Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Glass Character: an excerpt (the rainstorm)





I would like to introduce you to my third novel, The Glass Character, a story of obsessive love and ruthless ambition set in the heady days of the Jazz Age in the 1920s.  The story  is a fictional account of a young girl’s experiences in Hollywood from approximately 1921 to 1932, during which she develops an obsessive relationship with silent film comedian Harold Lloyd. In this excerpt, Muriel is working as an extra in a Lloyd film and is unexpectedly caught in a torrential rainstorm. Then comes an encounter she has both dreamed of and dreaded.





On a particularly vile day when we were supposed to be doing outside shots, I got caught in a downpour such as I had never seen before: a California monsoon of sorts. As everyone ran blindly for some kind of cover, I heard an unmistakeable voice under the rolling thunder:

”For God’s sake, Muriel, get in here.”

“Mr. Lloyd – “

”Forget that nonsense, call me by my name.”

He held out his hand and pulled me in next to him, in a tiny dry patch under a doorway. “You’re the girl who mussed my hair,” he said, beaming at me. I wondered once again if stars had electric fixtures installed behind their faces, to give off such incandescence.

This was a small space, very small indeed, and I had conflicted feelings about it. I had never been really intimate with a man, so had no knowledge of being this close to a man’s body, clothed or not. It was not just his heat, but the incredible racehorse energy in him which startled me: held back in the starting gate, he was restless and aching to go. I felt dizzy, swoony almost, with a hammering heaviness below, a warm wetness gathering as I felt him tensely breathe.






At one point he turned and smiled at me, and my heart sank, for this was the antic impersonal smile of the Glass Character, jaunty in the face of any pickle. I remembered being allowed to touch his hair, to tousle it like a little boy’s.  I ached to have him touch me, to want to touch me. I felt ashamed of what was happening in my body, but at the same time I felt a sort of awe, caught up in a powerful force that seemed to be lifting me off my feet. Our bodies were literally pressed together, and when I tried to edge out of the tiny dry strip into the hammering downpour, his hand came out, gently but firmly grasped my shoulder, and pulled me back.

“Now Muriel, there’s no need to get soaked. Let’s wait it out.” He talked as if he had all day. He was using a different sort of voice now, the kind you’d use at Frankie’s to get in. He did not look directly at me; that would have killed me. I was close enough that I could not ignore the smell of his dampened, stunt-dusty clothing; the white greasepaint on his face that rendered him magical; the hot scent of his sweat.







I wasn’t aware of the large drop of rain hanging off the end of my nose, but he saw it and smiled – a real smile this time, with marvelous relaxed eyes – reached out with a forefinger and flicked it off.

And I would have died right then and there, his unnervingly lovely gaze sustaining me for the rest of my life, when I noticed something about him, something (even in my naiveté) I could not quite believe.

Virgin though I was, I had kissed and petted with boys before, and knew what happened to their bodies as a result. Without having to look, I realized with shock (and elation, and shame, and despair) that I was not alone in the feelings I had been struggling with.  Whether he willed it or not, he was responding to me powerfully, the blossomy scent of my hair released by the freshness of the rain.





Then, incredibly, instead of dissipating, the downpour increased in intensity, gushing down with frightening force, almost like a monsoon. There was a terrific, bone-shaking clap of thunder.  Harold let out a mad whoop of laughter, then jumped out into the downpour, throwing his head back, opening his mouth, stretching out his arms like some demented forest creature driven mad by the moon.

“Come on out, Muriel, it’s marvelous!” He spun around and around in mad circles, stirring up a tremendous muck under his feet. I would not have been surprised if he had got down and rolled.

“Muriel, Muriel, come on out!” The man was an absolute infant, a case of arrested development, an embarrassment to the acting profession.  And – I did what he said. I came out into the rain, a steamy, mucky, uncomfortable mess, my hair sodden and my skirt weighed down. Harold’s clothes were glued to him, not just caked but clumped with mud. He was jumping up and down like a toddler, a wild smile on his face, and after a while, reluctantly, I joined him. He grabbed my hands and swung me around and around. I prayed that everyone else had run for cover and would not see us cavorting like naughty babies.





“Muriel, Muriel – “ And he did the thing I had dreaded and prayed for, grabbed my shoulders and pulled me almost violently close. I knew he was in a state of high arousal, any fool could see that, but what worried me was my own arousal, the part of me that wanted to toss caution to the wind.

“Let me kiss you,” he said breathlessly.

“Harold, you can’t.”

“Only once, I promise.”

“Harold.”

“Muriel, mmmmmmmmm.” He grazed my mouth with his lips.  For a long time he just stood there, barely making contact. I wondered if this would be a chaste kiss, the kind you would give your sister.

Then I remembered what the girls had said.  Ladies first. The way he carefully prepared his. . . victims.






