What Trying Our Best Looks Like
Wendell doesn’t worry about his daughter dying in this show because she has already died. She was six years old, and that’s as much detail he’s willing to share. However, if nothing else is shared, to what purpose is there to keep filming? He sits in his S H O W R U N N E R chair, watching the filming for the first shot of the series finale of Trying Our Best, a critically acclaimed, nine-seasoned, hospital drama. Wendell’s right arm is around the back of his chair, holding a crinkled, two-day old Variety, giving him a posture of seriousness and impatience. This is what Wendell looks like before making changes to the scene. He’s been under intense scrutiny from the studio execs and television critics for drastically changing the show’s format, but he, ultimately, doesn’t care. Eight critically acclaimed seasons have given him free reign when it came to his show, and when he told the execs the show wouldn’t have a single death portrayed during the final season—a final season for a show known for its gratuitous and melodramatic death of fictionalized patients each and every week; a trademark narrative gimmick that separated Trying Our Best from falling into those other generic, malady-of-the-week hospital dramas—there was, of course, concern.
“Concern” is what he’s heard throughout the filming of the entire season. Concern for ratings. Concern for alienating loyal viewers. Concern for the actors’ backlash on set. Concern for his mental state after his daughter’s death, or, as Variety put it, concern that his stubbornness was renting out a whole floor in his head and throwing the televisions off the balcony.
While Wendell mulls over the exact scope and depth of the changes he wants to make to the current scene, a key grip approaches him and says the overhead lighting will take some time to position right, given the move into the new sound studio. Wendell asks how long will it take and the key grip tells him it will take some time to do it safely and Wendell says to do what you can but to hurry. Everything within Soundstage #11—in which both of these men stand—suffers in the suffocated enclosure of the interior’s vast openness. Overhead lights are too high hung, light windrowing in rings around the studio’s floor in figure-eights that ripple and bloom and disrupt the composition of the scene. All sounds racket off opposite walls, creating a distorted echo; a thin shrill, like sneakers squeaking on a hard surface. Soundproof padding still in plastic wrap, propped and stacked horizontal on the floor in a way that offers to rise up through empty space. This building used to be a film camera factory, renovated to be another sound stage for a major television studio, but has become, instead, an intimidation that covers a territory too boundless, where people are perceived long before they emerge. Wendell looks at the key grip and can’t remember his name. He wants to call him “Mickey” on account of the Mickey-Mouse-cunnilingue-Snow-White neck tattoo, but just nods his head and calls over the actors.
“I know I’ve gone back-and-forth on whether or not the daughter will die,” says Wendell, his voice a soft, stumbling staccato getting louder with each echo bouncing off the far wall of the studio. Each actor strains to hear Wendell over a dialogue tripping over itself’s return. “But I’ve decided she w—. We’ll be using Script A from here on out.”
The actor who plays the fictionalized Wendell in Trying Our Best’s fictionalized world, named Raymond, comments, “So Danica and I should come back tomorrow? Since we aren’t present until later scenes.”
“I told you to call me by my character ‘Alice’ while on set,” says Danica/Alice.
“Either way, you both can go home,” says Wendell.
Danica/Alice and Raymond both leave. Wendell waits with a kind of anxious dread for the way she exits a room, pretentious and carrying a false gravitas, her peeling away from everyone and everything, towards the center of the room’s attention with her head tilt backwards—this uncreative interpretation of grace and fame and Wendell wanting to tell her only nothing materializes without someone else’s true attention. Wendell keeps waiting for a beam of light to rupture through the building, to lift her away, but nothing comes. He tells the other actors on set to get ready to film today’s scheduled scenes. The actors disperse, leaving Wendell thumbing through the day’s itinerary, and he finds himself again questioning his choices in hiring actors that looked chillingly similar to himself, his ex-wife, and daughter. A strange envy takes over him as he looks at the child actress playing his fictionalized daughter, named Elise—he wishes he were in this scene, playing the doctor. He’s never been able to imagine impossible things—like simply placing himself inside a memory he never had in the first place—because his mind constantly slips back into something resembling simplicity, not a dream but a memory in real time.
Wendell approaches the child actress as she lounges on the set’s hospital bed and says, in a measured tone, “You look like you’ve gotten a bit of sun over the past few days.”
“This line,” says Elise, pointing towards the script, ignoring Wendell’s question, “my line after the doctor’s grand soliloquy of courage and death and youth seems too—”
“—bullshitty? But I guess ‘on-point’ works, too,” says Elise, seeming contemplative.
“I don’t have a lot of wiggle room for this line,” says Wendell. “What do you think?”
“Maybe terror just bursts out,” says Elise, throwing her arms forward. “But for only a second. Then, the character dips back down into silence.”
“Seems a bit heavy-handed,” says Wendell. “Far and away from the material that inspired this scene.”
“Forget it, you’re not helping yourself,” says Elise. “And as far as I can see—if we’re being honest—this direction, this Script A, you’re going to be considered a hack.”
