Is it already 4:20 in the afternoon? Click here: Motion FX 2012-01-14 at 3.21.55 PM
The night before I got the phone call, I was in a girl’s apartment listening to her life story. The rule is, if you can listen long enough, or look like you’re listening intensely enough, you’re in. This time though, my patience wasn’t paying off. It was past one and she looked sleepy.
In another minute or two she was going to say she had an early morning or that I should get going since the subways closed in another hour. Toronto’s late November wind whipped up outside. I’d be walking in another minute. It was time for one last pitch — The Pitch…
~ From the opening of Cuthian’s Wake in Sex, Death & Mind Control (for fun and profit) by Robert Chazz Chute
Here’s the first story from Self-help for Stoners, Stuff to Read When You’re High.
Legs Gabrielle Breaks Out
As you roll into town, you find yourself babbling to Chili about the sights, such as they are. “There’s where I went to elementary school. There’s the bank. There’s the high school football field. Under those bleachers is where I let my first boyfriend disappoint me horribly.”
“I recognize that line,” Chili says.
“Oh, look, there’s the town post office…in case you forgot how to read signs on the flight down here.”
“Thanks, boss. All small towns look alike to me, but maybe Poeticule Bay seems a little familiar because of your act.”
“This is the epicenter of what was, Chill. The nadir before the zenith, the shit before the flush.”
“Whatever you say.” Chili steers the Escalade into a parking spot. He’s flummoxed when he sees no parking meter. “I grew up in Chicago and moved to L.A. as soon as I could. I’ve never been to a town so small.”
“No parking meters and not one traffic light. It’s super rural Maine. Think Amish but without the Amish flair for technological progress and fun on a Saturday night.”
“Yeah, yeah. My town is so small…”
“How small is it?”
“My home town is so small — ” you begin.
“I know! I know! No bigger than my dick!”
This is old material but you both laugh. As your friend, bodyguard and general do-all, one of Chili’s duties is to keep up morale. And you need that now. You need it hard, so you don’t mind his phony chuckle at all.
Chili punches a button and unlocks your door. “You sure you don’t want me to go in and pick up the flowers, boss?”
“Nope. I’m in no rush to get home. I can’t show up without flowers or my sister won’t start off with ‘Hello, it’s been ages.’ She’ll start off with, ‘Where’s the fucking flowers?’”
“Lovely,” Chili says.
When you step out from behind the safety of the Escalade’s tinted windows, people freeze. Something has changed. The few people on the street, young and old, all have cell phones. That’s new. And they’re all whipping them out to take pictures of you. Just like home.
You glance back through the open door and you can tell Chili’s irritated. He’s used to walking ahead of you, a massive muscled arm out front, ushering you through the world. You think, where were you when I was walking through the gauntlet of mean girls in high school? But that’s old material, too, so it’s time to let it go and keep that stuff between you and your therapist from now on.
The girl behind the counter goes stiff as you walk in. You smile and ask for a dozen yellow roses. She doesn’t move. She stares, brain gears grinding.
“Yes,” you say as gently as you can. “I’m her.” You produce a fifty. “Tell everybody I pulled that bill out of my bra and you can probably sell it on eBay to some creepy whacko.” That makes her laugh and has the added benefit of getting her skull engine in gear.
A crowd gathers outside in the time it takes the girl to get the roses from the fridge. The telephone tree must be working, alerting the villagers that the monster they made here has returned. You grab the roses, tell her to keep the change and breeze back into the truck without getting sucked into any smiles or allowing someone to grab your hand. The trick is to move with purpose, smile and keep moving. “Hi! Hi! Gotta go! Sorry! Bye!” Rinse, repeat. Ad infinitum.
“Legs! Legs!” someone implores from the sidewalk, but Chili already has the Escalade in gear.
You wonder if you managed to strike the right note of decorum since you’re home for a funeral. Once, after a night on the red carpet, a couple of movie critics wrote, “Legs tries to make her smile look friendly, but her eyes just say, ‘Nyah, nyah-ni-nyah, nyah!’”
Like always, Chili says the right thing at just the right time. “Home town girl makes good.”
You give him a wry smile. You wish the voice in your head was so kind. “You know better than that. Just as often it’s, ‘I knew her in high school and she wasn’t so funny.’ Or, ‘I thought she was taller.’ Or ‘Who does she think she is?’ Turn left at the next stop sign, Chil.”
