked at him. She had just been asking herself that same question. How could he have known that? She scrutinised him from where she lay. What was she doing? There was darkness in her thoughts. She couldn’t see anything, not even what she was doing. Charlie looked like a stranger, some good neighbor paying a visit. She felt nothing when she looked at him. Tricia sighed and sat on the side of the bed. Her shoes had smeared mud in a long arching swoop over the comforter.
“Are you alright? You don’t look well.”
“I have to feed the baby.” Tricia brushed past her husband. She left the room, walked down the stairs and left the house through the kitchen. From the bedroom window Charlie watched his wife get in her minivan. He thought that she maybe left something in there, but when the engine turned over and she backed out of the driveway, he was too alarmed to race after her at once. It was only after she slowly pulled into the street that he dashed out of the door and tried to catch up with her. But it was too late. When he came back into the house, he saw her smart phone was still on the counter. He turned it on. Bombay Way was paused at the Stagman cameo.
Entertainment pundits and critics all agreed that Ken Stagman’s cameo in Bombay Way was the most singular career decision an actor had ever made. The timing was absolutely perfect. It boosted Stagman’s status from top ten A-List, to number one, far and away. No one could have foreseen it. The shift from “famous” to “iconic” was far more jarring than the transition from “unknown” to “well-known.”
His early career was the happiest time of his life. Ken loved the bus schedules to auditions all over L.A. and the chance meetings with established actors and writers in lobbies and cafes. He felt like he was doing it. He had escaped the small town drab his childhood friends and neighbors were condemned to suffer. No matter how poor he was, there was a beautiful woman whose eyes flashed at his glance, no matter how long he went without a job or even an audition, there was an open bottle of wine at any number of friendly apartments. It was wonderful.
Those friends were long gone, appearing in bit parts on his productions, or catering at his parties. He still acknowledged them, even sometimes tired to help them, but he did so without enthusiasm. He was sad for them and jealous of them. His friendliness was just an act.
After the Bombay Way controversy and his subsequent rise to superstardom, Stagman began to feel very alone. He had also just turned thirty-five, a strange place for an actor who is no longer young, but certainly not old, and had his first nervous breakdown.
He was public property. He started attending therapy, took medication for depression and anxiety, and began avoiding public places. He bought a palace in Malibu and began ordering the construction of dozens of buildings on the property. Some of the buildings were designed with an expressed purpose, for a sauna or a boxing ring, while others were built only to be painted orange or to have a weathercock placed on its roof. The time directly following Flash Fire II, a tremendous success at the box-office, Stagman essentially disappeared from public view.
The public was still riddled with Stagman fever, and most entertainment writers assumed Stagman was laying low in order to stoke the frenzy. It was a brilliant idea, they thought; his elusiveness compounded his fame exponentially. What no one knew, with the exception of his girlfriend, international supermodel Gloriana Yearling, was that Ken Stagman’s secluded life rapidly grew into debilitating agoraphobia.
Stagman called his production company and told them he was taking some time off. For eight months Ken Stagman did not step off of his Malibu property, which was beginning to resemble a small town. Gloriana would breeze in occasionally, but they had very little, if any interaction. She was at the peak of her modelling career, and both of them knew that their relationship was purely ornamental. Once Stagman stopped taking her to parties and introducing her to producers, he saw far less of her. She was careful, however, to avoid any public friendliness with men. Since Stagman hadn’t said anything about the dissolution of their bonds, why should she?
Stagman existed for eight straight months in his very own luxury ghost-town. He would spend most of his days sauntering through the roads he had paved and lined with marvelously vibrant cobblestones. The roads snaked through the entire compound, leading through his miniature town replete with a post office, strip club, and pawn shop. He’d spend the evenings in the corner stool of a silent sports pub, drinking cask ale and staring at the rows of rugby pendants lining the ceiling and walls. Stagman had removed every bit of communication and media technology, with the exception of a rotary phone in his office, from the entire property. Then he named the compound Grover’s Grove, not with a sign or anything, just with his mind.
During the period when Stagman still had the capacity to be surprised, he was surprised by how easy it was to escape from view and absence of effort anyone made to seek him out. On one of her final visits to Grover’s Grove, Gloriana inadvertently found herself in the same room with Ken. He sat on the sofa and watched her. “You could have at least left a television for me to watch,” she languidly complained. “Ken, dear, don’t you get bored?”
