(Note: “I” is an unknown writer and “Mae” is a famous movie star. I would like an interview with Mae, but Mae won’t return her calls.)
I stand in front of the mirror dripping on my apartment floor as I listen to my voicemail message: Hello, this is Holly, Mae’s personal assistant, just calling to tell you Mae is so sorry she won’t be able to make your meeting this afternoon, but she’ll hopefully see you next Wednesday at her house, same time. Hopefully!
According to The Associated Press Stylebook, the use of “hopefully” as an adverb is unacceptable but of course, Holly doesn’t know this. I replay the message. Holly’s voice doesn’t even sound sorry. Mae should tell her assistant to sound sorry.
I turn to the ring of photographs around my mirror, portraits of the people I care most about, and I stand there searching their faces for answers.
Lying back against the divan, Truman Capote licks his lips and says, “She’s just a beautiful child. It’s a scientific fact that if you stay in California you lose one point of your IQ every year.”
Zora Neale Hurston rolls her eyes and takes her hand off the steering wheel for a long drag of her cigarette. She speaks on the exhale, sending a plume of smoke into Truman’s face. “Those that don’t got it, can’t show it. Those that got it can’t hide it.”
Dorothy Parker, cradling her cheeks in her hands, says, “Told you so, kid. You can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.”
Kate Chopin touches her cameo with dimpled fingers and smiles beatifically. “There, there. That’s just an old dog barking. Don’t you fret, my dear. There are some people who leave impressions not so lasting as the imprint of an oar upon water.”
From the shadow behind Marilyn Monroe, Arthur Miller mutters. “We are all anonymous in this world. I think it’s a mistake to ever look for hope outside of one’s self.”
Truman arches an eyebrow in Arthur’s direction. “There are certain shades of limelight that can wreck a complexion.”
Dorothy uses both hands as a bullhorn and yells, “It serves you right for keeping all your eggs in one bastard!”
“You of all people ought to know by now that trying to hold onto someone who doesn’t love you is like trying to hold water in your hands,” Wayne tells me. “What you need is a makeover. A serious overhaul. If you want to catch a big fish you’ve got to dangle some tasty bait.”
Kate says, “Tut, tut. She doesn’t want to catch any fish. She only wants to live her dreams. But perhaps it is better to wake up after all, even to suffer, rather than to remain a dupe to illusions all one’s life.”
My mother doesn’t look up from the candles on the birthday cake.
Zora taps her ash on the cake and says, “Don’t be a fool. It’s like milking a bear to get cream for your morning coffee. It is a whole lot of trouble, and then not worth much after you get it. Just tell yourself that no one can deny the pleasure of your company.”
Meryl Streep stops smiling to carp at me, “You think too much and do too little—you could learn something from an actor. Maybe this is your reality check. You think you’re so smart? Cut the adverbs, already. And don’t tell the actor what to do with her hands—It’s condescending. What am I, a fucking puppet?”
“Too many long words,” Bette Davis rolls her eyes. “Who knows what they mean? Nobody loves you more for saying them, you know.”
“Maybe you’d be better at writing a novel,” suggests Lady Gaga. “Or an autobiography. Or a dictionary. Or a thank you note. Or a grocery list.”
I just stand here dripping on the floor with a phone in my hand.
Arthur says, “I don’t know the answer. But can you tell me the name of a classical Greek shoemaker?” He laughs and looks at Marilyn, who doesn’t budge. He turns back to me: “All I can tell you is the word ‘now’ is like a bomb through the window, and it ticks.”
Zora uses her middle finger to flick the cigarette out the car window. “The present was an egg laid by the past that had the future inside its shell.”
Truman waves his hand in the air. ”All literature is gossip.”
“You should listen to Truman.” Wayne smiles and bats his eyes. “Truman is hot.”
Kate hugs herself and intones to the ceiling: “The voice of the sea speaks to the soul. The touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.”
Dorothy whispers, “Ducking for apples — change one letter and it’s the story of my life.” She mouths the word “fucking” to make sure I understand.
My mother doesn’t say a word. She doesn’t even look up from the candles on the birthday cake.
I’ve been thinking a lot about actors and how they speak for us all. The scene I’ve written above loses its charm on the page but if some fabulous actors would say those lines, you could see what I was trying to do. Philip Seymour Hoffman could have played all the parts in the scene above, every one, including me, he could have stood there naked and dripping without saying a word and he could have done it in a way that showed me something I hadn’t noticed before. PSH was one of those who spoke a huge, resonant, ringing truth. He spoke for me. It wasn’t just the lines he said, although he certainly had some killer lines, it was something inside him that made meaning. If I were the type to put photos on my wall, I’d have one of Philip Seymour Hoffman.
I’m surprised that the death of a person I never met makes me feel so fucking sad.
(BTW, this is a chapter adapted from my last novel, What Would Water Do. The novel failed but it did have some good parts.)