by Olivia Buzzacco
He looks like a god up there, and all you want to do is burn the place down. Burn it all down because it’s making you want to scream—his voice, his stature, his karate moves. He’s kicking and throwing his guitar around and everyone wants to lose their virginity to him. He’s a mess. You can see that. But can everyone else? He’s turning into a beautiful disaster, and will likely be dead in a few years.
“Just one, thank you.” The waiter snakes his way between the round tables to lead you to a seat. Yeah. This will do just fine. You pull out your cigarettes and begin to smoke, unnoticed by everyone else at the table. Being unnoticed is good. It’s what John Wilkes Booth did at Our American Cousin. You’ve read it a thousand times in different books. It’s your favorite thing to read about. You flip through the books to look for the pictures of the box in which Lincoln was shot in the head. It doesn’t feel real seeing it, but you know it has to be real. Just like this moment in Vegas. Look at you, you charismatic John Wilkes Booth. Look at you.
“I’m from the South. I bet some of you have never been down South before,” he says to the audience. The steady beat increases the more he talks. People scream—it’s their way of saying they know what the next song is. You don’t know what the next song is, and you don’t care. You have been down South before, and you know where exactly he’s talking about. It’s where you met your wife, Ava, seventeen years ago.
“What brings you out this way?” I continue to suck at my milkshake that Rick buys me after work at The Red Top, the local diner in town. It’s the middle of June, and the Georgia heat settles nicely outside. I’ve stopped crying. My eyes are burning; the shake feels like it’s helping, or maybe it’s this guy Rick. He’s real square—fairly tall, his hair combed like he’s on business. Probably an Ivy Leaguer. He has to be at least five years older than me.
“I was visiting some old pals from college,” he says. “I had a week’s vacation. It’s real pretty out here. How long have you worked here, doll?”
I look down at my shake. “Only a couple of months. I wanted to go to school or something, but I don’t have that kinda bread.” My answers feel stupid. I feel stupid, but he is so nice, with his dancing eyes and movie-star smile.
“Now why all the tears?” he asks me. “Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad, now can it?” I smile a little. This guy is real into me. He could give me everything I wanted. I feel better.
“No,” I bat my eyes. “I guess not.”
The girl sitting next to you is losing her mind. She has to be what, eighteen? Her friends force her to stand up and shove her towards the stage. Now they’re all begging for attention from the god, the master, the royal. They just want to be kissed. He notices the girls and takes the crazy one by the hand, and takes her whole life too as he tries to ask her what she wants to hear. He’s trembling, she’s sobbing her heart out, so he gives her the kiss she’s been dreaming about and saving up for for twenty years. It’s the ugliest thing you’ve ever seen.
He’s fifty miles high and he’s not coming back down anymore. He’s never felt more alive. Everyone believes they’re feeding him with screams and applause, but you know it’s just the drugs. Demerol. Morphine. Valium. He has his sources, his people, his hookups. He can have anything he wants.
He’s kissed so many girls tonight that he doesn’t know where he is anymore. They love him for his body, his moves, his hair, his gospel voice. Praise be Jesus the Lord. Glory, glory hallelujah. But Jesus hates him, God won’t ever let him into Heaven. He can sing all the church hymns he wants, but Jesus won’t forgive him for everything he’s done. His daughter turned seventeen this year and he’s nothing but a swine, with all the drugs he’s done and women he’s been with, the girls he keeps kissing all night because he knows he’s the greatest. His wife isn’t much better.
I take the next flight out to California after putting Lolita to bed. She falls asleep almost immediately—our trip to the beach wore her out. I don’t want her to wake up and ask questions, so I glide through the house in my socks, trying to get out as quickly as I can. Rick will be home in twenty minutes, so I need to move fast. I won’t need my clothes or my jewelry in California. I throw my wedding ring down the kitchen sink. I take the money out of Rick’s shirt drawer, pad over to the front door, slip into my shoes, and leave.
He called me an hour ago, drunk. He said he had hit the big time in California. He was a singer now. An actor. Famous. The idea of it glittered in my mind.
