Robert Shapard ~ Best Boy

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 didnt 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. “Dont 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. “Ill 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 didnt want to see any­more. I didnt 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. “Youre 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.