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Burk and Sandra
Ray Burk, hungover, nervous, and clearly disappointed with his life, was parked on Larchmont Avenue, just south of Melrose, killing time before his Monday meeting with Dicky Solomon, the producer of Magnetic North, a futuristic cop show and the highest rated new series on CBS. Paramount Pictures was located one block east on Gower, and from where he was sitting Burk could see a billboard showing Ryan O'Neal and Ali McGraw locked in an amorous embrace.
He thought, Give me a break, the same words he'd said out loud earlier that morning, after Sandra had quoted the latest item of gossip she'd culled from Joyce Haber's column in the Los Angeles Times.
"He was spotted in Chez Jay over the weekend," she told Burk while they were sitting in their tiny breakfast nook. "Joyce says his marriage is in real trouble."
"Sandra —" Burk said; then, hearing the anger in his voice, he stopped and picked up the sports section.
"What is it, babe?"
Burk shook his head.
"Give me a break, Sandra. Okay?"
Sandra stared at Burk as she crunched her toast. When she reached for her coffee, her robe fell open and her right breast swung free, exposing the nipple, "Tell me what's wrong, Ray."
Burk shook his head. From the living room he could hear Louie singing along with the puppets on Sesame Street. He knew without looking that his son was sitting cross-legged in front of the television, surrounded by his Legos and his army men, with a bowl of soggy Shredded Wheat balanced in his lap.
"Nothing, I told you." I'm just confused, he wanted to say. Then he said it. "I'm just confused."
Sandra sat quiet for a while, trying not to show how worried she felt inside. Then she reached across the table and combed her fingers through his hair. "You hate your job," she said. "Don't you, Ray?"
"It's bullshit. Being a censor is bullshit. It's not who I am."
Burk stood up and crossed to the sink. After he washed his cup, he turned and glanced at the clock above the stove. "It's almost nine," he said. "I gotta go. I have a meeting."
Sandra watched him walk into the dining room and take his wallet and keys off the table, then got up and followed him to the front door. When he turned to bend down to kiss her, she put her arms around his waist and pulled him close. "Things will get better," she whispered. "I know they will."
"I believe in you, Ray."
Burk kissed her tenderly on the forehead and stepped back from their embrace. He was moving forward when he heard her say, "Didn't you forget something, Ray?"
He turned and saw Sandra leaning against the doorframe. "Your son," she said. "You forgot to say good-bye to your son." Burk took a step toward her but she waved him away. "Go. You're late."
"Give him a kiss for me," Burk said.
"Better yet, I'll give him two and a hug to boot."
Burk got into his car and switched on the ignition. Before he backed out of the driveway, he looked up and saw Sandra still standing in the doorway, staring at him with a desperate sparkle in her eyes. Feeling his heart tremble, Burk lifted up his hand and waved goodbye. Sandra, her face still scared, waved back, then she turned away from the street and walked into their house.
"I'm not changing a thing. Right, Gillian?" Dicky Solomon said, winking at his leggy British secretary as she ushered Burk into his office. "Not a fucking word."
Opening his script, Burk said, "My first note is on page ten."
"Shove your notes, Burk. I got a twenty-one rating and a thirty-five share of the audience. I got a hit show without your notes."
"On page ten," Burk continued affably, ignoring the circles of perspiration that were forming underneath his arms, "we'd like you to lose the line 'Screw you, pal.'"
"Screw you, pal," Dicky said, but Burk saw him delete the line in his script. "What else?"
"On page twenty-four," Burk continued, "we —"
"We? What's this we bullshit?" Dicky shouted. "You personally want to lose this stabbing on page twenty-four. Right, Burk?"
"Right," Burk admitted, playing along. He noticed Dicky smile.
"Then for you it's out," Dicky declared loudly, gazing at Burk with satisfaction as he flipped on his stereo and lit up a joint.
And for the next thirty minutes, while Dicky got loaded and they listened to side one of "Tommy," Burk patiently argued his way through the rest of the script. By the time Gillian popped her head in the door to announce that Sandra was on the phone, Burk had convinced Dicky to make nearly all the changes that Charly Orth, his boss and Director of Program Practices for the network, had mandated that morning.
Burk said, "Tell her I'll call her when I get back to my office."
"No. Take it," Dicky said, getting up quickly and moving around the desk. "I gotta go down and check on the sets. We're through here, right?"
"I guess so."
On his way out the door, Dicky said, "This is a nowhere gig for you, Burk, but you do a good job. I'll see you next week."
Burk waited until Dicky closed the door before he picked up the phone.
"Ray?" He heard Sandra's whisper when he lifted up the receiver. "Are you on?"
"Yeah. I'm right here. You okay?"
"Uh-huh. I just got back from doing the laundry. While I was folding your jeans I started to miss you, so I thought I'd give you a call."
"How did you find me?"
"How do you think? I called your office and Lorraine gave me the number. You mad?" Burk remained silent. "Ray? Did you hear me? I said I missed you."
"Yeah, I know. And there are lots of times I miss you, Sandra. But —"
"Just leave a message next time, okay? I'll call you right back."
