Parker Smith looked into the pit of despair that was his mother’s eyes. She wore a pea coat, breathed heavy, and seemed to view him with disdain.
“Mother,” he said, “can I borrow fifty bucks?” His mother refused to examine her son’s pockmarked, ridiculous face. He was a scarecrow in the disguise of a man, the abandoned corpse rotting on the side of the road. He was everything she despised and yet she felt tremendous pity.
“Here’s twenty. Now, what do you say to your mama?”
Parker wanted to asphyxiate. Couldn’t she let him grab the cash and flee? It would be so much better that way; to run with his head between his legs, to depart madly, to escape with that fire in his gut. To run as far as possible as if it was all he had left, a final prayer, the last gasp for the doomed.
“Thank you, mom,” he said, forcing a smile. “You’ve been quite generous. Without this twenty I could scarcely go on.” She noticed the tinge of sarcasm in his voice, then looked at the skyscrapers shimmering in the distance.
They were on a boat meandering up The Hudson River. Her job paid for it. A corporate holiday party; champagne flutes, overcooked sliders, third-rate calypso music.
She’d brought along her son because he was bored and promised not to make a fool of himself. This promise he’d broken. He’d handed out his business card to every suit on the boat practically begging them for a job.
It hadn’t been his fault; he’d been reading self-help tomes on climbing the corporate ladder, a tall stack of networking bibles, and he felt he either implemented these strategies or went home an abject failure. They said you needed to humble yourself, be of service, and ask for guidance in a non-threatening manner, and Parker took this all more seriously than if decreed by his favorite philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche.
He looked at his mother once more. She seemed nothing like him. He must have been adopted; been sired by a purple-blue alien; gotten dumped at the local orphanage by a nun after a clandestine affair with a piece-of-garbage timeshare salesman.
His mother was so hard to comprehend. What he once imagined straightforward seemed all but impossible; to connect with her; to be understood; to have a relationship of merit. Oh, phooey! What was the point of angling for it? He pocketed the cash, and, as the boat docked, excused himself, scurrying home like an anguished gladiator who needed to tend to a series of pernicious wounds.
Parker lived in the basement of a split-family home his mother owned in Sunnyside, Queens. It was a quaint little refuge from the embittered world with brown water and lights that swayed as the subway roared by with eerie regularity. He enjoyed the sloped ceiling, fading wallpaper, antique plumbing.
His mother intended to fix the place up, but she was always working—as much as 120 hours a week. Further exacerbating matters was Parker’s slovenly ways: empty pizza boxes crammed under the bed, porno mags stuffed behind the dresser, newspaper scraps tacked to the wall.
It was labeled a basement by the real estate agent, but it was more a grim cellar, maybe even a dungeon, at least given the way Parker treated it. He kept the place dark, gloomy, covered in cobwebs, with a strange leather whip affixed to the wall.
It was the kind of place uniquely comforting to the forlorn; a place for those seeking to avert meddling peers; a place to take a stand, hunker down, write poetry, sing songs. But most of all he enjoyed doodling.
He once wanted to be a professional doodler, but his mother discouraged it. She discouraged all his creative pursuits.
Parker couldn’t blame her. His failings had landed him where he was. And she’d been kind enough to give him cheap rent—a mere few hundred dollars per month. In many ways, he’d be lost without her.
He thought of this now as he sat on his bed doodling with great focus and intensity. The world seemed to depend on his doodles; indeed, nothing could have greater importance; this time it was a tiger consuming a horrified rabbit, the fangs bright white, rabbit juices splattering in a rollercoaster of sorrow.
He identified with the rabbit. The prey that could never quite could escape. It was most vibrant right before it was devoured.
Yet he felt sorry for the tiger too. It was tough to be the king. He seemed to be a part of them both, to feel, from inside, the way nature defeated itself, consumed what it was; the way we were all predators and prey, consumers and the consumed; the way it all ended in the same despicable void.
It didn’t matter whether you were rabbit or tiger; we were all in an existential labyrinth; unlikely to find the Minotaur; we wandered ceaselessly, increasingly losing our way.
Parker doodled more fiercely, his hand heating up; his eyes glowing with embittered intensity, heart thumping, leg jerking madly. Down with opportunity! To hell with a cruel, pointless existence! He was a great doodler! A doodler to be taught at international art schools! His work needed to be enshrined in Vatican City! Why couldn’t all the buffoons eager to critique his work understand that?
