He had adopted this insane new beauty practice of rubbing Preparation H on the bags under his eyes. He was trying to scrub that puffy, confused, alcoholic look right off his face—it burned to all hell but goddamn if it didn’t work. There had to be some kind of fancy, faggy, anti-aging, anti-inflammatory something or other at a boutique in San Francisco that, like, smelled nice and blended into the skin in a less severe way. But these days he could barely make it to the corner store, much less downtown San Francisco.
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The trolley cars bothered him, the European tourists giving him that What are you doing here? look on the street bothered him, effort in general bothered him—put all these factors together and what was left was a tube of hemorrhoid cream purchased at the Grocery Outlet for $1.50. He still smelled like alcohol in the morning, but at least his face didn’t look all fucked-up. The small victory would have to do.
The past couple of months he had started sleeping with his feet hanging out of his second-story window. It helped to correct his restless moving around in bed, and now he could hear the cars out on the highway in the night. He started to have dreams that he was peacefully underwater, but he knew his brain was reinterpreting the cars roaring past. From a distance, the hum of the highway sounded like waves crashing into land. In his bed, he would pull the covers over his head and imagine being in the ocean. Alone and at peace.
The fall had been a hard stretch.
He was an actor and had gotten a job that summer as the lead of this god-awful play, some drama about a murderer in a mining town during the Gold Rush. It bored him to tears and he hit the bottle real hard one night before the show, ended up blacking out onstage and being removed from the play the next day. It was not the first time this had happened.
He relayed the story to his friend Mark over the phone.
“I got drunk and embarrassed myself in front of a bunch of prominent white neoliberals,” he offered.
“Again?!” said Mark.
“Again. The stage manager was this hippie who told me I would never work in this town again! I broke down and cried.” Real tears—he could feel them leaking through the film of the Preparation H.
Mark kept his cool. “I mean, that’s nice of her to threaten you and all, but keep in mind you never really worked there before—who gives a flying fuck?! Meet me and the boys for lunch.”
He and Mark were brothers of sorts. A decade and a half ago, the two of them had been cast in a TV show on a fledgling gay channel, about the lives of four single Black gay men in L.A. It was a big to-do—audiences loved it, and he basically played the Black version of all the white queens he hated. He had been working on some horrible avant-garde play in San Francisco when his agent called him with an offer for the part of Jonathan—muscular, 33, a nonurban Black hippie wallflower type. Easy enough. He had been having problems landing acting gigs that didn’t read as “urban”—every role called for a strong masculine Black man with confidence and all the answers, and he couldn’t fake that even for a paycheck. The role of Jonathan felt tailor-made—after all, he’d grown up in Encino.
The show was so uniquely Black (or as “Black” as white West Hollywood tastes would allow) that no one noticed the characters for what they were: really shitty muscle queens from L.A.
He hoped at first that they would mirror the Spice Girls and each have some form of distinct personhood (he wanted to be the dark-skinned “woke” one), but no such luck. Instead they were four leads who all mirrored one another like quadruplets; the running catchphrase of the show (said in unison) was “Ew! He’s fat!” (Cue laughs track.)
He’d made semi-decent money from the sitcom for the price of his soul and done what all reasonable G-list “celebrities” did: stumbled into cocaine and alcohol addiction. The show was over before the third season and he kept on drinking. He moved back to San Francisco, broken as all hell, and chased jobs in regional theater. During harvest season, he worked on the pot farms up north.
Mark had also moved to San Francisco recently—he was working as an agent now, developing talent.
I hate the idea of meeting these faggots for lunch, he thought, getting ready to do just that. He despised Mark’s habit of always dragging boys he was fucking to brunch for an awkward meet and greet. Especially today.
Still—it was time to go meet these faggots.
Upon arriving, he quickly ordered an Irish Health—Jameson whiskey and green tea on ice with simple sugar (and a splash of Baileys, if you must).
He slammed it and then ordered a double of the same, feeling better.
Mark showed up with two queens he’d had sex with the night before. One boy was a blonde and the other had a birthmark on his face. Mark was dominating, as always. He had a way of taking a conversation and boiling it down to its essentials—his stories always led back to sex and/or violence. At this particular brunch he was explaining how he had recently been robbed south of Market Street.
“I had on a thousand-dollar watch, had all my credit cards on me, $700 in cash I owed my roommate, and an extra-large cheese pizza I’d ordered from the place on the corner. So I see this big Black muscle queen walking toward me from 12th Street. Big ole uncut dick swinging to the gods in his track pants and I’m staring him down like, Wanna fuck? He rolls up on me and the last thing I remember is him punching me in the head. Anyway, I wake up about 30 minutes later, and I know it’s 30 minutes later ’cause I still had my watch on, plus my credit cards and the cash—the only thing missing was the pizza!”
The boy with the birthmark spit up his Jack-and-soda.
The blond boy asked me what I did.
“I was an actor but I failed. Now I work in agriculture, seasonally,” I said, not looking him in the eye. “I’m in between trips.”
“You mean you grow weed?” he pressed.
They all got drunker and went to Mark’s. The other men got naked on the bed, but he felt apart, too drunk and sad to achieve an erection. There came a point when the merry trio was having sex on top of him and he rolled over and pulled the covers over his head. He wanted to be underwater again.
