The day was hot, melt-the-pavement-on-a-treeless-Los-Angeles-street hot; the kind of day when strange bugs with cartoon features emerge from their hidey-holes desperate for water and the overhead lights blink and dim on the verge of a blackout. All the while, my roommate, Lucia Seawell, kept her chill, long toes stuck out of strappy sandals and bouncing frizz-free brunette locks. Like me, she was a recent transplant blasted into the Hollywood orbit by a cross-country Greyhound bus. But the difference between us was she was running to something and I was running from something. Neither one of us lived in the present, where the rich up in the hills looked down at our crumbling apartment from crazy-big mansions complete with sparkling pools and luxury cars. Lucia lived in a not-so-distant future with the abstract idea of “making it,” while I lived in the past, where I escaped Belle Creek, the small scuzzy township I’d been labeled “persona non grata,” and arrived here, to grapple with bad memories while serving lattes in a dirty apron and ball cap.
“One extreme vanilla ice blended with a honey stick, one caramel cappuccino with extra foam, and one matcha ice blended.” A production assistant with a walkie-talkie and earpiece read the order off a list. “You an actress?” he asked.
With my face, I knew he was joking. I wanted to punch the kid in his eager mouth, but I needed my paycheck. So, I smiled and read back his order, and retreated to the peaceful place in my mind where I streamed lyrics from old metal songs like Metallica’s Master of Puppets, and let the poetry lull me into a fugue state. The songs reminded me of my older brother, who funded my one-way ticket to L.A., with enough for a bus ticket and a week’s rent.
Lucia belonged on the other side of the cappuccino counter. She stood out even in a sea of starlets. Casting directors were drawn to her like bed bugs to a new mattress, complimenting her dazzling smile at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf before placing orders for their bosses. Her good looks were a commodity. Los Angeles was an endless hierarchy ladder where everyone was someone else’s bitch, all the way up to the tippy top, where the real earners reported to board members, critics, and most importantly, the democracy of audience members who either showed up for the opening weekend of a film (or endlessly streamed it from home), making it a hit or not, ensuring the losses would be devastating enough to wipe out a third world country.
After having left her shift early to pound the pavement, Lucia waited for me to return home on a twisting, churning bus route that wound down Wilshire to where we could afford a dump of a dwelling. It was safer for two girls to travel together, rather than alone. At our apartment, Lucia worked on her megawatt smile in front of the mirror, dutifully applying Crest white strips each night to ensure there’d be no snacking before bedtime. Her days were full of little rituals like that: routines for exercising, meal plans, schedules for finding an agent. She’d talk to her mother every week, and even though I could hear her crying afterward, she always made the call. I’d gape at her from the couch while I tucked into a dinner of day-old pastries from work and another hour of watching Ultimate Fighting Championship on my crappy laptop. If she ever sat down with me, it’d be on the edge of the cushion, as if, at any moment, she expected a knock on the door.
“I’ve got to fix my face,” she’d say to me in the morning like an asthmatic needing an inhaler before she could talk. I’d pick at my acne-marked chin while she spackled on makeup and curled her fluffy locks before I could tell her the fridge was broken again or that I’d be working a double shift. It got to the point that I’d just leave a note, otherwise, I’d be late for work.
But this stinking hot day, she was all made up with the aura of a crocus ready to bloom by the time I stirred. She begged me to skip work with her and meet a producer for an audition. She said if I played my cards right, the producer would find a part for me too, but we both knew that was a pipe dream and I’d be there only as a chaperone. But when she smiled at me, I couldn’t say no. After all, we were the closest either of us had to family in L.A. Also, she promised to cover my next two double shifts and watch the next UFC fight with me.
By the time we got off the bus, I felt the sweat building up under my breasts, under my arms, under my onion-colored hair, and inside the unbreathable polyester “fancy dress” that Lucia encouraged me to wear. Next to her, I was a drowned rat who had popped my head out of a sewer. The smell of grease and stale coffee seeped through my pores.
“Hold on, take my picture,” Lucia said. “I want to remember this moment in case it’s the day everything changes.”
Through her phone’s camera lens, Lucia appeared even younger than in real life, and part of it was her outfit: knee socks with a plaid skirt. But the other part was the pores on her face were non-existent. Not exactly like a Barbie doll, but close. She smiled coquettishly and I thought about popping her head off her neck just like I used to do with my mom’s old doll collection.
