The photograph beneath the headline is probably ten years old: Jack Hearns grinning in front of a step and repeat banner at the premiere of some little-seen movie in which he’d played the protagonist’s lawyer. Larry looks it up on IMDB, and, yep, that waste of celluloid came out exactly a decade ago, apparently just before Jack Hearns hit a wall at the tail end of his autumn and age really sunk its claws into the flesh of his face. When Larry saw him out on the street last night, Jack had looked much older than in the photograph—puffy and wrinkled and totally gray, his swollen head like a bag of clay tied off at his collar. Almost unrecognizable from his heyday a quarter century ago, an admirable string of second-banana roles in prominent major-studio productions—dads and husbands, yuppie scumbags, against-type villains. But even in the dark shadows of the lamp-lit street, Larry recognized him on sight, the improbability of which likely accounted for Jack’s gape-mouthed expression of astonishment, standing frozen in place outside the door of that fancy sushi place Larry had never dared set foot in. Or maybe it was Jack’s leery reaction to the jolt that passed through Larry’s face and body when they’d locked eyes—a grim spasm of panic that Larry tried to cover with a friendly nod, his mouth screwed down atop his chin. The cover must have been unconvincing, and he could feel the weight of Jack’s gaze following him down the block as if Larry were the famous one, Jack the star-struck fan. Larry had always been good with faces.
And now, that makes eight of them.
Larry reads through the article a couple of times—breaking news on the Variety website, which Larry has been checking almost every hour since their encounter outside the sushi place, all through the night. Most of the words wash over him without registering, and he squints and shakes his tired head clear and scans it top to bottom to top again for any tell-tale keywords like “sudden” or “unexplained” or “supernatural.” And there it is in the third paragraph: sudden. A sudden illness leads to hospitalization leads to cardiac arrest, it’s all over before another sunrise, not even 18 hours after he and Larry crossed paths. Dead within a day. Just like the others. Car wrecks, plane wrecks, sleeping pill overdoses, aortic dissections. Dead.
The specter of that single word—sudden—sends Larry out of his chair like a William Castle shock seat. He paces over to the kitchen counter and paws at the ceramic cylinder sitting next to the toaster and fumbles it over the top of his fist, and it crashes onto the countertop with a crack, loud enough for him to think it has broken, the dishes in the sink rattling like a shotgun blast. He unlatches the clip and the lid pops open with a gasp. Empty inside except for three or four shrunken brown beans like mouse turds and a staticky garden of crumbs that has collected at the bottom.
Jesus, out of coffee. Of all nights to be out of coffee, the wet weather splashing outside, his nerves a jangled mess. Larry walks over to the window and peers down through a curtain of rain at Hollywood Boulevard. The blackness of the October night sky and the fog on the picture window of the Starbucks across the street fool his simple Midwestern brain into believing that it is something like forty degrees out instead of seventy-two, and a chill slices through the spaces between his bones, and he shivers. As dark and as quiet as midnight out there, but it’s still only eight o’clock. And that picture window across the street is all lit up, that green, two-tailed siren beckoning him inside. He can already feel the spicy, acidic snap on the roof of his mouth, the stinging warmth tracking down his throat—sweet, nourishing caffeine to salve him like only a highly addictive alkaloid can.
But should he risk stepping outside for something as frivolous as a cup of coffee given the very real possibility that he might kill again?
Before Larry moved to Los Angeles to work for a downtown software distributer—his first job out of college—he’d figured the rich and famous would be crawling everywhere like caricatures at Ciro’s in a prewar Merrie Melodies. But eleven months later, he has encountered only eight genuine celebrities: four on the street, one in the next car at a stoplight, one in an elevator, one in the restroom at Musso and Frank’s, and Jack Hearns in front of the sushi place. When Lou Kriss, the first of his encounters, dropped dead later that same evening, it struck him as a grim coincidence. After Kiki Dawes, his third, did the same, he was joking with his friends back home that he was responsible. By the time they’d found Syd Fremont powder blue on the floor of his hotel room, Larry was beginning to come unhinged—changing up his schedule and his habits, staying tucked away indoors except when absolutely necessary, his eyes to the ground out in public, looking no one in the face. And yet, even these safeguards were more like a ballplayer refusing to change his socks during a hitting streak or a kid avoiding the cracks of a sidewalk: half-serious, prophylactic tributes in deference to the inexorable gears of the universe.
