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Hollywood Book of the Dead

Illustration by Tra Selhtrow

It was Thanksgiving time, and a whore was at Kit Lightfoot’s Benedict Canyon home. That used to be his thing, but he hadn’t been with a whore since the early nineties. And he’d never cheated on Viv.

They were coked up in the living room, and he laughed as she held the dog’s head between her legs. It kept trying to break free, and that made the whore laugh too. “Jus’ like his master,” she said. “Real picky.” She laughed again and released him, then stood up to go pee. When the whore came back, she knelt by the Buddha at the fireplace and lit a cigarette. There were flowers and incense and tiny photos of enlightened men. She asked about the altar, and Kit said reflectively that it was a gift from Stevie Nicks. Then he gave her a little flash-card intro — Zen 101. Stillness. Sitting. The Power of Now.

“You meditate every day?” she said.

“Every day. For fifteen years.”

Kit’s career as an actor had barely been launched when a friend turned him on to Buddhism. He took up meditating and, a short while after, visited a monastery on Mount Baldy. It was freezing cold, but there was wordless beauty and a stunning quietude that pierced him to the core. That was the week, he used to say, where he got a taste of stillness. Monks and dedicated laypersons came and went like solemn, dignified cadets amidst the ritualized cadence of drums, chanting, and silence — his unthinkable siren and dangerous new friend, for silence too had a cadence. (The hard poetry of silence, his teacher once said.) He watched a man being ordained and later found out he had once been a powerful Hollywood agent. Kit grooved to that kind of convert. He loved having blundered into this magisterially abstract Shangri-la of the spirit, a flawless diamond-pointed world that might liberate him from the bonds of narcissism, the bonds of self.

He got deeper into his practice. Between theater and film gigs he traveled to far-flung countries attending monthlong sesshins, awakening at four in the morning to sit on a cushion eleven hours a day when not immersed in the meditation of food preparation, tea ceremonies, groundskeeping. He was glad to be young and strong while learning the art of sitting in stillness. Older initiates had a hard time with zazen’s physical demands.

It became well-known within the show business community, and outside it too, that Kit was a serious practitioner. He rarely discussed his thoughts or beliefs with interviewers unless the venue was a magazine like Tricycle or Shambhala Sun. He didn’t want to trivialize something so personal or, worse, get puffed up in the process. There were enough celebrities talking about yoga and Buddhism anyway. He gave generously to the Tibetan cause and funded clinics and ashrams through an anonymous trust. That satisfied him more than any public discourse ever could.

In those 12 years of practice, Kit Lightfoot, the celebrity, was often the People’s Choice. He’d finally been snagged by James Lipton (Hoffman and Nicholson were among the remaining holdouts) and photographed in Vanity Fair’s Hollywood issue with the simple caption “The Man.” He even won Best Supporting for a remarkable, artfully thrown-away performance in a fluky, borderline indie lark filmed just before the death of his Buddhist teacher, Gil Weiskopf Roshi. After the fact, it seemed so perfect. It was Gil who had said: Throw it all away.

;

He flipped through the paper. Viv was still getting ready. The driver waited outside to take them to the benefit.

Kit was always looking through articles in the Times for movie ideas. Maybe there would be something to develop that he could direct. Shit, his friend Clooney had done it. Nic Cage and Sean, Denzel and Kevin — name the film and the chances were that some actor had “helmed.” There was an item about a woman accused of feeding her young daughter sleeping pills and shaving her head in an effort to convince the community she had leukemia and was worthy of multiple fund-raisers. She even put the kid in counseling, to prepare her for death. Another told of two Wichita brothers who broke into a town house and forced a bunch of twentysomething friends to have sex with each other before staging executions on a snowy soccer field. At the bottom of the page was the story of a pole vaulter who had freakishly crashed to the ground and died during his run. The last thing he said before jogging to his death was, “This is my day, Dad.”

“What’s this thing we’re going to?” Kit asked as Viv strode in, cocky and perfect-looking. He could smell the hair on her arms.

“A benefit for Char Riordan,” she said. “She’s a casting agent — so great. I love her.”

“Television?”

She nodded.

Viv Wembley was as famous as her boyfriend but in a different way. She was one of the stars of Together, the long-running, high-rated sitcom.

“She cast me in my first play and my first TV movie. I was bridesmaid at her wedding on the Vineyard.”

“So what’s wrong with her?”

“Scleroderma.”

“Gesundheit.”

“Very funny.”

