Less Brave

This isn’t something he can back out of. Not now, with the flaps of his sports coat being patted down, his cell phone, keys, and wallet confiscated – only a pair of latex gloves allowed to remain in his pocket. Not while a metal detector slides up and down his starched chino pant leg.

It’s too late.

The prison guard leads through a hall of concrete floors, white cinderblock walls, and chrome gates. Derek follows. Even the guard’s gray uniform is belted with shiny parts: badge, gun, clicking cuffs. His I.D. tag reads, Ralph. His strides are powerful and his arms swing to carefree heights, hinting at a complacency with the job.

Derek is here as a favor. And Derek doesn’t back out of favors. He would never call his colleague pretending, my wife and I are leaving town for a horse show, or one of the mares fell ill, very ill… No. Just the thought of shirking an obligation humiliates him.

“You could call off,” his wife Gillian teased. When he tried to envision it – a free day to maybe ride to the coast, air whipping through his car windows, his speed accelerating, and then accelerating some more with an illogical attempt to outrun his thoughts of undue chaos at the hospital, a possible delay of procedure at the prison, and a mess of scheduling headaches he’d cause everyone to suffer – even his benign fantasy couldn’t break from the promise he’d made.

He’s a man of his word.

A man whose mouth shrinks against his teeth when he smiles, as if recently stripped of a mature mustache, and who wears socks with clogs in the summertime to account for Florida air-conditioning. His steps brush the floor with the comfortable rhythm he finds with respecting authority, though he has never been to a prison. He’s startled by a beeping alarm and then stopped in front of the first solid gate, one with only a crescent of spindles at the top, too far above anyone’s head to offer a view. It unlatches with a hard clack.

Officer Ralph directs him to pass through first. Derek offers a cooperative grin; the office bares a closed-jaw set of teeth at him in response. No need for him to take it personally.

He guesses drawing smiles from transplant and tonsillectomy patients might seem out-of-place too, but that’s his routine during preoperative rounds at Vernon Hospital. Major surgery to standard procedure, all patients are a little nervous about the hours ahead. What if I do wake up, they often fret. Or what if I don’t?

Derek obligates himself to quiet their worries, not just because it’s appropriate bedside manner, but because it’s his nature. Whether it be with pep-talks to colleagues or agreeable nods to Gillian, he appeases those around him, makes them comfortable, happy. It is just as common for his patients to feel eased by his tireless goodwill as it is for their pain to be numbed by his administration of anesthesia.

But here, where a door opens out from the white wall, revealing another guard who inspects him, he can barely maintain eye contact with the officers. Ralph begins muttering to the other guard, and the gesture is exclusive. The whole facility, Derek begins to notice, hums with its hidden devices and the buzz of white lights. It’s like the electronics section of a department store, where even muted screens raise arm hair.

“…Fries,” Derek hears pop from their chatter as they walk ahead of him. “And a milkshake.” The word milkshake is delivered as a curse, because they’re talking about Uriel Deed.

Uriel Deed the murderer, who drank a chocolate shake with his last meal and will never have another. Who will never have another taste of anything—except the metallic tinge that will cool the back of his throat when Derek retracts the first injection.

This stuns Derek.

He didn’t think about this before. The significance of a last meal. It didn’t cross his mind three days ago, while he was relieving himself in the hospital men’s room.

***

He was thinking about Uriel Deed pressing record on an old boom box before cutting into someone. Murder wasn’t enough to describe it. Even ten years later, the crimes were still known as, The Deed Recordings—a collection of adolescent voices being cut-short by commonplace kitchen cutlery.

Death songs, some called it.

“A hunt for the grittiest scream, or what?” Derek’s colleague, Jay Adams, stood two urinals over, speculating motives at a volume that dominated his tinkling.

“Quite possible,” Derek said.

“Whatever the case, he deserves what’s coming. Just wish I hadn’t double-booked procedures.”

“Need me to cover?”

“You up to it?”

