Dick Lit
Stacia St. Owens’
DISCOVERED

I’m often asked whether “dick lit” is a mocking response to “chick lit”? And while that may be true as a pure unadulterated marketing ploy to bring men back into the reading fiction fold, more than likely it’s the other way around, since basically “dick lit” has been around long before the idea of commitment to something other than himself became the albatross (holding civilization as-we-know-it together) that man had to come to grips with if he wanted to hold cavechick’s attention for any longer than it took to rub two rocks together. In fact, “dick lit” has been around since the first caveman’s curiosity stuck his dick into the equation when he rubbed those two rocks together around it until WANGO! He discovered, despite the pain (without gain), man cannot live by fire alone, and understood for all time how important it was for man to be able to get off by any means necessary. Which is the logo for this crude, rude, often ridiculous quest that drives everyman’s ludicrous every waking and slumbering moment, towards the existential drive for him to fill and refill the Holy and Unholy Grails of existence with momentary proof that KILROY IS HERE, as opposed to the much more noble creator’s banner stating KILROY WAS HERE. For was ain’t is, no matter what monuments or monstrosities man leaves behind. Or how much he would like to remember those long gone moments of good, bad or indifferent ecstasy that make up the raison d’étre of his piddling existence. So like it or not, “dick lit” is here to acknowledge the good, bad and ugly that goes with it, as it celebrates every young boy’s quest to get off for the first time, everyman’s quest to get off the next time, and every old man’s quest to get off one more time, before there is no time left to get off on. From Bukowski’s SIX INCHES, the all time classic masterpiece of the then still undubbed genre (now claiming accreditation as a low rent literary school), to Joe Maynard’s innocent jism flailing MISSIONARY POSITIONS, to the desperate brutality of Joey Amdahl’s LIFE OUTSIDE THE BOX, to the group of gay artists and intellectuals mourning their lost foreskins in Michael Carnevale’s GOLDBERG, to uncovering the deep dark secret in Stacia Saint Owens’ masterful Hollywood classic, DISCOVERED, “dick lit” no longer has to worry about skulking through the utilitarian sewer of “no redeeming value”, since like it or not, “no redeeming value” (except the writing) is the recognized heart & soul of “dick lit”. 

MG / 8/31/08

Discovered

by Stacia Saint Owens

The only thing worse than an aging actor was an aged one. Tilda knew the restaurant was too loud. The entire lunch would be reduced to Millie pretending she could hear, and forging a headstrong monologue to disguise the fact that she couldn’t catch a word Tilda was saying. Millie must have chosen this place because it used to be The Place to see and be seen back in the ’70s, the decade when Millie’s legendary looks began to fade and the plastic surgery started to show in daylight. Millie’s style of dress and slang were lodged firmly in the ’70s, as if she refused to budge another day distant from the famous beauty she once was. She expected even time to yield to her tantrums.

And there she was, making her late entrance, a stick of a woman in a leopard print pantsuit, flesh colored lipstick coating her sunken little cave of a mouth, heavy Jackie O sunspecs that overwhelmed her petite face like a knight’s visor. And that dreadful hairpiece, a platinum blonde fall straight out of one of those old spaceship programs.

Girls from Millie’s day would never think of leaving the house without over-dressing. There was a superstitious belief in those days that you could be discovered, that Los Angeles was overrun with ethereal talent agents who would notice you and pluck you from obscurity right on the spot and make you famous. The girls today were more savvy. They knew all the pumps they had to prime before dumb luck would find them. Tilda saw all the gorgeous young hopefuls today, brunching behind sunglasses, looking absolutely shocking, with their undernourished hair unstyled and their shirts unlaundered and their slack blue jeans broadcasting all the rumples of last night’s coarse sex. Today it was chic to look like you were already famous and hiding from the media. Everybody now realized that Lana Turner wasn’t actually discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store. Millie must’ve known this all along, but her life as a studio star had made her an excellent co-conspirator. She promoted all the official legends, not caring if they were true.

Now Millie stood shaking by the restaurant entrance, cocking her head to and fro, probably blind as well as deaf, but beautiful women from their era never wore glasses. At 78 years old (plus the standard five shaved off her bio), Millie still managed to turn heads when she walked into a room, but now people shook their heads as well, exclaiming inside over the sad eccentric fate of women who stick around Hollywood too long. Nobody recognized her. They couldn’t really be blamed. This clownish old lady bore little resemblance to the dewy black and white creature, luminous in her Max Factor fairy dust and close-up filters. Tilda sighed and forced her arthritic knees to stand so she could go meet Millie and escort her back to the table. Millie had been so brainwashed by the old studio that she still couldn’t make a move in public without direction.

“You’re looking well,” Tilda lied.

“Let me tell you, baby, this is a can’t-lose deal. The people are starved for glamour. Starved.”

“Speaking of starved, why don’t we order first?”

“It’s all human hair. Yur-oh-pee-in.” Millie clearly couldn’t hear her at all. She would talk the whole time and Tilda would be expected to listen. Millie had some harebrained scheme for releasing a line of wigs. Tilda thought she meant grey numbers for the geriatric set, who may remember her, but Millie wanted to do high fashion for the young people. Tilda was ostensibly supposed to give Millie business advice, but Millie really only wanted someone to tell her what a good idea she had. Again. Nothing counted for Millie unless it was publicly lauded. Tilda was certain that when Millie was alone in a room, she couldn’t even see her own reflection. Millie was so brash and difficult because she constantly felt she was in danger of disappearing. She needed many staring eyeballs— adoring or censorious, it didn’t matter— to pin her in place.

Tilda watched Millie’s shrunken little head yapping, and she wondered if Millie ever looked in the mirror anymore. They had both been small women in their prime. Now it seemed to Tilda that they had turned rodent-like, tiny and skittish as mice, with never-still jaws. Tilda interrupted Millie, speaking loudly but careful to keep her voice even. Only Millie was allowed to yell.

“It’s very difficult to sell to young people. They’re incredibly fickle.”

Millie pursed her lifeless lips. Folds of excess skin sagged where the surgical plumpness had worn off, forming an obscene Georgia O’Keefe flower where her mouth should have been. She made several futile attempts to spoon her soup, the utensil clanging unnervingly against the deep ceramic bowl again and again, a warning bell on a buoy. Tilda thought Millie was gathering strength for the rest of her soliloquy. But she abandoned the spoon in its watery grave and said, “You think I’m old, don’t you?”

“Well, we’ve both gotten old. There’s no cheating time.”

“You know what The Agent Boy told me the other day? The funniest thing,” Millie paused right on time. She had learned her comic timing from the likes of Billy Wilder, and it was as sharp as ever. The Agent Boy was a kid that William Morris had assigned to Millie as a sort of courtesy. He was what they called a film geek, and he actually knew who Millie was. He always seemed to be hovering like a vulture who’d lost his necktie, showing up at their birthday parties on a mission to collect anecdotes. He had an annoying habit of opening conversations with questions like, “So, is it true that Gary Cooper was a lousy lay?”

Millie’s real agent, Pesky, had died years ago. Everybody turned out for his funeral, and they all stood around Forest Lawn trying to come up with the most spiteful barb. But Millie had cried like it was her father they were burying, her David O. Selznik black ostrich feather hat trembling with genuine emotion. She must’ve known it was the beginning of the end for her. Pesky had been Big Bob’s agent, too, and Big Bob had wrapped his big bear arm around Millie’s little distressed damsel frame, which of course ended up in all the papers the next day. This was just one of the many indignities Millie had managed to heap upon Tilda’s marriage to Big Bob.

“The Agent Boy told me,” Millie went on, “ ‘It’s not so bad getting older, Millie. Now you can actually be Jewish again.’ ” Millie tittered, which is how girls used to be taught to laugh. Tilda wondered if this were an intentional jab. Tilda had lost her faith after they refused to bar mitzvah Little Big Bob just because he couldn’t memorize all that crap. She could vouch for the fact that he had tried his damnedest. He and Big Bob were locked in his bedroom for weeks, drilling the stuff, even though Big Bob wasn’t even Jewish. “Hell, it’s just running lines,” he’d said. But Little Big Bob hadn’t been able to master it. Maybe she was being paranoid. Maybe Millie was actually developing a sense of humor about herself after all these years. Her real name was, after all, Mildred Stumstein, from some anti-Semitic little pig farm town in Illinois where her intellectual longbeard father had been the rag picker. They changed her to Millicent Mumford, but Big Bob still called her Mildred to this day. So did Tilda. Every time she said “Mildred,” she pictured mildew, hoping Millie would see the accusatory rot in her eyes.

“How is Little Big Bob?” Millie asked, confirming that the Jewish comment had indeed been an underhanded tactic to wound her.

He’s 44 years old and they’re still calling him Little Big Bob, that’s how he is, Tilda wanted to snap. But she restrained herself, even took a bite of her grilled cheese to show Millie that she wasn’t gritting her teeth.

Little Big Bob was their battle ground. After Big Bob left Millie for Tilda the mousey (but younger) script girl, Millie made their lives a living hell. Millie was gorgeous when she was enraged, radiant with purpose. Tilda got the feeling she was crossing a Greek goddess and would end up under a cruel, peculiar curse, like growing spider legs or becoming transfixed by her own reflection.

Big Bob was sanguine in the face of Millie’s tantrums. He had been married to her for three years and was used to it. “Hell, it’s just her way,” he’d say. “She’s afraid if she quiets down, the people will all go away.” Millie once threw a glass of ice water in Tilda’s face at a Bing Crosby cabaret show. Big Bob’s reaction had been to get up from the table and amble after Millie and spend the next two hours in the kitchen comforting her while Tilda blotted her ill-fitting Edith Head gown with a napkin and everyone’s necks went stiff from not daring to look at her.

Things only changed once Tilda gave birth. Millie had tormented her all through her pregnancy, but the minute Little Big Bob let rip his first outraged scream at Cedars Sinai, Millie disappeared. Tilda reasoned that she must’ve grown bored with the whole thing, or have fallen for one of her gigolos.

But it turned out Millie hadn’t retreated. She had recoiled and set up her most vicious strike. One night Big Bob sat Tilda down and announced, “She wants part custody.”

“But he isn’t her son!”

“The thing is, she’s gonna claim that I didn’t let her have a kid when we was married, and she’s aiming to stir up all sorts of trouble as far as an annulment and like that, and Pesky says it’ll be bad press and going to court and airing my dirty laundry and all.”

“I can’t let that woman near my baby!”

“Hell, it won’t really be her. She’ll hire some people. A French nanny and all that. He’ll be fine. It’ll be a little vacation for you.”

Tilda had railed mightily against this ludicrous plan, her post-partum hormones caterwauling with a brave new ferocity. She swore she’d kill anyone who laid a finger on her son. She padded around the house pressing Little Big Bob’s floppy, soft-boiled infant head to her quilted robe with one hand while the other brandished a butcher knife.

Big Bob didn’t try to argue with her. He just made some phone calls.

When the suits filed into her living room, Tilda immediately dropped the knife. She wanted to rush across the room and hide Little Big Bob in the liquor cabinet, but instead she handed the baby over to Big Bob and meekly heeded his suggestion that she rustle up a round of coffee. She would not offer them cream or sugar, a pathetic rebellion lost on monsters like the suits, who had rasped the taste buds off their tongues speaking generations of lies. These were the real sharks of Hollywood, shimmering with an anonymity so perfect it hurt the eyes. Few people were important enough to ever see them. They had the nondescript suits of accountants and the cold tenacity of great whites. They practiced a diabolical form of law, paid for by people rich enough to climb above the judicial system.

They had plenty of practice in family law. The suits had obliterated all traces of the Mexican birth certificates of the missing twins born to Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. They arranged for the publicly devout Loretta Lynn to secretly give birth to an illegitimate child fathered by Clark Gable, then adopt her own baby, milking the fanfare for saving an unfortunate orphan. When Cary Grant was finally to be awarded his only Oscar, for Lifetime Achievement, in defiance of the studio he had crossed years before, the suits dug up a call girl to scream paternity suit, driving Grant out of the country so that he missed the awards ceremony. Then they ensured that she vanished when the judge ordered a blood test. The suits orchestrated the change of a baby girl’s name from Brando to Blake just before her mother was murdered. The right client could try to flee the country after his ex-wife was fatally stabbed, be found liable for wrongful death and battery, and the suits would still arrange for him to keep custody of his children.