“Sclerowhat?”

“Scleroderma.”

“What is that?”

“I don’t even know! It’s in the tissues or something. She looks kind of like a monster — like she’s rotting away.”

“Always attractive.”

“If I ever get anything like that, promise to shoot me.”

“After I fuck you. Or maybe during.”

She swatted at him as they got into the Town Car. When it pulled up to the hotel, the photographers shouted their names in a frenzy. Alf Lanier, a younger movie star in his own right and a friend of both, nudged his way over, doing jester shtick as the trio posed in a seizure of strobes.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” asked Kit, playfully sotto.

“Isn’t this the Michael J. Fox thing?” said Alf.

“You are such an asshole,” said Viv, with a scampish smile.

“You stupid cunt,” said Kit to Alf, whispering in his ear to be heard above the vulturazzi. “Didn’t you know this was the Lymphoma Costume Ball?”

“You guys better shut up!” said Viv, enjoying their banter.

Alf looked outraged and shot back to Kit: “This is the cystic fibrosis-autism thing, you insensitive prick.”

“Oh shit,” said the superstar, contritely. “I fucked up. But are you sure this isn’t the bipolar Lou Gehrig tit cancer monkeypox telethon?”

They went on like that as Viv dragged them into the ballroom.

M

“He’s been voted People magazine’s ‘Sexiest Man Alive’ more times than anyone on the planet — and he can type too. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome . . . Kit Lightfoot!”

The supernova took the stage with his patented self-effacing panther walk. The band raucously played the well-known theme from an early megahit. There was a large contingent of fans and screamers toward the front.

They embraced. After the applause died down, Jay did his jokey debonair thing. “Those screams — if our viewers at home are wondering — are partially for me. Something in the aftershave.”

Laughter. More swoons, hoots, and hollers.

“All right,” Jay chastised. “That’s enough now!”

He turned to his handsome guest. “So how the hell are ya?”

Hair-trigger whoops came before he could answer. Kit raised an eyebrow at the audience and chuckled. A few isolated screams.

“I’m great. I’m great, Jay.”

First words greeted by more electric commotion (everyone was having fun, and fun was what it was all about) which gradually though never completely faded away.

“I saw you at a benefit last week,” said Jay.

“For scleroderma,” said Kit, nodding.

“Yes. For a lovely lady who Mavis, my wife, has actually known for years — Char Riordan. They’re doing wonderful research.”

“Yes.”

“Making great strides. Do you go to a lot of those things? I would imagine you get asked to lend your name to causes.”

“This business is so frivolous, Jay, and so many of us have been absurdly blessed. I mean, let’s face it, I put on makeup for a living — ”

“You could always work on Santa Monica Boulevard . . .”

“Don’t quit my day job, exactly! But I think we get compensated on such a ridiculous scale, that we’re . . . compelled . . . to do what we can. Otherwise, you’re just a kid in a sandbox. I try to do my share.”

Applause kicked in, soberly encouraged by Jay. “So you went last week — ”

“I had a personal connection. Viv and Char — the woman being honored — are very, very close.”

“That’s of course Viv Wembley,” said Jay, pausing to acknowledge the audience as they whooped and applauded. “In case the folks out there didn’t know,” he added with a wink. “The very lovely, and by the way very funny star of Together. And I want to get to some other things — it’s well-known you have an interest, a long-standing interest, in Buddhism, and you’ve agreed to talk with us a little about that tonight in connection with an upcoming event — which is something you rarely do and I’m thrilled you’re going to enlighten us, so to speak. But first, I’m dying to ask you a question.”

“Shoot.”

“Someone told me you and Viv have nicknames for each other.”

The audience hooted while Kit squirmed appealingly. “Who told you that?”

“Vee haff ways. Now come on, Kit, tell us what she calls you.”

He hemmed and hawed. The crowd cajoled.

“She calls me Bumpkin.”

The audience let out a happy groan. Warm laughter. Wolf whistles.

“Now come on!” said Jay, admonishing the mob. “I think it’s very sweet.” He turned back to Kit. “She calls you Bumpkin.”

“That’s right, Jay.”

“And . . . what’s your nickname for Viv?”

“I don’t think we should go there.”

The audience protested, then began to plead.

“This is a family show,” Kit added.

Laughter. More pleading. Isolated begging whoops.

“Now, you were supposed to do a cameo on Together — ”

“Jay! I thought we were moving on!”

“We are, but this is important. I heard Viv was mad because that cameo hasn’t yet happened.”