But something about Jack Hearns turning up dead on his computer screen tonight has made any further denial of his ghastly burden impossible. And whether he is the minister of Death or merely his harbinger, Larry simply wouldn’t be able to handle even one more drop of innocent blood on his hands, especially in exchange for something as cheap as a hot cup of coffee on a rainy night.
But, hell, he can’t stay locked up in his apartment forever. He’ll have to go to work on Monday. He’ll have to go out for new beans sooner or later. And what safer time to make a run across the street than now, what with all this rain? What are the odds that, across the street and back, he happens upon one of the most famous people on all the earth? How likely would that be even in Hollywood?
Before he can talk himself out of it, he heads down the back stairs and steps outside. Pregnant drops of surprisingly cold water splatter the down of his unshaven face and drum nervous fingertips on the tabletop of his thick, brown hair, and he tiptoes out across the sidewalk like maybe he can simply sneak away from getting wet. This godforsaken desert underneath all this asphalt and concrete. Eerily quiet tonight. No people out, no cars. Just a million gleaming light bulbs left on, everybody gone from the house.
He jogs across the middle of the street—a sort of informal crosswalk he’s beaten down between his door and the coffee shop—and lunges inside. “Holy shit, I should’ve brought an umbrella,” he says and shakes the water off from his arms and stamps his feet on the fuzzy rubber mat, soaked through and mushy and slicked onto the tile. He orders a venti Pike from the guy behind the counter, whose nametag reads, Pierre.
“All right, brother. You want room with that?”
“Cool.” Pierre thrusts a paper cup beneath one of the brewer spigots and flips it down with the side of his hand. “You must really be needing a fix to be coming out here on a night like tonight.”
Larry laughs a phony kind of laugh and shoves his debit card into the chip reader. “I just live across the street.”
“Yeah, I see you in here a lot, across the street, I guess that explains it.” Pierre sets the cup on the counter before Larry with delicate care. “Here you go, man.” He does not offer Larry a receipt. Receipts are over.
Larry thanks Pierre and is tipping the cup over onto his upper lip when he turns to face a nattily dressed, white-haired gentleman standing at the drink counter next to the espresso machine, waiting for the teenage girl at the milk frother to finish up whatever it was he’d ordered. Larry notices that the man is staring at his face with keen intensity before he realizes that the man is Drake Remy, star of Danny’s Place—one of the biggest and most-beloved sitcoms of the ‘80s and early ‘90s—and above-title leading man of a host of comedies and romantic dramedies from the same era. He is wearing thick-rimmed glasses, an exquisitely tailored sport jacket, and a silk movie-star scarf about his neck. Tall and broad but rather spindly compared to the hunky, ladies’-man physique of his youth.
Larry—still with the cup up at his face, the debit card in his fingers—and Drake stand looking at each other and Drake’s eyes flash with an exotic cocktail of surprise and fear typical of celebrities when they are spotted by a member of the general public—a simultaneous recognition of recognition, all within the glimmer of an instant. The posture imperceptibly stiffens, and the mouth becomes drawn and ghastly, and the eyes widen and change shape and do all the talking: Please. Don’t. Say. Anything.
But in Drake’s eyes, there is also something else. Something different. A dollop of mournful resignation like a jewel thief caught up a blind alley after a botched heist, turning to find the fuzz boxing him in, a small velvet sack of diamonds in his front pocket.
“Oh, my god,” Drake says. “It’s you.” He covers his mouth with both hands and then he drops one and slides the other up to the crown of his head, a gesture so familiar from his screen work that Larry can’t believe he’d actually just employed it in real life. “I…I’ve heard of you. Oh, my dear god.”
Larry is unable to move any muscle in his body, and the effect is that he looms mid-step with his shoulders hunched forward like something out of The Seventh Seal.
“Wh-…Why are you doing this to me?” Drake says. “Oh, god. I have to sit down.” He slides into a chair at a table for two at the window and slings his elderly lantern jaw into his palm, turned to where rivers of water obscure the view of the street like pebbled glass.
“Mr. R.,” says the teenage barista, obliviously chipper. “Your Guatemala Gigante flat white.” Drake gives no indication that he’d heard her. He just gazes out through all that rain at the boulevard, the back of his jacket heaving up and down like a bellows.
