Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fiction - The Phantom Solace

NOTE: this post is rated R for mild strong language.


What follows is a work of fiction, my second short story on albertnet. All the “work of fiction” disclaimers apply here. None of the places mentioned, words spoken, feelings felt, or themes explored in this post actually exist. Even the language used is my own contrivance. Okay, kidding aside, any resemblance of any character to any actual human, living or dead, is purely whimsical and/or jocular. The central plot elements of this story and actions taken by its characters are not to be construed as fact.

The Phantom Solace

I couldn’t believe this was happening, but here I was stuck in stop-and-go Father’s Day traffic, late for work. I’m not a father and I don’t watch Nascar but I should have known the two things would combine to make my life hell. All around me were crazy clean cars, like the idea of a perfect day for these dads would be washing the car, Armor-alling the tires, then heading out to watch Nascar. And because of this, I’d probably lose my job.

Losing my job would be bad enough, but I can’t take another lecture from Diekhoff. First it was about the shaved head, then about the tat, then about the chin stud, as if all these spa dudes really want to be taken care of by Doogie fucking Howser. He told me one more screw-up and I’m gone. This would be that screw-up—being late to work because I had to sit for twenty minutes behind a giant Ford Expedition with the whole rear window painted like an American flag.

So when I got to Wilkenson’s, twenty minutes late, I couldn’t bear to go in, and just sat in my car listening to the engine tick as it cooled off. After a minute or two this sweet Jaguar convertible rolled up and parked right next to me. The driver looked rich as hell, not just the car but nice shades, expensive shirt, and good looks. Why would he be slumming it here? And yet, here he was, and looking stressed. Maybe, just maybe, this was my twelve-o’-clock spa appointment, and was running as late as I was, and nobody would have to know I kept a customer waiting.


I was in Calistoga promoting my winery. Not really my winery—I don’t know a thing about making wine—but the winery I have a financial stake in. When I first got into this, I thought I was just an investor, putting some money into a solid business, but of course it morphed into the typical celebrity scheme: using my movie fame to promote a totally unrelated product. Go to that well too many times and all you end up with is a trashed name. Paul Newman can get away with it—his films are so well respected he’d never run the risk of being remembered as the salad dressing guy—but I have the sneaking feeling my advisors are steering me away from acting, figuring it’s a better bet to gradually draw down my very finite stores of celebrity.

So, Calistoga. I was here to attend the grand opening of a tasting room right on Lincoln Ave. When I got roped into this I thought it would be a little ceremony among the stakeholders but if course it turned out to be this “grand opening.” The very phrase repulses me—it’s something you use for an auto mall or kids’ pizza place. And then, taking a walk when I arrived here yesterday evening, I saw they’d put a giant framed picture of me right in the window. It’s a terrible picture—I’m trying to look clever and cheeky and can’t even get that right, and might as well be wearing a goddamn bow tie like Roger Moore. The whole affair is just painful, like the idea that people should drink this wine because a big movie star is a financial backer.

On my way to the grand opening today, just a few blocks from the place, I completely lost my resolve and swung off the road into the first parking lot I saw. No sooner had I pulled up and stopped then this young guy with a shaved head jumped out of his ratty old car parked next to me. He asked me, “Hey, did you just get here for a spa appointment?”

He obviously didn’t recognize me. I was strangely impressed by this. But a spa appointment? I’d thought this was the parking lot of a motel, but checking out the sign now I realized it was actually a motel and spa. I looked the guy over. He was a wiry little man, but looked strong, wore a thin white t-shirt over a tight tank-top. I’m pretty sure he was Hispanic but so many Californians still get dark tans—just like in Hawaii—it’s not always easy to tell. He was really jumpy, seemed really upset about something. I told him no, I wasn’t there for a spa appointment.

He looked crushed. “Dammit, I’m really screwed now,” he said. “I’m super late. My boss is going to fire me. No, worse, I’m going to have to work through the end of my shift, and then he’s going to lecture me, and then he’s going to fire me. Fuck, fuck, fuck! I can’t take this.” He whacked the top of his car and said, “Fuck it, I can’t take another lecture. I’m gonna have to no-call/no-show.”

