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19/01/2015

The Joneses

Craig Warner

I don’t know when lunch became so important to me. I’ve never missed a meal. I’ve never gone hungry. And yet, at some point, lunch became everything.

When I look back, it was probably a lunch Stan Larkin bragged about that first got my attention. ‘You’ll never believe it,’ he said. ‘My lunch came and it was half a roast chicken—half—and it was on fire!’

‘It came—what—out of the blue? You didn’t order the chicken?’

‘No no no, I ordered the chicken. But I didn’t know it would be half a chicken. I thought it would be… you know… a breaded breast or something with a slice of lemon beside it. That’s the sort of thing you expect when you’re ordering chicken. You don’t think half a fucking chicken is going to turn up at your table, and you definitely don’t think it’s going to be on fire!’

‘Why was it on fire?’

‘Because it was flambé!’

‘Did you have to blow it out?’

‘No no no, it just goes out of its own accord. It only flames for a minute.’ Stan sat back, watching me, seemingly annoyed that I didn’t know how things worked in the world. ‘Anyway, I saw the check when they put it on our table. It was over a hundred bucks. I guess that’s how much it costs to have lunch at Faust.’ Stan jammed his fork into a pile of mashed potato, dipped the forkful of mashed potato into his peas, which clung to it, and shoveled it all into his mouth.

‘The thing is,’ he went on, in case I couldn’t add up, ‘that when you’re represented by Jimmy Schwartz, people take you seriously. They buy you lunch. And they show their love for you with the lunch they buy you. They’re very careful to let you know how important you are to them by choosing a restaurant like Faust, and letting you order whatever you want.’

When I left Stan, I was still hungry. I went back to my hotel and made a sandwich. It was a vegetable sandwich, consisting of toasted mushrooms and grilled onions and roasted peppers on white bread with plenty of mustard and salt. It was good. These sandwiches were always good, because they reminded me of my childhood, which felt safe. Some of the best-tasting things I could eat now that I was an adult were things that didn’t really taste very good at all, except that they reminded me of my childhood and so they tasted safe.

One of those was oatmeal. One of those was a vegetable sandwich, which my mother had probably learned to make when meat was harder to find, after the war. One of those was what we called ‘Chinese food’, though it wasn’t Chinese food at all. It wasn’t even like Chinese food. It didn’t look like Chinese food, and it definitely didn’t taste like Chinese food. I don’t know what was in it. I think ‘Chinese food’ was just its nickname, and I was never able to discover, before my mother died, exactly what it was or where it came from.

It felt safe, but I couldn’t replicate it. So sometimes when I was feeling down I would eat actual Chinese food, and that would give me solace just because it shared a name with ‘Chinese food’.

The hotel we lived in—the Avondale—was originally built as apartments, and because it offered small rooms with very moderate toilet facilities—in some cases you had to take a bath in the sink—it became a favorite habitation of bit players, acrobatic dancers, bottom-bill unicyclists and ‘specialty artists’ like Rubber Legs McKendrie. It suited people with little means who needed somewhere to stay.

Now it was called a hotel, although it didn’t offer rooms by the night. Most residents of the Avondale were in transition. They were at the beginning of something, or something in their lives was coming to an end. Some of us were hopefuls, like me. Some were at the end of careers that had peaked some time before, or had never quite taken off.

I lay on my bed and decided a nap would be good for me, and if it wasn’t, well, it would feel nice anyway. I was a great lover of the afternoon nap. I could always sleep after eating lunch, and nothing gave me greater pleasure. I loved how my thoughts would go dreamy and start to make no sense. Sense was so exhausting, and I loved watching it slowly drift away from me.

The cheap curtains in my room billowed and the sun behind them was bright outside.

I woke. The phone was ringing.

It was in the hall. It was always for me. No one else ever received any phone calls.

‘Hello?’ It was my agent, Samuel Greene. He was not Jewish. He was the only non-Jewish agent in Hollywood, as far as I knew. I think he was an apostate Mormon.

‘I got a screen test for you tomorrow. You’re gonna do your screen test, and then I’m gonna take you to lunch. How does that sound? You got a favorite place?’

‘Faust.’

‘Ha! How do you know about that place? I knew you were special. I’m gonna make something outa you. I fuckin’ swear it! I don’t care where the hell you came from, I’m gonna make something outa you! And I’m gonna take you to Faust. But listen, you gotta pass the screen test, OK?’

‘Pass it?’

‘I mean you gotta get the show. You promise? You promise you fucking no good piece of shit you?’