Ken thought for a second and looked at his hands. “I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“Well, I’ll be going to El Salvador for a shoot, with Michel and Jean. They asked about you.” She took a long drink from a long bottle of mineral water. “I’m not sure what to tell people, honestly. I try to explain to them what a hermit you’ve become, but they assure me that you’re keeping very busy.”
“I know. It’s like, they just won’t believe that you’re crazy. They’re convinced that you are working on some grand project.”
“But, you’re not. You’re just….here.” Gloriana tossed the empty bottle into the recycling. “You’ve become, I don’t know, mythological.”
Something about the idea pleased him. He smiled invisibly. “That’s strange.”
“It is, right? You’ve somehow achieved perfect fame. And the only way you can screw it up now is by showing your face in public again.” Gloriana meant this as a joke, but as soon as she said it she realized it was true. Ken nodded his head. He knew it was true, too. She left hastily, with an awkward kiss on his cheek.
Alone, Stagman reflected. Without any connection to entertainment media, he had no idea how immortally famous he had become. Had his post office in the compound been real he would have been inundated with daily mounds of fan mail. As it was, he had all of his mail forwarded to the downtown post office box in Detroit. Of course, the mail isn’t stored in a box. The city hired out a couple of those “Pods,” the movable storage containers. There are actually three. The Postmaster just requested a fourth. He thought it was a great honor to be the steward of Stagman’s paper correspondence.
The production company handled all of Ken’s electronic mail, mainly in the form of an automated reply. No one paid much attention to it. And no one paid much attention to Stagman, the living person.
His manager had a standing appointment to speak with Ken via telephone the first and fifteenth of every month. These phone calls lasted about twenty minutes. His manager talked, Stagman replied in monosyllables. Every call ends the same, “Take as much time as you need,” his manager tells him. “You’re hotter than the sun, baby.” Ken resumes his ghost town saunters.
After Gloriana left, the phrase, “You’re hotter than the sun” came to his mind. Stagman thought that his manager was using some old smoosher cliche, used car salesman flattery, but listening to Gloriana talk about his “mythology,” he began to think there might be something more to it. He remembered the Greek and Roman gods he learned about in school, about Isis and Osiris in Egypt, or Krishna and Ganesha, of Loki and Thor and Odin, who he played, incidentally, in The Norse Code a few years back. Wasn’t that the one he won a “People’s Choice Award” for? Who knew? Someone. There’s someone out there who knew him better, far better than he knew himself.
It was silly to think that anyone really believed they were real, those gods. Maybe believing made them real, in a way, why can’t they be real, every last one of them. He was real, he thought. At least he was real at some point. But Stagman wasn’t real. Stagman. Stupid fucking name, but it worked. Better than “Studly,” anyway, like Samantha Cone suggested. Eugene Studly. Goddamn, the world could have been that much different. Stagman thought about all the movie posters that would have changed, magazine covers, film credits. Eugene Studly couldn’t have been a god.
Stagman wandered into his sports pub and pulled off an ale. It was flat and dead. Been awhile since he had the crew in there for restocking and maintenance. He walked behind the bar and poured a scotch. He looked out of the front window, blazoned with blinking neon. It was amazing that people, brilliant people, believed in such nonsense. Blazing chariots, thunderbolts from pissed off deities, romances with swans and oxen, enchanted shepherdesses seduced by blue-skinned flautists, it was just so ridiculous. But for thousands of years people have been documenting a universe teeming with gods. They were seen. The old gods walked among us and eavesdropped from branches.
He’d been on the compound too long. It wasn’t loneliness that drove him, it was a visceral urge to tempt fate. The scotch was old, peaty, and good. Head pounding. Ice machine is on the fritz. There was something he was trying to think of as has let the liquor slide down his tongue and into his throat. It was time to go. The compound offered him no additional salve for his head or his heart. But he couldn’t go back into the old world just like that. It was far too lonesome amid the throng, perched at the pinnacle where everyone could see him and no one could hear him. God is perfect only because he is unseen. Once given dimension and characteristics, he is given limitations. Stagman, in his unseen perfection, could only appear as an apparition, an uncertain and unpredictable glimmer of the glory that is real. The myth must grow or he’d go the way of Hecate and Hebe, that is to say, only reprised in big blockbuster cameos.