He wasn’t really talking to me, but I was intrigued. “Excuse me, but what did you just say?” I asked. He looked startled, like he’d forgotten I was there, and then said, “I said I’m gonna have to no-call/no-show.” I asked what that meant. “It means I’m not going to show up to work, and I’m not even going to call and tell them. That way I’m sure to get fired and I’ll never have to talk to anyone there again.”

My god, what a brilliant idea. Just to walk away, leave it all behind. Could I do that? Well, why the hell not? If this kid can seize his freedom that way, surely I could too, couldn’t I? I wouldn’t even suffer the same consequences. I’m sure everybody would run around and rearrange things to smooth it all over with me, and that would be annoying, but those first few hours of a no-call/no-show would be even better than a spa. And suddenly I had an inspiration.

I asked the kid, “How long does a spa treatment normally take?” He thought for a second and said, “Depends on what you get. The guy this afternoon is doing The Works with a half-hour massage, so about two hours.” I asked him if he went in through the lobby, or what. He smirked and said, “What, you think I’d scare the ladies or something? Huh. Well, I do go in the back so I don’t track mud on the carpet.” I said, “Okay, here’s what we’ll do. Take these”—I handed him my sunglasses—“and we’ll trade keys. You take my car, and hell, I’ll give you a couple hundred bucks, and you go take a break. Have a nice lunch, go for a drive, whatever. And I’ll cover your shift. Anything goes wrong, I’ll deal with it. Leave the car across the street, maybe a few blocks down. Don’t steal the car or you’ll just make real trouble for yourself. Leave the keys behind the front left tire. Oh, and leave my sunglasses in the glove box.”

The kid laughed out loud. “You think you can do my job?” he asked. I shrugged and replied, “So what if I bugger it up completely? How’s that worse than a no-call/no-show?” He stared at me, a grin forming throughout his face, trying to decide if I was serious. He put on my sunglasses. The tortoiseshell looked good with his skin tone but the look was of course completely off; nobody that young wears Persols. The effect was just right: a totally unconvincing disguise. He looked at his reflection in the window of his car and chuckled. I pulled out my wallet, took out a couple hundreds, and held it out to him. He hesitated, eyeing the bills in my outstretched hand. “Come on,” I said, “when are you going to get a chance like this?”


The traffic on Highway 37 was totally heinous. There was a billboard about a big Father’s Day NASCAR race and I thought that was the problem: all these dads celebrating by watching NASCAR. Even in the Bay Area, that did make more sense than dads going to get mud baths and massages. I thought I’d miss my spa appointment completely, but after the exit for the fairgrounds—which got really bad—it eased up. Even so, I was fully half an hour late getting to Wilkenson’s. I had the family drop me off and ran on in. The woman behind the counter shook her head and did one of those backwards inhaling-type sighs and said she thought they could still fit me in. She gestured to the door leading to the men’s bath house and said, “Just go through there, and Jose will take care of you.” She was frowning, though, as she peered towards the door.

I went inside. There was a little dressing room with wooden lockers to my right, then a long hallway with curtained massage rooms off of that. At the end was the mud bath room, and a tall man was standing there. “Just, ah, put your clothes in the locker and grab a robe,” he called out. Two things struck me right away. First, nobody calls out in these spas. Everybody knows to just whisper, to preserve the rarefied, enchanted feel of the place. I’d have expected him to walk out to me and greet me. The other thing that surprised me was that he spoke with a thick Irish brogue. I mean, how many spa valets named Jose speak in a thick Irish brogue?

