by Wayne Cresser
Originally published in Shark Reef-A Literary Magazine
One afternoon, long after lunch, they noticed that the actor wasn’t looking so good. When he wobbled during a particularly long take, one of the crew reacted, making a faint move toward the set. The actor was leaning over a balcony railing, confronting his defiant daughter who stood in the capacious parlor of their very large house.
“I thought he was going down,” young Philips, the boom mic operator later said, “I thought I should move.”
The actor was a naturally pale man with a full head of wispy, brown hair and very long legs. He’d been an actor for many years and had even played the lead in a few movies. Once he’d started acting, he never wanted for work. He’d acted on stage, for the television and in the movies. Maybe he couldn’t name all the things he’d done, but he would boast, and this was his only boast, that he’d never done any cheese. He’d never, what was the phrase—“dialed in”— a performance.
Maybe some of his efforts had been misplaced. Maybe he’d worked on a few stinkers, played one too many soldiers or cops, and not enough cowboys. Maybe he shouldn’t have done that one, oh what the hell was it called, he had some trouble remembering these days, the one where he played a conniving vice-president with a whole lot of kinky secrets. Was it actually called Kinky Secrets? Naah. Well, aww crap, maybe.
After he delivered the balcony take they wanted, the actor thanked everybody for their concern and asked for the rest of the afternoon off. As he exited the set, a hangdog expression on his face, his eyes watering, and head pounding, the director noticed a hitch in his step. And that was bad. For although in his mid-sixties, the actor was known for his grace, for his ease in getting around a set. He’d been cast as a family patriarch because he could carry it, wear it, and own it.
Back in his trailer, he rested his elbows on a Formica tabletop, nursed a bourbon and soda and waited for her.
He’d almost married Vivian Ray after they shot In the Narrowing Light together some thirty years before. It was a tear-jerking story about a Canadian painter who discovers that his sight is fading while his star is rising, and the plucky woman who won’t let him quit. A success, it had garnered them both nominations, and for a while, their true-life narrative mimicked the on-screen love story. As it turned out though, the public wanted to see more of her than him, and since he’d never been particularly interested in the public and was not ambitious, he couldn’t hold on to her.
Now they were working together again, both in the twilight of their careers, playing Nolan and Kitty Matthews, the wealthy parents of an unruly brood of children, none of whom wanted any part of the family fish-canning business until…
Well, there’s always an until, he chuckled to himself. He heard a soft tapping at his door.
“C’mon in,” the actor called.
Vivian was talking excitedly before she was fully inside, tossing off one question after another. The topic was his health. Everybody on the show was buzzing about him. Was he all right? Did he need to see a doctor? Should he be working?
Her silvery red hair was tied up in a loose bun and long wisps of it fell past her chin on either side. When she spoke, her breath lifted those wisps from her cheeks and set off little fires inside of him.
She sat next to him and touched his arm, “Hit me, won’t you?”
“Two fingers?” he said.
He pulled a rocks glass from the open cupboard just above the table and poured an inch of bourbon into it.
“Slainte,” she said and clinked his glass. “Are you all right, darling? Your color’s not-so–good.”
“Oh? What color am I then?”
“Ashen, and I’m not joking.”
“Well miss,” he drawled,” it’s a mite stuffy in he-ah. You reckon we could mosey on outside for a while?”
“Might could,” she smiled.
“I’ll grab a coupla cigarillos, want one?”
“No, sorry. Gave ’em up.”
Outside they strolled along the edge of a bluff overlooking the bustling harbor of a small New England seaport. This is where they were shooting season two of Storm Warnings, the story of a turbulent fishing family lost at sea, metaphorically speaking.
Vivian held the actor’s hand as they walked.
“Why don’t we almost get married again?” he said.
“Could we stop working?” she asked. “Could we get a dog and travel around in a van? Could I get fat and let my hair turn grey?”
“So, you’ve been thinking about it?”
“No dear, I have not.”
“Well, since you asked the questions, which I’m having a hard time remembering, I wouldn’t say no to any of that.”
“The truth is, I do want to stop working,” she said, “really, I do.”
As they walked, the actor puffed a long, thin cigarillo, which was not having the usual effect of relaxing him. Instead, he started to feel clammy. He dropped it and crushed it under a boot. And just that small action, tilting his head to watch the cigarillo fall, moving his foot and pulling his head up again, made him dizzy. Tiny silver pearls bubbled up before his eyes. Beads, flash points he could reach for, floaters. Then he was on the ground. She was leaning over him, calling his name, and frantically punching her cell phone.
When he became aware of where he was again, the actor remembered being lifted, then carried, then lifted again. Conscious during the episode, he could play it back only as a series of rolling images and soundbites that always ended at a hospital.