Tilda sat silently as the suits passed around the documents with Millie’s name on them. Not one of them brought his coffee cup to his lips. Tilda signed. She was married to a movie star. Her child would never be her own.

The world loved to see their favorites procreate, but Tilda knew that Hollywood offspring were as endangered as newborn guppies. Every time she saw the magazine spreads of a star cavorting with their well-swaddled baby, she shuddered. The occasional columnist grumbled that these people treated their babies like accessories. Tilda knew the truth was far worse. They treated their children like bargaining chips, held them for ransom, got them appraised and re-appraised, gladly traded them when it was advantageous. These people lacked parental instincts because they saw no value in one-to-one relationships. Why cultivate such a puny audience?

“What are you talking— these people?” Tilda’s mother used to scold. “You’re going to be one of them. You think you can join in with people like that and not start acting like them?”

Her father, the failed rabbinical student, would glance up from his Talmudic reading and concur. “How is it possible to be in something and not of it?”

Tilda wouldn’t answer. She just looked at them, at their strained, senseless pride and ingrained smallness. Their surrender to an ancient code of conduct. How could she explain the appeal of Big Bob to two people who were content to disintegrate into dust, leaving no noticeable legacy, as if they had never walked the face of the Earth? They were the only ones who didn’t understand.

Despite Tilda’s annoyance at her parents, she was troubled by their predictions of her dancing with a herd of satyrs and growing goat’s feet. Tilda intended to be different. She would enjoy Big Bob’s lavish lifestyle, without surrendering herself entirely to its seductive wash. She would hold tight to her own thorny little stickler personality, her sense of right and wrong. She vowed to remain unswayed by Big Bob’s crowd, which was just that: a noisy, jostling crowd, not a circle of friends.

She went in with her good intentions and discovered that these people were impossible to resist. The insular gaiety of their madcap social lives was more convincing than any of their on-screen performances. They were famous because they were captivating. They could capture anything, flay your defenses right off your hide and plunder whatever they wanted from you. They could envelop a person they’d known for five minutes with an understanding so intense it was transformative. You would never be so attractive, so clever, so close to what you were meant to be as when these people fixed you in their shining eyes. She fell in love with them, and they didn’t even like her. They would kiss her on both cheeks, then tell Big Bob behind her back that she was a cold fish and he should chuck her. She knew all about these betrayals, yet every time they met face-to-face, these people would easily charm her back. They would squeeze her hand and brush her hair away from her ear and spread out the bright checkered picnic blanket of their enormous confessions, patting the seat beside them. They would lower their voices to the ticklish hush of pillow talk, nuzzling her with black sheep bleats, until she was sure they were only frightened misfits, crying out for a very specific acceptance, a rare balm that they could somehow sense buried deep inside of level-headed Tilda, something she had never known about herself, but that she could now feel kindling, inflating, filling her with the roaring, gas-mirage power of a hot air balloon.

The moment they felt her expand, she was doomed. They would break into mean-spirited impressions of her nasal whine. “Biiiig Bahb!” they’d shriek. “Biiiig Bahb! They’re ahhhl making fun of me again! Biiiig Bahb! Staaahhp them!” Calling back and forth to each other with the beady eyes of myna birds, getting louder and louder because they were afraid to stop.

Tilda could see that instead of relationships, they had elaborate coercions. She could see this in the same way an opium addict could see that the stuff would kill her eventually. It was always worth taking another hit. These people spent money like it had no value and doled out their approval as if it were the world’s most valuable asset. They were cunning withholders, social blueballers. They bounced Tilda up and down like a rubber ball. To them, she was child’s play.

Few of these people had played as children, except on vaudeville stages where child labor laws were non-existent, stuffing their outgrown soft-shoes with cotton wool to absorb the bleeding while they croaked through the week’s nineteenth performance. Those were the luckier ones. Most of them had been put to work swabbing hotel rooms or scrubbing dishes or swilling hogs as soon as they could stand, all of them so pretty and so poor that any entitled adult could help themselves to a handful.

These people made up for all of this now, seeking fun as if it were vengeance. They folded $100 bills into paper airplanes and sailed them off roof gardens. There was always some kind of bet going, and dirty sabotage was an expected and much-relished element. They bet they could make the next five room service girls cry. The rules had to be amended to disallow pinching. They kidnapped each other’s pets. They passed the banquet plates around musical-chairs style until the bawdy jazz tune stopped and someone had to eat poached tilapia with a side of snot. They spent a lot of time on boats, like gangsters seeking the sanctuary of international waters. They ran a 130 foot pleasure cruiser onto the rocks, evacuating the sinking ship with all the splashing brio of a pool party. Millie stripped down to her gossamer slip, the same sheen as the moonlight, and balanced on the deck rail, swaying like a priestess with her ivory arms outstretched, connected to this world only by her curled toes. She dove into the ocean with the eternal vitality of a mermaid.

Tilda scurried around searching high and low for a life preserver, her little crab-apple cheeks huffing with fear. She found the ship’s sole floatation device and yanked it off the wall, whinnying Big Bob’s name into the cold gales. Big Bob lumbered toward her, six bourbons past gallantry. He grabbed the life preserver out of her hands and flung it after Millie, the O of the skidding tube impersonating the O of Tilda’s mouth. Millie spit water through her teeth and tinkled a laugh that belonged in a tropical lagoon. The water was 56 degrees. Anyone else would have drowned.

These people kicked and cartwheeled through the freezing torrents cascading onto the deck, crooning the same blue limericks they recited when dipping merrily into a fountain in front of a grand hotel. They pried the grounded prow apart and dragged the wooden planks across the rocks and onto the shore, where they built a bonfire. When the fire rescue showed up, they bossed the captain into letting them all climb aboard and racing them to the nearest beach bar shanty with lights flashing and sirens wailing. The boat had been borrowed from some producer. No one offered to pay for it.

Two of the party were left behind when the overloaded fire engine shilly-shallied off with Big Bob, Millie, and their crowd hanging from every surface like train passengers bound for Calcutta. The two leftovers hadn’t moved fast enough, hadn’t dared muscle their way onto the sardined vehicle. Tilda and Joe Schmo. Tilda sat on a wet boulder and watched Joe Schmo dig in the sand, desperate to find his wedding ring. Everyone had been playing treasure hunt on the ship, slipping strands of diamonds into flower vases, hanging black pearl rings on toilet roll rods. Tilda had cheated, tucking one sapphire earring into her shoe, where it ripped her stockings and pierced her heel. Joe Schmo had only his 8 karat gold wedding ring, which he was still paying for on instalments to Sears Roebuck. He had gotten swept up in the bacchanalia and risked more than all the others combined. These people got their jewels for free, on loan from Harry Winston. If they lost them during their drunken antics, the gossip columns picked up the story and Harry got a million’s worth of publicity.

The reward for the treasure hunt was that you got locked in a cabin with the person whose jewels you found, a high-roller version of spin-the-bottle. Joe Schmo had been so hopelessly ensorceled by Millie that his wedding ring had popped off as if catapulted by his very visible erection. Joe Schmo’s wedding ring had gone down with the ship, but he was still burrowing in the sand, as if looking hard enough could rewind time to the point before he’d taken it off his finger.

Joe Schmo had been sent from the publicity department. They were constantly sponsoring contests then shipping some yokel to Los Angeles to live with his favorite star for a week. Everyone in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, told Joseph Schmidt that he looked like Big Bob, and discovering what a pale imitation he was when standing side-by-side had knocked the wind out of his sails. This always happened. The contest winners were an imposition. The star would lash unspoken vitriol upon the studio bosses by refusing to charm their houseguest. They would be unerringly polite while making it clear that the fan had absolutely nothing— nothing, as in not even the same species— in common with them and should never have come. The contest winners moped around the star’s house with downmouth, whispering “Yessir” and “No’m” and not looking anyone in the eye. Joe Schmo had had a fearsome sweet tooth, and had preferred to take his meals with Little Big Bob, who was only three years old and would cackle as Joe Schmo clowned around with his bowl of mush and syrup, rubbering his comely features into the grotesque neediness of Harpo Marx.

Joe Schmo collapsed over his sand holes. The ocean spit salty foam in his face, belittling his tears. He lifted his anguished eyes up toward Tilda, the other odd one out, a whipping girl in the cold wind, stung by the violent flapping of her wet silks and fallen hair. “How do you take it?” he asked.

Tilda could take it because she knew Big Bob was different from the rest of them. He had fallen into acting when he was on leave from the Navy and a mincing Viennese exile director had seen him striding out of an Olympic Boulevard tattoo parlor, bare-chested, fanning himself with his shirt. The director read Big Bob’s freshly-inked heart, beaded with droplets of blood: THROB. He fell topsy-turvy in love. Big Bob thought it was all a tremendous joke, and he glided to greatness on the vibrations of his inner belly laugh.

It was the soaring aspiration that twisted the rest of them. Big Bob didn’t have this. He never participated much in his crowd’s exploits. He just hung around, at ease but unmoved, as if he had gone to great lengths to purchase box seats to an opera but the music wasn’t to his taste. He was a normal indifferent father, laconic and tolerant, never raising a fuss when Tilda asked him to watch Little Big Bob. He didn’t play with his son, nor did he teach him any bad habits. He would study his scripts while Little Big Bob crawled quietly at his feet, gnawing on his own fists. Big Bob treated his son as he would a footstool that needed to be presented with a warmed-up dinner plate at six.

Tilda was sure that Millie, on the other hand, was a corrupting influence. After the suits named her a third legal guardian, Little Big Bob spent his summers with Millie, skiing in Switzerland or laking in Maine. Tilda suspected that her son was exposed to every sort of debauchery. Millie and Big Bob’s crowd was majestically bisexual and unapologetically perverse. This was not because they were particularly exploratory or tormented by fetishes. They were merely practicing the special privilege of those who go from rags to riches: They would never again have to choose one thing over the other. They did it all, every which way.

Tilda had never been tempted by such hedonism. Her father’s shabby little Judaica shop had been forever on the verge of bankruptcy. She grew up to be a hoarder, not an indulger. Once they were married, she thought of Big Bob’s money and status as a security, not something to be enjoyed. When she and Big Bob returned from their honeymoon (a disappointing, low-budget quickie trip to Puerto Vallarta, arranged by Pesky to evade the hostile press. It had been brain-boilingly hot, the beaches bleached as teeth, so she napped the days away while Big Bob wandered the streets)— and when they returned to take up residence together at Big Bob’s fortressed Bel Air estate, she had set the table with her sturdy old chipped dishes.

“Let’s have them fancy plates they sent for our weddin,” Big Bob demanded.

“Oh, those are too good to use every day.”

“Too good to use?” he snorted, incredulous. “Hell, nothin’s too good to use.”

When Millie had been Big Bob’s wife, she had encouraged his insatiable appetite for comfort. Tilda reeled when she took over the household accounts. Millie had tried to spend every last penny in pursuit of sensory pleasures. Tilda tabulated the list of imported champagnes and rare-spice mud baths and costume balls that cost more than college tuition. Nothing Millie bought remained. She had consumed it all.

Tilda fretted over every minute Little Big Bob was in Millie’s so-called care. When Little Big Bob would return in the fall, Tilda would strip him down and examine every inch of him under an intense floor lamp, searching for signs of abuse. He would be a bit fatter, but there was never any evidence of foul play. Tilda kept up these examinations until he was fourteen years old, when he had taken off his clothes as ordered, then yelled at her, “You’d be happy if there was something wrong with me!”

“Little Big Bob, I’m trying to protect you.”

“You don’t even know what you’re looking for.” And he had walked naked to his bedroom and slammed the door. Big Bob stood in the living room with his arms crossed and didn’t cock an eye as his son passed by en flagrante and steaming like a bulbous cauliflower. Tilda thought she saw a look of collusion pass between them, but she knew she had imagined this. Big Bob was far too intellectually lazy to form any collusions. Like most actors, he went ahead and put his bad behavior on public display and received adoration for being misunderstood.