I undressed, donned my robe, and strolled down toward the mud room. Had I heard the valet’s name right? Sure enough, on a chair at the end of the hall was a handwritten sign—“Jose ‘The Mud Guy’”—and a few tip envelopes labeled “Jose.” In the mud room I saw a tall man with thick dark hair, just starting to go grey, meticulously styled. He was wearing a short-sleeve linen shirt, casual but very elegant, and khakis rolled up at the ankle. He was barefoot. He stood at one of the large, blocky concrete bathtubs of mud, dragging a shovel across the mud to rough it up. He turned to face me, and gave me a little nod, and I got a strong shock of recognition. He looked exactly like Pierce Brosnan.

He finished stirring the mud and leaned the shovel against the wall. It started to tip over and slide down the wall, and he caught it. He frowned and took it over to a corner and set it there. Then he came back and looked at me uncertainly. “Okay, then. Ah … first, you take a shower,” he said. I tried not to stare. Finally I had to ask: “Are you … are you Pierce Brosnan?”

A pause. “The name’s Bond,” he said. “James Bond.” Then he winked, and with that wink I knew this wasn’t just a lookalike, but the real actor, in the flesh. It was that rare eyelid-only wink, as opposed to the kind most people do where the whole side of the face crinkles up. No mere mortal has that facial fluidity, that practiced charm. I didn’t know what else to do, so I hung up my robe and stepped into the shower. Soon enough he had the water going, and after a brief rinse I stepped out to where he was waiting by the mud tub. “Step on in there,” he said. “Lower yourself in, wiggle yourself down then.”

I squished myself down into the hot, vaguely sulfur-scented mud. It was coarser and lumpier mud than I’d bathed in last time, and the tub was shorter, but as always I enjoyed the delicious sensation of having absolutely neutral buoyancy. Soon my limbs and hands were completely buried, and Brosnan—Pierce Brosnan!— scooped more mud up to completely cover my chest. He thumped it down and said, “There we go now. Enjoy.” I lay there and pondered my situation. What possible explanation could there be? But soon the heat and ooze of the mud made me sleepy and, like Alice on her downward plunge, blithely accepting the shelves of knickknacks lining the rabbit-hole, I decided just to roll with it. What’s not to like about having a famous actor be my personal valet for awhile?

I closed my eyes and let my mind drift, taking in the soothing rumble of the machinery, the low, anodyne spa music (halfway between elevator music and what New Age musicians play at street fairs), the stillness of the room. After a few minutes, I felt something against my cheek. “This is a mask,” Brosnan said quietly. At first I pictured a Greek theatre tragedy mask—nothing would have seemed odd at this point—but quickly realized he meant a facial mask for cleansing my pores and whatnot. But he didn’t spread it all over my face; he dabbed it on my nose and then spread it on my cheeks in thick lines, starting near the nose and going outward. He did three of these on each cheek, then disappeared for a moment and returned.

“Here,” he said. I opened my eyes. He was holding out a hand mirror, like the barber does when he invites you to check out your new haircut from the back. I pulled my right arm slowly from the mud—it make a loud sucking sound like when you pull your shoe out of a thick mud puddle—and took the mirror. I examined my reflection. My face was painted to look like a cat’s.
“How does it look?” Brosnan asked. I said it looked just fine. I handed him back the mirror, then closed my eyes again. I sensed him leave again, and when he returned he placed something cool on each of my eyelids. “These are cucumbers,” he said, a light note of wonder in his voice, as though he were remarking on this fact to himself. I wiggled down further into the mud, and then heard something being dragged across the floor.

“You know, I could really use a spa treatment myself,” Brosnan said. I gathered that he’d pulled up a stool and sat down right next to me. “I’ve been under a lot of stress. Not pressing stuff, but … more a gradual accumulation of things. Kind of a, ah, minor crisis of identity you could say. Nothing I can quite put my finger on, but a general sense of dissatisfaction.” He paused. “Since nobody would believe you anyway about me being your spa attendant, I might just get a few things off my chest, if you don’t mind.”

