King and Queen of an Empty Kingdom

"She's too fussy-looking," said the director.

"Pretty, but fussy-looking," said the client rep.

"I think fussy is a good thing when you're trying to sell a kitchen cleaning product," said the casting director. "I think she's good."

I wondered if t hat meant I had the job. TV commercial people are so insincere that you never know if you have the job even if they say so right in front of you. And this could be a good job. Just a few days of sponging off countertops would bring enough residuals to take me through months and months of auditions I might not pass.

"I like the blonde thing," said the casting director. "If you've got a gold label cleaner, with a lemon scent, I think blonde just cements that it people's minds."

"But I think blonde me ans she COMPETES with the product," said the director.

"I don't think so," said the client rep. "I think that if people are reminded of yellow things, that'll stick with them when they get to the supermarket."

They started whispering.

"We like you, " said the casting director. "What's your name, again?"

"Olive Hurst," I said. "5'4, 120 pounds, blonde, brown. Olive Hurst."

I got the sense I was going to get this job, and started to get that creepy feeling, the feeling where I wanted to insult them, that feeling where I wonder what can I say to get thrown out of the room.

"Oh, yeah. Here you are," said the casting director. She was holding up my photo composite, shots of me eating a sandwich, me cuddling a baby, me holding an umbrella.

" We'll call you," said the casting man, and he sounded as if he really might.

"I still think she's too fussy," the director said as I left.


It was a pretty fall day, and I thought about taking the six-block walk from the casting studio to Central Park, but I didn't. I took the subway back to my little apartment downtown. I had two more auditions that week, and I had to work on my skin. My skin is the biggest problem I have as an ac tress.

When it was time for dinner, I went to the Chinese take-away down the street. It's a nice place, nicer than most of the take-out joints in the East Village. It costs a little more, but they have nice furniture you can sit on while you wait.


My timing was wrong, though; I'd arrived at the height of the dinner hour, and a small crowd was already waiting for service. Ahead of me, there was a man in sensitive-man glasses who looked like a lawyer. He was wearing a cashmere coat spotted wit h city dirt. Ahead of him was an African girl who fidgeted, and, propped up against the wall, a very small man dressed entirely in black.

I waited a long time while the girl ordered a meal full of specific vegetables.

Finally, it was my turn. " I'd like the Broccoli with Green Bean Rice," I said.

"Wait," said the other girl. "Wait, I'd like the Broccoli with Green Bean Rice, too. Could you change my order to Broccoli with Green Bean Rice?"

"They'll never get it right it you change it," sa id the lawyer guy. "They can barely get it right the first time."

The small man in black shifted his pose. Waiting, with nothing to do, I examined him. He would have been a small woman, if he'd been a woman; you could have fit him in a garment bag. Still, he had a lovely face, with porcelain skin that made him look almost doll-like. He had aqua eyes. His black clothes were a kind of modified rock and roll gear, all full of studs and buckles and points.

A delivery boy came from the back, dumpi ng some white containers on the front counter, and taking others away on his bike. The counter-lady put the rest of the containers in of bags.

"Where's my rice?" said the lawyer type, looking inside his.

The counter-woman looked inside, too.

" No rice," she said. "We make you rice."

"Oh, for crying out loud," said the type. "Look, I'll take this green bean rice and we'll call it even."

"That's the rice that goes with my meal," I said.

"It goes with the broccoli with green bean rice," said the African girl. "Is this my broccoli?"

"Only one broccoli here," said the counter-lady. "Other out with delivery boy."

"Well, give me the one that's here," said the girl.

"You wait for delivery boy." the lady told me. "Back in 20 minutes."

"I was ahead of her in line," the girl explained to no one in particular.

I bit my lip. Sometimes I think that if I start yelling, I will never stop.

The man in black leaned forward.

"Not so fast, chubby," he told the girl "Are you sure you r eally need that meal?

The girl was struck dumb. She wasn't that chubby, either.

"Hey," said the lawyer type. "There's no need for you to get involved, here."

"Watch out. I'll put a curse on you," said the man in black. "I'll make you a selfish y uppie in a coat nobody likes except your dry cleaner. Presto, you already are."

The lawyer stepped back, stunned.

"Come on," said the man in black. "You can share my dinner. Come on. We can go to the park."

We walked towards the park in the twilight.

"I'm Carl Magnolia," he said.

"Olive Hurst," I said.

"You have lovely hair," he told me.

"Well, it's hardly worth it to be a real blonde these days, with all the dye jobs walking around," I said.

"Yes," he said, "the real blondes should sue."

"There are particularly a lot of blondes among actresses," I told him, "and I'm an actress. I show up for an audition and half the girls there are blonde."


"Every pretty girl wants to be an actress, doesn't she?"

"I'm the kind of actress who makes money," I said. "I'm not one of those dumb girls who want to be in movies."

We got to Tompkins Square and found an empty bench. Carl divided his food with chopsticks, putting my share on a pa per plate.

"I'm about to start managing a rock band," he said. "That's going to start very soon."