Parker worked thirty hours a week selling dental equipment. The phones automatically dialed random dental offices. They gave him a pitch sheet, told him to stick to the script, yet he spiced it up, improvised wildly to get dentists on the line. The problem was secretaries generally hung up rapidly or made rude comments. How could he display his salesmanship if these purveyors of provincialism, these guardians of Mouth Incorporated, wouldn’t let him through the gate?
All the rejection took a toll on his sensitive system. He wasn’t such a terrible guy, just another grifter, a bohemian-renegade pushed to the edge. He only sought to make a buck. To survive! Didn’t any of these obtuse secretaries with their phoney cheerfulness and cruel snorts get that? Someone had to put Ramen Noodles on his table! He couldn’t make it on godforsaken doodling alone!
Although Parker loved to doodle more than anything else, he’d come to accept, over the past year, that there was no realistic way he’d make a living off his eccentric passion. Hence, of late, he’d refocused the bulk of his creative energies on becoming an actor.
It was in TV and film acting that he felt most likely to make his mark. This was an instinct, a flash radiating across a grim sky, an otherworldly sense he followed like a zombie in pursuit of human flesh. Besides, once rich and famous, he’d use his platform to promote the doodles, and so, circuitously, achieve his life’s ambition.
The other thing that drove him into acting was the chance to escape his crazy head, to probe forbidden quadrants of self, and to enter magical worlds more alluring than his own. And it all was more alluring… even playing a P.O.W. in a Vietnamese Prison Camp. For the tortures of the Hanoi Hilton seemed far more appealing than subsisting under the fascist dictator he called mother!
To help achieve his goal of becoming an A-lister, Parker spent money far more rapidly than he earned it. Some of the people he hired included a personal manicurist, reiki faith healer, life coach, and soul retrieval specialist.
Originally, he’d skipped out on the soul retrieval thing, finding it a bit superfluous. But he was convinced, by people in the know, that his soul was the reason he wasn’t landing the series regular roles. His soul was in a state of crisis. His soul was a wounded child. His soul needed to drive a Tesla…and so on and so forth.
But the tidbit they imprinted most forcefully into him was that his soul needed to be retrieved. This was an arduous process that would take weeks, months, years perhaps, at 150 dollars an hour.
Parker felt rather suspect about all this; considered it a kind of madness; but the people he’d hired were industry insiders: warm, generous, champions of eco-friendly blenders with glitzy websites featuring celebrity testimonials. They had industry pull. Radiated such prowess that he would have engaged in filthy homosexual acts with them—and he was straight—just to impress them. The point was they knew far more than he did—a fact he couldn’t ignore, now could he?
He returned to this thought process for the hundredth time as a soul retrieval specialist sprinkled water on his forehead while humming an ancient Peruvian prayer.
Parker closed his eyes, breathed in the sage, and imagined an eagle carrying him on mystical wings through a tropical rainforest. They soared through cumulous clouds, over verdant ravines, above majestic lakes; flew back, way back, to a time before he was born; across a land of purity and innocence; to a place where he could feel again; there, the eagle descended, and told him to retrieve his soul he needed to BELIEVE he could fly.
‘Yes! Fly! Fly great birdie! Flap those wings! Yehah!,’ Parker recited to himself before opening his eyes. What a magical adventure! He was learning to explore such depths of himself!
It didn’t matter that the soul retrieval specialist was a bitter divorcee who smoked opium every evening while playing XBOX. Nor did it bother him that the guy was put in jail, twice, for beating his ex-wife.
It seemed best to pay the money, follow instructions, and have faith. There was little to lose. After all, his most high profile part to date was a cameo on The Barnyard Matchmaker—a show featuring perennial bachelors on blind dates with irascible farm animals.
Parker’s plan was to save up enough money to move in with his Aunt Bubble, in the San Fernando Valley, and, under the mask of palm trees, in the land of Photoshop and Botox, make his mark.
He felt destined to succeed once he moved to tinsel town; imagined it would only be a matter of months until he bought a palatial Malibu estate; could hardly wait to order around assistants and be fed seedless grapes while his personal ukulele player, a blonde bombshell, strummed “La Bamba.”