Again a clank of overhead lights being readjusted comes. Light streams into every cozy and disagreeable space on the set, giving shadows a deranged and elongated softness not meant to be present, and everyone underneath the uncontrolled radiance now has a sickened look. Wendell says nothing. Sometimes, when he looks at Elise, the child actress, he forgets his daughter is dead; that the world expectedly and indifferently continues—or, as his ex-wife and overstepping studio execs said, “She’s no longer here,” but to what and to whom does “here” refer, and how can “here” possibly compete against sixty frames-per-second consecrating a terrible memory he finally realized he had control over. But, nevertheless, this child in front of him right now is nothing like his real daughter. His daughter was quiet and vulnerable and anxious and spent most of her life dying. If this child actress in front of Wendell knew any of this, it would amount to nothing. Wendell knows this about her and he knows she would tell him she isn’t his daughter—that she wasn’t a puppet, but an artist. In this moment, a thrill of anger stretches from a deep place within Wendell and he grabs Elise’s right arm. You don’t know what it’s been like, he wants to tell her. So stop fucking this up and be her.
Surprised by the heft, dimension, and pressure of his own grip, it’s no surprise when Elise screeches and Wendell drops her arm.
“Just say the fuckin’ line,” says Wendell in a low tone so no one around the set can hear.
The scene in question is the third to last scene of the entire show. The shooting schedule calls for this scene to be shot first, given the low amount of changeover from the doctor’s office and hospital cafeteria, both of which are to be filmed directly after this “Pre-Surgery” heart-to-heart between the attending physician and Elise. Wendell walks through each set for today’s filming, checking again and again all proper camera tracks and lighting were in the right places. Each scattered and disembodied set sits adjacent to one another like they were at the end of an assembly line, waiting to be placed on trucks and sent to become actual buildings. He looks up towards the lights above him and radios the key grip how much longer until the lights are ready. He hears, again, a metallic clang of a wrench being set down and the key grip’s voice coming through the radio, telling him it could be another hour or so. Wendell, who has a tendency to be over commanding with the time and space of the studio, asks if it’s safe enough to start filming. There’s a long radio silence until the keygrip says sure but he wouldn’t recommend it.
The filming of a show is an endless combination of ancillary fuck-ups which went unreported and fits of tantrums in regards to said fuckups, all punctuated with finger-pointing. Again, Wendell calls cut. He moves away from video village, spills his coffee that rests on the floor, leaving a pad print behind him on every other step through the studio. Ahead of him, the cinematographer points to the light meter, detailing the lack of light from the current overhead set-up; slightly to Wendell’s right, the child actress is complaining to her agent over her phone that she just can’t work with all these restrictions. Wendell called cut because of her and her indifferent attitude towards the scene. Elise holds up her hand in perfect synchronicity to his coming, indicating to Wendell she is busy. And then he pauses, takes one step, and stares through her, steps again, looks at the steel girders above him, keeps looking past those into a darkness concentrating in an unsettling stillness as if everything above him was asleep, looks away, and keeps heading towards her.
He feels an intense anger bordering on vertigo. When dealing with child actors, Wendell is unable to act like a friend, and he is wholly aware of how threatening he must appear. “Is there a problem, Elise?” he asks.
She holds her hand up a few seconds longer as she finishes up the call and says, “Creative differences.”
“Is this about earlier?”
“Just let me do my way once.”
“Because this is an important scene, and I cannot ha—”
“Let me do my way once, or I walk.”
Only in Hollywood can one find children whose authority speaks on the same level as adults, and where no one thinks this behavior is demeaning or outlandish. Wendell knew he shouldn’t have made a scene with her earlier—Elise knew how to stall production and schedules long enough so that Wendell would be forced to cave in or be forced to answer to studio execs and union heads as to why he violated the union mandated eight-hour workday.
Wendell thinks for a moment, a few crew members starting to stare, and says, “Once, and then we continue. Deal?”
When they begin filming the scene again, Wendell stands at video village, watching every camera angle through the monitors as the scene progresses. Deep down, he truly believes he is not actually filming a show. Memory is the soft medium in which he films, absence is the instrument of his grief—absence is the lens. His daughter’s absence and his love cut through to the depths of the frame, which exist in external reality outside the angle of the shot. Cameras are aligned. Angles pan out solemnly from left to right—compositions made from his desired memory.
The interior of the building has little to no ventilation. Wendell can taste the sweat forming above his lips, and he wonders, while the scene goes on, if his ex-wife was right and he was the kind of man who recognized this truth as reality. That this reality may not always have cures for unpronounceable diseases, mangled bodies that couldn’t be fully reassembled after tragic and horrific accidents, or that we didn’t always deserve to know what’s in us, but this reality, this sterilized and sinister version of a hospital’s day-to-day goings, doesn’t tempt us with being too hopeful, which, he feels, was the biggest cruelty. That the reason he used the exact diagnosis of his daughter to film an entire television show’s final season around is because he has to use his power over film to get the entire series of events out of his mind.
