by Nate Lippens
Her agent told me not to say ghostwriting. Probably not to say writing at all. I’m her assistant, her arranger. When those words were floated out, I rolled my eyes and gritted my teeth, but like every whore before me, I thought of the money. Arranger. It sounds like I’m Nelson Riddle. Or some fool helping shape a cabaret act for a musty, upholstered room uptown, where the chanteuse can’t sing a single song in its original key. That’s probably as true if not more so of the memoirist I’m nannying. She was a minor character actress nominated for a major award thirty years ago, who parlayed her slop-bucket style of performance into camp and worked with several hip, marginal filmmakers in the years when that kind of thing mattered. She secured her a spot in the hearts of every queen of a certain vintage, and she has milked that ever since, giving talks and lectures and appearing at tatty film festivals where the dregs of fandom line up to snap pictures with her. As my Southern friends would say: Bless her heart.
Right now she’s in Santa Fe, allegedly on a working holiday, writing some notes after long restorative days. Since most of the work on her book has consisted of the notes I take when she calls me late at night half-soused, I doubt she is getting anything memoir-related done, but she is getting de-soused and de-loused by a twenty-day cleanse. From what she’s told me, it sounds like a high-priced dry-out with plenty of meds and massages to squeeze out the toxins. My hope is that her cleansed state will open a brief window of clarity so we can get some work done. I’m on the hook to bring this whale to shore by October. Everyone involved knows that the amount of legal wrangling and rewriting and editing will take a while. Her publisher supposedly wants to time the book with the thirtieth-anniversary re-release of her most notable film. But after five minutes on the phone with her in the middle of a listless Sunday night, and a few hazily debauched scenes cobbled together on note cards, I can see the plan is hopeless.
I’m watching one of her movies; an older one from the ’80s, when the parts she was offered had been winnowed to matrons at women’s prisons, reclusive widows with dark secrets, and criminal matriarchs. This one is of the latter category. She heads a gang of gunrunners in the ’40s. I know nothing of cars but even I can tell that there are a few in the road shots that are the wrong vintage. The ancient DVD hiccups and freezes. A message comes on the screen: Skipping over damaged area. This in many ways is the perfect motto for wrangling stories out of the actress. Not that she has been shy about her excesses. She has willingly spilled the stream of abjection such a project depends on: sex and drugs in every mixture and combination. I’ve tried to wade through her war-horse stories, the ancient rickety ones she has told and retold for so many years that they’ve hardened. Trying to heat them up and soften their surfaces so we can get a little more has proven difficult.
“Not that,” she has said when I try to work out some kind of emotional angle. “That’s too depressing.” Depressing is anything involving her first husband and the daughter she left behind when she fell in love on a shoot in Mexico. Depressing is the friend who died of an overdose in her bathtub, slipping beneath the surface and turning junked blue. Depressing are the crash-and-burn affairs and the LSD she dropped before the major awards ceremony and the arrest in Spain for a domestic dispute with a married lover’s wife. A fistfight in a bar in Douglas, Arizona. Car wreck with one dead in California.
What I do get: hash brownies and mushrooms with a minor almost-heartthrob that led to a lousy handjob in his sports car; a director, old enough to be her grandfather, who tried to fuck her in his trailer on location in Florida; her time as a teenage runaway in New York, and a ménage with a famous theater couple that led to a bit role in one of the latter dramas of a once-great playwright; the summer she fled Hollywood for Northern California where she worked as a bar maid in a biker bar. These stories are told with a mixture of tough-gal bravado, namedropping, and shamelessness. She ends up the plucky survivor of all these wild dalliances and troubled times, an adventurer who lands each tale with a punchline or a shrug. Nothing deeper. No throughline. It’s as if she is reincarnated after each story to fight another day and live to tell the tale.
I say that from a place not of judgment but of recognition. I wrote a series of semi-autobiographical stories years ago that mined similar territory––runaways, drugs, bad romances, a little prostitution, and a lot of swagger. They also lacked real resonance. My fictional stand-ins always knew the score and had a ready quip. They were nobody’s fool. The stories were written over a feverish year when I thought I was changing my life and getting serious about my ambitions. They were published at a sluggish crawl over the next two years in obscure literary journals with clever author bios. Mine listed my birthplace, my other publications, and my current city where I was “based” all in a dry, truncated obit style. It was appropriate because my little stories landed mostly d.o.a., and by the time the last one was published I was cranking out music reviews and band interviews for a weekly fishwrapper on the West Coast, writing in the style of a smug high school newspaper and nursing my wounded pride and broken dreams with gin and tonics and sedatives.
Those stories were my big selling point to the actress. Or probably they were the business card for the life behind them. She wanted someone who would get her. I fit the bill for the modest paycheck. Coming off several bad years, I needed it too. Desperately. I watched as many of her movies and read anything I could find, and thought I had a good feel for her life before we met.
The actress came to New York for some sort of business. I was nervous and eager but playing it cool. Over a late lunch in a smallish once-hip neighborhood bistro we sussed each other out. Or more like she took a look at me and thought: He’ll do. It was an awkward semi-formal date. I thought I hadn’t done well and drowned my sorrows afterward, telling myself it would have been a nightmare anyway.
The next morning her agent called and said she wanted me. I was thankful but muted. I’d won something that I’d talked myself into losing and the win felt like a loss. Soon after, her late-night calls started up, with her zonked on weed, pills, and booze, and I began to keep a stack of notecards by my bed so I could scrawl down some of it.
In one of the first calls, she told me about puking on an avant-garde writer at a club in the late ’70s. A month ago, when the writer’s collected essays came out, he mentioned that night as an aside in a rather overlong reminiscence about downtown New York’s glory days. I told the actress that his relating of the incident would save a lawyer vetting it for publication. I thought she would be happy. She got upset instead. “Why does everyone have to steal my memories?”
Nate Lippens has published stories in Hobart, Queen Mob’s Tea House, and SAND Journal, among many others. He tweets at @NateLippens.
Image source via Creative Commons.