By Gary Almeter
Holly’s curiosity about the contestants never waned. Sometimes, as the contestants were pondering how much the big screen television cost, or as Bob was explaining how to play Cliffhanger, Holly would wonder a variety of questions. “Who does this person love?” “Who, if anyone, does she wake up next to every morning?” “What did your mother call you as a baby?” “Are you a good girl?” “How do you treat your wife?” “Do you drink too much?” "What kind of man was your father?"
Holly had red hair, that brilliant iridescent rusty orange color, which both belied its humble Texas origins and solidified her unique girl-next-door-meets-Hollywood-glamour charm. She came to be known as the clumsy one; the one who provided comic relief. While she understood the need, she grew to resent this role because she wasn’t really that clumsy. Task anyone with parading up and down a sleek and highly-illuminated sound stage in an effort to transform ordinary household items into concupiscent objects of desire and that person will drop an item or two in a decade. So yeah, clumsy was a misnomer. That notwithstanding, she did recognize that her name by itself did connote a certain frivolity and effervescence since it was one of the plants most associated with the Christmas season and also the first two syllables of “holiday.”
The house where Holly grew up, the house that her father built, is still there, on the corner of Hacienda and Magnolia Streets. The manager of a fast food restaurant lives in it today. Aluminum siding has replaced the cedar shingles and a closed in porch has replaced the veranda where they used to sit. Holly likes old words like that—words her grandparents used to say like veranda, foliage, rubbish, and shears. The shed and the fence and the barn are all gone as are the shade trees and the adjacent fields, upon which dozens of houses, split-level ranchers clearly built in the 1970s, now stand. Without the tall elms there are unobstructed views to the backyards, the clotheslines, the swimming pools, the trampolines. Where Holly grew up, people decorated their yards with big rocks and drove big trucks and believed that when they talked to God he listened to them exclusively.
The first time Holly saw snow she was 12 years old. She was brushing her recently washed hair and for inspiration, had a little transistor radio tuned to a Top 40 station. She was using her hairbrush as a microphone and singing along to Petula Clark’s “Downtown” when she heard her mother jubilantly exclaiming from downstairs that it was snowing. Holly rushed outside. Everyone else on their street spent the next half hour or so gazing upwards with tongues outstretched, taking running starts and sliding on the street pavement, and generally frolicking about. Holly was also staring up when Larry Cooper, a new kid a grade above Holly in school who had just moved to their street from Atlanta and who Holly thought was fresh, came over and old Holly that he was in love with her. The snow didn’t stick at all. In the midst of making a snow angel, Holly saw that her still-wet hair had frozen which, when considered in conjunction with Larry Cooper’s proclamation, made her laugh. Her mother had freshly laundered dungarees on the clothesline and those had also frozen.
As it turned out, Larry Cooper’s mother was sick so his parents sent him to live with his aunt. One day Larry asked Holly to the movies. After some efforts and orchestrations on the part of Holly’s mother and Larry’s aunt, it was agreed that they would go see “Beach Blanket Bingo” starring Frankie and Annette. Larry’s aunt, who everyone fancied a suppressor of such exuberance, had advocated they go see “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” which chronicled the life of Jesus Christ. At the movies, Larry told Holly that his uncle had lost his job and that he was likely going back to Atlanta. When at the theater, which in its day was one of the nicer ones, Holly had difficulty not focusing on the marble black and white checkered floor, gleaming brass railings, and red velvet ropes embellishing the lobby. Holly remembers Larry telling her that he was moving back to Atlanta and thinking only that the red plush on the chairs had balded to such a degree as to render them almost unusable.
Holly’s mother was Miss San Antonio Bexar County Outstanding Teen in 1948. She did not have iridescent rust colored hair but did have the same iridescent smile that she passed down to Holly, but she was a real beauty. She had brown hair with glimmers of bronze in it and blue-blue eyes that held within them an infinite capacity for chastisement. To chastise Holly she did not have to speak, her eyes did it all with one piercing gaze. But when she approved of something that Holly did, everything about her seemed to soften. The stream of bluish light emanated from her eyes was like a melting delphinium. Holly recalls being five and watching her mother get ready for an evening out. Her mother wore a silver-fox fur piece and a white kettle hat and a silk dress and her father wore a tuxedo. Holly’s mother dabbed some Chanel on Holly’s wrists.
If I don’t like it here I can always leave, Holly had thought when she first arrived in Los Angeles.
Leaving San Antonio was the first time she had ever left anyplace without feeling totally bereft at the departure. The only thing that terrified her about living in Los Angeles was thinking of her parents’ demise, that her parents would die while she was away, that they would die alone (which was ridiculous in light of the fact that they had a sizable family nearby), that they would die before Holly would have kids. They would go about the minutiae of their daily lives thinking that Holly had moved to Los Angeles as a means of escape rather as a destination.
