A Hollywood Ending
by Melodie Johnson Howe
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, July 2009
Your daughter is waiting for you in the lobby, ma’am.” The banquet waiter hovered over me, balancing a tray of coffeepots and cups.
I was sitting at a table of ten women at a Planned Parenthood luncheon being held in the banquet room of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The women were movie producers, production executives, a director, and an agent. Enormous crystal chandeliers splattered their prismatic patterns of light on us like stardust.
“I don’t have a daughter,” I told him.
“She pointed you out.” He moved off to serve the next table.
“Did he say your daughter, Diana?” Beth Dawson sat next to me. She was a producer who had hired me for a small part in her last movie.
“He made a mistake. We’re in a ballroom filled with women.”
We looked around at the well-dressed, high-powered females. It was a typical Hollywood fund-raiser—two million dollars in veneered teeth, three million in face-lifts, four million in pumped-up breasts and puffed-up lips. The rest, as they say, “Priceless.”
“I always seem to be surrounded by women,” Beth said drily, adjusting the collar of her pink spring jacket.
As with all the things I do now, I was here because it might be good for my career. My husband Colin, a screenwriter, had died suddenly of a heart attack over a year ago. He left me with what the realtors euphemistically call a “teardown” in Malibu, an old Jaguar, two Oscars—each for Best Screenplay—an empty bank account, and an emptier heart. So I had gone back to what I had been doing before I married him—acting. Except now I was older and the parts were fewer.
I stared at the voluptuous flower arrangement, tuning out the female lawyer who was droning on at the podium, and reflected on how most of us at our table were premenopausal, menopausal, and postmenopausal. And how nature had its own prepared plans for us. Sighing, I brushed napkin lint from my pencil-slim black skirt and fiddled with the cuffs of my white silk blouse. Then I found myself peering back at the row of large double doors that led to the lobby. I realized I was looking for a girl searching for her mother.
Two hours later I was outside the hotel waiting for my old Jag as the luncheon women scurried into their sleek cars, the high-powered engines purring.
“Are you Diana Poole?” the hotel doorman asked, approaching.
“Your daughter described you perfectly. She said to tell you she couldn’t wait. She’d meet you at home.”
“My daughter gave you my name anddescribed me?”
He nodded. “To a T.”
“What did she look like?”
“Your daughter?” He frowned, taken aback by my question. “Blond.”
“You don’t know?”
“No, I don’t. Tell me.”
“Hard to tell. Twenties? You don’t look old enough to have a daughter that age.”
“That would be an even better compliment if I did have a daughter that age.”
He looked completely bewildered. I didn’t blame him.
Driving back to Malibu, I opened the windows and the sunroof because I couldn’t get the Jag’s heater to turn off. Sweat ran down the inside of my legs. The wind pulled at my determinedly blond hair. I kept thinking about the waiter telling me about my daughter. I’d dismissed him by thinking he’d got the wrong woman. But now the conversation with the hotel doorman unnerved me. My daughter was going to meet me at home? My home? My daughter?
I began to wonder what a daughter of mine would look like. She would be a natural blonde as I once had been. Her eyes would be blue like mine, too. While my features were settling into a look of defiant permanence, hers would be full of anticipation and discovery. Another loss as breathtaking as my husband’s death washed over me. I’d never had a child. Career first. Then Colin’s career. Stop it, Diana. I go to a Planned Parenthood luncheon and end up with a phantom daughter. I tried to smile at the irony of the situation, but the sweat on my legs had turned cold.
I checked the rearview mirror to see if a young woman in search of her mother was following me home.
My house, wedged between Pacific Coast Highway and the ocean, was a one-story wood-and-stucco left over from the sixties. Unlocking the front door, I stepped into the tiled foyer and stopped. Listening. The house was just as quiet as it always was when I returned home nowadays. What was I expecting? Still, I felt wary as I walked into the living room. The shabby but not chic furniture, Colin’s two Oscars on the fireplace mantel, and the water stain on the ceiling looked exactly as they should. Nothing disturbed.