Was he delusional? All that can be said on this point is that his actor friends considered his monologues totally uninspiring—and in suggesting this they were being rather generous. Meanwhile, his acting teachers considered him dim-witted and pertinacious, although they encouraged him, mainly because they wanted to continue collecting premium rates for semi-private lessons.
Delusional or not he persisted. He attended countless auditions, rehearsing late into the night before a wall-length mirror he’d salvaged from a drunken tour of The Staten Island Garbage Dump. He bought cop and gangster uniforms and pranced around his dungeon, feeling his essence meld into each new character. The odds seemed horrible. Yet what gave Parker an edge was his determination; he was so convinced of his own importance that the world eventually had to take him seriously. He’d outlast the uppity bastards.
Perhaps, too, he was right. At some point he’d get his big break; keep at it for decades, and, eventually, some bemused, wealthy producer would spot him and say, “Parker! Parker my boy! I’ve got a million dollars in unmarked bills that can be yours if you play the part of Private Investigator. That’s right Parker. A million dollars.”
Parker would look at him, long and hard, and say “Booked already.” Too busy doodling. Dine on Beluga caviar, fly private jets, and, when he felt like it, pontificate on 60 Minutes about the impetus for a legendary doodle featuring aardvarks on a log flume ride. Top art critics would call him “iconoclastic” and “eerily sublime,” and even his own mother would declare him a misunderstood prodigy. As for his uncle, who often seemed to discourage him, he’d get on hands and knees and beg Parker to accept his apology.
The greasy phone rang once more. It was his agent. Well, technically he wasn’t a real agent. It was a friend of his, a schizophrenic patient locked up at Bellevue who managed to submit Parker on casting websites. Why he did this Parker wasn’t sure. But Parker believed it had something to do with a weird homoerotic fixation the guy had with Parker’s feet.
In spite of how much Parker hated Armando, he often secured Parker decent auditions. So he couldn’t hang up.
To Parker’s great surprise Armando had a stellar audition, an opportunity for the ages. His heart thumped madly. He could barely control the anticipation. It was for a major independent film called The Fat Tuna. What an ingenious title!
The Casting Director thought he could be a great sidekick, a fantastic skinny, nerdy friend to The Fat Tuna. The goal was not to outshine The Fat Tuna, but to lend comedic relief, and make The Fat Tuna seem even fatter.
Parker loved the idea. The sides he was provided were inordinately dynamic. Over and over he practised lines like “I’m sick of you complaining you idiotic fat dummy!” Oh, the melody! The sonorous play of syllables! That perfect harmony of one phrase merging with another!
His M.A. in English Literature would be very useful here; he was going to rise to new heights; transform into a Schlegel of the twenty-first century, slinging aphorisms on the corner like bags of meth among the row houses of Baltimore.
This part was his; for he was a great thespian, an inspirer of masses, a creator of new realms of existential being. He belched. He’d eaten too many cheese-doodles and followed it with a massive quotient of grape soda.
Never mind. This was HIS opportunity. The misery of the past thirty-two years on Earth could all be erased. He just needed to land this role. Doing so would make up for an unlived existence, would transform him from a fool to a hero, would save his wayward soul. He simply had to be a witty, loveable friend to The Fat Tuna. The future seemed preposterously bright!
When he arrived at the rehearsal space at Ripley-Grier, a dimly-lit studio space with a tawdry secretary, he was not surprised to find a waiting room filled to the brim with actors who looked exactly like him. It was always this way. There were hundreds of versions of yourself all over the city and casting directors were skilled at finding them, rounding them up, and insisting they sit in one room and wait.
How could he compete with such magnificent clones? His acting coach advised him to stay true to who he was. This made sense. Still, he felt like a fraud just thinking about being himself in a room filled with doppelgangers.
It took hours to be called in. At last, he slated and read with a casting director who seemed barely able to speak English. The Fat Tuna was supposed to be an angry, overweight male while the casting director was an incoherent, Czechoslovakian waif.
Nevertheless, he had to make the scene real. The dialogue rolled off his tongue; he put his soul into every syllable, flung himself onto the floor, mimed poking out his eyes, kicked into the air, and improvised the word “toodaloo!”
