Chase was late by the time he arrived at LAX. He walked into baggage claim and saw his parents sitting there with their suitcases in front of them. They’d packed too much and they looked out of place. His mother, Miriam, barely fit in her seat, flipping through a celebrity magazine, licking her large, round thumb before each turn of the page. Two seats down sat his father, dressed all in denim, with a dirty white cowboy hat (“the good guys,” he’d say) that Chase, in his thirty-one years, had rarely seen him without; it never quite fit the odd, oblong shape of his head. Once when Chase was young, he’d been riding on the tractor with his father, out in the field, on the thirty-acre cattle farm where his father worked outside Lexington, Kentucky, when his father removed the hat to wipe sweat from his forehead. His head was bald and glossy and ghostly white. There was a tattoo on it of a crown of thorns.
“What’s that?” Chase had asked, as his father put his hat back on.
“Nothing,” his father had said, and never mentioned it again.
Miriam was the first to see him. “There’s our movie star!” she said and waved her arms. Loose heavy skin swung from beneath each of them. She rolled up from her seat and pulled him into a tight, sweaty hug. “I can’t believe we finally made it to Hollywood!”
“This isn’t Hollywood. Hollywood is that way.” He pointed, realizing as he did that he had no idea which direction it was. “Actually, I mean, I’m not exactly sure either.”
“The more you know,” Miriam said.
“It’s OK. Isn’t Hollywood on the Internet now anyway?”
“I don’t know, I just do email.”
His father, Will, didn’t respond. His face was obscured by a copy of Guns & Ammo. Miriam stepped back and looked up at Chase. He was nearly a foot taller than her.
“What is this you’re wearing?” she said.
“What? This old thing?” He did a stagy twirl.
“All the chains, and ripped leather. You look like a holiday ghost.”
“Christmas,” said Will, from behind his magazine. “We’re saying Christmas again.”
“What’s eating LaPierre?” Chase said to Miriam.
“Oh, he’s upset they confiscated his knife at the airport.”
“They can’t just do that. It’s my property. It’s my right. I’ve had that knife for ten years. Besides, what took you so long, Jason? We’ve been waiting for hours.”
“What are our thoughts on time as social construct? Oh, and they call me Chase now.”
“Who’s they?” Will said.
“It’s my stage name.”
“It’s his stage name.”
“Chase. Like car chase.”
“No, I get it.”
Chase excused himself and went inside to find a bathroom. He ducked into a stall and punched the wall over and over. Then he walked back out. “Sorry about that,” Chase said. “Nature called.” He gingerly undid one of his leather biker gloves, and stretched out his hand.
“What happened to your knuckles?” Will said.
Before he could answer, Miriam squealed and hugged Chase. “Isn’t he just—?” Will looked away. “Anyway, I’m ready to drop. Say we load up the car, and head to your place.”
“Funny thing,” Chase said.
The bus was off its schedule.
“I’ll pay for a rental,” Will said, after an hour. “This is ridiculous.”
“No, you won’t,” Chase said. “It’ll be here soon.”
When they finally got on, Will positioned himself with his legs around his suitcase, eyeing each of the bus’ riders. At one point, he leaned over toward Chase, his mouth smelling like chewing tobacco. “I was listening to Rush the other day—English has become a second language in LA County. More people speak Spanish than English now.”
“Rush. Seems a little right-wing for them. Is that from Moving Pictures?”
“No, this was on the radio.”
His mother, on the other hand, greeted each new bus rider as they got on. Welcome aboard! Isn’t this so fun? “My, that looks delicious!” she said to a man sitting nearby, who was hunched over a steaming styrofoam container of rice, beans, and shredded chicken. He looked up at her, expressionless, and returned to his meal. The man was short and muscular, with buzzed black hair and thick calves. “Where did you get that?”
“Mom,” Chase said. “He’s trying to eat.”
“I’m just wondering where he got it. Where did you get it? It looks so good! Maybe, if we get the name of the restaurant, we could go there later on? Glad I packed the extra insulin. Don-dey pole-o?” she said.
Chase put his face in his hands. “Mom, stop.”
“I took two years of Spanish at Woodford High. Don-dey free-jolz? Don-dey pole-o?”
A heavyset woman sitting nearby wearing large, studded, wraparound shades turned to his mother and said, “shut your ass, white lady.”
“The first to mention race is the racist,” Will said.
“And fuck you too, John Wayne,” the woman said.
The man snapped his container shut. He stood up and muttered something angry sounding in Spanish, then found a seat at the back of the bus.
His mother quieted. She placed her hands across her belly and called “a-dee-os!”
Shut the fuck up!
