The Breath of a River
By Michael Garabedian
Illustrations by David Long
This is how I found my way back. We are at the open doors of a shed on the ramshackle property I’ve rented in a long, narrow, rock-walled side valley near Durango, Colorado. Harold’s bald head has sweat all over it and his dark, bushy moustache (still holding pizza bits from his airport lunch two hours ago) is twitching. He hoists a rusted shovel and yells, “Because this is all you’ll ever be able to do out here: shovel shit — horse shit!”
I am ready. A girlhood in mumbling, self-effacing Rhode Island notwithstanding, seven years of Manhattan living had yielded me one clear positive — budding starlet career aside — a sharpened tongue and quickened wit. I turn toward him with a little Hedda Gabler clutch of disdain (I played her eight years ago, in college at Brown) and use a word she would have loved: “As opposed to all the bullshit of a life in New York or LA.”
Being an actors’ agent, Harold knows from drama, and being the 37-year-old, shortish and overweight Bronx boy that he is, he knows how to shout when he thinks he needs to: “SPOILED LITTLE …” “UNGRATEFUL LITTLE…” “AFTER THE FIVE YEARS WE’VE PUT INTO …” “GOLDEN GLOBE NOMINATION …” “CLOTHES …” “STYLISTS …” “CANNES …” “RED CARPET AT THE GGS …” ending, for now, with “Ya know what most people would give to get even as far as you got now? They’d sell their frail, aged grandmuthas to Hitler. They’d kick their pleadin’ muthas into vats a burnin’ oil! Get ya stuff outta this shack. We’re flyin’ back to New York!”
“NO, I’M THROUGH WITH ALL THAT. I’M HERE TO BUILD A NEW LIFE.”
Harold throws the shovel to the ground; it clanks and bounces.
When he’d driven up uninvited in his little beige rental car, I was watching through the kitchen window screen — the gravel of the driveway growls and crackles when driven on, and in this early summer season, dust rises around every vehicle like an enveloping ghost. My warning system.
He’d stumbled in his tight shiny shoes across the long dry grass and hidden stones of the front yard. I’d refused to let him in, which might seem ungracious after his long flight from New York with two transfers — he’d worked that part in three times — but his unannounced arrival and bellowing hadn’t exactly put me in a hostess-y mood. I also didn’t want him to see that I’d already started to pack.
When I appeared on the front steps, he freaked out. “Whoa—! What’d ya do to that leg?! Is that even gonna heal? It’ll take seven make-up people just to cover that up for every shot! You think you’re gonna wear pants in all the rest ’a ya movies?!”
The leg. I’d been white-water rafting on the River of the Lost Souls. At the outfitters, I’d asked advice: kayak or raft? Two young guys started showing off, tossing elaborate, insider-y pros and cons to each other over my head, when a beautiful old woman sidled up to me, never making eye contact: “If you choose a kayak, you will ride the current of a river; if you choose a raft, you will ride the breath of a river.”
“Rafting it is!” I announced. Three weeks of lessons, including four solo runs, with no mishaps, just joy. Then a kid leading his first run spilled us all at just the wrong spot, and a boulder scraped a few layers from the whole length of my right leg. Forty-five stitches, and it looks like a pair of giant, elongated, swollen lips blasted with herpes sores. Sexy, huh? Halle Berry, eat your heart out.
His opening act of raging at the idiocy of my life choices now over, Harold sizes me up. He all but checks my teeth.
“So, you’re lettin’ your hair just hang now?”
“I’m letting my hair just hang now.”
“You gonna let it go brown like those roots?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“You look better blonde.” It’s true, my real hair color is definitely a BEFORE, a shade you won’t find on any box, but I was hoping it’d take on a sun-dappled look here in the high country, and, frankly, I was enjoying just sort of letting everything go. For once.
He steps closer. “You have — freckles.”
He goes weird and silent, staring at me with half-closed eyes, hands hanging at his sides, mouth slightly open. Uh, oh: The Territory. I’d avoided it since Harold had feted me with a celebratory lunch back when I’d started with the agency five years ago. I’d booked a commercial on my first send-out. I was one of three girls who flashed on the screen to show the effects of different colors of eye make-up. They had re-dyed my brown-but-dyed-blonde hair black and cut it so I had these Jazz Age mid-face bangs that bounced a lot and ran over my cheekbones in a sensuous way, and they put so much dark shadow around my light blue eyes that I looked like Theda Bara. I loved it. On camera, I played with it all in a mock-seductive way, and the director shouted: “Yes! Yes! Do that!” which made me go into this shy, embarrassed, laughing-at-myself response — and that’s what made it to the screen. They played the thing forever. Well, it enabled me to get out of that slum share and pick my parts a little more carefully. So we were at this small restaurant table, and Harold was telling me of an upcoming movie audition for which they wanted a sexy-but-innocent girl, and I did the laugh and mid-face bangs thing as I had on the set, and he clunked his chair next to mine, grabbed my hand between sweaty palms, and told me with hot breath that was like a combination of salami and attic air that he wanted to quit the agency to become my (apparently live-in) personal manager with only one client. I immediately rendered my mid-face bangs immobile, quickly talked him back into his agency job, and did my best to summon total androgyny, and from then on with him for all the sexual/sensual vibes I put out, I might as well have been Miss Hathaway on The Beverly Hillbillies. Ironically, the sensible, straight-forward manner I thereafter adopted seemed to bring us into closer, more effective teamwork than we might otherwise have achieved, and within the next three years I was on, as he’d put it in my yard: “Dat beauty-ful red carpet at the GGs.” I’d hit indie gold with Steps — the lead. The Toronto Festival, Cannes, the Golden Globes — click — click — “Here, Haley!” “Here!” Yes, it was fun.
Last year’s Path to a Hanging, which was good but went nowhere (the title?), started out at the Telluride Fest. I could not believe where I was. It was hard to get myself indoors to watch any screenings, even the one I was in. Living there? Yeah, got umpteen million dollars? I drove a rented 4×4 throughout these ranges, more jagged and thrill-producing than anything I’d seen in the continental U.S., and found the region’s de facto capitol, a well-rounded little community, a place where you could do things, really live a life, and started dreaming.
Harold is moving closer to me. I’m trying to think of something to say to gross
him out when the phone rings inside.
“You said you got no signal here!”
“It’s a land line, belonging to the owners. I agreed to use it only in emergencies.”
“I gotta make a call! We are this close,” he pinches stubby fingers in front of a scrunched-up face, “to gettin’ Angie Jay Randall into the next In-Vision. Of that novel you liked.” He watches for my reaction. He doesn’t get one, he doesn’t not get one — I know how to play that kind of thing like one of the old pros. Bette Davis would be proud.
He fast-motion waddles toward my back door. This time, I don’t protest. It’ll be good to be rid of him for even a few minutes.
There’s a nest atop a dead tree. Good for Angie Jay Randall. Big, but not big enough for an eagle. I’ve got a new life in Southwestern Colorado.
“Haley! It was your landlord. I told ’im you were on your way back ta New York and you would call ’im later.”