Sweet Thyme Baby – 37


Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.


(Start at the Beginning of Sweet Thyme Baby)

(Click here to read Section 36 first)


Serena was three when Delight and Victor leased the house in Encino.


The house and all its furnishings – the leather couches and the chrome and glass dining table, the huge Leroy Niemen silk screen of Olympic skiers that hung in the entry, every dish in the cupboards –were part of the lease. The rented luxury made Dee feel she had wandered into someone else’s home and would soon be asked to leave. And two and a half years later, that was more or less what happened.


Victor too was impressed by the distance they’d come from a fruit and chicken ranch in Lodi. She knew the look of pride, his swagger. “I bet you never really thought it’d happen, but I did, I had faith in myself. You gotta have confidence or you’ll never get anywhere in this town.”


“This town” was wherever the language of movies was spoken. Though they lived in Encino in the San Fernando Valley and Dee’s movies were shot down the freeway in a renovated double car garage in Tarzana, it was still “the town” in the language of Victor and his new friends: Pico, the cameraman, Joey who handled the lights, the money man Alvin Chiang, assorted directors, and Forbidden Films lesser stars.


If Dee complained about the parade of strangers who shot pool in the rec room and smoked dope in the hot tub, who walked into the house without knocking and helped themselves to beers from the refrigerator, Victor told her to relax. “We’re one big family.” Dee was uncomfortable around her new cousins and the uncles who seemed to think that because they’d seen her naked, watched her making love or maybe even been her lover in a film, they had rights to her. A pat on the ass, a salacious aside: she wanted none of it. When she wasn’t making movies she wanted to be treated like a Carmelite.


“Lighten up,” Victor told her. “We only go around once.”


And this was it?


Maybe if she had liked cocaine more or if pot had not put her to sleep, it would have been easier to tolerate the men and girls who sunned by her pool, drank at her bar and played poker in the den with Victor. Sometimes they watched movies made by the competition and hooted and dissed the stars. Delight imagined other men and women across the valley watching her movies and saying she had a koochy big enough to drive a truck through.


Valium helped. There was a doctor in Encino who kept her well supplied; and with her pills and Jack Daniels, she got through most days and nights.


“But I worry what it’s like for Serena, all these drugs around and the bad language –.”


“Don’t worry about Serena. She’s a baby. Babies don’t notice anything.”


She was three, somber eyed and no longer a throwback. She had the dark seductive looks Gramps had called nigger French, sleepy eyes and a mouth that was prematurely ripe. Dee tried but could not keep her away from visitors to the Encino house. It made her angry when the women painted her toenails and the men said, “Come on, honey, gimme some sugar.”


Serena did not seem to like these attentions either. She was not a friendly or outgoing child, preferring to play alone in her bedroom constructing towers of multicolor plastic blocks and knocking them over, dressing and undressing her Barbie, turning the pages of books she could not read but staring at the pages as if by concentration and repetition she could unlock the secrets of the black squiggles. She followed the rules, picked up after herself when she was told and rinsed her cereal bowl, never ventured outdoors without an adult. Reville Road was three lanes of traffic a few blocks off the San Fernando Freeway, and the swimming pool filled most of the backyard. In some ways, Dee would have preferred to raise Serena in Lodi, among the fruit trees.


In Lodi no one had ever stopped her when she ran outside, never called her back or told her to be careful. The screen door slammed behind her, and a dog named Tip or Scamp or King ran at her heels to the edge of the front yard. In Lodi it was safe to sit on the fence and wave at passing cars. Neighbors on their way to work waved back at her. In the afternoons she stood on a crate and learned how to make change for Gram when customers stopped at the roadside stand to buy fresh nectarines and jars of homemade apricot jam. Breakfast in the summertime was sugared bread and sliced nectarines soaked in warm milk. She wished Serena could splash in the irrigation ditches as she had and not in black pool with a mosaic of a naked woman sprawled across the bottom.


One day in Westwood she was coming out of the hairdresser’s and almost ran into Eddie Mann. He took her to lunch at Bacci’s and offered to introduce her to the director, Robert Altman. “He’s a good client and I’ve mentioned you to him. Let me set up a meeting.”


“Victor’d feel like I was cheating on him.”


“You can screw on camera but you can’t have a business lunch with one of the best directors of our time? Come on, Delight. You’re a smart girl. Does that make sense?”


“Maybe if I could bring Victor too?”


Eddie Mann shook his head.


After the first year they had renewed the lease on the Encino house although Victor complained that the pool area was cramped. He wanted, he needed a real projection room. And a view. A view was essential.


She asked him why. “You’d never look at it.”


“In this town, the better the view, the bigger the bucks. The valley’s nothing.”


Dee was folding towels, big ones, jewel-colored and as plush as carpeting.


She said, “When we signed the lease I got talking to the realtor in the ladies’ room and she said the owner would sell if we offered him the right price.” Gradually they would replace the furniture with pieces they chose themselves. She would get to know the neighbors and Serena might make friends. The old lumber and sheets of corrugated plastic in the side yard could be hauled to the dump and a swing set brought in. Serena would like a sandbox and a playhouse with real glass in the windows. “We have the money right now, and it’d be like an investment. The realtor said property is going to go way up in the valley –.”


“And a view house in Beverly Hills is gonna go up even further.”


“I’m never going to make Beverly Hills kind of money.”


“You’re doing great. I could book you for personal appearances every Saturday night for a year.” Chiang had persuaded Victor to become a promoter for Forbidden Films.


She groaned. “I hate those gigs. The way the guys look at me.”


“Let ‘em look. Looks don’t hurt you.”


