by Phil Geusz
The apartment was on the first floor, so at least there was one good thing to be said about this particular house call. My companion Phoung was a triceratops-moprh and physically far too large to enter any sort of normal hallway. He had volunteered to walk from the Shelter with me, and I felt far more secure in the knowledge that he was going to be right outside the door if needed. It was bad enough for a rabbity-type like me to have to go someplace where I wasn't really welcome. Things would have been far worse if I had been forced to walk two blocks through carnivore-inhabited country alone and then had to try and conduct business knowing that the same hazard-filled distance stood between me and any real security. Having a powerful companion within easy reach made me feel much better.
Delores Antioch had a working doorbell, too, which was something else fairly unusual in such a rough neighborhood. I consider it undignified to scratch at a door for entry and normally absolutely refuse to do so, but my unfortunately my soft forepaws are rather poorly suited to knocking. This has led to some awkward moments, and the fact that I actually took a moment to chalk up the working buzzer as another thing that was going right illustrates well just how hopeless I considered the whole excursion to be.
My client didn't answer the door on the first ring, or the second or even the third. I pressed my lips together and leaned ruthlessly on the button; my arrival had been timed very carefully and was quite certain that at this time of day Delores would not simply let the bell ring.
I was right. In thirty seconds she was at the door. "What..." she began angrily before seeing who it was. Then she seemed to deflate a little. "Oh. It's you again."
"Yes," I replied, examining her closely. Delores Antioch had once been a remarkably beautiful woman, but SCABS had left her with just enough hippopotamus in her system to coarsen her features and equip her with some rather formidable dentition. Besides which, her muscles had gone flaccid from lack of exercise and her eyes were squinty when exposed to bright daylight. According to the information I'd been given, Mrs. Antioch didn't leave her apartment for weeks at a time. And she looked it. "Phil, from the West Street Shelter. May I come in?"
She glared at me for a moment and I thought that perhaps somehow I had messed up on my timing after all. But then I heard a familiar theme song begin to play in the background and Delores literally danced from foot to foot in indecision. "I'll watch with you, if you'd like" I suggested mildly. "In truth, I'm a fan." Which wasn't stretching the truth too far, after all. Once my client had been genuinely gorgeous.
Her glare softened just a tiny amount, and I watched wheels spin in Delores's head. The quickest way for her to get back to her TV was clearly to let me in. And just as I'd hoped and planned she finally realized it and, shrugging, opened her screen door enough to let me pass.
The inside of the apartment smelled like a midden. Mrs. Antioch was hippo enough to prefer her food very moist, and half-eaten buckets of decaying greenery were scattered everywhere. Dirty clothing moldered wherever it had been dropped over the months and years, the bathroom reeked of soft herbivore feces and cockroaches roamed freely through the dimly-lit rooms. Every last stick of furniture was heavily covered with some sort of debris or refuse save for one badly stained easy chair facing the television. And even as I watched, Delores plunked herself down into it, her face going absolutely blank in the cold blue light of the old-fashioned cheap television set which was all she could afford. Quietly I cleared a spot of floor as best I could and forced myself to sit down amongst the filth, promising my fur a good cleansing later.
The clarinet-based theme of Delores's favorite show was still playing when we finally settled down, and the opening credits of "Spy Girl" were flashing across the screen. Today's episode was from the first season, I could tell by the cast of supporting actors, made back when my client's climb to stardom still might well have been described as meteoric. Then the credits ended and the camera made the famous dramatic cut to my client's former face, raven-black hair falling coyly across one eye. The image faded into an idealized sketch of the "Spy Girl", and then the commercials rolled. I took the opportunity to speak.
"That show is almost a symbol of a golden age," I reminisced. "Unemployment was down, the stock market was up and all seemed right with the world. I was there too, you know. I'm older than I look."
My client sat silently, her dull eyes fixed on the commercials.
I didn't let her silence slow me down. "All was right with the world, and our future was bright, bright, bright. There weren't going to be any more big wars, crime was finally coming down and for the first time we human beings were really and truly beginning to believe in ourselves and each other. It was a wonderful time. Best one we've ever known. Wasn't it?" She didn't respond, and I decided to let things lie where they were for a bit.