“That’s just words,” Chili says as he turns the wheel. “A little mean, maybe, but better than all those dudes peeking in windows or climbing fences.”
“I know. So many sperm donors, so little time. And not enough condoms, penicillin and flea collars in the world.” You watch for his teeth in the rear-view mirror, but you do better than a smile. He throws his head back as he laughs and you know it’s
real. One of the things you love about Chili is his reactions have to be honest. He was a terrible actor before he was your bodyguard.
“On the right with the big oak tree in the front yard.”
“The one that —?”
“I swore I’d hang myself from if I didn’t get to go to prom, yeah.”
When you spot The Little Beige House of Parental Tyranny, the anxiety rises. Out of reflex, you look for some gratification from your audience of one. “The courts should have a dedicated hotline to expedite paperwork for celebrities hounded by stalkers. Like…1-800-RESTRAINING ORDER.”
Chili laughs politely.
“A swing and a miss, huh?”
Chili shrugs. “The troubles of the overly privileged probably won’t play well in the red states.”
“Maybe if I do the East Indian call center voice and amp it up.”
“Hey, hey! Girl with dead father here! Girl with dead father who signs your exorbitant checks!”
“Sounds great, boss.”
“Nah, you were right the first time.” Before you reach for the passenger door, you reach over the seat and squeeze his shoulder.
Then photographers emerge, two from parked cars across the street and two from behind a hedge.
“I stay away from this town since I was eighteen years old and this is the thanks I get,” you say. You wanted to put more breeze and bounce in your delivery, but instead you sound like you discovered a dead squirrel at the bottom of your shampoo bottle.
“Go straight inside,” Chili says. “I’ll do my big and black thing.”
“Careful. They’re rural. They’ll be more than suitably terrified. You might kill them with a hard look.”
“Only if you want me to, boss.”
Walking into the house should have worked fine but the front door is locked. The cameras click away behind you as you stand on the porch ringing and ringing the doorbell. When Jacqui finally lets you in, your cheeks are burning. The headline will read: Legs Gabrielle, Not Welcome.
“Hey,” Jacqui says.
You hug her. It’s like putting your arms around a fire hydrant in January. “Hi, sis. I tried to call on the way from the airport.”
“The phone keeps ringing. I finally took it off the hook.”
Jesus, you think. Incommunicado? Really? I either come from an alien culture or I left to live among aliens. “Keep the door open a hair,” you say. “Chili will be here in a minute.”
“You brought people? I really don’t think that’s appropriate, Sheila. Couldn’t you have left your entourage —?”
“Chili is a big guy, but he’s only one guy. You start calling him my ‘entourage’ and he’s going to start feeling self-conscious about his weight.”
“Ha,” Jacqui says. “Ha.” Bloodless.
“So we’re already fighting?” you say. “Is that the plan? I just came for a funeral. I left my boxing gloves and slingshots in my party clutch purse.”
Chili fills the doorway and gives your little sister his sweetest smile. To her shock, he gives her a kiss on both cheeks before he says anything at all. Damn him, you can tell he’s genuine. That’s not Hollywood horseshit. The bastard is sweet and means it.
When he sees your jaw hanging open, he guesses, correctly, that it’s up to him for the formal introduction. “Chili Gillie,” he says. His high voice always takes newcomers off guard. He has the look, but that high voice of his didn’t get him past a first audition unless it was a seriously bad no-budget comedy. “Your sister calls me her handsome, hairless assistant, but I’m just here to help out. You need anything, you let Chili know.”
Jacqui nods and you can almost see her knees turning to warm wax. Chili has this effect on both women and men. He’s effortlessly charming. Sometimes he makes you wish you were a gay guy, too, but Chili’s so smooth, he’d cheat on you within a week.
“The funeral is at three. I didn’t think you’d get here in time,” Jacqui says. “It wouldn’t have looked good for your fans if you missed your own father’s service.”
The way she hits the word “fans” makes clear she thinks people who like your brand of humor are idiots and she’s no idiot. They way she said “your own father” makes your upper lip curl, too. She must be a bitch on wheels with those luckless third graders she teaches.
“I’m very sorry for your loss,” Chili tells Jacqui.
