Excerpt from The Return of the Player
THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER
By Michael Tolkin
Grove PressCopyright © 2006 Michael Tolkin
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGriffin Mill was broke, he was down to his last six million dollars. No one knew he was ruined-not Lisa, his wife; not June, his first wife; not even his lawyer-but the $3 million in investments that he made in the late 1990s (on the advice of his business manager, convinced of a permanent new economy charged by an expansion of wealth made possible by technology), having reached $22 million in February of 2001, were now barely doubled; and what might have been $25 million-if the Studio's stock had once again reached $80, and he could have exercised his option for a half-million shares at $30 was now gone forever, because the parent company had made a stupid merger, box office was down, it would never return, and the stock hadn't seen better than $17 in five years. He owed June and their two children, Ethan and Jessa, $300,000 a year out of his salary of $1.5 million before taxes, but since his income after taxes was barely $750,000 a year, that left him only $450,000 to spend after the alimony. He paid two mortgages. If he sold his house with Lisa he might clear a million, but where would they go? The distress of his situation made him impotent, and he was allergic to Viagra.
It was Griffin's impotence and depression that had sent Lisa to a divorce lawyer, who asked her to secretly make copies of Griffin's financial statements. Griffin, who loved his second wife and believed in the strength of their marriage much as he once believed in the value of Global Crossing (high of $61, low of zero), had never established a way of hiding his assets, and his prenuptial agreement with Lisa was generous, so it was a shock to her when the lawyer wrote some numbers on a paper and showed her how she could not afford a divorce, since her share of the stock would be less than $5 million, which, invested at what the lawyer suggested should be a conservative 3 percent, would generate about $150,000 a year. She might win more stock after a lawsuit, but even with $300,000 before taxes, she would bump around in coach, collect her own bags, and never again enjoy Christmas in Maui in a suite that cost $1,000 a day. The lawyer advised her to stay with Griffin until he beat her.
"Do you think he will?" she asked.
"Shit happens," said the lawyer, an expression of resignation so infinitely repulsive to Lisa that in the rebound from the meeting she located some pity for her husband, who in secret carried his financial ruin at the cost of his cock.
The lawyer's suggestion that she return to work was ridiculous. She had been a bad actress, her talent limited by her reflective intelligence and by a murmur, just next to her conscience, of her mother's last words, before she had died of lymphoma five years ago, written in her impersonally elegant cursive on hospital stationery, expressing dismay that her bright and gracious daughter would follow a path so pebbled with crushed vanity. Lisa was thirty-seven; she was old. Griffin was fifty-two; he was old.
After the meeting Lisa went to pick up her daughter, Willa, from Children's Lincoln, the school founded in 1940 by Hollywood Communists sympathetic to the Lincoln Brigade, who set their mission statement on a bronze plaque at the entrance.
During the Spanish Civil War, 1936-19397 two thousand eight hundred American volunteers took up arms to defend the Spanish Republic against the fascists and joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The "Lincolns" came from all walks of life and included students, seamen, lumberjacks, and teachers. They established the first racially integrated military unit in United States history.
Children's Lincoln is dedicated to honoring their selfless example. It is the school's mandate to raise up children from all backgrounds who will, with dignity and respect, succeed where the Lincoln Brigade failed, for lack of comrades, and fight bravely in the advancing long struggle against Nazism and Fascism.
Well, things change and in 1992, without ceremony, the plaque showed up on the wall behind the manual skills shelf of the library, and though everyone in town now referred to the school as Children's Mercedes, almost everyone wanted in. The Children's Lincoln original motto, CHILDREN OF THE WORLD, UNITE! became WHERE ROOTS TAKE WINGS, as common among West Side private elementary schools as SHE GOT THE HOUSE in a yacht basin. Tuition at Children's Lincoln cost $19,000 a year. None of the school's fathers were lumberjacks, although a few dressed the part.
Lisa usually sent the housekeeper to pick up Willa, because Griffin's two children with June Mercator were also, as friends of the school say, in the Lincoln Community, but instead of graduating directly to middle and then upper school at Coldwater Academy, Griffin's first choice for him, Ethan was now in the eighth grade of a public school program for something called gifted children at the Walter Reed Middle School in Studio City, along with the children of gardeners, auto-body repairmen, public defenders, and the children of the people the public defenders defended. Jessa, though, was still in Children's Lincoln, a year behind Willa, and June almost always met her at school, and Lisa didn't like being in the line of cars with her, and there she was, two cars ahead. She saw June look at her in the rearview mirror, and nodded.
