Hollywood took root in the heart of Justin and sent its spores out into his home, his bedroom walls overgrown with images clipped from movie magazines. Cards and photos that he came across in yard sales, from collectors nine times older than he, filled every corner and covered even the ceiling.
His aunt helped him compose fan mail and they tacked up the responses, tucked in plastic sheaths. People you never heard of, with job titles that meant nothing to an outsider. It was his theory that the big names would never have time to respond personally. He wrote to the guy he thought was the best of the best boys. The grip of Justin’s choice was the most key. The Assistant to the Third PA of such-and-such a film by all rights should have been made Head Primary PA, and so forth. Only Justin and the people he wrote to had any idea what these job descriptions entailed.
Once we saw a movie about bad kids. The irony that we were bad kids ourselves somehow missed us. Sure, we looted from department stores same as they did, and skipped class and scribbled bad words on bus shelters. We broke into people’s garages and stole drill bits and moth-eaten hunting trophies. Windows were shattered with sling shots, turds deposited in mail boxes. But we were never caught. Even if we had been, it was hard to picture ourselves in a class with the juvenile delinquents in this movie. They each had such iniquitous agendas … and lots of problems. In comparison, we were bemused amateurs: not good enough to be called bad, just restless and bored.
Justin and his aunt sent off one of their ego-stoking letters to an extra in the bad kids film, a nine year old alcoholic. She wasn’t in the picture more than five minutes, but had some slurred lines and a scene in which she stumbled down a hall wearing a vomit-soaked halter. Justin applauded her realism. I never thought to warn him that some films weren’t fabricated. The bad kids movie was almost all documentary, with the exception of a reconstructed scene here and there, thrown in for flow and spark.
The hard news came written by the director himself, informing Justin that the girl his letter was addressed to was one of the unfortunates who didn’t check into recovery in time. What killed her? Something typical: a car crash with one of her drinking buddies at the wheel, or else she fell into a swimming pool and sank like a stone. Whatever it was, it was a shock to Justin, who went around brooding for a long while, as if she’d been a close friend.
Then one day, all the nurturing Justin gave to his garden of tiny stars looked as if it could come to fruit. A location scout from Hollywood approached Justin’s parents about the possibility of using their home for a production NBC was shooting. It had nothing to do with Justin’s fan letters but, like someone who prayed endlessly for rain, he couldn’t help but think that the past couple of years of his life, the devotion showered on distant strangers, had made this moment possible.
The location scout offered the attractive fee that men in spotless white sports coats are supposed to offer yokels, but the yokels in this case were greedy fucks and they said they didn’t know if they could deal with that sort of intrusion, holding out for a higher fee. Justin sweat gravy. He did all he could to put his parents in good spirits, while at the same time sharing a recent art project with them: Polaroids of the many other homes about town that looked almost identical to theirs. There were times to hold out for a better offer, and times to grab the brass ring. It was only extra cash to his parents, but the idea of having Hollywood under the same roof was a dream Justin had never even dared to dream before. If he said so directly, they might tum down the deal just to spite him … but wasn’t it obvious? Perhaps that was their reason for this stalling game, the sport of watching him squirm. Could parents be so begrudging, so sadistic?
The first time I met his mother she was baking a lemon cake for one of her adult parties, and Justin and I sipped at our glasses of juice with ice while she mixed ingredients. She emptied the mix into a pan, and immediately dunked the batter-coated bowl and spoon into soapy water. Turning towards us, she said, ‘Oh sorry, I suppose you wanted that … oh well, too much sugar isn’t good for children anyway.a’ Then she licked her own fingers clean of the sticky, yellow goop.
The news that his parents finally shook hands with the scout was delivered indirectly through a conversation Justin overheard his mother having on the phone. This was at least a week since the deal had been secured, a near sleepless weak of worrying for Justin. After she hung up the receiver, Justin asked her about it, wanting to make sure he heard correctly. She said, ‘I didn’t tell you? Well really, what does it matter to you one way or the other?’ Her callousness glossed over him. Its bite was dulled by the glorious news. Once again it was hard to fall asleep, but this time for sheer anticipation. All the faces on his ceiling smiled down on him. They seemed to be having the sort of gay conversations that are always in the background of big party scenes in movies. Most of the words are unintelligible, but the tinkle of laugher is a strong through chord. The sound of it sprinkled down on him like the Sandman’s sand, eventually making his lids heavy and soaking into his strawberry locks, filling his dreams with Technicolour wonders.
