There is a common affliction among those who are chronically famous, as Marlowe has been since the tender age of twelve. It is nothing as common as simple ennui, nor does it carry the scintillating trauma of leprosy. Given the ultimate ambition of the common man is the love and monetary benefits of world renown, this ailment would be the last thing one might expect. Still, if a dedicated researcher had the backing of a major university and the gumption necessary, she would inevitably find herself flummoxed by the sheer magnitude of the epidemic.
Any tidy summary would lack the nuance due such a spiritual gout, and to attempt such a thing would be insulting to subject and audience alike. But suffice it to say, thus: left to their own devices, without the mechanized thrum of fame or the stimulation of regular sex, a celebrity’s thoughts will reliably and predictably turn to death. This is not to say these defensive measures are a perfect distraction from the Specter, but the odds of death creeping through the floorboards to whisper in your ear are measurably less with a microphone in your face or a starlet in your lap. This is how, with neither paparazzi nor hard-on at hand, Marlowe finds himself perched on the edge of a continent, thinking of all matters moribund, when his phone rings.
“Hello?” he asks after the fourth ring.
“Marlowe!” answers a voice through a thousand miles of airspace and (presumably) a fog of cigarette smoke.
“Oh. Hello, Tawny,” says Marlowe.
A celebrity’s agent is a reaper of a different kind, taking ten percent with every swipe of her scythe. Some have compared them to leeches – an insult to the medicinal legacy of the nobel invertebrate – but any attempt to scour them from the industry has been met with stunning indifference. Tawny in particular stands head-and-shoulders above her peers with regard to her oil-stain stubbornness. Still, her voice is a temporary distraction, and for that he is grateful.
“Where are you, hon? I’ve been on the phone with Warner all morning and they want you on the lot tomorrow!”
Tawny tends to speak in patterns that Marlowe can map like low pressure systems. First there comes a question, to which the answer is irrelevant. Then she justifies her paycheck by overstating her value (“All morning,” is more easily understood as, “Fifteen minutes, just now”) before wrapping up her sentence with an ask of varying degrees of imposition.
“That’s no good,” says Marlowe, “I’m in Oregon.”
“Oregon? Who the hell goes to Oregon? Listen, I’m doing all I can to keep these bastards off your back, but I need you here, tomorrow.”
“Can’t do it, Tawn. I’m hiking. Lewis and Clark were here, you know?”
“Lewis and Clark? What the hell do I care about Lewis and Clark? My neck is on the line, kid. When can you be on a plane?”
“Monday. Maybe,” he says.
Her resulting outrage dies somewhere in the air above Mendocino, the connection having been cut by Marlowe’s middle finger. He counts the days between now and his self-imposed return to stardom – four days, five nights. Just enough time for either a mediocre vacation in Cabo San Lucas or a full-fledged existential crisis. Opting for the latter, Marlowe digs through his pockets and empties their contents onto the cement barrier in front of him.
“Oh god,” says a voice behind him, “You’re not going to jump, are you?”
Her voice startles him, and he fumbles what he’s holding. Thirty-five cents and a gum wrapper take flight and rain over the stout shrubs clinging to the rocks below. Technically this is littering, but that falls well below the threshold of armed assault and torture necessary to prosecute celebrities in this country.
“Seriously, man. Don’t jump. I’m sure you’ve got a lot to live for,” she says.
Ignoring her for the moment, Marlowe leans over the barrier, searching below for a glint of his lost pocket change.
“Hey!” urgent now, she moves closer, “Don’t do it!”
The woman’s voice grates on him but is not altogether unpleasant. Still, he can’t help but lament the lost contents of his jeans. It had been many years since he walked with any sort of jingle to his step whatsoever. He has always believed the financial history of any successful man looks much like a horseshoe standing on end – first you have no money in your pockets whatsoever, then fame arrives, and suddenly you have gobs of the stuff. Eventually, you get people to manage it, and those people get their own people and before you know it, you have no money in your pocket once again. For all his assets, Marlowe mourns his pocket change.
“I’m not going to jump,” he says, “You can relax.”
She takes a few bracing breaths and places a hand across her heart like she is about to say the Pledge of Allegiance. She is dressed head to toe in the uniform of the National Parks Service, all gray and pea green hanging from her body in right angles. Atop her head is perched a wide-brimmed hat with all the sex appeal of a Puritan funeral. The extra inches of her pantlegs gather at her ankles and she gives the impression of a child wearing her father’s clothes, assuming her mother once had a torrid fling with Smokey Bear.