Again, you look at Chili in awe. It would never have occurred to you to answer your sister’s passive aggression with kind words. The family pattern has always been: when somebody sticks a knife in your back, pull it out and have a knife fight.
You sit in the den, the room that, on stage and in high school, you often called “Dad’s Petty Fiefdom of Horrors.” You look around the room. It looks the same. “When you last saw him, did Dad say anything?”
Jacqui sits behind Dad’s desk, like this is a job interview. “The last I saw Dad, all he said was that we were out of bread and that I should bring home a loaf after work. Those were his last words,” Jacqui says.
You look at the pictures on the mantel: Dad in his navy uniform; Mom just before she died; Jacqui in a cap and gown, holding her diploma. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of pictures of you out in the world. Not one has somehow squeezed into this room.
“Maybe those weren’t his last words,” you say. “Maybe he got a call from a telemarketer and got to tell somebody off one more time before his stroke. That would be nice for him.”
Jacqui looks sour.
“We can hope,” you shrug.
Before you two can start bickering, Chili picks up the picture of your father in his dress whites. “He was a handsome man. Will there be a picture like this at the service? It’s a good picture. Or…will there be a viewing?”
“Viewing? Oh. No. My father’s already been cremated.”
My father, you note. Not our father. Well, maybe that’s kind of appropriate. When this was your childhood home, it certainly wasn’t “Our father who art in heaven.” It was “Our father who art always pissed because what the baby of the family thinks is funny is really too much back-sass.”
When you come back from the Land of Lost in Thought, you can tell Chili has been busy melting your sister’s knees again. His charm is a blowtorch as long as he doesn’t have to fake it for a movie audition.
Jacqui makes him tea in the kitchen. You hear her say, “How does one get a name like Chili?”
“One gets it because Gillie was the name I was born with. I got saddled with William at birth. Now, William’s a nice name. But Willy Gillie? Ridiculous.”
“Did you choose Chili because of that character John Travolta played in that movie?”
“Used to tend bar in a Mexican restaurant,” he says.
She giggles, which you can’t remember her ever doing. Chili is your No Man’s Land between what you were and what everybody thinks you are now.
The house smells the same. It’s not a bad smell. It’s just that every home’s smell is a distinct mixture of the people who live there. There’s a bit in there somewhere and you dig out your notebook. Something like, “Every house smells different. My childhood home smells like a blend of daffodils, fear and the sweat of racists.” After another moment’s thought, you scratch out “blend” and pencil in “dour cornucopia”.
But you remind yourself you’re trying to move away from that kind of material. Go back to the same well too many times and you go from bitter-funny to shtick-funny to maligned hack. You take more notes: If I keep my game up, I’ll be a has-been faster than I can say, “Remember me? I thought it would last forever but fame went so quickly I’m now considering taking up an addiction so I can get on a shitty reality show. I’ve never done meth but I’m willing to learn. Please love me.” Shaky start and too long around the bases for a home run…but that “Please love me”? That has potential for a bit.
As worried as you are about repeating the small-town American mind material, the hardcore fans love that stuff. The fans want more of the same. Everyone is in love with preconceptions, so a little small-town mindset lives in everybody. Your agent, Mort, wants you to make your onstage persona sweeter to show you’re growing and changing “into a range”.
“Persona? What persona?” you asked Mort, genuinely mystified. “That’s me on stage, you asshole. If I could pretend childhood pain this easy, I’d have three Oscars already.”
Mort wants you to move from the quirky pretty girl to the lead in a couple of rom-coms next year. He has you seeing a nutritionist to make you angry and anorexic; working out with a personal trainer to make you so buff women will hate you; and talking with a therapist to transform you from a bitter, hilarious stand-up comic into a much less funny, neurotic actress who men will find “sexy instead of scary.” That could work. Or maybe you should fire Mort’s ass and torch his Porsche.
When you look up from your notebook, Chili pokes his head into the den and his face says, “Help me!” Before you can say anything, he excuses himself to field phone calls. The bastard’s running away. You had to wait years before you could run away.
Jacqui comes back into the den. She carries her teacup to Dad’s desk. “Are you and Chili…?” she says coolly.
“Constantly. He exhausts me. But when you pay for it, man-whores have to deliver every time.”
What is it about coming home that makes you rabid about riffing? You can’t seem to help yourself. So you resolve to play nice. You take a deep breath. “Jacqui, I have a secret to share with you.”