Willa, from his second marriage, was twelve years old, seven months older than Jessa, the second child of his first marriage.
Though he still lived with June the year of Willa's birth, the marriage had already decayed, and it was felt by everybody in town that it was June who betrayed Griffin by getting pregnant when she knew his affair with Lisa was serious. He was still married to June when he bought a house three blocks away and moved in with Lisa.
And their daughter, Jessa, was still in Children's Lincoln. He had made no promises to June that Jessa would also go to public school. Griffin surprised June by not calling his lawyer to threaten institutionalization for her if she persisted in trying to send Ethan to public school. She expected from Griffin the legal version of a pig screaming to death, but impersonating guilt, he respected her social agony and knew or guessed that she felt naked and covered in bed sores in any room with the wives she held as friends in the years of her marriage, because they had all known the truth about his affair and kept it from her.
Forced by custom to carry the burden of decorum, submitting to the rules, June saw her life twisted by inexplicable geometries while she saw Lisa, at worst, circle Griffin's needs whorishly as he moved forward in the world. Other than the second wife's required public demonstration of restrained benevolence and good manners (Sherman, this time sparing Atlanta), whenever the two women faced each other-say, Griffin and Lisa dropping Jessa and Ethan at June's after a custody weekend, and Lisa is in the car with Griffin and June comes out to the street because she has to remind Griffin of some mundane obligation to the kids, and she's wearing Griffin's old sweatpants and Lisa is dressed for something that looks like fun with other adults-June might have burned with the question, What cost does Lisa pay? if she didn't have the one grand consoling ugly answer: Her rival's only child was a little bit stupid. No fear that the spawn of Lisa's sin would humiliate Ethan and Jessa by taking not only their father but also an Ivy League degree and a smooth ride for the duration. Children's Lincoln would never have accepted such a dull girl without the pull of connection, because Willa was darling but slow and-well, actually, not so darling. Annoying. Willa annoyed the world. Slow shifting eyes and a crinkle of disgust around her perfect little nose made folks happy to hate her. Other kids avoided her, and without the Children's Lincoln's rule that every child in the class must invite every other child in the class to every birthday party, none of them would have given her three seconds out of school. Behind her face, the only part of her body or spirit remotely enviable about her, Willa's tongue knocked against her palate, and when she spoke quickly, in one of her frequent rages, the words died in her mouth like a gasping fish slapping the wet floor of a canoe.
June knew that Lisa did not love her own daughter, and worse-or better-June knew that Lisa preferred Jessa, in part because a cruel God had impressed Jessa's face with his opinion of the father and his crimes, dredging from Griffin's genetic history the loutish mug of a drunk peasant in the corner of a Brueghel, eyes forced nickel-thin by freckled porky cheeks. What an awful deity, to give the stupid one the look of intelligence, and the brilliant one the look of low brainpower, capable of nothing more than dung-hill feral greed. In the mirror, each saw the face the other deserved.
Jessa Mill was a strange child. With a fraudulent amiability, she accepted Lisa's fussy affections, because if she rejected Lisa her father would blame June. Her favorite phrase in the universe was "Instant Messenger." She wanted to start a band called The Instant Messengers of Death. From the murderous current of the age, she attracted drifting thoughts of assassination.
June did not know this about her, but neither did Lisa. No one knew much about her.
About Ethan, June knew that Ethan hated Lisa only from loyalty to his own mother, and she told him not to say how much he hated the weekends when he left his mother alone while he and Jessa stayed at their father's hated house.
And Griffin, always difficult to read, probably knew all of this better than she did and had traded Ethan for Jessa, since he needed at least one child in the school to use as a tool for his ambitions in Hollywood. Griffin was on the board of Children's Lincoln, where an active role in the parent community served as another front in the battle to stay alive in Hollywood. As chairman of the school's annual fund-raising dinner, he had license to call every parent in the school and ask for donations to the two auctions, silent and public. They answered his call with scripts signed by the full casts of a dozen television shows, bottles of important wine, weekends at a spa in Ojai, all-access passes to concerts, the free use of a private jet anywhere in the country, baskets of chocolates, toys, clothes, musical instruments, records, and a catered dinner cooked by three private chefs. He even told June that he took this active role in his elementary school's fundraising to put his children at the top of Coldwater's acceptance list and also to add a social pretext for work. When the acceptance letter from Coldwater arrived, a thick packet of medical forms and appeals for donations, Griffin told her it felt like a film inhaling a hundred million dollars on the first weekend of release, and then said, "Look, this helps with the other stuff too," meaning it was imposing and sexy and helped purge the scandal that was now as old as his two daughters.