* * *

“Little Big Bob is doing quite well,” Tilda finally answered Millie, after reviewing her flip book of past injuries in a silence that carried no weight for her self-absorbed companion. Tilda speared her dill pickle, imagining that the spurt of green cucumber seeds was a nasty plague she could cast upon Millie. “He’s still working with the Indian children in North Dakota.”

“I spoke to him on the horn last week,” Millie revealed, all undertones and subtext. Tilda’s first thought, even before: She’s plotting with Little Big Bob!, was: She’s only pretending to be deaf. She can hear me fine. She just wants to get out of pretending to listen. Tilda and Millie had buried the hatchet somewhere along the way, but Tilda had never truly ended her quest to find some definite offense that Millie could be punished for.

“Oh?” Tilda asked carefully. “What did he say?”

“I’m bringing him on as Executive in Charge of Production.”

“For what?”

“For the wig deal.”

“But… Little Big Bob isn’t a businessman. He’s out in North Dakota–”

“He’s agreed to come back. In fact, he should be in town by now.”

The bitch. Tilda had been begging Little Big Bob to come home for years. She had single-handedly built up Big Bob’s production company into a force to be reckoned with. At one point, in the early ’60s, they were producing five television programs, mostly variety shows that don’t get syndicated, but now that cable television needed to fill all that time, the money was rolling in again, and there were all kinds of things to do. She was old and tired, and Big Bob himself had never been interested in the business side of things. Tilda had always planned to turn the reigns over to Little Big Bob, but he had fled to his Indians and wanted nothing to do with Hollywood. She had visited him at that bleak reservation with its tarpaper and alcoholic bloat and had cried for weeks afterward at the sheer waste of it all. Now Millie picks up the phone and he comes trotting back to help her scalp some Eastern Europeans, probably war refugees selling their hair for food.

“Little Big Bob can’t run a business, Mildred.”

“Why can’t he? He’s got a tremendous head for figures. I remember how he used to fool with that chemistry set.”

Tilda remembered it, too. She remembered waking up at two in the morning and finding Little Big Bob in the kitchen bare-chested and pyjama-bottomed, holding a beaker up to the light with a dazed expression on his face. She had to clear her throat and even then he moved slowly, as if his mother and her kitchen and the entire house were inconsequential and not yet proven.

Big Bob had the same affectation of staring off into the middle distance, but for him it was a method. His unseeing gaze added an expansiveness to the cramped sets and inane scripts that were always straining to contain his brawny frame. Once Lolly Parsons had asked Big Bob what he was thinking of when he gave the camera his trademark faraway look, and he had answered, “Canada.”

Little Big Bob, on the other hand, didn’t have the edge of his father’s accidental wit. He was clutching that chemistry beaker the same way a baby grabs something to orient itself in the overwhelming flow of stimuli that is everyday life. He hadn’t the first idea about chemistry. He was just daydreaming. Her son was the type who got out of bed in the middle of the night to daydream.

“He’s never done anything like run a company. He isn’t… astute.” There. Millie had tricked her into insulting her own son. A wolven smile flickered across Millie’s collapsed pumpkin mouth as she acknowledged the kill.

“You don’t even know your own son.”

It was worse than the ice water. Tilda stood abruptly and would liked to have stormed out of the restaurant, but her limp made her exit pitiable, and she felt Millie’s gummy smile on her sloping back, revelling in her retreat.

* * *

At home, Big Bob was stretched out in his recliner as always. Tilda paced around him and he could tell she was angry, but he didn’t ask. She wondered if he had ever asked her anything. He hadn’t even proposed interrogatively. He had said, “It’s about time we was married.” Tilda was still looking forward to the day when the urgency would leave her relationship with Big Bob. They should be settled and complacent by now, or bored and split up. It was always like they had just met and were testing the waters, deeply enamored but afraid of each other, vulnerable to outside forces. Tilda was sure this was because of Millie and her constant meddling, the way she had turned that whole crowd against Tilda and tried to usurp her son. There was always something dangerous between Tilda and Big Bob. It was ridiculous at their age. She decided she would not mention Millie. It only gave Millie the upper hand, and Big Bob would be patently noncommittal and she would end up seething and blowing her blood pressure through the roof. She sat down and counted to ten. When she opened her eyes, she noticed a lumpy garment bag heaped by the flagstone fireplace.

“Little Big Bob is home?”

“In the kitchen.”

It was just like Big Bob not to tell her their son had arrived, and just like the two of them to sit in separate rooms.

She found Little Big Bob slumped over the kitchen counter, shuffling a stack of saltine crackers into different arrangements. He looked chubby as ever, but his eye sockets were deep and ringed. She blurted out, “Are you sick?” without meaning to.

“Hello, Mom.” He straightened up to his full height and Tilda stood on tiptoes to peck his cheek. His skin was still baby soft.

“How long have you been here? Are you hungry?”

Little Big Bob shrugged, equally unsure about both questions.

“I could set up a few meetings for you if you’ll be staying long. We could really be placing more syndication rights, negotiating better deals, if there was someone to do it full time.”

“I’m here about the hair thing.”

“Right, but as long as you’re here—”

“My poetry class made you this.” He nodded toward a childish watercolor painting of mountains and a sun magnetted to the refrigerator.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, my. How vibrant. And did they make one for Daddy, too?”

Little Big Bob grimaced. “It’s kind of for both of you,” he said. Then he wandered out of the room, leaving his crackers behind. She nervously ate them up, picturing herself as a neurotic little mouse who might be discovered at any moment and swatted out of the kitchen. Though who would do this she didn’t know. Big Bob and Little Big Bob took no interest in anything.

That night she leaned over Little Big Bob’s twin bed with the blue ship sheets and kissed his forehead. He suddenly grabbed her hand. “Stay?” he asked. She sat beside his bed and stroked his fleshy hands until he fell into a restless sleep. She was happier than she’d been in years.

The next day, Millie came over and she and Little Big Bob locked themselves in the den for over an hour. Tilda tried to interrupt their powwow by bringing them a tray of lemonade, but Big Bob saw her coming from his recliner and said, “For God’s sake, woman, let them be.”

“They might be thirsty.”

“Hell, Tilda, what is it you think they’re up to in there?” She blinked and breathed, embarrassed by her suspicious mind. Big Bob kindly saved her. “The guy who needs some of that lemonade is me.”

She poured two glasses of lemonade and sat with him for a time. He slurped but didn’t speak. Tilda looked at him with the frank eye of a merchant’s daughter. He was still handsome in a crumbling way. His pendulous earlobes and cheeks and chin appeared weighted down by a life spent in public service or high treason or hardscrabble ranching–a life he had not lead, but had imitated on film. He was just a big casual lug who had fallen into a rabbit hole of good luck. She couldn’t keep blaming him for her disappointments. The production company had never been put in her name, for example. It just wasn’t done at the time. The fact that their son had inherited all of his vagueness and none of her shrewdness. And Millie. Why had he married such a scorpion? What kind of fool would fail to see how she would poison his life? There was no use asking him. He had no capacity for self-reflection.

“What are you always contemplating in this chair?” she asked. “Canada?”

“What?”

“Never mind. At least you’re not out running around behind my back.”

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Canada? Who do we know in Canada?”

Millie flounced over and kissed Big Bob on the lips before she left, but he didn’t even bother to get out of his chair. Tilda was sure she saw a tug of embarrassment cross his face. Millie looked so ghoulish these days that even Big Bob was no longer enchanted.

Millie, of course, couldn’t leave it at that. “He’s the only boy I ever loved,” she sighed, her apricot colored fingernails digging into Big Bob’s plaid shoulders. “Though I don’t know if he ever truly loved either of us best, Tilda.” Big Bob shifted uncomfortably in his chair and cleared his throat. “But who needs old King Frog here when I have my prince?” and she pinschered at Little Big Bob’s shirt front. Then Little Big Bob solemnly escorted her out to her car.

“She’s still got a big mouth,” mumbled Big Bob. It was the first time Tilda had ever heard him insult Millie.

“What?” she asked, for confirmation. But Big Bob just stared silently at the ceiling. There was no tension in the air. Just absence.

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re finally developing some powers of observation.” Tilda didn’t care if he heard her or not. She was in the best mood of her entire married life. She launched a serious housecleaning project, spurred on by the marvellous old songs humming through her brain, ballroom numbers from when she first met Big Bob and he passed her from friend to friend, Tilda spinning from one handsome silver screen idol to the next, their beautiful faces arched in curiosity as they sized her up, their feet politely compensating for her starstruck stumbles. The music swelled and she swooned into their customized flattery. With every beat, she ticked off one of the millions of jealous girls she had bested. She hadn’t started from much, but there must have been something special about her. She must have been pretty once, though she hadn’t believed it at the time.

That night, she went to Little Big Bob’s room to tuck him in again. He jumped when she entered, and she saw him scoot a box under the bed.

“What’ve you got there?”

“Stuff. From when I was a kid.”

She bent down to read the box. Her inflamed knees screamed. “Your old erector set? I don’t remember you playing with that one much.”

“I hated it.”

“It’s not your cup of tea.” She straightened, swallowing a groan, and kissed his forehead. “I thought maybe I’d read to you tonight. The Wind in the Willows. You always loved Mr. Toad.”

“I’m not tired yet,” he said. Then he sat Indian style on his bed and closed his eyes.

“You’re turning into an Indian yourself,” she said.

“Native American,” he murmured, without opening his eyes.

Tilda watched him for a minute then left the room. She wanted to ask Big Bob if he thought their son was strange. With all the mental diseases they had nowadays, maybe he had one of those. Surely there was a pill. But Big Bob was already asleep. He exhaled a long mournful moan that sounded like a shack leaning. Making noise in bed wasn’t like him at all.

* * *

Little Big Bob floated in an inner tube in the pool and Big Bob lounged in his chair, two poles of inertia around which Tilda was a whirling dervish of activity. She sent the maid out grocery shopping and continued cleaning the house top to bottom herself. She was sure her two boys weren’t offering to help because they just didn’t notice, both of them staring off at his own personal horizon.

Little Big Bob’s ship sheets were soaking wet, and for an instant she was afraid he was back to wetting the bed. He had developed this habit when he was inappropriately old, around eleven. Tilda blamed it on some gin-soaked trauma he must’ve witnessed at Millie’s, but she could never prove anything. To her relief, the dampness on the sheets was just excessive perspiration. She tsk-ed and stripped the bed.

She ran her broom underneath for dustballs, and banged into the erector set. She flung it down on the bare mattress ticking and was about to balance it on top of the Monopoly in the closet, when she opened the box and peeked inside, to make sure Little Big Bob had replaced all the pieces. The little metal thingies were all jumbled up, of course. Tilda dumped them out on the bed so she could arrange them by size. The cardboard lining of the box fell out, too, along with the photos that had been hidden underneath.

The photos were so grainy and dim that none of the subjects looked familiar. She held one up to the light. It was mostly of someone’s skin. Terrible composition. Whoever had taken these shots must’ve been three sheets to the wind. She flipped through the stack. Sometimes you could tell it was a little boy. Then the little boy was holding an erect penis.

The photos dropped to the floor and waited for her with sinister patience. She could either put these photos back in the box and close the lid, or she could examine them until she had some explanation for why her son would have these pictures. She looked out the window at Little Big Bob floating lazily in the water, suspended in time. She said a quick prayer over him, offering an atheist’s bargain, and locked the bedroom door.

There were really only two pictures that told what was going on, one with the penis in hand, and an extreme close-up of the little boy’s mouth wrapped around the tip. Was it a little Indian boy? No, he was pale and chubby. The pictures were in color but had an old fashioned white border around the edges, a spiffy touch that seemed intentionally mocking. Then she noticed the boy’s pajama bottoms. Blue ships. She looked over at the anxiety-soaked ship sheets piled beside the bed. She leaned forward and vomited all over the fleet, retching so hard her stomach turned into a strongman game at a county fair, someone was pounding her with a hammer and a heavy disk was rising slowly up her esophagus over and over. She dabbed the sour saliva from her mouth and looked out the window. Little Big Bob was still floating in the pool, unchanged. She slammed the photos back into the erector set box and carried it with her as she ran out of the house, limping every third step.