The house was as insane as we expected. A long driveway past an open metal gate led to a regal Mediterranean-style palace straight out of Disneyland. Who lives in a place like this, I wondered, thinking of Belle Creek’s “nice” houses known mostly for having mowed lawns. Here, Bougainville flowers bloomed around the doorway as if even the god damn plants were waiting for us to arrive. Normally in these situations, I’d run, but Lucia had enough confidence to toss her hair and ring the doorbell.
I expected dogs. In TV shows, when the bell rings, security rottweilers snarl around the exterior of mansions to tear intruders’ limbs off. I prepared to raise my hands like I’d be arrested for trespassing. But instead, a woman with sunglasses and leather pants opened the door with a teacup chihuahua, the kind celebrities carried in their purses. (I’ve always wondered how dogs poop in those expensive bags and if the starlets inevitably are carrying around bags full of shit.)
“Oh, who’s this little cutie?” Lucia fell all over herself to pet the little dog that shook in the woman’s skinny arms. The dog’s tail had been dyed lavender, the same color as its toes.
“Are you here for the casting?” the woman asked, overemphasizing the word “heeeeeere” with a vaguely generic European accent that sounded fake. “Come in, come in.” The woman ushered us inside and placed the dog on the floor of the hallway. Her pants squeaked and her heels clicked on the tiles in synch with the tiny dog’s painted toenails.
“One at a time. You go upstairs first, and you wait down here.” The woman motioned for me to enter a sunny room with a piano. “I bring you tap water.”
I was fine to pass the time in the AC of the downstairs room, but it was Lucia’s show, so I deferred to her.
“Actually, we’re going to audition together,” Lucia said, brightly.
The woman shrugged and motioned up the marble steps. The little dog yipped and the woman twitched her fingers at it.
We climbed the stairs. The banister was cold under my hand and the marble steps were sharp.
“One moment,” the woman said. I prepared myself to retreat outside to the blazing desert heat.
“You have headshots? You leave them with me,” the woman said. She reached out her hand and patiently waited for Lucia to trot down the steps and hand over her enlarged photograph with her name and number scrawled across the bottom. “And your friend?” she asked.
“She doesn’t have one,” Lucia said.
Again, the woman shrugged, in a familiar attitude I saw all day at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. I will do the bare minimum asked of me in this shitty job, but not one ounce more. If she thought about it at all, working all day in a house that cost a million times her weekly salary probably made her feel as apathetic and worthless as someone like me.
The hallway upstairs had half a dozen closed doors and was decorated with minimalist art that appeared to be blank canvases. A bodyguard teetered on a stool at the far end, short dreads, large build, engaged with a video on his iPhone, his face blank. Without a glance, he gestured his thumb in a “thataway motion” that looked as rehearsed as the row of foam hearts on my frothy cappuccino orders. Instead of making me feel safe, the bodyguard heightened the tension buzzing down the hallway. Even Lucia, who usually made an entrance with bravado, gave pause. We’d only known each other a few months, but in LA-time, where Prozac most likely laced the water giving everything, including the hours, a lackadaisical dreamlike quality, even a week is an eternity.
Lucia pushed open the door and the cool hallway gave way to a blast of painful air like we popped open the freezer door at Ralph’s. Goose pimples rose on the back of Lucia’s shoulders. The first thing I noticed in the spacious office was a white couch and a glass coffee table. On a sleek oak desk, was an open laptop and a gold statuette. Behind a desk, was an empty chair.
A toilet flushed. Then a bulky man exited the adjacent bathroom and snapped the waistband of his gym shorts. His dark beard was obviously dyed black, his hairline was full of plugs, and his strange jawline had been created by a plastic surgeon. He leaned against the desk and appraised us with a strained smile that gave off a whiff of dangerous shame I recognized from the creeps back home in Belle Creek, and their warped belief the world owed them something in return for whatever hell they’d grown up with.
We heard the door lock behind us from the outside. That was unfortunate, because, otherwise, I would have grabbed Lucia and gotten the hell out of there. Lucia bit her thumbnail.
“We’re here for the casting,” she said, her voice going up at the end like a question.
“Why’d you bring a friend?” the producer asked; the black hairs on his legs were thick
and long, almost like they were drawn on with a sharpie. The room smelled like bleach.
“She wants to be in the movie,” Lucia said.
“OK, listen, she’s not right for what I’m looking for.” To me, he said, “Since I’m a nice
guy, I’ll give you $500 for your time. Just knock twice and the guy will show you out.”
The producer took his time opening a desk drawer, laying out hundred-dollar bills like slices of ham.
Lucia tore off a piece of her thumbnail, her eyes ping-ponged between me and the
producer, and I could tell she was still trying to believe this was a real casting. The possibility of her landing a movie part from this hung in the air until it didn’t.