“The last weekend before I left home was Labor Day weekend. You and Dad went up to the cabin and I had this great idea. I promised myself I was going to make it to Hollywood and make it big. I wanted to commemorate the beginning of my career, so I found a case in the attic and I made a time capsule. I buried it — ”
“In the corner of the garden. I know,” Jacqui says.
You have one of those rare moments when your brain empties out so fast, the wind makes a whooshing sound and you have no idea what to say. The inside of your skull feels like it’s lined with peppermint gum.
“You didn’t bury it very deep. It came up a little. The frost heaved it up three years ago. Dad was upset. He looked for that aluminum case for a long time before he spotted it planting beans. He was sure you had stolen it before you took off, which, I guess you did.”
“I was eighteen,” you say.
“Dad took you to the lake and left me to my own devices. It-it seemed like a grand gesture before the big expedition.”
“I was only nineteen,” Jacqui says, “but I would never have done that.”
And the silence stretches out. Your sister, it occurs to you, was born middle-aged. Risking nothing, she had never made any mistakes. That tragic level of success had made Jacqui unbearably smug. She didn’t have any funny stories, like the one about the manager who sent you to a porn audition. Or how you got a new manager and you had to fire her for doing the same thing.
“I have stuff in the time capsule I want,” you say.
“I know,” Jacqui says. She sips her tea, pinky out.
“Did you go through it?”
“The songs? And the jokes? Yeah. I can see why you want them back.”
You take a few more deep breaths. Chili is still in the backyard, off the battlefield. “The case. Where is it?”
“Yeah, about that,” Jacqui says. “Dad was angry.”
“Royally pissed, you mean. As I recall, he had no other emotional settings.” (And critics say you don’t have range.)
“Royally pee-o’d, yes,” Jacqui says primly. “He never got over you taking the tuition money to run off to California. Hollyweird, he called it.”
“My gamble worked out, don’t you think?”
“Yes. You were very lucky, Sheila. Dad called you Lottery Girl.”
You sigh. “Earlier you asked how Chili got his name. Did you ever wonder how I got mine?” Before she can answer, you add, “If you use the word ‘spreading’, I’ll make you eat that teacup and you’ll choke on the saucer.”
She shrugs. She puts the teacup down and to the side of the desk, away from you.
“Did you watch my first HBO special?”
“I saw it on DVD eventually,” Jacqui says. “Dad couldn’t get through the first half when it was on TV. You went off to your glamorous life and made a mint tearing down your hometown, burning down your family. We had to stay here, Sheila. You embarrassed us. Dad and I lost friends.”
“I guess you couldn’t make very good friends, then. I would have thought Dad would be more worried about losing a daughter.” You take another breath. You feel hot, like the air is going out of the room. “Mom would have laughed her ass off at my act. You were always Daddy’s little girl and I was Mom, but shorter. I wish she were here now.”
Chili comes in, too late. “You want me to dig that thing out of the garden, boss?”
“Apparently I didn’t bury the body deep enough, Chili. Dad dug it up already.”
“You should have seen it, Chili,” Jacqui says. “All that teen angst stuffed into one case smelled pretty sour.”
“Hm,” Chili says.
“Jacqui was just wondering how I got my show biz name, Chili.”
“Not desperately,” your sister says.
Chili smiles. “Few think to ask. I mean, look at her.” He gestures your way. “They see your sister’s gams and think her nickname is too obvious.”
“I wanted to be called Gams Gabrielle,” you say, “but the only focus group that liked that was from the 1920s, so Legs it was.”
Chili ignores you and pushes on. “Management never disabused anyone of the sexy assumption. In fact, for every tour and press jacket and movie, they put her in shorter and shorter skirts. Driving home the Legs Gabrielle brand, you know?”
Chili opens his custom double-breasted suit and squats to perch his bulk on the ottoman. The room looks like it has shrunk around him. “But the truth is different,” he continues. “The boss went on her first audition. She comes in cracking jokes. Your sister’s got more charisma in her little toe than most actors put out there in a year with a staff of five writers to make them look clever. On camera or on stage, your sister doesn’t know nervous.”
Jacqui looks at you, but she still sees the brat who ran off to Hollyweird. Dad’s been drilling that image into her head for eight years.