After his daughter died, his ex-wife accused him of being the kind of man who confused talking, saying, filming, being, meaning, and grieving, with brittle facts. He can still hear traces of their arguments even as he listens to the scene at hand. He might well be responsible for the painful and exhausting aftermath of his daughter’s death in relation to his marriage—or for some important part of it—but those harsh and ungraspable distinctions she made towards him, he knew, were her own deflections away from her imponderable body and feelings, which consisted entirely of bones and scarcity of meaning. He never felt ashamed for the aftermath, only for what preceded it. He knows what kind of man he is. He is the kind of man who recreates his daughter’s death, not from memory but from administrative reports from the hospital. The kind of man who dry cleans tank tops. The kind of man who married and divorced a woman who felt little except depression. The kind of man who imagines only living inside himself as both filmmaker and a new kind of audience. The kind of man who built a house on top of the world’s deepest earthquakes. The kind of man who plays handball against A-List actors and wins. The kind of man who missed his daughter’s death due to a scheduling conflict. The kind of man who doesn’t intend for his daughter’s death to disappear into unfortunate luck, and to, finally, prevent despair from quietly grasping hope, like an umbilical cord choking a child’s neck in utero. The kind of man who now calls for a cut and waits to shoot again from the top.
A collective breath is taken. Wendell leans back in his chair as makeup artists and script supervisors ready the scene again. Wendell reviews the dailies from the last scene. Elise’s suggestions for the scene are better than what Wendell originally planned. Rewinding the tapes over and over again, he can’t believe the nuances a sudden burst of helpless terror, followed by a brief silence, adds to the quiet shock of the terminally ill. He sits in painful complexity and feels how soft and easily it is to be alone when one is wrong. This isn’t the correct way the day before his daughter’s death went about, but how can he deny the performance? Wendell wished his suggestion brought this terrible, unfair experience into a natural grace, that his suggestion was rooted within a studied economy, where every element of the scene presided over itself’s subtleties—but no. During late nights at the hospital, he knew his daughter didn’t understand the full weight of what was happening to her, and Elise’s performance, while unquestionably great, felt true to what this story called for, but for Wendell, he knew the true terror, the true ghosts within these kinds of narratives involving sick and dying children were the parents. The light around him feels tinged with a dull and swirling effect, as if the whole roof were being compacted into a more rarefied space, wrapping the senses hard and tight like a flag bound around a pole.
There’s an “Oh, shit,” from the boundless blackness above, and Wendell sees and hears, both in real time and the delayed and rendered second the camera captures, a glimmering hunk of overhead lighting falling into the frame of sight, flattening the child actress’ skull with a smothered thud, the metal casing then falling to the floor in a way best described as unremarkable in relation to what it just caused. Then, a shared gasp. The sound studio’s silence its own expression. New darkened gaps in the lighting highlight the scene in pale darkness. There’s now ruffled sounds of bodies coming to realize what happened, running into one another, every instant and every inch within the studio now a frenzied activity of searching for help. Wendell hurries towards the set. Somewhere behind him, someone phones for an ambulance. The actor who plays the doctor screams for an actual doctor. Wendell looks at the splintered pieces of Elise’s face shattered about the bed and room. Wendell bends over in waves of oh god, not again and oh god, not again while others look on. There is nothing for him to do but to pull her head up by her hair and pump her full of breath. He positions himself over her, balancing heavily his weight in relation to hers. To the outside observer, he looks as if he is folding into himself. Before his mouth reaches hers, she lets out a mushy and fleshy gargle, blood pooling around both sides of her mouth that expand and drench outward like competing waves. Lips now pressing against lips with a measured rhythm of breath now tumbling and filling the little girl’s lungs, blood moving oily between mouths as his air blows harder through the windpipe, the breast bone rising and falling, air swelling and then squealing through the rips around her mouth like a punctured balloon, the hospital bed spotlighted by the fallen but still tethered stage lamp. Wendell repeatedly calls for help, echoing through the studio in trebled pulses, limitless in such an overwhelming space. “Help,” is heard in ten second intervals outside in the littered yet tourist-heavy boulevard, where a foreign couple keeps taking pictures of the studio, needlessly, excited as burnt-out neon, aimless with their cameras, irritated by hearing a distant word neither understands underneath the fizzle and whir of traffic, chalking what they hear up to the curious and outlying city sound that happens, as it does, for no apparent reason.
Around the corner and down a half-dozen blocks sits a row of mass-produced, nearly identical townhouses, each one defused and hazed by the whitish smoke pushing through the air, the cause of which can be traced a half-mile down the street to the outside grill of a barbecue joint called Nicely Done. Still early in the afternoon, the light and heat of summer filters everything through waves that make dreamlike copies of the scene at hand. Outside each townhouse, the summer heat wave makes the small, overly manicured lawns in front of each home struggle between green and brown. On this street, tourists and locals are already in gridlock traffic, trying to weave their way to or past the Boulevard. Raymond watches and listens to the full and rushing clamor of midday traffic through his window while Danica sleeps on the sofa. Last night’s rerun of America’s Next Top Mime’s season finale plays in the background. The show is on a commercial break, affording Raymond enough time to replace his old, banal Welcome doormat with his new Lionel Ritchie doormat, inscribed with Ritchie’s face and the lyrics, Hello, Is It Me You’re Looking For? from his 1984 chart-topping hit “Hello.” Down the hall, Raymond’s cancer-riddled cat, named Kaboom, wends his way into the living room, delicately stepping around the coffee table, his once black and gold silkiness now given way to bald spots due to feline chemotherapy, and leans against the tall strength of the living room’s entertainment center. Raymond watches Kaboom, his whole thought process focused on constructing the perfect way in telling Danica he doesn’t actually love her.