I went into the kitchen and turned on the small TV, a habit I’d developed to wipe away the isolating silence. A twenty-four-hour cable news station broke the quiet. Two sexy, pretty blondes who looked as if they’d been cloned were talking about how bad everything was. I felt better.
As I put my purse on the breakfast table, I noticed the knife drawer was open. Had I left it open? I peered into it. Were they all there? How would I know? Colin had been a great cook. The only knife I used was to open takeout cartons. I wasn’t sure what utensils I had or didn’t have. I slammed the drawer shut. Get a grip, Diana.
I went into the bedroom to kick off my high heels and get out of my too-tight skirt. I stopped dead. The bed was perfectly made. I knew I hadn’t made it this morning. As usual, I’d been running late. Or did I make it? I couldn’t remember what I’d done or hadn’t done. Inconsistency had become consistent in my life since Colin’s death. Then I felt my body tense with an animal-like alertness and I knew there was another person in the room. I whirled around.
A young woman, in her early twenties, leaned casually against the jamb of the bathroom doorway. Her hair was bleached blond. Her sharp, intelligent eyes were an appealing gray-blue. They matched the color of her sweater. Low-riding jeans revealed a flat, muscular midriff. She held her hands behind her back.
“I made the bed for you,” she said, smiling. Perfect white teeth.
“Thank you,” I said stupidly.
“You should get your security alarm fixed.”
“Can’t afford to.” My heart was racing now. “What are you doing in my house?”
Ignoring the question, she took her hands from behind her back. She held a gun. I took a step back. She pointed the weapon at me as if it were the most natural thing to do under the circumstances.
“You shouldn’t leave your bedroom window open. Anybody could break in. You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No, I’m sorry . . . ”
I tried to swallow back my fear.
“Don’t be. I played your daughter on Mommy and Me.”
My mind raced backwards, and I vaguely remembered a little girl with hair tinted the color of mine so we would look like a mother and daughter.
“That was a movie for the Lifetime channel. Terrible script.” My voice sounded high pitched and desperate.
“Yes, it was.” She laughed charmingly.
“You were about eight years old.” I didn’t know what else to do but keep her in conversation.
“You’ve grown up.”
“You can’t grow up in Hollywood. You can only grow old.”
“You have a point.”
She grinned warmly. Freckles dotted the bridge of her upturned nose. She had the sweet, oval face of the girl next-door. But with the gun and the bad bleach job she looked like a young woman in a Norman Rockwell illustration gone horribly wrong.
“What do you want?” My lips quivered.
“A cup of coffee.” She nodded toward the hallway.
I didn’t move. I was afraid to walk in front of her. Afraid to turn my back on her.
“I won’t stay long. I just want to talk.”
“You want the name of my agent? A recommendation?”
“You think I’m here to network?” she asked sardonically. “I just want to talk to you. Come on, let’s go in the kitchen.”
My knees felt weak as I crossed in front of her and walked down the hallway. I could feel her behind me. My shoulder blades pressed inward in anticipation of a bullet. In the living room, I furtively looked out the sliding glass doors hoping to see my neighbor Ryan Johns. He was usually on my deck, interrupting my life, wanting to be let in. But of course, not today. There was only the sun, the glittering Pacific Ocean, and my rotting wood balcony.
She sat at my old pine breakfast table, still aiming the gun at me.
“Would you mind turning off the news?” she said. “It’s depressing.”
I hit the remote. “I’ll have to make the coffee.”
With trembling hands, I began to measure and pour in the water. I considered each appliance as a possible weapon against her. I took two mugs from the cupboard and put them on the table. These simple tasks helped focus my mind.
“Milk? Sugar?” I asked politely.
I set a carton of milk and a small bowl filled with packets on the table. “I don’t have real sugar. I use sweeteners.”
“They’re not good for you.”
“I know. But it’s so difficult to stay . . . ”
“I’ve struggled with weight my whole life.”
“It doesn’t show. You look great.”
“The last thing I want from you is an inane compliment, Diana. Do you know why I struggled with my weight?”