“Sure.” Derek zipped-up and, in the time it took to relieve himself, had agreed to take a life. Though, it wasn’t obvious at first.

Everyone knew the execution was on Friday, which meant Adams had another procedure that same day and time. Derek began hushing thoughts of coming off a long Friday shift and coasting into an evening at home—Gillian’s pizza craving playing out as usual (him agreeing without mention of his hunger for pork in a saucy lo mein) and a movie of her choice, waiting to blur the hustle of his work week… He stopped the thoughts there. Derek wouldn’t be selfish. He was selfless. Missing pizza night was a small sacrifice for resolving a friend’s dilemma.

“You’re savin’ my ass.” Adams closed the sink faucet and tore off a paper-towel, telling how prison guards were in training for future ‘sticks.’ “Leaving us out of it. Think of it, you could be the last M.D. to do it.”

“Wait. Me?”

“Yeah, can you imagine? Listen, I’ll call County right away, tell them to expect you.”

Derek stood at the sink, forgot what to do with his hands in the water. County prison. He’d be the one going there to…

“Well, ah… Wouldn’t you rather I take the other procedure? The—what’s the other?”

“Nah. You take the high-dollar one. My treat. You’re doing me a favor here.”

“Really, I didn’t expect to—”

“C’mon, I’ll be insulted if you don’t. It’s the least I can do.”

Awkward in this perceived kindness and the embarrassment of misunderstanding, Derek turned his hands in the water without words; Adams crumpled his towel and was moving towards the men’s room exit. But Derek didn’t know how—in the twenty seconds it was taking Adams to thank him, calling him ‘a hell-of-a-guy’—to retract his offer without deflating Adams’ delight with both solving his problem and repaying Derek. And why not? Derek had no immediate reason why not to assist the execution, and every reason to: because he’d already agreed.

“Hey,” Adams said, halfway out the door. “I owe you one.”

The door closed, and Derek’s hands idled in the frigid cold water.

***

As they slow their progression down the corridor, Ralph and Derek approach a tiny table against the wall that displays a neat row of plastic-wrapped masks.

“Optional,” Ralph says, pointing to them without breaking his stride. “If you’re one to conceal identity.”

Derek passes them by, curious to hear that a reporter, a few locals, and a couple of Uriel Deed’s family members will be watching. Ralph calls them ‘witnesses.’

Imagining a handful of people in any one room of this place only emphasizes the empty buzz that fills the halls. It’s as if the place is new, open only for private showings. The mess of spit and violence Derek had always expected of a prison is so cleanly absent that he begins to wonder if it’s all caged in one room.

Ralph stops in front of a chrome door with a double-paned window. He taps a combination into the keypad, and the door beeps. “PG-13 compared to Ol’ Sparky,” he says, with another smiling-at-you grin. He backs his body against the door to hold it open. “After you.”

Again, Derek smiles back. Such an easy smile, so quick to give in. His mouth tightens as he enters the small room that remains uncluttered by the tight course of activity: Uriel Deed being propped onto a white-sheeted gurney.

Deed’s eyes are open wide, yet withdrawn. His face is shaven and damp hair sticks to his forehead. He wears a loose, sky-blue jumpsuit, the color of hospital gowns where Derek works. Last week, a strung-out ER patient who required sedation struggled against the collective hold of four medical staff.

Here, Uriel Deed is steady and compliant as the guards belt his arms to the gurney. They tighten the suitcase-like straps around his ankles, below his knees, around his thighs and hips, and across his shoulders.

When finished, they prompt Derek to approach.

He takes the latex gloves from his pocket. One vein is all that’s needed.

Derek thinks Deed must have smiled once – as a small boy, singing cartoon theme-songs or being tickled by his father. Now he stares, detached. Not a flinch, while Derek presses two fingers into the meat of his left arm. No heed toward Derek’s placating grin.

A grin Derek must restrain from offering to a man who recorded kills. Who labeled one of the cassettes, A Girl Called Joanne – Cries for Mom and Sister.