Or maybe he does. Playing characters on a show that are supposed to love each other bleeds over into real life. Both he and Danica agreed to start a relationship to add another layer of honesty to their respective performances. Was it love at first sight? The show’s outline for their characters indicated yes, so he willed himself to love, or maybe he allowed others to will that love for him. But even this outline indicated that their love was already falling into past tense: Both felt love at first sight. And with that, both agreed and were led into a deep, emotional connection, ignoring any real unifying effort, like being driven into a wide and endless forest and never told how to leave. What is it about relationships that render us mortal?
The truth is Raymond won’t admit his dread of the space between them, or admit to the greater dread of being thought of as the reason for this ever-yawning space. His anxiety has been mounting. He can identify the distance he feels burgeoning within himself is producing an awareness: something is missing. Something he can’t define that’s suppose to rest within their hands when they comforted each other, or the hollow feeling he gets in the pit of his stomach from the pale and delicate way she slouches her shoulders when he talks, as if a forced, cynical laugh is undercutting the background noise of every space they’re in.
Though they’re in his house, this space feels gaping and indifferent: a faint murmur of the neighbor’s garage door opening; the occasional grainy hiss from Kaboom pawing a spot in the litter box to do his business; what sounds like the insistent scratching of a rodent in the walls; the air resonant with Danica’s slow, sleeping breath, not any more forceful than the drips from a leaky faucet. Raymond flips through the television channels, ranging from an urgent news story regarding a base jumper downtown to infomercials to movies he never had any interest in watching. He flips the channel back to what he was originally watching. America’s Next Top Mime returns from a commercial break, the nighttime Los Angeles skyline superseded by the highly stylized header and logo of the show. Raymond loves watching cities on television because the images displayed have no murky, orange glow relentlessly present on a city’s midnight horizon; no artificial halo threatening the partition of night and day. His phone keeps buzzing from the other room. As he walks across the living room, an ambulance’s quick and dominating wail wakes Danica up from her nap. He stops walking towards the other room and stands near the foot of the couch, finally deciding he’s going to tell Danica how he really feels. There’s been a psoriasis outbreak over her legs. He’s aware the outbreak doesn’t necessarily hurt or itch her too much, but it makes her ugly—red, scabby clumps peeling away the top layer of her skin.
“Jesus,” she says. “When did this happen?”
“You fell asleep over two hours ago, before ANTM even started,” says Raymond, sitting down. “So it had to be sometime in between. Do you need your lotion?”
“No, I need to have it spread a bit. Ideally, I wish more were on my face so I wouldn’t have to be at the makeup trailer so early,” she says, getting off the couch and walking towards the bathroom.
Danica was not only eerily identical in face, bone, and body structure to Wendell’s ex-wife, but she also had psoriasis just like her. These aspects were the sole reasons for getting hired onto the show. Wendell has urged her to not treat the psoriasis during the filming of the show, resulting in more and more outbreaks, and while each subsequent outbreak becomes more and more painful, she, ultimately, does what’s asked. Before she was hired for the show, she was mostly a commercial actress—performing almost exclusively in commercials about psoriasis or methods in how to treat the disease—and Trying Our Best was her first big break.
On the television, the field of mimes has been reduced to two: Ah Choo and Boink. Neil Patrick Harris introduces both mimes and sits at the judges’ table. “The rules are simple,” Harris explains. “Each mime must build off the other’s performance. Each mime is allowed two props. The mime with the most creative and logical addition within the ten minute time limit will be the winner. No jokes about genitals. No unintentional movements. Most importantly, no sounds. Ah Choo won the coin toss backstage so he will begin first.” Most of the crowd readies their camera phones in anticipation—a few more hoot, holler, and scream.
Danica comes back into the living room and sits down, “Shouldn’t we be workshopping the script? We already know who wins.”
“I can’t keep going like this.”
“Hang on,” she says, jumping off the couch, again, and heading towards the bedroom. Kaboom walks over to Raymond and rubs the sides of Raymond’s pants, leaving behind a surprising amount of hair as he saunters towards the kitchen. Many fights have happened because of Kaboom. Danica wants Raymond to put him down, and, initially, Raymond would’ve agreed that having Kaboom put out of his constant misery and pain would be the most humane action at this point, but he finds himself doing more and more things out of spite (e.g. the Lionel Ritchie welcome mat she finds tacky and white-trash). Paradoxically, watching Kaboom deteriorate every day presents a sharp guilt within Raymond, exacerbating his resentment towards Danica for forcing him to take these current actions, or lack of actions, specifically, yet he knows he is just making her love for him and Kaboom the responsible act for his anxiety and unhappiness. Again, his phone goes off.
Danica comes back into the living room, holding the script. Raymond notices some of the bumps on her legs are now bleeding. She sits down and starts flipping through the pages, saying, “Okay, you said, ‘I can’t keep going like this,’ which starts scene seventeen, and I say,” her voice trails off as she tries to find the correct dialogue. Raymond tries to correct the miscommunication.