“No.” Facing her, I leaned against the counter near the Mr. Coffee machine, which was now gurgling, burping, and brewing.
“Ever since I played your daughter I wanted to look like you. But I ended up looking like my mother.”
“Don’t we all?” I forced a smile.
The aroma of coffee permeated the kitchen, giving it a homey warm atmosphere, and I made a decision. When the carafe was full I would grab it and swing it at her. The shock of the hot liquid scalding her skin would give me a chance to escape. Maybe even try for the gun.
“Were you the one asking for me at the hotel this afternoon?”
“Yes.” She tilted her head to one side, studying me. The light from the kitchen window shone hard on her face, revealing fine lines around her pretty mouth and tired eyes. She looked exhausted. “Why did you stop acting?”
“I got married.”
“So do a lot of actresses; that doesn’t end their careers. You were good. You were on the verge of stardom. Why did you settle for being safe?”
“I wouldn’t call marriage safe.” Mr. Coffee was almost up to the ten-cup line.
“I think you were afraid of success.” She yawned. “Sorry, it’s been a long night and day.”
“The caffeine will help.” I watched the last few drops drip into the pot.
My heart was in my throat. I casually turned, and like any good host, good mother, I retrieved the pot from the burner. Then I spun back toward her. Leaping to her feet, she darted backwards, out of my reach. Arms extended, she held the gun steady with both hands, like a cop in a TV series.
“I thought you might want to throw that in my face.”
My arms were extended too, but I only held a coffeepot in my two hands. “Wouldn’t you in my situation?”
“Yes. It’s called empathy.”
“You’re right. All the good actors have it.”
“So we’re at a standoff. I guess we’ll have to carry on our conversation from here. Me holding my gun and you holding your coffeepot. Except your coffee is eventually going to cool, and then you won’t have a weapon, and we won’t be able to drink it, either.”
Surprising myself, I slammed the carafe on the table. Coffee slopped. “Sit down and have your damn coffee. And I don’t want to be analyzed by someone holding a gun on me. For your information, I wasn’t afraid of success.”
“You sit first. Go.”
I sat and took a paper napkin from the pile already on the table and began to wipe up the spilled liquid. It was lukewarm. Even Mr. Coffee was breaking down on me.
She slowly sat down across from me. Her weapon pointed at my chest.
“Were you acting just then when you banged the pot on the table?” she asked
“I don’t know when I’m acting and when I’m not anymore.” With trembling fingers, I rubbed my forehead and pushed my hair back from my face.
“It’s the same with me. The more you tap into your own emotions to create a character, a role, the farther away you get from those very emotions that were yours to begin with. May I have some coffee, please?”
I filled the mugs and slid one in her direction. “What’s your name? I don’t remember it.”
“Crystal,” she said wistfully. “My mother named me after the character in the TV series Dynasty. Mother had dreams. It was her favorite show. I grew up watching all her old VHS tapes of it. We watched them over and over.”
“They must be out on DVD now.”
“She won’t need them. I hated the show. It was so unreal.”
I watched her take a long greedy gulp of coffee. Her hands trembled, too. The gun twitched. But her pinched, strained expression relaxed. Her eyebrows were the color of her freckles, a reddish brown. I assumed her hair must be the same shade. For a moment, I glimpsed the innocent young woman with her entire life in front of her. The girl I had imagined in the car driving home. Her eyes met mine. She smiled. Then her expression hardened, and the innocent girl disappeared. The woman who had slipped over the edge returned.
“It seems to me,” she said, “if you don’t want to be famous you’re in the wrong business.”
“True. Do you want to be famous?”
“Yes, because I’m a good actress and being good should’ve brought me fame. But then I grew up, and I couldn’t get another decent part.”
“It’s a cruel business. Sometimes we gain celebrity by ways we don’t intend,” I said carefully.
“You mean like now? Me breaking into your house? This gun?”
I nodded. “It’s the unintended consequences. And I’m sure you don’t want that kind of notoriety for doing something . . . ” I was going to say crazy and thought better of it.
“It’s like an improvisation in acting class, isn’t it?”