Just as he was finishing this tour de force, a loud explosion shook the room. Everyone got up. Through the window, they examined a garbage man arguing with a bystander who’d dropped a garbage can on his foot (the noise had come from the bystander subsequently hurling the can against a brick wall). One of the casting directors kept pointing during the ensuing fist fight and the Script Girl murmured “bravo!” Parker nodded at them, and, as the commotion quelled, said: “can I finish my audition?”
They ignored him.
“No seriously,” Parker said, still standing at his mark. “From the top?”
He waited ten seconds and then became despondent, lowering his head.
“Thanks for coming in,” the casting director remarked.
Parker ambled sluggishly towards the door. When his hand reached the knob he turned back. He gritted his teeth, bit his hand, and, eventually, cleared his throat.
“You’re afraid to act so you sit there and condemn. You should be ashamed of yourselves!”
The casting director leapt to her feet and tried to push Parker out the room. He gave her a crazed look and clutched the table. The Director and Script Girl now joined in, Parker resisting fiercely. He exacerbated the mayhem, slightly, by crying “help! rape!”
Hearing the bedlam, fourteen Fat Tunas entered the room and sat on Parker. Meanwhile, twelve of his doppelgangers kicked him repeatedly.
Finally, Parker was let up, apologized, and ran out. All along the sidewalk, he cried out that he was a genius, an absolute legend so that even the homeless lunatic waving a sword made of tin foil and declaring himself King Arthur shook his head in dismay.
The next day Parker ran into the same Casting Director near Hudson River Park and handed her his resume and headshot. “Sorry about yesterday,” he said.
The Casting Director grimaced.
“I just want is one more chance.”
The Casting Director threw out her half-eaten turkey club and scurried away.
“I’M A GREAT THESPIAN! DANIEL DAY-LEWIS TAKES LESSONS FROM ME. THREE HOUR GODDAMN CLINICS YOU UPPITY MORON!”
From a great distance, the Casting Director gave Parker the finger. Parker kicked a park bench. Yanked his hair. Slapped his own face again and again.
He kept cursing himself, his so-called agent, his fate. He wished he could go on another of those sightseeing cruises with his mother’s co-workers. Land a real job. This wasn’t normal! Wild highs and abysmal lows! Prolonged Intensity! Endless pressure! He was cracking up, falling to pieces, acting like half the man he could be. If only he was given a chance to play a part equal to his talent!
Was that too much to ask? For the entire system to collapse and someone to say “you’re famous now, Parker.”
But the truth was he was perpetually on the fringe, the runt of the litter, the kind of guy who would never get in the same zip code as the paparazzi.
His doodles sat on lonely shelves in the back of his dungeon. Quiet doodles. Doodles of zero importance. No one cared. His calling. The reason he was born. It all meant nothing.
He felt so alone. So distant from everything. He sighed. He wished he hadn’t flipped out a second time at that casting director. His soul retrieval specialist was going to need to put in some serious overtime. His life coach would reprimand him and then bill him exorbitantly for the humiliation. His mother would smirk and declare “I told you so.” And, through it all, he’d be gnashing his teeth, hoping he could prove to the rest of the world his importance in the grand scheme—as his dreams grew increasingly irrelevant.
Maybe they were right. Maybe he didn’t belong. Maybe his work was destined for the garbage dump. Maybe he was nothing, a human doormat, the scum of the Earth. Maybe the best thing would be to eliminate himself now, just jump off a bridge, thereby inducing his family to celebrate wildly.
He went home and scribbled for twelve hours—strange, gothic beasts ingesting casting assistants in a macabre glee—heads popping off, scripts drenched in coagulated blood, cameras hurled out icy windows.
Onward he scribbled, doodling haphazardly, doodling in allegories, doodling towards the word doodling, doodling because it was all he had left; he passed out with his head between his legs, the drool sliding down his chin.
Parker might have gone completely bonkers, around this time, had he not fallen for Betsy, a sixty-two-year-old dowager who couldn’t resist his wounded-puppy-look.
She was his only acting teacher who didn’t consider herself a deity. He signed up for a few seminars, mostly scene study before she started taking him out for ice cream sundaes with all the toppings.
This Betsy was once a fine theater actor before her career had been cut short by a boating accident. She’d lost her right leg. After that, she taught from a wheelchair, living vicariously through her students, but seemingly no less dynamic and inspired as a result. Parker found her a great rhetorician. She could talk and talk and he’d never get bored.
