Fiction

An Actor Prepares

By: Elaine Lennon

Photo by Zukiman Mohamad on Pexels.com

V

There was nobody to blame. Everyone just did the best they could.

The haze had settled over Catalina. The early morning azure sky was dotted with sunlight and the fishing boat was cutting through the waters off the island. Even at sea you could see the masses of flowers that distinguished this little haven of flora and fauna. The mimosas were overwhelming the shoreline.

It was a good day for albacore.  Sam Brody had moved out from Little Harbor not a half hour earlier and he was dislodging bait onto hooks when he saw it. A plaid jacket, soaked, upturned, and the unmistakable shape of a man, drenched by ocean spray.

It took him a while but Sam managed to hook the jacket and bring the body on board. Foam bubbled from the man’s mouth. He was dead, but probably not for very long. The boat hadn’t scored his flesh and the fish hadn’t had an opportunity to feed yet. He might only have died in the last couple of hours. His skin was very cold, the hair matted against his skull, his eyes wide open, framed by long dark lashes and a thick lock of hair falling on his forehead. He was such a handsome guy.

The fisherman searched for any form of identification and in the inside pocket of the heavy wool jumper, concealed with a zip in a piece of cellophane, he found a crumpled telegram, dated a couple of days earlier. It was addressed to J. B. Sox, 605 Beach Road, Santa Monica. “Shoot now on Catalina. STOP. Coop in good shape. STOP. Please visit. STOP. Bon voyage. Hank. STOP.”

            He showed it to the police officer when they brought in his body from the sloop.

            The officer looked at the body and looked at the shoes and jacket and turned his face this way and that and read the telegram Brody showed him.

            “Sox? Shoot? Is that the picture they’re making up at Isthmus Cove with Gary Cooper? You know he looks real familiar, like a movie actor I remember, from the silents. Yes, I’d swear it. Dammit, I think this is John Bowers. The old movie star. Didn’t he used to be someone? Yes, I think it’s him.”

            It was an awful shame.

                                                                        IV

Dozens of colourful boats with their tall masts jostled for space as they bobbed up and down on the water at the marina, buffeted by the November breeze.

A few lanterns lit the way along the dock.

The schooner was a finely tooled, handsome boat, painted a creamy white with  mahogany trim. She was called The Marguerite.

Twenty-three miles is a long way for a small boat, even in pleasant conditions. Sox took his trip seriously and had had his sole crewman look over things the day before.

            “Splice the main brace!” he called to nobody in particular. “Hoist the mainsail!” He was enjoying mariner’s talk and his veins were filled with warming alcohol. He was a little lightheaded.

It felt good, hollering the clichés of sailors, it was getting him in the mood for a particular outcome.

He set off, blinking in the dark. The water was black once he got away from the shore. He reckoned on getting to Avalon by about three a.m.

Night was falling thickly and the breeze blew up and it got cold and he began humming the tune of an old sea shanty he’d heard. He’d bought a recording of some songs and they were difficult to catch, long, but repetitive, good acting exercises. Training the voice and breathing from the diaphragm was a tough thing when your craft had been perfected in the silents.

But it was good practice for a new adventure.

The wind whipped his ankles.

He got some grog from the store cupboard. He had brought it just in case the night turned cold and he needed sustenance. Now was the time!

He drank back in long gulps as though his life depended upon it. He didn’t notice the swell and the wind gathering and the waves getting bigger.

He sang out loudly and lustily, “We’ll drink and be jolly and drown melancholy!”

That was when the mainmast swung hit him.

He lost his footing, blindly grabbing out for the foremast but he was off balance and he fell in the water. 

            He was grappling upwards for ropes but they eluded him, his actions slowed down by alcohol and the boat was away, carried in the distance, a huge wave bearing it off in one swift embrace.

He suddenly felt so very old. He wondered, Have I ever been young? Really young, carefree?  The world was sitting right on those shoulders and they were a terrible weight. He felt the viciously cold water wash over his entire being.

                                                                        III

            His house was a beautiful mansion with bougainvillea swirling at every corner and creeping up at the windows, trailing a magnificent scent. It was one of the choicest lots out at Santa Monica.

There were people on the deck and the lights danced gaily on the water and Sox looked out at the ocean, still and dark, with a moon shining high in the sky, and thought, What a perfect night for sailing. I might just start out tonight, not bother waiting for daylight. That way I can be there for the start of shooting. He was rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet  as was his wont and feeling a little tipsy after a couple of martinis. He mixed them himself, so he had nobody to blame.

            “Go easy on the juice, slugger!” he joked with Frank, who was having an animated conversation with a writer Sox once knew. Word was out, that was it. Sox was on his way back into the movies. Life was like that. Success bred success. Not that he’d not had other success, in business. But he was forty-nine and movies were in his blood he’d been in them so long, from the beginning, really.

