The Method
written by Janet Fitch and narrated by Elizabeth Evans

Los Feliz

It was cold in Los Angeles. Fifty-eight, sixty degrees. In Nebraska, I’d have been scraping ice off the windshield while the wind bit my face like a Rottweiler, but in L.A., when you have to put a sweater on, that’s winter. The dark deodar cedars brooded over Los Feliz Boulevard, trailing their boughs over the traffic creeping toward Griffith Park and the DWP Holiday Tunnel of Light, all eighty million drive-through lightbulbs of it. Christmas. People complained about being “stuck here” for the holidays, joking about the ribbons on the palm trees, saying how it just didn’t seem like Christmas without the old yule dog. But not me. You’d never catch me whining that I couldn’t get back to Kearney for the holidays, sit around listening to Paul Anka and tracking Aunt Phoebe’s phlebitis.

If you met me, you might think you knew me—a smalltown girl, fresh from state college productions of The Boyfriend and Annie Get Your Gun. Up against Stepford armies of fiveten leggy blondes, former Miss Iowas and Texas, with kilowatt smiles. I’m just five-two, dark-haired, with a small sharp chin and big baby blues. I know, you’d think lunchmeat. But you don’t know me.

I was working the 5-to-11 shift at Orzo, a trattoria on Hillhurst that catered to the Los Feliz/Silverlake hipsters, men in leather jackets and perfect two-day stubble, women with clean hair and long knitted scarves. That night it was busy, customers lined up out the door. Whenever the thermometer plunged below sixty, everybody wanted Italian. A man sat in my section; if I’d seen him on the street I’d have thought he was too broke to eat at a place like this. Dark and bald, in a thick turtleneck and a beat-up leather jacket, about forty-five I’d guess. But there was something about him. I can’t say what it was and I can’t say I liked it. The way he looked at me when I came over and took his drink order.

“What do you recommend?” Brown eyes, with a funny light in them, like he was enjoying a private joke and I was the punch line. He pissed me off. Like me or don’t like me, I don’t give a rat’s ass, but there’s nothing funny about me.

“We have a Barolo, by the glass.” It was fourteen bucks. Even the cuffs of his jacket were worn.

“I think … I’ll have the Classico.” He pointed at the board with a languorous finger, a gay gesture though he didn’t seem gay. He seemed like a straight guy who was being annoying. I guessed him for a writer. They’ve got a look about them. They come alone, watch everything from some corner, sometimes they take notes. This guy didn’t have a notebook, but he had the look.

I brought him his Classico and recited the specials.

“Would you say the ahi, or the osso buco?” He stroked his lips with long fingers. They had hair on them. I imagined shoulders like a gorilla. Hair everywhere but that dome. Too bad for him.

I knew if I said the ahi he’d order the osso. I wanted to tell him to stop wasting my time, it wasn’t intriguing and he was twenty years too old for me. “The osso’s our specialty.”

“Then bring that.” He folded his menu and handed it to me. “And the heirloom tomatoes to start.” He spoke better than you’d think, with a jacket like that and the edge of his turtleneck unraveling.

It got crazy busy then. People and wine and opinions, big steaming bowls of pasta, steaks, and veal between closely packed tables. I didn’t have a moment—and yet, I could feel his eyes, following me, from the corner table by the exposed brick wall. I’m an actress. When I have an audience, I act. Even if I don’t, the non-acting is also acting. He made me aware of each small movement, the way I carried an armload of plates, uncorked a bottle of wine, flourished the pepper mill over a bowl of penne regate. He lifted his glass, showing me he needed a refill. I brought it over.

“I’m Richard,” he said as I filled his glass.

“Enjoying your meal?” I said, distant, professional. In case he couldn’t see I had five tables waiting.

“You’ve got a spot, exactly … there.” His long finger, pointing to my left tit.

I glanced down and saw he was right, I’d somehow got a spatter of red on the white linen right over the nip.

“It’s very provocative,” he said, looking at me over the rim of his wine glass.

I purposely didn’t do anything about it. First of all, if I tried to clean it up, it would just make a bigger spot, right there on my boob; and two, I didn’t want him to think I cared what he thought. He was trying to throw me, but I wasn’t that kind of girl. Not even then. I did better with an audience.

When I brought him his check, he asked, “Do you ever go to the Firehouse?”

A trendy bar on Rowena. “Sometimes,” I said.

“I’m going over there later,” he said. “Why don’t you join me for a drink after you’re done?”