The film would be called Friendly Fire. We assumed it would be the story of our town. The sun forever baked our little valley. It was common for buildings, trash heaps and even people to suddenly ignite in fits.
The film must be a lighthearted comedy about people living near the constant lick of flames, we thought, because it would star the comedic actress, Carol Burnett. She was a meaty-jawed woman who got her start in early vaudeville and went on later to have her own variety show on weekend television. In her skits she aped popular culture the same way the funny guy in every local coffee shop did: she made goofy faces and voices. You never had to pause to ask, ‘Should I laugh?’ She was the people’s clown, bringing it down to our level because she was down there with us. Leave subtlety for Public Television.
For this film, however, she would venture down a more tenebrous path: a no-nonsense farmer’s wife with a son away fighting someone else’s war. Her dramatic debut. The title itself referred to bullets shot by the home team. A jeep would pull up to the house (Justin’s house) with the sombre news: he’s dead, Martha, that little seed you raised and tended, taken by a sudden frost. Killed by his fellow soldiers, an accident… they happen in wars too, you know. Politics, tragedy. Based on a true story. Well, what isn’t?
Justin’s family was put up in a swank hotel. I didn’t know there were hotels like that in our town – soap shaped like lotus flowers. Justin brought me one. ‘That’s not all,’ he said. ‘The maid leaves chocolates after she cleans.’ It was more posh than their home, but smaller too. I dropped by to visit once, mainly to check out the spread. Justin’s Mom was perched on the edge of the balcony, barking something about needing more ice before she realised I wasn’t room service. The two girls were fighting over possession of something or other behind a paper thin room divider, and Justin told me later that his dad spent all his time reading back issues of complimentary magazines cover to cover on the rooftop patio-bar.
Mr and Mrs Teuermann, the couple who had adopted Justin, were always icy with him, but in those tight quarters you could see they didn’t think much of their birth children either. They didn’t like people. Just each other a little, because they enjoyed complaining about everyone else: all those squalid simpletons who crossed their paths daily. I never had great affection for my fellow man either, but I did my best to avoid people, Justin being the solitary exception. In contrast, they were always attending this or that function. Social obligations were their self-imposed ball and chain, and Justin would hear them coming home late at night stuffing the washing machine with their party clothes to clean out the stink of cigarettes and empty conversations.
But now, they didn’t have to go out to suffer. A claustrophobic environment was right there in their temporary home. In an inspired moment, I asked if it might be all right if Justin stayed at my house during the filming – I knew Mom wouldn’t mind (I’d been a loner before and, though my time with Justin was spent mostly in mischief, it was at least social. The school psychiatrist had once stressed to her how important it was that I interact more with other kids). The day I suggested Justin could sleep over with us was the first and only time I saw Mrs Teuermann smile. It flashed across her face for a second, then she disappeared into the hotel bathroom to dab some cotton and antiseptic at the corners of her mouth.
Co-starring with Carol Burnett, in Friendly Fire, would be Susan Sheppard, playing Carol’s mother. It would be a more believable casting than of the mother she played to a teenager named Chrissy in our favorite movie, Elbow Room. In Elbow Room her part was small, but her appearance so frightening that our memory of the film was dominated by it. There was a cruel tightness in her features that made us wonder if maybe she hadn’t given herself one of those Marlene-Dietrich-facials (Late in her career Marlene would pull the skin of her face back before going on stage using small stainless steel hooks. Short cords were attached to clamps that bit into the back of her head under the recess of her wig. Then she buried her face under a thick coat of base and powder. She sung through this stretched mask, never turning her back to the audience. Justin knew about this because Susan Sheppard talked about it in some gossip rag. The two actresses had performed on the same stage together. Susan was quoted, ‘Even more unnerving than seeing her fasten those fish hooks to her sagging jowls, was the sight, every night, of the fresh blood stains on the back of that Frau‘s gown during our final curtain call’).