Maybe it’s the sip of caffeine seeping into his blood stream, but instead of fleeing the premises like a frightened child, Larry ambles over to the counter, retrieves Drake’s drink, carries it over to him, and sets it on the table at his elbow. Then he stands watching him as if he is a scientist observing one of his rats, waiting patiently for him to interact with it.
Drake glances at his cup on the table, then up at Larry, and then back at the cup. “Sorry for that back there,” Drake says at last. “I’ve just come from dinner with a friend. An old friend from back home. Frisco. He lives here now. And I had this feeling…when I decided to stop in here…I don’t know. A voice in the back of my mind told me I was going to find you here.” Drake puts his face into his hands and groans, “Oh, god, this is it, isn’t it. What am I going to tell my wife?”
Larry slides into the other chair, but he can’t think of anything that Drake could tell his wife, so he sips at his coffee and watches Drake groan into his hands.
“I love her so dearly. Though, truth be told, I haven’t always treated her very well. There were affairs, I’m ashamed to admit. But it’s the truth. And my boys. God, will I even get to see them again?” Drake takes his hands from his face and looks at Larry as if for an answer, and then he shoots Larry an inexplicable laugh like he’d made a joke, and Larry laughs, too. “You know, people—regular people, people I meet on the street—they have such weird ideas about me. They come up to me, and they talk to me like they think I’m one of my characters. Whichever one they like best.” Drake chokes on a sob and turns back toward the window, and a tear runs down the side of his face, sparkling in all that neon. “But I’m not those characters. I’m just any other stranger. They have no idea that I never…I mean, play-acting for a living…I’d never even imagined such a thing. When I was a kid, I wanted to play for the Giants. Right field, next to Willie Mays. I would have given anything for that.”
Drake heaves a shaky sigh and takes a drink and watches the edge of the tabletop with bleary eyes. “Listen to me. Carping like I’m some asshole one-percenter. Like I’m some sort of victim. I know how lucky I’ve been, my career. But it could’ve been…” He lurches over the table so suddenly that Larry jerks back in his seat. “Did you know I turned down Hannibal Lecter? They said it was mine if I wanted it. But, nooo. Not me. I wouldn’t want to kill my fun-loving playboy image biting people’s tongues out, would I. Do you understand what that part could have done for me? The avenues it could have…. The roles. The really meaty….” He gasps and sits back and shakes his head down at his lap. “I always blamed my agent. But it was me. It was all my damn—” Drake twists in his seat and throws his drink across the room against the side of the drink counter, and it blows apart with such kinetic violence that steamed milk and espresso splatter like gore as far as the cream and sugar island. As if he’d anticipated this turn of events, Pierre hustles around the far end of the counter with a bucket and mop in hand.
“Don’t worry, chief. Don’t worry, I gotcha.”
“Sorry about that,” says Larry and half-rises from his seat as if to help.
“Not a problem. Not a problem.” The second not a problem sounding like it actually is a problem.
Drake does not appear to be aware that the mess was his doing. Or even that anything out of the ordinary had happened. “I was so full of it. God…damn it. And I missed out on so much work. So much great work.” He covers himself with his hands again like he can’t bear to face Larry anymore and says, his voice a muffled croak through the cracks between his fingers, “You tell yourself you always have more time. I should’ve done so much more.”
An excruciating thirty seconds passes before Larry can screw up the courage to say, “Well, I think you were great. Everyone does.”
Drake spreads his hands apart like stage curtains and offers Larry a sheepish smirk. “This is going to sound strange, but that actually helps.” He leans back and shoves his hands into his jacket pockets. “What’s your name, anyway?”
“Where you from, Larry?”
“Michigan. A really small town outside of Flint.”
“You’ve never heard of it. Do…do you want another flat white?”
Drake studies the table with a gravity one reserves only for life’s most important decisions. “Yeah. I think I’ll have one.”
“Hey, Pierre.” Larry stands and points down at his companion. “How about another flat white for Drake Fucking Remy.”
“You got it,” Pierre says with a laugh and takes one last swipe at the floor with the mop, dunks it in the bucket, and retreats back behind the counter.
Drake laughs through that boyish Drake Remy lamp-lighter—the brilliant, impish grin that launched a television juggernaut and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of celluloid film. “You know, I was a city kid my whole life. I always wondered what it was like growing up in a small town.”