I knew I should have pulled away, and I didn’t because I was crazy in the head for him.  I understood at last what being drunk must be like. We swayed slightly, almost as if we were dancing. His mouth pressed gently on mine, then just the tip of his tongue parted my lips.

This is what it should be like. Not having some stupid boy stick his tongue down your throat, with beery breath and fumbling, clumsy fingers. Harold lightly caressed my face while he kissed me, soft as roses. The man is an absolute master, I thought.

By the time his tongue grew a little more bold, I was in such a state that I wondered if I could even remain upright. The rain had just about stopped. The ferocious black sky was breaking up, the clouds dissipating. We were two mud statues embracing, our tongues entwining as everything dripped all around us.  The heady freshness in the air mixed with the smell of sex, a smell that was beginning to be familiar to me. And below and beneath that, the rude smell of mud.

Then, oh horrors, the worst thing possible:  “Harold! Jesus!”

What happened next was a scene straight out of one of his movies: he jerked back from me, looked at me in shock, turned around and looked at Hal, then back at me, as if he had no idea who I was.

“Harold, if  I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times. Don’t screw
the extras!”




”I’m not! We were just having a little. . . talk.”

“Jesus, right out in the open. Haven’t  I warned you about that?”

“It was raining out. Everybody went inside.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yes, I guess I am.” 

“No more ‘little talks’. He talks with his hands, miss. And other parts.” Hal stalked past us, and shocked me by reaching out and slapping the back of Harold’s head, hard.

Harold ducked, winced, looked truly contrite. His little innocent dalliance had turned bad, and he knew it had embarrassed me.

“I’m sorry,” he said, with his sad little-boy face, his eyes.

I didn’t know what to say. To cry would be disaster. It was plain he’d kiss anything with a pulse. It occurred to me that I would be within my rights to slap his face.

Just as I had the thought, as if he’d heard it, he said, “I deserve to be slapped, Muriel.”

“Oh, Harold, don’t be ridiculous.”

”No, I mean it. I broke the code of honour. Slap me.”

”Harold!”

Slap me.” He grabbed my wrist and wrestled with me.  I was dealing with a crazy person. I wrenched away from him.

“You deserve to be slapped, you self-important, ignorant little hick! But  I won’t, because you’d probably enjoy it. That’s how hopelessly immature you are.”




All the air seemed to go out of him. He did not look like a movie star, ankle-deep in mud, his rain-streaked makeup ashy and unnatural. He looked awkward, defeated, a small-town boy out of his depth.

“I don’t know what to say. I really am sorry.” He was back to Harold the human being again, shocked at his own outrageous behaviour.

“Stay away from me from now on.”

”Muriel, I really do like you. I mean it.”

“You like a lot of girls, Harold. I see it going on right under my nose.”

“But wouldn’t it be nice if we could be – “

No, Harold.”

"Muriel, you don't know how lonely. . . I mean, I just don't have time for friends. I think you're special."

Even though my body screamed forgive him, even though another part of me told me to slap him hard, to give him what he (and I) wanted, I had to walk away from him with my head high, and not look back.




After screaming abuse at him, let alone being caught kissing him out in the open, I was sure I would be immediately dismissed. But I was in for yet another surprise. The next morning the wardrobe mistress, the same one with the pins in her mouth, handed me a small folded-up note.

Dear Muriel, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for the way I acted last night becaus I know I insulted your dignity and your womanhood and I would not be surprised if you didn't want to speak to me, ever again, But I hope you will stay with us, we  think you have talent and even the chance for a career someday if you keep out of the way the likes of me,  I am most awfuly sorry and I hope we can still be friends, Id like that very much. In my deepest apology, 

Harold

It was as if a small boy were apologizing for stealing an apple. It did not help that his handwriting looked almost like grade school printing, that his writing style was awkward and unsophisticated (the remnants of going to a dozen different schools). I wanted to tear it up, throw it out, burn it, but I folded it in half and secreted it in my diary, along with a photo of Bea, a copy of the Twenty-third Psalm, and a lock of my mother's hair.




4 comments:

  1. One of the book's best scenes.

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  2. That second-to-last photo - I wish I knew where it came from so I could put it on the cover. She is so much like Muriel, makes me want to go gay or something!

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  3. I was thinking the same thing -- about the photo, not your outing yourself or something. Would you still want to play Muriel if Michael Liberace played Harold?

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  4. Now THAT is a truly grotesque idea.

    I'd thought of Jake Gyllenhaal - he'd be a rambunctious, too-tall but inspired Harold, with that wild streak of his, and his unorthodox good looks - or Zachary Quinto, who was so good as Spock in the recent Trek movie - but he's a little sedate. Facially however he looks a lot like Harold, if you thin out the brow a little. The smile is similar and he's WAY cute.

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