I was just off my valet shift, 3 a.m., and I’d gone to a pancake house. This was in L.A., forty years ago. An old man landed in my booth, ka-thud.
He was one of the most famous movie actors of all time.
I didn’t recognize him. I was just a kid, a year out of high school from Colby, Kansas. Later I found out his name was Boris Karloff. The original movie monster. As in Bride of Frankenstein, electric bolts humming and zapping, Igor the assistant, the mad doctor shouting, It’s alive! There were a lot of remakes but he was the original, from the old movie days.
In the pancake house though he was just an old hulk in a polyester leisure suit like the ones Johnny Carson sold on tv in the ‘60s. They were supposed to be trendy with these ridiculously wide lapels but on him it was more like wrinkled pajamas. He pointed at me and said, “You were key grip. Was it for Die, Monster, Die?”
People say wackos and winos are part of the fauna in L.A. If they bother you, just say, “Back off.” I tried but it came out like a squeak. His foot was on mine. I yanked it out from under and looked around for the cops, who usually hung out there, but just then the place was empty except the short order cook in the window and a couple of people at the counter.
He mumbled, “No, not key grip,” then his eyes lit up. “You were best boy!”
“I’m not a boy,” I said. They say you shouldn’t answer a wacko, but I wanted to defy him. “I’m a girl in case you didn’t notice.”
“Yes,” he said. “A very pretty best boy.”
“You can find a boy on Santa Monica Boulevard if that’s what you want.”
He said, “Do they have yogurt here? Evelyn wants yogurt.”
“Yogurt’s not on the menu, okay? Go try a grocery store,” I said. Who was Evelyn? His wife? A cat?
He said, “Precisely.” Except he had a lisp so it sounded more like prethithely. “Evelyn’s usual grocer is closed. Can you drive me to another? I’ll pay you.”
His voice was familiar, deep, soft, almost caressing, the most famous monster voice in the world, mimicked by comedians and schoolchildren, but he wasn’t acting now, so I didn’t make the connection. Apparently he thought I was a taxi, even though my company’s name was stitched on my ball cap, Green Bikini Valet. Everybody knew it.
“I’m off duty,” I said.
“We may have met on the set of Bikini Beach,” he said. A joke, sort of.
I couldn’t help saying, “I know that movie. I saw it in a snowstorm at a drive-in in Colby, Kansas. Starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello.”
It made sense now, the terms “key grip” and “best boy,” they were in the credits at the end of a movie, assistant electricians or something. I’d been in L.A. just long enough think everybody was in the movies in some way, even if it was only prop rentals.
I said, “Did you see Frankie and Annette? What were they really like?”
“Colby, Kansas,” he said, all evil, like he was saying what have we here? Like he had some small creature trapped, me. “And have you come here to be in the movies?”
“I just came to find a job,” I said.
“As did I,” he said. “Are you in therapy? They’re telling everyone now you have to be in therapy before you can act. You have to discover who you are.”
He was having his fun with me but it was okay, more kind than evil. I said, ”I have a friend who’s in therapy. Well, not a friend, just someone I met the other day. She said whatever you are, you have to face it. Before …”
“No!” he said and I flinched—he had roared almost, and his eyes had grown huge, mainly because his lower lids sagged. “Whatever you do don’t face it. You must run from it. It’s your only hope.”
I had to laugh.
The waitress showed up. “Don’t you even have menus yet?” She glanced at us both then gave me a look that said, Is this man is bothering you? It was my chance to make a break, but I wanted to know about Frankie and Annette. On his behalf I asked the waitress, “Is there a grocery store around here, open late?”
“I don’t know, hon,” she said, irritated. “I’ll get you some menus.”
He reached his hand gratefully across the table but I evaded it. He said, “We’re a lot alike, you and I.”
I laughed again. We were nothing alike.
But he was so serious. Suddenly he was telling me his life story. Like me, he was from a small town, his was Honor Oak, in England. When he was a boy—a lad, he said—they thought he was odd, thin and tall for his age with bow legs and terribly shy. He wanted to be anyone other than himself. So he dreamed of being an actor on the stage. People laughed, because he had an awful stutter. How could he be an actor? When he was old enough he ran away. He had no skills so worked as a farmhand in Canada, and the American Midwest. He said I wouldn’t believe it but he was even in Colby, Kansas once. For years he worked on his stutter, “It was ever so hard to overcome,” he said. In California he lucked into work as an extra in a silent movie. From then on he was in Hollywood.
“People in small towns don’t want to understand you,” he said “They only want to categorize you.” Categorithe, as he said it.
It was eerie, the effect that word had on me—it seared my heart because it was true. Everybody in Colby had me typed. They said I was a lesbian, even though I liked boys. I liked one boy so much I had to get an abortion. My family would’ve killed me if they knew. Which was why I left Colby. There were people I didn’t want to see anymore. I didn’t have any money. In short, my life was fucked. What business was it of theirs if I liked girls, too? I got angry tears just thinking about it. I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I think pretty much everybody in the world is misunderstood, whether you’re from a small town or a big one.
It was kind of funny actually—the part about him getting rid of his stutter, because he still had a lisp. I didn’t have the heart to ask him about it, though. I was afraid they might have done something to him, long ago, something surgical, to correct the stutter, that instead caused the permanent lisp. That’s usually how shit happens, isn’t it?
He said, “Is that your car?” It was probably obvious— a few ordinary cars in the lot, out the window, and one crappy beat up little Ford Pinto, my pride and joy. A model banned from the roads of America. “Is that the kind that goes up in flames?” He was delighted. “You’re brave to drive it.”
It started creeping me out, him knowing everything about me and Colby and my car.
His hand leaped onto mine. “Shall we go find yogurt?” he said. The terrible paw had me and I tried to wriggle free as if it was scalding me. “Evelyn would love to meet you,” he said. For a second I went full paranoid, my thoughts racing, Is this what he tells people? Evelyn wants to meet you? To get you in the car so he can stab you to death?
His smile had grown wide. It seemed to me like death, his teeth tilted, like old gravestones. Leaving with him would be abandoning your life, I thought. Who in their right mind would go with him?
But it passed, because I felt the tremor in his hand—he was old. Also because I defied him in my mind, you can’t hurt me, and that eased my nerves. I saw him as just a boy, gangly and odd with bow legs and a stutter and a stupid dream. A boy who ran half way across the world to this pancake house, and me. I took a breath. I thought, Why not help him? Why not go with him? Who wouldn’t? So I let him take me out to my fire bomb, the Pinto. To get yogurt for Evelyn, or wherever we were going.
Robert Shapard has published stories in Necessary Fiction, Hoctok, New Flash Fiction Review, Juked, 100 Word Story, Fiction International, Cimarron Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, New England Review, and Kenyon Review. He has been an editor and teacher and now lives in Austin where he is writing a novel.