That was when Stagman decided to leave Grover’s Grove and Los Angeles altogether. And that’s how he eventually ended up at Perks, over nine-hundred miles away. But, nobody knows that.
If Perry Cummings was only slightly less drunk, he would have noticed the disgusted expression on Beau’s face when he approached the counter and ordered the “Stagman Special.” As it was, Perry imagined he was being very clever and everyone was pleased as punch to see him. “You know, son,” he slobbered. “Black coffee, oh boy, I think I need it today, ha, yeah.”
“Little early, isn’t it, Perry?” Beau answered with his eyes closed and his head cocked away from Perry’s pungent whiskey breath. But Perry was only acting merry. Inside, the liquor fueled a swelling animosity that was rising to the surface and spreading out to his knuckles.
“And one for my friend there,” he bellowed. “Mister Ernest Q. Hemingway sitting at the stool.” Max looked up and stroked his chin. “The pull mister prize winner, pull up a prize mister.”
“Perry, you’re drunk,” Beau interrupted. “Go home.”
“Oh yes, sir, thank you sir, no. I think I’ll stay and have a chat with the good mister Hemingway there.” Perry crossed his ankles and bowed to Max, who was beginning to enjoy the display. “Just a word with mister Hemming and Hawing way over there. Sir.”
“Have a seat, Perry,” Max glibly called out.
“Don’t mind-ee if I do-dee-dah. Just fill that boy up to the mid. I brought my own creamer, son.” And Perry poured the remainder of his flask into the styrofoam cup. “Thank-ee, thank-ee.”
“Perry, this is not acceptable,” Beau reproved in him most adultish voice.
“No, thank-ee, sir. It’ll do just fine, boy. Just you put it on my tab, son. Yes, sir, I’m starting me a tab like a ‘spectable gentleslob, and you just go off there, go ahead and put that there on it, now.”
“Don’t make me call Officer Carl, Perry. Behave.” Beau shook his forefinger at him before he knew what he was doing.
Perry smiled big, “No need to trouble the man. I got a beehive in the brain, is all. It’s all just buzzbuzzbuzz. Sides, I’ve known him since he was a boy, I have. Don’t trouble the good officer. It just little, old Perry Cummings making merry in the afternoon. No trouble t’all.” And he carefully carried his coffee over to where Max waited with his hands crossed on the table.
“What’s up, Perry?” Max Wade, exhausted from his research, was relieved by the diversion the tipsy janitor offered. The childish simplicity of this local rustic was just what he needed to wash out all the Stagman from his head. Max remembered Perry from middle school. He was a much younger man then, but he looked as if he hadn’t aged a day. At thirty-seven, Perry Cummings looked just as ancient as he did at fifty-seven. He, perhaps, had a tooth or two less, but the deep lines in his face, his wild gray horseshoe hair, and the uncanny forest in his ears and nose were unchanged from the time when Max had watched him mop up slopped oatmeal from the floor of the cafeteria.
Same old Perry Puke, as kids called the janitor. It was better than Fat Wad, like they called him. Of course, kids in that wretched town had no imagination whatsoever. They were the children of city employees, trashmen and the like, civil servants. Sure there were some kids, like Gerald Breen, whose parents had an advanced college degree and a modicum of respect in that hayseed town, but for the most part all the kids in his school were equally nobody, and he was different. Max had talent and soon he’d leave this place far behind. He was so close that he could taste it. Something about Stagman coming into town confirmed it. He wasn’t sure how, but he felt it deep, deep down. There was no other way it could be explained.
“Ah,” Perry answered and took a swig of his coffee, a drop or two dribbled down his black spotted chin. “Read your story this morning, I did. No no no no no, old Perry can read. Read the paper every morning since before you learned how to shit your pants.”
“That’s good, Perry. What’d you think?”
“When it comes to thinking, I suppose I ain’t as clever as you are about it. No, little guy like me doesn’t know much about a superstar like Stagman.” Perry ground the name between his teeth. “Sometimes I even forget where I am or where I’ve been, if you’d believe that!” Max smirked and shrugged.
Perry continued. “You know, not in my fifty-seven years, I say. Next year, I suppose, I’ll have to remember to say ‘fifty-eight,’ but cross that bridge when we get there, yeah? Getting old, I suppose. I can’t seem to recall where I was, just yesterday.” He took a long drink from his cup and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. He stared at Max with loose, unfocused pupils.
