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AN ACTOR NAMED Wesley Sender was at a Hollywood party, in the kitchen getting a beer, and he could hear another actor, Tony Warrens, in the living room talking about what a star was. Wesley knew he wasn't a star, and neither was Warrens anymore.
What was that Western, tail-end of the sixties, when he was still riding high—every pun intended? Tony always had some kind of crisis being in the saddle, and in a long shot in that picture you see a sheriff riding the range with a languorous Valium habit.
And now he'd been shot down. This was just a little backwater of a party, the Hollywood variety on one of those little streets in the flats where the sky seems to begin about two feet over your head. Hollywood was a company town, a magnetic force-field, everybody's lives slanted toward the money.
Wesley stepped carefully outside the kitchen door—he was wearing a walking cast on his left ankle—into a little alley-driveway with his beer and stood there for a moment in the darkness punctuated by the light from the kitchen window.
He'd been divorced for about a year from his wife of seventeen years, an actress named Annie Ray. He had had an automobile accident months ago; his cast was supposed to come off any day now. His son, Stephen, was going to Taft, a prep school in upstate New York. And there was nobody at his house except a dog he no longer paid anyattention to.
In the darkness at the front of the driveway was a woman. Wesley couldn't tell whether she was facing the street or was turned toward him. It was like a little Cracker Jack toy puzzle to occupy his mind while he stood in the windless, temperate evening and listened to the muffled tinkles and voices and laughter from inside.
"Hello," she said, clearly, out of the darkness.
"You know," Wesley said, "from where I am I couldn't tell whether you were turned around to the street. Sorry, I should have said something."
"Oh," she answered without moving out of the darkness, "and I thought we were having a very Tibetan moment together."
It was very musical, the way she said that.
"Nothing—nothing at all."
That was unusual too. People who had religion in L.A. were ready to loan you their secret mantra just to get you started meditating before you could pick up one of your own for $79.95 the next morning. So different from the New York crowd. And then she still hadn't moved. Maybe the voice wasn't an actor's instrument? Maybe it was a person from another business out there? Actresses tended to move quickly out of the darkness or create an immediate bonfire in the area. This person was still being quiet.
Wesley walked toward her. "I guess we had the same idea. You know, when you're an actor sometimes you only talk to other actors, and I think it may not be healthy."
He had come up beside her now and looked to see any response. She was holding a small liqueur glass of something, and he could make out a smile in the dark but didn't look too hard.
"Are you an actor?"
"Oh, no. I'm here from New York doing the costumes for a picture at Warners. I came to the party with Cynthia." Cynthia Roberts, whom he'd said hello to inside, was a voice coach.
"Oh," Wesley said, surprised.
Her name was Janet Heller. Later that night at Joe Allen's he sat opposite her at an outside table and watched and listened to her. She was beautiful and intelligent. When she smiled her face suffused with an inner light. Did she know it and was she having little moments with herself, with her own beauty, as certain actresses did? Her voice, her smile, the light that came into it—Wesley was a man in his middle forties with a back-log of suspiciousness.
Three weeks later, ankle cast off, he was making a Western in Mexico. He had the third or fourth part and there was a good poker game every night but he kept getting distracted. He'd drop out and go back to his trailer and try to remember the exact intonation and tenor of her voice, the smile she had, and the light that came into it. Early one morning he got his son, Stephen, at Taft on the telephone.
"We gonna spend some time in Yosemite during the break, Steve?"
"Dad, I don't want to go camping."
"Okay—well, you name it."
"How 'bout a car?"
"A car? ... Well ..." He considered the perennial question again. Why not? "I guess you can have a car."
"Thanks, Dad. That's what I really want. Thanks. A lot of my friends have them. Really, thanks."
"Sure. We can find you a car. I guess you're getting too old for me now. From here on it's just sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll, right?"
He didn't know what to say about the divorce. He should have said something before now, but he didn't know how to discuss it and was afraid he was going to upset Stephen. He got dressed in the trailer, periodically going back to the memory of the woman he'd seen in Hollywood a few weeks before.
"I need to do something about this," Wesley thought in his Hollywood hills house, looking up from the Los Angeles Times on a sunny morning as he ate a bowl of Kellogg's Common Sense.
Later that morning he called Cynthia Roberts and managed to get Janet Heller's unlisted New York phone number. He told Cynthia he had a scarf of Janet's, discovered in his car just a week ago, and wanted to return it.
"Sure," Cynthia said.