“Beautiful town,” she said to the bus driver.
By the time they reached the house, Miriam was sweating, holding her sides, gritting her teeth, breathing heavily. She pinched at the fabric on the side of her floral muumuu and fanned out her armpit. “Oh, this…is…wonderful…!” she said.
The house was small and rustic: a green and purple Spanish bungalow with a neat, square, lawn, surrounded by palm trees and flowering yucca.
Will appraised the house. Chase knew that look; he was sizing it up, seeing how it was built. “OK,” he said, finally. For his father to say that—to say anything—meant he was impressed. Will approached the front door and ran his hand along the wood. “Walnut,” he said. “Nice straight grain.” He reached to Chase for the keys. Will was always the one in the family to open any door.
Chase shook his head. “Around back.”
They gathered their suitcases, and squeezed through the narrow mess of branches and palm roots and fronds that flanked the house. “You really should cut this back,” Will said, holding his suitcase over his head.
“Duly noted,” Chase said.
In the back was a swimming pool, and a small patio. “Oh this is magical,” Miriam said. “It’s like a jungle back here. I feel like I’m Katherine Hepburn!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Will said.
“Dad sure is fun today,” Chase said.
Miriam turned, spoke behind her hand: “As you know, your father will only watch Westerns. I have to bring him stacks of tapes from work at the library. Gary Cooper. Clint Eastwood.”
“The strong, silent type,” he said, now crouched, examining the angle and spacing of the wood on the patio. “Now those were real men.” He pulled a tiny level out from his shirt pocket, set it on top of one of the patio beams, and surveyed the results.
Miriam waddled to the door and peaked inside. “The stunt business must pay pretty darn good if you’re able to afford a place like this.”
“Sorry, Mom. We can’t get in that way either.”
“Not through the door?”
“This way.” Chase stepped around to a window beside the patio.
Will stood up. “What’s wrong with the door?”
“The doors are all stuck,” Chase said. “It gets so hot here the wood swells up.”
“Not here,” Will said. “This is dry heat.”
“I can’t explain it.”
“He can’t explain it,” Miriam said. “To the window, we go! What fun. What adventure.” She looked uneasily at the narrow size of it.
“Well don’t you have a landlord you can call? I assume you’re renting?”
“I talked to him today, but he’s away,” Chase said, unscrewing the screen over the window with his pocketknife. It was about three feet wide and four feet high, angling up into a laundry room adjacent to the kitchen.
“Then call a handyman.”
“I did that too. There’s some issue with the union.”
“That’s California for you. I don’t see how anything gets accomplished here.”
Chase climbed through the window first, and his father passed him the luggage. The house was quiet. Will clambered through, and then he and Chase went to help Miriam. She tried once, then again, but couldn’t swing her legs high enough. She was dripping with sweat and wheezing. They seized her shoulders, and finally got her up a few feet until her hips stuck against the sides. Will and Chase pulled as hard as they could, until she shot forward into the room as if from a circus cannon. She collapsed on the kitchen floor, struggling to catch her breath. She looked around. “Oh, this is wonderful! I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder. Isn’t this wonderful, Will?”
Will eyed a framed photo on the counter. A man—not Chase—and a woman, standing on a beach. Somehow, Chase must have missed it when he’d gone through the house earlier in the day. He walked over and turned it around.
“Who is that sweetie?” Miriam asked. “Are they friends of yours?”
“Oh, it’s nobody,” he said.
“It can’t be nobody,” Will said. “Who is it?”
“It came with the frame,” Chase said. “I just liked the look of it, so I left it in there.”
“Well, it certainly is a lovely photo,” Miriam said.
That night, after getting his parents settled in the guest room, Chase was lying in bed, jonesing for a smoke, wondering if it was worth the trouble of climbing back through the window. The mattress was soft and held him like a hammock. If it had been his house, he would have maybe felt worse about taking the nicer room. But it wasn’t, so he didn’t. Besides, he hadn’t slept on a decent mattress in months, living mostly out of his car which he’d parked, with all his stuff inside, a few blocks away. The house belonged to Don and Janet Snideman, a fancy older couple he’d met on a catering gig, who liked having him around; his Kentucky roots lent their dinner parties a folksy cred, and they let him crash on the couch from time to time.
Finally, he gave in. He snuck through the house, and found his father seated at the kitchen table, reading a book. “Pulled this off your shelf.”
“You’ve been looking around?”
“I’m a guest in your home, aren’t I?” He angled the book cover so Chase could see it. Some kind of business textbook. “I think it’s great you’re studying financial management.” His cowboy hat cast a great shadow over the room.