“What’d you say the name of the movie was?” she asked.
“Here you go.” The man slid the bills across the desk and pointed them at me.
I moved towards the money. If he wanted to give me something for nothing, I was happy
to take it. It seemed unfair that someone like him made so much, while yours truly, the Barista-of-the-Month at Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf could wipe the glass stations, clean up spills, and blend beverages over time and still not afford a car payment. I put the cash in my pocket.
“So, you know how to give a good massage?” the guy asked Lucia and moved around
the desk towards her.
Guys like this always need a freaking massage. I’d understand if he strained muscles in
the UFC, but a man who drives on the freeway and talks on speaker phone all day does not need a daily rub down. As if the request for a massage was somehow more pious than a blow job.
“Um–” the syllable rang out of Lucia’s mouth. She stared at me when she said it like she
was praying I’d know what role to play in this situation. The guy’s eyes were on Lucia’s legs, so he didn’t see when I grabbed the Academy Award off the desk.
I went for the larynx first. Just like my favorite MMA fighter’s lethal neck strike. That
way, the producer couldn’t call for help. He was unprepared and clutched his throat, making a gargling sound.
Lucia’s high-pitched squeak rang through the air as she jumped back and flattened herself
against the wall. She gasped, but any sound she made, no matter how blood-curdling, wouldn’t rouse the hallway bodyguard from his stool. He’d surely heard much worse from castings.
I went for the kneecap next, and the producer went down and cracked the glass of the coffee table, his head making a sickening thump. His face was very red as if he’d eaten too many jalapenos. The producer was weaker than my history teacher had been back in Belle Creek, but he’d been a former athlete and still had stamina. Back then, he’d managed to get my shirt off before I eye-gouged him, and ground him with a double-leg takedown. In contrast, the producer’s pinky finger hadn’t done any real work his whole life, so every time I made contact, it felt like slamming into a pile of playdough.
But the producer persisted, I’ll give him that. I marveled as he dragged
himself across the floor towards the desk, where there was probably a panic button. I wondered when he installed the button what he was envisioning? Certainly not me, a plain jane basic bitch with pit stains. And who would answer his call for help? I didn’t want to find out. So, I clunked him on the head with the gold trophy. A spray of red coated my dress and the white casting couch. He went still but was breathing, unlike my history teacher had been in Belle Creek.
Lucia clasped her hand over her mouth. I placed the sticky statuette back on the
the desk and then pulled Lucia towards the door. I flexed my hands and tried to get the shakes to stop. Then I knocked twice, just as the producer had advised. The bodyguard opened it a crack and didn’t even bother to glance up from his phone at two girls in obvious distress, a normal occurrence in his job description. I shut the door behind me. We descended the stairs. The woman with squeaky leather pants and her dog were making a smoothie.
“We’ll call you,” the woman said after she absorbed our disheveled clothing,
bloodstained hands, and panicked expressions. Then she turned on the blender, and the roar covered the sound of the little dog’s barks as it followed us to the door and jumped up to lick my fingers.
Outside the heat slammed into us like a forcefield but the adrenaline surged and Lucia
and I dashed down the steaming driveway to the street. We kept running by the bus stop, down the hill, past avocado trees, and purple jacarandas, until we reached the deadened sun-baked streets below Sunset. That’s when I noticed what I assumed was a horizon mirage, another branch of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
The freckled barista didn’t even blink at my rust-stained dress or the open gash on my
hand. I ordered two iced blendeds, asked if he could break a $100, and tipped a $50 from the producer’s money.
“You two movie stars?” the kid asked and goggled at the cash.
Lucia had calmed down and was breathing normally again. “I’m an actress in search of
an agent,” Lucia said, “and she’s…”
Both sets of eyes turned to me. “Me?” I said. Then I improvised, “I’m a bonafide celebrity stunt woman.”
Lucia squealed and gave me a hug.
“Better take a picture before we both get famous,” she said to the kid, tossing her hair.
The barista angled his iPhone at us and took a few shots. Then he showed us the photo
for approval. In the photo, Lucia threw a sultry stare that would melt the heart of any audience, and I smiled for the first time all day. Behind us in the background, through the smog, the Hollywood sign was barely visible but still, it glittered like tinsel.
Meredith Craig is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her fiction has appeared in Fictive Dream, Variety Pack, Rock Salt Journal, Scribble Lit, and Jacked: A Crime Anthology published by Run Amok Books. Additionally, her non-fiction travel pieces have appeared in Lonely Planet, Delta Sky, Vice, among others, and she has written and produced for television. She has been a reader for Uncharted Magazine.