by Timothy Ziegenhagen
Act I. Beta Male enters room, sniffing for alphas. He just hit the trifecta three times—a triple/triple. Despite an envelope bulging with twenty grand in the front pocket of Beta Male’s chinos, he doesn’t move from the margins of the room to the dais, circled by photographers getting their promo shots for an upcoming made-for-TV movie. Beta Male stares at the three peroxide blondes hanging on the biceps of Jack Skullcross.
“Move a little to the left, darling,” one of the photogs instructs Peroxide 1, who shimmers more closely to the exact geographic center of the shot. As Beta Male skims along the periphery of the crowd, he can see the large plate glass window and the tall buildings beyond: Ah, Los Angeles at night, he thinks, once again. His heart still leaps after forty years in this wilderness of egos, breast augmentation, and reconstructed chins.
On his way to booze, Beta Male passes through spheres of conversation. “I have been landing some television roles,” someone says, off to his right.
“It’s where all the best writing is these days,” someone answers. Beta Male can’t tell if these are men or women talking. He thinks about how little work he himself has seen in recent years. He can count the number of speaking roles he has landed on one hand. But there are always the Skullcross movies from the 1960s, his glory days: Beta Male is the guy thrown through the saloon’s swinging doors in a bar brawl; he is the fellow who dies of snakebite.
“In 1963,” Skullcross says loudly, to the whole room, “I visited the JFK White House. You can’t imagine what it’s like to be served gin and tonics by Jackie O.”
A staccato of bulbs seems to flash at every one of Skullcross’s words.
Rolled between leafy exotic plants sits a porto bar. Sandy Tinker, an old man with crow-footed eyes, stands ready behind bottles of fine, colorful liquor; he looks like someone who pretends to know much more than he actually does. Perhaps he does know more—perhaps he does not. “Heard you had some luck at the track,” says Tinker, pouring a vodka sour, Beta Male’s preferred cocktail. The bartender gives him a look, as if to suggest that tipping is not a city in China. A generation or two before, they had exchanged shots at the OK Corral. Now that Westerns are passé in Hollywood and celluloid cowboys are a dying breed, Tinker no longer rides and ropes—he shakes and stirs.
“Luck?” asks Beta Male. “Maybe, and in the nick of time. They turned my electricity off last week.”
“Any new jobs?”
Beta Male takes the drink automatically, his hand accommodating itself to the cold glass, tinkling with ice. “Corpse in a TV crime drama. That’s where I got the money for the track.”
“Hey, even the Bull Baron is not getting the roles he used to,” offers Tinker, indicating Skullcross.
In the center of the room, the aging alpha cowboy is still posing and reposing himself for the photogs. This means rearranging his arms across different female shoulders, behind new sequiny swells. Skullcross dated Beverly Garland in her prime—took snorts of whiskey from John Wayne’s engraved, silver flask. At times, the old B-screen star still speaks Apache—a few lines he learned in Golderado Flats, a third-rate movie with guys riding their steeds incessantly across the desert, their chappy legs stuck full of arrows.
“I’m thinking of going out for pancakes after all of this,” says Beta Male; he takes a sip of his vodka sour and winces affectedly against the bite of the alcohol—an old habit from the movies.
“Martha’s waiting at home,” counters Tinker, reminding Beta Male that even this man in front of him—bewrinkled and mummified—has managed to find a woman not unwilling to replicate his genetic code. The alphas have their limits, after all. Sometimes a beta will get the gal.
Exit the photogs, taking beautiful women with them. Skullcross moves towards porto bar with the stiff back of an aging Romeo; he has had more than his share of women in their own husbands’ beds, though he has also known them on table tops, in bathroom stalls, between hay bales. Waiting for his martini, the old cowboy regards Beta Male with something less than full recognition. “God, I’m half-blind from flashbulbs,” says Skullcross. “I don’t like dealing with these people.”
“It can’t be so bad,” Beta Male declares.
“Blondes are really over-rated. I prefer chestnut-colored hair. And shorter girls. They have more spirit.”