* * *

Tilda banged on Millie’s door so hard her bony palm split open. The door was opened by one of the small dark Spaniards they had all been reduced to, no loyalty or discretion, no intention of remaining servants for long. Tilda grabbed the maid’s caramel arm and flung her out of the house. She darted inside and locked the door.

Tilda stood panting in Millie’s dim entry hall, clutching her stomach cramp with her bleeding hand. Her overtaxed knees popped, threatening to collapse. She was disoriented by the bespoiled state of the place. The ’70s glamour was now cobwebbed and spit-shined. Millie’s days of grand entrances, slithering down the mirrored spiral staircase onto the silver and gold tiles, were over. Millie had closed the top floors of her fake castle and moved her boudoir— where she watched TV and ate her meals and made her dwindling phone calls, but never slept, never made romance— to the ground floor. Now she emerged from the shadows, testy and ridiculous in a purple silk kimono with matching turban that only accentuated the fact that she was bald underneath. Tilda hurled the erector set at Millie. The hard edges of the box struck Millie in the chest, and she toppled backward, but didn’t scream. “For fuck’s sake–” she protested.

Tilda stepped over her and glared into her ruined face, the skin sliding every which way, no longer part of the act. She had a systematic plan to torture Millie with cleaning supplies and noxious food mixtures. It would take her days to die. She tried to drag Millie to her feet, but slipped and fell down beside her.

“What? What?” sputtered Millie.

Tilda grabbed one of the photos, a hopelessly blurry one, and thrust it at Millie’s washed out eyeball. But Millie must’ve seen these photos, or something like them, before. She instantly recognized it.

“Oh God. Oh dear God. You found out.”

“You ruined him,” sobbed Tilda. “My beautiful boy. You will die for this, Mildred.”

“I will—? No, baby, no, no. He was like that before me.”

“Shut up!” screamed Tilda. The force of her voice ripping through her lungs knocked her back again. “Stop talking!”

Millie’s gnarled, shaky hands rooted around in the photos, bringing each one to her face before summarily tossing it aside. The same way she disposes of people, Tilda thought. She clamped down on Millie’s hand, marsupial and curled as a chipmunk’s paw, and wrested a photo away from her.

“These were taken—” Millie began.

“SHUT UP!”

“I wasn’t there. Look at the ring, baby. Look at the ring. It was all on your watch.” Then Millie shut up, for the first time ever. Tilda listened to Millie’s crowded breathing, too much life forcing its way through her passages, and wondered if she were being tricked again. She got on her hands and knees and found the photo she had pulled out of Millie’s grasp. The man’s hand on the boy’s bare back. So what? She peered at the man’s gold ring. It had a big marquis diamond flanked by a cluster of rubies. It matched her wedding ring.

Tilda sat quietly, holding the photo tightly while the world stirred around her and all the atoms in everything solid dispersed into a swarm of charged specks, dates and times and people zinging around with no rhyme or reason, lighting up in some triumphantly random sequence. She watched Little Big Bob clutch his chemistry beaker late at night, and she felt so endlessly sorry for thinking he had been born slow and dim. He was only hoping the little glass tube could be his carousel pole as he desperately tried to catch his balance.

“He always liked boys,” pronounced Millie, enunciating sharply.

This isn’t a Chekov play, you bitch, thought Tilda, though she shouldn’t have blamed Chekov when the whole thing had the tawdry shock of dinner theatre murder mystery performed in the round. This was her son, her poor custody-shuffled son, his life ruined. She wanted tragedy in a grand proscenium. Instead she had these haphazard photos of her husband abusing her son inside neat little white frames, like TV sets, as if it were all as immaterial as something fleeting across the airwaves.

“Who knew?” Tilda asked softly.

“What do you mean, who knew? Everybody knew. Everybody that had anything to do with his career. Except for you, and I suppose he needed someone simple on his arm. I mean, he likes women, too— the small, skinny ones, that is.” She flicked her cobra eyes over Tilda’s spare, boyish frame, as if she herself had not always had the same unfeminine physique, all of her curves added by the camera and its light tricks, by the audience and its need to add contours to a flat projection. Millie’s allure had always depended upon collaborators. “It’s just that he has that little deviance.”

All those years. People laughing behind her back. Cringing. Procuring teenage hustlers off Santa Monica Boulevard. All of this parading under her nose while she made the breakfast and counted the money. And her son….

She had believed that Big Bob was different.

Her father looked up from his sacred recitations, looked across the years and into her eyes. His humble devoutness had crystallized into something substantial and lasting, something shining. Something she had missed. “How is it possible to fall into stardom?” Tilda’s father posed, peering over his steepled fingers. “Falling would be the wrong direction.”

She heard Big Bob’s bass whisper, tilted with mischief: “Sssshhhh…. Don’t let her find out.” But he wasn’t saying this about Tilda. He was saying it to her, back when he was still married to Millie and romancing Tilda in secret.

In the master bedroom of the mansion that was not yet Tilda’s, the young Millie collapsed on the bed, losing her shape as naturally as a jellyfish, crying her eyes out over her stolen husband and unborn children; over all the smiles she would have to manufacture for the public out of sheer will and bald mimicry because she had never, not for one minute, experienced happiness; over her terrifying foreknowledge that her looks would fade and she would end up more alone than any unnoticed person had ever been. Tilda had never given Millie’s feelings a moment’s thought. She had convinced herself that Millie didn’t have any feelings. She had wanted what Millie had and had seized it. She had eagerly lain down with a scorpion. What did that make her?

The ocean roared its cold dark wake-up call into Joe Schmo’s face. He looked up at Tilda, who was sitting on a wet boulder, forgotten by her husband. “How do you take it?” he asked.

Tilda’s father tutted at her, disapproving. She had changed the words, flubbed the line. Presumed to alter the text.

That night when the boat sank, burying all those precious jewels and one cheap wedding ring on the ocean floor, Joe Schmo hadn’t asked Tilda, “How do you take it?” He had asked, “Why did you take it?”

While those people monkeyed all over the ship, cramming their treasures into hidey holes, Tilda leaned close to Joe Schmo, who was looking glumly out over the deck rail, hoping to spot land, trying to see clear back to Wisconsin. She squeezed his hand, brushed his hair away from his ear, lowered her voice to the ticklish hush of pillow talk. She convinced him that if he gave her his wedding ring, she would guarantee that Millie would find it. He would win an episode of hanky-panky in a locked cabin with one of the world’s most lusted-after women. He, Joe Schmo, of Grand Chute.

Still, he had hesitated. He said no. He said no again. And again. His voice was high and tight in that curdled back-home buttermilk accent and he kept repeating the word as if he were picking a single sharp banjo string. Tilda stood there with her hand out, offering him a trade she knew she couldn’t fulfil. The moist night air rang with squeals and slams while the wine-spill of a sultry torch song flowed from the phonograph. The wind Februaried over their skins in cold gusts. The waves lapped. The boat rocked hypnotically. Tilda brushed her bow mouth against Joe Schmo’s sunburnt earlobe. “This doesn’t count,” she whispered. She shrugged her bare elfin shoulders and awarded him a goofy smile, the same soothing clown face she had seen him give her little son, a smile she had stolen from him. Joe Schmo gently placed his ring on her palm, as if he were resting it on a pillow at the starting end of a wedding aisle.

Tilda closed her fist over Joe Schmo’s wedding ring. She walked off. When she rounded the corner of the deck, out of his sight, she tossed the ring into the sea. It hit the water with a plish too tiny for Tilda to hear.

This was the type of joke they played on that boat. He should learn to take it. Tilda plucked up the words she would use to tell the story later. She would make those people laugh. She would make them admire her.

But the whole boat sank, turning Tilda’s story into a drowned rat. She never told anyone. It was a total loss.

The next day, Joe Schmo abruptly packed up and left. Big Bob was off on one of his long golf rounds with his favorite caddy. Joe Schmo took Little Big Bob’s fat little hand and gave him a manly shake. Then he squeezed his own nose, mouthed, “Honk honk,” and planted a swat on Little Big Bob’s fanny. Tilda yanked her son firmly out of his grasp.

He reached for Tilda and she jumped back with a squawk. He only grabbed her hand, intending to kiss it. He had never tried this move before, one of the gestures he had admired and studied at the pictures. He misjudged, clobbering his nose with Tilda’s knuckles, knocking off his sweat-stained hat. Tilda thought she felt him bite her wedding ring, the fat almond diamond and caviar nest of rubies that cost so much and promised so little. She felt his slobber murking her shine. She drew back her hand and gripped herself in a little fist. She was afraid of Joe Schmo. Afraid he had gotten wise to her, that his bumpkin frost had melted and he was brewing his red hot revenge. She was afraid he would be back.

Joe Schmo left with his cardboard suitcase, a carry-all too small to fit a pair of men’s shoes. Little Big Bob scampered to the big front window and waved and waved, slapping the glass with his other palm. Tilda grabbed her son by his shoulders and spun him around to face her. “What did that man do to you?” she asked. She grilled Little Big Bob, asking if Joe Schmo had touched him or looked at him funny. She insisted that they re-enact the horsy rides Joe Schmo had given the boy on his back, pressing Little Big Bob to show her exactly where Joe Schmo had put his hands. There? Or there? What about here? Little Big Bob ground his fists into his eyes and burst into tears.

Tilda called the police, who had a special fast-track procedure for high-profile citizens like Big Bob. They nodded gravely as she squeaked out her vague suspicions and appealed to them to bring in Joe Schmo for questioning.

The police returned in three days, craning their necks past Tilda, hoping to catch a glimpse of Big Bob, who had made himself scarce. They had bad news. They were unable to locate Joe Schmo. He hadn’t returned to Grand Chute, Wisconsin. They assured Tilda they would keep an eye out for him, taking the alleged assault on Big Bob’s assets as seriously as they would the national defense.

This outcome satisfied Tilda. She already felt silly for having feared that country mouse. Joe Schmo had committed the only Hollywood sin: he failed to make a lasting impression. The emotions he had stoked in her quickly vanished. She couldn’t even picture his face.

Tilda knew what happened to Joe Schmo. He had been too ashamed to return home without his wedding ring. He had checked into a transient hotel downtown, determined to use his pretty face to earn a new ring and enough pride to return to his hometown and childhood sweetheart. The city opened its maw and absorbed him. He became one of the innumerable pretty people who flock to Los Angeles only to find out that for some reason, they just aren’t pretty enough to earn money with their pants on.

Joe Schmo would slink along the baking sidewalks in front of the big hotels, slip into rented cars with meaty business travellers, take what they paid him and spend it on cheap wine to blot out what he’d done. He would eventually grow old, faster than the rest of them. His hand would become too shaky to use his shaving razor. His boyish mouth would bristle, and his Hollywood career would be over. He would droop on benches, his brain cacophonied by traffic noise, breathing in exhaust fumes, spurting shaving foam into his palm and licking it up, intaking enough alcohol to keep himself alive so he could get up and weave to the corner store for more shaving foam.

Tilda knew what had happened to Joe Schmo, and she knew where to find him. She could have tracked him down easily, or paid the suits to do it. She could have bought him five wedding rings and a first class ticket home. She could have gotten him a bit part on one of Big Bob’s shows. Or she could have had him killed. She never considered doing any of these things. Joe Schmo simply didn’t count.

Only now, at the age of 68, did Tilda discover who she really was. She was as arrogant as the worst famous person, hell-bent on pleasing herself, blind to the suffering of everyone else. She was restricted to a smaller scale than those people, that was all. In her own little realm, she was a star. The famous were empty vessels. Whatever it was they shined forth, they had stolen it from us. They were only imitating us. Look at them and you are looking into a magnified mirror. We distract ourselves by loving or hating them while our own houses fall, assailed from within.

