The Method
written by Janet Fitch and narrated by Elizabeth Evans

 

I looked at us in the bar mirror—Richard with his dark, sharp-peaked eyebrows, and me with my pale face and pointed chin, my dark curls caught up in a ribbon band. And I knew we were the same. That’s why he recognized me. I smiled. “I’ll let you know when I pawn my Girl Scout patches.”

The McKay place was off Commonwealth, up in the hills, a Spanish mansion that had seen happier days. In the morning light, you could see the paint peeling off the pink stucco. I parked down the hill and made like I was jogging. The little greyhound had a tag that said, Gilbert, with an address and phone number, but nowhere did it say he belonged to Mariah McKay. Richard’s story stunk, but so what. He fucked like an angel, and I could use a hundred bucks.

Wearing my track pants and U of Nebraska sweatshirt, holding onto the shred of rah rah Americana I could remember, the marching band at halftime on a November Saturday, I jogged up the steep hill in the cold December damp. The little dog easily kept pace with me. It was about 11:00, nobody around but a couple of mow and blow gardeners. When we got to the house, I pocketed the leash and held the dog in my arms. I rang, then knocked. Making sure my barbed wire was tucked out of sight.

A little window in the door opened. “Yes?”

I figured the maid. “Yes, excuse me. I was running down on Wayne and I found a dog …?”

The door opened. It wasn’t the maid. It was a darkhaired, older woman with the odd puffy lips of an actress who’d had work done, and she held her arms out to the little dog, who jumped into them. She kissed that narrow, hard head. “Where the hell have you been, mister? You’ve had me worried sick.” She smiled at me. “Please, come in.”

Though it was high noon, the living room was dark and smelled of mold. A row of red theater chairs sat against one wall instead of a couch. A TV, squatting on a wire cart, played a soap opera. If she’d made money in the ’70s, she hadn’t hung onto it. She put the dog down and he skittered out of the living room, probably toward the kitchen and his bowl. I gave up on a reward. She could probably cough up a twenty, but no way was Richard seeing any three C’s. Couldn’t he have stolen a richer woman’s dog?

“I can’t thank you enough.” Mariah extended her hand, large, the back grown ropy with age. Her famous voice was throaty as ever. “Damn dog got out of the yard. I can’t find the hole either.” She took a pack of cigarettes from a pocket in her goat-hair sweater, lit one, coughed. “What’s your name, baby?”

“Holly,” I said.

“Very Christmasy. I was just making some coffee, Holly, want some?”

Should I tell her I’d seen her movies? “Yeah, that’d be great.”

She shuffled in her mirrored Indian slippers back the way the dog had gone, and I followed her without an invitation. There was a dining room up some steps, the long dark Spanish table covered with mail and piles of junk, and then into the kitchen painted salmon with black trim, a Deco feel. The sink was full of dishes. She put a battered blue enamel kettle on the stove and ground some coffee in a small grinder. No maid, no help. The whole thing was pathetic beyond words.

“Have you lived here a long time?” that high school flute player asked.

She opened a cat food—sized can of dog food and scraped it into a dirty dish. “Thirty years, give or take. Shoulda sold it when the market picked up, but the mortgage’s paid off now, I couldn’t rent a one-bedroom dump for what this costs me. Except the roof’s gone.” Her dark hair was rough and unbrushed, the mustard-colored shapeless sweater did nothing for her legendary figure.

She had on some ugly fake emeralds in her ears, and a cluster of pink and green glass on her bony right hand. “I’ve seen your movies,” said Miss Teen Americana. Striking a perfect balance between girlish excitement and Midwestern abashed modesty. “You’re one of my heroes.”

“Acting,” she snorted. “I like animals. They never act. They’re entirely authentic.” The little greyhound was pushing his dish around the broken tile floor.

Easy for her to say, now that the work no longer came. “I love acting. It lets you live all kinds of lives. I’m studying with Chris Valente.”

“You got lucky. All kinds of creeps out there, preying on the hopeful.” She gave me a pitying look. “How long have you been in town, baby?”

“About a year.” I smiled a vulnerable Midwestern smile.

She didn’t say any more, as the kettle whistled and she got busy making the coffee, balancing a filter cone on top of a chipped porcelain pot, pouring the boiling water in.

“It’s harder than I thought,” I continued, feeling my way along. “I just lost my roommate.” I played it brave—grace under pressure. More sympathetic than whining. “I’m waiting tables down at Orzo. I thought I’d be further along by now.”

