Palo Alto Weekly 30th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult

Next Verse

By Tara Cottrell Wright

About Tara Cottrell Wright

My guilty pleasure is celebrity gossip websites. One in particular, TMZ, giddily reports on celebrity disasters. It's pretty awful, but I find them weirdly compelling. Sometimes I see stories there about celebrities who are very clearly falling apart. And I wonder what it would be like to be a parent of one of them, and possibly to be estranged from them. The idea came from that. I've been writing off and on for a number of years and have a nonfiction book, "Buddha's Diet," coming out in the fall, which I wrote with a friend. I'm from Menlo Park originally and now live in Palo Alto.

 

Judge's comments

Expertly crafted, "Next Verse" weaves past and present while ultimately foretelling a future with little hope. It's a poignantly told tale that follows the narrator on a fool's errand to West Hollywood to rescue his out-of-control actor son. One of the most gripping and tender stories I've read in this competition.
-- Tom Parker

Listen to the story read by the author, Tara Cottrell Wright:

At dawn, we move through the lit rooms of the house, gathering our last minute things for a fool's errand to West Hollywood. Here are her sunglasses, my prescription, a note for the house sitter. Here is a tin of mints, a bottle of sunscreen and her St. Jude coin. The bags are by the door. My wife slides our plates of half-eaten toast into the sink. Ghost is on his perch, eyeing the toast, waiting to see if he might get some.

"I'd like some of that," he squawks.

"I know you would Ghostie," my wife says.

He dances for her, a little shimmy across his wooden perch and then a nod, nod, nod of his head.

"We don't have to go," I tell her.

"You saw the photos," she says.

She's talking about the photos on a celebrity gossip website: our son Ben, strung out in some house in the Hollywood Hills. In the photo, he's slumped on a couch, his pupils big as dimes. The month before, fresh out of rehab, he signed on to be in a Civil War movie; the snarky caption below this mess of a photo reads, "Ready for battle?"

I look at Kate. Her back is to me but I can see there is no talking her out of it. I know it by the way she is standing, the way her shoulders straighten, the way she tucks her thumbs into her closed fists as though she wants to fight me, as though she wants to fight herself.

This is what we've been doing for a while now, flying back and forth from SFO to LAX, trying to see our son. A year ago, he lost his mind in front of a bar on the strip and someone got it on video. He was yelling at a bouncer. He was drunk, probably high. He rages and weaves in the video. "Do you know who I am?" he shouts, smacking his chest like a gorilla. "I'm a legend!" It was all over the internet. There was a hashtag. A couple weeks after that, he relieved himself on the floor of a nightclub. There was footage of that, too. It was confusing. He'd never been a drinker. We flew to see his manager. My wife barged into his office, me trailing behind.

"I want to know what you've done to my son," she said.

The manager blinked and blinked, mouth open, like he had no idea who we were, which in fact he didn't.

- - -

"Back soon," Kate says quietly now to Ghost.

"Back soon," he squawks.

Suddenly I just want to get this all over with. I open the front door and grab one of the roller bags.

"Ghost!" Kate says and before I can turn, I feel a brush of feather slip past my ear as he goes. In a second he's flown to the fence at the end of the walkway. A moment later the sprinklers come on with a pop and a hiss, startling us all. Ghost takes off again, flying to the eucalyptus tree over the road. We hurry after him and peer up into the dark branches. He's excited, feathers ruffled, scuttling back and forth along a branch.

"Didn't you clip his wings recently?" I ask, angry now.

"Didn't you?" she snaps.

"Come on Ghost, come here sweetie," she calls.

He shreds a piece of bark and little bits fall through the branches like confetti. He won't look at us.

"Okay," Kate says, shrugging. "Guess you'll just have to stay here Ghostie."

It's what we used to do with Ben when he was little -- pretend to leave him somewhere when he was having a fit. It didn't work then either.

I go inside and get some grapes from the fridge. Back under the tree, I hold the grapes skyward, like Ghost is a Greek God and this is my offering. I feel ridiculous and desperate. Five minutes go by, ten, twenty. Ghost is still on a high branch, looking down occasionally to observe us.

"We aren't going to make this flight," I tell Kate.

She covers her face with her hands. It's too much, this parrot in the tree, her son spiraling somewhere in Los Angeles.

"Ghost!" she shouts into the tree. "Come down here. Right now!"

I put my hand on her back. "We'll just fly out tomorrow," I say.

The streetlight goes out, the sun will be up soon. I can hardly see Ghost now, he's just a smudge of pale grey in the branches.

"Go," she says. "I don't know how you do it, but you bring Ben home to me." She looks at me, then up into the tree. "Dammit Ghost!" she shouts.

A light goes on in the house next door and a figure appears in the window. Not knowing what else to do, I wave.

- - -

I splash out for a fancy hotel room in West Hollywood. It's a hotel Ben's been seen at. Last week the paparazzi got him coming out of the hotel bar here, some starlet on his arm, both of them looking a little worse for wear. A week before, the studio put out a statement that Ben was looking forward to his new role, now that he was rested and healthy. He looked neither.

