Published by Joanne Surridge at Shakespir
Copyright 2016 Joanne Surridge
The movie star drove out of the studio lot, the roof of his convertible Buick closed. The fans knew whose car it was, but their screams of adulation faded to shouts of ‘Fuck you, dumbass,’ as he sped past them.
The guys in the gatehouse watched as the car hit the kerb and careened into the oncoming lane before straightening up.
‘He looks bad,’ said one, as he leant in the doorway. He ran his finger round the collar of his shirt; the rough seams gave his thick neck a red welt that looked like his throat had been slit. He stared after the car as it took off towards the hills.
‘ Mamie said he was sick,’ said the other. Mamie was his girl from the make -up department.
‘He was practically yellow, she said. They had to make a special colour for him so he didn’t look like he was dead on the film.
‘Earl said he was pissing blood, too. It was all over his trailer,’ he said. Earl was his brother, a janitor on the main stage.
The movie star, oblivious and reckless, sped away. His eyes were squinting and sore, set in circles of bruised purple skin.
The HOLLYWOODLAND sign above him blazed against the backdrop of the hills. The white sign had become invisible to him in the years since he had fought through the glut of handsome boys trying make their fortune in talkies. But today as he drove, swigging from his hip flask, the sign pulled his gaze. A flash as the ‘H’ seemed to shift; a figure waving from the top of the final ‘D’.
When he looked again, there was nothing.
He navigated the bends that took him up beyond the cheap streets of Tinseltown. Past the white stucco estate of his greatest friend, the gates locked. It had only been a few days since the dead body of the last great silent star had been found floating in his pool. As the place disappeared behind him, in his rear view mirror he glimpsed a silvery shimmer flash in front of the large tree just past the gates.
As he pulled into the driveway of his mansion, a lacerating pain hit him with the force of a sandbag to the torso. His insides burned, like red hot fingers were raking through him.
His butler stood in the doorway, and stepped forward as the car stopped.
‘Sir, is everything alright?’ he enquired. The English accent slipped into his native New Jersey as the door of the car opened and his employer vomited at his feet.
‘Just get me in, I’ll be fine.’
Entering the wide hallway, the men staggered to the stairs. A bigger than life size portrait of the star in his famous first role stared down from above the curve of the grand staircase. The tall and muscular figure stood with hands on hips, his head thrown back looking into the distance from the bridge of a ship. A slim moustache drew attention to his mouth, with thin lips and even teeth. This mouth had grinned rakishly, leered cruelly, and sneered dismissively through at least seven pictures a year for the last twelve years. Now, as he clung to the bannister and heaved strings of pink vomit onto the thick white carpet, the contrast was stark.
He waved away the offered hand, and straightened his cuffs. ‘Must have eaten something bad at the commissary.’
‘Of course, Sir,’
‘I’ll be fine; you get off for the evening, old man. I won’t need anything else.’
The butler stood and watched the dishevelled figure stagger away. A young woman, dressed in the Hollywood maid’s costume of black cocktail skirt with lacy white pinny and cap, appeared around the corner.
‘Is he back? Is anyone with him?’ she said. ‘He was working with Esme Lansom today, I hoped he might bring her back.’
‘He doesn’t even seem bothered any more,’ the man said.
He was worried about his employer; his own reputation among the various ex-stuntmen, extras, pimps and dealers who had found themselves jobs in the homes of the current stable of talent depended on the stature of his master.
‘If he dies we’ll have to up our game, my girl, if we want to find somewhere decent.’ He put his hand protectively on her behind, and she giggled.
‘You will look after me, Reuben?’ she said, ‘I don’t want to go back to Pittsburgh, y’know?’
‘You stick with me, Ethel, we’ll be fine,’ he said. He kissed her, rubbed his hand over the black clad bottom and strolled off to the kitchen.
She wiped her mouth, and straightened her skirt. The few weeks she had spent at starlet school had helped when it came to pretending with dirty old fools like Reuben.
The snug, a huge room decorated in dark wood was dominated by leather and hunting artefacts. A stuffed lion’s head above the bar stared down on a rug made of an entire tiger skin. Guns and swords hung on the walls, and above the fireplace – all movie props.
The bar took up one end of the long room. He rested his head on the cool marble bar top, eventually raising himself on to his elbows. He grabbed the bottle of bourbon, filled a tumbler and drank it like it was a shot.