I slowly gave a very small nod, not wanting to disrupt my cucumber slices. Brosnan sighed deeply, then said, “That ‘Mama Mia’ movie took a real toll. My god, what an embarrassment. I really hope you didn’t see it. I hope nobody saw it. My agent really felt it was the best way to get some distance from the Bond character. Which I gather it did, but my God, what a disgrace. I don’t know how or why I let myself get sucked into that. It was a humiliating experience. You know what they called me on the set? ‘Colonel Chunky.’ I couldn’t even get their respect! I’ll probably never get a good role again after that travesty. What an ass I was in that! So now I’m working on a goddamn sequel, to the ‘Crown Affair’ movie.

“Not that ‘Crown’ was a bad movie. I have some great memories of that, those were some good times. Now, Rene Russo”—he sucked in his breath—“that is one gorgeous woman. It made me nervous, like a bloody teenager, just being with her on the set. But a sequel? Is this all I have to show for my life—recycling my old roles, one version of secret agent after another, trying to recapture my prime, when it’s hard enough just holding my looks together? I turned fifty-seven this year. Christ.”

He was silent for a time. “But you know, the truth of it is, I’d have gladly done more Bond pictures, before Daniel Craig took over, if only they’d given me some better scripts. I gave up on Bond because the last film I did was pure shite. I was driving a stupid car around by remote control, and then Craig gets to beat the crap out of people. Why didn’t I get ‘Casino Royale’? Why didn’t I get the revamped franchise, the return to decent, basic plots?

“There was a scene in ‘Casino Royale’ that was pure genius. Some rich gobshite mistakes Bond for a valet parking guy and throws him his keys. Bond takes advantage of it—now he can get into the resort, and once he’s in he deliberately crashes the car in the parking lot, thereby getting back at the rich gobshite while luring all the security people away from their posts so he can infiltrate their office and steal the surveillance tapes. Brilliant scene, such a clever, efficient Bond. Why couldn’t I get that kind of movie?

“It’s not because of my age. Roger Moore was older than Sean Connery; he was fifty-eight when he did his last Bond. The writers could have played with the age thing, like with Connery’s Bond in his last one. He tells Moneypenny, ‘I’m to eliminate free radicals,’ but doesn’t mention those were orders from his doctor. Great line, that.”

He sighed. “Well, I guess I should let you get to your mud bath,” he said. I’d have liked to hear more, but didn’t want to ask. As it was, I felt like an eavesdropper. So I just lay there and enjoyed the sensation of neither sinking nor floating, and having tiny air bubbles, trapped in arm and leg hairs, creep along my skin before making a slow dash for the surface. I felt a bead of sweat slide against my cheek until it hit my facial-mud cat whisker.

Time passed. Much more time than I’ve ever spent in a mud bath. In fact, I was being gradually poached alive. Finally Brosnan’s voice said, “Okay, come on out.” He wasn’t doing bad as spa attendant, but I did note various minor breaches of protocol. For example, he was supposed to give me needless instructions about how to pull myself out of the mud, and to caution me about moving slowly (lest I faint away from the sudden shift in temperature). I wondered if he would learn the ropes over time, or if this was a one-shot deal.

He gestured toward the shower. This time he had the water running in advance—see, he was learning!—and I began the labor of excavating the mud from my body. Wilkenson’s has peaty, tufty, almost crumbly mud that really lodges in the hairs. My thoughts rambled: something about a spa treatment really sets the mind wandering, and Brosnan’s soliloquy had only enhanced this. I pondered how much of his own hygiene he still has to do. Surely nobody outsources the removal of caked mud from his armpits?

I stepped out of the shower. Brosnan looked me over with the frank, appraising eye of a tailor. “What happened to you?” he asked. Puzzled, I didn’t reply. “Your physique,” he went on. “You look like you’ve got the frame of a much larger man.” I suppose I could have felt hurt—he’d just commented at how rail-thin I am—but I was actually flattered. Pierce Brosnan, no less, had just called me a man! I’ve never felt like I made it past “guy.” True, I’ve passed forty, and my hairline is making a slow retreat as my scalp gradually surrenders to age—but I still feel like just a guy. “I’m a cyclist,” I explained. Brosnan give a little nod—a slight lift of the chin.