“I can still hear them,” Deed says, as if he forgot to tell them.

“Quiet,” Ralph orders.

Deed laughs, a quick, satisfied laugh. A reminder that he knows more than what the news reported: …a boy spat curses between breaths… a girl, in accepting no escape, had mumbled a rhythmic, religious chant. He holds no shame in his posture as Derek sticks his vein, and Derek wonders if he’s proud of his guilt and resists the urge to hurry, flushing the IV with care.

Ralph hands him surgical tape and Derek wraps the IV to Uriel Deed’s arm, not too quickly, not too tight. He smooths the last piece of tape and then flips a valve to open the bag that hangs from the IV pole. Saline runs into Deed’s bloodstream.

Ralph pulls a lever, and the gurney hums, tilting Deed semi-upright to face the curtain. The retracting curtain reveals a female reporter in a suit with loose hair banded by bulky sunglasses and a steno pad in hand; two women sitting close together, one of them trembling from grief or age, Derek isn’t sure; and two middle-aged men wearing college T-shirts.

“Uriel Deed,” Ralph announces. “Your last words.”

Deed stares at the audience.

The reporter is vigilant, wide-eyed, with pen aimed at steno pad, waiting and ready. The trembling woman squeezes a crumple of tissue, her other hand grasped by the woman’s beside her, who doesn’t look toward the chamber window.

“They all screamed,” Uriel Deed says. “Different sounds.”

The trembling woman closes her eyes. Then opens them. The reporter’s pen moves with intent.

“The tapes could never capture the true noise. The mess of it. So sorry.”

The two men scoff.

“I tried to listen. I tried. But it always came off fake. Like it wasn’t real.”

The reporter looks up from her notes. A hush consumes the room, and it’s hard for Derek not to imagine an audio tape rolling into its bumpy static until that first, meek, No, then, PLEASE, no— 

He refocuses, waiting for Uriel Deed to finish, feeling ready for the job. It should be quick and easy. He’ll turn each syringe into the insertion point and push the solution into the tube, sending it swimming toward the threaded vein.

Ralph turns to Derek with a nod. 

Uriel Deed has said all he’ll say.

Surprised by this, Derek does his job and attaches the first syringe. Then pushes—sodium thiopental, to numb consciousness.

Derek watches the solution run its course and, in the moment, finds unexpected comfort in his surroundings. The white walls and shiny chrome. The slick, clean chamber. He is even-keeled, confident in his task.

Uriel Deed closes his eyes, appearing to doze. The many straps holding him becoming less and less necessary.

Ralph’s cautious stare and crossed arms are no distractions to Derek now. There’s a familiar method to the order here: the empty syringe comes off. The next one on: pacuronium bromide, to paralyze the body like the hardening paste in a papier-mâché mask. It prevents squirming, wringing of hands. Screaming.

The reporter rests the steno pad in her lap; the trembling woman kneads tissue between finger and thumb, her face dry.

The potassium chloride in the last syringe will disrupt the electrical signals of Uriel Deed’s heart. And with one fluid push, Derek empties it.

Deed’s eyelids twitch. His lips part. A rush of air escapes his throat.

The trembling woman sits up; the reporter writes a word; the woman who didn’t look before, watches.

His pulse rushes his large artery, bulging at his neck, and then stops.

His body is vacant. No twitching. No breath.

He is gone.

***

The ignition rumbles in the parking lot, and Derek sits at the wheel with the car in park.

He was told to expect a check in the mail as he left the prison. Ralph thanked him, shook his hand with, no longer a smirk, but a cool nod that Derek could only describe as gratitude.

None of the witnesses cried or covered their eyes. No one even stood from their seats; they had to be told it was over.

It is done.

They all screamed, Uriel Deed said, and this bothers Derek now. He shifts into drive, switches the radio on. Then off. He is nothing like Uriel Deed. No, no. Nothing like him. But somehow, he feels far less brave. 

SELFIE INTERVIEW | Nicole Miyashiro

What captures your interest most in your work, now, as a reader?