            The day had not started well. He woke up with a profound sense of unease, finding himself in a tide of his own sweat.  He had spent a restless night, dreaming about life on the ocean wave, but not his usual sailing pursuits, no, this time it was pirates and shipwrecks and legendary sunken treasures and a galleon guided by the white fire of the moon and shooting stars and a weird pulsating sound. A siren song.

            Marguerite called him from the adjoining room where she slept.

            “Are you awake yet? John?”

            He groaned and forced himself out of bed. Even his hair was wet, pooling at the base of his neck in rivulets. He needed to wash himself. They had to ready the house for their party tonight. It was his comeback.

                                                                        II

Sox checked his car was ready early in the morning. He didn’t want to be late, not for lunch with Hank. This was a make or break opportunity, as far as he was concerned, the best one he’d had in years. It was a project that suited a well-made man and his hobbies – including sailing, happily – kept him in good shape. So even though it had been a long time since he had a leading role in the movies, this was a dream come true, a movie set at sea.

He left his house by eleven, keen to take in the salt air on his lungs with the covers down, enjoying the long breezy drive from Santa Monica. There weren’t too many of the colony out on the shore, but he had always cherished the views, the promise that the ocean gave him, there was a huge rush of freedom every single morning that he awoke to the big sky and the cresting waves.

Taking Santa Monica Boulevard meant a long drive to the restaurant but he liked the feeling of  freedom, motoring along in his convertible, looking at the big houses, many new mansions on their enormous lots – why, some of them must have been a half an acre, at least. The sun was on his face and he thought he should be careful about getting too freckled, his skin wouldn’t photograph well. He had a healthy tan, that was because of the outdoor life, but otherwise he looked good for his age. Being sporty helped. Sailing, tennis, an occasional golf game, and the focus he had from flying all contributed to a sound frame of mind, a firm physique and a conscious approach to his diet.  He patted his stomach and thought he would still need to go on a grapefruit and steak regime. But he had already considered what he might eat for lunch. Some kind of aspic starter and a broiled lobster entrée. That was the least Hank might do for him.

The Brown Derby on North Vine was thronging with the lunchtime crowd, mostly from the studios. Sox recognized some, but there were so many new people in town. Everything had changed and gotten busier since the talkies.

            “Marguerite? I mean, Meg? How is Meg? Haven’t seen her in a long time.” Hank immediately regretted his phrasing.

            “She’s not done much, either, it’s true,” said Sox. “She had a good part a couple of years ago? You might have seen it.”

            “Right! Ed Ludwig made it? That thing Adela wrote? Yes, yes, I did, and she was very good. She needs to do more.” Hank had overstepped. “You both do, of course, is what I mean.”

            Sox nodded. “I know. It’s been tricky. Ever since the talkies …” he broke off unnecessarily and the words hung in the air between them. “She’s been out in Mojave.” He cleared his throat.

            “Meg?” asked Hank.

            “She got hay fever, first time in her life. Then it got complicated, a little like an asthma attack so the doc recommended the desert air and she stayed near Lancaster for a month. She’s much better now,” he added, as though convincing himself.

            “Flying much lately?” asked Hank.

            “Oh the business is good,” he rejoined. “I get up myself maybe once a week but I let the boys take care of business. I’m a happy flyer but I don’t need to put myself out there like I did in the beginning.”

            “Still sailing?” Hank asked.

“You know me, Hank!” he laughed. “I love the water. I feel I was born to it. You know?”

Hathaway was blithely sipping his martini, toying with a bread roll which he refrained from actually consuming. He then snapped a bread stick in two and played with that instead.

“We’re scouting locations. This being a sea yarn ‘n’ all,” he offered.

            “Locations? I’d love to see that! You know me!”

            “Just off Catalina, round the town, the shore, that type of thing. Can’t do it all at the studio.”

            He was of course referring to Paramount, that marvelous enclave at 5555 Melrose.

            “I miss those days, Hank. You knew where you were.” He clanked the ice cubes in his glass and looked at the lobster as it was served in a bed of chipped ice, hot and red and with such large claws that he looked twice and drank back a draft from his glass and tapped it with his pinkie.

            “Who’s shooting it?”

            “Lang.”

            “Chuck! He’s a marvelous guy, isn’t he? “

            “Coop thinks so.” Hank put down his glass and looked Sox straight in the eye.

            “Coop? You mean Gary?” Sox’s voice was plaintive.

            “Sure. They did Shopworn Angel back, oh, seven, eight years ago.”

            “That was a good picture,” Sox said evenly.

            “And another one. What was the name?” Hank drummed his bread stick on the tablecloth. “Seven Days Leave, yes, that was it.”