Kit looked at the host with keen-eyed admiration. “Oh, you are good. You are really good.”

Audience laughter.

“Bumpkin’s been a very bad boy,” said Jay.

“Yeah, she’s not too happy. But I’m busy! I’m in the middle of shooting a picture! I’m in a little bit of hot water here, Jay, help me out!”

“I’m trying to be sympathetic. But to most of us, being in hot water with Viv Wembley probably isn’t the worst thing in the world.”

“Think you’re man enough to handle it?”

The audience laughed. Jay cracked up, blushing.

“When we come back, I want to talk about the Dalai Lama — he’s a friend of yours, right? — and the important work you’ve been doing building clinics over there.”

“Helping to,” Kit added, with a modest smile.

“Where are they, India?”

“Yes,” Kit said matter-of-factly. “India.”

“For the refugees.”

“For whoever needs them.”

Jay looked straight into the camera and said, “Kit Lightfoot. Right here. Right now. Wearing makeup. So don’t touch that dial.”

V

Kit gunned the Indian down the 60, toward Riverside — the familiar, unfamiliar route. The faux-stucco skin of the old house was thick with cement spray-on coatings, ordered throughout the years by his father in varying fits of mania. Seasonal cosmetic makeovers were his thing.

The sun-bleached DeVille was in the drive, and a junk car too. It was less than a beater — no wheels and up on blocks. Urchins ogled the chopper.

Kit sat in a ratty chaise, feet propped on a tire swing, sipping beer while scanning love letters and ghostly Polaroids of Rita Julienne. Burke came from the house bearing gifts: coleslaw, corn, and KFC. “If I knew you were coming, I’d have provided something a little more sumptuous,” he said, delighted his son had shown up.

“That’s cool,” said Kit benevolently, softened by the words and images of his beloved mother.

“See? You’re like your old man after all. You arrive unannounced.”

He let the remark slide. “I see the neighborhood hasn’t changed. Still shitty and depressing.”

“That’s Riverside!” said Burke.

He talked about a methamphetamine lab that had been busted up a few blocks from there. A chemical odor hung in the air for weeks — no one could figure out where it was coming from until someone’s lawn caught fire.

“I’m telling you, it was straight out of David Lynch.” He ‰ looked over Kit’s shoulder at a snapshot. “Catalina. You were conceived on that trip. Did we ever take you to Catalina?”

“No.”

“We had a wonderful time there. Years later we went back and had a not so wonderful time.” He sighed. “Such is life.”

“Look,” said Kit, neatening the documents. “I think I’m gonna head back.”

“But you didn’t eat,” said Burke, waxing paternal. “Have a bite before you go.”

“Some other time,” said Kit, lighting a cigarette. He lifted his feet off the tire.

“Don’t you want to see your old room? It’s exactly as you left it.”

“Got to keep it authentic for the tour groups, huh, Burke.”

“I thought we could go by the school and have a look at the future Kitchener Lightfoot Auditorium.”

“They’re not going to do that, are they? Name it after me?”

“I know they want to. I’m told ten thousand will make it happen. It’d be nice press,” said Burke, smiling like Cardinal Mahony. “I’m always looking out for you.”

Kit got the notion to fuck with him.

“Do you need ten thousand, Dad?”

The man chuckled like a bad actor.

“I don’t need it. I could use it but I don’t need it. Not personally. The alma mater needs it: Ulysses S. Grant.”

“I’ll send a check over, OK?”

“That would be a beautiful thing.”

“Now who should I make that out to? You, Dad? Or the school? If I made it out to the school, that’d probably be better. For me. I mean, tax-wise.”

“Either way,” said Burke, staring off with stagy indifference. “Either way’ll do. To the school would be fine.” A pause, then, “It’s just . . . I’m not one hundred percent sure if Grant School is the right entity. I’m not sure they have their funding entity together yet. They could be calling that project something else. So if you write the check to me, that’s fine too, I’ll hold it in escrow then funnel it to the correct entity. No problems. Make it out to me, son — or leave the pay-to line blank — not the amount — and I’ll turn it over. Save your business manager the hassle of a reissue.”

Cela appeared at the front fence and made a dash to Kit’s arms. Pleased at the fortuitous arrival, Burke said, “Kit Lightfoot, this is your life!” He went inside so the high school sweethearts could be alone. Kit was certain his father had alerted her, because she was dolled up more than a Saturday afternoon would call for.

