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A hot, dry wind blew in from the desert, screeching through the eucalyptus trees and the palms, bringing with it the stink of wildfires in the canyons and hills to the east.
Nick and Ashley stood in the kitchen of their hacienda in Brentwood. Ashley leaned over and took off her shoes. Nick loosened his tie and looked down the front of Ashley’s dress.
“Nice tits,” said Nick.
“Thanks,” said Ashley. She tossed her shoes into the dining room.
“What was that all about?”
“My feet are killing me. If I don’t wear heels I look like a fucking midget.”
“I’m just glad we got out of there when we did,” said Nick. “It drives me nuts when Grant starts sniffing around you like that.”
“He misses me,” said Ashley.
“He misses your tits.”
Ashley opened the refrigerator. The cook had gone home, but she’d left an avocado salad with bitter greens and sesame dressing. Ashley put the salad on the counter. “Want some?”
Nick glanced at the salad. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’m sick of that crap. Doesn’t Conchita know how to make anything but salad?”
“I ask her to make salad. If you want her to make something special, leave her a note before you go to the studio. How hard is that?”
“Do we really need a cook?” said Nick.
“Conchita does a lot more than cook. She does the laundry. She deals with the housekeeper and the lawn guys. What am I supposed to do, learn Spanish? Conchita does all the shopping. Can you see me pushing a cart around a supermarket?”
“Conchita calls in the order and the service delivers it,” said Nick. “That’s not shopping.”
Ashley finished the last of the salad and licked her fingers. “What about parties?” she said. “Do you expect me to cook for all your friends?”
Nick liked Conchita, but her husband Walter—what kind of name was that for a Mexican?— was a pain in the ass. They’d hired him to park cars at a party and told him to wear a white shirt and black pants, but he showed up in a pink polo shirt and cheap designer jeans, the kind with elaborate stitching on all the pockets. One guest complained about the valet’s dirty fingernails and another claimed he’d left grease stains on her suede dashboard.
“They’re not just my friends,” said Nick, “they’re your friends too.”
“Scarlett Johansson is my friend?”
Nick was tired from a rough day on the set of Bakersfield Blue. The kind of day that made him think it’d be easier to be a real cop than play one on TV. But real cops didn’t win Emmys for Best Actor in a Drama Series two years in a row. Or live in Brentwood.
Nick had gone directly from the studio to meet Ashley at a benefit thing for Somali refugees. Bette Midler—yackety-yak!—was the emcee. And, as if that wasn’t bad enough, during dinner a group of Somali men beat on goatskin drums while female dancers in burlap robes shuffled around the ballroom, weaving in and out of the candlelit tables, waving their skinny arms in the air and swaying back and forth. The drums gave Nick a headache and he just picked at his Sea Bass.
“What’s your problem with Scarlett?”
“She thinks shooting a quart of Botox into her face makes her an actress.”
“We aren’t just a wee bit jealous, are we?” said Nick.
“Fuck you,” said Ashley.
Nick went upstairs and got undressed. He went into his bathroom, brushed his teeth and checked his hairline. Back in the bedroom, which Ashley’s fruity decorator had done up like a log cabin, Nick got into their huge rustic bed, turned on the TV, and watched the last quarter of the Lakers game.
During a timeout, the camera zeroed in on celebrities in the seats down front. Shit, there was Kevin Bacon! And Kyra Sedgwick! Nick and Kevin had been teammates at a celebrity basketball game in Westwood last year, one of Ashley’s charity events for female genital mutilation. Ashley’s publicist had wanted her to hook up with a more popular cause, breast cancer or diabetes, because the mutilation thing sounded “icky,” but Ashley had made up her mind.
Nick tried to talk her out of it, but Ashley went ahead and taped a PSA about genital mutilation. A few community cable stations aired it—in the middle of the night—but the networks and regular cable channels wouldn’t touch it because of the horrific photos and the line that Ashley, quivering with emotion, delivered at the end: “A clitoris is a terrible thing to waste.”
Before the basketball game, while they were posing for photographs, Kevin Bacon made a stupid joke about Nick’s sneakers, how they were “totally ghetto.” Then he laughed like a hyena. What an asshole!