“I don’t want to be a pinup girl for guys in raincoats. I get sick of doing it in front of people. I know you tell me just take a pill, have a drink, but I can’t always do that. Pretend.”


“That sighing and moaning, that’s not pretend?”


“I mean I can’t always go somewhere else in my mind.” So many towels. Why did they need so many for just the three of them? “I saw Eddie Mann the other day.”


“We’d be living in Beverly Hills right now if you hadn’t listened to that shyster.”


She wanted to defend Eddie Mann but why make the effort when Victor would not listen.


“What did you talk about?”


“He wants me to have lunch with Robert Altman.”


She watched for his first, flash reaction to her words, the instant before his expression settled into contrived neutral. If she read it right she might be able to sidestep his resentment by framing her argument just so. She saw he was ticked off that Eddie had offered her something he couldn’t, but he was curious too.


“I told him I wasn’t really interested. I’m no actress.” She turned away to put soap in the washing machine, pausing a beat. “I told him, I never wanted to be in the movies in the first place. I explained how you’re the one who wants to be a director. You have the talent, not me.”


“Jesus, are you stupid, Dee? Why would you turn down Robert Altman? Jesus fucking Christalmighty, you must be stupid. Give me one good reason –.”


“I wouldn’t know what to say to him. You know I can’t make conversation.”


“That’s why you’ve got me. I’m the talker. All you have to do is smile and look sexy.”


She wanted to meet Robert Altman, to do a test, to be luminous for someone besides a theater full of men with sticky palms, but she couldn’t show Victor how she felt. All those hours making movies for Forbidden hadn’t been a complete waste. Despite what she said, she knew she was good at pretending. And what was pretending if not a step or two from acting? She might even be good at acting if someone like Robert Altman helped her. But she wouldn’t do it without Victor’s support. They’d been together all their lives. They had a daughter. They were a team just like she’d told Eddie Mann.


“Call Mann. Tell him you changed your mind.”


Please, she thought. Please understand.


“He only wants to see me.”


Victor opened his mouth and then closed it.


“I told him we’re a package deal.”


“And he said no.”


She nodded.


Victor walked into the kitchen. One of the glass panes on the liquor cabinet was loose and rattled when he opened it.


There was a chance that once his pride got over being hurt, Victor would see that if Altman put her in a movie, they would both win. They might be able to afford that house in the hills with a view that announced they had arrived.


Victor slammed an ice tray against the sink.


Once Altman might have found him a place as an AD, but Victor had given up all pretense of being a director. And the movies she was doing now were better because he wasn’t fussing with lighting or telling her how to say inspired dialog like No man’s ever satisfied me. What makes you think you can? If Victor could just be honest with himself he would admit that he liked being a promoter more than directing. Schmoozing and back slapping and buying drinks were Victor’s talent.


She was setting up the ironing board when he came back. She smiled as if there were no problem between them but there was. His dark eyes – Serena’s eyes – were large and heavy with hurt.


“I remember back a few years, you never would have done anything to cause me pain.”


“I wasn’t going to tell you. I was just going to let it pass.”


“But you had to. You just couldn’t keep your little prize to yourself.”


“It wasn’t like that.”


“You think those guys – Altman and all – want to cultivate your talent? Think again. That lawyer’s got the hots for you. That’s your card and you didn’t play it. And don’t tell me it never crossed your mind. I know you, Dee. If you wanted me to get a break you could have talked Mann into it, we could have both met Altman. I’da pitched some of my ideas, good ideas. You think I don’t have good ideas, Dee? You ashamed of me, is that it?” He was just talking now, venting. “I think you’re just fucking greedy. You want the cookies for yourself.”


Victor was partly right. She did want a chance to be alone with Altman. She wanted to talk about her aspirations without Victor butting in every other sentence, hogging attention and putting words in her mouth. And yes, she was ashamed of him sometimes. He talked too much, too boastfully. She loved him, but he embarrassed her.


“You’re a selfish bitch.”


“That’s not fair, I’d never cut you out.”


“I don’t believe you.”


“I want a chance, Victor. Maybe I could make it. Maybe I could be a star.”


“Are you kidding? You think you’re an actress? Jesus, Dee, get it straight. You’re tits and holes. That’s it.”


Her eyes burned and filled with tears.


“Mommy?” Serena stood in the kitchen door in her Snow White shorty pajamas, her hair a dark nest of tangles, a scab of dried strawberry jam on her cheek. “Can I go swimming?”


“Watch TV,” Victor said. “Your mom and me are talking.”


Serena put her fingers in her mouth.


“Don’t do that, honey, you’ll ruin your teeth. I’ll get you dressed in a minute.”


Now” She hung on Dee’s leg, rocking.


“You heard Daddy, watch TV for a bit.”


“I wanna swim now.


Victor took a step toward her.


Dee stepped between them. “You can pick on me all you want, but leave her out of it.”


He shoved Dee back against the ironing board. “Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”




He held his fist an inch from Dee’s face. “Mr. Robert Altman wouldn’t be so hot for you if I smashed your face in.”


Dee grabbed the iron and held it up. Steam hissed between them. Victor recoiled.


“You know what that lawyer is? He’s a pimp. And when Altman’s done with you, he’ll fuck you himself.”


“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”


“Go have lunch and when you come back the locks’ll be changed and your clothes’ll be on the driveway and Serena’s going to be inside with me where you can’t get her.”


Dee picked Serena up and cradled her dark head against her shoulder. “This could be a chance for me, for our family. And you’d ruin it because you’re jealous. That’s what it is. You envy me this.”


Serena screamed as he grabbed her away from Dee. Dee wanted to take her back but that would only have frightened her so she let her go into her father’s arms, let her cry, let him comfort her and be the good guy.


Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.


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