Because we saw Elbow Room so often, Susan’s cameo in this B film was magnified. Justin found the actress’s remaindered biography and stole it. He was upset with me for not wanting to read the tome to him, but we went through the photos together and I recited all the captions aloud. The book was titled, Slow Down? I Don’t Know the Meaning, and one of the pictures inside showed a younger and topless Susan wrestling with three members of the Rat Pack and some dignitary from Zimbabwe. She had them clamped between her shapely legs while she puffed on a hookah. The sexual arousal I felt on seeing this photo confused the hell out of me. Since I learned how to walk, people have called me a sissy, but it seemed that all the proof of my latent heterosexuality was in this image of a superwoman. It was impossible that this curvaceous goddess was the same person who appeared so inhuman, so like a sharp toothed sea bass, in the Elbow Room comedy. It was almost a relief to find pictures of her further on that resembled more the monster we knew and loved.
When Hollywood moved in the whole neighbourhood around Justin’s place was transformed. The street was blocked off and even folks who lived there had to push through crowds of onlookers, and then of film workers. They were given residency badges to flash at security posts. These neighbours made a show of complaining about the inconveniences, but only because they knew the Teuermanns were paid off and they were hoping to get their palms greased as well. In truth, they were all puffed up from the attention. Just living on that block earned you celebrity status by proxy.
The Teuermanns were told they couldn’t go into the house during the week and a half of shooting there. There was an exception clause for retrieving forgotten items, and Justin abused this clause beyond its full extent. On the first day he charmed over half the crew with his extensive knowledge of their personal dossiers. His room was upstairs and overlooked the backyard.
That put him outside of the target area for shooting so no one could see why he shouldn’t be allowed to hang out for hours on end there. That sweet, quiet, little boy, what could it hurt?
Perhaps it helped that he rearranged his film museum clippings to highlight anyone he knew to be working on this particular production. The corner altar to Susan Sheppard was overdoing it in my opinion. She’d see through it; he was far too young to be a fan of her work… but I underestimated actor egos. On the second day, the assistant director was pulling Susan back for a viewing. Before long, she and Justin were sharing private jokes. His normal obsession was focused on film trivia, but for this occasion Justin took a crash course in Susan’s stage career. He even got his hands on a playbill older than himself from one of her Broadway productions, which she autographed for him.
‘A pity you never saw my Blanche Dubois live,’ she said in her trailer, offering Justin some more cakes. Then she launched into scenes turning every object around them into props, set pieces and co-stars. His presence was soon in demand. They kept him around because he put Susan in such a good mood. He arrived before sunrise and the two of them chatted while she was made-up. Mom and I would come by just before sunset to pick him up. He was exhausted but full of stories. Of course the filming continued well into the night, but the schedule was rearranged so that all of Susan’s scenes could be shot in the hours when Justin was available.
Of course Justin also met Mrs Burnett, and that’s who Mom wanted to hear about. ‘Is she nice? ls she funny? I bet she’s supernice.’
‘She has a cocker spaniel in her trailer, not a real dog but a stuffed toy,’ Justin reported.
‘Really?’ said Mom. She hung on the words, these trivial details, trying to add them all up to some image she could befriend. ‘We’re all just kids at heart, aren’t we? Eaven the big stars.’
‘Yeah,’ said Justin, ‘but she doesn’t play with it… or let anyone else play with it. She says it’s her good luck charm. She has a real cocker spaniel at home too, and his name is Lucky, and she named the toy dog after him.’
‘And she does that thing with her ear on her TV show,’ Mom thought it over as she spoke. ‘Actors are very superstitious about their rituals. So am I. I turned around and went the other way last week when a black cat tried to cross my path.’
Blankets of fake snow were rolled out over the roof and yard and covered with another layer of powdered fake snow. ‘That’s gonna play hell with the lawn,’ one of the neighbours declared. It didn’t stop with that. They weathered the front of the house to make it look older. They snapped out some of the posts on the porch railing, poked holes in the screen door and squirted it with rust-coloured paint. Heavy theatrical lamps and other imposing equipment were planted all over the yard. Thick black and orange cables snaked over and around the white picket fence and the hum of generators sang along with every insect in town. The bugs were drawn to the bright lights and exterminated en masse by routine fogs of pesticide. An extensive crew trampled through every room in the house, in the name of work or avoiding it.
People could watch from across the street, though it was hard to see much from there, so they started scaling the neighbours’ homes without asking, took their six packs up on the porch overhangs, spread blankets out on garage roofs. The director demanded silence and had already used his coffee mug to bludgeon some Mexican guy with a smoker’s hack.