It shocked June that everyone accepted every new social arrangement so long as two of the three adults in any rearrangement consented and one of them was powerful or rich, but she tried hard not to let rage become indignation. There wouldn't be those biblical admonitions to defend the widow and the orphan if God hadn't seen the need.
The bell rings in the alley, and the children are called outside.
June wants to resist Griffin's gloomy expectations of a collapsed world, but the parents she knows are worn out from the burden of children, and she believes that the death of purpose, the death of the family as a unit of physical survival in a nature that yields food only by the work of a group, is the omen of global death, because the parents feel the uselessness of their efforts. No matter how much they tried, the children were awful, even the sweetest. They graduated from high school with the strength of a potato chip, fried and fragile. The narrow desperate ambition for their children to get into Brown and Stanford was proof to June that Griffin was right: The panic about the saving power of a degree from the Ivy League was the canary in the mine shaft, the best evidence of the human species' deep sensitivity to impending extinction. The parents in other countries who raise their children for suicide martyrdom express the same alert recognition. Better for a child to die immediately in the name of a cause than waste away slowly in a world without safe water. Blowing yourself up on a bus on Ben Yehuda Street is an early acceptance to Princeton.
* * *
What the divorce lawyer told Lisa made her want to throw up, not so much because of her husband's financial statements as for the waste of those years in her life when she might have done something smarter than act, when she might have become a healer like her friend Elixa, or a lawyer or a reporter or a social worker or an astronaut or a civil engineer or anything but a bad actress. She wasn't stupid, as her mother's ghost reminded her too often, and she might yet give her life a meaning she could look back on with satisfaction when she was old, but ... but. But what? She thought, I have failed my husband. He left his wife for me, he sacrificed two children for me, he suffers for his new family, and in what way have I given him the consideration a man deserves? In what way have I given up something of myself to him, given the father of my child, whatever my bad thoughts about her, a gift of the pain of my own sacrifice, even the sacrifice of my pride, burnt on the altar of conceit, my disdain for the Hollywood that rejected me, the Hollywood that was personal when it said It's not personal-in what way can I help bring his focus back to his difficult work, give the man the pleasure he needs? What does he need, another woman or, finally, my ass?
And here comes Willa.
"Hello Wills, get in. Tell me about your day."
Willa opened the back door, and by the sullen refusal to talk and the disgusted vehemence with which she threw her heavy backpack to the seat Lisa saw the coming tantrum like a squall line beyond the reef.
"Do you want to talk about it?"
Willa buckled herself in and said, "They hay me."
"They hate you," said Lisa, with emphasis on the t, stupidly trying to correct and, instead, affirming.
"Maaaaaameeee. I cahn helh myself. Thass why they hay me. Thass why they may funna me."
No, Lisa wanted to say, they don't may funna ooh, they just don't like you, and it has nothing to do with the way you talk because you only flub your words when you don't get your own way. Speech therapy didn't help because Willa liked her power; there's one of her in every class, the spoiled bilingual brat, her two languages English and Baby. In time she might drop the pre-K act to protect her marginal place in the group, but the inner baby of this type never really grows up. Lisa worried for her daughter's future, especially without a father rich enough to save her from starvation in the world, because she was of that tribe in Hollywood who either rise to the top, with their tantrums excused for their genius, or last about five years before everyone gets sick of them and they're fired and disappear. Lisa worried that her daughter was nothing more than a pigeon. You never see old pigeons.
She watched Jessa Mill get into June's car. She wished she knew more about June.
* * *
She doesn't know that June goes to Goth clubs, sometimes alone, sometimes with her hairdresser, and doesn't tell anyone from real life. She's forty-two and not so old for the clubs, but the wives of Windsor Square were never Goth, even when they were young, and she keeps her industrial music collection a secret from them. It's too complicated, she tells herself, to let them see this part of her. She likes the feeling of being a superhero, playing the role of June Mercator Mill as her alter ego. That's how she feels about her trips to Goth clubs a few nights a month. Her Goth self is wrapped up in a weird blend with Mormonism too, from a forty-five-minute tour of Mormon Square in Salt Lake City, and whatever Judaism she inhales from the Jews around her. She's not the oldest woman in the club, and the lights are low, and she wears spectral makeup, darker than Siouxsie Sioux, covering the lines around her eyes with delicate gore, so that she looks like the Mistress of the House of Usher after a raven croaking "Nevermore" has blinded her, artfully.
Excerpted from THE RETURN OF THE PLAYER by Michael Tolkin Copyright © 2006 by Michael Tolkin. Excerpted by permission.
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