“I’m not,” Chase said. “I mean, I’m studying it on my own time. Not going to classes or anything.”
“Even better,” he said. “Academia’s been highjacked by the intolerant left. It was bad enough when I was in school.”
“In school? You only did one year at UK.”
“Two. Besides, they couldn’t teach me anything I couldn’t learn for myself.”
“The ol’ BA in Bootstraps. Actually, now that I think of it that one’s BS. Anyway, another great chat Pop. I’m gonna grab a smoke.” Chase headed for the window.
Will set the book down on the kitchen table. Chase did the kissing fingers and stuck his legs out. “Your mother loves you more than anything in the world.”
“Make sure she doesn’t find out.”
“Mom knows I smoke.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Will said. He got up and walked toward the bedroom. Chase waited until he heard the door click, then slid out the vent and sucked on his cigarette with his feet in the swimming pool, staring at the moon.
Chase woke up to sounds in the house. Shit. The Snidemans. He dressed quickly, packed his bag, and hurried across the house. When he peeked into the kitchen, he saw his father seated at the table. It wasn’t even light out—the sky a dull gray-pink.
“Morning, sunshine!” called Miriam. She was at the stove, grilling sausage links, and coffee was brewing. “Your father and I are still on Kentucky time. Do you want some sausage? It’s the only thing you had in there that isn’t expired. Somebody needs to clean out their fridge and do a bit of grocery shopping.”
He watched them move about the kitchen. Who were these people? He couldn’t believe they were his parents. They certainly weren’t people. They were more like aliens pretending to be people based on a handful of old movies and a magazine ad for erectile dysfunction.
After breakfast Chase had them repack their bags before they set out for the day. “There’s been a lot of break-ins lately. It’d be safer with us.” They took the bus up to Washington Blvd., and when the connecting bus to the beach didn’t arrive, they spent the morning wandering around Culver City, walking with their luggage in and out of the shops.
They stopped for tea at a Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. “My son’s in the movies,” Miriam told the barista. “Have you seen Blood Bath 2: Son of Blood Bath?”
“Must have missed that one,” she said, handing her their teas.
“I generally can’t watch action movies. All that violence. But this one’s a joy.”
Will gaped at the barista’s tattooed arm as it briefly revealed itself from her sleeve, like a kind of rare eel sliding out from a rock. Miriam produced a copy of the DVD from her purse and offered it to her. “Oh no, I can’t.”
“Please, I insist.”
“No, it’s more that I don’t want it.”
Miriam winked at the barista and dropped the DVD into the tip jar. “Don’t worry, I’ve got a whole shelf of them back at home. My little shrine. Above it says, Hollywood in Versailles!”
“You really need to get rid of that,” Chase said.
As they finished their teas, Chase suggested maybe they drink something a little harder. “It’s eleven in the morning,” Will said.
“But it’s five o’ clock somewhere!” Miriam said.
They walked three blocks to a bar with cardboard where the glass of the door should have been. When they walked in, they were the only people there. The lights were on and none of the chairs had been taken down off the tables. There was a smell like mildew and puke and whatever chemicals they’d used to mask the smell of mildew and puke. A bartender was cleaning the bar with a towel, and when he saw Chase he yelled, “You. Out.”
Miriam stepped up to the bar. “Are we too early?”
The bartender pointed to Chase. “I told you, you’re not allowed to come back here.”
“What’s he talking about?” Will asked.
“Drunk ass walked right through our front door last week. Glass everywhere.”
“Come on,” said Chase. “This guy’s crazy. He must think I’m someone else.”
They left the bar and tried for the bus to the beach once more. Will offered again to pay for a cab. “No way,” Chase said.
“You’re my guests.”
They headed off down the block, lugging their suitcases. “What’s the plan?” Will asked.
Chase didn’t have an answer.
They took a break in the parking lot of a 7-Eleven, and his mother, in her large foam visor and beach wear, opened a towel on the blacktop, unfolded a wide metallic reflector, and began sunning herself. “Who needs the beach,” she said, stretching her legs. She’d gained even more weight since he’d last seen her. Her skin was swollen and there were new stretch marks and strange blue veins in her ankles and calves. Will crouched nearby, rolling a toothpick on his lip. Chase couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.
Then Miriam shrieked, leapt out of her seat, and pointed off in the distance.
“What’s wrong?” Will asked.
She darted off. Will and Chase gathered up her beach gear and suitcase and went after her. They took her arms as she lost her balance. “Are you OK?”
She pointed at the large, gated entrance to Monument Studios, with its featureless concrete and high windowless walls. “Oh my!” she said. “Is that what I think it is?”
“A Soviet prison?” Will said.