This year, he took a new way to the farm. Just to be a troll, he’d signed up for one of those Christian free-ride groups, and it totally backfired. The Christian man he hitched a ride with was on his way to Oregon from Texas; he made it a point to pray every time they stopped to get gas or take a piss. At one prayer stop, the Holy Ghost lasted for 20 minutes and ended with the man going into full-on testimony. He sat in the passenger seat listening to the man and wished to God (ironically enough) that he could find a ride group where all he had to do was flash his dick and get to his destination in a timely manner.
The car finally made its way to Lake County. The farm was near there.
Supposedly Clear Lake was the largest lake in California, and supposedly it was the oldest lake in North America. He was told these things but never bothered to confirm them himself.
The car navigated the two-lane highway that circled the lake for miles and miles.
Post–World War II, the lake had been a popular Northern California tourist destination; he spied from the car window all the dilapidated fishing piers and run-down motor lodges with their decaying mid-century signs more or less intact.
The lake itself was fishable, yet the catch was rarely edible. The mine nearby had closed in the ’50s, but not before polluting the entire body of water with mercury. It was poison.
The car dropped him off at the gas station nearest to the farm and he waited for the farm owner to pick him up. It had once been owned by this dyke who then sold it to a Puerto Rican man from New Jersey.
He watched the new owner pull up in a huge black pickup truck, introduced himself, and got in. The owner gave him the rundown—there were 92 outdoor plants tucked out past the valley that he would attend to and dry before the seasonal trimmers came in and manicured the buds. The new owner would fly out every two weeks and give him a ride to the general store to replenish his supplies: drinking water, gas for the generators, toilet paper, all that stuff. The owner gave him two guns to keep in case feds or thieves came lurking, and left him on the property to do his work.
That was in late July, and he had now been on the mountain for a while. The exact number of days, he could not tell—time blurred so much up here. His task was repetitive, but he loved being alone. Just him, the plants, the drying room (the only built structure on the property), the hum of the gas generators, and his two guns.
His job was to kill all the boys. Even the smallest amount of a male plant’s pollen can seed a whole crop, and pot with seeds is unsellable. Some girl plants could change sex, “dropping balls” (seed sacks) and getting all the other girls pregnant. So he had to kill and dispose of all the new boys too.
Years earlier, he had worked at several random farms and trimmed for strangers, but it hadn’t lasted long. Being stuck three hours from nowhere in the California backwoods with white hippies was a particular form of hell; they all smelled bad and had Ganesh tattoos. They insisted that he “think positively.” He hated that shit. He had scored the right gig eventually, with this small private farm that he worked alone until the fall trimmers came to finish up.
A fussy creek cut through the hills, and he bathed in it in the mornings, the icy coldness of it stinging his balls. No soap could be used, for fear of polluting the river. His drinking water and all his other supplies were kept in a slender kitchen with a separate entrance on the back side of the drying room. He had to shit in a hole in the ground.
The goal was to get all the weed cut and dried before the rainy season arrived in winter. Two years before, the rain had started early and mold had grown on all the plants, which didn’t begin to cover how damn miserable he had been in the tent he had pitched. He made a pallet to sleep on in the drying room this time around.
At night, when he was alone in the drying shed, the landscape outside had the dark glow of moonlight. The moon put a soul filter on everything. The hum of the gas-powered generator reminded him of the underwater sound of the highway cars he could hear from his bedroom in the city. He felt like a nature god, alone in the great expanse.
If he really thought about it, he had never wanted to be an actor. Not really. In his memory, it had happened upon him. On a whim, he had stormed the stage when he was 5: a one-man coup.
His older cousin was 8 or 9 at the time, participating in her elementary-school beauty pageant, and he was sitting in his Sunday church suit in the audience in the school gymnasium, next to his auntie. He saw all the girls in delicate dresses, lit up onstage, and noticed the applause every time they twirled about.
When one contestant departed the stage, he saw it empty and knew he should be there. He sneaked from under his auntie and ran up the side steps and placed his little body midstage. He couldn’t see the faces of the audience (perhaps an early indicator of his nearsightedness). Then came the roar of applause. He knew he had done something right because everyone was clapping for him. As soon as the shock wore off, his little face grinned—just in time for his auntie to come rip him off the stage by his hand.
“Boy, you know you know betta!” she whisper-yelled in his ear as she led him down the steps. He couldn’t even hear her. The smile on his face lasted for days.
All he’d ever wanted, he realized, was the stage lights and the applause; the acting itself was just the driver holding the carrot in front of the donkey. He figured that if society had allowed a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker to merit stage lights and applause, he would have easily been any one of those, too.
His mother had always hated his profession; she thought it was too common. She barely even congratulated him when he got on a network show. She wanted him to be a teacher, and she eventually got her wish.
He’d spent a few years teaching acting workshops at regional theaters after the TV show was canceled—there were a great many people who couldn’t act. He marveled at how all reluctant thespians shared the same complaint: “I don’t like being watched.” The statement was a cop-out. He usually cured the novice actor with one sentence. “You’re not afraid of being watched—you’re afraid of watching yourself be watched.” The student would invariably look confused, and more often than not, a series of breakthroughs ensued.
In his mind, spewing words was the easy part; the work of blocking out motions was the challenge that killed or illuminated an expression, the business of what to do with the hands or feet while trying to convince an audience that you are someone else. Movement is always the purest indication of how truthful one is being.
He had never been a good actor, just a committed one—committed like Robert Downey Jr. or Mel Gibson, to being a caricature of himself. In fact, acting had given him license to be himself. The context, mannerisms, or historical backdrop could change from play to play, but he stayed wrapped up in his typecast: a fragile yet strong (or faux brave) and always spiraling man.