So it was innocent for a while—the dissection of Chekov and Strindberg, the lectures on character motivation, the advice on how to get a manager….until everything just flipped.
He’d gone over to her apartment for a grilled cheese—a platonic gesture—when she’d returned from a trip to the bathroom in a skimpy negligee.
“Spank me,” she’d said. He’d told her he had to go. There was a big audition the next day for the role of The Brainless Woodpecker, a very complex part in an animated indie that was being brought to you by the makers of Dirty Dishes, Dirty Eternity.
Betsy grabbed him. Insisted he ravishes her. He never made his audition. Hell, except for showing up at his telemarketing job he hardly left her house. His friends couldn’t understand. Was he in it for the grilled cheese? Did he want free acting tips? Might he be after her family fortune?
The real essence of it, though, was Parker was afraid. Afraid to disappoint her, afraid to leave her alone, afraid to not be what she needed. She spoke to something in him; he had to be what she needed or he’d abandon a portion of himself that had not been cared for as a child.
Besides, it was better to vicariously make sure she didn’t destroy herself with drink, as she generally threatened than continually fail at achieving his own dreams.
It was the perfect alibi. It gave him a sense of accomplishment; it made him feel eternally useful; plus, above all else, he couldn’t resist the way she arched her back in bed and moaned like a harpooned whale.
True, the lovemaking wasn’t perfect. He didn’t enjoy when she took her dentures off and plopped them in a blue-green highball glass. Then, too, her brittle skin was rotting, and, in places, covered in grisly scabs. Finally, she put him through an exhausting bedroom boot-camp of sorts. Still, he clung to the relationship. It helped him maintain sanity in a world that had seemingly abandoned him.
It was around this time that Parker’s grandmother invited all her relatives to a 95th birthday party. Parker wasn’t exactly thrilled. Little nephews gnawing at his shoes. Great aunts stuffing extra rolls into giant purses. His grandpa farting and then blaming the Nazis.
Parker invited Betsy. She tried to get out of it. Claimed she had an intolerable pain in her lower vertebrae. But Parker would not be swayed, since, as far as he was concerned, her lower vertebrae had been hurting since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Again she demurred, claiming she wanted to visit an acting friend in the Catskills. Parker didn’t care. He told her flat out that if she didn’t show up he wouldn’t see her anymore.
Betsy put on a cocktail dress, used plenty of wrinkle cream, had her hair blown out, and tried to sit up straight. Still, she looked utterly fossilized.
The evening began sanely enough. Everyone mingled and made small talk; there were lousy jokes about dentists and religion; one cousin had a birthday, another an amusing anecdote about bumping into her sociology professor at a foam party in Cancun.
All was running rather smoothly until a guest congratulated Betsy on her 95th Birthday.
“That’s my girlfriend,” Parker said.
“I’m terribly sorry.”
“Does she look 95 to you?”
“Really. I didn’t mean any harm.”
Parker shook his head, shooing the poor girl away. As soon as the little waif left, Betsy turned her wheelchair towards the window, her face seemingly swarmed with shadows. She took a few of her anti-anxiety pills, swallowing them down rapidly with a tall glass of scotch.
“Now, now,” Parker said. “You survived a stint as a reporter in Saigon during the Vietnam War. Surely you can handle a little mix-up.”
“Of course darling. It’s just I don’t belong here. I’m an outsider.”
“Outsider? You fit in better than I do. And this is my family.”
She smiled at his quip. Looked out the window again. “You know I sometimes have trouble grasping what you see in me?”
“You’re absolutely stunning to me. A real princess. Now let’s try to make the best of this and later I’ll make you the grilled cheese.”
Parker had his mission. Survive the evening without losing his temper. The problem was as he pushed Betsy’s wheelchair around he overheard the comments.
His uncle smirked and whispered, “the kid likes corpses.”
To which his brother added, “when he sleeps with that old bag of bones isn’t it technically necrophilia?”
Meanwhile, his aunt chimed in with: “It’s just too bad dating an older woman hasn’t helped him mature!”
He’d thought his mother, above all, was in his corner. But she kept whispering to his aunt about her horrid embarrassment.
Finally, Parker got fed up, pulled his mother aside, and said: “I have feelings for Betsy. I know she’s not what you wanted, but, for your information, I’m in love.”