He had agreed to be tested, he recalled, then he could recall no more. He was very tired and drifting off. In his sleep, he strolled the lower East Side of Manhattan, singing. He drank Mescal near the plaza in Santa Fe, jogged on a beach in southern California with his dog. He laughed at his friend, the stand-up comic who did a ludicrous impression of him, on television.
He woke up wanting a kiss and more. He wanted a smoke. He tried to imagine what Nolan Matthews, his character on Storm Warnings might want, if he were suddenly hospitalized. Would he want his mistress to rush to his bedside? Would he be talking to lawyers, revising his will to exclude his defiant daughter? Then the actor wondered why he was wondering that at all.
At some point, a neurologist had told him he would have to stop working, at least for a while. And later, two doctors, the neurologist and an oncologist, asked him a bunch of questions. Had he suffered seizures of any kind? Had he told anybody? Was he sick in the morning? Had he vomited then? How was his memory? Did he feel sharp, keen, or a bit off?
Vivian brought him a book of cowboy stories. There was Zane Grey, John M. Cunningham, Louis L’Amour, and his favorite, Bret Harte. Before she buried her wispy hair and green eyes into his shoulder, she told him that the showrunner had called a meeting and the writers were being consulted.
The doctor came back to tell him that the imaging tests had revealed a brain tumor.
A day later, one of the show’s executive producers showed up with the director and head writer. The producer was a longtime friend of the actor. Both could play some guitar, and they’d even gotten an act together when the actor first came to New York from Duluth in the early 70’s. In fact, it was Lenny Feingold with whom the actor had been wandering the Lower East Side and drinking Mescal in his narcotic sleep.
Lenny had not forgotten the 70’s. His stringy hair, beard, Santana t-shirt and fringed vest were signature reminders. As was an almost communal approach to his work. He had a collaborative mind, and over the years, his partnership with Alan Short, the head writer of Storm Warnings, had yielded some “cool things,”. Occasionally, Lenny would even play a part in one of his shows. He loved the work.
Lenny looked around the room and asked the others to leave for a while.
“Good to see you again,” the actor said when they were alone.
“Sure, man,” said the producer. “How are you feeling?”
“The doc said I have a malignant brain tumor. It’s cancer, Len, and the way I understand it is I’ve got a 25% chance of living another year with it. Smells like a fuck job, huh?”
Lenny took a hold of the actor’s hand. “Can I get you anything, Edward? Do you need anything?”
“Sure,” said the actor “a Manhattan and a cigar.”
“I’ve got some gummy candies made outta weed,” said Lenny “I could leave ’em.”
“Yeah,” said the actor. He looked past Lenny, toward the door. “I see you brought some of your partners with you.”
“They want to talk with you about the show if you’re up for it.”
“Sure,” said the actor. “Don’t bring them in just yet, though. I want to talk to you first.”
“Anything you want.”
“Look, Len, I told you what I told you for obvious business reasons and because at this moment, I’m still thinking clearly.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I’m also telling you because you’re my friend and none of my people are here yet.”
“I appreciate that even more. What have you told Viv?”
“I haven’t said a thing, but I intend to. Just you and her. You’re the only ones who’ll get the details. Now tell me straight, what are you planning to do with Nolan Matthews?”
“He won’t be back for season three, if there is one.”
The actor chuckled. “How do I go?”
“Think you’ll like it. Do you want to hear about it now?”
“I asked, didn’t I?”
“Okay, if you’re sure. Here goes. You’ve been fighting with daughter Daphne. You want her to take a bigger interest in the business. You sent her to college to be more than the company bookkeeper. She, on the other hand, just wants to escape with her dope dealing musician boyfriend.”
“Nothing new there, pard. That’s what we’ve been building toward.”
“Right, but here’s the twist. She takes the long-expected powder but before she does, she transfers a boat load of company money into her own bank account. Then she and the songbird take off with it. You have a heart attack when you find out.”
“The little minx. Now let me see if I’m getting this; she breaks my heart, right?”
“That’s right. It’s too much for you to bear. Then the focus shifts from you to the question of what will the family do? Will they bring the law into it, or will mother and brothers appeal to Daphne to come back home, reconcile with them and most of all you? They’ll be all kinds of drama around that, lots of questions about love and loyalty, your mistress gets churned up in it, and so on.”
“Sounds like a shit storm comes down on poor old Nolan and Kitty, what with the mistress reveal and all.”
The actor sighed and his friend squeezed his hand and turned his face away. He stifled some sniffles before he said, “The team has written some dandy hospital scenes for you.”
“Well, you better bring them in now, before whatever joy juice they’re putting in my arm begins to wear off.”