The rental agent who showed Holly her first apartment was named Mr. Voltura. He spoke with a slight British accent and taught mathematics at the community college at night. He told Holly that he was not supposed to show the apartment as its former tenant had just died and the entire contents of the apartment was part of an estate that still needed to be appraised. He said he was making an exception for her. When they entered it, the apartment looked like it had been ravage. All the drawers were open and there was grime on top of every single surface. As Holly walked around the entrance and what would soon be her living room, the decedent’s brother emerged from the bedroom and told them that he was trying to get things in order. He told Holly that his sister, the former tenant, was a nurse and that her friends and patients were always giving her things to thank her for things that she had done for them. The brother, who Holly pictured sleeping atop the sofa covered with invoices and old financial documents, told Holly that if she wanted anything she could take it.
Her first roommate J.D. was an enthusiastic production assistant for a company that made pornographic films. Holly saw his ad for a roommate on a bulletin board. He would come from work wearing a carpenter’s belt repurposed and filled with porn accouterments: dildos, lotions, lip balms, towels, lubes of varying scents and viscosities, hair brushes, and spray bottles. He would sometimes wash and disinfect the dildos while the two watched television. Holly got her own place when she got the role on the show.
Holly never married. She had a number of lovers and a less significant number of boyfriends while she lived in Los Angeles, including one of the stars of “M*A*S*H” who I won’t name because that would just be poor form and I generally don’t like to gossip. They dated before the era of omnipresent paparazzi so no one knew about it. Her singleness made the on-air flirtation with the contestants, especially the ones in the military, that much more endearing. Her mother said that Holly never had any taste in men. Holly broke up with the only one Holly’s mother ever liked shortly after she told Holly that she liked him. As justification, Holly told her mother that he was dull. The thing is, Holly had really liked him too but such an admission would have felt like acquiescence to her mother who had not wanted her to move to Los Angeles. The boyfriend—his name was Denis—was Russian. His family had moved from Latvia where his father had worked in a Riga Autobus Factory when the factory was destroyed in a war of some sort.
She kept a pile of paperback books on her nightstand. The book tower featured Russian literature mostly, “The Brothers Karamozov” and “Anna Karenina” among them. Denis went to Tufts University and majored in Russian Language and Literature. He had also been a member of the Tufts Beelzebubs, Tufts University’s premiere all-male a cappella group, and frequently regaled Holly with stories of their a cappella triumphs. She had heard him speaking Russian once and it made her feel so naughty. She dated him during the xenophobic Reagan years. It was so unlike her on-screen persona.
After Holly had to literally push Bob off of her, she filled out a sexual harassment complaint form. By the time she had sat down in the offices of Mark Goodson and Bill Todman she had lost her nervousness. Mr. Goodson lifted the pink sheet of paper and shook it at her.
“Do you recognize this?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said.” That is the sexual harassment complaint form I filled out.”
“It would appear to name Bob on the complaint,” Mr. Todman chimed in.
“Yes,” Holly said.
They went on to explain everything that Bob had done for people and what a nice guy he was and how everyone looked up to him and how sometimes innocuous things like remarking on someone’s clothes might be construed as sexual innuendo when in reality, there was no such innuendo attached.
Holly wanted to say that this was far greater than mere innuendo and that she was often scared to come to work. Bob had made his intentions quite clear and that really the police should be called. All she said was, “I’m sorry.” She twisted her lips, as if she had tasted something foul that he just had to spit out , and walked out of the office.
She used to resent the other two ladies with whom she was, and would perpetually be, associated. With the help of her therapist, that resentment has now dissipated. She thinks about them with some frequency and with fondness. Nonetheless, in light of geography and the passage of time she rarely sees them and was surprised when Dian called her and asked if she and Janice could visit for a few days. They were both still in Los Angeles and doing well.
She bought the home that she now lives with the money she got in the settlement. “Millions,” she told Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today Show” after telling Ann how she lost everything during the decade-long court battle. She had to fill the home from scratch and while so doing would, with great frequency, happen upon products she once coyly caressed on national television. She reveled in it—walking up and down Best Buy and gingerly massaging the Whirlpool refrigerators, the Amana washers and dryers, the GE self-cleaning ovens. With great flourish she walked through the Bed Bath and Beyond at the Alamo Quarry Shopping Center and caressed the Hamilton Beach coffee maker, the Cuisinart blender, and Kitchen-Aid toaster before she put them in her cart. She even bought a Michael C. Fina diamond necklace for herself just because. She stocked her pantry with foodstuffs she never would eat—Chef-Boyardee ravioli, Sue Bee honey, and Jif peanut butter—as a celebratory and defiant punctuation mark to the years she spent shilling that shit on the show.
She rarely watches television so, when in need of ambient noise to fill the home, she listens to The Beatles. Her parents, Beatles devotees, listened to them non-stop when she was growing up. This made them anomalies in San Antonio where most people listened to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. She can’t think of her father without picturing him with a cigarette in his mouth. She recalls the smoking and the cigarettes fondly in a good, 1950s, “we are an indomitable species” sort of way. He had rust colored hair too. Holly has also inherited his mannerisms. He was both elated and disappointed when she told him she was going to Hollywood. She also pictured her mother with a dishtowel in her hands.