“Wait, this isn’t—”
“Shh,” says Danica. “I’m looking for it.” She looks up at Raymond with a quiet force of condescension, turning the pages with a hard flipping motion that seems unnecessary. “I’m just amazed they can do that,” she says, nodding towards the television before going through the script again.
On the television, Ah Choo has pulled out a dinner menu, rubbing his stomach and making hungry, wide-frowny mime faces. He now mimes sitting in front of a wobbly cafe table, placing both hands on the table in a way the viewer really believes there is some kind of invisible force present. In perfect sitting posture—with no chair, by the way—he opens the dinner menu, signaling to the judges his turn his over. Raymond absentmindedly watches, frustrated, and notices Kaboom easing his head around the corner of the bathroom.
“Okay, I found it,” she says, closing her eyes to get into character.
“Hang on,” says Raymond.
“Shh,” she says, again closing her eyes, taking a controlled inward and then outward breath. “We’ve gone through six-years of the worst circumstances any family should have to go through. We’ve had no concept of fairness during this time, but somehow we’ve managed to go past it—until now. Now, with the culmination of all this pain and all this hurt, you choose to be consumed rather than to be patient.”
“Uhh,” says Raymond. “We’re not a real family.”
Danica walks away from the couch and lets out tiny sobs in a sort of dopey, hiccupy fashion, followed by a discomforting and ringing scream. Kaboom skitters into the bedroom. “You don’t get to say that,” she says as she walks over to Raymond, grabbing his hand as she sits down, and places it over her heart. “This isn’t real to you?”
Another phone call goes unanswered in the other room. Raymond pulls his hand away from hers, feeling her chapped, bran-flake skin across his.
She walks away from Raymond. Turning around, smiling, Danica’s whole posture has changed into a giddier version of herself. “What do you think, too much?” she asks, sitting back down. “Wendell told me the scream should be deafening and uncomfortable for the viewer.”
“No,” says Raymond, grabbing Danica’s shoulders and shaking her. “We are not a real family. This isn’t real, and this isn’t what I want to talk to you about. I’m not doing the show, right now. I simply not sure if I love you anymore.”
Again, she gets up from the couch, nodding and grinning, blood from her legs freckling the spot where she just sat. “Great! Just remember that it’s ‘writing,’ not ‘doing.’” Danica quickly looks at the script, and closes her eyes.
Raymond sits in confusion, not realizing he is forming his own feelings around the character he’s playing—he has internalized his character to such a point, he subconsciously can’t escape his character’s plotted suffering. He cannot act himself as Raymond. Who, after all, is this “Raymond” but a vessel for other’s words, and who could possibly act as “Raymond?” Even if he entered into the act of acting as “Raymond,” just the awareness of “acting” would render Raymond null-and-void.
As the blood on the couch finally catches Raymond’s attention, Boink approaches Ah Choo, holding a wine bottle. He has chosen to be waiter, not a customer—a move Neil Patrick Harris comments as bold in its predictability. Boink presents the wine bottle to Ah Choo, who seems genuinely glad to have whatever brand of wine Boink presented. After several attempts to open the wine bottle—Boink miming the intense struggle of corkscrewing and pulling the cork to great effect—he finally opens the bottle with his teeth. Harris comments on Boink’s brilliant poise during this seemingly simple, yet very difficult scene. To finish the scene off, Boink, as he positions himself to pour, spills the wine all over Ah Choo, producing laughter from the audience, ending his turn.
“Then tell me, who do you want me to be? What translation of myself would make you love me?” says Danica, again sitting down, her legs brushing against Raymond’s, leaving thin streams of blood on his pants. “Because I’ll do anything for you to just stay.”
Raymond looks at his pants and then at her, saying, “Danica, look.”
“I told you to call me ‘Alice’ when we’re rehears—” she stops mid flush, takes a two beat pause, and says, “Shit. Usually they hurt a lot more before they start bleeding.”
Raymond seizes this moment to say, “Listen, Danica. I am not rehearsing. This is me, Raymond, talking to you, Alice. Damnit, I mean ‘Danica.’”
“Wait,” she says, perking up in a way that is both innocent and confused. “What are you saying?”
“I don’t think I love you anymore.”
A very long silence, except for the occasional hacking cough of Kaboom choking on the chalky red bones of a mouse he caught in the other room. Another call comes and goes. In front, but off to the side of Raymond and Danica, the television sits as commentator.
Furious, Ah Choo mimes flipping the table over, and swings at Boink. However, Boink ducks, leaving Ah Choo spinning around three-hundred-sixty degrees. Ah Choo’s over-sized beret comes flying off his head, and the audience finds this hilarious. Neil Patrick Harris comments on the impeccable and awe-inspiring timing of the entire act. Boink now raises his fists, and both men mime a priceless and impressive improvised fight, ending with Ah Choo giving Boink an over-the-top, cartoony uppercut, sending Boink in the air and then crashing, rigid as a piece of lumber, onto the ground. Ah Choo indicates his turn is over, and Boink immediately holds a small flower over his chest to quickly end his turn. The audience falls into a dispossessed hysteria. Neil Patrick Harris yells, “Sweet Baby Jesus,” “Holy [expletive],” and “My God” over and over and over.