“I’m going home,” I said. Forcing myself to meet his eyes. “I have to wash my shirt.”

He shrugged, paid the bill. “I hear they make an elegant martini. If you change your mind, I’ll see you over there … Holly.” He put his long finger to his mouth, hooking it over the lower lip, a good gesture, maybe I’d use it someday.

I was startled he knew my name, until I remembered that I’d signed the check. Anyone could have seen it, but people were rarely that observant.

He rapped the check on the table, left it there. “See you later.” He was taller than I thought he’d be, slender, his posture relaxed and surprisingly graceful. He didn’t move like a writer, none that I knew.

When he left, the place went flat, like old soda pop.

After I cleaned my tables and tipped my busboy, I walked around the corner to my apartment, a two-story ’40s court on Los Feliz Boulevard. Twelve units facing an identical building across a little yard where a box hedge corralled a flock of white calla lilies. Most of the residents were old ladies living on dead husbands’ pensions. A genteel crowd, these broke old grannies. We all lived here for the same reason: the address. Los Feliz Boulevard called to mind the mansions in the hills north and south of the street, but this was Granny Los Feliz, who counted her pennies and voted Republican, who drank cream sherry out of cut glass.

Most actresses who came here went straight for Hollywood. Three roommates and cereal for dinner, green apple martinis, X-bras from Victoria’s Secret. Others chose Silverlake, a bass player boyfriend in a punk band, a new tat, and an STD for every six months you lived there. But Los Feliz meant you could take care of yourself, you’d been here long enough to know your way around. Sometimes I drove up into the hills, imagining how it would feel to have money like that, old money, houses from the teens, silent-screen stuff, before Beverly Hills was even a gleam in some developer’s eye.

I let myself in, turned on the lights. Nothing but the glorious emptiness of no roommate. It was a luxury I could ill afford, but the last one, a dancer named Audrey, just got a show in Vegas. I liked dancers the best, they were never home, they weren’t sociable, they didn’t cook. Someday I wouldn’t need a roommate at all. It was just a matter of time. I sat on the flowered couch and counted my tips. You’d think people who could spend fifty on dinner could cough up ten for a tip.

I changed out of my work clothes, soaked the shirt in some bleach. I looked at myself in the mirror. There was nothing wrong with me. I was just small. Small ass, small tits, short legs, a bit bowed, but I knew how to dress, you’d never notice it. Big blues and bright skin, though nobody had seen my skin in quite a while. Okay, I had a problem with men. I was easily bored.

I reached for my pajamas and thought of the guy Richard, waiting for me at the Firehouse. The quick brown eyes, the mocking quality of the mouth, those gestures, their ironic self-consciousness. The graceful looseness of his walk. He looked like a writer but he moved like a dancer. Slouchy but light on his feet. I wondered what his story was. I kept thinking of the way he looked at me, like he had a secret he was enjoying. People I knew didn’t have secrets. They told you every microscopic detail of their lives. A leaf blew across a sidewalk and you got fifteen minutes worth. The upstairs neighbor went to the bathroom twice, God, do you think he’s got prostate? I wasn’t like that, and I could tell this guy Richard wasn’t either.

That time of night, you could park on Rowena without having to hike a mile. The Firehouse still had the high tin ceilings from when it was a working fire station, the wooden bar long and narrow. Richard sat halfway down, drinking something brown on ice. It wasn’t crowded, a few older guys scattered along the bar who watched me walk down to the bald man in the beat-up jacket. Richard didn’t say hello as I took the stool next to him. He didn’t even look at me. “Did you get the spot out?” he asked, lifting his drink to his lips in that stylized, mannered way of his. Slower than necessary. With the elegant pause.

“Out out, damned spot.” I flagged the bartender, asked for the wine list. They had an interesting-looking Dry Creek Zin. That made me feel good, a girl from Kearney who could look at a wine list and know the Zin from the Cab, prefer the New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs to the French. Waiting tables had educational advantages.

The Zin came, plummy, I could even taste figs, and pepper too. Richard put the wine on his tab. Touching those long fingers to his lips, again, that slightly gay self-consciousness, as if placing every motion in ironic quotes. Suddenly I knew. Actor. Actor actor actor.

“How are you liking L.A.?” he asked.

I knew it was intended to startle me, like using my name, but it was such an easy bet. Everyone here was from somewhere else. I wanted to show him I could return a serve. “I like it,” I said. “I like every fucking thing about it. How about you? Where are you from?”

