Steroid Dreams – 2 October 24, 2016
Second of three parts of my Bridport-Prize winning story.
The actress clicked quickly out of the studio on her red-soled high heels. She had rather sweetly crossed her legs so he would see her expensive soles, but he’d been not-nice to her, asking left-field questions of someone contractually bound to promote a film she might well hate. Judging by the trailer, she should.
“When you say you hope you’re successful in conveying your character’s horror,” he’d asked, and she’d nodded vigorously, “how do you define success?”
Now the new chase producer slipped in to discuss his next guest, on after the pre-recorded segment now playing. The producer was twenty-three. They all looked twenty-three, even the ones who were thirty. This one might even have been twenty-two, and she was pretty in a sturdy blond Dutch kind of way. Not that Phil ever pissed in the well where he got his drinking water. Or to put it in corporate-speak, was ever guilty of sexual harassment. He had his standards.
“It’s interesting,” she said, “the way your obsessions kinda skew the interviews. Success, I mean.” Phil was tactically open with his staff about his preoccupations, letting them see him as human, and therefore to be forgiven. “It makes me wonder the extent to which journalists’ personal lives more or less impinge on the national agenda.”
Oh, so she’d figured that out. Good doggie.
“What did you just call me?”
Phil took off his headphones and rubbed his eyes. “I’m in the middle of another mid-life crisis,” he said. “You’re going to have to bear with me.”
Through the half-open door, he could see his next guest, her bristles of flagrantly dyed red hair. Cochineal, he thought. Made from dried Mexican insects. One of his guests had said the British Redcoats owed the colour of their uniforms to the importation of cochineal from Mexico in the late eighteenth century. However deep his angst, Phil loved the pinball nature of life, this leading to an unpredictable that.
“I asked her your question,” the producer said. He must be staring at the upcoming guest. “Whether she prefers to be called an author or a writer. She said author.”
She’d failed, then. Pretentious. He wasn’t going to be any easier on the author than the actress. It was one of those days.
His nightmare had come from the divorce. He and Mei Li had been leaving her apartment, although officially he’d been on a corporate retreat. Entwined with Mei Li, laughing, gelid with sex, lots of it, he’d done a double-take when seeing Lorraine across the street. She was just standing there, confirming her guess, letting him see her, then turning and walking away.
Phil tried to follow, but Mei Li clung to his arm. A tug of war, Phil pulling one way, Mei Li refusing to let go. “Shit!” he cried, but when he saw her flat-out terror that he’d leave her, Phil gave in, feeling flattered, tender, and trapped.
At home, Lorraine looked like a dogwalker bagging a turd. Her new role as an edgy feminist artist involved half-shaved hair, tight jeans and kiss-ass boots. She was as sexy as hell and he couldn’t remember why he’d been unfaithful, aside from the fact they’d been together for almost twenty years, and that he suspected he bored her.
“How many is this, Phil?” she asked, in her breathy voice. “I’ve lost track, if I ever knew. It’s tedious, it really is, and the children are old enough they’re going to start noticing. Why you don’t always make the school concerts. It’s not good for them to know you’re a liar.”
He had no answer, and only asked for one final, normal outing with the kids before the talk. He’d promised Bobby a guitar, and took both kids to Long & McQuade, which since Phil’s youth had been filled with intense crumpled youths longing for fame.
One look at Nora and the sales clerks raced over, testosterone jostling, the last man standing being a tall drink of water who’d won by going to Nora’s high school, a black kid shy as a vole.
“A Gibson, sir,” the kid repeated.
“I’m cheap,” Phil told him, making Nora blush furiously.
“A Korean Gibson.” The kid was unperturbed and brought a guitar from a nearby rack. He handed it to Phil, an unspoken comment and a correct one. Bobby had no interest in playing guitar and was already sidling over to the drums.
Phil hadn’t played in years, and found he could barely manage a chord. His wedding ring kept tripping him up, and he tugged it off impatiently, putting it on the amp.