“In LOVE? Son, I want to be supportive. I do. It’s just this is a poor match—even for someone with your…peculiar limitations.”
Parker just walked away. After stepping outside for a bit he told himself it was best to stand back from it all. It was a grand theater, a social experiment, something to be amused by.
Groups behaved predictably. He was an easy target, a form of prey, and, among these conformists, these sheep pretending to be wolves, he was someone to put down. They needed him—needed prey to justify their attempts at seeming ravenous.
He understands the psychology of it all. And yet perhaps because he was a sensitive, thoughtful spirit whose life had not turned out as expected it all wounded him to the core.
He’d given his soul to art. Put everything on the line in order to achieve his ambitions. He’d sacrificed stability and the respect of his peers and to them, he was a nothing, an abject fool. The way they treated Betsy just made the bonfire of his disappointments burn that much brighter.
Sure he could grasp how they wanted more from him. But it wasn’t as if they were so noble. All night they talked about how to get cheap flights through discount sites like Kayak and the bottomless salad and free breadsticks at Olive Garden as if these trivialisms could generate a kind of paradise. They had such minimal ambitions. They subsisted in such a microcosm of what was possible.
Didn’t they understand that to doodle for him was to channel the divine? Didn’t they get that through acting he was trying to reinvent himself, make something tangible out of a crooked existence? Didn’t they comprehend that he had something to convey, to enact, to become?
Betsy was laughing. He could hardly believe it. A great thespian, a stage actress for the ages was deeply amused by his uncle’s low-brow humor.
“Hilarious,” she declared about a man who’d molested half his cousins! Yes. What a shtick! With the way he pulled down your pants in the laundry room and fondled you! He was practically the next Rodney Dangerfield!
She was living in a ridiculous fantasia, was as disconnected as the rest of his family from the truth. But he was not about to correct her. Better she holds onto her illusions. Better for the both of them.
On the hoopla went about his grandmother. Everyone made speeches and most of it seemed unbelievably phoney. They were each making sure they weren’t cut out the will; putting on a glittery show; they seemed to live for the appearance rather than substance behind it.
Finally, he stood up and said “grandma, everything you’ve heard tonight is bogus. Let’s face it, you’re a miserable louse!”
At this point, a few stragglers began to laugh. “What are you laughing at?” Parker asked. “I’m serious. Grandma just croaks already.” More laughter. He heard his mother cry out “he does standup in the city.” Other relatives seemed to nod, considering this all a strange repartee.
“STOP LAUGHING! I’M SERIOUS! YOU’RE ALL WAY TOO DEFERENTIAL TO THIS WRINKLED, SOUL-SUCKING DEMON!” The mood shifted. Every face in the room examined him with an icy glare. He smiled back. To hell with the conformist lies. To hell with the fake happiness and silly pettiness.
His uncle stood, grabbed Parker and lifted a threatening hand. He broke free, hissed at his uncle, turned to his grandma and said, “I HOPE YOU ROT IN HELL BITCH!” With that, he stormed out. There was a smattering of boos. His mother followed, checking to see he was okay. He was not. Nor had he been for a long time.
But he felt freer. More alive. Less burdened by the conventionality of others. Less willing to buy into this ridiculous masquerade.
The truth was that he loved his grandma. Loved her as much as anyone else at that party…but he hated the lie. The conformity. The cowardice. The silencing of his individuality by smug members of his tribe.
An hour later he got a call from his grandma. She had cut him out her will.
When Parker returned home he immediately reached for the doodling paper; his hand was soft now, delicate; there was a gentleness roaring out of him; a tranquility; a sense of peace and justice; the doodles emerged steadily, revealing his long-buried agony with a kind of otherworldly radiance.
Betsy showed up around midnight and they made love, her soft voice purring in the gloom. Soon they ended up in the kitchen, with him doodling once more on the breakfast island; even when surrounded by dirty dishes and ancient breakfast cereal boxes the doodles just roared out of him, one after the other, in a cacophony of necessity.
Betsy chuckled as she watched. He was a real artist. Nothing stopped him. He went all the way. He put it all out there. He let himself fail. He lived along the precipice.
That was what mattered. The rest of it was just fuel for the final confrontation. Just an impetus for a last dance. Just a bogus parade. The rest of it could not stop him.