From my room I can see the hotel pool, two floors below and impossibly blue. A pretty girl floats on an inflatable ring, alone. I sit on the edge of the bed and for the fourth time since landing, call Ben. I leave a message: "Ben, it's your dad. I'm here in L.A. and I really would love to see you. Call me. Please." I hang up. I call Kate.

"He's still in the tree," she says. "He won't come back and I'm coming unglued. It's drizzling here. He's going to get pneumonia."

"Well, his ancestors are from the Congo," I say. "It rains there."

"He's about as equipped for rain as a housecat is for the jungle, Michael."

I watch the girl get out of the pool and lie down on a lounger. She is the color and gloss of a convenience store hot dog.

"How about the fire department?" I ask.

"I thought about that. He'd take off for sure. We'd never see him again."

There is a hitch in her voice. She's about to lose it. "Tell me you got in touch with Ben."

"I'm so sorry," I say.

There is silence on the other end. "These boys in our life …" she finally says, "how come don't they know how much we love them?"

- - -

In the hotel bar I order a drink and watch people pass by outside, hoping one will be Ben. It is mid-afternoon. I have no good ideas, no tactics to lure him home. I don't even have my wife's coin. St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, is back at the house, employed in the return of lost parrots. Something inside me winces; we are all trafficking in delusion. I pull up the celebrity website on my phone. No new photos of Ben.

"You like that site?"

It's a man next to me, doughy looking and pink.

"Just wondering if I might see any stars," I say.

He takes a pull from his beer. He has chewed nails and a nice watch. "I'm a photographer. I sell that website my photos," he says.

"You must make good money."

"Feast and famine," he shrugs.

"You hoping for a feast at this hotel then?"

"Hedging my bets," he says.

"On?"

"Silas Brodie."

This is my son's Hollywood name. It is still like hearing the name of a stranger.

"He's here?"

"That's the word. And he's not doing so great, which frankly is good for business."

I raise my hand to signal the bartender. "Another," I mouth. I turn to the man. "So you profit from tragedy," I say.

He is briefly startled, but recovers. "You're in Hollywood," he says.

The bartender sets the drink down and I swallow a big gulp. It singes my throat, my eyes. I stand up too soon and grip the lip of the bar to steady myself.

"You okay?" the man asks.

"My parrot is missing," I say. I clap the man on the back, a little too hard. "Good luck to you," I tell him.

The man coughs. "I make my own luck," he says.

"Yes," I say. "Of course you do."

- - -

I go back to the room and call Ben. Then again and again. Over and over. I take a shower, get dressed, then lie down on the bed, scrolling through the channels. I pause on one of Ben's stupid movies. He is unfamiliar on the screen. It seems years since he was mine. When was the last time? Maybe Culver City, when he was first trying to make it. He had a little apartment and took the bus to casting calls. We went and stayed with him once. He didn't even really drink then, let alone the rest.

I fall asleep and when I wake, it is dark. I go to the window and look down. The pool is lit up and glittering. The hot dog girl is back again, or never left. She's floating on her back. Only now there is a man standing at the edge, watching her. Off to the side are two bodyguard types, standing sentry at the pool gates. I look again at the man at the edge. When he walks to a lounge chair, I feel a ripple of recognition: The man is my son. He lights a cigarette, sits down, then stands up again and bounces on the balls of his feet, just like he did when he was small. I pick up my phone and call. I see Ben's phone light up on the table next to him. He picks it up, looks at it and puts it down. I call again. He picks it up, puts it down. Now, he walks to the edge of the pool, leans over and extends an arm to help the girl out. They do a half stumble at the edge and then she's out and pressed against him. The two of them lie down on the loungers, side by side. He lights another cigarette. My heart knocks, my breath films the glass. I wipe it away and watch a waiter appear with what looks like a bottle of whiskey. I call again.

The girl reaches for the phone. My son gestures for her to stop. But he's too late, she already has the phone to her ear.

"Hello?" she laughs.

"Hello," I say. "I'm looking for my son Ben."

She presses the phone to her damp chest. I imagine I can hear her heartbeat. They confer. She returns.

"He's actually on a plane right now. I'm his assistant and unfortunately he's unreachable.

"He's uh," she says, "in Tibet."

"Filming a movie about the Civil War," I say.

"That's right," she says.

"You're a liar," I say. "You tell my son he's a liar too."

"What?"

"That tan is going to kill you one day," I say.

I hang up. My son stands and dives into the pool. The girl watches from the edge. When he comes up for air, he grabs her ankle and pulls her in. She shrieks and falls in with a splash. He reaches around her neck to unfasten her bikini top. I watch it bob away from them, black strings trailing like tentacles. My phone rings.

"He's back," my wife says. "Oh my God, he's back. Listen to this," she says. There's a pause, then the sound of her singing: "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …" Ghost chirps and whistles in response.

I remember Ben in footed pajamas, appearing in the doorway of our room after some nightmare, his hair a downy crown. We sang him this song she sings now, the same lines repeating, until his eyes closed. I look down at him. He is two stories below and no closer than Tibet. My wife is still singing, Ghost is still chirping and I am watching my boy, and thinking how no one ever tells you the next verse is a heartbreaker.

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