“That should help,” he said.
Nora ignored him and the sales vole was busy worshipping her. Behind them, Bobby sat down behind a drum kit. With Phil hacking out a half-remembered melody, all of them were distracted, and the street kid must have seen this. There was a streak. A boy racing by, grabbing Phil’s ring and pounding out of the store.
“Hey!” the sales kid cried. With a glance at Nora, he sprinted after the thief. And here’s where the nightmare started: Phil sprinting after them. Not just standing there as stupidly as he’d done in life, but running and running, feeling increasingly panicked. Phil was himself but also the black kid dodging along a crowded street, and how would that be seen by the wrong cop? Phil had always hated himself for exposing the kid. For that and everything else.
“Did that guy just take your ring?” Nora asked.
Shrugging even more stupidly. “It’s only a ring.”
Bobby wasn’t paying attention, having found a drumstick. But Nora stared at Phil, putting it together, and he felt his mouth crank into an awful shape.
He simpered, and his adored daughter gave him a look of disgust, walking over to her brother, shielding him; and it was among the chief tragedies of Phil’s life that she’d had no use for him since.
Playing Lego on the floor with the twins. They weren’t identical but they looked alike, Graham the leaner and more straight-ahead kid, more like Bobby, while Corbett was dreamy and sulky, improbably like Lorraine. They were building a city, Phil putting a palm tree on the roof of a skyscraper under Corbett’s giggly direction. When Mei Li came in, Phil wondered what he was doing wrong, but she only handed him a scotch and clinked glasses.
“Your mother’s a lush,” she told the boys, and Phil could see Graham storing that up. Mei Li ought to be careful, and she seldom was.
“That interview with the writer this morning,” she said.
“What a pill. What does she look like?”
Phil pictured the cochineal hair. “Belligerently homely,” he said. “One of those people who flaunt their lack of looks.” Sexual, he didn’t say. Angry. Transparent. She’d reminded Phil of himself.
Lucy Verrall was the latest literary succubus of Virginia Woolf. In her award-winning novel, she riffed on her ancestral connection to Jacob Verrall, who had owned Virginia’s country house before Virginia and her husband Leonard had bought it. Jacob Verrall had been an eccentric, tying a string from his foot to a bell in the orchard, letting him lie in bed and wiggle his toes to frighten the birds from his cherry tree. Lucy’s novel went back and forth between the Verralls and the Woolves, bringing in a Hannah Verrall who had come to Canada in 1841, although Phil had lost interest by then and had no idea how she tied it all up.
“To start off,” the author said, muscling in as he finished his introduction, “you haven’t read the book, have you?”
“Yes, I have,” Phil answered blandly. “And frankly what interested me most, although you give him short shrift in your novel, is Leonard rather than Virginia Woolf.”
Seeing she was about to interrupt, he went on, “Reading your book sent me to Leonard Woolf’s autobiography, which I imagine is what an author like yourself hopes for, an author authoring a book about writers”—she was glaring at him—“to send your readers back to the works of the writers in question.
“Now just a minute,” he said crankily, when she tried to interrupt again. “If you’re going to ask me a question, I’m going to answer it. And what impressed me most about Leonard Woolf was something he wrote when he was eighty-eight years old…”
“Five volumes of autobiography. That should tell you something about his hubris.”
“Adding up his contributions to founding the League of Nations and the British Labour Party, he estimated that during his very long life, he had put in between 150,000 and 200,000 hours on committee meetings and the associated writing. Yet he said that the world in 1969 would have been exactly the same if he’d spent his life playing ping-pong. He could see very clearly that he had achieved practically nothing.”
Holding her eye, Phil asked, “How on earth can you justify writing another book about Virginia Woolf in the face of such humility?”
“Because I hate ping-pong,” Lucy Verrall replied.
“I thought hipsters liked it again.”
“Is it your job to tell an author what to write?”
“Well sometimes I can’t help wondering,” Phil answered amiably.
To be continued…
Copyright Lesley Krueger 2016