By Kevin Casey
Featured Image: Desert Vista by Benjamin C. Brown 1932
The original plan: move to Los Angeles. Take acting classes. Meet people. Audition. Act. Get famous. (Not Katie Holmes famous. Kate Winslet famous.) Win awards. Get rich. Meet people. Shoot heroin and drown in a bathtub at Chateau Marmont, spawning sudden posthumous appreciation for the life’s work of Jill Dawson, the Actress.
Such a clichéd way to go, though. Jill, after a year or so of living in L.A., thought of another ending instead: retire quietly from acting to grow old in some funky little house near Topanga State Park with a friend named Beatrix (with an x). Grow a little weed out back among the rosemary, lemongrass, and cilantro. Cook vast organic feasts and always read the book before seeing the movie. There would be an avocado tree in the yard. They would write annual checks to Topanga Animal Rescue and have four adopted cats. That would be enough to feel sufficient, but not so many that they would be known in the neighborhood as The Cat Ladies. Jill would die ripe, in her sleep, and Beatrix would organize a nondenominational service in Ventura. Friends and fans would gather on the beach to drink red wine from Solo cups and share their favorite Jill stories. They would reminisce about her most remarkable roles, and when the sun took its evening dip in the Pacific, the mourners would light bonfires and play Leonard Cohen on a weathered boombox. Their tears would spill into their laughter as Beatrix sprinkled Jill’s ashes along the shifting line between sand and sea. The end.
Things had proceeded slowly but according to plan—acting classes, meeting people, auditions, etc.—before it stopped things short and turned them sideways.
Jill’s friend Cassandra from acting class had insisted she meet Alec Gentry, waving a hand of indifference at the age gap: “He’s fabulous. All work and no play makes Jill a dull spinster.” Alec was friends with Cassandra’s lawyer husband Raymond. Frat brothers at USC friends. Fantasy football and weekends in Vegas friends. The four of them went with two other couples on a field trip (Cassandra’s phrase, not hers) to a Lakers game and sat in Raymond’s firm’s luxury suite. Alec was no Daniel Craig, but he could walk a red carpet on his own two feet. Jill found no obvious, outrageous flaws—Why is this thirty-eight-year-old man with money still single?—and Cassandra assured her that his availability was merely a matter of career success at the expense of social life. To his further credit, Alec seemed more engaged with Jill than with Kobe Bryant. They talked on the couch while the game roared behind them. They went on a second date and debated whether the Lakers counted as a first date.
They saw more of each other. Alec was enthusiastic. He held doors open for her. He asked her questions about acting. He left work in the middle of the afternoon to meet her for coffee after an audition fiasco. He brought flowers. They drove one night to Calabasas to eat wild game at Saddle Peak Lodge. Alec ate elk and Jill accepted his dare of antelope and after settling the meal they got a few miles down the 101 before deciding the traffic was too much. They got off at Tampa Avenue and did it in a room at the Tarzana Inn. Twice. They vowed never to eat at the same restaurant twice until they had completed the ZAGAT guide from A to Z. They had drinks here and more drinks there. They did it again. And again. Doing it eventually begat it and the pee-stick came up positively pregnant.
“I told you to take care of it.” Cassandra said this while picking through her salad at La Piazza at The Grove. “This arugula is fantastic. Try some.”
“I couldn’t do it. I can’t do it.”
Jill had in fact thought about it. Things had started happening for her. She’d been cast in a series of one-act plays at Theatre West in Universal City. She got voice work in commercials. She got an agent. The agent got her a pilot. The pilot never went to air but the tape landed her a supporting role in an independent film. Her agent called to tell her that the rough cut of the movie was getting serious Buzz. It might get into Sundance. The director was getting serious Heat as a result. Jill was low on money. Her agent said hang on, just hang on, things were happening. Then, an ultrasound, with a little fish of a thing wiggling nubs of future arms and legs that made Jill, pants low and belly jellied, laugh and laugh until overcome by joyful exhaustion.
“Well, you can forget about acting for a while,” Cassandra said. “It took me forever to get my body back.”
It did not take Cassandra forever to get her body back. It took a personal chef, a private trainer, and a series of visits to Dr. Kashfian. But Jill didn’t have the heart to point that out. Nor did she point out the fact that Cassandra was thirty-seven and had not done any work more substantial than community theater in a decade. Besides, Cassandra looked incredible. Jill, twenty-six, would kill a drifter to have Cassandra’s body at that age. Maybe in her new plan. Marry Alec. Become Jill Gentry. Move to Orange County. Have more children. Kill drifter. Refurbish body. Learn to play golf. Sleep with assistant golf pro.
Cassandra broke in: “Let’s talk baby shower. We’ll do it at my place. We can invite all the women from class. God, I’ll have to get Raymond out of the house. If he sees that blonde Genet with those tits, he’ll leave me.”