In the corner at the far end of the room, someone sat by the fireplace. The deep sweep of the wingback chair obscured the face, but he could see a hand, resting on the arm. It gripped an empty glass.
Despite his blurred vision, the outline of the figure seemed familiar.
‘Hey, I didn’t know anyone was here,’ he called out, raising the bottle and glass. ‘Are you topped up?’
The figure didn’t move.
He walked the length of the room, and sat down in the couch nearest the chair.
‘Woo, I need this,’ he spilled another large measure into the tumbler. ’You sure I can’t get you anything?’ he said, peering to see which of his friends had decided to stop by.
He got up and lurched towards the fireplace.
‘Now look here, this is my home, old thing,’ he said, ‘it’s a rum caper when a visitor won’t speak to the host…’
He stared into the face of his guest.
The corpse of his friend sat in the chair, dressed in his funeral suit. Translucent and silvery, his skin puckered and drooped as if slightly too large for his face.
The glass slipped away as the star froze, his breath stopped in shock.
Once he recovered enough to breathe, he closed his eyes and delivered his famous laugh. His so called friends had the money to bribe an undertaker if they thought it would make a good prank; he had to compose himself if he wasn’t to be the butt of jokes for years to come.
‘You bastards,’ he shouted, ‘Get the fuck out here now.’ He ran through his reaction in his mind, as if rehearsing a scene.
‘Come out you cocksuckers, I know you’re there,’ he said, waving the bottle at the corners of the room.
The corpse moved; the skin on its face slipped sideways and there was a slight slopping noise as it shifted in the seat, and stared at its old friend.
‘Toot toot, that was swell!’ The corpse said, in the familiar whisky drenched voice of his old pal.
The movie star felt his physical pain fade as he faced the corpse sitting talking to him.
‘What do you want?’ he said. His voice sounded as if he was wearing cans for a sound test.
‘You know me, buddy, just here for the giggle juice,’ the corpse said, and held up the empty glass. ‘Ring-a-ding-ding, pal!’ His face slipped further as he grinned, and the dentures he had been buried in started to slide from his mouth. ‘Lighten up, you wet sock. Always had a stick up your ass, no fun at all.’
‘I don’t understand. You came back to insult me?’
‘They made me come,’ the corpse pointed back towards the bar, to a group huddled together, whispering and pushing each other to be the first to step forward.
The one that eventually led the way was a young woman. A grey dress, covered in silver bugle beads, swished as she moved. Her bobbed grey hair had a feathered headpiece in it; the monochrome plume seemed to cover one side of her face. As she got nearer, he saw that her twisted neck presented one glimmering red eye to the front; the other was lost in a black hole that the headdress had collapsed into.
A long rope of pearls twisted around her neck, and she rattled and clacked as she stalked towards him. He knew the sound, perhaps from a party, but the memory was too distant and faint.
Close behind her, a smaller girl followed. This one was in a black one-piece bathing suit, and smart grey heels, with an ankle strap. The sound of the heels was odd; a click and a shuffle. Her hair was white blonde, with dark streaks colouring the back. As she got closer, he realised her body was compressed, her legs deformed and twisted. One leg faced the right way, the other had turned backwards and she dragged it along behind her.
The star smelled a flowery, cheap perfume. The name of it - ‘My Sin’- came to him, but the reason he remembered it slipped away.
The last figure was a man. He gave off the damp, charred stench of an extinguished blaze. His hair had been scorched away, his nose and lips melted. Vivid red eyes were the only recognisable feature, and smoke poured from his head. A badge still visible on the top pocket of his charred overalls said ‘Pearson’s Garage’ – the star knew it, but the reason why was just out of reach in his fuddled brain.
As they stopped, the corpse sloshed over to stand beside his friend and with a cough to clear his throat, he spoke.
‘I can see in your face that you are trembling at the horrors you see before you,’ he said, ‘But you,’ he paused, and pointed at the star, ‘You, who have lived without conscience for all these years – you have no recollection of these piteous creatures, do you?
‘Sorry,’ he whispered in his friends’ ear, dripping onto his shoulder, ‘I had a script to learn. Complete baloney, but still…
‘It is time for you, who have suffered no consequences for the tragedies you wreaked upon these poor innocents…’ here, he swept his arm towards the group, who were watching as if in the front row of the Pantages theatre, ‘…To finally pay for your crimes.’