The problem with getting old could be summed up in two words: TOO LATE. Tilda couldn’t save her son. Or Joe Schmo. She couldn’t stop her husband. She couldn’t apologize to her parents. The one person to whom she could possibly make amends was Millie. Millie, whose life-sustaining pool of adoration had shrunk to people dying in oxygen tents in Palm Springs and adjustable beds on the Upper East Side and electroshock nursing homes in St. Louis. Millie, who noticed how everyone scattered when her hair thinned, who took this as confirmation that the sheet of ice rinking her insides would always remain uncarved by any blade, would always be slick and numb. Millie, who prolonged her ravenous existence by feeding on the devotion of her very last genuine admirer, a manchild who she pretended had not been abused into a half-wit waster. Millie was connected to this world only by the curled toe of Little Big Bob.

The 83 year old Millie sensed the evaporation of Tilda’s rage. She stretched out her vein-engraved body, as if she were still an unattainable coquette in a white negligee balancing on the deck rail of a yacht. She held up one of the awful photographs. “Who’s the kid?” she asked casually. “Do you know him?”

Tilda sat silently, thinking carefully about her answer, tossing her son’s name up and down in her head like a poker chip.

The only thing worse than an aging actor was an aged one. Tilda knew the restaurant was too loud. The entire lunch would be reduced to Millie pretending she could hear, and forging a headstrong monologue to disguise the fact that she couldn’t catch a word Tilda was saying. Millie must have chosen this place because it used to be The Place to see and be seen back in the ’70s, the decade when Millie’s legendary looks began to fade and the plastic surgery started to show in daylight. Millie’s style of dress and slang were lodged firmly in the ’70s, as if she refused to budge another day distant from the famous beauty she once was. She expected even time to yield to her tantrums.

And there she was, making her late entrance, a stick of a woman in a leopard print pantsuit, flesh colored lipstick coating her sunken little cave of a mouth, heavy Jackie O sunspecs that overwhelmed her petite face like a knight’s visor. And that dreadful hairpiece, a platinum blonde fall straight out of one of those old spaceship programs.

Girls from Millie’s day would never think of leaving the house without over-dressing. There was a superstitious belief in those days that you could be discovered, that Los Angeles was overrun with ethereal talent agents who would notice you and pluck you from obscurity right on the spot and make you famous. The girls today were more savvy. They knew all the pumps they had to prime before dumb luck would find them. Tilda saw all the gorgeous young hopefuls today, brunching behind sunglasses, looking absolutely shocking, with their undernourished hair unstyled and their shirts unlaundered and their slack blue jeans broadcasting all the rumples of last night’s coarse sex. Today it was chic to look like you were already famous and hiding from the media. Everybody now realized that Lana Turner wasn’t actually discovered at Schwab’s Drug Store. Millie must’ve known this all along, but her life as a studio star had made her an excellent co-conspirator. She promoted all the official legends, not caring if they were true.

Now Millie stood shaking by the restaurant entrance, cocking her head to and fro, probably blind as well as deaf, but beautiful women from their era never wore glasses. At 78 years old (plus the standard five shaved off her bio), Millie still managed to turn heads when she walked into a room, but now people shook their heads as well, exclaiming inside over the sad eccentric fate of women who stick around Hollywood too long. Nobody recognized her. They couldn’t really be blamed. This clownish old lady bore little resemblance to the dewy black and white creature, luminous in her Max Factor fairy dust and close-up filters. Tilda sighed and forced her arthritic knees to stand so she could go meet Millie and escort her back to the table. Millie had been so brainwashed by the old studio that she still couldn’t make a move in public without direction.

“You’re looking well,” Tilda lied.

“Let me tell you, baby, this is a can’t-lose deal. The people are starved for glamour. Starved.”

“Speaking of starved, why don’t we order first?”

“It’s all human hair. Yur-oh-pee-in.” Millie clearly couldn’t hear her at all. She would talk the whole time and Tilda would be expected to listen. Millie had some harebrained scheme for releasing a line of wigs. Tilda thought she meant grey numbers for the geriatric set, who may remember her, but Millie wanted to do high fashion for the young people. Tilda was ostensibly supposed to give Millie business advice, but Millie really only wanted someone to tell her what a good idea she had. Again. Nothing counted for Millie unless it was publicly lauded. Tilda was certain that when Millie was alone in a room, she couldn’t even see her own reflection. Millie was so brash and difficult because she constantly felt she was in danger of disappearing. She needed many staring eyeballs— adoring or censorious, it didn’t matter— to pin her in place.

Tilda watched Millie’s shrunken little head yapping, and she wondered if Millie ever looked in the mirror anymore. They had both been small women in their prime. Now it seemed to Tilda that they had turned rodent-like, tiny and skittish as mice, with never-still jaws. Tilda interrupted Millie, speaking loudly but careful to keep her voice even. Only Millie was allowed to yell.

“It’s very difficult to sell to young people. They’re incredibly fickle.”

Millie pursed her lifeless lips. Folds of excess skin sagged where the surgical plumpness had worn off, forming an obscene Georgia O’Keefe flower where her mouth should have been. She made several futile attempts to spoon her soup, the utensil clanging unnervingly against the deep ceramic bowl again and again, a warning bell on a buoy. Tilda thought Millie was gathering strength for the rest of her soliloquy. But she abandoned the spoon in its watery grave and said, “You think I’m old, don’t you?”

“Well, we’ve both gotten old. There’s no cheating time.”

“You know what The Agent Boy told me the other day? The funniest thing,” Millie paused right on time. She had learned her comic timing from the likes of Billy Wilder, and it was as sharp as ever. The Agent Boy was a kid that William Morris had assigned to Millie as a sort of courtesy. He was what they called a film geek, and he actually knew who Millie was. He always seemed to be hovering like a vulture who’d lost his necktie, showing up at their birthday parties on a mission to collect anecdotes. He had an annoying habit of opening conversations with questions like, “So, is it true that Gary Cooper was a lousy lay?”

Millie’s real agent, Pesky, had died years ago. Everybody turned out for his funeral, and they all stood around Forest Lawn trying to come up with the most spiteful barb. But Millie had cried like it was her father they were burying, her David O. Selznik black ostrich feather hat trembling with genuine emotion. She must’ve known it was the beginning of the end for her. Pesky had been Big Bob’s agent, too, and Big Bob had wrapped his big bear arm around Millie’s little distressed damsel frame, which of course ended up in all the papers the next day. This was just one of the many indignities Millie had managed to heap upon Tilda’s marriage to Big Bob.

“The Agent Boy told me,” Millie went on, “ ‘It’s not so bad getting older, Millie. Now you can actually be Jewish again.’ ” Millie tittered, which is how girls used to be taught to laugh. Tilda wondered if this were an intentional jab. Tilda had lost her faith after they refused to bar mitzvah Little Big Bob just because he couldn’t memorize all that crap. She could vouch for the fact that he had tried his damnedest. He and Big Bob were locked in his bedroom for weeks, drilling the stuff, even though Big Bob wasn’t even Jewish. “Hell, it’s just running lines,” he’d said. But Little Big Bob hadn’t been able to master it. Maybe she was being paranoid. Maybe Millie was actually developing a sense of humor about herself after all these years. Her real name was, after all, Mildred Stumstein, from some anti-Semitic little pig farm town in Illinois where her intellectual longbeard father had been the rag picker. They changed her to Millicent Mumford, but Big Bob still called her Mildred to this day. So did Tilda. Every time she said “Mildred,” she pictured mildew, hoping Millie would see the accusatory rot in her eyes.

“How is Little Big Bob?” Millie asked, confirming that the Jewish comment had indeed been an underhanded tactic to wound her.

He’s 44 years old and they’re still calling him Little Big Bob, that’s how he is, Tilda wanted to snap. But she restrained herself, even took a bite of her grilled cheese to show Millie that she wasn’t gritting her teeth.

Little Big Bob was their battle ground. After Big Bob left Millie for Tilda the mousey (but younger) script girl, Millie made their lives a living hell. Millie was gorgeous when she was enraged, radiant with purpose. Tilda got the feeling she was crossing a Greek goddess and would end up under a cruel, peculiar curse, like growing spider legs or becoming transfixed by her own reflection.

Big Bob was sanguine in the face of Millie’s tantrums. He had been married to her for three years and was used to it. “Hell, it’s just her way,” he’d say. “She’s afraid if she quiets down, the people will all go away.” Millie once threw a glass of ice water in Tilda’s face at a Bing Crosby cabaret show. Big Bob’s reaction had been to get up from the table and amble after Millie and spend the next two hours in the kitchen comforting her while Tilda blotted her ill-fitting Edith Head gown with a napkin and everyone’s necks went stiff from not daring to look at her.

Things only changed once Tilda gave birth. Millie had tormented her all through her pregnancy, but the minute Little Big Bob let rip his first outraged scream at Cedars Sinai, Millie disappeared. Tilda reasoned that she must’ve grown bored with the whole thing, or have fallen for one of her gigolos.

But it turned out Millie hadn’t retreated. She had recoiled and set up her most vicious strike. One night Big Bob sat Tilda down and announced, “She wants part custody.”

“But he isn’t her son!”

“The thing is, she’s gonna claim that I didn’t let her have a kid when we was married, and she’s aiming to stir up all sorts of trouble as far as an annulment and like that, and Pesky says it’ll be bad press and going to court and airing my dirty laundry and all.”

“I can’t let that woman near my baby!”

“Hell, it won’t really be her. She’ll hire some people. A French nanny and all that. He’ll be fine. It’ll be a little vacation for you.”

Tilda had railed mightily against this ludicrous plan, her post-partum hormones caterwauling with a brave new ferocity. She swore she’d kill anyone who laid a finger on her son. She padded around the house pressing Little Big Bob’s floppy, soft-boiled infant head to her quilted robe with one hand while the other brandished a butcher knife.

Big Bob didn’t try to argue with her. He just made some phone calls.

When the suits filed into her living room, Tilda immediately dropped the knife. She wanted to rush across the room and hide Little Big Bob in the liquor cabinet, but instead she handed the baby over to Big Bob and meekly heeded his suggestion that she rustle up a round of coffee. She would not offer them cream or sugar, a pathetic rebellion lost on monsters like the suits, who had rasped the taste buds off their tongues speaking generations of lies. These were the real sharks of Hollywood, shimmering with an anonymity so perfect it hurt the eyes. Few people were important enough to ever see them. They had the nondescript suits of accountants and the cold tenacity of great whites. They practiced a diabolical form of law, paid for by people rich enough to climb above the judicial system.

They had plenty of practice in family law. The suits had obliterated all traces of the Mexican birth certificates of the missing twins born to Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst. They arranged for the publicly devout Loretta Lynn to secretly give birth to an illegitimate child fathered by Clark Gable, then adopt her own baby, milking the fanfare for saving an unfortunate orphan. When Cary Grant was finally to be awarded his only Oscar, for Lifetime Achievement, in defiance of the studio he had crossed years before, the suits dug up a call girl to scream paternity suit, driving Grant out of the country so that he missed the awards ceremony. Then they ensured that she vanished when the judge ordered a blood test. The suits orchestrated the change of a baby girl’s name from Brando to Blake just before her mother was murdered. The right client could try to flee the country after his ex-wife was fatally stabbed, be found liable for wrongful death and battery, and the suits would still arrange for him to keep custody of his children.

Tilda sat silently as the suits passed around the documents with Millie’s name on them. Not one of them brought his coffee cup to his lips. Tilda signed. She was married to a movie star. Her child would never be her own.

The world loved to see their favorites procreate, but Tilda knew that Hollywood offspring were as endangered as newborn guppies. Every time she saw the magazine spreads of a star cavorting with their well-swaddled baby, she shuddered. The occasional columnist grumbled that these people treated their babies like accessories. Tilda knew the truth was far worse. They treated their children like bargaining chips, held them for ransom, got them appraised and re-appraised, gladly traded them when it was advantageous. These people lacked parental instincts because they saw no value in one-to-one relationships. Why cultivate such a puny audience?

“What are you talking— these people?” Tilda’s mother used to scold. “You’re going to be one of them. You think you can join in with people like that and not start acting like them?”

Her father, the failed rabbinical student, would glance up from his Talmudic reading and concur. “How is it possible to be in something and not of it?”

Tilda wouldn’t answer. She just looked at them, at their strained, senseless pride and ingrained smallness. Their surrender to an ancient code of conduct. How could she explain the appeal of Big Bob to two people who were content to disintegrate into dust, leaving no noticeable legacy, as if they had never walked the face of the Earth? They were the only ones who didn’t understand.