He had ordered some kind of beef dish. It was very tasty.

"I already know the band I want to manage. They're called the Tense Experts, and I saw th em open for a friend of mine's band at the Mercury Lounge. They're new. I mean, they had this attitude like they'd seen it all, but it took them two hours to set up their equipment. They're brilliant. You know how you feel when you see something absolu tely brilliant? Your head just spins."

"What do you do now?"

"Oh, I'm a writer," he said. "I write typing textbooks."

"Really?" I said. The typing textbooks sounded more practical.

"What's your dream?" Carl asked me.

I thought for a moment.

"I suppose I'd like to buy a couch," I said.

"A couch?" he said.

"Yes," I said. "I don't have a couch in my apartment right now. There's only chairs and a bed, and some people get the wrong idea."

"I can see why," said Carl.

"Mostly, I have my parents' furniture. They moved to Florida, and they left me their furniture, but it's furniture for a big house, and I have a very small apartment. I'm not sure I'd really have room for a couch."

Carl smiled at me, and I got the idea he liked me a lot. It was a lovely fall night, that night in the park, not cold at all, and the footpaths were covered with pink and yellow leaves.


I got a callback for the lemon cleanser ad, and then another comm ercial, for spot remover. That one had no words, just an actor and I miming an anniversary dinner while a waiter dropped spaghetti down my blouse.

I spent the better part of three days on the set, having spaghetti dropped on me over and over, chan ging blouses, and having spaghetti dropped again. So things were looking up in my life.

Carl called me too, asking me to go see the Tense Experts play. They had a gig at Arlene's Grocery, a converte d grocery store on Stanton Street.

"You'll see how wonderful they are," he said.

Arlene's Grocery smelled like old, spilled beer. It was so dark and smoky in there that I could barely find my way around.

"I think they save a lot of money on never having to dust," Carl said.

There were signs on the wall announcing gigs by other bands, all giant posters of people trying to be someone, or saying they were someone, all those people trying so hard. I was embarrassed for them.

"See, that's the ban d," said Carl, pointing them out. "See how many fans they have. Their love them so much that they even try to dress the same."

Everyone in the band, and half of the audience, had giant, ratty black hair that stood up from their heads like pineapple t ops.

"They look awful," I said.

"I know," said Carl. "They look like they've been dead a few days, and then buried and crawled out of the ground. When I first came to see them, I rode the subway here with some of the fans. It's like there'd been some great nuclear holocaust I didn't know about because I'd been waiting so long for the F train."

I was sipping a glass of cranberry juice. Alcohol is bad for my skin.

"I'm just happy you wanted to go out with me."

"Why wouldn't I?" I asked.

" A lot of women don't," he said, and he shrugged, and I could see in the way he shrugged he didn't want to say it was because he was so small.

"I don't mind," I said. "I think you're cute." I could see his aqua eyes, glowing in the dark. "I'd mind if you didn't have a job," I said.

The Tense Experts started playing. They were good, but not good enough to really make me nervous. They had none of the perfection that sometimes makes me want to disrupt opera with a screaming fit, or take a Bic pen to one of the great painters' masterpieces. The audience loved them, and swayed back and forth with everything they did.

"Aren't they wonderful?" Carl whispered to me between songs.

I told him I liked them, which made him happy. Afterwards I let him take me home and kiss me at the front door. There was no need to invite him upstairs. He was happy enough.


He wanted to cook me dinner, and asked what I liked. I couldn't really name anything.

That Sunday evening, I went to his apartment. I walked around looking at things while he cooked in the tiny kitchen. There were no pictures of other girls, although was on the bulletin board there was a postcard shot of some old movie star. She was bl onde, too.

"Is this your guitar?" I asked him.


"Yes, and I still play it, sometimes," he called out from the kitchen. "But I was never very good. I could pose on-stage quite nicely, but I could never remember the notes in order. It's better for me to help someone who's really got a gift."

He brought out some drinks and set them on the table, kissing me again.

"I mean, the Tense Experts are brilliant," he said. "I want the whole world to know about them. I feel evangelical about it, reall y. I want everyone in the world to hear them. I'd like to just stand on a corner and give tickets away."

"What's this?" I said, looking at a pile of papers on his desk.

"It's the manuscript for a typing textbook," he said.

"Jump, Jerry," I read . "Join the Raj at the Haj."

"That one uses the J key," he said.

He went back to the kitchen, and in a few minutes, he came out with steaming tray of food.

"I cooked something I knew you'd like," he said. "Broccoli with green bean rice."

His version was very good, better than the Chinese restaurant, and I told him so.

"I think great love ennobles you," Carl said, "and it ennobles your cooking."


In the weeks after that, I saw a lot of Carl , and my career started going badly. Carl's cooking put a few pounds on me, so I didn't really match my composite pictures any more, and without work I couldn't afford a set of newer, fatter pictures. Also, the commercial for lemon cleanser was playing all over the place, and the casting people started saying I was overexposed.