“Chapter and verse, baby,” she said, watching the water drip through the grounds. “Orzo. That’s not a bad place. I like their osso buco.”

So did Richard. “They had it last night.” I tried again to redirect. “I don’t mind working there, but the tips aren’t as good as you’d think.”

“That’s tough.” She took two dirty cups out of the sink, rinsed them without benefit of soap or hot water, and filled them with coffee. I prayed the boiling water would be hot enough to kill whatever had been growing on the chipped lip of the mug. “You know, I have a room,” she said. “Never thought of renting it out before, but you seem like a nice kid. Any interest in that?”

“So, did you get in?” Richard asked. He’d gotten dressed, was flopped on my couch like the Crown Prince.

“You had any doubts?” I said, straddling his prone body. “But she doesn’t have money. You should see that place. It’s falling down around her. You’d hardly recognize her, she’s shlepping around like a bag lady.”

“Is that what she told you? She didn’t have any money?”

“No, it’s just what I saw.”

“Don’t be misled. That woman’s got oodles.”

“You’re tripping.”

“Trust me. Just look at that jewelry. She still had it, right?”

“Dime-store crap, you can get it in a box of Cracker Jacks.”

Richard laughed, shifted me so my weight did more good. “You looked but you couldn’t see. Paul Rhodes gave her those rocks back in the days of wine and roses. You can see in the magazines. She’d never part with them. I mean, the sentimental value alone.” I loved the invisible ironic quotation marks around that “sentimental.” He put his sensitive fingers to his lips, dancing the fingertips. “Even if it’s as bad as you describe, she’s hung onto a few pesos, I can assure you.”

What if those emeralds were real? Ten grand? Fifty? I tried to ballpark it, but I had no idea what jewelry like that was worth; I didn’t exactly have a charge card at Tiffany. “She asked me to move in. Help with expenses.”

He pressed his mouth to my neck, something that drove me crazy. “A generous offer, Holly. You should consider it.”

“You think I should, do you?” I said, trying to keep some illusion of independence, but I was already slipping.

“Oh, the savings alone. And the link to a bygone Hollywood. The cachet, the entrée. Not to mention what she might have been lying about, forgotten under the couch or in a spare room. I think you owe it to yourself.”

I waited a few days to return to the house off Commonwealth. Her car was in the driveway, an old blue-gray Mercedes like a tank. I knocked, figuring it was late enough that she would have slept off even a heavy drunk, but early enough that she wouldn’t have gone out had she a mind to. No answer. I rang again and knocked. It was such a pretty house, it didn’t deserve to be as neglected like this, leaves lying moldy, cracks running through the concrete steps.

I had just given up when the little window in the door opened. She fumbled with several locks and a chain. Gilbert raced out, danced around my legs, jumping on me, he weighed about as much as a handful of chicken bones.

“I’ve been thinking about the room,” I said, hesitantly, vulnerable as all get-out.

Her ruined face smiled. Her hair still hadn’t been washed, either that or it always looked that way, long and dark and stringy. “It hasn’t been used in a while,” she said, leading me through the cloisterish living room with its heavy beams, and up through the dining room, around to the kitchen and a set of wooden stairs I hadn’t noticed before, narrow with an iron handrail and a sharp bend under a low overhang.

“Myrna Loy lived here in the ’30s,” Mariah said. “Gale Storm.”

We climbed the stairs into a little hall flanked with a couple of doors. She opened one. A dirty window illuminated an odd-shaped room full of boxes, obviously a former maid’s quarters.

“Of course, we’ll move this crap somewhere.” She stood in the doorway, scratching her dirty hair. “So what do you think?”

It was cold in the room, though I couldn’t tell if it was because it had been closed off or because the heat didn’t work. A stained mattress leaned against the wall. What a fucking dump. But it would probably save me close to $800 a month and there might be some fringe benefits. “How much would you want?” I asked her.

She shrugged. “Oh, I don’t know. What do you think? Couple hundred?”

Not bad, for in a mansion in Los Feliz. Wouldn’t that look good on my portfolio. Even if I would have to wash the dishes in bleach.

And so I joined the ranks of the oddly housed. Los Angeles is full of us—house sitters, subletters, permanent house guests.