Next he led me to the mineral bath. It was a basic bathtub, and for bubbles had a perforated mat in it, with a little bubble-making machine at one end, a vacuum-cleaner tube coming up out of the water. I climbed into the tub. It wasn’t quite long enough, so my knees stuck out the top, the left one brushing against the bubbler hose. “You know, over at Solage they have proper tubs. I’d say you have in inch or two on me and I wouldn’t settle for this,” he said. “Economic downturn, eh? Let me get you some water.”

When he returned I’d already closed my eyes, and now I felt something cold on my forehead. He’d balanced the cup of water there. I took a drink and set it carefully back on my head. I felt very poised, like a girl walking with a book on her head to improve her posture. What a brilliant idea, I thought. My spa had become a validation of my health and balance.

Eventually Brosnan returned and summoned me from the bath. I climbed out. “So … I suppose you have your massage now?” he said, looking decidedly uneasy. “No,” I replied, “first there’s the towel wrap. I inclined my head toward the little curtained cubicles off the hallway where the towel wrap beds were. “Ah, of course,” he replied, leading me to one. I lay down on the huge white towel. There was a brief awkward moment—me naked, he a famous movie star—before he asked, “So I just wrap you in the towel then, and that’s it?” I nodded. “Seems kind of pointless,” he said. I replied, “Yes, it’s completely pointless, which is what I love about it.” He thought for a moment and said, “Right. Yes. We’ll wrap you up then.” He swaddled me in the towel, gave me a little pat, and left the cubicle, closing the curtain behind him.


I glanced at my watch. That’s one thing I didn’t like about Daniel Craig in “Casino Royale”—how he pronounced it “Oh-MEE-ga” when it’s “Oh-MEH-ga.” But all in all he did a great performance, I have to hand it to him. Anyway, it had been an hour and a half, and any minute the masseuse would come around, and the game would be up. I took a moment to put a few twenties in an envelope marked “Jose,” put on my socks and shoes, and left out the back door. I walked around to where Jose’s car was parked. It was a crappy little thing, Ford Fiesta or something. I had to stick the key in the door to unlock it—kind of nostalgic, really. It was baking in there. I was surprised to find it was a stick-shift. I got the engine going and the AC, which instantly filled the car with a damp, moldy smell. Backing out, I noticed a string of beads hanging from the rearview mirror. A rosary! Good for him. I swung out onto the main road and headed toward where I hoped my car would be. Slowing for a stop sign, I instinctively double-clutched, than laughed at myself. I’ve still got it!


I lay wrapped in towels for a really long time. I think I actually fell asleep. Then I felt the slight breeze of the curtain being pushed aside, and opened my eyes. A fifty-something man with light hair and wire-rimmed glasses whispered, “How is everything?” I said fine. “My name is Mark, and I’ll be working with you on your massage today. Are you ready now or would you like a few more minutes?” I sat up: I would not be needing a few minutes. The spell was already broken.

Mark led me into another curtained cubicle and I lay on my stomach on the massage table, resting my face in the little padded ring. I guess I hadn’t really expected to get a massage from Pierce Brosnan, but I hadn’t ruled it out. At least this Mark guy was a professional masseuse. That’s not such a bad thing.


Believe it or not, it all worked out. I didn’t crash the rich guy’s Jaguar, though I drove in fear the entire time. I didn’t scratch the guy’s sunglasses either. After a nice long drive through the wine country, I parked across from Brannan’s and sat in there having a Coke, keeping an eye on the Jag, and next thing I knew, the rich guy parked my car right behind it, got out, and hid my keys behind the front tire. He found his keys, got in his car, put on his shades, and left.

When I got back to Wilkenson’s, my twelve-o’-clock was just starting his massage. Everything was fine! Nobody said a thing! I checked in with the receptionist and she was as blah as ever, no mention of anything wrong. Unbelievably, the rich dude had actually covered my shift! And you know the best part? He must have done a great job, because the customer tipped me sixty bucks!
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