He begged me to come out to California, and said the girls out there were nothing compared to the ones in Georgia. He wanted to pick up where we left off. He promised me a life of fame in the movies. He said he’d buy me all the diamonds I wanted. I told him over the phone I’d be there tomorrow.
“I love you,” he whined into the phone. “I love you so much, pretty girl.”
Pretty girl. I missed that.
You go through Lolita’s room when she’s not around. Her nightstand contains dried-up prom corsages and necklaces of keys. Stray stamps, paperclips, and discarded photos from her camera sit there innocently. Blink. Blink again. The view from her window is beautiful, you promised her the prettiest view in the house, the laciest curtains and the fluffiest bedspreads. She loved it as a little girl, and who’s to say what she thinks of it now.
Lolita’s walls are plagued with his records and movie posters. It’s every other girl’s obsession. You don’t know where she’s getting all this stuff. Probably from her mother. Lolita is out right now with her friends—one of his movies, you’re sure. He puts out four a year, and two records on the side. Busy, busy bumblebee. If Lolita wasn’t stowed away in her room, her ears drenched in his music, she was out filling her eyes with his movies with her friends.
Lolita loved her mother when she was little. Ava would put her in dresses, comb her hair, make her look pretty. She would take her to the beach to see the ocean and feed the gulls. You never went. You weren’t invited. You worked all day to feed and take care of them. Ava and little Lolita were two peas in a pod. Ava got pregnant with Lolita when she was eighteen and still working in the diner. You get Ava to agree to move closer to the coast, as your job is promising and you want to keep Ava in your life. Lolita will be born on the coast, and grow up on the coast. You give Ava and Lolita everything they could ever want. At twenty Ava is gone trying to conquer Hollywood, leaving you with little Lolita.
The needle keeps spinning. She keeps the 45’s going. Her friends can’t get enough of “One Night.”
“Isn’t he a dream?” Cassandra sighs, staring at the posters on Lolita’s walls, the bright colors of his shirts printed neatly on each poster. His perfectly crafted hair, his luring sneers.
Joanie flips through the records on the floor. “I wonder what it would be like to meet him, face-to-face, you know?”
“Do you think he’s married?” Cassandra wonders aloud. “Do you think he has kids?”
“Not in a million years,” Lolita says. “He’s too famous to have a family. He’d never be able to see them.”
“I wouldn’t care,” Margot says from the other end of the room. “If I was his wife, I’d have everything I ever wanted. I’d let him sing all day, and hold me tight when we go to bed.”
“He’d sing me to sleep every night,” Joanie says.
“Wouldn’t that be something, Lita?” Margot asks. “To have him sing to you every night?”
“Yeah,” Lolita says. “It sure would be.”
Ava writes now and then to see how you are. She’s trying to still care. Greetings from Los Angeles, how is Lolita? Hope to hear from you soon. Love, Ava. You never answer her letters or postcards, and burn them after reading them.
You remember the day you stopped into The Red Top all those years ago. It was almost closing time, and you found yourself not being able to focus on the menu, only the waitress in the corner booth, head on the table, sobbing. It bothered you. Another waitress goes over to the poor girl and says something. She helps her up and she goes to your table. Her nametag reads Ava. Her green eyes avoid yours.
“What can I get you, sir?”
He goes to my high school. He’s been crazy for me since we were thirteen. I tried not to show I was crazy for him, but I’m no late bloomer, so we started going steady ever since. He knew all the greatest pick-up lines that could make me blush like no one else. He’s a charmer. Everyone knows we’re a thing. He picks me up most nights and we hit up the town. He flirts with me over my ice cream at the parlor, holds me close at the drive-in, sings me Eddie Fisher hits at the record shops, and we dance all night at the sock-hops. He gave me his letterman jacket, and I wear it everywhere. He’s a dream.
There are never any questions, any suspicions. I know we’re perfect. He calls me “pretty girl,” buys me orchids, and saves his serenades for me in the moonlight. He has the perfect voice that fills my heart and head. His eyes come alive at night, glimmering the same way his dark hair does. He knows all the spots for necking and petting, where he promises me a life together—a ranch home on a farm in Montana, our adorable children, blessed with his dark hair and my green eyes.