“What a surprise.”

“How you doin, Cela?” She was still gorgeous to him, but drugs had taken their toll. She was old around the edges.

“Slummin today?”

“Just a little,” he said.

Some preteen girls pressed up against the driveway gate and giggled.

“You look great,” said Kit. “You been all right?”

“Not too bad. Burke and I have a pretty good thing going — we do the Sunday Rose Bowl swap, in Pasadena? Find all kinds of stuff then sell it on eBay. I know you’re doin OK.”

“Can’t complain.”

“Oh and hey, thank you for the eight-by-tens. That was a bonanza. People at the swaps go nuts for anything of yours that’s signed. Especially when Burke says he’s your dad — which, to his credit, he doesn’t a lot of the time.”

Y

“Schools never lose that smell, do they?” asked Kit.

“That smells-like-teen-spirit smell?”

He cocked an eye.

“Did we ever fuck anywhere on campus?”

“Hey, mister,” she said. “I held out a long time. Don’t go mixin’ me up with somebody else.”

They sat on a plastic picnic table outside the auditorium. Padlocked vending machines, scratched with graffiti, hibernated against the stained cinder-block wall.

“I wish I could have seen your mama before she died,” she said. “I miss her, I truly do.” She shook her head. “That was a rough time for me — ‘Cela Byrd: The Rehab Years.’ It’s all about me, isn’t it?” she said, sardonically.

“You doing OK now?”

“Still peeing in a bottle. Hey, my birthday’s coming up! AA — six months. Wanna give me a cake?”

“Love to.”

“So . . . you gonna marry Viv Wembley?” She smiled as Kit simulated a blush. “Well you should. She’s pretty! And I love that show, it’s hilarious. She’s from L.A., right?”

“Orange County.”

“Michelle Pfeiffer’s from O.C. too. I read that somewhere.”

A faraway girl approached on a bike. The sight of her summoned a memory.

“Remember when we got loaded at that Christmas party?”

“Yeah,” said Kit.

He fished a roach from his wallet.

“And we went into that room where everybody left their coats and purses and shit? And you, like, stole all the money —”

“I wasn’t the only one! You had some magic fingers.”

“I did, didn’t I?” she said, sex creeping into her voice.

“You surely did.”

“Please don’t call me Shirley. Remember that from Airplane! I loved that movie.” She put her hand on his leg. “We had something special, huh. First loves . . .” She unbuckled his belt. He lit the roach. “You don’t know how fucked up it’s been, Kit. Sitting in rehab, watching you in a movie. Reading about you in People. Or wherever. At the premieres. Always with someone else. There I am thinking: That girl should have been me. I used to tell people we went out, but I stopped. I was in jail once, all like, ‘He was my boyfriend! You don’t understand! He took me to the prom!’ That was a low point. As worsts go, that was a personal best.”

She kissed him lightly once or twice to see how amenable he was, then drifted down and put him in her mouth.

The faraway girl was closer now and stood on her bike, watching.

Q

Kit sat on a cushion in his private zendo, facing the Benedict Canyon hillock that rose up like a ziggurat. A landscape architect had trucked in tons of dirt for the effect.

He stared at an abstract, shifting patch of sun on the teak floor a foot or so beyond his knees.

His next film, an Anthony Minghella, had fallen through. He was scheduled to do a Ridley Scott but not for at least ten months.

He thought of going to India for the Kalachakra Tantra, the annual Wheel of Time rite in which thousands of initiates experience rebirth en masse, coming through childhood to visualize themselves as buddhas. Seeing the Gyuto monks had triggered the notion of pilgrimage. The Dalai Lama, his teacher’s teacher, was scheduled to preside over a gathering of some quarter million devotees. Kit had attended such a ceremony before with His Holiness in Madison, Wisconsin, albeit on a far smaller scale.

There, in that unlikely place, the actor had spoken words of promise, before infinity: “O all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, please take heed of me. I, Kit Lightfoot, from this time henceforth until arriving in the essence of enlightenments will generate the excellent unsurpassed mind of intention to become enlightened in just the way the Protectors of the three times become definite toward enlightenment.” A sand mandala representing a palace was created, and the pilgrims were mentally guided through it. After a number of days, the rituals and blessings ended when the Dalai Lama himself swept up the colored sand with a broom, in readiness for dedication to the waters.