Despite Tilda’s annoyance at her parents, she was troubled by their predictions of her dancing with a herd of satyrs and growing goat’s feet. Tilda intended to be different. She would enjoy Big Bob’s lavish lifestyle, without surrendering herself entirely to its seductive wash. She would hold tight to her own thorny little stickler personality, her sense of right and wrong. She vowed to remain unswayed by Big Bob’s crowd, which was just that: a noisy, jostling crowd, not a circle of friends.

She went in with her good intentions and discovered that these people were impossible to resist. The insular gaiety of their madcap social lives was more convincing than any of their on-screen performances. They were famous because they were captivating. They could capture anything, flay your defenses right off your hide and plunder whatever they wanted from you. They could envelop a person they’d known for five minutes with an understanding so intense it was transformative. You would never be so attractive, so clever, so close to what you were meant to be as when these people fixed you in their shining eyes. She fell in love with them, and they didn’t even like her. They would kiss her on both cheeks, then tell Big Bob behind her back that she was a cold fish and he should chuck her. She knew all about these betrayals, yet every time they met face-to-face, these people would easily charm her back. They would squeeze her hand and brush her hair away from her ear and spread out the bright checkered picnic blanket of their enormous confessions, patting the seat beside them. They would lower their voices to the ticklish hush of pillow talk, nuzzling her with black sheep bleats, until she was sure they were only frightened misfits, crying out for a very specific acceptance, a rare balm that they could somehow sense buried deep inside of level-headed Tilda, something she had never known about herself, but that she could now feel kindling, inflating, filling her with the roaring, gas-mirage power of a hot air balloon.

The moment they felt her expand, she was doomed. They would break into mean-spirited impressions of her nasal whine. “Biiiig Bahb!” they’d shriek. “Biiiig Bahb! They’re ahhhl making fun of me again! Biiiig Bahb! Staaahhp them!” Calling back and forth to each other with the beady eyes of myna birds, getting louder and louder because they were afraid to stop.

Tilda could see that instead of relationships, they had elaborate coercions. She could see this in the same way an opium addict could see that the stuff would kill her eventually. It was always worth taking another hit. These people spent money like it had no value and doled out their approval as if it were the world’s most valuable asset. They were cunning withholders, social blueballers. They bounced Tilda up and down like a rubber ball. To them, she was child’s play.

Few of these people had played as children, except on vaudeville stages where child labor laws were non-existent, stuffing their outgrown soft-shoes with cotton wool to absorb the bleeding while they croaked through the week’s nineteenth performance. Those were the luckier ones. Most of them had been put to work swabbing hotel rooms or scrubbing dishes or swilling hogs as soon as they could stand, all of them so pretty and so poor that any entitled adult could help themselves to a handful.

These people made up for all of this now, seeking fun as if it were vengeance. They folded $100 bills into paper airplanes and sailed them off roof gardens. There was always some kind of bet going, and dirty sabotage was an expected and much-relished element. They bet they could make the next five room service girls cry. The rules had to be amended to disallow pinching. They kidnapped each other’s pets. They passed the banquet plates around musical-chairs style until the bawdy jazz tune stopped and someone had to eat poached tilapia with a side of snot. They spent a lot of time on boats, like gangsters seeking the sanctuary of international waters. They ran a 130 foot pleasure cruiser onto the rocks, evacuating the sinking ship with all the splashing brio of a pool party. Millie stripped down to her gossamer slip, the same sheen as the moonlight, and balanced on the deck rail, swaying like a priestess with her ivory arms outstretched, connected to this world only by her curled toes. She dove into the ocean with the eternal vitality of a mermaid.

Tilda scurried around searching high and low for a life preserver, her little crab-apple cheeks huffing with fear. She found the ship’s sole floatation device and yanked it off the wall, whinnying Big Bob’s name into the cold gales. Big Bob lumbered toward her, six bourbons past gallantry. He grabbed the life preserver out of her hands and flung it after Millie, the O of the skidding tube impersonating the O of Tilda’s mouth. Millie spit water through her teeth and tinkled a laugh that belonged in a tropical lagoon. The water was 56 degrees. Anyone else would have drowned.

These people kicked and cartwheeled through the freezing torrents cascading onto the deck, crooning the same blue limericks they recited when dipping merrily into a fountain in front of a grand hotel. They pried the grounded prow apart and dragged the wooden planks across the rocks and onto the shore, where they built a bonfire. When the fire rescue showed up, they bossed the captain into letting them all climb aboard and racing them to the nearest beach bar shanty with lights flashing and sirens wailing. The boat had been borrowed from some producer. No one offered to pay for it.

Two of the party were left behind when the overloaded fire engine shilly-shallied off with Big Bob, Millie, and their crowd hanging from every surface like train passengers bound for Calcutta. The two leftovers hadn’t moved fast enough, hadn’t dared muscle their way onto the sardined vehicle. Tilda and Joe Schmo. Tilda sat on a wet boulder and watched Joe Schmo dig in the sand, desperate to find his wedding ring. Everyone had been playing treasure hunt on the ship, slipping strands of diamonds into flower vases, hanging black pearl rings on toilet roll rods. Tilda had cheated, tucking one sapphire earring into her shoe, where it ripped her stockings and pierced her heel. Joe Schmo had only his 8 karat gold wedding ring, which he was still paying for on instalments to Sears Roebuck. He had gotten swept up in the bacchanalia and risked more than all the others combined. These people got their jewels for free, on loan from Harry Winston. If they lost them during their drunken antics, the gossip columns picked up the story and Harry got a million’s worth of publicity.

The reward for the treasure hunt was that you got locked in a cabin with the person whose jewels you found, a high-roller version of spin-the-bottle. Joe Schmo had been so hopelessly ensorceled by Millie that his wedding ring had popped off as if catapulted by his very visible erection. Joe Schmo’s wedding ring had gone down with the ship, but he was still burrowing in the sand, as if looking hard enough could rewind time to the point before he’d taken it off his finger.

Joe Schmo had been sent from the publicity department. They were constantly sponsoring contests then shipping some yokel to Los Angeles to live with his favorite star for a week. Everyone in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, told Joseph Schmidt that he looked like Big Bob, and discovering what a pale imitation he was when standing side-by-side had knocked the wind out of his sails. This always happened. The contest winners were an imposition. The star would lash unspoken vitriol upon the studio bosses by refusing to charm their houseguest. They would be unerringly polite while making it clear that the fan had absolutely nothing— nothing, as in not even the same species— in common with them and should never have come. The contest winners moped around the star’s house with downmouth, whispering “Yessir” and “No’m” and not looking anyone in the eye. Joe Schmo had had a fearsome sweet tooth, and had preferred to take his meals with Little Big Bob, who was only three years old and would cackle as Joe Schmo clowned around with his bowl of mush and syrup, rubbering his comely features into the grotesque neediness of Harpo Marx.

Joe Schmo collapsed over his sand holes. The ocean spit salty foam in his face, belittling his tears. He lifted his anguished eyes up toward Tilda, the other odd one out, a whipping girl in the cold wind, stung by the violent flapping of her wet silks and fallen hair. “How do you take it?” he asked.

Tilda could take it because she knew Big Bob was different from the rest of them. He had fallen into acting when he was on leave from the Navy and a mincing Viennese exile director had seen him striding out of an Olympic Boulevard tattoo parlor, bare-chested, fanning himself with his shirt. The director read Big Bob’s freshly-inked heart, beaded with droplets of blood: THROB. He fell topsy-turvy in love. Big Bob thought it was all a tremendous joke, and he glided to greatness on the vibrations of his inner belly laugh.

It was the soaring aspiration that twisted the rest of them. Big Bob didn’t have this. He never participated much in his crowd’s exploits. He just hung around, at ease but unmoved, as if he had gone to great lengths to purchase box seats to an opera but the music wasn’t to his taste. He was a normal indifferent father, laconic and tolerant, never raising a fuss when Tilda asked him to watch Little Big Bob. He didn’t play with his son, nor did he teach him any bad habits. He would study his scripts while Little Big Bob crawled quietly at his feet, gnawing on his own fists. Big Bob treated his son as he would a footstool that needed to be presented with a warmed-up dinner plate at six.

Tilda was sure that Millie, on the other hand, was a corrupting influence. After the suits named her a third legal guardian, Little Big Bob spent his summers with Millie, skiing in Switzerland or laking in Maine. Tilda suspected that her son was exposed to every sort of debauchery. Millie and Big Bob’s crowd was majestically bisexual and unapologetically perverse. This was not because they were particularly exploratory or tormented by fetishes. They were merely practicing the special privilege of those who go from rags to riches: They would never again have to choose one thing over the other. They did it all, every which way.

Tilda had never been tempted by such hedonism. Her father’s shabby little Judaica shop had been forever on the verge of bankruptcy. She grew up to be a hoarder, not an indulger. Once they were married, she thought of Big Bob’s money and status as a security, not something to be enjoyed. When she and Big Bob returned from their honeymoon (a disappointing, low-budget quickie trip to Puerto Vallarta, arranged by Pesky to evade the hostile press. It had been brain-boilingly hot, the beaches bleached as teeth, so she napped the days away while Big Bob wandered the streets)— and when they returned to take up residence together at Big Bob’s fortressed Bel Air estate, she had set the table with her sturdy old chipped dishes.

“Let’s have them fancy plates they sent for our weddin,” Big Bob demanded.

“Oh, those are too good to use every day.”

“Too good to use?” he snorted, incredulous. “Hell, nothin’s too good to use.”

When Millie had been Big Bob’s wife, she had encouraged his insatiable appetite for comfort. Tilda reeled when she took over the household accounts. Millie had tried to spend every last penny in pursuit of sensory pleasures. Tilda tabulated the list of imported champagnes and rare-spice mud baths and costume balls that cost more than college tuition. Nothing Millie bought remained. She had consumed it all.

Tilda fretted over every minute Little Big Bob was in Millie’s so-called care. When Little Big Bob would return in the fall, Tilda would strip him down and examine every inch of him under an intense floor lamp, searching for signs of abuse. He would be a bit fatter, but there was never any evidence of foul play. Tilda kept up these examinations until he was fourteen years old, when he had taken off his clothes as ordered, then yelled at her, “You’d be happy if there was something wrong with me!”

“Little Big Bob, I’m trying to protect you.”

“You don’t even know what you’re looking for.” And he had walked naked to his bedroom and slammed the door. Big Bob stood in the living room with his arms crossed and didn’t cock an eye as his son passed by en flagrante and steaming like a bulbous cauliflower. Tilda thought she saw a look of collusion pass between them, but she knew she had imagined this. Big Bob was far too intellectually lazy to form any collusions. Like most actors, he went ahead and put his bad behavior on public display and received adoration for being misunderstood.

* * *

“Little Big Bob is doing quite well,” Tilda finally answered Millie, after reviewing her flip book of past injuries in a silence that carried no weight for her self-absorbed companion. Tilda speared her dill pickle, imagining that the spurt of green cucumber seeds was a nasty plague she could cast upon Millie. “He’s still working with the Indian children in North Dakota.”

“I spoke to him on the horn last week,” Millie revealed, all undertones and subtext. Tilda’s first thought, even before: She’s plotting with Little Big Bob!, was: She’s only pretending to be deaf. She can hear me fine. She just wants to get out of pretending to listen. Tilda and Millie had buried the hatchet somewhere along the way, but Tilda had never truly ended her quest to find some definite offense that Millie could be punished for.

“Oh?” Tilda asked carefully. “What did he say?”

“I’m bringing him on as Executive in Charge of Production.”

“For what?”

“For the wig deal.”

“But… Little Big Bob isn’t a businessman. He’s out in North Dakota–”

“He’s agreed to come back. In fact, he should be in town by now.”