Beta Male drinks his vodka sour, confused with envy. In recent years, Skullcross has seen a physical decline, but he is still able to summon occasional groupies who appear to view him as a man of experience, a good-hearted and now vaguely tamed old rogue who can still tell it like it is. When the old alpha cowboy breaks a heart—as he likes to say himself—“It is for forever.” All across the vast, tumble-weed west, wistful barmaids listen for the clippity-clop of his delayed return.
Waiting for the right moment, Beta Male lets the silence thicken before he says, “So, Skullcross… Do you think this movie of yours will lead to something more?”
“Westerns are dead. Nobody cares about the frontier anymore. Now movies are just people sitting around in underground rooms, looking at street maps on computer screens, getting results from post-mortems. It’s all just a bunch of talking on cell phones.”
“I hear you are in line for a police inspector role.”
“Maybe, maybe,” he says, smiling ambiguously. The old cowboy appears to be waiting for the petition that always comes—for Beta Male to ask about open deputy roles, for non-speaking gigs as mob informers who get whacked before the opening credits stop flashing across the screen.
“Do you think there’s anything…” for me? he wants to add, but can’t bring himself to utter those last words. Something sticks in Beta Male’s throat. It feels like rage. He chokes it back down.
“I’ll let you know,” Skullcross says. He seems to glance momentarily downward, towards the thick wad, the envelope stuffed with prize money. “I hear you won at the track.”
“That word is getting around.”
“Sure it does. Anyway, these kinds of events make me randy. The women never stick around, at least not like they used to. Now it’s all ‘I’m in law school’ or ‘I’m really a sociology student writing an article on male lust.’ I remember the good old days, when women were actually female.”
Beta male takes a drink, thinking nothing’s what it used to be. He knows he should go home now, because nights that begin with hope—like this one—always end the same way: he is sitting in his easy chair alone, watching late-night television till dawn’s rosy fingertips push at the horizon in the grassy field beyond his apartment complex.
Skullcross motions for another martini. “When is the last time you’ve hit the Strip, old man? Are you up for a night of it, then?”
Act II. Beta Male and Jack Skullcross walk the Hollywood Strip. Around them, the lights of the Strip flash and sparkle; banks of neon throw off heartbeats of purple, pink, and lime green. Directly ahead on their right is the squat black Viper Room, where River Phoenix sat on his last bar stool; somewhere straight ahead is the Sunset Tower Hotel, gleaming white as a bone in the night. Cars from every decade prowl past, windows rolled down, blasting salsa, be-bop, hip hop.
“Wanna date?” a person in a wig and tight, gold shorts asks them, as they try to read the billboards above their heads. This person could be male or female; her long legs are muscular and too-too lean.
“They might be cops,” someone says from the shadowy alley behind them.
The actors move forward, impelled by some need to “walk the Strip.” Beta Male is not sure what they’re looking for, and a group of young men and women pass by the old men, gawking for celebrities. They are dressed in blue jeans, their shirts festooned with grinning Jayhawk mascots. One young Jayhawker stops dead in her tracks, like she’s about to start singing “Over the Rainbow” to the very streets. She gives Skullcross a long look, an up-and-down, but seems uncertain. Then, she rejoins her friends, whispering something to them as they float away in the opposite direction.
“Here we are,” Skullcross announces. “The Ripple Joy.”
Beta Male has heard of this club, though it looks unremarkable from the outside, like some non-descript bar in suburban New Jersey. “Can we get drinks in there?”
“Drinks and winks, if you know what I mean,” says Skullcross. “This joint is owned by Wayne Bisco.”
“You mean the pornographer?”
“You’ve heard of him?”
Beta Male indeed has. “I hear he’s going through a bankruptcy.”
“Like half the other people in this town.”
As they pull in through the front door, the duo is hit by a tidal wave of music. Men and women in black clothes and leather jackets sway to electronic music. Arms and dancing torsos seem to undulate towards them.
“Whiskey,” Skullcross says, learning against the bar like he deserves a few shots after the hard work of hanging horse thieves.
“We have jello-shots, two-for-five,” the bartender tells Beta Male without the slightest shame. Is that a wink? wonders Beta Male, or just a trick of the light showering off the disco ball above.
“Just give me what my friend is having.”