I’m interested in lyrical flow and urgency, and savor moments when all other story elements blend to elevate these two and keep the story moving.

What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on a collection of fictionalized vignettes — linked to “Spectators” and “I Will” — that explores the psyches of those who mobilized around one man’s dream to introduce orca captivity to Seattle (and to the US). In between, I work on other short stories and poetry, always poetry.

Who and what are your artistic influences?

For me, it all started with Joyce Carol Oates and Tim O’Brien – add to that Caitlin Horrocks, Otessa Moshfegh, Ito Romo, Melinda Moustakis, Melissa Febos, Dorianne Laux, Ted Kooser, Lorrie Moore, Anthony Doerr, and more… News reports, visual art, film, and music/song lyrics have also had their influence along the way…

Read “Spectators” by Nicole Miyashiro

This killer whale broke surface twelve feet out, arching its oily mass out from the water, and then it dove, aimed in our direction. One of us grabbed the shotgun. Our catch was good, but orcas could eat our salmon right through the nets, swarm us in packs of up to forty. We knew the risks. It was the wretched ‘blackfish.’ We’d heard how a pack of them had come up on a whaler’s catch recently, attacking its haul in a fury of relayed darts and tears, mucking up the water with their methodical peeling back of the blue whale’s skin…. READ MORE

Hollywood Story

Half a block from London Kashmir’s Beverly Hills mansion on North Roxbury Drive, “once the home of Caesar Romero during Hollywood’s golden age” according to my star map, I stop and peer behind me into the nearly total darkness.  On my left is an eight-foot high wrought-iron fence that surrounds the property; across the street, a Tudor-style ranch house now owned by an heir to the Revlon fortune.  Taking a step, I think I hear it again, a crunching sound.  It could be my own echo.  It could be the wind.  I can’t always trust my senses when I’m this close to the living, breathing presence of London Kashmir. 

I proceed until the mansion is in full view: three stories high, mansard roof, huge cypresses lying flat against the brick facade.  I have come here directly from the motel after the drive from Florida.  For maximum invisibility, I have dressed in all-black clothing: shoes, pants, jacket, itchy ski-mask.  I’m being more cautious.  The publicity following my arrest outside London Kashmir’s Tampa bungalow has been a wake-up call.  Careful preparation is the key. 

I have done my homework this time, scouring trade magazines, print-outs from Google Maps and celebrity websites, guide books of all sorts.  I know that London Kashmir arrived by private jet at LAX yesterday, a Friday.  Monday she begins shooting at Metropolitan Studios for her next film, the international thriller, Optimum Impact, having just completed location shoots in Prague and Niagara Falls.  I know too that the light in the second story window shines from London Kashmir’s bedroom.  She could be sitting up in bed, studying her lines; she might, at any moment, fling off the covers and pass by the window in stunning silhouette.  She doesn’t.  But thirty minutes later I’m still watching when the light goes out.  I am close enough to see all of the horseshoe driveway.  The gate is locked, of course, but there is no one around.  It couldn’t be more quiet. 

I take a deep breath and, with a little run and jump, scramble to the top of the fence.  I’ve just gotten my arm over when an alarm sounds, the area flooding with light.  (There was nothing in my research about a fancy security system.)  I drop back down and start running.  Immediately I encounter a shadowy figure on the sidewalk, sprint past it and continue to my car at the end of the street.  Behind the wheel of the Impala, I turn left onto Sunset Boulevard, heading west.

I remove the ski mask.  I’m beginning to breath normally again when I notice a pair of headlights in the rearview mirror, headlights content to remain at the same distance, no matter how much I de-accelerate.  It’s a slow-speed chase.  We cruise past the UCLA campus, through Brentwood and Pacific Palisades, past The Lake Shrine which boasts “beautiful gardens that contain the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi.”

I’ve had enough of this.  I pull over at the next street lamp; he pulls over.  I’m walking back to his car as he’s opening the door.