The bitch. Tilda had been begging Little Big Bob to come home for years. She had single-handedly built up Big Bob’s production company into a force to be reckoned with. At one point, in the early ’60s, they were producing five television programs, mostly variety shows that don’t get syndicated, but now that cable television needed to fill all that time, the money was rolling in again, and there were all kinds of things to do. She was old and tired, and Big Bob himself had never been interested in the business side of things. Tilda had always planned to turn the reigns over to Little Big Bob, but he had fled to his Indians and wanted nothing to do with Hollywood. She had visited him at that bleak reservation with its tarpaper and alcoholic bloat and had cried for weeks afterward at the sheer waste of it all. Now Millie picks up the phone and he comes trotting back to help her scalp some Eastern Europeans, probably war refugees selling their hair for food.

“Little Big Bob can’t run a business, Mildred.”

“Why can’t he? He’s got a tremendous head for figures. I remember how he used to fool with that chemistry set.”

Tilda remembered it, too. She remembered waking up at two in the morning and finding Little Big Bob in the kitchen bare-chested and pyjama-bottomed, holding a beaker up to the light with a dazed expression on his face. She had to clear her throat and even then he moved slowly, as if his mother and her kitchen and the entire house were inconsequential and not yet proven.

Big Bob had the same affectation of staring off into the middle distance, but for him it was a method. His unseeing gaze added an expansiveness to the cramped sets and inane scripts that were always straining to contain his brawny frame. Once Lolly Parsons had asked Big Bob what he was thinking of when he gave the camera his trademark faraway look, and he had answered, “Canada.”

Little Big Bob, on the other hand, didn’t have the edge of his father’s accidental wit. He was clutching that chemistry beaker the same way a baby grabs something to orient itself in the overwhelming flow of stimuli that is everyday life. He hadn’t the first idea about chemistry. He was just daydreaming. Her son was the type who got out of bed in the middle of the night to daydream.

“He’s never done anything like run a company. He isn’t… astute.” There. Millie had tricked her into insulting her own son. A wolven smile flickered across Millie’s collapsed pumpkin mouth as she acknowledged the kill.

“You don’t even know your own son.”

It was worse than the ice water. Tilda stood abruptly and would liked to have stormed out of the restaurant, but her limp made her exit pitiable, and she felt Millie’s gummy smile on her sloping back, revelling in her retreat.

* * *

At home, Big Bob was stretched out in his recliner as always. Tilda paced around him and he could tell she was angry, but he didn’t ask. She wondered if he had ever asked her anything. He hadn’t even proposed interrogatively. He had said, “It’s about time we was married.” Tilda was still looking forward to the day when the urgency would leave her relationship with Big Bob. They should be settled and complacent by now, or bored and split up. It was always like they had just met and were testing the waters, deeply enamored but afraid of each other, vulnerable to outside forces. Tilda was sure this was because of Millie and her constant meddling, the way she had turned that whole crowd against Tilda and tried to usurp her son. There was always something dangerous between Tilda and Big Bob. It was ridiculous at their age. She decided she would not mention Millie. It only gave Millie the upper hand, and Big Bob would be patently noncommittal and she would end up seething and blowing her blood pressure through the roof. She sat down and counted to ten. When she opened her eyes, she noticed a lumpy garment bag heaped by the flagstone fireplace.

“Little Big Bob is home?”

“In the kitchen.”

It was just like Big Bob not to tell her their son had arrived, and just like the two of them to sit in separate rooms.

She found Little Big Bob slumped over the kitchen counter, shuffling a stack of saltine crackers into different arrangements. He looked chubby as ever, but his eye sockets were deep and ringed. She blurted out, “Are you sick?” without meaning to.

“Hello, Mom.” He straightened up to his full height and Tilda stood on tiptoes to peck his cheek. His skin was still baby soft.

“How long have you been here? Are you hungry?”

Little Big Bob shrugged, equally unsure about both questions.

“I could set up a few meetings for you if you’ll be staying long. We could really be placing more syndication rights, negotiating better deals, if there was someone to do it full time.”

“I’m here about the hair thing.”

“Right, but as long as you’re here—”

“My poetry class made you this.” He nodded toward a childish watercolor painting of mountains and a sun magnetted to the refrigerator.

“Oh,” she said. “Oh, my. How vibrant. And did they make one for Daddy, too?”

Little Big Bob grimaced. “It’s kind of for both of you,” he said. Then he wandered out of the room, leaving his crackers behind. She nervously ate them up, picturing herself as a neurotic little mouse who might be discovered at any moment and swatted out of the kitchen. Though who would do this she didn’t know. Big Bob and Little Big Bob took no interest in anything.

That night she leaned over Little Big Bob’s twin bed with the blue ship sheets and kissed his forehead. He suddenly grabbed her hand. “Stay?” he asked. She sat beside his bed and stroked his fleshy hands until he fell into a restless sleep. She was happier than she’d been in years.

The next day, Millie came over and she and Little Big Bob locked themselves in the den for over an hour. Tilda tried to interrupt their powwow by bringing them a tray of lemonade, but Big Bob saw her coming from his recliner and said, “For God’s sake, woman, let them be.”

“They might be thirsty.”

“Hell, Tilda, what is it you think they’re up to in there?” She blinked and breathed, embarrassed by her suspicious mind. Big Bob kindly saved her. “The guy who needs some of that lemonade is me.”

She poured two glasses of lemonade and sat with him for a time. He slurped but didn’t speak. Tilda looked at him with the frank eye of a merchant’s daughter. He was still handsome in a crumbling way. His pendulous earlobes and cheeks and chin appeared weighted down by a life spent in public service or high treason or hardscrabble ranching–a life he had not lead, but had imitated on film. He was just a big casual lug who had fallen into a rabbit hole of good luck. She couldn’t keep blaming him for her disappointments. The production company had never been put in her name, for example. It just wasn’t done at the time. The fact that their son had inherited all of his vagueness and none of her shrewdness. And Millie. Why had he married such a scorpion? What kind of fool would fail to see how she would poison his life? There was no use asking him. He had no capacity for self-reflection.

“What are you always contemplating in this chair?” she asked. “Canada?”

“What?”

“Never mind. At least you’re not out running around behind my back.”

“I don’t get it,” he said. “Canada? Who do we know in Canada?”

Millie flounced over and kissed Big Bob on the lips before she left, but he didn’t even bother to get out of his chair. Tilda was sure she saw a tug of embarrassment cross his face. Millie looked so ghoulish these days that even Big Bob was no longer enchanted.

Millie, of course, couldn’t leave it at that. “He’s the only boy I ever loved,” she sighed, her apricot colored fingernails digging into Big Bob’s plaid shoulders. “Though I don’t know if he ever truly loved either of us best, Tilda.” Big Bob shifted uncomfortably in his chair and cleared his throat. “But who needs old King Frog here when I have my prince?” and she pinschered at Little Big Bob’s shirt front. Then Little Big Bob solemnly escorted her out to her car.

“She’s still got a big mouth,” mumbled Big Bob. It was the first time Tilda had ever heard him insult Millie.

“What?” she asked, for confirmation. But Big Bob just stared silently at the ceiling. There was no tension in the air. Just absence.

“Well, I’m glad to see you’re finally developing some powers of observation.” Tilda didn’t care if he heard her or not. She was in the best mood of her entire married life. She launched a serious housecleaning project, spurred on by the marvellous old songs humming through her brain, ballroom numbers from when she first met Big Bob and he passed her from friend to friend, Tilda spinning from one handsome silver screen idol to the next, their beautiful faces arched in curiosity as they sized her up, their feet politely compensating for her starstruck stumbles. The music swelled and she swooned into their customized flattery. With every beat, she ticked off one of the millions of jealous girls she had bested. She hadn’t started from much, but there must have been something special about her. She must have been pretty once, though she hadn’t believed it at the time.

That night, she went to Little Big Bob’s room to tuck him in again. He jumped when she entered, and she saw him scoot a box under the bed.

“What’ve you got there?”

“Stuff. From when I was a kid.”

She bent down to read the box. Her inflamed knees screamed. “Your old erector set? I don’t remember you playing with that one much.”

“I hated it.”

“It’s not your cup of tea.” She straightened, swallowing a groan, and kissed his forehead. “I thought maybe I’d read to you tonight. The Wind in the Willows. You always loved Mr. Toad.”

“I’m not tired yet,” he said. Then he sat Indian style on his bed and closed his eyes.

“You’re turning into an Indian yourself,” she said.

“Native American,” he murmured, without opening his eyes.

Tilda watched him for a minute then left the room. She wanted to ask Big Bob if he thought their son was strange. With all the mental diseases they had nowadays, maybe he had one of those. Surely there was a pill. But Big Bob was already asleep. He exhaled a long mournful moan that sounded like a shack leaning. Making noise in bed wasn’t like him at all.

* * *

Little Big Bob floated in an inner tube in the pool and Big Bob lounged in his chair, two poles of inertia around which Tilda was a whirling dervish of activity. She sent the maid out grocery shopping and continued cleaning the house top to bottom herself. She was sure her two boys weren’t offering to help because they just didn’t notice, both of them staring off at his own personal horizon.

Little Big Bob’s ship sheets were soaking wet, and for an instant she was afraid he was back to wetting the bed. He had developed this habit when he was inappropriately old, around eleven. Tilda blamed it on some gin-soaked trauma he must’ve witnessed at Millie’s, but she could never prove anything. To her relief, the dampness on the sheets was just excessive perspiration. She tsk-ed and stripped the bed.

She ran her broom underneath for dustballs, and banged into the erector set. She flung it down on the bare mattress ticking and was about to balance it on top of the Monopoly in the closet, when she opened the box and peeked inside, to make sure Little Big Bob had replaced all the pieces. The little metal thingies were all jumbled up, of course. Tilda dumped them out on the bed so she could arrange them by size. The cardboard lining of the box fell out, too, along with the photos that had been hidden underneath.

The photos were so grainy and dim that none of the subjects looked familiar. She held one up to the light. It was mostly of someone’s skin. Terrible composition. Whoever had taken these shots must’ve been three sheets to the wind. She flipped through the stack. Sometimes you could tell it was a little boy. Then the little boy was holding an erect penis.

The photos dropped to the floor and waited for her with sinister patience. She could either put these photos back in the box and close the lid, or she could examine them until she had some explanation for why her son would have these pictures. She looked out the window at Little Big Bob floating lazily in the water, suspended in time. She said a quick prayer over him, offering an atheist’s bargain, and locked the bedroom door.

There were really only two pictures that told what was going on, one with the penis in hand, and an extreme close-up of the little boy’s mouth wrapped around the tip. Was it a little Indian boy? No, he was pale and chubby. The pictures were in color but had an old fashioned white border around the edges, a spiffy touch that seemed intentionally mocking. Then she noticed the boy’s pajama bottoms. Blue ships. She looked over at the anxiety-soaked ship sheets piled beside the bed. She leaned forward and vomited all over the fleet, retching so hard her stomach turned into a strongman game at a county fair, someone was pounding her with a hammer and a heavy disk was rising slowly up her esophagus over and over. She dabbed the sour saliva from her mouth and looked out the window. Little Big Bob was still floating in the pool, unchanged. She slammed the photos back into the erector set box and carried it with her as she ran out of the house, limping every third step.

* * *

Tilda banged on Millie’s door so hard her bony palm split open. The door was opened by one of the small dark Spaniards they had all been reduced to, no loyalty or discretion, no intention of remaining servants for long. Tilda grabbed the maid’s caramel arm and flung her out of the house. She darted inside and locked the door.

Tilda stood panting in Millie’s dim entry hall, clutching her stomach cramp with her bleeding hand. Her overtaxed knees popped, threatening to collapse. She was disoriented by the bespoiled state of the place. The ’70s glamour was now cobwebbed and spit-shined. Millie’s days of grand entrances, slithering down the mirrored spiral staircase onto the silver and gold tiles, were over. Millie had closed the top floors of her fake castle and moved her boudoir— where she watched TV and ate her meals and made her dwindling phone calls, but never slept, never made romance— to the ground floor. Now she emerged from the shadows, testy and ridiculous in a purple silk kimono with matching turban that only accentuated the fact that she was bald underneath. Tilda hurled the erector set at Millie. The hard edges of the box struck Millie in the chest, and she toppled backward, but didn’t scream. “For fuck’s sake–” she protested.

Tilda stepped over her and glared into her ruined face, the skin sliding every which way, no longer part of the act. She had a systematic plan to torture Millie with cleaning supplies and noxious food mixtures. It would take her days to die. She tried to drag Millie to her feet, but slipped and fell down beside her.