Holly found herself slowly drinking coffee in her kitchen with the two women mentioned earlier. She notices that Dian’s tits are less perky and Janice’s skin isn’t as luminous, but that is of no consequence to these old buddies who each secretly suspect the feeling they have for each other is more akin to what veterans might feel. They are remembering the past, talking about Bob, Rod, and Johnny as though saying their names would summon them from the dead. They all had issues with Bob. Holly was prudent and judicious, and had no patience for any sort of wrongdoing. After her complaint, she had simply tried to disassociate herself with what was happening until he asked her to lie with respect to Dian’s suit against him. They sat outside and drank mimosas remembering contestants they abhorred or adored or for whom they felt profound sympathy. They recalled those t-shirts with iron-on fuzzy letters evincing the contestant’s devotion to Bob, and how Bob would make people who guessed the price of the item up for bids with precision dig deep into his pocket and pull out a hundred dollar bill. They did this all day.
That night after dinner, they sat on the terrace and watched the sun set. Barrels of bright orange poppies separated the flagstones form the lawn that sloped down the hill to the lake, where it ended abruptly as if it were a scene in a child’s coloring book.
Holly gathered up the dishes, carried them to the sink, sprinkled them with dish soap, adjusted the water. She let it run while she took some paper towels from the dispenser next to the sink and wiped the kitchen table down. Janice and Dian were upstairs packing. It was almost time to drive them to the airport and Holly wondered if she would drop them off at the departing flights gates or park her car and walk in and wait with them.
For the first time since she has known these women, the threat of betrayal is not widely felt, does not seem to invade every conversation and every meal. They had survived the chronic and perpetual threats that come from being models in Hollywood and the perpetual litigation that came as a result of Bob. For several years there was no communication whatsoever and at court dates and depositions and hearings they would sometimes not acknowledge one another and studiously look the other way. But they were still intimately bound up and to one another. Holly noticed how their posture as each of them sat in their chair—leaning forward arms on knees—made their bellies bulge. This would have made Holly sad at one time but currently didn’t. She couldn’t even recall when she last felt sad.
People recognize her with some frequency when she is out and about in San Antonio. Sometimes people see her and point and say “Holly!!” or “Come on down!!” Other times people will say something akin to “I know you from somewhere” and then go through their mental Rolodex until they get it. Most of the time she feels people stare, wonder, and point. Her thirty-pound weight gain was well documented in public court documents. She wanted it that way. She’s in her 60s now.
It’s hard for a woman of limited means to plan her own demise. She learned that during that time she lived in her car and would entertain thoughts of suicide at odd times. Not when she was sleep deprived and gazing up at the stars when parked outside Concepcion Park; not when “Eleanor Rigby” came on the oldies radio station she usually listened to and she had to simultaneously think about how lonely she was and about her father playing the record in happier times; not when she was hungry. Depression is mean. It hits you when you least expect it. It hit her at times like when she saw kids jump roping. Or the tree that reminded her of the tree in the backyard of her childhood home.
But what could she have done? Her car was not reliable enough to accelerate to a speed that would guarantee her death if she tried to wrap it around a telephone pole at 110 m.p.h., and she could not afford prescription pills. She could neither afford nor tolerate the idea of putting a gun in her mouth. She wasn’t going to jump off anything because that method invariably gave you seconds of lucidity to regret what you had done. So she stuck with it, the lawsuit and the living.
Oddly, the worst thing about living in your car after losing your home while in the midst of a protracted lawsuit with a beloved game show host and a television network isn’t the actual living. It was actually quite cozy. You get accustomed to the contours of the seats and figure out how precisely to arrange your jean jacket against the window to achieve maximum support. You figure out which parks and Wal-Mart stores to get to and when to get them to guarantee a safe spot underneath a street lamp of some sort. The tough part of living in your car is getting out of your car. The toughest part was walking into a gas station restroom with your toothbrush and toothpaste and deodorant in a plastic bag so that onlookers could only assume that you were living in your car. Moving about in the presence of other humans feeling the exposure, the humiliation, the embarrassment. Otherwise, you were shielded by a roof and four doors.
Holly stops with some frequency at the Neiman Marcus at the Shops at La Cantera and buys bags for people. Holly likes the Tory Burch tote bags. They’re luxury items and probably impractical but she feels that you need that sort of stuff the most at hard times. She delivers them to the Battered Women and Children’s Center. Holly will also stop at CVS and buy enough toothpaste and deodorant and lotion—the good brands—to fill up the bags.
Now and again, she will pick up a product once featured on the show. Holly will secretly hold the item, as if to a camera, and smile before she defiantly and triumphantly drops it into her shopping basket.
Gary M. Almeter is an attorney and has been published in McSweeney's and The Good Men Project. He lives in Baltimore, Md. with his wife, three children, and beagle. Also check out his short stories "The Love Song of JFK Jr.," "Goodbye, Buster Bucheit," and his writing playlist.
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