“The shower thing makes me sort of uncomfortable,” Jill said. “Like ‘hey, let’s all get together and celebrate this bastard bun in my oven.’ That would be good on the invitation.”
“And who the fuck is she kidding? Genet? She’s from North Hollywood.” “You’re invited to a Bastard Shower.”
“She doesn’t even have enough talent to do porn.” “You’re not listening to me.”
“Darling, this is the fun part of having kids. Trust me.”
Cassandra’s kids were somewhere with their ubiquitous nanny, one of a perpetual rotation whereby help was always at beck and call.
They finished lunch and went shopping. Cassandra took command of the gift registries and kept to a strict palette of pink. Jill pointed out that the baby’s sex would not be determined for another several weeks.
“What if it’s a boy?” Jill asked.
“You can change everything online,” Cassandra answered.
They shopped cribs and strollers and maternity fashion, terrifying baby monitors and a BabyBjörn. Cassandra talked through a list of people that she would have to invite to the shower. Jill did not recognize most of the names. It was a remarkable thing in this city: somehow you could meet everyone and still Cassandra would be your only real friend.
“Have you thought about names for the baby?” “No.”
Jill had thought about names but not shared them with anyone. They belonged only to her for the time being.
“If it’s a boy, you should consider Elvis.”
“Elvis. Have you ever known an Elvis who wasn’t famous?”
Cassandra had two girls and a boy. They were named Etoile, Julienne, and Boris.
The last time Jill had been to Cassandra’s house, the children were packed off with their nanny for a day at the beach while the women brunched on crab Benedict. Cassandra had poured orange juice for Jill and Veuve Clicquot for herself before raising her glass in a toast.
“Here’s to you and Alec, dear. A long life of happiness and whatever. OK, clinky. Look, we’re like two halves of a mimosa.”
Jill began crying with a mouthful of crab and egg. Cassandra in her way had done her best to calm her.
“This?” Cassandra waved a hand at her Sub-Zero refrigerator and Viking range, and then across the floor-to-ceiling windows that showcased the view of Los Angeles and the infinity pool running off over the hillside. “This is just a role.”
Jill rolled her teary eyes while considering a dive from the edge of the pool into the L.A. Basin. She got fixed in an argument with herself about whether the Times would assign coverage from the Calendar or California sections. She would likely be confined to a simple and vague Death Notice, probably written and submitted by Cassandra herself, announcing a memorial service at the very place of the tragic demise of Jill Dawson. No mention of brilliant talent lost too young. That would not do.
With lunch and shopping complete, Cassandra drove Jill to Alec’s high-rise in Marina del Rey. She shooed the valet away in front of his building and placed her right hand across Jill’s left and squeezed.
“Honey, get Alec to put a rock on this finger.”
Jill exhaled like a dying balloon. Jill did not love Alec Gentry. She was not sure she much liked him, nor where he fit her plan. If Alec did propose marriage, Jill was certain her heart would simply stop beating. An efficient, effective cardiac event that everyone might agree had happened for the best. Here today and gone tomorrow. The end. (Again.) Jill had tried to explain this to Cassandra, who seemed to miss the point.
“He adores you, and he’ll be a wonderful father. He’s practically making carpool plans for Little League with Raymond. It’s the best thing for you and the baby,” Cassandra said.
Cassandra left Jill with promises of a phone call to firm up plans for the shower. Jill let herself in the condo and took a seat on the balcony. She flipped through Back Stage in the leftover marina sun. She found no calls for Unwed
Pregnant Twenty-Something. There was a commercial production seeking a Heavyset Female. She went inside and inspected herself in the master bath mirror. Give it a month. Maybe two. Jill sank into the couch and turned on the Food Network. Rachael Ray was sticking chicken in a frying pan. She seemed enthusiastic about it. About all of it. She peeled carrots with gusto. She held a shallot to the camera and talked about why she loved them. The meal was healthy and delicious. It would be ready in thirty minutes or less, easy enough that even Jill could do it, and so she walked to Vons and spent the dwindling balance of her checking account on the ingredients for the recipe.
With shopping bags unpacked and preparations underway, Jill announced to Alec’s empty kitchen: “Thirty minutes my ass.” Raw chicken made her uncomfortable. She had only skimmed What to Expect When You’re Expecting and was convinced she missed a chapter on fetal salmonella. The meat was boneless and skinless and not too difficult to cut into chunks, but it felt gross between her fingers. She’d forgotten shallots at the store and sent Alec a text. He replied: Sure thing. Can’t wait to see what you’re cooking! Jill peeled and sliced carrots thinly like Rachael Ray called for. When they were finished, she moved on to mushrooms.
Alec came through the apartment door with a dozen purple tulips and a fistful of shallots.