Downstairs, Ashley mixed herself a Malibu Mouthwash. Creme de menthe and vodka. There was a summer, long ago, when she and Grant were at Lake Como and really got into them. Grant got into them so much—he was drinking them for breakfast—that Ashley checked him into rehab when they returned from Italy. But after a week she missed him and drove back to Rancho Mirage and signed him out. On the way home they stopped at a restaurant and, sitting at a bar overlooking the Pacific, drank Malibu Mouthwashes.
Ashley sat in the living room sipping her drink while she read the script for a TV series she’d been offered. She’d told her agent she wanted a movie, not a TV series, but Cal said, “Please, Ashley, just look at this, it’s you.” She was supposed to play a military psychiatrist who has her own problems: a cheating husband, a junkie daughter, and graphic flashbacks of sexual abuse by her father, an Air Force major. The producers were thinking of casting Bruce Dern as her dad, but they’d give Ashley final approval on that, thank God, because Bruce Dern had bad breath, and he was way too old for the part anyway.
In the pilot for Shrink, Ashley’s character bails out her daughter, who’s been arrested for prostitution, and discovers her husband has been screwing the wife of one of Ashley’s patients, a troubled Iraqi vet. They were offering 150K per episode, but Cal said, No problemo, he’d get her 200. That sounded okay, but the project was still a piece of shit. Ashley didn’t see herself with a 22-year-old daughter. Who’d believe that?
Ashley threw the script on the coffee table, She hit security mode 3 and sleep temp 60 on her phone, walked into the kitchen and put her empty glass in the sink. She went upstairs. The late news, with live coverage of fires burning in Chino and El Puente, was blaring from the TV. Nick was sound asleep.
Kristy Kaufman, the weather girl, was reporting on how many acres had burned, how many homes had been destroyed, about families fleeing, shelters opening. Christ, look at her pores, thought Ashley, they look like craters. Hadn’t the poor, clueless thing ever heard of dermabrasion? And, oh my God, imagine having to sleep in a high school gym packed with a bunch of complete strangers and their bratty kids and filthy pets. Who knew what kind of awful disease you could catch in a place like that?
News choppers, police choppers, and fire choppers filled the sky above Covina, whirling to and from the flames. Down below, in the living room of their stucco cottage, Walter and Conchita Gonzalez were watching a movie. It was in English and it was pretty sappy, so Walter wasn’t paying much attention to it. He was leafing through one of his car magazines, checking out photos of classic Camaros. Checking out the sweet Chicanas in their halters and short shorts.
“Walter?” said Conchita when a commercial came on.
“Guess what’s going on in Brentwood.”
Walter looked up from an article about a lowrider show in Phoenix.
“La Princesa’s messing with the pool guy.” Conchita made a circle with the thumb and forefinger of one hand and poked the forefinger of her other hand in and out of it.
“Qué puta!” said Walter. “El chico es Mexicano?”
“Brasileño,” said Conchita.
This was wonderful news! It meant, didn’t it, that Walter himself had a shot at having sex with the famous actress. Maybe she was working her way up through South America to Central America, trying out different pingas on the way.
Walter saw himself and the actress in the garage where he worked, going at it under a truck in a pool of oil and brake fluid, the other mechanics bending down to watch and cheering him on as he fucked the movie star, who was covered in grease and screaming with pleasure—she wasn’t acting now!—and begging for more. Walter pumped away while his co-workers clapped and hollered “Vaya, vaquero!”
Walter tossed the car magazine on the carpet and leaned toward Conchita. He pushed a hand between her thighs. Conchita slapped his hand away.
“The movie’s not over,” she said. “Get your greasy paws off me.”
Walter moved closer to Conchita. He kissed her neck.
Walter reached a hand down to the crotch of Conchita’s sweat pants. He found the crease of her pussy and rubbed it softly until the fabric became moist. Then he moved his hand up and under the waistband of her pants and slid a finger inside Ashley Gale.