“What do you want?  Who are you?”

He peels off his knit cap.  He’s a she with short dark hair and close-set eyes, a moon-face.  She wears frumpy-looking slacks and a grey sweat shirt.  One of her black, high-top sneakers is untied.

“Was that you back there?”

“I guess you won’t try that again, huh, Chuck?” she says.

“How do you know my name?”

“Everybody knows your name.  You were arrested in Tampa for trespassing on that actress’s property.  You have a thing for her and nothing can keep you away from her. You’re famous.”

“You need to go home,” I tell her.

“I followed you all the way from Miami.  I just got here.”

“You followed me from Florida?”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Your first day out you got as far as Shreveport where you spent the night in a Super 8.  You had breakfast at Hardees and drove all the way to Allen Reed, Texas, where you ate lunch at Tastee Freeze–a Big Tee Burger and chili cheese fries.  Then you drove nonstop to L.A.  And here you are.”

She looks extremely pleased with herself. 

“I don’t appreciate being spied on,” I say. 

“It’s not spying.”

“Stop following me.  I have business here.  Important business.  Go back where you came from.  I mean it.”

She doesn’t move, so I do.

She gives me a flirtatious wave. 

“Stop that.”

She blows a kiss.

***

I sleep fitfully, but I haven’t needed much sleep since falling for London Kashmir whose poise and grace and exotic loveliness have a renewing effect on me, make the prospect of seeing her, the merest glimpse, all I need to roust me out of bed; that and the confidence that given a few minutes of her time I can convince her of my sincere devotion.  I understand her reluctance to meet me.  I have not pursued her by the usual means.  If she were a normal person I could simply introduce myself and ask her out on a date.  It is her success, ironically, that is keeping us apart. 

I know what they say about me, the newspapers, the magazines, tabloid TV.  He’s obsessed.  He’s dangerous.  He’s insane.  I am none of those things.  What I want is not what’s generally supposed.  It is not sex, though I don’t rule that out as a possibility.  I want to sit with London Kashmir in some quiet cafe, just the two of us–our elbows up on the table, mugs of steaming coffee between us, no bodyguards, no flunkies–and talk, just talk.  Is that so much to ask?       

I shower and shave.  Before leaving the motel I don fake mustache, sunglasses, baseball cap.  I look like any local yokel when, as dawn is breaking, I arrive back on North Roxbury.  Since London Kashmir doesn’t begin shooting until Monday, she’ll be on an irregular, laid-back schedule–plenty of holes in it.  There could be a repetition of that afternoon in Key West when, accompanied by only one bodyguard and her goofball boyfriend of the moment, the rocker with the tattoos and the nose ring, I followed them from boutique to boutique, then to the park, then to Starbucks, drawing so close at one point I overheard her ordering a skinny latte from the awestruck barista before I was manhandled by her bodyguard.

A tan Escort pulls up beside me.  It’s that girl again.  She leans over the seat and makes a cranking motion.

She holds out a bag from Designer Donuts, Favorite of the Stars.  “I thought you might be hungry.”

“What are you doing here?  I told you to go away.”

“Take the donuts.  You need to keep your strength up.”

I do.  It’s the only way to get rid of her.

“I like your disguise,” she says, and drives off.

Not long afterwards, a limousine appears in the horseshoe driveway.  A man in livery places a suitcase in the trunk.  At the exact moment the mansion’s door starts to open one of those double-decker tour buses that prowl the neighborhood blocks my view.  As it pulls away I see the limousine moving toward the exit, the automated gate swinging open.  I can’t make out her face, but in the back seat is a woman wearing a lavender headscarf, and lavender, I happen to know, is London Kashmir’s favorite color.  The limo turns right, picks up speed.  I make a rapid U-y.

The limo makes two quick stops before leaving the neighborhood, picking up two men and one woman–the usual anonymous hangers-on–with their own pieces of luggage.  Soon we’re fighting lunch-time traffic on Hollywood Boulevard.  Our little caravan continues west on Sunset, barely keeping to the speed limit.  We rush to the end of town, bidding farewell to The Mahatma’s remains.  I’m a good eighth of a mile behind the limo, more evidence of the new caution, when the limo turns onto Pacific Coast Highway in the direction of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. 