Finally, Raymond says, “I’ve been feeling this for some time, but the thing I can’t figure out is if I really do—”
“It’s just stress,” says Danica, interrupting. “The show is almost over, leading our characters on the final test and reaction of how to struggle as human beings, human beings trying to find something good in a terrible situation. Not to mention the fact that we’ll be out of work in a week or so. Of course you feel this way because you’re so close to your character. I am too, basically. This is essentially scene seventeen.”
“No. Sure, I mean, I can’t help but think that’s part of it. But, ultimately, I thi—”
“The show is ending. We can be happy again. We don’t have to play these people anymore,” says Danica. Her voice is forming a manic rhythm—increasingly higher pitch, words coming out in such a fervor that her speech resembles something more akin to glossolalia than actual speech. “After the show, I’ll get my psoriasis treated and I’ll be pretty again. I promise. You’ve never really seen me. Just stay around a few more weeks and you’ll see how pretty I can be for you. Is it Kaboom? You know I want what you think’s best, but I promise to never bring it up again. Just tell me who you want me to be. Tell me the person who you can love.”
She tries to grab Raymond’s hand desperately. Raymond lets her, but doesn’t attempt to hold her hand back. This embrace seems to fulfill, for a brief second, that missing thing Raymond has searched for and feels delivered into a new kind of place where he thinks he can finally be whole and new. And while all this feels definitely fulfilling, immediately a moment comes where he can’t really envision himself in some invisible place that feels right but isn’t congruent with the fact that they’ll always fail to recognize each other. In the bedroom, Kaboom keeps choking, the bones becoming more and more lodged within his throat. He bucks and darts on top of the bed, a primal fear for survival dictating his every movement, air limiting, and falls off the bed and onto the floor, barely moving.
“Think of all the movies and television shows we’ve done,” says Raymond. “And how many of those ended on some grand plea or gesture by one of the love interests, and how many then have the other love interest see this grand and honest emotional nakedness by this other character and they fall into each other’s arms and go riding off into the sunset.”
“We’re not that kind of story.”
“Yes we are,” says Danica, grabbing the script and flipping towards the end. “See, right here, at the end of Script A. We literally do drive off into the sunset. See, we made it. We made it through it all.”
“This isn’t about scripts. This isn’t about who we play, but who we actually are.”
“But what if I can’t tell the difference? What if I refuse to? We were both forced to feel these stinging emotions for each other. In that way, doesn’t all that time inside those characters’ heads change us from who we were to who we played?”
Raymond doesn’t necessarily disagree with her, but he can’t bring himself to actually admit he could love her. And perhaps, if this were the movies, he could try this scene over and over again, trying again and again each different direction his mind wanted to go but refused, in reality, to budge.
Raymond’s phone starts ringing in the other room. He uses this as a moment to remove himself from the conversation, and hopefully acquire, perhaps, the goodly sense of finally doing something he finds true within himself.
He’s surprised by the amount of messages and missed calls he’s received. He goes through all the text messages and voicemails, some of them twice, and re-enters the living room with a kind of hunch, deeply contemplative, the light of the living room showing the first hints of a later afternoon.
“She’s probably going to die.”
“Our daugh―er, I mean, Elise.”
“But this is Script A,” says Danica in a voice with no flaring pain behind it. There is now Raymond’s hand tracing along her spine, and her muttering a few last things about love and loss. All this traffic noise, seemingly endless, keeps washing past, and in all these cars are glimpses of things that can’t be counted: full bladders, fumbled cigarettes lost to asphalt, and the pox marks left by water on dirty windows; and down the street, hurriedly, a man with a Mickey Mouse neck tattoo parks his car and runs the full block up to Raymond’s house and stops for a second underneath the portico, catching his breath. The house then filling with the sound of the powdery scrapes of feet wiping on a Lionel Ritchie doormat, followed by a firm knock. Elsewhere in the house, Kaboom lies on the bedroom floor amidst a flat swirl of an unwashed comforter, the curtain waving under the A/C’s vent, the last bit of air still caught behind the bones of an animal so much smaller than himself, a peculiar relief now spreading through the body, an incomprehensible affection, the last sounds coming from the opening and closing of the front door and then the sweet, static hum of the television in the other room.
Ah Choo stands in front of a massive audience, unsure of what to do. He’s hesitant in every movement. He walks and jigs from one end of the stage to the other. A few pity laughs come from the audience. He does the guy-trapped-in-a-box trick to booming disapproval. Desperately, he grabs the wine bottle Boink brought on stage. He looks at Boink, lets some wine spill on the floor for the “deceased” and takes a drink, a large gulp, and drops the bottle. He clutches his throat, choking, foaming at the mouth as his body hits the floor and starts spasming. Boink rises from the “dead,” Ah Choo already vomiting and bleeding from every orifice from his body, and walks over and rips the label off the wine bottle, exposing a skull and crossbones symbol and POISON written across the top. Ah Choo gargles for “Help.” Neil Patrick Harris points towards Ah Choo, exclaiming, “Sound disqualification!” Boink does victory laps on stage while Harris pushes a comically large button on his judge’s table. Balloons fall lazily from the ceiling as a studio executive hands Boink a laughably large check that’s been written for fifty-thousand dollars. Harris breaks into song as the audience cheers and sings along, no one hearing or really caring as Ah Choo whispers “Help,” one last time.