            Sox ventured the inevitable. “A Farewell to Arms.”

            Hank broke the breadstick in two. “Yes! Yes, that too.”

            “I get it. They like to shoot together. And you’re making this with Coop.”

            “That’s about the size of it. Sox, you know you haven’t been hot for a couple of years now and the studio tells me what to do. You know I have to go with the flow. That’s the picture business. It doesn’t change.” He was speaking from his head but his heart wasn’t in it. He felt for Sox, he really did.

            “We were just trying to do Hotel Imperial together, but it fell apart,” Hank attempted to console his old friend.

            “What happened?” asked Sox, softly now.

            “Dietrich happened. She wanted to glam it up, do a Joe Sternberg but you know me, it wasn’t true to the story and I just couldn’t go with it. We just didn’t get along.” His shoulders sank a little and he slid further into the chair. “Chuck was doing that and he was so angry at the way things turned out, we really had something good going there, till the shit hit the fan. He and Dietrich got along fine once she was working with Joe, you know, she and Coop and Joe, they did Desire and Chuck was on it, but …. So, you know, even when things are going along, they stop. You know.” He shrugged again, this was his offering. Or benediction. “So, we’re going to have a go with this one, hope it gets done, no glamorous stars to hold us to ransom. Boyer, he was decent about it. He knows Marlene, he knows the routine. It was me, really. She just didn’t like me. I didn’t put up with her bullshit, special lighting, extra hours of makeup, different costuming. Christ Who cares?  Nobody to blame. Except me.” He sighed. “Chuck Lang’s a good guy.”

            While he was talking the crêpes suzettes were being prepared by their side and it was quite a show. Sox hadn’t been at the Derby in a long time and he was impressed.

            “Pictures are tough,” said Sox.

            “Sometimes. A lot of times,” Hank conceded.

            “And you’ve worked with Coop before,” said Sox quietly.

            “Peter Ibbetson. Yup, Chuck was on that too,” he said, as though he’d just realized it. It was odd having someone list other people’s work back at you. Or maybe he was doing it himself? He’d forgotten.

            “And Bengal Lancer. So if you and Coop and Chuck work together again it’ll be like the gang reunion.”

            “If you call three a gang, sure.” Hank was becoming tired of this conversation. It was less direct, less precise, than he would have liked. It was dulling his senses and his eyes were wandering the room, nodding silently over to Tiffany Thayer, the writer, in one booth, beckoning with a finger to a waiter in the other direction. Truth be told, he was feeling a little seasick.

            “Hank, I really think I could do this. Can you give me the script? Just to read it and get a sense of what you want? Not to put pressure on you, but I really have a gut feeling this is something I want to do, make my comeback, because, Jesus Christ, that’s what I have got to do, find a movie, a good move, in good hands, and I can’t think of any better than yours.” Sox was leaning in over the plates, his tiepin brushed off the edge of his cutlery, he was bending so low, and it made a small tinny sound. His voice was tinny too, sharp and a little high.

            Hank sat back, a little, his feet rocked back on their heels on the floor and he scraped his shoes against the legs of his chair. He brushed back his hair with his left hand, although it really wasn’t out of place.

            “I think,” he hesitated, “that would be a great idea, Sox. Let me tell my secretary to have it delivered.” He almost bowed with relieved gratitude. “It’s being worked on. I’m not completely happy with it, you know how these things are.”

            Sox sat back against his chair, perspiration beading his forehead. He patted it with the back of his right hand as though unconsciously swatting an invisible insect mid-flight.

            “Sure, Hank, I know, these things take time, lots of time.”

            Hank tapped his right shoe on the parquet flooring.

            “So, who’s working on it?” Sox was upbeat, happy even, to be asking the question.

            The waiter brought the check.

            “Ted Lesser did the story, but Grover Jones took a pass at the script and I wasn’t a hundred per cent on it, and now Dale Van Every’s got it and it’s going pretty well. It’s a good story, though. Hell of a good story. I like it. the continuity should be worked out soon enough, maybe in a few weeks.”

            “Lots of action?” Sox asked happily.

            “More now! More than ever. It’ll take time. But it’ll go okay, I’m sure of it. ” Hank brightened.

            “All at the studio?”

            “Hell, no!” bellowed Hank. “If I have my way, we’re doing it at Catalina, otherwise it’d just be silly, kids’ stuff. We need outdoor stuff, proper water, proper conditions, not just the tank, it can’t work otherwise. Not so far as I’m concerned and I have got to get the show on the road. Or on the water.” He smiled as he stood up and straightened his tie and licked his lips, ever so slightly, fearful that perhaps a breadcrumb had settled there.