On highway 5, we zip past Yorba Linda, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach, “the largest stretch of uninterrupted beach front on the West Coast.”  Twenty miles from Laguna Niguel, the limo turns left onto a two lane road, headed inland.  The road narrows and we’re in a flat, sparsely populated area, passing the occasional beach house.  Wherever she’s going, some inner coastal resort or secret residence, I foresee a moment when, weary of the sucking up from her entourage, she sneaks off for a solitary walk in a nearby glen.  She crosses paths with a mustachioed gentleman in his mid thirties.  They strike up a conversation.  She feels totally at ease with this stranger who–

The engine is sputtering.  The car is losing power.  Fighting with the steering wheel, I manage to pull onto the narrow shoulder.  I bring my fist down hard three times on the steering wheel as the limo vanishes around the next turn.  I may have broken it, my hand, but for sheer agony, it’s no match for the disappointment I feel.  I look around and see nothing but tall grasses bending in the wind. 

The tan Escort pulls up beside me.

“Need some help?”

I get out of the car and look under the hood, aware that I’m just going through the motions.  This isn’t the first time the Impala has broken down, but it’s the last.

“We passed a gas station a minute ago,” she says.  “Maybe you could get a tow.”

“This clunker’s done for.”

“So what do you want to do?” 

“I want you to drive me back to Beverly Hills.”

“Awesome.”

We’re on the main highway.  “Watch the road,” I say, uncomfortable with her staring. 

“Sorry.  I just can’t believe you’re here.  Sitting right next to me.  It’s my dream come true.  Aren’t you going to ask my name?”

“No.”

“Marian.  Which I hate.  I go by Stevie.  Did you like the donuts?”

“Watch the goddamn road.”

I’ve been with her long enough to appreciate that she’s not unattractive.  On the short and dumpy side, perhaps, but her short dark hair sets off nicely her round, pretty face, her small mouth and pouty lips.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“Twenty.  Next month.”

“Jesus.”

“Don’t you like younger women?”

I complain again about her staring. 

“I can’t help it.”

“So take a picture.”

“I don’t have to.  Check the glove compartment.  Go ahead.  Open it.”

The glove compartment is crammed with computer printouts of articles published about that thing in Tampa, many with the same two or three photographs of me being taken to and from jail, as well as full-color pictures of my mug shot, both face-on and in profile.

I forget and close the glove compartment with my injured my hand.  “Fuck.” 

“You should have a doctor look at that.”

“I’m not worried about it.”

“Well, I am.”

“Why?”

“I care about you.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“No, it’s  not.  She’s not real, Chuck.  Movie stars aren’t real.  London Kashmir isn’t even her real name.”

“I know that.”

“I’m real.  My feelings are real.”

We arrive at my motel–The Essex, single Rooms, $14.99.  I step out of the car.  She turns off the engine.

“You can’t park here,” I tell her as she’s opening her door.

“Why not?”

“You don’t have a room.  You have to have a room to park in the lot.  It’s against the rules.”

“Since when do you care about rules?”

“And you’re not coming in.”

“I’ll wait.” 

I retreat to my room.  I need to see her.  I have my own printouts, but they are not stuffed higgledy-piggledy into a glove compartment.  They are neatly arranged in three leather-bound scrapbooks.  I spread them out on the bed.  There is Paperview in this flea bag but I maxed out my Mastercard months ago, which is too bad because they have Isnt It Romantic?, one of London Kashmir’s earliest screen appearances, a turkey, yes, but saved for me, saved for anyone with a pulse, by the famous hot tub scene and the water soluble bikinis.

I go back out to the car.

“You have a credit card?” I ask her.

“I have two.”

I wave her inside.