“Did you know what a shallot looks like?” he asked. “Like garlic with brown skin,” she replied.
“Where were you when I needed you?” He smiled to explain his joke and leaned in toward her face. His kiss landed somewhere between her cheek, nose, and upper lip. She could smell his daylong breath, a blend of coffee and onions. “I’m teasing. I got help from a kid stocking peppers. Here. For you.”
Alec handed her the tulips and shallots and stood there grinning like he had no cares at all. Jill smiled and thought that she might run the chef’s knife through his stomach. She could be at the border in two hours. Two and a half, tops. There would be no good prospects for a woman like her in Tijuana so she would keep on driving the peninsula south. She would take up surfing and hook up with a traveling band of fellow soul searchers. They would follow the waves up and down Baja. Sleep on the beach. Eat at roadside stands. Work odd jobs only as necessary to feed the lifestyle. Her hair would grow lighter and her skin darker. Mother Nature would adopt her as her own.
Jill thanked Alec and told him to turn on the Dodgers and relax on the couch while she made dinner. He had given up beer to empathize with her pregnancy. That was the word he had used. Empathize. A word now ruined for her. She had insisted he not do that, but he had insisted that the responsibility was not hers alone. She rinsed snap peas under cold water and set them on the island counter. She filled a pot with water and set it to boil. She poured EVOO (Rachael Ray’s acronym, not hers) into an All-Clad skillet and browned the chicken chunks. She removed the chicken from the pan and set it aside. In went the carrots, mushrooms, and shallots.
“So I was thinking?” Jill called across the counter to the main room. “What’s that?”
“I think I want it to have my name.” “Jill?”
Alec came back into the kitchen smiling. “Really? Dawson?”
Jill pushed the vegetables around the pan. “Yeah. I was just thinking,” Jill said.
“What if we got married?” Alec asked. “I mean, you know, I know this isn’t romantic, and we don’t have to rush it or anything, but, maybe, what if, you know?”
“Yeah, I know. I just thought maybe we could wait and see.”
“It’s something to consider though, right? Taxes would be simpler, right?”
Alec was really smiling now, putting his teeth into it. She had no idea who this guy was, nor why she was cooking for him in his kitchen. Water bubbled over the pot. Jill dumped egg noodles into the boil. She added tarragon and parsley and a measured cup of wine to the skillet. Jill admired what the color green brought to the sautéing vegetables. Maybe she would open a restaurant. Join an ashram. Go green. Live with a rock star in Hollywood Hills. Go on tour. Start a charitable foundation. Teach acting.
“It’s something to consider,” she said.
Table set, Jill ushered Alec to his seat and pulled down plates from the cabinet. She spooned chicken and vegetables over the egg noodles and served a plate to Alec and then to herself. She watched him bring a forkful to his mouth and chew nodding and wide-eyed, and somehow this exaggerated approval seemed worse than honest disgust. He told her how good it tasted, made a joke about how he hoped she would watch Rachael Ray more often, and while he continued eating and talking, recounting his day at the office, she realized she had forgotten the sugar snap peas. They sat stranded in a colander on the island counter, rinsed and ready to be steamed. Rachael Ray had called them the perfect accompaniment, impossible to screw up. Alex still ate with relish; he never knew what he was missing.
Jill worked the following night at M Bar. The comedian onstage was Nick Swardson and he did an old joke about milk. Jill had heard the bit before. The customers always laughed. Alec had told her she could quit working there, but she kept a few shifts each week. The crowd roared—Yeah, I do have milk. Was there a shortage?—as Jill went to check on table twelve. Two guys who were nice enough. They looked like writers. One wore a beard and trendy eyeglass frames. He probably had a spec script for Two and a Half Men in the shoulder bag slung from the back of his chair. The other wore a black button-down shirt with black jeans and black shoes like some kind of urban cowboy. They ordered another round. The beard was real chatty and between sets Jill heard him bet the cowboy that she was an actress.
The emcee came back onstage to solicit applause. He made a joke about the movie Bowfinger. The other waitress, Laura, turned from one of her tables toward the stage and called out: “Hey! I was in that movie!” The emcee said don’t shoot the messenger and the crowd chuckled. Jill surveyed her people: Beardy and the Cowboy, Laura from Bowfinger, the emcee, Nick Swardson, and a flock of aspiring faces bound by faith—One day we’ll look down from the hilltops and recall these heady days at M Bar. Jill would miss them if they were gone.
When the shift ended, Jill drove to Alec’s place wishing she had kept her own. He had reasoned out the economic sense of the move: Why pay rent if you don’t have to? She did not have a good answer at the time. She could think of more than one now. Alec was watching television when she walked in. He told her there was a surprise for her and led her by the hand into the second bedroom that he used as a home office.
“What am I looking at?”
“There. What do you think?” He pointed at two swatches of test paint, two imperfect shapes of new color upon the eggshell wall.