“Well, if it helps, I saw you here yesterday. Remember?” Max smiled like a man teasing a monkey with a monkey mask. “You remember. You told me about Stagman.”
“Ah yes, by God, you’re right, I think. By God, it’s true. I did, didn’t I. Little old Perry Cummings, by God.” Beau was keeping a close eye on him. Perry was getting a bit loud.
“Yeah,” Max chuckled. “You named this very seat!”
“By God, you’re right. ‘Stagman’s Stool,’ I called it, though it’s not much of a stool, you’ll admit. More of a chair, you see. ‘Stagman’s Chair,’ just don’t got the same ring to it.” And Perry looked off into space as if seriously pondering the issue.
“I think it’s a great name,” Max chimed in, yanking him from his reverie.
“Do you, now? Ain’t that funny.”
“How so?” Max planted his elbows on the table and cupped both cheeks with his hands.
“You son-of-a-bitch!” And Perry reached out with both hands and gripped Max by the collar, dragging him to the floor. Max curled up into a ball and covered his head while Perry kicked and stomped with drunken rage. Beau left off the cappuccino he was steaming and rushed to restrain the attacker. He came up behind him to grab him under the shoulders, like he’d seen in so many action films, but Perry was overflowing with ungoverned strength and could feel nothing. He elbowed Beau square in the mouth which backed him off squealing. Attorney Geoffrey Breen who had, up until then, remained safely distanced from the squabble, ran to the barista’s aid with a handful of paper napkins.
Perry grew tired of kicking the young man, and pulled him up to his feet. “You goddamn son-of-a-bitch. You think you’re better than me! Huh? It’s the little guy who gets kicked in the gut. How does it feel?” And he slapped Max’s sobbing pink face with the back of his hand. “How does it feel?”
“Enough, Perry. Enough,” attorney Geoffrey Breen pleaded once he settled Beau in a chair.
“It’s not, I tell you, it’s never enough. The little guy Geoff, you wouldn’t know! You wouldn’t know about the little guy. The little guy gets nothing!” Perry began to whimper as he shook the reporter like he was shaking a dead man out of pure catharsis.
Max somehow got wind enough back in his lungs to shout for help as Beau struggled free from attorney Geoffrey Breen’s grasp and scrambled across the floor with a glass bottle gripped in his fist. Perry turned and blocked his face with his forearm. Beau lifted his arm above his head, filled with tragicomic fury, and was about to strike him down when from behind he heard the tin bells jump from their nail and clank onto the floor in a pile. The door crashed open and Mary Murphy ran panting into the cafe and shouted, “Stagman’s dead!”
The whole room fell silent. The only sound came from the back corner table, where Tricia Yeats was sobbing quietly.
At first it was just gas stations. He’d pull up to a full service pump, crack the window about two inches, and snake out some cash. He only got the feeling he was recognized once, and that was just outside of L.A. and he was still driving his Bugatti. It was too obvious. He checked the Bugatti in a self storage unit in Nevada and bought a Saturn from a small dealer who had no curiosity about his customers as long as they paid cash. When he was in that car, no one recognized him. Mediocrity was his invisibility cloak.
When he was hungry, he’d pull through fast food drive-thrus, when he was tired he’d pull off to the side of the road and sleep. When he began feeling sick, he’d stop and vomit out of the window. He didn’t have a destination and he didn’t travel in a straight line towards any particular place. Once he left California, he drove up through Nevada into Boise, hit Saskatchewan through Montana, turned back down to Cheyenne, Oklahoma City to Baton Rouge, back over to Austin, Santa Fe, Topeka, Des Moines, and many other places. After two weeks of driving, Ken Stagman began to feel worn down. He checked into a motel under his birth name, Eugene Bowlby, and slept in a bed for the first time since leaving the compound.
Of course, no one recognized him. Two weeks on the road meant no showers or shaves or changes of clothes. The clerk at the motel didn’t even want to look at him. And besides, what would Ken Stagman be doing here? And driving that!
Once in the room, he peeled off his clothes and looked at himself in the mirror. He hardly recognized himself. In the mirror the nameless “knucklehead” from Bombay Way looked back at him. He remembered how Nelson Grover looked at him after the premiere, looked at him as if begging him to just tell him the truth. Ken laughed at some joke someone made behind him and walked away. It was a hell of a business, a hell of a business. It was hard to keep friends in a business like that. No such thing as friends in a business like that. There were only worshippers and minor gods.