Pretty soon I was having trouble paying my bills. My landlord caught Carl and I going up the stairs to my apartment one day, and when he lost his temper about the rent Carl told him he had better be nice to people, because he would never find love with his looks.

I kept thinking that if Carl could just be satisfied with his safe job and give up this stupid idea about the rock band, he might fit nicely into the rest of my life.

On one of the first cold days of winter, Carl and I went to the supermarket together. I ate almost all of my meals at his house by this time, and he wanted me to pick out something I liked.

But whe n I pointed out a little box of star-shaped French candies, he didn't want to buy it.

"I want to keep an eye on how much we spend. I'm getting somewhere with the band, now," he said. "I'm getting to know the guys. It won't be long until they sign me o n as manager."

He pushed the cart to the canned-goods aisle.

"That's going to take a lot of time. I don't know if I'll even be able to accept that job revising the third-level textbook," he said. "I have big plans for them. They need to play more o ften, and they need to play a couple of fast songs first, to start the show off, get people going. And they need better instruments. The ones they have sound out of tune even when they aren't."

I chose some gourmet soup with a pretty green label.

"O nce we get them going, we'll cut a short CD, something we can send out to clubs to get bookings. Just a tour of small clubs, to build a name. After that we can start pitching ourselves to the record companies," Carl said.

He pushed the cart around a corner.

"I think they can do great things," he said.

"Why do people keep thinking they can do great things?" I said. "Hardly anybody ever does."

Carl thought about that.

"They're good, though," he said. "They're very, very good."

"Nobody is good as you say these guys are," I told him.

When we were done shopping, he pushed the cart towards the checkout.

"You know," I said, "if you had a stable job, like that textbook offer, maybe I could move in with you."

Carl looked at me, stunned and delighted.

"Really?" he said.

"Sure," I said.

Among the magazines by the checkout was a new issue of TV Guide, and I recognized the face on the cover.

"Look at this girl! I told her she was no good back when we were both doing commercials!" I said. "Now she's got her own sitcom."

Carl stood behind me, looking at the magazine, too.


He didn't mention the Tense Experts after that, and I didn't mention moving in, but I slowly started to. I stopped going home at night, which had always made Carl sour, and when I did go back to my own place I would leave things behind - a lipstick here, or a sweater there. Soon there would be nothing left in my apartment except my parents' furniture, which would never have fit in Carl's little studio.

One Sunday evening we were curled up watching television in the dark, and I was mentally re-arranging some of Carl's furniture, to see if we could at least fit in my parents' dinette, when I suddenly notice d something missing.

"Where's your guitar?" I asked him.

"Oh," said Carl. "I gave it to the guitarist for the Tense Experts."

He had his arm around me, and he was trying to act casual.

"He needs it," Carl said, "and really, I can't even play."

I wiggled out of his grasp. "You've been talking to those hair people?" I said.

"They're good, Olive. I have to help them, or they might not go anywhere. They're so disorganized. If I don't help them, no one will ever hear them, and I can't bear t hat." Carl looked at me pleadingly "With me they can go places."

"You're going to go places?" I said. "You're going to leave me?"

Carl took my hand. "No, Olive, no," he said.

I was thinking of my parents, in Florida; I was thinking of all my actor friends who had moved to Los Angeles; I was thinking of the girl on the cover of the TV Guide. "Everyone I know leaves me to go places," I said.

Carl tried to kiss me, but I turned my head away. I pulled my hand out of his clasp. I wanted to hit hi m.

"Olive," he said, and he tried "You understand, don't you? I want to make something of myself. Nobody remembers the people who write typing textbooks."

That was it. I'd had it with being a lady. I'd had it with keeping my mouth closed while ev eryone in the world made fun of me.

"If the Tense Experts are really that good, then they'll find another manager," I said. "But you will never find another girlfriend, because you are TOO SHORT."

Carl sat dumbfounded. He was staring up at me like a wounded little deer. I put on my coat and left. I left him sitting on the couch, with the TV flickering, and went down the stairs towards the subway. It was a stupid move, because the F train takes forever to get there, and long before it did Carl had caught up with me. I wouldn't talk to him.

Finally, the train came. He followed me into the first car.

I sat down, and he sat next to me.

"Olive, no. Olive, don't," Carl said. "I love you, Olive."

I turned my head away. I pretended to look at an eyeglass ad on the side of the car.

A little girl and her father were watching us from across the car. The girl was carrying a toy megaphone.

"Two people are getting onto the subway, now!" she boomed through the megaphone. "They're a ngry! They're sitting apart!"

"I'll give it up," Carl said. "If you say so, Olive, I'll give it up."

"Can I hold the megaphone for you, honey?" asked the father.

"No!" said the little girl.

"Olive," said Carl, "I don't want to be alone again. Please don't leave me."

The train rumbled through at tunnel, and it stopped at a station. I could have gotten off, but I didn't.

"They're kissing!" roared the girl through the megaphone. "They're making up!"

"You're trying to buy off all my dreams with kisses," Carl said.


Library of Congress Copyright TXU 826-903 1998