            Sox nodded, standing up. “Catalina,” he muttered. “That’s a grand place to shoot a picture. Catalina.”

            He was giving it a lot of thought as they pushed their chairs into the table and left the restaurant together, exiting to dazzling sunlight.

            “Always look on the bright side, John,” said Hank, patting his friend on the back as he put on his sunglasses.

            “I was born on Christmas Day, Hank, have you forgotten?” Sox said breezily. “I’m a born optimist! Resurrection is my motto!”

            Hank nodded and crossed the street to his car.

            Sox called out, “I’ll call your secretary.”

            Hank nodded again as he opened the door once a Buick passed by. “You do that. I’ll be seeing you.”

            “Not if I see you first!” called Sox, holding himself a little higher, straightening his back, planting a smile on his face, feeling a little better. It was Thursday, after all.

            He proceeded to his Packard with a bounce in his step. He decided to drive as far as Melrose, past the studio lot. He wanted to familiarize himself with the route once again. He would be returning soon enough. He remembered the florist nearby and set himself the task of purchasing Meg’s favourite Calla lilies. They were in bloom again in this temperate season. It was positively warm. He might buy some orchids too, depending on their stock. He had a feeling of such jauntiness that he thought about acquiring a buttonhole to set off his mood. And peaches. He would buy a whole crate of them. He would ride across town and see the Red Car, it was a ways off, but he felt an immense pleasure in living. Yes sir, it was that kind of a day, the kind he hadn’t had in a long, long time. He was in fine fettle.

                                                                        I

He didn’t know who he was any more. His identity had been compromised by the talkies and the business had changed beyond all recognition but he had made some canny investments back in the day and the passenger service was going well, aviation had been good to him. But he was an actor at heart and he kept taking the trade papers and watching for the notices and this morning he saw the one he had been waiting for, the rumours were true.  First he had his usual Tuesday morning tennis game, before it got too hot. Even at the beach the sun could burn you at this time of day.

The sun dappled the patio slabs with a yellow-white glow. Sox wore himself out playing a set with Frank. Frank was a wiry individual, a couple of inches short of six feet tall, sandy blond hair flecked with gray.

            “What I need is a job,” said Sox.  “Something that would really put me back in the big time. And I think I may have found it.” 

            He was drumming his fingers on the table top, and drinking long cool glass of iced water.

“Things are different now. They want new people all the time. You know that, Sox. Even I have my moments. Boy am I glad I made some property deals. I think Los Angeles might just come good. Maybe not soon, but in a few years’ time, Beverly Drive could just make me my retirement fund. Patience. That’s all I need. Patience! And in the meantime, there’s tennis!” Frank drained his glass and jumped up. He was a couple of years younger than his chum but bounded across the patio like a man younger again, perhaps all of five and thirty.

“Let me know how you get on.” He waved at Sox’s wife, Meg, who was looking out from the dining room windows.

            “Juice?” she called to her husband.

            “Give me five minutes, Meg,” he said.  He took off his tennis shoes and walked barefoot the length of the façade and entered another room through French windows, wide open to permit a breeze circulate in the house before the heat suffocated it.

            He padded along the parquet floors out to a corridor and into another room, three walls filled with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a large oak desk backing onto the wide beveled windows, a captain’s chair swaying slightly at the impact of his weight on the floorboards.

            He rocked back and forth gently, his toes stretching in his moccasins, thumbs hanging from his belt loops, pinkie fingers wagging forward.

            “Yes, I think I’ll give my good friend Hank a call.”  He smiled and turned to the desk where the telephone rested in its cradle to the side of the blotter.

            Chow his Siamese cat blinked up at him.

            “I feel I’m being carried somewhere,” he mused.  “I feel it in my bones. What harm can it do?”

            Meg called him from the kitchen on the intercom. That was one of the great pleasures of the house he had bought over a decade ago, when times were good. Her voice sang over the wired box: “I’m making pancakes for breakfast. Just the way you like ‘em! The orange juice is just cold out of the refrigerator. Everything will be done in five minutes! I know you’re calling Hank so just come along as soon as you’re done.”

            He smiled. He had lucked out on having a wonderful wife. They had been together through thick and thin and everything was just swell. He couldn’t want for anyone else. Orselli had done her portrait, oh, ten years ago was it? It hung near his desk, reminding him of his great good fortune.

He lifted the phone. The connection crackled.

“Hello, Hank? Hank, is that you? Hank, it’s Sox. I’m calling about that movie, you know, the one mentioned in Daily Variety? I’m looking for a job and I thought, well, who better to get me back in the business! Hank?”

The line was indistinct and he shook his head and looked at the machine as though it were a foreign object that had to be caressed, cajoled, persuaded.

            “Hello?”

Categories: Fiction

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