“Are these my last thoughts?” thinks Elise. She had heard stories of people in the same circumstances, people mistaken in assuming the last few thoughts would be pleasant, chronological, and a remembrance of everything we forgot. She sees herself content in a small room, a bedroom, or maybe just some other common area of the house—the kitchen, her father’s studio, the foyer. It is snowing inside the house. She thinks she is helping her parents move into a house on a snowy hill, holding a small shoebox filled with cutouts of all the beautiful celebrities she swore she would be, but this exact house, she comes to think, was in Santa Monica, surrounded by sand and the never ending squawks that came from the endangered parrot sanctuary a few buildings down. Even in this life-flashing thought, she doesn’t mind the inaccurate placement of the snow—no sound, no interruption from the silence the snow produces, but the snow does push against every stride she takes in her mind, preventing her from going up the stairs to the small upstairs room, which was hers, where her window used to, she remembers, filter all the pure light of the world into her room. There are more memories about that time, but those details aren’t important. After all, these are her last thoughts, and so often the thoughts and details of someone else’s life don’t exactly matter to anyone else.
Elise comes to recognize she is somewhere caught between what is happening around her and the thoughts within her head. There are straps holding her down, digging across her chest, pelvis, and legs. Off to her right, she hears the mobile ECG machine’s steady and assertive beeps becoming more and more infrequent like an imminent countdown to saying goodbye. Every now and then, she thinks she hears Wendell asking why the ambulance isn’t moving. All these noises of the ambulance’s mobile facility and all these noises of the surrounding traffic fade as she thinks of other immobilized ambulances on the freeway, the quiet sun above them all. And if she were to look at the city’s grid as it currently stands, from above, she would see the dull and draggy traffic move through the loop-de-loop system of braided highways and interstates, and she would watch as this ordinary traffic jam creates a landscape of half-erased sentences, rewriting some streets to be bolder, some streets thinner. If she watch the traffic for a little bit longer, maybe she would have understood why tourists who were caught in traffic believed Los Angeles was a place to visit, not a place to live, or why residents of Los Angeles thought the city as something to labor over in overpriced homes and frustrating traffic, knowing full well they wish this wasn’t so. If she could just see this system around her, maybe she would no longer be contained just within the city, and maybe she would see, just outside the eastern part of Los Angeles, a bus shooting through the sandy hush of the desert, blowing narrowed honks to warn those animals daring to cross the road. Only in places of vast emptiness can the shattering ordinariness of living things be seen: roadrunners scurrying along the road while their dirty gold feathers catch the sun’s rays and emit a light that seems to have come from within; a rogue coyote raking dust with his paw as a few desert mice look past the opening of their burrow like children yearning from a vacant doorway; an armadillo half-squashed along the median—front limbs clawing towards the great expanse of dust and sand, every motion unyielding. In the background, she would see the faded downtown skyline of Los Angeles bloom and sweep the horizon like a dark orchid. Maybe she would finally understand that the whole landscape is a justifiable homicide.
But the moment denies her.
Elsewhere, back in the grid there are two ambulances dead stuck in traffic, but within the one still inching along, Elise sees the downtown skyscrapers and the evening sun softly kissing the top floor of the buildings through the oval-slitted windows on the back door of the ambulance. The skyline shimmers and pops light along the horizon, but grips all those underneath its shadows like a closing fist. The sun conspires with skyscrapers in turning these downtown shadows even larger and more overwhelming. A man with a Mickey Mouse neck tattoo walks along the sidewalk in downtown, trying to get home after experiencing a day with so much death, who refracts in and out of focus from the overheating asphalt, passing strangers who look upwards towards a base jumper, stops, also looks, shields his eyes from the sun with his hands like others in this ever-growing mass of spectators, across the street from which a woman and her dog are walking, stately, leash tightening then relaxing, noticing but not really caring for the temporary things of everyday life and keeps walking away.
The base jumper stands on the edge of the rooftop, concerned, checking again and again the parachute cord is taut. What’s going on around and inside the small ambulance, the base jumper, and the immovable city is too complex and amorphous for unshared details. The truth is all the fractal connections and the schism of voices barely scratch the surface in their attempt to manage insignificance. The truth is this is how it has to be:
Underneath the furious grief of Wendell, the ECG buzzed this tiny, awful sound of Elise’s heart coming to a stop. The rookie EMT, top of his class, now trying to recall, desperately, every technique he learned in night school to keep a young child minimally alive, remembering the basic protocol to use the defibrillator at no more than three times, he thinks, before calling the time of death. Wendell, again, calling for “Help,” and for the driver to, for god’s sakes, hurry. The EMT now placing both paddles between the soft dent of the little girl’s chest in a manner both deft and faultless as the body spasms upwards and collapses back in hard recession. Elise can feel the singe of heat left behind from the paddles. Her last thoughts moving in fast motion montage: her first acting class when she was six; the first national commercial she appeared in for Admiral Jack value brand cereal; gazing improbably across—for the first time—the empty, milk-blue sky that can only be seen from an airplane. Her thoughts are loud and thin, cramming these years together, but she isn’t necessarily afraid. What reports and testimonies always miss and never really see is these last thoughts aren’t necessarily jumbled or random, and the mental work your brain is doing with coming to terms with the grim reality presented in front of it is because it has no reference point for death. Terror is not an issue. Elise is feeling the effects of a brain that is shaky and indecisive, pumping her full of dopamine because it has exhausted every possible understanding in how to fix this, centralizing meaning and the feeling of being A-Okay until the slow release from pain is felt hot streaming through her. It’s okay, Elise thinks. “It’s okay,” repeating in calm rhythms in her head, while “Please,” is screamed by Wendell four times in between the first and second and third shocks, never once being heard over the constant harmony of car radios and sighing hums of traffic moving and coming to rest.