The little group applauded, and he bowed.
The young woman stepped forward.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ she said, as she curtsied and took a deep breath. ‘I am Rosalie. You took us out after a party, and we were laughing and screaming until you wrapped your car around a tree.’ She pulled at the necklace, the pearls clattering together faster and faster. ‘You left us, and it was ages before anyone came. My sister tried to get me to hold on, but I was too tired.’ The single eye glared from her crooked face.
He started to weep at the memory of the blood in his mouth and the fear as he climbed out of the twisted wreck. ‘I didn’t know what to do. The film was just about to come out, my career would have been over before it got started,’ he said. He sat forward, as he suddenly remembered something, ‘Your sister, isn’t she still alive? I didn’t abandon her; I take care of her medical bills.’
Rosalie’s single eye burned brighter, and her voice became a howl of pain. The group murmured, ‘Shame, shame.’
The second girl stepped forward. ‘Too kind,’ she said, as she bobbed a curtsey. ‘I am Molly. I remember coming here, when I was fourteen. You promised me you would make me a star, and I believed you. When you did what you did, I told my Ma and she reported you to the police.’
‘It wasn’t my fault,’ he said, angry now. ‘The jury didn’t believe I would need to rape anybody. You told me your perfume was ‘My Sin’, how was I supposed to know you were…’ he stopped.
‘Innocent?’ she said. ‘You didn’t listen when I cried, and told you.’ She sighed, and patted the platinum hair. Clots of blood from the back came away in her fingers. ‘I knew after all those days on the stand, your fancy pants lawyer calling me a tramp and a gold digger that I was finished. No starlet school for me. So I dressed up in my best bathers and heels, dyed my hair and took a dive off the D.’
The group murmured again, ‘Poor child.’
After the girl had retreated the man stepped forward, bowing stiffly.
‘I’m Clark. I ain’t a performer like these two. I just worked in the garage. Mindin’ my own business going home and got sideswiped off the dang road into the canyon,’ he said, his melted lips making his speech slur. ‘You came up the road like a bat outta hell. Dang near destroyed that H in the sign when I hit it.’
‘I didn’t see you,’ the star said, his recollection about the accident still hazy. ‘When I read about it, and how you had worked in the garage and your mother depended on you, I really wanted to help,’ he tailed off, as he remembered that the studio had threatened not to renew his contract if he went to the police.
The mention of his mother seemed to enrage the figure; the smell of gasoline became intense and the heat from his smoking head set the vapours alight.
The three crowded forward, hissing.
The star recoiled, ‘What do you want?’ he cried. The smell of decay wrapped around him as they came closer. His eyes watered, and the rotten stench seemed to choke him through every pore in his body.
‘There isn’t anything you can do, buddy’ The corpse looked on, ‘Just pipe down, and it will be over soon, I promise.’
‘Do they want me dead, then?’ the star asked.
The figures moaned; their distorted bodies straining forward. He scrambled back in the sofa, grabbing at cushions to fend them off.
‘Well, the thing is we all have to pay at some time,’ the corpse shuffled towards the bar. ‘Look at me. No dignity, even in death. Swirling around the pool, naked as the day I was born.’ He hesitated, and turned around. ‘I had a visit that night, from Jeanie.’
‘Jeanie? But she died over a year ago.’
‘Yep, she brought some people to see me. Same damn script too.’
The three figures tore at the star, ripping and splicing his body. His bones shattered and he felt the scorching heat of their stiff fingers as they gouged his insides. He beat against them, screaming, his hand reaching towards the receding figure of his friend.
‘Call the studio,’ he begged.
The corpse looked back, shaking his head. ‘They can’t protect you any more, buddy,’ he said.
‘We all got to be stars by treading on people – there’s no other way to do it. But they don’t forget.’
Cover image used under license from Adobe stock images.
The great star of the silver screen is clinging on to his place, still making pictures the public turn out to see. But making it in the tough world of Tinseltown leaves many casualties. The ‘Hollywoodland’ signs looms above him as he heads home, haunted by the loss of his greatest friend. His drunken drive along the road into the gilded Hollywood Hills takes him past landmarks that he has chosen to forget. He may have forgotten, but others have different ideas.