“Thank god, man,” she gasps, “I was not ready for that kind of responsibility. I mean, shit!”
Marlowe smiles as she recovers her composure. He gives a practiced toss of his head to shake the hair from his eyes and waits for the moment of recognition. Some people take longer than others, but there is always an instant when it happens, and their eyes light up with second-hand glamour. Then comes “Hey, aren’t you…?” and “You look like…” and eventually the pose, the selfie, the ink pen, and the frantic text messaging to friends. He hates every minute of it. She is rambling.
“…second goddamn day on the job and now I have to talk some Looney Tune off the edge. Can you imagine? And then what? Call the police? The coroner? I don’t know the coroner’s number.”
Marlowe steps back from the barrier and moves closer to her. He places a hand on her shoulder to reassure her, while simultaneously turning to give her his good side. This is taking longer than usual. Instead she shrugs his hand away and readjusts her hat.
“You should know we are closing in half an hour.”
“Closing?” Marlowe asks, “How can you close a park?”
“We lock the doors of the Interpretive Center,” she says.
It occurs to both that they are not standing in the Interpretive Center and for a moment she blushes with embarrassment. Below them, waves crash against the rocks and the tide inches upward.
“I was thinking about death,” he says, surprising himself.
“I knew it!” she yips, “Oh god, where is my radio?”
“No, no, no,” says Marlowe, “I am not thinking about suicide – just death in general, you know?”
She stops searching her belt for the absent walkie talkie. For the second time in five minutes, her heart downshifts through the gears.
“What do you mean, ‘Death in general?’ Like you’re dying?”
“Technically, so are you. We all are.”
“Thanks, Confucius. But that doesn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t know, I just think about death sometimes. That’s how I got to Oregon.”
This is version of the truth. Marlowe had been fresh off a heavily publicized divorce among rumors of infidelity when a break in filming gave him the window he needed to climb in his convertible and hit the 101. Initially it had been an exercise in cliché – cruising with the top down and listening to the tunes of his youth. Halfway, he’d stopped for dinner and made the stunning realization that he was 37 years old.
“Oh, well that makes sense,” she says now, “I’m here researching my novel.”
He looks again at her uniform and tries to make it mesh with the life of an author. Marlowe doesn’t read novels, though he has starred in four adaptations and nabbed half a writing credit for a modern interpretation of Peer Gynt.
“I don’t read novels,” he says.
“You should,” she says.
Silence takes them briefly, then they speak at the same time.
“Are you afraid to die?”
“What’s it about?”
They shuffle their feet and laugh in the spaces between the conversation.
“It’s about Lewis and Clark. Surprise, surprise. But in my novel, they are lovers and they head west to be together.”
“Is that true?” Marlowe asks, forgetting for a moment what the plaque by the gate had said.
“I dunno. Maybe. Don’t you think it’s weird that they are like the only two men in history who are always referred to as a couple?”
“What about Batman and Robin?”
“Bert and Ernie?”
“Siskel and Ebert?”
She motions to retort, but then pauses. The air has been let out of her tires.
“Damn…you’re right. Touché.”
For a moment, he is proud of his triumph. The critical duo is as familiar to him as pollen to a bee. Not since Caesar ruled Rome had a thumbs down meant so much to so many. But then he remembers that Siskel has been dead for twenty years and Ebert gave up the ghost while Marlowe was still doing network gigs. He turns once again to the barrier in front of him and leans until his elbows touch the cool cement. To his left, she follows suit. The Pacific Ocean folds onto itself in foamy perpetuity far below.
“Is this really where they stood? You know, when they finally made it?” he asks.
“Nah, probably not,” she says.
“Why’d they put the park here then?”
“The land was cheap.”
Her honesty surprises Marlowe and he is grateful for the way the Park Service uniform unsexes her. He doesn’t remember the last time he had a real conversation if this could be so-called. The weight of his cell phone tugs at him from its nest in his back pocket and he wonders if he should call Tawny to pull together a red-eye from Portland. But he makes no move and together, they stare at the ocean, reveling in the quiet satisfaction of feeling small. At their backs, America – the whole shooting mess of it.
“I play Achilles,” he says finally, “On television. I play Achilles.”
“Oh. I don’t watch television.”