For a while, they watch the tight-shirted dancers, obviously not part of this reckless brand of fantasy. “How many of these spritzer-swilling guys have ever shit in the woods, do you think?” Skullcross asks. Beta Male realizes this isn’t a question, but a statement of some kind. The old alpha has that way—making statements out of questions.
Scene change: a back room of the Ripple Joy. Concrete floors, mops, cheap wooden shelving units lined with cleaners like Draino and Pine Sol. Beta Male and Jack Skullcross sit at a poker table across from Wayne Bisco; a nameless, shiny-pomaded lackey shuffles a deck of cards. Bisco is a fat man with a bald head, which glistens under wire-meshed lights that throw more shadows than illumination. Behind them a heavy metal door has been opened, and a darkened alley is visible beyond.
“Have you given any thought to my offer,” Bisco asks Skullcross, during a break in the music.
“A hundred grand is a lot of money,” Skullcross answers. “But I got this TV movie coming out. We’re talking network.”
“Image is everything,” Beta Male says, unsure of where this conversation is going. But he knows what his friend will say at almost any moment, regardless of context.
“I thought you were hard up for cash,” the alpha declares. “Do you even have a hundred grand?”
“You have to spend money to make money,” Bisco says. “Celebrity porn is the rage these days.”
Beta Male flushes—feels the old dull envy—and looks at his cards. He is encouraged by what he sees. He’s determined to keep the stakes low—he can risk a thousand or two, not the whole stash. Skullcross is looking to score some of the pile, and Beta Male is willing to pay tribute—a small contribution to gain his friend’s goodwill and, perhaps, a new role or two.
“It’s true that I could live pretty high on the hog for awhile with a hundred grand,” says Skullcross. “Make it last for two years, then go on Larry King all penitent.”
Three women sit in a row on an old ratty couch across the room from the poker game. They seem to take turns glancing at their painted fingernails and the open door a few feet away. Beta Male wonders if one of these women have been assigned to him, but he suspects that they are all for Wayne Bisco.
“Damn the Queen of Diamonds,” the pornographer says with disgust, when he takes a look at the two cards his lackey has just thrown to him. He folds, mumbling to the shrinking stash of cash on the felt table in front of him.
In light of this of this development, Beta Male richens the pot, and Skullcross throws away his hand. “It’s your night, Blanchard,” the alpha says. The allusion is not lost on Beta Male: Blanchard is the main character in the 1968 classic of the same name—Skullcross plays an unconvincing villain in that one; the final shot shows him sinking in quicksand as Blanchard rides away with a wad of cash he intends to give to some orphans living above a frontier cathouse.
“Have another drink,” Bisco says, motioning to one of the women on the far couch. When the shortest of them—a pixie in blue spandex–disappears into the bar, he adds. “That’s sweet Joy. Pretty Joy. I named this club after her.”
Three or four winning hands later, Beta Male begins to feel, well, swimmy-headed, but he is up a grand already. He takes a sip of his whiskey, which—he thinks—tastes a little stale, or off. Lackey wrists some cards in Beta Male’s direction. Concentrating as hard as he can on his cards, he hears the voices of Skullcross and Bisco gradually drift away.
“I can make it a Western,” says Bisco. “The movie doesn’t have to be set in Beverly Hills.”
“I’ll think about it,” Skullcross responds. “I’m on my way up again.”
Their words—tad-overextended, rustlers, bookies, markers—blend with the sounds of traffic riding the sharp edge of a knife blade in through the open back door of the Ripple Joy. Beta Male stares forward, bleary-eyed and drunkish, and he starts to dream of a woman he once loved—Helen Rae, the only woman he’d ever gone window-shopping with; he bought day-old flowers for her from the newsstand.
“You killed Chinamen in The Iron Trail,” she told him, on their first date, in Schwab’s Drug Store.
“Only one,” he corrected her, gently, “and the guy was really only winged by that bullet, if you read the original script. I was supposed to be the railroad gun with a conscience.”
“That’s why they had to throw you over that cliff,” Helen Rae told him, sipping her malted.