“What? What?” sputtered Millie.

Tilda grabbed one of the photos, a hopelessly blurry one, and thrust it at Millie’s washed out eyeball. But Millie must’ve seen these photos, or something like them, before. She instantly recognized it.

“Oh God. Oh dear God. You found out.”

“You ruined him,” sobbed Tilda. “My beautiful boy. You will die for this, Mildred.”

“I will—? No, baby, no, no. He was like that before me.”

“Shut up!” screamed Tilda. The force of her voice ripping through her lungs knocked her back again. “Stop talking!”

Millie’s gnarled, shaky hands rooted around in the photos, bringing each one to her face before summarily tossing it aside. The same way she disposes of people, Tilda thought. She clamped down on Millie’s hand, marsupial and curled as a chipmunk’s paw, and wrested a photo away from her.

“These were taken—” Millie began.

“SHUT UP!”

“I wasn’t there. Look at the ring, baby. Look at the ring. It was all on your watch.” Then Millie shut up, for the first time ever. Tilda listened to Millie’s crowded breathing, too much life forcing its way through her passages, and wondered if she were being tricked again. She got on her hands and knees and found the photo she had pulled out of Millie’s grasp. The man’s hand on the boy’s bare back. So what? She peered at the man’s gold ring. It had a big marquis diamond flanked by a cluster of rubies. It matched her wedding ring.

Tilda sat quietly, holding the photo tightly while the world stirred around her and all the atoms in everything solid dispersed into a swarm of charged specks, dates and times and people zinging around with no rhyme or reason, lighting up in some triumphantly random sequence. She watched Little Big Bob clutch his chemistry beaker late at night, and she felt so endlessly sorry for thinking he had been born slow and dim. He was only hoping the little glass tube could be his carousel pole as he desperately tried to catch his balance.

“He always liked boys,” pronounced Millie, enunciating sharply.

This isn’t a Chekov play, you bitch, thought Tilda, though she shouldn’t have blamed Chekov when the whole thing had the tawdry shock of dinner theatre murder mystery performed in the round. This was her son, her poor custody-shuffled son, his life ruined. She wanted tragedy in a grand proscenium. Instead she had these haphazard photos of her husband abusing her son inside neat little white frames, like TV sets, as if it were all as immaterial as something fleeting across the airwaves.

“Who knew?” Tilda asked softly.

“What do you mean, who knew? Everybody knew. Everybody that had anything to do with his career. Except for you, and I suppose he needed someone simple on his arm. I mean, he likes women, too— the small, skinny ones, that is.” She flicked her cobra eyes over Tilda’s spare, boyish frame, as if she herself had not always had the same unfeminine physique, all of her curves added by the camera and its light tricks, by the audience and its need to add contours to a flat projection. Millie’s allure had always depended upon collaborators. “It’s just that he has that little deviance.”

All those years. People laughing behind her back. Cringing. Procuring teenage hustlers off Santa Monica Boulevard. All of this parading under her nose while she made the breakfast and counted the money. And her son….

She had believed that Big Bob was different.

Her father looked up from his sacred recitations, looked across the years and into her eyes. His humble devoutness had crystallized into something substantial and lasting, something shining. Something she had missed. “How is it possible to fall into stardom?” Tilda’s father posed, peering over his steepled fingers. “Falling would be the wrong direction.”

She heard Big Bob’s bass whisper, tilted with mischief: “Sssshhhh…. Don’t let her find out.” But he wasn’t saying this about Tilda. He was saying it to her, back when he was still married to Millie and romancing Tilda in secret.

In the master bedroom of the mansion that was not yet Tilda’s, the young Millie collapsed on the bed, losing her shape as naturally as a jellyfish, crying her eyes out over her stolen husband and unborn children; over all the smiles she would have to manufacture for the public out of sheer will and bald mimicry because she had never, not for one minute, experienced happiness; over her terrifying foreknowledge that her looks would fade and she would end up more alone than any unnoticed person had ever been. Tilda had never given Millie’s feelings a moment’s thought. She had convinced herself that Millie didn’t have any feelings. She had wanted what Millie had and had seized it. She had eagerly lain down with a scorpion. What did that make her?

The ocean roared its cold dark wake-up call into Joe Schmo’s face. He looked up at Tilda, who was sitting on a wet boulder, forgotten by her husband. “How do you take it?” he asked.

Tilda’s father tutted at her, disapproving. She had changed the words, flubbed the line. Presumed to alter the text.

That night when the boat sank, burying all those precious jewels and one cheap wedding ring on the ocean floor, Joe Schmo hadn’t asked Tilda, “How do you take it?” He had asked, “Why did you take it?”

While those people monkeyed all over the ship, cramming their treasures into hidey holes, Tilda leaned close to Joe Schmo, who was looking glumly out over the deck rail, hoping to spot land, trying to see clear back to Wisconsin. She squeezed his hand, brushed his hair away from his ear, lowered her voice to the ticklish hush of pillow talk. She convinced him that if he gave her his wedding ring, she would guarantee that Millie would find it. He would win an episode of hanky-panky in a locked cabin with one of the world’s most lusted-after women. He, Joe Schmo, of Grand Chute.

Still, he had hesitated. He said no. He said no again. And again. His voice was high and tight in that curdled back-home buttermilk accent and he kept repeating the word as if he were picking a single sharp banjo string. Tilda stood there with her hand out, offering him a trade she knew she couldn’t fulfil. The moist night air rang with squeals and slams while the wine-spill of a sultry torch song flowed from the phonograph. The wind Februaried over their skins in cold gusts. The waves lapped. The boat rocked hypnotically. Tilda brushed her bow mouth against Joe Schmo’s sunburnt earlobe. “This doesn’t count,” she whispered. She shrugged her bare elfin shoulders and awarded him a goofy smile, the same soothing clown face she had seen him give her little son, a smile she had stolen from him. Joe Schmo gently placed his ring on her palm, as if he were resting it on a pillow at the starting end of a wedding aisle.

Tilda closed her fist over Joe Schmo’s wedding ring. She walked off. When she rounded the corner of the deck, out of his sight, she tossed the ring into the sea. It hit the water with a plish too tiny for Tilda to hear.

This was the type of joke they played on that boat. He should learn to take it. Tilda plucked up the words she would use to tell the story later. She would make those people laugh. She would make them admire her.

But the whole boat sank, turning Tilda’s story into a drowned rat. She never told anyone. It was a total loss.

The next day, Joe Schmo abruptly packed up and left. Big Bob was off on one of his long golf rounds with his favorite caddy. Joe Schmo took Little Big Bob’s fat little hand and gave him a manly shake. Then he squeezed his own nose, mouthed, “Honk honk,” and planted a swat on Little Big Bob’s fanny. Tilda yanked her son firmly out of his grasp.

He reached for Tilda and she jumped back with a squawk. He only grabbed her hand, intending to kiss it. He had never tried this move before, one of the gestures he had admired and studied at the pictures. He misjudged, clobbering his nose with Tilda’s knuckles, knocking off his sweat-stained hat. Tilda thought she felt him bite her wedding ring, the fat almond diamond and caviar nest of rubies that cost so much and promised so little. She felt his slobber murking her shine. She drew back her hand and gripped herself in a little fist. She was afraid of Joe Schmo. Afraid he had gotten wise to her, that his bumpkin frost had melted and he was brewing his red hot revenge. She was afraid he would be back.

Joe Schmo left with his cardboard suitcase, a carry-all too small to fit a pair of men’s shoes. Little Big Bob scampered to the big front window and waved and waved, slapping the glass with his other palm. Tilda grabbed her son by his shoulders and spun him around to face her. “What did that man do to you?” she asked. She grilled Little Big Bob, asking if Joe Schmo had touched him or looked at him funny. She insisted that they re-enact the horsy rides Joe Schmo had given the boy on his back, pressing Little Big Bob to show her exactly where Joe Schmo had put his hands. There? Or there? What about here? Little Big Bob ground his fists into his eyes and burst into tears.

Tilda called the police, who had a special fast-track procedure for high-profile citizens like Big Bob. They nodded gravely as she squeaked out her vague suspicions and appealed to them to bring in Joe Schmo for questioning.

The police returned in three days, craning their necks past Tilda, hoping to catch a glimpse of Big Bob, who had made himself scarce. They had bad news. They were unable to locate Joe Schmo. He hadn’t returned to Grand Chute, Wisconsin. They assured Tilda they would keep an eye out for him, taking the alleged assault on Big Bob’s assets as seriously as they would the national defense.

This outcome satisfied Tilda. She already felt silly for having feared that country mouse. Joe Schmo had committed the only Hollywood sin: he failed to make a lasting impression. The emotions he had stoked in her quickly vanished. She couldn’t even picture his face.

Tilda knew what happened to Joe Schmo. He had been too ashamed to return home without his wedding ring. He had checked into a transient hotel downtown, determined to use his pretty face to earn a new ring and enough pride to return to his hometown and childhood sweetheart. The city opened its maw and absorbed him. He became one of the innumerable pretty people who flock to Los Angeles only to find out that for some reason, they just aren’t pretty enough to earn money with their pants on.

Joe Schmo would slink along the baking sidewalks in front of the big hotels, slip into rented cars with meaty business travellers, take what they paid him and spend it on cheap wine to blot out what he’d done. He would eventually grow old, faster than the rest of them. His hand would become too shaky to use his shaving razor. His boyish mouth would bristle, and his Hollywood career would be over. He would droop on benches, his brain cacophonied by traffic noise, breathing in exhaust fumes, spurting shaving foam into his palm and licking it up, intaking enough alcohol to keep himself alive so he could get up and weave to the corner store for more shaving foam.

Tilda knew what had happened to Joe Schmo, and she knew where to find him. She could have tracked him down easily, or paid the suits to do it. She could have bought him five wedding rings and a first class ticket home. She could have gotten him a bit part on one of Big Bob’s shows. Or she could have had him killed. She never considered doing any of these things. Joe Schmo simply didn’t count.

Only now, at the age of 68, did Tilda discover who she really was. She was as arrogant as the worst famous person, hell-bent on pleasing herself, blind to the suffering of everyone else. She was restricted to a smaller scale than those people, that was all. In her own little realm, she was a star. The famous were empty vessels. Whatever it was they shined forth, they had stolen it from us. They were only imitating us. Look at them and you are looking into a magnified mirror. We distract ourselves by loving or hating them while our own houses fall, assailed from within.

The problem with getting old could be summed up in two words: TOO LATE. Tilda couldn’t save her son. Or Joe Schmo. She couldn’t stop her husband. She couldn’t apologize to her parents. The one person to whom she could possibly make amends was Millie. Millie, whose life-sustaining pool of adoration had shrunk to people dying in oxygen tents in Palm Springs and adjustable beds on the Upper East Side and electroshock nursing homes in St. Louis. Millie, who noticed how everyone scattered when her hair thinned, who took this as confirmation that the sheet of ice rinking her insides would always remain uncarved by any blade, would always be slick and numb. Millie, who prolonged her ravenous existence by feeding on the devotion of her very last genuine admirer, a manchild who she pretended had not been abused into a half-wit waster. Millie was connected to this world only by the curled toe of Little Big Bob.

The 83 year old Millie sensed the evaporation of Tilda’s rage. She stretched out her vein-engraved body, as if she were still an unattainable coquette in a white negligee balancing on the deck rail of a yacht. She held up one of the awful photographs. “Who’s the kid?” she asked casually. “Do you know him?”

Tilda sat silently, thinking carefully about her answer, tossing her son’s name up and down in her head like a poker chip.

Stacia Saint Owens – In the late 1990s, Stacia Saint Owens co-founded The Pig Latin Embassy— An Artists’ ColLaboratory. Located in Hollywood, the resident company mounted interdisciplinary, experimental premieres by West Coast writers and artists. She resides in Los Angeles, where she is writing a novel. DISCOVERED can be found in her short story collection,Auto-Erotica, which was the winner of the 2009 Tartt First Fiction Award, published by Livingston Press. For more on Ms. Saint Owens check www.StaciaSaintOwens.com

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