“Us sitting here talking. You trying to figure out what I want. If I’m going to harm you or not.”
“And what’s your part in this improv?”
“To get to the end.”
“What kind of ending do you want?”
“A Hollywood ending.”
“Hollywood doesn’t have endings to their movies anymore. They just blow things up at the conclusion.”
“No narrative, no ending?”
“That’s right.” She was smart and had wit.
“But I want an old Hollywood ending, like when they were writing narratives. Are you a Joan Crawford fan?”
“I loved her in Mildred Pierce.”
“That’s one of my favorites, too. And she was great in the George Cukor film, The Women. She played a woman named Crystal in that movie. I wish my mother had named me after her character.”
“But Joan Crawford took Norma Shearer’s husband away from her in that movie. Maybe your mother didn’t think that was appropriate.”
“You think my mother had that kind of morality? I told you she watched Dynasty. She never saw The Women. She hated the old black-and-white films. How can you be a stage mother and never see the great films?” Tears formed. She wiped them roughly away. “Daisy Kenyon was another great Joan Crawford movie.”
“That was with Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews.” I clutched my coffee mug so tight my knuckles were white. It was all I had to cling to.
“She had to decide which man to choose. You see, we’re having a good conversation, aren’t we?” she asked, like a pleading child.
“I could never talk to my mother this way. You know, I think Joan’s daughter destroyed her by writing that book.”
“You mean Mommie Dearest?”
“But I don’t blame her. Joan used her daughter as a prop the way my mother did me.”
“Is that why you . . . ?” I stopped.
“Nothing.” I had gone too far. I didn’t want to know whether she’d done something to her mother. My heart was pounding again.
Her eyes met mine. “You want to know if I killed her, don’t you?”
“Look, I’m tired of being scared. Let’s keep talking about old movies. What are your other Crawford favorites?”
“The one I love the most is Masquerade. She was so beautiful in that film.”
Shadows grew long across the kitchen floor. The sun was lowering.
“John Garfield played her lover,” I said.
“He was a concert violinist in that movie. It’s getting dark out.”
“What do you want from me?” I blurted, desperately.
“I told you, a conversation. Like a mother and daughter who share the same goals.”
“I’m not your mother.”
“I know that! I’m not crazy.” Her body tensed. The gun jerked in her hand. “We’re doing an improv. You’re my mother. I’m your daughter. You love me instead of just promoting me. You don’t resent me because I grew up and couldn’t bring in the money anymore. You don’t hate me for being an adult. You look scared again.”
Her voice grew loud and shrill. “I didn’t kill her, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
I didn’t answer.
“I killed my agent.”
I sat back in my chair. “You killed your agent?” I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. “Who was he?”
“He’s my agent. You killed my agent.”
“He wasn’t right for you.”
I put my face in my hands. I was losing it. My pathetic world was turning upside down, and what little I had left to cling to was being taken away by a mad young woman.
“He said some very bad things about you.”
I looked at her. “Such as?”
Using her free hand, she poured us both more coffee. “He always returns phone calls later in the day when all the assistants and secretaries are gone. Except he never returned mine. So yesterday I was in the outer office. His door was ajar. I could hear him telling a producer that you weren’t right for the part of Jillian in the new Josh King movie.”
“I just read for that role. They said they wanted to hire me.”
“I’m sorry, but he was telling the producer he should sign Pauline Hale instead.”
“She can’t act her way out of a paper bag.”
“He’s sleeping with her.”
“How do you know?”
“My mother told me. She’s also sleeping with him. She discovered them in bed one night.”
“Wait a minute. I’m not following all this. Your mother was sleeping with Ben Black to get you work?”
“No, just because he wanted her.”
“And he was also sleeping with that slut Pauline Hale?”
She nodded and glanced quickly out the window. The sun was gone. The light in the kitchen had dimmed. Her expression was wretched, heartbroken.
“Nobody’s ever looked out for you, have they?” I said, softly.
“Ben Black told me I was through. He told me that nobody wanted to hire me. It was so Hollywood. My mother told me the same thing. Every day. Nobody wants me.”