Presently the Spy Girl was back, and both of us watched intently. Spy Girl's adventures were serialized; if a viewer missed a singe episode the series ceased to make sense. At the time most of us had considered this idiosyncrasy to be rather an annoyance. But the passing of the years and the turning of an era changed the inconvenience into a sort of pop-culture landmark. Only people of a certain age knew the convolutions and twists of the Spy Girl plotline by heart.
It was reflexive on my part. Thirty seconds into the show I sang it out. "This is the one where Spy Girl locates the terrorist nuke," I exclaimed to Delores. "You disable it in the next episode."
Delores smiled ever so slightly. "Actually, it takes me two episodes to defuse it."
I blushed under my white fur. "Oops."
"It's a common mistake," she replied. "Originally the two defusing episodes where aired together as a special feature during sweeps week. When the ratings were measured."
"Ah," I replied, feeling better.
We watched silently after that, and I wondered again at the power that Delores had once possessed as an actress. The character created for her was not particularly believable, her dialogue was clunky, and her co-stars of mediocre talent at best. Yet somehow all by herself my client had pulled it all together and made the series... magical. Sure, some her appeal was based on simple good looks. But there was something else there, something indefinable and beyond price. Cleopatra and Helen of Troy might have once held such allure; in more recent times Marilyn Monroe and Betty Page most certainly had. But none had possessed it in fuller measure than Delores. On that the world agreed.
Then the show was over, the credits crawled across Spy Girl's sketched features, and together we were forced out of the golden age of our youths and back into a world of filthy apartments and SCABS. "It was very nice to sit and watch that with you," I said sincerely. "I'll never forget it."
Delores merely shrugged. Already she was beginning to withdraw again. And I suddenly found that I was now at a loss for words myself. But I had to try.
"Time passes, you know. Things change. And eras end."
"The series was cancelled before the epidemics came, you know. And both of your movies bombed. It wasn't SCABS that killed your career. It was you."
A single lonely tear made it's way down my client's cheek. "No one knows the whole truth except you, of course. But your biographers talk a lot about pills and alcohol and a crooked agent." I sighed. " All that stuff was over thirty years ago, Delores. The money is gone, the films are old, even 'Spy Girl' is really only popular with us geezers. Why can't you let it go and live instead of sitting here slowly dying in the dark?"
Another tear trailed down the coarse cheek
"There's a ton of good you could be doing out in the world, you know. Lots of your fans are SCABs now themselves, like me. Life has gotten harder for each and every one of us who've had to deal with being changed. You could be famous again, showing everyone how to stand up to adversity. The newsies would come crawling out from everywhere to interview you. You could be famous again. Have friends. Be alive."
For just a moment I thought I had her. Tears flowed freely, and the one-time heartthrob of a generation sat stiffly upright in her shabby chair. Then the moment passed. "Please leave," she said formally. "And don't come back. Or I'll call the police."
I sighed and climbed to my feet. "If that's what you want," I replied. "But is it what your heart is really telling you, deep down?"
"Get out!" The words were spoken in exactly the threatening snarl that best strikes mindless fear into a rabbit, and before I knew it I was out on the street breathing hard and leaning on Phoung.
"I'll be all right in a minute," I assured his worried features. "Just got into a bit of a confrontation." The triceratops nodded soberly; he was not a very talkative sort. Which suited me fine just then, as being utterly ashamed of my instinctive fears and feeling like a failure as a counselor at one and the same time made for a bitter emotional pill that I preferred to swallow in silence. I took several minutes catching my breath and letting my adrenaline levels drop to something near normal. Then, just about the time we were ready to leave a man carrying two large grocery bags strode up to Delores's door. He smelled very much like her, and I realized suddenly that he must be a relative. "Excuse me," I said before he could ring the bell. "Are you here to see Delores Antioch?"
He turned to face me. "Yes. Why are you asking? And who are you?"
"I'm Phil, a SCABs counselor," I replied quickly. "Mostly I deal with career-related issues, though not entirely. And this is Phoung, a helper. Are you by chance Mrs. Antioch's brother?"
"Yes, I am. My name is Frank. "
Good! I'd guessed right. "Pleased to meet you. I'm very concerned about your sister's condition," I explained eagerly. "She's clearly extremely depressed and living in a very unhealthy environment."
"She's trapped by her past," he agreed. "And has been for years."
I nodded. "Exactly. She needs treatment."
But then he surprised me by shaking his head firmly. "No."
I cocked my head to one side. "Whyever not?"