"That sometimes takes hours. By that time I don't miss you so much," Sandra said, and one of Dicky's phone lines began to ring. It rang three times before Gillian picked it up. "Is Dicky there with you?" Sandra asked.
"No. We're finished."
"What about us, Ray? Are we finished too?"
"Come on, Sandra."
Burk let out a long sigh. "No. We're going to be fine," he said, but moments later, when he hung up the phone, he could still hear the terror in her voice.
A month earlier, on a foggy and rainy Saturday morning in May, Burk and Sandra and Louie went for a drive up the coast to Santa Barbara. On their way back to LA the rain ended, and the sky was more blue than gray when Dicky Solomon's red Corvette drew alongside Burk at a stoplight in Brentwood. Beside Dicky, holding a blond cocker spaniel puppy, was a boy around Louie's age.
"That's him," Burk said to Sandra, pointing with his chin.
"Dicky Solomon. The producer I told you about."
"That fat bald guy. You're kidding me."
"Don't stare," Burk said quickly.
When the light changed to green, Louie said, "That boy's got a puppy."
"Follow him," Sandra said to Burk.
"Can I get a puppy someday?"
"Say yes, Daddy."
"We'll see," Burk said again, and he pulled into the right lane.
Dicky Solomon drove west on Sunset, his Corvette moving easily through the curves. At Allenford he downshifted into second and turned right. When he reached San Vicente, he stopped at Playtown, a toy store on 26th Street that had just opened that weekend.
"Why are we stopping?" Louie asked Burk, while they idled in a red zone around the corner. "Are you getting me a toy?"
"No, honey," Sandra said, "but if you're good maybe we'll let you stay up and watch The Wild Wild West.'"
Dicky left Playtown and made a stop at the Liquor Locker on Montana before he drove up to his hillside home in Mandeville Canyon.
"Eighteen fifty-seven," Sandra said to herself, as she opened her purse and took out a pencil.
Burk said, "Why are you writing down his address?"
"I don't know," Sandra said, shrugging. "Maybe we'll send him a Christmas card."
"Why would we do that? We're not friends of his."
"You're work friends."
"No we're not."
"You said he likes you," Sandra said, turning toward him. "Maybe he can help you get a better job."
Burk shook his head, keeping his own eyes averted. "Forget it, Sandra. Dicky Solomon could care less about my life."
After Burk made a U-turn and they were coasting slowly down the canyon road, Louie said, "Maybe someday I'll get a puppy dog."
Sandra said, "Maybe," and she pushed a button on the radio, changing the frequency from AM to FM. "Just Like a Woman" was playing on KPPC, and Sandra sang the words along with Dylan while she closed her eyes and eased down in her seat. When the song ended, she turned and smiled at her son. "Maybe you will, sweetheart."
* * *
Santa Anita was closed on Mondays, so after she washed the breakfast dishes and dropped Louie off at nursery school, Sandra spent the rest of the morning working on the five-thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle that was spread over the dining room table. The title of the puzzle was "Storm," and depicted on the cover of the box was an ink-black sky split by a thin bolt of lightning. Swelling underneath the heavy clouds were huge waves just a shade lighter than the sky.
"Just sky and water?" Burk had said the night before when he saw the picture on the box. "That's it? Nothing else?"
"Lightning," Sandra added.
"That's gonna take you forever."
"That's the point," Sandra said, dumping the pieces on the table. "It's supposed to take forever."
By noon Sandra had finished three beers and a small section of the sky when her concentration was interrupted by the telephone. I'm not in the mood to talk to anyone, she decided, and she put her hands over her ears. But the phone continued to ring patiently until she finally raced into her bedroom and screamed, "Okay, I hear you, I hear you, goddammit!" After waiting for two more rings to steady herself and catch her breath, she lifted up the receiver and let five full seconds pass without speaking. Then, almost in a whisper, she said, "Hello?"
"Mrs. Burk," a woman responded immediately, "this is Mrs. Pincus, Louie's teacher at the Goodtime Nursery School."
"Louie's been acting a little odd lately, and I thought we should talk about it."
Sandra lit a cigarette and sat down on the edge of the unmade bed. She took a deep drag, and gray smoke curled into the sunlight that poured through the open window and stroked her face. "What does he do?" she asked.
"It's what he doesn't do," the woman said. Her voice was cold, remote. "In class he refuses to speak or answer questions, and during playtime, instead of interacting with the other boys and girls, he spends the entire hour walking backwards around the edge of the yard."
"Is he bothering anyone?"
"No. But that isn't the point."
"What is the point?"
"He's not making friends," the woman said in a softer, more concerned voice. "I think it would be easier for him if he did. I think he would be happier."
Sandra stretched out on the bed and blew a smoke ring toward the ceiling. "It's just a stage," she said. "I'll discuss it with my husband."
"I tried to call him earlier today."
"You called him first? Don't you call the child's mother first?" Sandra said, sitting up. "Isn't that the way it generally works?"
"Yes, generally. But I've had trouble reaching you in the past. Last Friday, for example —"
"I was at Santa Anita last Friday, like I am every afternoon during the week. Except Mondays. I'm an expert handicapper," Sandra bragged; then she glanced at her wristwatch, as if she had an appointment to keep. "Can I speak to Louie, please?"
