"So is the entire population of Buford gathered in this room or what?" the pale-skinned young woman in the black designer micro-skirt asked.
"Bedford," her equally chic, overly-tanned companion corrected. "And no, this isn't everybody, but I sure as hell didn't expect this many to show up." He looked around the room, craning his neck as best as he could to see through the sea of bowed heads. "It's funny -- most of these people seem to be here 'cause they want to be. Even `bed-ridden-for-life' Libby Morton dragged her metal-plated ass out of her trailer." He smirked then immediately replaced it with a frown of shame. "Sorry. I'm just surprised to see so many people cared."
"Compassion is easier to express to the dead than to the living." The corner of the woman's mouth curved upwards. "With the dead, there's no danger of reciprocation."
If the young man hadn't been so enthralled by the throng around him, he might have actually contemplated his companion's chilling assessment. Most of the unveiled visages filling the back of the little white church in the middle of nowhere meant little to him, just random townsfolk he'd passed by numerous times on the solitary paved street or one of the many dirt roads that intersected Bedford. He skipped over those nameless familiars and scanned the crowd for well-known friends. Fortunately, the height of the frumpy teenager in front of him came short of the circumference of her waist, allowing the young man an unobstructed view over the top of her frosted brown hair.
Near the front of the church, a set of folding chairs formed a semi-circle around a black, silver-trimmed casket resting on the podium. The mother of the man in the coffin had collapsed into the middle seat, her state of consciousness straddling the fence between semi and un. Her remaining son sat beside her, steadying her quivering hand with one of his and cradling her shoulders with the other -- both to comfort her and to keep her upright. His wife sat silent and still next to him, her thin arms wrapped protectively around their boy. Too young to comprehend the sadness surrounding him yet somehow sensing its presence with an infantile prescience, he held in his hands the Batman action figure his uncle had given him from his own collection, twisting its pose-able limbs as he tried to fathom why his uncle would not be coming back.
An infantry of red poinsettias lined the stairs leading up to the podium, accompanied by a cadence of red-bowed holly branches draped over the railing. The preacher's pulpit had been pushed as far to the back of the podium as possible. On top of the pulpit, a porcelain nativity scene had been temporarily relocated from its top-stair showcase.
To the young man in the back, the scene was achingly surreal, as if the gloom of death had stomped its chunky-soled boot over the merriness, forever marring the season with the eternal remembrance of grief. He stared at the figurine of the Virgin Mary gazing serenely at the tiny baby swaddled in porcelain lying in the manger at her feet. Her eyes seemed to drift beyond the newborn Savior to the newly dead man in the coffin below, her peaceful smile taunting him with the unshared wisdom that he didn't have to be there, in that casket, at that moment.
A tinny, electronic rendition of Ace of Base's "It's A Beautiful Life" broke through the solemnity, snapping the young man out of the laughing Virgin's trance. He glanced at his companion, embarrassed; he'd begged her to change her ring tone more times than he could count, but she'd yet to oblige. She returned his glance with a demure, apologetic grimace. She pushed open the door of the tiny minster with her rear and stepped backwards onto the porch. As the door closed, she withdrew her cell phone from her jacket and, with a press of her thumb, she silenced the beautiful life.
"Beth Grimes-Roper. Yes...yes...I see...yes, I will let him know." She disconnected the call with another jab, re-opened the heavy, black door and poked her raven-haired head inside. "Psst, Jamie."
The man turned at the whisper of his name. Beth jerked her head back a couple times. He rolled his eyes and joined her on the snowy steps of the church house, shutting out the standing-room-only wake.
"What is it?"
"That was Angelina Jolie's people. She wants to meet with you to discuss the Wonder Woman project."
Jamie perked. "She does? Ah, so I was finally able to convince her to talk to me!"
"Actually, I think it was the hefty paycheck the studio promised her that convinced her -- that and the luscious back-end deal. She's coming by the office tonight."
"Tonight? As in west-coast tonight or corn-patch tonight?"
"West coast. Angelina just got back from Cambodia this afternoon. She'd been down there helping the refugees build a new school."
"Bless her freaky, unselfish little heart!" Jamie grinned. "Well, we'd better be off. We can't keep Ms. Jolie waiting."
Beth nodded. "I'll buzz Topeka and have the pilot prep the jet." She punched a number into her mobile.
Jamie retrieved his own phone from his jacket and did the same. "I'll call Dante and let him know I'll be home sooner than I'd planned."
Jamie and Beth turned their backs to each other. They raised their phones to their ears and gazed vacantly over the snowflake-caked headstones sprinkled around the front of the churchyard.
The half-cross-country flight from Topeka to Los Angeles was relatively short. The pair arrived at Jamie's Beverly Hills office well in advance of his appointment with his coveted starlet. Jamie pulled back the gray-leather office chair at his desk and sat. "Back with an hour to spare!" He plopped his feet on the edge. "Beth, remind me to send the pilot a little X-mas something, would you?"
She nodded and propped her bottom on the back end of the matching gray-leather sofa in the center of the room. "Speaking of Christmas cheer, Wolfgang rang and said he'd be delighted to cater your party. He had an AMFAR benefit scheduled that same night, but he has no problem shifting it."