She worked in a credit union and loved to crochet: her apartment was filled with a garden of color, decorated with crocheted throws, table cloths, and wall hangings. Helen Rae had made a vest for him, and he’d hidden this gift in his closet, till another woman had pulled it out and laughed that any man could be sentimental enough to keep such an item, even stashed away from public view. For decades, he remembered their six months together, mourned that she had been pried away by a restaurant manager, a regular provider and bona fide alpha.
As memories of days gone by pass through his mind, Beta Male drifts away, rotating into darkness.
“Go get your car,” someone says, a low voice from the shadows—was it Skullcross?
Act III. Beta Male wakes, thinking he has gone back in time, to a noir movie set: everything looks black and white to him, but it could be the angle of the light filtering in from the hallway. This room is bare, perhaps rented by the week. A radiator steams next to the bed on which he lies, still dressed in his rumpled clothes. Somewhere near, a toilet flushes, and almost immediately thereafter a woman is standing in the doorway, looking in. She seems surprised that he is fully awake.
“Boy, your luck sure turned fast,” she tells him, not very convincingly. She looks tired.
Beta Male remembers that Wayne Bisco called this woman “pretty Joy. Sweet Joy.” He thinks these phrases come from a William Blake poem, but he can barely remember if this writer is from medieval times or the Beat generation. His thoughts seem ragged, and it doesn’t matter anyway. “My head hurts,” he says, realizing he’s been drugged. The wad is gone.
“You lost a lot of money,” she says, as though making an argument he may not believe. “Bisco was on a roll at the end there.”
“Winning. At poker,” she adds.
“Where am I?”
“My boarding house.”
Beta Male doesn’t think he’s been debauched, but then, at his age, it is sometimes hard to tell. “You own this place?”
“I live here,” she says, sweeping her nightgown more tightly around her. “Along with half of the people who work for Wayne.”
“Where is Wayne?”
Joy shrugs. “He and Skullcross went out for steaks, I think. They probably won’t be back for a couple of days, knowing them.”
Rubbing his eyes, Beta Male rises out of bed, not sure what to do next. Clearly, Bisco took him for a ride. The day before, at the track, he should have gotten his winnings in the form of a cashier’s check, not greenbacks. He’s still dull in the head. “What time is it?” he asks Joy.
“Just after one,” she tells him. She seems to feel pity for him, that he’s been taken for a ride: it drips off her. One beta to another, something in her eyes seems to say.
Nodding to Joy, he finds his suit coat and slides himself into it. Humping down the stairs, Beta Male thinks maybe he can still find Bisco and Skullcross, who might very well be sitting in a parking lot that very moment, drinking malt liquor and laughing about fools and their money. It occurs to Beta Male that he can call the cops on those guys, maybe get his money back. But what evidence does he have, that he didn’t just blow the wad on the Strip or get robbed by hooded men on his way here, to this flophouse?
Beta Male slaps through a screen door and heads outside, walking west, maybe north. The night is still warm, and as Beta Male walks down the sidewalk past dark bungalows he sticks his hands into his pants pockets and discovers a small rolled up confusion of bills. He remembers that earlier that night he had used one of the $100 bills from his wad to buy a bag of potato chips and a stick of spearmint gum at a drug store, and now he has enough money to get a cab ride home, though he knows he needs to take the bus: $50 at the track could turn into $500, which could lead to $5000 with some luck.
Ten minutes later he’s found the bus line and is standing in front of the counter at Sheriff Jim’s, a shabby fast food restaurant with a Western motif. Beta Male once met Jim Sharp, aka Sheriff Jim, at a store opening in the early 1970s. By that time, Sam Peckinpah had turned cowboys into brooding sadists, but Jim insisted on making his spokesman a white-hat, guitar-playing anachronism, a sarsaparilla-drinking mustache with kind spurs that never jingled when he walked. Beta Male got $50 for this promo event, an hour of smiling and hand-shaking. “That was a great death in Golgotha Gulch,” Sharp told Beta Male, as they posed stiffly for the cameras. “How’d you learn to fall like that?”