Nina and George lay on their bed. The goddamn air conditioner was busted, and they’d argued about whether to shut the windows or leave them open. Nina said she’d rather have fresh air, even smoky fresh air, than bake to death. Through the open windows, they listened to the urgent moans coming from the Gonzalez household next door.
“Those two are like a couple of animals,” said Nina.
George sighed. Jesus, he thought, now I’ll never get to sleep.
Nina rubbed her eyes and wished they had closed the windows. She wished she could quit her job and get a real studio with high ceilings and tons of natural light so she wouldn’t have to work at the kitchen table and listen to George whining about the smell of turpentine. She’d make some large paintings and invite curators and gallery people over. They’d be knocked out by the raw energy and sheer physical beauty of the canvases, of course, but they’d get the irony, too, and the sly art-historical references. Her work, they’d agree, practically defined the cultural zeitgeist.
Her career would take off fast. A sold–out gallery show. A major exhibition at MOCA. Shows in New York, London, Shanghai, and Berlin. Rave reviews, big prices. She’d walk down a street in Paris, Tokyo, or Dusseldorf, and passers-by would nudge each other and whisper, “That’s Nina Green.” When she was out of earshot, they’d exclaim that, really, she was even more beautiful in person than she looked on the cover of ARTforum.
When Nina was famous she wouldn’t have to drive down to Anaheim every afternoon and teach art to Somali refugee kids. She remembered how excited she’d been to get the job; she was going to help the children reconnect with their artistic heritage and she could hardly wait to see the fabulous results. Now she felt sick and depressed just pulling into the parking lot of the Bette Midler East African Community Center. The art room was filled with buckets of indigo dye, piled high with sheets of handmade bark paper, but the kids complained the dye was “smelly,” and they wanted “real paper.” They could care less about their cultural roots; they wanted to make ballpoint pen drawings of Batman and Beyoncé.
George had been thinking about his script when their neighbours started in. His agent said Ashley Gale loved it, but Lyle was the biggest bullshitter in town and, for all George knew, Ashley Gale hadn’t even read the script yet. He’d be getting an option check any day now, but with car payments, rent, and credit card bills, that wouldn’t go far. If Ashley signed on, though, things would be different. Lyle was talking about a deal that included an assistant producer’s salary. If that happened, George could pay off his bills and he and Nina could get the hell out of Covina. He was thinking how great it would be to buy a place in West Hollywood or Santa Monica when Conchita Gonzalez really let loose.
George rolled onto his side and pulled the pillow over his head, muting the screams from next door. He imagined himself and Nina in their new home, all steel and pale green glass, with silent, English-speaking neighbours. They could fill their home, and their lives, with anything they’d ever dreamed of. No more scrimping, no more settling.
A Numi toilet that didn’t look like a toilet at all, just a stainless steel plinth that played music while you took a shit and then, whoosh, it was a geometric sculpture again. Colorful slabs of handmade soap that smelled good enough to eat. Bamboo flooring.
A heated towel rack. A wall covered in pony skin. Hypoallergenic pillows. A wet bar. Health insurance. Organic food delivered to their door. A dentist in Beverly Hills. A plate warmer Shade-grown coffee. Cloth napkins. A new watch. Japanese meat. A lap pool. A pool house.
Did Michael Graves do pool houses?
They‘d have these things because the people who mattered—starting with Ashley Gale—would realize that George was right up there with Hemingway, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Shakespeare, writers whose work cut through the pettiness, the bullshit, the self-absorption and greed of everyday existence, and revealed what it meant to be human. You couldn’t put a price tag on that kind of talent. It was limitless and deserving of……well, everything.
George said a silent prayer that Ashley Gale would love his script. That, because she’d waited a lifetime for a project this good, a role this important, she had to do it.
Ashley would insist on taking George out to lunch to thank him for sticking it out, for not turning into a cynical, money-grubbing hack, for creating Shrink, a series that was going to change the face of television forever.
George lifted the pillow from his head. The room smelled like a campfire. A helicopter roared overhead. The lovebirds next door had concluded their nightly exertions; it was quiet over there, but Nina was snoring like a pig— her sinuses again. George got up and shut the windows.