There is no true script for the resolution of grief. Those who have lost children are a society of the dead forced amongst the living. When his daughter died, this seemed immensely frightening for him—as if to be possessed by that which was past normalcy, past history, past the measured axis of misery and catastrophe. Inside the ambulance, the sharp right angles contained within the vehicle, to Wendell, seem to stretch well beyond their own dimensions, hovering in the real world between every action, between every diminishing moment reducing chaos to pattern, infinitely dense. Wendell keeps coming back to something he already knew. Voices crowd around in his head. He’s trying to articulate some reasonable response other than This is it or the clock has run or no different, maybe. The last instant of him remembering his daughter is now far behind him, and the low trill of cars honking so close in front of him.
The EMT turns towards Wendell, “I’m so sorry.”
In Wendell’s face, nothing to be seen but a plea for quiet.
His daughter was named Anne.
Off in other traffic, Danica and Raymond receive conflicting text messages on what hospital Elise will be taken to. With respect to a city this large, neither exercise the common sense to simply assert themselves and just ask, straight up, where she will be taken. They follow the reports of TMZ, Variety, E!, and other entertainment news sources, all speculative. The sky is becoming a deep indigo.
Airplanes trail icy across the sky, forming an unblemished X. With great laborious breaths, the base jumper prepares to fall and begin the slow glide down and around the full-functioning business district and land foolproof within the dimensions of the Staple Center’s parking lot. Checks again the advertising banner attached to his foot; an advertisement for a business called Paco’s Taco and Cell Phone Emporium, a business the base jumper has no intention of ever being a patron, but will gladly cash their checks. Wets his finger to test the wind. Readies himself to fall and pull the chord. Shuffles a few inches towards the edge of the roof. All balance now placed on the balls of his feet, but, out of his peripherals, he sees, too late, a pigeon come from out of the blue, clipping him in his chest. He does a full, unsteadied rotation on his heels—the people below believing the movement an intentional flourish of a pirouette—grabs for air, accidentally hooks his thumb into the chute’s cord but does manage to grab the pigeon, the parachute now bloating full of wind, the base jumper and pigeon not falling into the chute but being pulled towards it. Below, the man with the Mickey Mouse neck tattoo watches. The crowd gasps and howls with terror in the same, indistinguishable way of all large groups of people. The base jumper appeared to fall (the man with Mickey Mouse neck tattoo would remark later to the KRLY news crew) in slow motion, in the way movies appeared to cut the rate of gravity by half. Both the base jumper and pigeon twist and tumble through the air, becoming more and more tangled within the chute. The flittery mass dropping like a falling rag. Carelessly trailing behind them the advertisement, sponsoring. The base jumper feeling the pigeon’s fluttering heartbeating against his own. The whole crowd watches the slow and certain tragedy unfolding before them. For the man with the neck tattoo, the whole fall could be mapped towards infinity: halfway, quarterway, eighth-way, sixteenth, etc. He is living a day unquestionably different from any other he will live. Right now, of course, he is concentrating on what’s directly in front of him, there’s no real choice in the matter. To ignore and look away from the falling man would be to turn yourself inside out, to disappear without absolute understanding.
As he comes lower over the crowd, the base jumper sees, rapidly: the crowd, his reflection off the mirrored windows of the skyscraper, the crowd, the matte indigos and pinks of a tired sky, his reflection, the crowd, the pigeon screeching and yammering. No real thoughts happening in his head but an unmappable chart of distant memories that flow and fade and interrupt one another—not to mention the things he will never get to do again—and he laughs thinking about Paco being relieved in not having to pay any money for the advertisement, though Paco probably won’t appreciate the soon-to-be association of his store with regrettable gruesomeness. Oh well. It’ll pass. No one’s truly forgiven until they’re truly forgotten.
And so, when the base jumper reaches less than ten feet, this is the moment when the trauma finally enters the man with the Mickey Mouse neck tattoo, empty and bright, theirs and his, the kind of trauma that empties the streets and makes the news, but for all the other bodies present elsewhere—Elise, those mice, Kaboom—they fall into a pleasant feeling that can only exist amongst so much trembling anxiety, a feeling best described as sweet and dissolving away like sugar in boiling water. All of it, despite everything, a good, good feeling.
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