“I’ll take the Sheriff Burger with onion rings,” says Beta Male to the clerk, a young man in a hairnet. The place is nearly deserted, and he feels a bit depressed by the glare of fluorescent lights off empty table tops. Beyond the windows—reflective of the scene inside—the dark night looms, a mysterious presence. The only other customer, a beautiful woman, sits near the garbage dumpster. With red, gleaming fingernails, she pulls French fries from a carton, one by one. She seems aware that Beta Male has noticed her—perhaps she has been casting for his attention since he’s walked in through the front door.
“Three fifty-five,” the clerk says, and Beta Male gives him a ten dollar bill and waits for change.
Tinny-sounding rock music plays from the speakers overhead, and Beta Male stares at the life-sized poster of Jim Sharp, grinning his pearlies and holding ice cream cones in each hand, like he’s trying to guide a jumbo jet with them. Beta Male chews grimly, wondering what kind of business he might have parlayed with his B-movie status. Could he have opened a chain of pawn shops? Perhaps he could have been the king of repossession, the duke of rebuilt transmissions. Maybe it is better that he is still more or less himself, playing ever-more-marginal parts and struggling to keep the electricity hooked up. It seems a more honest way of life, somehow, than what Jim Sharp has done to himself.
The burger tastes like rubber, but now he barely notices; he is drawn to the woman sitting two tables away from him—it is almost as though they are eating together, though in a peripheral way: he is here, and she is there. The woman looks tall, perhaps taller than Beta Male, and he is himself long and lean. Unlike Jack Skullcross, he likes tall women, their independence, the way they seem to make up, somehow, for the concave men they escort.
Beta Male has a sudden realization that the onion rings heaped on the tray in front of him are not manly: he feels ashamed of them, wants to cover them with his burger wrapper. Onions, he thinks to himself, are not meant to be any more than a kind of drapery for other foods—certainly not a food item on their own. This thought depresses him even further, makes him ruminate on his own shortcomings as an actor, as a kind of condiment to more memorable men like Jack Skullcross—the leading men that people cry over as they lie, dying in the dust, at the end of epic films.
Someone has come into the restaurant, and he realizes that the clerk’s voice sounds scared and choppy. When Beta Male looks towards the counter, he sees a man in a ski-mask, waving a gun above his very-fat belly, round as an egg under his tight shirt, which reads My other wife is a barely legal porn star. “Hurry up with that or I’ll pop you,” he says, like he’s been reading hard boiled detective novels, imbibing wounded masculinity, storing up memorable tough-guy lines he could later deploy in real life against taxi drivers and elevator attendants.
The clerk stuffs money into a cactus-decorated Sheriff Burger bag, his widened eyes never leaving the gun barrel. He’s like a machine, his arms moving from cash register to bag, bag to cash register. The robber watches these movements, his eyes flicking back and forth like he is a wolf half-mesmerized by a swinging gold pendant. “Give me a bag of Sheriff Burgers, too,” he says, when the register is empty. “Not stale ones, either, or I’ll pop that fancy woman over there.”
“Yes sir,” the clerk says, his voice shaking.
Something is being replayed here, Beta Male realizes—perhaps his own victimization at the Ripple Joy, the loss of his track winnings. Years of being lynched, tossed down poisoned wells, killed in cattle stampedes. The robber has the gun trained on the tall, beautiful woman sitting across from Beta Male, who now sees that she is also a victim, has been every day of her life. For some reason, he imagines Pretty Joy, lying on her bed, all alone.
“I don’t have all fucking night,” the robber says, waving his gun, threatening the whole restaurant, the city itself.
Without realizing what he is doing, Beta Male picks up the order of onion rings and heaves them in the direction of the fat man, springing to his feet in almost the same motion, his fists flying ahead of his body. For a second, the fat man stands still—immoveable—then the gun swivels away from the woman towards his assailant.
As Beta Male slams into the robber, he feels the impact of their collision, and a flowing, liquid warmth spreads across his chest. Staring down at the bloody front of his shirt, Beta Male thinks, I’m still on my feet. I should fall to the ground. Why don’t I fall? If he is shot in a movie, he usually topples over by now, and yet, he stands, blinking in the fluorescent lights, feeling something within him drift away. Suddenly, he can’t think straight, but he knows that somebody has just punched a big hole in the middle of his body and he’s going into shock. Suddenly, he feels thirstier than he has ever felt in his life.