It seemed like a lifetime since he’d been to India. He had journeyed there with Gil. They had visited Lumbini, birthplace of Prince Siddhartha Gautama; Bodh Gaya, where Siddhartha was realized beneath the Bodhi Tree; the Deer Park at Sarnath, where he gave sermons on the Four Noble Truths; Sravasti’s great park that hosted the Buddha’s meditation retreats, and where he converted a notorious murderer; and a saal forest in Kushinagar, the final, unglamorous place in which he left the world. The trip saturated him, and he craved India’s sounds, smells, and heart. He craved his teacher too, who had died a year after his mother passed on, to the day — craved the Dharma anew. A few months ago, he’d made vague plans to travel with Meg Ryan at Christmastime to see Ramesh, a disciple of the great sage Nisargadatta Maharaj. But now he was thinking he should make the trip alone, confining his visit to Bodh Gaya, where this year’s Kalachakra would be held.

He readjusted himself on the cushion and focused his breath, suppressing a smile as the mischievous, deconsecrated image of his old friend Alf bobbed before him. Alf wanted to go to a Golden Globe party at the Medavoys’, but Kit had bailed because he didn’t have a film out and was envious of those who did, jealous of the actors — some unknown, others long forgotten and now rediscovered — whose fates had contrived to cast them in one of those overrated, dark-horse indies that infect hearts and minds each awards season like a designer virus. He felt defunct, used up, ashamed of his body of work. In the middle of his meditations

he returned to his breath, pushing through. He focused on another trapezoidal tile of sun. Insect buzz. His attention flitted from the face of his root guru, Gil, to a page of Rita Julienne Lightfoot’s love letters to the smell of her hospital room to the taste of Viv’s mouth to the little girl who watched as he came in Cela’s mouth on the edge of the playground of Ulysses S. Grant School.

Alf loomed again, the irrepressible jester, trickster. Shapeshifter. He got his kicks by tweaking his more famous friend and knew what buttons to push. Yesterday, he’d made a point of telling him Spike Jonze was up to something big — Spike was about to do a really wild film, “more genius than Adaptation,” about celebrity look-alikes. Alf said he didn’t know much more than that, but did know Spike was supposedly out there looking for a “Kit Lightfoot type.” When he heard that, Kit had laughed out loud, playing it cool. (He’d secretly resolved to phone the director at home and get the friendly lowdown. If there was something for him, he’d most likely have heard. Spike would have called or his people would have approached.) Kit wanted to do challenging work; it haunted him that he hadn’t yet made his bid. He was desperate — so he told himself — to do something magnificent, to work with an art-house hotshot, any hotshot, young or old, step right up. He completely understood Tom’s need to have done the Kubrick thing. Respected it. Admired it. Then the Master went and died, as if in homage to Tom’s great taste and timing, Tom’s great luck. Kit kept telling himself that he wanted to do a film to challenge him in his core the way his practice once had, back in the day. But even if he found the right project, there were obstacles to surmount — he knew that he needed to be empty enough to exceed real or imagined boundaries. Maybe he just didn’t have it in him; never did and never would. Maybe he was just a pretty boy with swagger, gutless and not that bright, the King of People’s Choice. And that was that.

He shivered, straightening his spine.

The zendo had been built by master carpenters from five-hundred-year-old Japanese cedars without benefit of nails or glue. Each morning, the toryos had made offerings of sake and rice to their tools before setting to work. Architectural Digest wanted to put it on their cover, but Kit turned them down in his nobility. He flashed on the whore and the extemporaneous teisho before the shrine of the Buddha: the pornography of hubris. How had the path led him to this? He felt in danger of dying.

Like a warlock, he summoned a Kalachakra invocation to clear the air — “I will achieve complete enlightenment through the four doors of thorough liberation . . . emptiness, sinlessness, wishlessness, and non-activity!” These words he had said in Wisconsin, before his mentor and friend, the Dalai Lama. These words he had said before Prince Siddhartha, before timeless Shakyamuni, before Nothingness. He whispered Om shunyata-jnana-vajra-svabhavatmako ham and bowed deeply to the void, the hum of his words merging with the drone of a faraway leaf blower.

 

Excerpted and adapted from Still Holding by Bruce Wagner, published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright Bruce Wagner 2003. Wagner, who is the author of three previous novels as well as the television series Wild Palms, will read from the book at Dutton’s Brentwood on November 14 and Book Soup on November 20, both at 7 p.m. He’s also reading at Spoken Interludes on November 17, with Harry Shearer, Ricky Jay and Vendela Vida; for information go to www.spokeninterludes.com.


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