It wasn’t much of a move—clothes, a few books, a TV and boom box, and my laptop. But it took two days to clear the boxes out of the room. Memorabilia, just as Richard predicted. A gold mine. Letters from Belmondo and Bertolucci and Bianca Jagger, David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane shirt, a drawing by Larry Rivers on a restaurant placemat. A lamp she’d taken from the set of Riverside 88, the Paul Rhodes film that put her on the map. YSL gowns in the closet, still in their designer bags. Old scripts marked with her handwriting, photographs, scrapbooks of reviews, and fashion layouts she’d been in, Bazaar and W and Interview. We sat on the floor and looked at a spread of her in Vogue, wearing Oscar de la Renta and Halston. She showed me the gown in the photograph, a Russian velvet dress with mink on the sleeves.

But the pictures made me sad. How bright she had been, blindingly alive, lit up from inside like a circus midway. And now here she was, a single lightbulb that had almost burnt out. I could smell her sadness, sitting next to me, in a pilled mustard sweater, and those lips, and her square cut emeralds dull with dirt. The way people’s lives turned out when they just ran them into the ground, like a rental car.

As we moved the boxes into another room across the hall, I saw something I didn’t much care for—rat droppings in the corners. Mariah said not to worry, she used these little traps that didn’t hurt the poor rats, you could carry them out to the backyard and let them go. I didn’t say anything, but later went out and bought some traps big enough to kill a cat. When I heard them pop in the night, all I felt was satisfaction.

So I hung out with Mariah, and took class and visited Richard in his apartment, around the corner from the bookstore on Vermont, the second floor of an old Spanish quad. It was small but dramatically decorated with handpainted red walls and gilded beams. Not at all what you’d expect, but that was Richard. His bed took up most of the floor, covered in brownand-black—striped cotton. Made seductions simple—there was nowhere else to sit. I teased him, that he should just come to my place sometime.

“Oh, you don’t want a stream of men interfering with your new friendship,” he said, tracing spirals on my skin.

I tossed the Bertolucci letter onto the bed, lay back, and folded my arms under my head. “She knows you, doesn’t she?” I asked.

He didn’t say anything, opened the letter, read it.

I pinched him. “Tell me. Was she a good fuck? Good as me?”

“She was very beautiful.”

It hurt. I was surprised how much it hurt.

He laughed and caught my hand, put it on his cock, which moved again. When I fucked him, I didn’t care how beautiful Mariah McKay had been, she looked like a bag lady now, and she wasn’t fucking anyone, unless it was the delivery guy from Whole Foods.

“I want you to do me a favor, Holly,” he said. He sipped his wine, arm tucked behind his head, the pillows piled up there, the fan of his pit hair like a dark blossom. His smell drove me mad.

I pulled gently at that nest of hair. I knew I would be attracted to hairy men for the rest of my life. “It wouldn’t be anything illegal, would it?”

“Oh, Midwest,” he said, drawling with irony. “Oh, Pioneers.”

I sat with Mariah on her row of theater seats, watching Valley of the Dolls. Mariah knew all the dialogue. “So now you come crawling back to Broadway,” she said along with Susan Hayward. “But Broadway doesn’t go for booze and dope.” Then Patty Duke snatched her wig and flushed it down the can. “Meow,” she said as she drowned it, Hayward pounding on the stall door.

What I could do with a part like Neely O’Hara. Not fucking Laura Wingfield, whom Chris had given me. He wanted me to find my soft side. Talk about miscasting. “It’s your job to find her, Holly. Allow her to live in you.”

I watched Mariah in her weird crocheted sweater and tights, unconsciously splitting the ends of her ragged hair. Her and Richard. Really? I wondered whether he was just yanking my chain. And how long ago?

“Poor Sharon,” Mariah said, watching the screen, Sharon Tate doing her breast exercises. “Did you know the La Bianca house is right around the corner, across from the nuns?”

The first Manson killing. Right here in Los Feliz. Better look out for Charlie’s girls …

It was a cold afternoon and I shivered, thinking of that freaky guy with his flock of bizarre little girls, exactly the kind of thing people in Kearney worried about when they thought of L.A. I wrapped my fingers around the packet of white powder Richard had given me. I was supposed to put it into Mariah’s drink. Some ground-up barbs to knock her out for a few hours. So far I’d taken a few things—a letter here, a signed picture there—but it was time to get into her Deco bedroom for a little scout around.

Yes, Grandma, there was lots to worry about in L.A., and they didn’t always look like Charlie and his girls. There were people like Richard. People like me.

HTML style by Stephen Thomas, University of Adelaide

Modified by Skip for ESL Bits English Language Learning