“This one is called ‘Secure Blue.’ If it’s a boy. And this pink is ‘Inner Child.’ If it’s a girl.”
Jill wanted to smoke a cigarette and another directly after it. She would saw off a finger with a box-cutter for a tequila shot and a beer behind it. Ride north with a Harley gang and call the motorcycle her hog. Deal poker in Reno. Be a ski bum in Tahoe.
“Well, what do you think?” Alec asked. “They’re both nice,” Jill said.
The following week, the Gentrys drove up from Newport Beach to take their son and Jill to dinner. When Alec and Jill stepped out of the high-rise, a white-haired woman sprang from the Lexus idling in front of the building. She was tan, lithe, and did not look as though she had worked one day in a long and healthy life. She trotted toward them with her hand held limply out, nodding her head as though this scene was happening precisely to her own carefully architected plan. Jill forgave the awkwardness because she herself did not know if a handshake was the appropriate gesture. She feared a hug.
“You must be Alec’s friend.” She was practically shouting, like she was forewarned that Jill had difficulty hearing. “I’m Ellen Gentry. His mother.”
There were formal introductions. Alec kissed his mother on the particular point of her cheek that she indicated with her finger. His father lumbered from the driver-side door. There was a big bear hug and back-slapping. Mr. Gentry took Jill’s hand in both of his and told her it was wonderful to meet her. He told her to call him Roger.
As they drove through Venice on their way to the restaurant, Roger Gentry pointed out a woman walking a dachshund.
“Have any of you ever seen legs so skinny? She should sue for non-support!”
Alec rolled his eyes and laughed like he’d heard this one before. Ellen swatted her husband’s shoulder from the passenger seat. They seemed to have rehearsed this scene painstakingly over the years. Ellen turned and stuck her face between the seats. Jill could not find a wrinkle in her skin. Her teeth looked like they might glow in the dark.
“So Alec tells us you were trying to be an actress? I think that’s wonderful.”
Jill resolved a new plan. She would respond to Ellen Gentry. She would go to dinner and smile and be polite. She would laugh at Roger Gentry’s jokes. She would return that night to Alec’s condo and pack her things and leave. She did not quite know what to do next but would do what it took. She would go alone and unashamed to the next ultrasound, excited to replace it with him or her. She would read all of the books. She would find them a place to live. She would pick up shifts at M Bar. She would cajole her agent into action. She would scream at him if that was required. Do your job. Get me work. She would be a mother. What a cool mother. An actress. Actors take their mothers as dates to the Oscars. She would take her son or daughter. It would be a family outing. She would win Best Actress. Her speech would be graceful and to the point. She would know who to thank.
The car rolled down Abbot Kinney toward Main Street and Santa Monica. Ellen Gentry’s luminous teeth were fixed in a smile that appeared to have limitless endurance. She stared between the seats, still waiting for Jill to respond.
“Yes, but it’s a difficult business,” Jill said.
Ellen Gentry nodded sympathetically and made a low humming noise that seemed to emanate from her exfoliated pores.
“I was an extra on Charlie’s Angels once. Remember that, dear?”
“You were something else.” Roger Gentry honked the car horn twice in exclamation. “A real scene-stealer!”
“Roger keeps telling me I should audition for a show at the Newport Theatre Arts Center. Imagine that.”
“You’ve still got it, hon!”
Ellen Gentry swatted her husband’s shoulder again and turned again to continue talking to Jill.
“So do you hope it’s a girl? Oh, it would be so exciting to have a granddaughter. I always wanted a daughter.”
These people could be her in-laws. She could share Christmas dinners with them for the rest of their lives. Jill could do spa days with Ellen Gentry at The Balboa Bay Club. Practice yoga on the beach. Walk for charity. Submit her children for television auditions. Join the raw movement. Take tennis lessons. Consult a surgeon on what to tuck, fold, and suck. Request a free DVD and information from a cryonics lab in Arizona. Play the part.
“Do you think it might be a girl, dear? What’s that mother’s intuition telling you?”
Down the road, Jill would not be able to tell you precisely how the laughter began, whether she started with a small, slow snicker or a full-blown snort that caught quickly like dry kindling in a fire. She would only remember that Ellen Gentry seemed astonished at first—her well-preserved face frozen in a paparazzi snapshot—but was quickly laughing loudest. Her husband joined her, roaring and slapping the steering wheel, honking twice when he was overcome with a coughing fit, red-faced and jubilant. Alec cracked last. He resisted for a while, the sane man in the mobile sanitarium, but eventually broke down chuckling in the manner of the last one to get the joke.
Kevin Casey is a Lecturing Fellow at Duke University and a graduate of the MFA program at North Carolina State University. You can reach their twitter account at https://twitter.com/kevinrcasey.
Originally appeared in NOR 7