He wants to marry me, and I want to marry him, and we don’t want to be kids anymore. Our teachers and pastors show video after video about why teens shouldn’t have sex, showing us awful pictures of girls and guys with diseases, asking us if we really want a baby at the age of seventeen. It was meant to scare us into keeping our promises to stay virgins until our wedding days. But I didn’t listen. We make love after graduation day is over. My parents found out shortly after and kept me in the house for days.
When I find out I’m pregnant, I rush to his house and tell him the news. I’m scared but excited, caught up in my own dreams and fantasies. I gush about how we can leave for Montana tonight and get married and start a family.
“Won’t it be wonderful?” I say to him. His face changes, and he steps back.
“Now, wait a minute, pretty girl. I don’t think I’m ready for all that just yet.”
We go back and forth on his front porch, his parents occasionally peering through the windows, saying something to one another. He tells me he’s sorry and shuts the door.
I go on to wait tables at The Red Top; he works at a factory. He makes steel, turns eighteen, and tells his buddies he wants to make records; I make tips, stay underage, and tell my customers I’m twenty and happily married. I don’t want to lie, but my mother makes me do it for her own sake. It feels like my whole life is over. I know he’s forgotten all about me, and I try to forget about him. He’s never around anymore, so I work longer hours to take my mind off of him, but it’s a bummer and I struggle to get through work.
And then I meet Rick.
The Entertainer, 1955
“You told me to come back. So here I am.”
He didn’t know how Ava got his number, and he didn’t remember telling her to come back. His manager walks in the room, a group of people following close behind.
“Okay,” he tries to think, “I can send a car out.”
“Not necessary.” She talks quick. She always did. “I’ve already got one.”
He pauses. He doesn’t know what to say.
“I missed you.” And he did. That wasn’t a lie.
“We have a lot to catch up on.”
“I have to be on the set in ten minutes.” That was a lie.
“I’ll be there soon.”
She hangs up. His manager takes the phone out of his hand and sets it back down. It starts ringing almost instantly, and his manager answers it while the group of people swarm about, getting too close to his chair, his face, his life.
Lolita always asks about her mother.
“What was she like?”
“She was nice. Very pretty, just like you.”
“Where did she go?”
To be with her high school lover. A singer. An actor. Someone better than yourself, more successful.
“She went far away, she has something to do.”
“Will she ever come back?”
Not in a million years.
“Yes. She will be back any day now.”
“You won’t leave me, will you daddy?”
“Never,” you say and pull her into a hug. You try to keep Lolita’s hopes up when she asks about Ava. You’re good at acting, just like John Wilkes Booth. You love your daughter. She’s all you have left.
The Entertainer, 1955
He’s a busy guy, everyone knows that. But when his manager, Allan, starts talking to the group of people about upcoming projects, he abandons all his plans and leaves the hotel room, looking for Ava. She said she’d be there, but he doesn’t know what she meant.
His heart is racing. He hasn’t felt this way since he last saw her in high school.
He goes down to the lobby, a bad idea. Everyone flocks to him, talking at a hundred miles an hour and shoving paper and pens into his hand. He’s still searching for her, but there are too many people. Joe, an actor from his latest movie, grabs hold of him.
“Let me help ya out,” Joe says and gets him away from the swarm of people, shoving him into an elevator. The doors close. “You can’t come running out here like that. I thought ya knew better than that.”
“I was looking for someone.” He starts pushing buttons. “We gotta get back down there.”
“A girl?” Joe asks. “Relax. They just sent her up to your room. She said she was Ava and you went steady in high school.”
He’s still pushing buttons. He can’t make sense of anything. Everything is filling up his head too quickly, as it usually does.
It registers in his head for a moment. “Ava?”
“Sure,” Joe continues, “but in my opinion, I think she’s just using it to see you. Girls, ya know. She seemed real serious. Lovers in high school. Cute, isn’t it?”
When Lolita is a year old, Rick approaches me in the bedroom. My skin is cool to the touch and still damp from my bath. I’m untangling my hair with my fingers. He looks worn out.