“Movie studio,” Chase said.
“What’s the difference?”
“That’s the studio from your movie!” Miriam said.
Chase hadn’t even made the connection. It’d been so long since he’d worked on that damn movie, and he’d spent most of his time during it sneaking food from the on-set crafty.
Miriam pushed on to the gated entrance, Will and Chase followed. “We’re with Chase Finley,” Miriam said, and started on through.
The security guard jumped out of his booth and cut them off. “Ma’am, I can’t let you in there without clearance.”
“Mom, we should go.”
Miriam put her arm around Chase. “Do you know who this is?”
“No ma’am, I don’t. And if you don’t step back, I’m going to have you removed from the premises.”
Will stepped forward, spat on the ground. “And yet you looove to preach inclusivity!”
“Please excuse my father,” Chase said. “He’s in the throes of Fox News withdrawal.”
“My son’s a stuntman,” Miriam said. “He was in the brawl scene in Blood Bath 2.”
“Look, you could be George Clooney, and if you don’t have a badge or a drive on scheduled then you’re not getting in. Guided tours start at the east gate entrance every hour.”
They walked around to the east entrance. The tickets were thirty dollars each—with an extra “service fee” to store all the luggage they were hauling around—but Miriam got out her Visa card. “It’s fine,” she said, “that’s why God invented credit.”
They were shown a mailroom, a few office buildings, and one empty sound stage, before the group was herded into an unused storeroom attached to the gift shop. There they sat in metal chairs and watched a thirty-minute video, which ended up being nothing but trailers for the studio’s new releases.
“I’m sorry Mom,” Chase said. “I thought there’d be more to this.”
“I like the trailers,” she said. “They’re like mini movies.”
They walked over to a Carl’s Jr. a few blocks from the studio and sat at a picnic table outside. Miriam began sobbing, wailing and waving her hands. Will put his arm around her and rubbed her back. A Carl’s Jr. employee came out and told them the picnic table was for paying customers only, and they would have to buy something or leave.
Chase took his mother’s hand. “What’s wrong? Do you need your shot?”
“It’s so beautiful,” she said. “The trees, the people. The sun. Everything here is so beautiful. I’ve never seen such a beautiful place in all my life.”
They stopped for lunch at a Chinese restaurant and, as they waited for their food, Chase excused himself and went to look for the bathroom.
In the hallway, he saw a dishwasher walk through a back door and he pushed through it into a cramped, broken-concrete yard surrounded by chain-link fence. He hopped the fence and started across the neighborhood; it felt good to walk. After three blocks, he lit a cigarette and moved into the center of the street, flicked it, and lit another. The walking and the sun and the nicotine gave him a satisfying, dizzying buzz.
Then he heard shouts from somewhere nearby, and walked to a dilapidated house, with boards covering the windows. He swung around the side, and into a narrow backyard, where a large blue tarp was hung between two trees. A half dozen men were standing around beneath it, drinking. In the center of them were two men fighting. Each time one or the other would land a punch the men surrounding would whoop and yell. Chase slipped into the back of the crowd to get a better look. A man standing near him passed him a red Solo cup, poured some tequila in it, and told him to drink. The tequila hit like a fire to the back of his throat; he felt its warmth all the way down into his stomach, and then held the cup out again. The man poured him another shot and slapped him on the back so hard it stung. The men in the center were on the ground in a ball of limbs and dust, throwing fists and elbows. Each was bleeding. “What’s going on?” he asked the man next to him.
“I don’t know,” the man said. “They just started beating on each other.”
One of the men, the larger one, stood up, and began to kick the other in the ribs. Chase could hear the dead crack of them inside his stomach. The man on the ground was out cold, and the other man paraded around, pumping his fists, his mouth dripping blood onto his chest.
Then Chase rushed into the center. He swung a punch that connected with the man’s chin and the man groaned wildly. He fired a ferocious right hook into Chase’s face. Crack. Blood. Chase threw himself at the man, punched, and kicked. The man picked him up in the air, carried him over to a folding table and threw him down on it, snapping the table in two.
Chase came to on his back, surrounded by the faces of excited men. One of the men helped him up, and the man he’d fought offered him another tequila shot. They cheered him on as he drank it and staggered out of the yard, back up the street, back to the restaurant.
He found his parents waiting on a bus bench with his food wrapped up. Chase sat between them. “Oh my god,” Miriam said. “What happened to your face?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I’m fine.” He removed the take-out container, snapped apart a pair of chopsticks, and began to pick at the leftovers.
“Son, your face is bleeding. We need to call an ambulance.”
Chase fed himself a few of the noodles.
His mother was right. This was a beautiful town.