The people working on the Friendly Fire set were always dusted with fake snowflakes. Like sand at a beach, you couldn’t avoid it, it got in everything. During breaks sometimes, the crew would tum on the sprinkler in the back yard and lay under the jets of water, sunning themselves. A long strip of snow blanket was stretched out which made an excellent slide mat when soaked. It was a sight: everyone in cut-offs running about in the snow.
Except the cast members. They were forbidden to join in, needing to maintain a pallid winter complexion. On the second day of the shoot, Justin had been in a fake-snow fight. When we picked him up, there were white flakes entangled in his red hair, and coating his pants, shoes and tee-shirt.
‘You look stupid,’ I said. As well liked as he was by the crew, I couldn’t believe they wouldn’t allow his buddy to join him. I reminded him that I had helped him steal the movie magazine . It was my interest in stunts and stuntmen that had introduced Justin to the world behind the scenes in film-making, but he said the director forbid having anymore kids on the set.
‘I’m not a kid like you,’ l said, as if he needed reminding of the four years l had on him. ‘Sounds boring, anyway… sitting around all day while people say the same things over and over.’
Mom told me to shush, which just made it worse. She asked what Carol was wearing that day, ‘Not her costume, but her clothes? Does she seem to have a favourite colour?’
I tried to feign disinterest, but eventually my own curiosity won out.
‘Do the actors go to the bathroom in your house, or do they have to use those port-a-potties? Did the director smack anyone else yet? Are they gonna film the scene where the son gets shot? Can you steal some fake blood?’
We stopped by Video Hut on the way home. This was back in the days before there were a million chain video stores. There was just Video Hut and the crap Mom’s friends taped off TV: black and white films with people always saying good-bye in train stations. I ran to look at the boxes in the horror film section. Seldom, but every now and then, I could find one that had banal enough packaging that it was possible to convince Mom it wasn’t too gory. At the movie theaters, I snuck into slasher films all the time on my own, but getting to see one at home was some perverted conquest. If Mom had agreed to rent the film, she wouldn’t make me stop watching it, though you could see her body pull back once she realised it was another one of those films. She’d try to sit there watching as the hooded killer carved up one victim after another, making forced blase comments. ‘These films are so phony,’ she’d say. ‘They’d be a lot scarier if there was more of a plot. How can you care about these characters? I can’t even tell one from another. You know, the imagination is much more powerful than all this fake gore.’ Eventually though she would take some dishes to the kitchen or go off to her room, claiming to be bored. Her own part in this game was to not react to the violence I enjoyed submitting her to. But even if she had never flinched, which she had, her exit was some sort of proof to me that my skin was tougher. Not that I disliked Mom, but when you live with a person, torturing them is a sort of sport you can fall into without even thinking about it. Once she left the room, I would tum up the volume a few notches during each scream scene, knowing her imagination – the one she claimed was more powerful than fake gore – was doing its job.
On this trip, however, Justin got to pick out the film. ‘He’s our guest,’ Mom said, for the thirty-trillionth time. That seemed like a good deal to me, since I could influence Justin’s decision easier than Mom’s. But I was foiled again. Elbow Room had just been released on video that week.
‘We’ve seen it a billion times,’ I said. ‘Let’s get something new.’
‘But it’ll seem different this time,’ he said. I knew what he meant. I didn’t know Susan the way he did, but I had seen her on the set when we picked him up, and had heard all his stories.
‘It’ll be boring,’ I said, my voice weakening mid-sentence because, like Mom going off to do dishes before having to see yet another teenager disemboweled, I wasn’t convinced of my own argument.
While Mom handed over her Video Hut membership card, she told the girl at the checkout counter about how Justin and Susan had hit it off. Without actually lying, the way she told the story made it seem like she was the one hanging out on the set all day.
‘ … Today Carol was wearing this simple blue collar men’s cut shirt and some boot leg jeans, which is exactly the sort of clothes women of our generation, Carol’s and mine, used to wear when we were teens. She’s very nostalgic … and blue is her favourite colour. Everything in her tailor is blue and white. She even has a blue ribbon on the neck of her lucky mascot, which is the cutest thing: a little stuffed toy dog with long fuzzy ears! I’ll have to ask were she got it.’