That night, Stagman had dinner at a local tavern. He sat at the bar, freshly showered, but still unshaven, and made small talk with the bartender. Flash Fire II was on the television, but it was muted and no one paid much attention to it. He wore his sunglasses and avoided as much eye contact as he could. He also tried to make himself look smaller using a technique he learned in one of his early acting courses. They teach these things to extras, particularly to the attractive ones, to prevent the audience’s attention from straying to the background. It seemed to be working.
“How are the wings?” the bartender asked as she slipped past him.
“Fine,” he answered. “What town am I in now?” Stagman didn’t look up. He stared at his glass and scratched at his scruff in drifter fashion.
“Right now? Right now you’re in Gloucester, in Opine County. Where you coming from?”
“My brother lives in Des Moines. Charlie Pickett. You know him?”
It was as if she knew it too. “It ain’t Gloucester.”
“You’re right there. I get lost in Des Moines. I get lost in Gloucester.” She wasn’t flirting with him, although she was young, pretty and thin. She never flirted with any of the customers at the bar. She prided herself on that.
Stagman pointed at his half empty pint glass and grunted. The bartender moved to pour him another.
“So, what brings you here? Passing through?”
“Not sure yet. Depends.”
“On what?” Stagman shrugged and finished off his pint in a gulp.
“You know where a man can buy a good saddle?”
“What, for a horse?” Stagman nodded. “You got a horse tied up out there?” She felt sure he was pulling her leg. “I suppose, well, no, I’m afraid I can’t help you there. But they give trail rides up off I-88 in the summertime.” The bartender smiled and leaned on the bar. “You a cowboy? You look like you could be a cowboy.”
Stagman smiled and looked up at her and took off his aviators. The bartender gasped. “No way. No no no no, you’re Ken Stagman!” She shook out her hands and glanced up at the screen behind her and back at him as if assuring herself all of this was real. “I can’t, no, I can’t, I’m sorry, no! Can I just tell you that…”
Stagman pounded the bar with his fist, “Stop!” he demanded.
“I’m so sorry, so sorry Mr. Stagman, it’s just you surprised me. I mean, what would you be doing here?” Stagman stood up, crumpled up a hundred dollar bill and tossed it on the bar. He checked out of the motel and got into his car and started driving again.
It happened in every town, large or small. He’d play his role, whatever it might have been, but eventually everyone recognized him. It ruined everything. He tried a slew of costumes, accents, storylines, techniques, everything in his power, but the shining essence of Stagman always managed to glow through. It was his tragic flaw, his coup de grȃce, and his greatest weakness as an actor and the most foundational reason for his success. He could never not be Stagman.
He was driving late in the night when the thought occurred to him. He had just escaped from a gay bar in downtown Jackson where he was playing the role of a battered husband ready to leave his wife and finally be true to himself. The lighting and the music seemed like the perfect obfuscation for his role. Alas, even as the strobe blurred the lines between fantasy and reality, and the thumping sounds made one doubt one’s own senses, Ken Stagman stood out louder than it all, and soon he was encircled by admirers proudly announcing their first mastabatory experience and confessing the vital role that Stagman played in it.
He wasn’t angry that he had failed again, rather like a man who fully admits the slim possibilities of success, he considered the situation stoically and thoroughly, replaying in his mind all that could have gone wrong and all that had worked. Then, like the surgence of a long lost memory, Stagman understood everything. He knew what he had to do. Then it could finally be done.
He drove through the night and ended up in Rockland County. Perks was still closed when he drove past, but he decided that there, in the full light of day he would give his greatest performance. Parking in a vacant lot, Stagman spent the early hours of the morning making himself as Stagman as possible. He manicured his nails, applied that thin line of mascara, trimmed his facial hair to his signature five-O’clock shadow, he wanted to look like the cover of Esquire, and Oh, he did. He wouldn’t have looked more Stagman had he a team of artists on the set of Flash Fire III.