A third voice barged in on their conversation. "Wonderful! Christmas just isn't Christmas without Wolfgang's scrumptious peppermint mousse!"
Jamie dropped his feet at the sound of the treacle-sweet baritone and sprang from his chair. He rushed open-armed to greet the cuddly, handsome man who suddenly appeared in the office doorway.
"Hey, you!" Jamie cooed. "What are you doing here?"
The man rushed into the room open-armed and met him halfway. "I thought you might need someone to read lines with Angelina."
"Yeah, right! You're so full of shit!" Jamie teased.
"Alright, alright, I couldn't wait to see you! You got a problem with that?"
"As a matter of fact." Jamie smiled warmly and kissed the man's lips.
With his natural, Italian good looks, Dante Reid should have already been an A-list star. But Dante despised the Hollywood game, and he refused to compromise his talent by allowing himself to be twisted into another plastic piece of uncreative eye candy. He rarely auditioned for a role if he didn't feel connected to the character, and he'd passed on a few high-profile parts because of it. But his diehard integrity and his strong devotion to his craft fit perfectly with Jamie's maverick film-making style, and from the moment they met on the set of Jamie's first independent feature they sizzled with a synergy that -- five years later -- had crackled into the passion of true love.
"How was the wake?" Dante pulled from Jamie's embrace and followed him back to the desk.
Jamie resumed his lackadaisical pose. "Crowded. Compassionate. Eerie, in a Craven-meets-Capra sort of way."
"Then it's a good thing you left when you did. I know how uncomfortable you get around death." Dante planted himself on the corner.
"This from a grown man who cries every time Simba's father dies," Beth commented dryly.
Dante turned. "Beth, I didn't notice you. Your Gothic paleness has a natural way of fading into the shadows."
"Better pale than an irradiated beach whore." She smiled sweetly at him.
"At least I don't have to hide from sunlight for fear of turning to dust."
"Hey, you two, knock it off!" Jamie raised his voice. "Angelina will be here soon to discuss my Wonder Woman film -- a project I've waited my whole life to tackle! I will not have your cat fighting embarrassing me!"
"Sorry, Babe." Dante glared at Beth then picked up a copy of The Hollywood Reporter that had been casually tossed onto the desk.
Jamie sighed. "No, I'm sorry I yelled. I'm just mad at myself for ditching the wake without saying anything to the family."
"Don't beat yourself up about it, Boss," said Beth. "The family didn't seem to be in any condition to acknowledge anyone's expressions of sorrow, anyway."
"Maybe not, but I still should have flowers sent to the funeral tomorrow."
She chuckled. "Yeah, right! Like any flower shop within spitting distance of Buford would even try to make that deadline!"
"It's Bedford, and there happens to be a very nice little flower shop in town on Main Street that will make the deadline."
"Wow, no library, no movie theater, yet there is a flower shop."
"Don't knock it. My mother used to own that shop." Jamie narrowed his eyes at her. "Which reminds me -- I need to find out if Mom wants us to stay at the house during Christmas or get a hotel." He retrieved his cell phone from his jacket.
Dante looked up from the paper. "Oh, I hope she lets us stay at the house! She always has a hot breakfast waiting for us when we wake up."
"Don't you think it's a little late to be calling your mother now?" Beth asked.
Jamie glanced at his watch then tossed his phone on the desk. "You're right. She's probably dozing in front of Touched by an Angel. I'll catch her in the morning."
"That's a good son!" Beth hopped off the sofa. "What's the name of that flower shop in Bedford? I'll give 'em a buzz and order something."
"Oh, how original." She resisted the urge to quip further. "I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?"
"To use the phone at the receptionist's desk. I'm not wasting any of my minutes calling Kansas." She left the office, shutting the door halfway.
"Spank me raw and call me Daddy!" Dante suddenly shouted. "Have you read the Reporter yet?"
"Hon, you know I don't have time to read anything other than shitty scripts," Jamie said.
"Well, you might want to take a look at this!" He handed him the magazine.
Oscar Talk for 'Seventh Seal' Remake.
Jamie's eyes grew as wide as saucers. "Oh, Daddy!"
"Didn't I tell you?" Dante retrieved the magazine before it slipped from his quivering fingers. "It says here preview audiences loved the film! Most of them left the theater bawling their eyes out! Even better, all the critics agree it's the best film of the decade -- hell, even Ebert couldn't stop raving about it!"
"Really? That fat bastard had the nerve to slam me at the Jurassic Park VI premiere for attempting to redo such a classic."
"Well, your wonderful re-interpretation now has him eating his words -- with extra butter." Dante leaned across the desk and kissed Jamie proudly. "I told you when we met you were the best thing that ever happened to Hollywood!" He climbed off the desk and headed for the door. "I'm going to go make copies of this article and fax them to those pricks at Miramax."
He scurried out of the office, sidestepping the returning Beth.
"Why's your boyfriend in such a hurry?" she asked. "Did he suddenly remember he had a Botox appointment?"
Jamie stared at her, speechless over the gushing praise for his latest cinematic creation.