‘I promise. What’s the show?’

‘It’s called The Joneses. That’s the title. It’s about an all-American fuckin’ family who are just adorable and get into zany scrapes but always learn from their mistakes and above all, they love each other very fuckin’ much.’

‘Who do I play?’

‘You play Bobby Jones, a high school kid—yeah, I know, you’re too old, but they want to see you anyway—who creates hilarious new problems in addition to the ones he’s already got, but he has a heart of gold and a winning smile and he’s a big fat fuckin’ sweetheart who every mother is gonna wish was her own and every teenage girl is gonna have up on her wall.’

I hung up the phone and practiced my winning smile in front of the mirror.

The next day, I tried my very best not to dress up or down. I went to the production studio on Highland. I never before had an audition where there were so many people watching me. There were at least twelve. I didn’t even know who they all were.

After they were finished with me, I said goodbye, and went out the door to find Sammy in the foyer. He was pacing, smoking a menthol.

‘What did they say?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Did it feel like you got it?’

‘What does that feel like?’

‘Don’t be a smart ass. Let’s go to lunch. That’s how it should feel. Eating at Faust: that’s how it should feel.’

We walked to Faust. Nobody walks in Los Angeles, but Faust was only three minutes away, over on Sunset Boulevard.

The maitre d’ knew Sammy. We got a booth in the inner circle. I could tell it was a good seat.

There were Venetian lanterns hanging over our heads, making the space glow. Everything was soft and it felt safe.

Faust had specialties, but none was as famous as the chili con carne. ‘Their chili is so famous,’ Sammy said, ‘that when Elizabeth Taylor was shooting Cleopatra, she had Faust send chili every day—every fuckin’ day!—to the set. And that was in Egypt!’ He paused, watching me, allowing this information to settle. ‘So… what are you having?’

‘The chili.’

‘You want a martini?’

I’d never had a martini before. It felt like a grown-up drink. ‘Yeah. Let’s have a martini.’

‘Two martinis!’

After lunch, I went back to my room at the Avondale and took a nap. I dreamt about being Bobby Jones. For once I actually dreamt about the thing that occupied my waking mind. I dreamt feelings rather than facts. In the dream I was shooting The Joneses, and I was playing Bobby Jones. But that was just the activity of the dream. What I really dreamt of was a fullness. I felt occupied, precise, and filled out to the right size. I knew what to do in each moment of the dream. There was no hesitation. I was solid. I was home.

I woke up in the morning and I rang Sammy myself.

‘You got it.’

‘I got it?’

‘You got it, you fuck.’

‘So why didn’t you ring?’ I don’t know why I said that.

Now Sammy laughed out loud. ‘I’m waiting for the first script and the shooting schedule. You got it, you motherfucker. You’re Bobby Jones.’

My thoughts were distant. ‘How—‘

‘Long?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Will you have to—‘

‘Yeah.’

‘I don’t know. Stay close to the phone.’

‘Stay—‘

‘Naw, go out. You know, you better go out and enjoy the world while nobody knows who you are. Because that’s not going to last.’

Something was happening—I knew that much—but I decided not to figure out what it was just yet.

I turned and saw Stan was waiting for me. ‘Anything new?’

‘I ate at Faust.’

‘You did?

We went downstairs and got in my car. I’d promised to drive Stan to an audition for a play that paid nothing in a fifty-seat theatre. We didn’t talk much about work. His part in the film had been cut.

He wanted to know what I’d eaten at Faust. I lied. I told him I’d had a steak and fries, and a beer. He was quiet. He knew I was lying. He probably thought I was lying about having lunch at Faust. I didn’t describe the interior. I didn’t want to prove to him I’d eaten there.

I wanted him to think I was lying. I was playing someone smaller than I was, and I was enjoying it. I knew I had only a short time to enjoy him in the old way.

I felt my friendship with Stan changing in the car, at that moment, and not because I was now Bobby Jones. It was nothing to do with the show. It was because I couldn’t tell him what I’d eaten at Faust.

The truth is, I could have ordered anything—anything flambé, anything au jus. But I wanted the chili. I wanted the chili because you could eat food at any time, and the chili wasn’t just food. It was something more than just itself. It was a star on the Walk of Fame. It was history. Yes it tasted good. And it tasted better because my agent Sammy was smiling at me, smiling at every spoonful I ate, like my eating was feeding him. Yes it tasted good. I was hungry so it tasted good, and it felt good. But more of me was hungry than the thing that could eat that chili, and more of me was eating that chili than just the part of me that could eat.

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