Justin hit rewind. We were watching Elbow Room for a second time, Mom having retired. Specifically we wanted to see the scene in which the girl who played the lead, Chrissy, entered her mother’s bedroom. The mother jolted up suddenly and said something unintelligible; the words all running over each other, unable to get out of her mouth quick enough. We played it over and over, repeating her incantation slowly aloud, hoping to unearth its meaning with our own tongues. Over and over, Chrissy entered the room and walked up behind her mother who was seated before a large vanity. The mother, or Susan Shepherd rather (the acting had in that moment stopped), jolted up in her seat, shouted something, and the shaken Chrissy, all lines forgotten, faltered on her heels. She stammered while backing out of the room, ‘I, uh, gotta … ‘
Chrissy enters the room. She walks up behind Susan Shepherd. She touches Susan. That is the sin! Those are the first words we extract, ‘Ewtoch … ,’ you touched.
We watched again.
Chrissy bounces into the room. Already her guileless cheer is made a joke because we know what’s coming. We lean into the television to catch the precise moment, but the crime itself is blocked from view somewhere behind that woven net of raw nerve endings. It doesn’t seem like she gets close enough to actually touch Susan. But suddenly (but, now, expectedly) Susan eyes fill with fire. Her expression alone is enough to frighten the actress playing Chrissy out of character. The young girl stumbles back over her own feet. Cameras keep running. The word comes and we lean in even closer… it’s something vaguely Arabic. Then there’s poor Chrissy with eyes searching off camera, wondering if anyone will come to her rescue. ‘I, uh, gotta… ‘
At first our singular goal was to decipher this encryption, the moment where Susan seems to be speaking in tongues. After a few spins we got it, ‘You-touched-my-hair,’ nothing so exotic as we imagined, but we continued to rewind the scene. Over and over she wigged out, followed by Chrissy’s stumbled backing out of the room. There was no motive in the script for her to exit there, as in the very next scene she comes back into the room to deliver the original lines. This time one sees only the back of Susan’s head, that mammoth wig, nodding, clearly a body double called in while Susan brewed in her trailer.
Each time we rewound the scene, the incident became more cartoon-like. Our eyes teared and our sides hurt.
The slight smile on Chrissy’s face lets us know this scene must have been shot in the first days of filming. Perhaps it is even Susan’s very first day on the set, because Chrissy has yet to build up a defence. She walks into the snake pit like a happy lamb.
We peed our pants laughing, literally. We both wet ourselves and in realising this, laughed even harder. The fluid escaped in short tingly surges. There was no air left in us to say, ‘Stop!’ Rather, each time we gained a molecule of control one of us would rewind the scene again and we’d lose it all the more.
Enter Chrissy … a fanged beast turns and spits poison: ‘Ewtochmahr !
Yet, as violent as her protest was, the more we replayed it, the more I finally could see that this beast was, without a doubt, the topless girl with legs of steel pictured in that biography. The face belonged to a cartoon dragon, but the don’t-fuck-with-me spirit was all there. It wasn’t playful anymore, but hadn’t weakened any over the years either. Justin continued to giggle uncontrollably, while I found myself becoming hypnotised, as if in fact there was some other words hidden in that slur, some secret command trying either to put me under its sleepy spell, or waken me to some carnal truth. I touched the small wet spot on my pants and felt my prick pressing up on the other side of the fabric. When you’re a thirteen-year-old boy, a hard-on is nothing unusual, and yet this common occurrence tingles with mystery. It becomes a sort of subversion, your own will giving into a seductive force that wins by shear persistence. The joy of surrender and the joy of resistance were a metronome inside me. I didn’t know what I was surrendering to nor what I was resisting. Sometimes, that night for example, I wasn’t even sure which was which. I only knew that the world converged now and then turning all the elements surrounding me into part of who I was: the damp spot on my jeans and the one on Justin’s, the actresses in the video and this dance we forced upon them, a house where the only grown-up was fast asleep, a small town with a movie crew camping out in trailers, the fake snowflakes that were now in our carpet and about the edges of my bedroom, and a feeling growing in myself that all these things would never happen again… even though they had a dream logic of something that never stops.
Justin hit rewind.
Eyes with red hot magnum, exiting the head, ‘Ewtochmahr!’
A trip cord, electric bolts bringing a creature to life, ‘Ewtochmahr!
One woman, barking through a foamy maul, ‘Ewtochmahr!’
Another woman, a mere girl, lurching backwards, ‘I, uh, gotta… ‘