"Sorry. No catfighting. I forgot." Beth walked up to the desk. "Actually, since he's gone, I need to talk to you."
Jamie continued to stare, his face frozen in a silently proud, goofy grin.
"Yoo hoo, Earth to Bailey." She waved her hand in front of his eyes. "What's with the dorky smile?"
He blinked. "Holy shit, Beth, we're going to the Oscars!" He jumped up, ran around the desk, and hugged her tight, lifting her off the floor and twirling her around.
"Whoa, nellie! You're acting like you didn't see this coming!"
"I didn't!" He let go of her. "What, are you saying you did?"
"Of course! I knew it from the moment I got this gig big things were in store for you. That's why I took the job -- you needed someone to believe in you when you wouldn't believe in yourself." She tugged on the sleeve of his jacket. "Now sit back down. I really need to talk to you."
"In a minute! I have to call my mom and tell her the good news, Touched by an Angel or not!" Jamie reached for the phone lying in the middle of his desk.
"Um, you can't do that," Beth warned.
"Please, I've called and woken my mom up many times! She never has a problem with it." He turned on his phone, but no signal came through the tiny receiver. "That's weird. I just charged this thing last night." He peered at the face plate and pressed the power button repeatedly.
"No, Jamie, you can't do that. You can't call your mother -- or anybody else -- ever again."
Jamie shifted his quizzical gaze from his cell to his assistant. "What the hell are you talking about?"
A sudden somberness had overtaken Beth's playful wryness. She looked hard at Jamie, her hazel eyes glazed over with emptiness. At once, the veneer glossing his idyllic surroundings vanished. Stripped of its illusionary topcoat, the state-of-the-art Beverly Hills office shimmered into a shadow-swirl of darkness. The shaded void danced around Beth's head as the siren-song of reality beckoned Jamie to clasp its hand and join it in a minuet of enlightenment. As he gave in to its seductive lure, a sonata of snowflakes snuck through an interlude in the swirling shadows, invading his perceived paradise and subjugating it with cold truth.
"I'm really sorry, Jamie. I wish I didn't have to do this," Beth calmly cut in on his waltz of veracity.
"What the hell?" Jamie darted his head to and fro, frantically searching for signs of his paradigm existence. Every last remnant of his ideal life -- his expensive toys, his career, the man he loved -- had been wiped away. He now stood naked and alone in the snow-capped graveyard of the little white church in the middle of nowhere. "Bed-ford? H-How'd we get back here?"
"Actually, my good friend of Dorothy, you're not in Kansas, at least not corporeally." Beth pointed to the grave at Jamie's feet. "But to be perfectly honest, you never actually left."
Jamie sunk to his knees. He reached out reluctantly to the coral-marble headstone and he gingerly traced the engraved letters spelling out his proper name. Tactile contact with the cold stone slab sent the agonizing grief of remembrance surging through his mind in a ruby-tinted flood. At once he recounted how his self-conscious apathy cost him his job at the Bedford video shop, how his debt-driven financial fear steered him to the razor blade in the bathroom cabinet, how a lifetime of insuperable weakness finally overpowered his optimism. As he saw himself giving in to the weakness that kept him from embracing his true passion, Jamie recanted the last thought that faded with him into oblivion: the delight on his nephew's face when he gave the boy his favorite Batman toy.
Through a shroud of tears, he gazed ruefully at the drained rivulet dissecting his outstretched arm. "Take me back."
"Don't fuck with me!" Jamie lashed out at Beth and rose from his grave. "Take me back, now! To LA, to Dante, to my life!"
"I'm sorry, Jamie, but that wasn't your life. It could have been -- if you hadn't been so impatient." She ventured a step closer to him. "Look, part of my job is to give people a glimpse of what might have been if they hadn't given up. It's not something I get a thrill out of, but it is in the job description."
"Job? What are you, some sort of angel?"
"I've been called worse." For a brief moment Beth's cocksure coyness returned.
Jamie's anger softened. "Ah, I get it, Beth. Rhymes with----"
"Yeah, I know. Not very clever, is it? But hey, when you've been doing this as long as I have you start to run out of snappy pseudonyms." She smiled at him.
They faced each other in silence, the dancing snowflakes performing a pas-de-deux between them as Jamie slowly accepted the irreversible nature of the choice he'd made. He knew the hell that awaited him would seem like heaven compared to the damnable window of consequence his "assistant" had shown him.
The sound of the children's choir rehearsing their holiday program wafted through the wood-slatted walls of the church, their cherubic singing accompanying the winter dance with its wondrous melody.
"Do you think I really would've made such an impact if I hadn't given up?" Jamie asked.
Beth shrugged. She reached out to him with her white hand;
he had no choice but to take it. Together they walked down the
snow-covered dirt road intersecting Bedford, the echo of the voices
of innocents bestowing tidings of comfort and joy as they followed
the welcoming glow of the evening star.
© 2003 Edward Beekman-Myers, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This is a story about strength -- or lack of strength, to be precise. It deals with finding the courage to wade through the rough waters of life and mustering the will to make every dream come true. My story explores the repercussions of abandoning courage and will out of fear of happiness. Seize every opportunity you're given. You never know when you might have the chance to make a difference.