He shook the ice in his drink, looking down into it with a half-smile. He raised his glass to his lips slowly and spoke before it arrived. “Right here.”

“Bullshit,” I said.

“Oh yes,” he said. “I went to Marshall. A mere five blocks away. I’m nostalgic already.” He pointed west. “King Junior. Franklin Avenue Elementary.”

“Hard to picture you as a child,” I said.

“I was a difficult child.” He posed, lifting his drink as if it was the skull in Hamlet. “I never lived up to my potential.”

“I did well,” I said, sipping my wine. “I was valedictorian. I played flute in the marching band.”

“And then you decided to act. At … Champaign-Urbana? Or was it Lawrence, Kansas?”

It was Lincoln, but I didn’t need to confirm a run of insight that was now getting eerie.

“And now you’re here to break into the big time. How’s the climb to fame going?”

“It seems they tore Schwab’s down awhile back, but nobody told me.”

“Naturally, you take class. Boyd Stocker?”

“Chris Valente.”

“Ballet at 3rd Street—”

“Tap.”

That made him smile. I smiled too. I knew it was stupid but I really liked tap, it reminded me of old Busby Berkeley movies.

“You’ve come close,” he said, “but so far, the star never broke her ankle.”

Asshole. “Actually, I had a feature.”

“Never released.”

How could he know these things? Well, of course, if the feature had been released, I wouldn’t be slinging pasta at Orzo. Not that I’d have any money, but I wouldn’t want people to see me working for a living.

“There was a problem with the funding.”

He drew his finger across the condensation on his glass. “These things happen. But you’ll catch on. You’ve got something, a certain sense of authority. People watch you. All you have to do is soften up a little. You’re all barbed wire.”

Chris Valente said the same thing. Show your vulnerability, Holly. It just made me want to slug him. I lost my vulnerability a long time ago. Along with my innocence. Or so I thought then. “Maybe I’ve got a corral to fence.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it. You just want to layer, hold it in reserve, until it’s time to show it.” He looked down the bar to where the bartender, a blond boy with shaggy hair in a tight black shirt, stood laughing with an older man. “Miles, I’ll have another Jack Daniel’s, if I may.”

The bartender came down and took Richard’s glass, giving him a sweep of blond eyelash.

“So why don’t you act anymore?” I asked. Seeing if I could play the clairvoyant too.

He turned toward me, propped his head on his hand. He looked at me very directly, and I felt the full force of his personality in those eyes, that mocking mouth. “What is the attraction of acting? Seeing where our personalities line up with those of fictional characters? Infusing them with the stuff of life? But the day comes when one’s own personality is more interesting than those one is paid to animate.”

Miles handed him his new drink. Richard made me wait while he took a sip. Controlling the silences. God, he was good. What a shame he’d stopped acting.

“So what do you do now?” I said. “Unemployment?”

“Write. Coach. A number of things. Mostly I study the human condition.” He paused a beat. “I saw something in you tonight, Holly. Something I’ve been looking for.”

I smiled inwardly. He was too old for me and bald to boot, but he fascinated me, with his slightly gay gestures that contrasted with the bright brown wolfishness of his eyes, the flat wide mouth playing with its private joke. I itched to know that joke.

“Do you like animals, Holly?”

Just when I thought I knew what he was talking about. “Animals? You’re kidding.”

“I have a little problem,” he said, steepling his long fingers with hair on their backs. “Can I be frank for a moment?”

I had the feeling that he couldn’t be frank on his own deathbed.

“I found a dog. And I need to return it,” he said.

“So why don’t you?”

He moved his wide mouth around, pursing the lips, pushing them from side to side. “It’s not that simple. The dog belongs to Mariah McKay. Do you know who that is?”

An actress from the ’70s, sexy, sort of a dark Kathleen Turner.

“I found it on Los Feliz Boulevard. One of those little greyhounds. I saw the name and address on the tags, and was about to return it, but then I wondered, what if they think I stole it?” He opened his eyes wide, to show how innocent he was. “A problem, don’t you think?”

“Only if you want a reward. Otherwise just be a good neighbor.” A shitty little scam. I had to laugh.

He smiled. He knew I knew he was full of it. I was liking him more and more. “But I’m not such a good neighbor, Holly. I really do want the money.” A fucking petty crook. I finally meet a guy in L.A. who is actually interested me, and he’s into some shitass doggie scam. “It’s probably good for a couple hundred. If you found a hundred dollars lying in the street, would you give it back?”

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