Since she’s paying I can’t very well not invite her to watch the movie.  She has bought cokes and a bag of chips from the vending machine outside the rental office.  We sit on the queen sized bed and pass the bag back and forth, wiping our greasy fingers on the bedspread.

“Not bad,” she says.

“A little stale.”

“I mean the movie.”

“She got better.”

“I don’t know.  I prefer her in this sort of fluff to all those stupid melodramas.”

“She was great in Star Crossed.”

“If you say so.”

“She was nominated for an academy award.  Do you mind?”  She has been moving progressively closer to my side of the bed.  She slides back over.

“She went against type in Star Crossed,” she says.  “That’ll get you a nomination every time.”

“Don’t you have better things to do?”  I’m suddenly angry at this intrusion into my life.  “Don’t you have friends?”

“I can’t stand people my age.  They’re so surfacey.”

“What about a home?  Aren’t your parents worried about their little girl?”

“My parents don’t give two fucks about me.”

“What about boyfriends?”

“Dopey little boys who don’t know their ass from their earlobe. Who needs them?”

“What have you got?  A father complex?”

“What have you got?  A celebrity fixation?”

She’s quick.  I’ll give her that.

“I’ve been thinking,” she says.  “London Kashmir could return from the coast as early as tomorrow morning.  I suggest we get to the mansion right at dawn.”

“I don’t want you there.”

“You have no wheels, remember?”

London Kashmir is climbing into the hot tub wrapped in a turquoise towel.

“Could you leave now?” I say.

“Why?”

“You irritate me.”

“Have you noticed you never call me by my name?  It’s Stevie, in case you’ve forgotten.”

“Get out of the car.”

“I’ll be right outside if you need me again.” 

“Beat it!”

***

I’m up before dawn.  She’s lying across the front seat of her car, sound asleep.  I don’t need her “wheels.”  It takes me less than an hour to walk to the mansion.  No one’s home.  I watch the sun rise.  Hours pass.  By late afternoon I’m starving.  I walk down to North Highland and enter Designer Donuts, Favorite of the Stars.  I climb up on one of the cracked leather stools and order a cruller and large orange juice.  Except for one wall crowded with framed and signed eight-by-ten glossies, there are precious few movie stars here. 

It’s getting dark when I return to the mansion and find all three floors aglow with starlight.  The limo is parked in the horseshoe driveway.

“How’s it going, Chuck?”

I gasp.

“Sorry,” she says.  “I’ve been watching her for you.  She got back an hour ago.  You want to sit in the car?  It’s right down the block.”

“No.”

“You can’t stand out here.  If they see you this time of night they’ll call the cops.”

She’s right.

We go to the car and she pulls within a fifty feet of the mansion.

“How’s that hand?” she asks.

“Couldn’t be better.”  Actually, I’m finding it difficult to make a fist.

“So which room is hers?  Which bedroom?”

“I have no idea.”  I do, of course.

“Too bad about the fence.  Otherwise you could hop right over and invite yourself in for cocktails.”

“Shut up.”

I’m trying to catch any shadows flitting by the second story window when all the first floor lights go out, and a minute later the second floor lights.  The whole house is dark.

 “You know how she got her big break, don’t you?” she says.

Make Room For Dreamers.”

“That came after.”

“After what?”

“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen those pictures on the Internet.”

“She was a teenager.  She didn’t know what she was doing.”

“She looked like she knew what she was doing to me.”

I reach for the door handle. 

“Wait,” she says.  “I’m sorry.  I shouldn’t have said that.  Look, I’ll get you back here before she leaves in the morning.  Five, six, whenever you want.  If you let me sleep in your room–the floor, don’t worry.  I’ll even let you drive.”

Reluctantly, I agree.  When I turn the lamp off at midnight she’s lying in a corner of the room with her head on a pillow.  I doze off.  I don’t know for how long.  The room suddenly fills with light.  She has left the bathroom door open, her naked body backlit.  She glides towards me. 

“What are you doing?”

“What’s it look like, Chuck?”