“I doubt it’s as exotic as you imagine.” Intending only to illustrate the pointless mundanity of the subject with a few examples, but egged on by Drake’s attentive gaze and sideways grin, Larry soon finds himself unmoored midstream a rushing torrent of the finer points of his bucolic, blue-collar upbringing: walks to the party store for candy, bike rides around town, bonfires in the yard, drinking beer in the woods. He tells him about his job in software sales and about his dad’s job on the line at a GM truck plant—how his father had been at the last Flint sit-down strike plant when it’d closed fifteen years back, and how it’d been his father’s father’s plant and his father’s before him. He tells him about his summers as a kid at his uncle’s cabin up at Traverse, about the cherries and the lake and the marram grass on the dunes and the mud on the peninsula and how there’s an ice cream store up there where the cows that give the milk for the ice cream graze right out back of the place, and it’s the most incredible ice cream in the entire world.
Drake appears terribly fascinated by it all. Whether or not he really is that fascinated, it is convincing. In trade, he regales Larry with a free-associated selection of his Hollywood war stories. Getting drunk with Harold Wells. Hustling Bryan Charles in pool, how Bryan got so mad one night he put his fist through a window, and they had to shut down production on The Town that Love Forgot for two weeks, blaming an on-set accident. What Shirley Harrow is really like, and how Marvin Boyle was as weird in person as people said he was, if not more. The prank he and Gary Lahr played on Troy Sanders on the set of Have You Seen Daddy? where they told Troy that the director, Horace Wilde, a 65-year-old man at the time, had confided to them that he was in love with Troy, and Drake laughs so hard, he has to wipe tears from eyes with his fingertips. And Larry does not have to pretend to be fascinated, even if he were to possess the razor-honed acting chops to do so.
And when the anecdotes swimming at the top of Drake’s head run dry, whatever liquid remaining in either man’s cup having long since gone too cold to drink, Drake glances over at Pierre sweeping the floor in front of the counter with an old-fashioned straw broom, all the available chairs and stools tipped upside-down atop the tables, the teenage barista gone home, and he says like an apology, “I guess we’d better head out.”
Larry glances at his watch. “I can’t believe it’s so late.”
“You need a lift home?”
“I just live across the street.”
Drake laughs a sharp ha that sends a frosty tremor down the length of Larry’s spine. “Well, that certainly is convenient for coffee, isn’t it.”
They step outside together. The rain has stopped long enough ago to bury all signs of itself in the gentle furnace blast of desert night air, a stray puddle here and there along the curb. “That’s me over there,” Drake says redundantly but without a trace of irony, his gorgeous black Maserati Quattroporte the only car parked on that side of the street for a block and a half. Even in the throes of the most grievous crisis of his lifetime, he’d had the presence of mind to sit where he could keep an eye on it through the Starbucks window.
Drake gives Larry a hug and chuckles a farewell and slips into his car. The Maserati roars to life with a cataclysmic explosion that reverberates off the buildings and lurches away from the curb and explodes down Hollywood Boulevard, accelerating through the stoplight just as it changes from green to yellow. The boulevard is utterly devoid of life except for the two of them, Drake and Larry, Drake’s Maserati speeding away, and the millions upon millions of electric bulbs lighting the way through the lonely darkness of Hollywood, California.
Larry watches the taillights fade into two tiny pinpricks and then vanish into the sky. The obelisks atop the horde-repelling rampart of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre loom over the sidewalk in the distance, the tip of the green copper pagoda poking up further back off the street, the impressions of Drake’s hands and feet in the concrete somewhere over there like someone had turned the slab over to show the marks from where he’d tried frantically to push his way out from underneath.
Larry ambles across the street and back upstairs and into the hallway. Fuck, he forgot to buy a bag of coffee beans. He takes his keys out of his pocket and shuffles free the one he needs, and then he stops in his tracks, his head pricked up like a spooked deer at the muffled voices of strangers from inside the door to his apartment. He knows these voices from somewhere. He can’t make out what they are saying, but they are strident and urgent and seem to be hashing out with fierce ardor some matter of life or death. He turns the key in the knob and peeks inside to find that he’d left the TV on full blast when he’d stormed out into the rain. He can’t remember it having been on. Something with Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. They’re dead now, too. He flips it off with the remote control perched on the arm of the love seat and pries each of his damp shoes off with the toes of the other foot. His computer blinks awake like a faithful dog welcoming his master home when the weight of him plopping down into his chair jostles the mouse on the desk. Jack Hearn’s still-youthful face emerges from within the blackness of the screen and smiles out at him, and Larry presses his face into his arms and weeps.