Without thinking, I placed my hand on her forearm.
“Now you’re not afraid of me even though I killed our agent. But if I had killed my mother . . . ”
I withdrew my hand. “You were acting, weren’t you? Improv. You’re very good. I believed you killed Ben Black.”
Her eyes flashed.
“I was at a luncheon filled with people in the business. If you’d murdered Ben Black last night everybody would be talking about it today. But they weren’t, because you didn’t kill him.”
It was dark now except for the illumination of the computerized clock on the microwave and a faint reflection of a waning moon at the window.
“You told the waiter and the hotel doorman that you were my daughter because you didn’t have a mother anymore.” I was still afraid to say the word murdered.
“I had to change my hair color so I wouldn’t be recognized. I decided on your color. Not a great job, I know. You were the only person I wanted to see. I came here this morning to be with you. While I was waiting outside to get up my nerve, I saw you leave. I followed you to the hotel and the luncheon. Then I came back here and waited for you. ”
“So you and I could pretend to be mother and daughter.”
“Improv,” she said, defensively.
“I know a lot about improvisation,” I said softly. “I know even more about mourning. You didn’t expect to feel the loss of her, did you?”
“No.” Her voice was a whisper.
We were two pale shadows sitting at the kitchen table. A strange calming silence fell between us.
Startling me, she abruptly shoved her chair back and stood. I froze. She closed in on me. Leaning down, she rested her head on my shoulder. I still didn’t move. Then I felt the flat side of the gun pressing into my back as she hugged me. I put my hand on her cheek.
“I wish you were my mother. Goodbye, Diana.”
“Where are you going, Crystal?”
“I want you to stay here. I don’t want to shoot you.” She left the kitchen.
I remained at the table in the darkness. I thought about Hollywood endings. I thought about Joan Crawford. I thought about the great star walking into the ocean and drowning herself at the end of Masquerade. I thought about how quiet my house was once again.
I hurried into the living room. The sliding-glass door was open. I went out onto the deck. The fresh ocean air wrapped around me with a familiarity that I never wanted to lose. Except for her lone figure standing at the water’s edge, and the thin moon above her, the beach was empty. She dropped the gun and waded into the ocean.
“No!” I screamed.
Kicking off my shoes, I ran down to the water. She was rising and falling with each white-rimmed wave.
“Don’t do it!” The damp wind carried away my scream as I dove into the pounding surf. The cold Pacific water cut me to the bone. I tasted salt. When I came up, I saw a large wave take Crystal and roll her out into the vast blackness. Then another one crashed down on me, sucking me under and flipping me head over heels. I gasped for air as I clawed my way to the surface and struggled back to shore. Shivering, I searched the horizon for her. I glimpsed her head bob up, as slick and as shiny as a seal’s in the moonlight, then vanish.
I ran to my kitchen and called 911. Then I leaned against the counter for support. I took a dishtowel and buried my face in it. I began to cry. I cried for Crystal. I cried for the phantom daughter. I cried for the hell of it.
Gathering myself, I picked up the phone and punched in Ben Black’s private number.
“Yes!” he barked.
“I knew you weren’t dead.”
“Who the hell is this?”
“Are you drunk? Listen, I’ve had a terrible day. The police have been crawling all over the place. A woman I know was murdered. Her daughter, Crystal, is one of my clients. I think she did it. Crystal came to see me yesterday evening. I had to throw her out of the office. Why do they always come to me when they’re has-beens?”
“Do you have bad news for me, Ben?”
“What are you, a mind reader? The producers want to go with Pauline Hale. Sorry, Diana. I worked my ass off to get you the part. It was perfect for you.”
“I’m a big girl, Ben. I can handle you screwing me over. But you went to bed with Crystal’s mother. And didn’t do anything for Crystal. She should’ve shot you instead.” I hit the Off button. I hate cell phones—you can’t slam the receiver down.
I grabbed Colin’s old rain jacket from the laundry room and put it on. Then I waited on the beach for the police. The cold water bit at my bare feet. I turned and looked at the houses lining the shore. The only one with a light on was mine.