"He's taking his nap. If you like I can wake him."
Sandra heard a door slam in the house next door, and the sound startled her.
She didn't answer. Her body was rigid, her mouth dropped open in fear.
"Mrs. Burk? Are you there?"
"I think we should discuss this in person."
"Stop it!" Sandra said, springing up from the bed. Her eyes were wide and her heart was beating in her throat. "There is nothing wrong with my son!"
Sandra was in the kitchen heating up take-out pizza when Burk came home from work that evening. On the dining room table, next to the small section of clouds she had pieced together that morning, was a note that said, I'm pregnant.
Burk looked at her inquiringly. "True?"
"Is that a happy wow or a sad wow?"
"I'm not sure."
"I want this baby, Ray."
"Okay. But —"
"I really do!"
That night, while he and Sandra lay side by side in the darkness with their bare shoulders touching, Burk replayed the conversation he'd had with Louie right before he put his son to bed.
"Mom's sad," he told Burk.
"She is? How do you know?"
"Because this afternoon, while we were driving home from nursery school, I looked over and saw a tear fall off her chin."
"Did you ask her what was wrong?"
"Then maybe she wasn't sad, because sometimes people cry when they're happy."
"Some people do."
"Tears are what happens when the glass breaks behind your eyes. If you swallow them you can die."
"Did your mom tell you that?"
"No. The bird did."
"The big black bird."
"Where is that bird, Louie?"
"You can't see him."
"Because he's inside my head, behind my eyes ... behind the glass."
"Is he always there?"
"No. Just sometimes. He'll come tonight if Mom forgets to tuck me in and kiss me good night."
* * *
Much later that night, his body fatigued but his mind too restless to let him sleep, Burk switched on the radio. From 3 to 4 A.M. each morning on KMPC, late-nite talk show host Ray Moore invited his listeners to call in and "share a moment from your childhood, a story or anecdote that is either happy or sad. It doesn't matter which, because we're here to listen and open our hearts, not to judge."
The first caller, a woman from Monrovia, spoke about a crush she had had on a boy in the fourth grade. "Donnie Randolph was his name. I sat right behind him at Warner Avenue Elementary," she told Radio Ray. "No one ever called him Donald or Don. It was always Donnie. He was smart — but he was a cutup too, always turning in his seat to make faces at his friends or toss notes down the aisle. But he never looked at or spoke to me. Not once during the whole semester, even when I gave him a card on Valentine's Day. Do you know how that made me feel?" the woman asked Radio Ray, her voice close to tears. "It made me feel like the ugliest little girl in the whole world."
"Maybe he was just shy," Radio Ray said. "What else do you remember?"
"All those weeks sittin' there in class, hopin' he would smile at me or say hello or even tease me. And I remember how my fingers ached to reach out and straighten his shirt collar so I could touch his hair. Sometimes I would bend my head forward and dare myself to kiss him on the neck — but of course I never did."
Radio Ray said, "I suppose you were in love with him."
"Yes, I suppose I was."
"What do you think he's doing now?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. Selling insurance. I don't know," she said and paused. "Maybe he's dead."
"Maybe he is, but maybe he's listening right now. I know this is a long shot," Radio Ray said, "but if you're out there listening, Donnie Randolph —"
"My name's Margerie Willis," the woman said, her voice brightening. "Warner Avenue Elementary, class of 'forty-seven. I hope he remembers me."
"I hope so too."
A few minutes later a woman with a southern accent told Radio Ray that she once knew a boy named Donnie in Gulfport, Mississippi, the town where she was raised. "But we used to call him Wonderhead, 'cause his bucket was shaped like a loaf of bread. Get it? Wonderhead, Wonder bread."
Laughing, Radio Ray said, "Was his last name Randolph?"
"His name was Donnie. That and his big-ass head is all I can remember."
After a station break and a commercial for a weight reduction powder imported from Canada, Radio Ray took a call from a man who said he was using the pay phone outside the Vogue Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.
"My name is John Beal," he told Radio Ray, "and I'm from Omaha, Nebraska. You familiar with Omaha, Ray?"
"As a matter of fact I am, John Beal. I worked at KKOW back in the summer of 'fifty-two."
"I was nineteen years old that summer," John Beal said.
Out loud, Burk said, "Gene was twelve and I just turned ten."
"I stayed at the Hotel Sherwood," said Radio Ray, "right up the street from the Greyhound station."
"I rode the dog a few times," John Beal said.
"It's a good way to travel across America. Cheap, too."
"Ray, did you ever eat at Chloe's?"
"I used to bake their pies," John Beal said proudly.
"I didn't have much of a sweet tooth, John. But I sure remember that meat loaf."
"Shoulda tried the pies. Then we would have something to talk about," John Beal said, and the line went dead.
Burk put his hand on the receiver and left it there for several seconds before he dialed.
"Last call," Radio Ray said with a regretful sigh. "You're on the air."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stars Screaming"
Copyright © 1997 John Kaye.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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