“The boss goes through the audition and everybody’s breathless. She flipped the table around. You know what that means?”
Jacqui shakes her head, but her face says she doesn’t care.
“To flip the table around in an audition means that the person auditioning isn’t getting judged. Instead, the boss was in the position of deciding whether the movie is good enough for her to bother. First audition and she stands out that far. Everybody knows instantly that your sister is going to be huge. They expect pretty, but they never expect pretty to be married up with that smart and really funny.”
Chili can see that Jacqui isn’t impressed, but he presses on. “Sheila became Legs Gabrielle that afternoon. The director turned to the producer and said, ‘Triple threat.’” Chili looks at you with shining eyes. You wish your father could have faked that look just once. “The director says, ‘Sheila, your career is going to have legs. We just have to change your name and you’re a shining golden goddess.”
“Lipshitz was great for stand-up…” you say.
“Lipshitz is a burden,” Jacqui says. “But Legs Gabrielle made it worse.”
“Thanks for telling her, Chili. If I’d told it, she might have thought I was bullshitting. Around here it seems I have another name: Lottery girl.”
A cloud crosses Chili’s face. “But lottery implies luck, not talent.”
“Oh, you’ve done very well for yourself,” Jacqui admits.
But why add “for yourself”? Does that imply you should have brought her out west so her sneering could have point-blank impact?
“So can I have my stuff?” you ask.
Jacqui shifts in her seat and, before she can say anything, you’ve guessed. “Dad destroyed everything in my time capsule, didn’t he?”
Jacqui breaks into a huge smile. “Dad was more creative than you ever gave him credit for. You didn’t get it all from Mom.”
Chili is already getting up and buttoning up.
“Dad got cremated. You’ll be able to visit his ashes, along with the ashes of your little time capsule, at the family plot. I suppose if you want to retrieve your hateful little jokes and song lyrics, you could sift through them at the cemetery. Bring a shovel to dig up the urn. The photographers would sure enjoy that.”
You’re so stunned you don’t move. Chili’s standing beside you, hand out, pleading with his eyes to get the hell out of here.
“You should also know, Sheila, that Dad was so pissed, you aren’t in the will at all. You might have been had you called more often.”
You clear your throat and stand to tower over her. “I asked you to get Dad to come to my show when I was on tour many times. He could never tear himself away from his garden. Or did he even get half of my messages?”
Jacqui goes white and says quietly, “Am I to expect you to get a bunch of high-priced lawyers to fight Dad’s bequest to me?”
You consider that for just a moment and then shake your head. “Honey, I’m going to get much more material out of the half hour I’ve been here. Financially speaking? I will make a metric fuck ton of cash off you forever. Emotionally? Eviscerating you over and over on stage will be worth much more money than anything Dad could leave me. You just bought me another mansion in the Hollywood Hills, bitch.”
At the door you turn back and take the framed picture of your mother. Jacqui looks like she might run at you for it, but changes her mind when you hand it to Chili. “I’ll just take this with me,” you say. That’s all I need now. From Mom I got my sense of humor. From you and Dad, all I ever got was all the emotional pain that fuels my success.”
Hands balled into fists, Jacqui screams, “Don’t bother calling if you ever need a kidney!”
You smile. “That’s funny, Jacqui. There might be hope for you yet. Of course, if I ever need a kidney, I’ll just have you killed.”
You’re out the door, steaming for the Escalade. Chili rushes ahead and opens the door for you. He keeps the photographers back, but they jump to shoot around him.
The headlines will read: Too verklempt to attend her father’s funeral. But the real fans will forgive you that. Tears of anguish stream down your face. This will be good for your brand.
People call it Hollyweird, but it’s no stranger than any small town in America. If you look closely, celebrities are very much like actual human beings.
~ Self-help for Stoners, Stuff to Read When You’re High proves there’s no such thing as a bad trip. In this strange collection of dark fiction, you’ll find challenging ideas to contemplate, to take your (herbal or non-herbal) meditation deeper and to take your life higher. Through lies, find truth.
~ Also by Robert Chazz Chute: Sex, Death & Mind Control (for fun and profit). In this collection of short fiction (including two award-winners!) each story delivers a surprise gut-punch. Combine three of your favorite things, mix in some intriguing how-to, and you’ve got a book that tells you it will surprise you. Then the magic trick: it will surprise you anyway.