Frank's face hardened for a moment, then relented. "All right," he explained, awkwardly reshuffling the grocery bags so as to make the burden more comfortable. "It's really none of your business. But you're a SCAB yourself, and a counselor as well you say?"
"Well, I guess you don't mean to hurt anyone. And while Delores's identity isn't exactly public knowledge, it's not a deep dark secret either. At least one Hollywood reporter knows. But no one cares any more. Not enough to matter"
"Really?" I asked, surprised.
"Really." Frank looked at me appraisingly. "How old are you?"
"Older than you are. The bunny thing takes a lot of years off."
He smiled. "Were you a fan?"
"Of course," I replied. "Wasn't everyone?"
Frank's expression became distant. "No, not everyone. She was my sister, and I was no fan. Not at all."
"Show business ruined her, pure and simple. She ran off to Hollywood at fifteen, slept with her first director at seventeen, and starred in a porno flick that same night. Did you know that?"
"No one else does either. They never used her face and a few years later several tens of thousands of dollars made the producer forget all about it. By the time 'Spy Girl' was in the works, my sister Delores already needed Quaaludes to sleep every night and then speed in the morning to wake up. Do you have a sister?"
"No, I don't."
"Hmm. Well, she was my baby sister, and I was still young and hotheaded and felt obliged to protect her. I tried to drag her off the set and back home when she told me about the drugs, but Security kicked me out. Delores married three times by the time she turned twenty-four, and got divorced three times as well. She'd had five abortions because a child would have hurt her career. And her family never saw her once in person from the time she had me ejected right up until the day she came crawling back home with her money all gone and the first fever of the Flu glittering in her eyes. She didn't call, didn't write, didn't even seem to be aware that we were still alive. Pop was already dead by then and well... You don't care about all of that."
"Yes I do," I replied sincerely in a near whisper. "Really I do."
Frank looked more closely at me. "Maybe you do," he acknowledged. "Maybe you actually do. But anyway, it's like this. Delores has never been the same since she left home that first time. She's drained, somehow. Used up. Faded."
I nodded slowly. It was a good description. "But with help..."
Frank snorted. "Help? Come on, man! Open your eyes! The directors and producers bought her the best shrinks money could buy when the ratings on 'Spy Girl' started to fade. It was funny, really. First they ruined her, then they tried to fix her. Both processes seemed to involve her taking a whole lot of pills. And then when the Flu came and made her look like she does, everyone quit caring. Except for her family, of course. Not that she'd given a hoot about us all the time she was rich and famous."
I pressed my lips together, then spoke as forcefully as I was able. "You know, if I went to the public welfare people and told them about how your sister is living, it wouldn't matter to them who she is. They'd come and get her ruled incompetent, then require her to undergo treatment. In some ways I'm under an ethical obligation to do exactly that."
"Heh!" Frank smiled wryly. "If you weren't a SCAB yourself I'd ask what planet you were living on, Phil. There are borderline feral SCABs living in ditches all over the world, thousands of people still coming down with the Flu every day, and every health and research facility on the globe is stretched to the absolute limit just dealing with the real horrorshow cases. And you're gonna try and scare me by claiming that someone will come and take away my sister when she's eating regularly, has a roof over her head and isn't stark raving mad? That's more than an awful lot of folks can lay claim to these days, SCABs or no." The older man grinned again. "That kind of thinking belonged in another age, my too-gentle friend. A kinder and richer time. Now excuse me, please, while I tend to my sister."
It was clearly a polite dismissal, so Phoung and I nodded and headed back towards the Shelter. Frank had made some excellent points, I had to admit. Most likely nothing would be done about Delores's situation, even though I did plan to make a formal report. There simply wasn't enough wealth in the world anymore, not enough human capital saved up to care for all of those who needed tending to. None could be spared for those who refused care, who could prosper and grow on their own if they would but allow themselves to heal.
But try as I might, for the next several weeks I could not clear from my mind the image of Delores Antioch sitting in her stained chair and whiling away her purposeless hours watching the dead reruns of a brighter past. She had been so filled with potential, so talented, so very gifted until her life finally broke at the seams and fell apart.
What kind of wonderful woman might she have become, I mused, had she not striven to fill her soul with tinsel instead of gold?
Copyright 2000 by Phil Geusz. If you want to post this anywhere else, please ask for permission first. Thank You.
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