She continues on to the bed.  I give her a shove.  She staggers backwards and hits the wall.  Sliding down, she curls into a tight ball, her hands covering her face, sobbing.

“When I get back here you better be gone,” I say.  “Did you hear me?  I mean it.”  I slam the door on my way out.

In takes me forty-five minutes to walk to Metropolitan Studios on Gower Street.  It’s seven-fifteen and I assume London Kashmir is already on the premises.  Twenty feet from the entrance gate, I note the intermittent stream of vehicles passing through the studio entrance.  Whenever a car approaches a uniformed guard leaves his kiosk and checks the driver’s ID before raising the security gate.  I reduce the distance to the gate to fifteen feet, still unclear about how I will get past the guard.  A green Jaguar drives up to the gate.  The guard raises it and then tips his hat (a major star, presumably).  The gate remains up.  The security guard has disappeared from sight.  Either he has neglected to push the button or the gate is stuck.  Has he gone in search of a mechanic?  Is he looking for his contact lens on the kiosk floor?  Whatever the case, I stride quickly past the kiosk and into the complex.

All the buildings look the same, bunker-like structures with NO TRESPASSING written across their metal doors, no doubt all locked.  I approach an old guy pushing a wardrobe cart and ask if he knows where they’re filming Optimum Impact.

He jabs his thumb at the building behind us.

I hurry over.  Just as I reach the door, it begins to open, a man in work clothes stepping out and holding it for me.  Luck is with me today.  I enter the lobby where two signs are posted, one directing the visitor to the movie sets, the other to the dressing rooms.  I choose the latter and start down the long, wide, corridor.  At the other end, a woman rounds the corner and moves toward me at a brisk pace, a woman I would know anywhere, at any distance.  Dressed in a short silvery dress with matching pumps, her long black hair falling to her shoulders, she holds a sheath of papers in her left hand, what I assume is a movie script.  Nothing stands between us.  We are alone together at last.

My throat is so dry I can barely speak.  “Ms. Kashmir?  London?”

She looks up from the script. 

“If I could have a moment of your–”

She screams and turns back down the corridor.

Running out of her heels, she throws horrified looks over her shoulder like a maiden being chased through the forest in a teen thriller.  She can’t hear my reassuring words over her screeching.  She rounds the corner and stumbles, barely avoiding a fall.  She tries running again, but her hosed feet are slippery on the carpet.  Desperate for traction, her legs pumping wildly, she screams.  I let her go.

I’m heading dejectedly back up the corridor when I hear,

“There he is!”

Two heavy-set men with shaved heads and weight-lifter arms rush toward me.  I take off running.

I don’t remember how I came in and feel like I’m in a maze until I come to the directional signs and the exit, nearly crushing a man in chaps and a stetson as I fly out the door and dash for the gate.  Fitter and faster than I am, the men are not far behind.  I reach the sidewalk and spot the Escort at the curb.  The passenger door swings opens.  I throw myself in.

It’s several minutes before I get my breath back.  She’s silent behind the wheel.  Her eyes are red-rimmed but dry.  She merges onto the interstate and points us east.

“Florida?” I say.

“You okay with that?”

“Fine.”

“So,” she says, “did you see her?”

“Briefly.”

“And how’d that go?”

I don’t reply.

The sun is low on the horizon.  I put my visor down to reduce the glare.

Reaching past me, she opens the glove department and takes out a pair of sunglasses.  “You know what it looks like almost?” she says.  “It looks like we’re driving off into the sunset.”

“Almost,” I say.

Traffic is thinning out.  We’ve just left L.A County when she looks over at me.  “We’ve been going at it all wrong, haven’t we, Chuck?”

“Yes,” I say.  “Yes, Stevie, we have.”

 

John Picard is a native of Washington, D.C. currently living in North Carolina. He received his MFA from the UNC-Greensboro. He has published fiction and nonfiction in New England Review, Narrative, The Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. A collection of his stories, Little Lives, was published by Main Street Rag.