Wesley stood next to the wall phone in the kitchen next to a David Hockney poster of a pool with a big splash in the air above it. "Strictly honorable, Cynthia."
"You're telling me you're in love, right?"
"In love?" He'd lived with the feeling, mined it, pushed it and pulled it, sat with it, acted with it, waited with it, looked out the window with it, showered with it, even polished his shoes with it, but that didn't give Cynthia the right on the basis of one casual phone call—Cynthia whom he'd known for ten years and never talked with for longer than ten minutes — to tell him, just like that, that he was in love. He studied his shoes, the brown antiques he liked to polish, against the white linoleum floor. "Cyn, give me a break."
"Wesley, I didn't mean anything by it, hon. Honest. It's just that Janet's like that. She does that to certain men."
"Does what, exactly?"
A shadow had crossed the room. He looked up through his skylight and saw white instead of blue. He was going to go to Manhattan about a movie soon and it would be a relief to live for a while in the density and ferocity of that city. Hollywood was good in its own way. But it needed to be countered, talked back to, refinanced emotionally, once or twice a year. Otherwise, you turned into a William Morris agent or, like they said, an orange.
"I don't know," Cynthia answered, "ask a guy. She's not that good-looking, is she?"
"No, Cybill Shepherd. I'm sorry, Wes. We shouldn't be having this conversation. I've got to go. I have a lesson arriving in five minutes."
"I love ya, Cyn."
"Tell Janet hi, OK?"
He hung up. So maybe Janet Heller did know, and was having little moments with herself, knew all about it. But he'd been over this ground before, maybe a hundred times. At a certain point it had come to him that whether Janet was a four star phony or not didn't really matter. He would see right through her—the smile and the light that came into it. He would see right through it all, but then would come back to the other part, which seemed to be a gift of the world, of life, and not to be quibbled with. Then again, on the basis of one evening it was a little hard to tell.
Wesley had lunch at Angeli on Melrose with Tony Warrens, who was suffering the AIDS epoch with uncharacteristic chastity.
"So I told him," Tony said, raising a fork of pasta in the air, "... I said, `Fuck you!'" Here he seemed to forget both the pasta on the fork and the preceding narrative and broke into a smile that was both arrogant and bewildered.
In Wesley's scheme of things, Warrens had said "Fuck you" way too loudly so it was now necessary to get Tony into a more secure frame of mind. An actor couldn't handle all the ego necessary to go in for auditions and be rejected by people half his age without occasionally making an arrogant spectacle of himself. Wesley looked down.
"I know what you're thinking ..." Tony added.
"I'm thinking you need to lower your voice or we're gonna be in trouble here."
"Oh," he said, and as Wesley looked up he saw him put the fork into his mouth and look wide-eyed at him, as if to say, "Honest, I didn't realize."
Warrens was a natural actor, mostly untrained, who was, at bottom, in spite of his famous polymorphously perverse sexuality, an innocent. Wesley liked this about him but suspected himself of slumming, a sign of his own battered ego. The problem in Hollywood, as in New York, was that people who considered themselves more intelligent than Warrens, and maybe were in certain ways, tended to be mean pricks.
"Hey, let me ask you something."
"Tell me!" Tony said loudly.
"All right. I met a lady awhile ago at a party and I ..."
"No kidding ... Who?"
"Her name's Janet Heller."
"Janet ... She does costumes ..."
"Right, you know her?"
"I did a picture with her. Nice, but not my type."
"What d'you know about her?"
"Nothing ... I don't know ... She's married, isn't she?"
"Is she? She didn't mention it, and neither did Cynthia Roberts, who's her friend."
"So what's the problem? She's a good-looking woman, a little too old for me."
"So is Drew Barrymore."
Warrens laughed in an exaggerated way that was both falsely hearty and reassuring. He was back at the controls of his personality.
That night, alone in his house with Rocky, his combination Collie and Golden Retriever, Wesley watched the news and then put his channel-changer through its paces, lingering guiltily at the Playboy channel. The latest of the Hefner empire's selections: the fixation with woman as innocent mammary phantasm—the cantaloupe school of beauty. Fabulous babes, fabulous cars, a silk bathrobe, a pipe, and a decently liberal political outlook-because if the ACLU goes, after all, so does Miss November.
But the reason he felt guilty about the voluptuous, homiletic Miss November—"My Mom means more to me than
Excerpted from ARTISTS IN TROUBLE by Aram Saroyan. Copyright © 2001 by Aram Saroyan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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