The fat man drops the gun, and his ski-mask is already on the floor, in scattered polka dots of blood. He’s pasty-pale with purple crescents beneath his scared-looking eyes, looking like he can’t believe he’s robbing people and that he’s fired shots into their chests. Later, probably, he’ll tell the police I didn’t mean to do it. The gun just went off. It wasn’t me that did the killing.
Beta Male sees himself swimming in the reflective glass window. At least his headache is gone. When he falls, the old cowboy hits the tile with force, like he’s been felled. Not bad, he thinks. Pretty true-to-life. The easy thing about dying, he knows from the movies, is that you just have to do it, sans theatrics. Guys like him never have any last speeches to make, no final declarations of eternal love to spill—and who would listen anyway?
For a moment, Beta Male contemplates getting to his feet: he’s so terribly thirsty—his lips feel leather-dry—and he would kill for an orange soda. There are probably crates of them nearby, in the studio’s hospitality room. He likes the 8-ounce bottles best, with their thick glass—so icy and cold: he could drink three or four of them right now, but he can’t move because he doesn’t want to have to re-shoot this take. He can’t fall again like that, not if he had all night to try. As he waits for the director to say “Cut,” for the scene to finally end, he feels himself spinning away, caught in twisting bands of color, elongated fork-tines of light.
When Beta Male comes to, he is literally being cradled by breasts, hard as pomegranates; someone holds a hand over his heart, pressing the life inside of him. “He’s awake,” the beautiful woman says, her long hair falling over Beta Male’s face. Two police officers crouch nearby, looking down at him.
“Keep your hand on that wound,” says one of the officers to the beautiful woman. He is a young man that reminds Beta Male of himself at that age. I’m sorry, he wants to say to this beta cop. For not standing up till now. For everything.
“He saved us all,” she tells the policemen, her voice thick and wavering. “The robber was going to kill us, one by one. You could see it in his eyes.”
Beta Male looks deeply at the woman, drinking her in, noticing now the size of her hands, the shadow of stubble on her jaw line. She’s really, really strong—holding him down, pinning him in place. He feels strong biceps flex through the sleeves of her evening dress, shimmering with silvery scales. “You’re a man,” he tells her.
“Keep still,” she tells him, in a voice lower than his own. “I need to keep pressure on your chest.”
His heart is slowing, and he feels he is expected to say something more, to flutter out some last words so that everyone can return to their trailers and change back into twenty-first century clothes for the wrap party that night. He tries to recall the script for this scene, but everything has receded except for this distinct moment in time: the glare of fluorescent lights, the strong arms trying to anchor him to this life.
Last words? What does he possibly have to say? The beautiful woman is crying, tears dripping down onto his face. Beta Male thinks the crying might be a little overdone. A mannish woman like that—she ought to be more stoic, more inward in her grief. Instinctively, he knows this is a time for subtlety, for understatement.
“We’re going to have to do a retake,” he tells her, feeling a heaviness—grief—in his chest, like melted coins, “and I really need that orange soda.”
“He looks so familiar to me,” someone says, behind Beta Male. Is it the clerk? Has the robber come back?
“I wish the paramedics would arrive,” says the beta cop.
“He’s struggling to hang on,” someone replies.
Someone else says something urgent, but the voice blends with the circular blur of sirens—the words are smothered in tornadoes of sound.
Spinning away again in a twisting rainbow of colors, Beta Male thinks he might be dying, thinks that after decades of seeing his name buried in thick, blocky columns in the credits, he is at last playing a leading role. “You always expect that the end is going to be in black-and-white,” he declares, knowing that these last words have to be good ones, “but you’d be surprised at the spinning beautiful colors of the world as life slips away.”
Not bad, he thinks. I can finish on that note. Soon, he’ll be drinking that orange soda. He tries to get up but collapses. This isn’t a movie, he suddenly realizes. No director is going to wrap things up, shut this story down. Feeling cold, Beta Male knows he’s lost a lot of blood.
“Hold still,” a voice tells him, from the next room. “Don’t struggle.”
“God I’m thirsty,” he says. He doesn’t want this to be the last thing he ever says—his final words. But they are.