“Are you sure, Edward? We can shoot around you the next few days or weeks. Doesn’t matter. I don’t want to push…”
“It’s all right, Len,” said the actor. “This is what we do, right?” He was starting to get foggy. “Hey, old pal,’ he said, “Remember that Stones song we used to cover, the one that went, Lose your dreams and…”
“You could lose your mind. Yeah, of course I remember.”
Lenny turned and walked to the door. He opened it slightly and said, “All right fellas, you can come in now.”
The body is a peculiar instrument, the actor thought after weeks of therapy. It can be imploding in the brain and a man can still hold himself upright. Even if only for short periods of time. The heart, of course, is a different proposition.
Vivian did not take the news of the illness or its timeline at all well. At first, the actor couldn’t tell why she seemed so utterly damaged by what he told her. Slowly, however, it dawned on him that she could be troubled by the fact that she didn’t know her role in the real-life drama of his waning days. His daughter Kitty and son Rodolpho had been around. Their mothers and his ex-wives had sent flowers. There had been press too.
Alone in his hospital room now, Edward had time to examine the thing, and the truth was that even during the break between seasons one and two, he and Vivian had seen each other just once, when she invited him to be her date for the Independent Spirit Awards. Yet, when they came back for another go at Storm Warnings, they couldn’t get enough of each other. It was In the Narrowing Light all over again.
So, he had no intention of leaving her out now. He needed her company; he needed her affection. And he needed her artistic support because he was having major trouble separating his dying self from the rapidly deteriorating Nolan Matthews. It seemed a near impossible task to keep them sorted and he would admit this to no one but Vivian.
His biggest challenge would come on the afternoon when he was finally well enough to shoot the heart attack scene. This is when his loving but independently minded son Brad comes to break the news about runaway daughter Daphne. The moment is complicated by the fact that against his father’s wishes, lawyer Brad has accepted the seafood workers union’s offer to represent them in their labor negotiations with his dad. Brad may be popular with the rank and file, but he is not exactly welcome in the board room.
In the scene, Edward must appear unsuspecting. Unsuspecting of the family news, unsuspecting of the effect it’s going to have on his body and unsuspecting in the end, that all of it could kill him. He must also appear to be fully capable of tearing the messenger apart limb from limb. In an instant, he must metamorphose from rugged patriarch to someone vulnerable enough to suffer a massive heart attack at the news of a family betrayal.
The actor knows that David Holland, the rising star who plays Brad, will be ready for anything he throws at him. His abiding hope is to go out on a high note.
When they run the lines together in his trailer, Edward laughs at Vivian, who’s playing Brad, and calls him a kid. Nolan has just asked Brad why he’s agreed to fight for the union against his father while Brad is bursting to tell him about wayward Daphne.
“Why are you getting so worked up, kid? What do you know about the way the world works anyway? You’re just a green college boy.”
Vivian stops him and says, “No, no, no, the scene isn’t about Brad, where’d you get the idea that this scene isn’t entirely about you? Why are you riffing like that?”
“Because I’m imagining what I would tell my own son.”
“But Brad Matthews isn’t your son, silly. He’s Nolan Matthews’ son. Now let’s stick to the script, shall we darling?”
At that point, the actor tells her how grand she is and how he wants to make love to her, right there on the Formica table.
“We can’t do that either,” she says. It takes all her strength to refrain from saying that they don’t have time for improvisation, that time is against them in every way.
Instead, she steers him to another scene in the story, taking on the guise of her character, Nolan’s wife, Kitty.
“You can go to hell if you think that’s going to happen, Nolan,” she says defiantly, “How can you think about having me when you’ve been so unfaithful?”
Shocked, the actor says, “Why I never, Vivian, not since we’ve…,”and then he catches himself. He feels foolish and buries his head in his hands. Vivian moves behind him and strokes the back of his head.
“Just a little while longer,” she says. “You’ll get it.”
He turns around and catches her eyes. “I can see him,” he says, “you know, this guy. I do see him. And I have an impulse to play him as myself because I relate to him so completely now. He’s been crossed and I’ve been crossed too. It’s not the same kind of thing, I know. His fate is so much more tragic and that’s as it should be. We’re acting in a fiction and that’s got to be big. But still I wanted him and me to go out together somehow.”
Vivian kisses the top of his head. “You know it won’t work that way, darling. One of you must go first. I think you know who.”
“Yes, I know, Viv. I’ll hold on to this guy a little longer but only a little longer, see his drama to the end, and then…”
“And then, Edward, and then, I won’t have to share you with anybody.”
She sits down next to him and touches his arm, “Now hit me, why don’t you?”
“Two fingers?” he says.
She nods. “That’s right.”
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