The performance was extraordinary. To say it was beautiful is to say that the creation of the heavens and the earth was “beautiful,” or that Christ’s last breath was “beautiful,” or Gautama Buddha’s ascent into nirvana was “beautiful.” It was not beautiful, it was beauty itself. And no one else knew but him. They played their parts perfectly. The barista, he was certain he’d start blubbering and grabbing at his sleeve, but he didn’t. No, he was a perfect example of ostentatious restraint. And the fat one was just licking her chops, but she wouldn’t even look at him directly. Oh, he was the Sun! Even the decrepit old man, he looked like he should be grinding a hurley gurley, snickering in his sleeve and stealing glances at him, keeping up his conversation, only just a little bit, the tiniest bit too loud. The scene had everything, and no one knew it except Stagman. He was no longer simply a minor god. His own brilliance blinded him.
His knees felt weak as he left the coffee shop and rushed to his car parked on the corner of a cross street, overtaken by a sudden fatigue and sickness. He drove off cautiously because his heart was racing and his vision was blurry. A chilling migraine exploded in the back of his neck. Pulling off to the side of a scenic back road, Stagman fished out some pills from the glove box and swallowed a handful. They were prescribed for his headaches, but he hadn’t taken them in several weeks. Now, all at once, a month’s worth of headaches came upon him and his mind went black. The pills were not stopping the pain; they were putting him to sleep in agony. His stomach felt twisted, and he lost bodily control. He felt himself soil his hand-stitched designer jeans and over his snake-skin boots, made specifically for him by the renowned Italian bootmaker, Sergio Maturano, over the course of eight months of seclusion in the Swiss Alps. The tumor in his brain took eight months to make too. He closed his eyes and slumped over the center console, and then he died.
Salvatore Disgraziato was not ready to die. There was so much he needed to do, although he couldn’t have told you what if you asked him. Out there, somewhere, life could be lived, and he could be a part of it. Life, not breathing and eating, but life in the abstract. That certain condition of existence during which one lives to a higher extent and to a greater degree than the independent contractor or the independent contractor’s son. When he tried to imagine it he pictured a girl with thick dark hair, wearing a sort of loose paisley blouse handing him a billiards cue. She didn’t look like any girl he’s ever met. That was the point. She was of a race yet undiscovered, shrouded in swirling lines of blue smoke, with large round tea saucer eyes. She could look right through him. There was nothing to hide. He was tired of hiding.
When he opened his eyes and saw that they had stopped, he looked over and saw his father white knuckling the steering wheel and staring off as if he was still unsure whether death would come for him. “Dad,” Salvatore caught his breath. “Are you okay?”
Luca was startled, not by the question, but because someone asked it. The terror of the near crash totally devoured any concern he might have had for his son. When he realized that Salvatore was in the truck with him, he began to weep. He grabbed his son by the shoulder and awkwardly embraced him across the wide gap that separated the bucket seats. “I’m so sorry,” he wept. “I’m so sorry, Sally.” Salvatore wasn’t entirely sure what he was apologising for, but he wished it would end.
“Dad, dad,” he said as he wrangled from his hold. “Dad, we have to check out that car.” But Luca wasn’t listening. He felt incapable of action. “Stay here,” the son ordered. “I’ll check it out.” Luca nodded and rested his head in his forearms on the steering wheel.
The sedan landed on its left side in a shallow ditch. With long measured steps, Salvatore crept over to the edge. Please be empty, please be empty, please be empty. “Hello!” he called out, arching his neck to get a look inside, but he couldn’t see anything from where he stood. He let himself down into the ditch. From there he could see a distinctly human shape propped up against the driver’s side window. “Oh, Jesus, no,” he muttered. He shouted, “Dad, call an ambulance. There’s someone inside!” Salvatore climbed up the passenger side and tried the door. It was locked. He banged on the glass and screamed, “Are you okay! We’re getting help!” But the figure was unresponsive. “Dad! Hurry up!” He cupped his hands on the window and peered at the recumbent form. His face was turned slightly towards him and he could see a perfect red gash of an unbleeding wound right above his right temple. His lips were closed tight, but his eyes seemed to hang open in a way that mimicked death and made death unbelievable at once. Though the man was obviously dead, Salvatore felt that at any moment he’d casually sit up and ask him for a glass of water.
“They’re coming, Sally,” he heard his father call out. “Who’s in there? Are they alright?”
“It’s Ken Stagman, dad,” he answered.
“The Ken Stagman!”
He heard the gravel rustle as Luca hurried from his truck. Salvatore peered into the window once more. He looked just like he did at the end of Gambit.