“Bad day at work?” I ask. Rick doesn’t answer. I turn around to look at him; he’s staring right at me. I can’t read his eyes.
“We need to talk about Lolita.” He’s shaking and clearly upset.
He knows. I can tell he knows. I don’t know how he knows, but he knows. I play along.
“Why?” I turn away from him, but Rick grabs me by the wrist, squeezing too hard, lifting me off the bed and practically throwing me against the wall. He is going to hurt me.
“She’s his, isn’t she?” he gets right in my face. “She’s his.” I feign fear and keep going.
“Don’t lie to me Ava.” Rick won’t let me go. I can hear Lolita stir in the other room.
“She’s yours, Rick.” I almost spit in his face. “She’s yours.” I try to plan out my escape for if he hits me. But Rick pulls me into a hug and kisses me on the cheek. It’s over.
“I’m sorry, love,” he says. “I love you.”
I say I love him too.
You stand up and leave The International on what you think is his last number, weaving your way through the tables and out the door. The lobby is packed full of the press. They ignore you; you’re a nobody.
You head for the entrance, snatching a head bust of Abraham Lincoln sitting on a coffee table by the entrance. No one follows you. They aren’t here for you, and you know Ava isn’t around either.
It will take a couple minutes to reach the back of the hotel, but you have time. The limo you’re expecting is there. The driver is leaning up against the passenger door, smoking.
It takes four hours to get from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, but only an hour by plane. You imagine Ava wandering around his house, probably in a robe. Maybe naked.
The Entertainer, 1955
“That’s the girl right there,” Joe says after the elevator doors open.
Ava looks at him and walks over. He tries to speed up a little, tries to compose himself. There’s no stopping now. He grabs her tight into a hug and buries his face into her warm hair. No one speaks for what seems like hours.
“Hey, pretty girl,” he looks at Ava. She’s the same beautiful girl she was in Georgia.
“You haven’t changed a bit.”
He lets her go and doesn’t know what to say next. He wants to fly back to Georgia and forget everything here.
“Is this your room?” Ava asks, reaching for the handle. He panics. Everyone is in his suite. They’ll ask questions.
“I don’t think you want to go in there just yet. They’re in a meeting about upcoming productions. It’s a real mess.” He tries to stop her.
“Upcoming productions?” She smiles, the same old flirt. “How exciting. This is a suite, isn’t it? Only the best for young stars.” She opens the door and waltzes in, stopping when she sees Allan and the others, who are all staring at her. Ava turns back to him.
“My, my. You really did hit the big time, didn’t you?” Ava pretends to not notice everyone else in the room and heads for the balcony.
“Who’s this?” Allan asks.
He doesn’t know what to say. Ava turns around and walks up to Allan, extending her hand.
“I’m his girlfriend. Call me Ava. And you can tell the press that.”
It was rumored that Ava loved him. The papers were all about it, printing story after story about the two of them.
It was just a rumor.
The pictures showed them squinting together in the flashes of all the cameras, both in white, her head covered in fur.
It was just a rumor.
The videos they had on television showed them walking together, holding hands, looking cute, not wanting to talk to anyone.
It was just a rumor.
I decide to call Rick. He has to be worried, or something.
“You left.” He sounds hurt. I can’t really tell.
“Yes I did.”
“Where are you?”
I look out the window of the hotel suite. “Far away.”
Rick doesn’t answer. He knows where I am.
“And what about Lolita?” he asks me.
My car will be here soon. I’m in need of new dresses.
You answer the phone at home. Lolita is in her room, listening to his records, flipping through catalogs, looking for things she might want for her 17th birthday next week.
“We think it’s time Lolita came and stayed with us for a while.”
“Why now?” is all you can manage.
“She’s a young lady now. I think she’s old enough to understand everything, and meet her father.”
It makes sense now.
Your heart has misplaced itself and you can’t feel the phone in your hand anymore. The world spins. She’s your little girl and all you have left. She’s not even yours. There’s nothing left of you now.
“You knew this whole time, don’t kid yourself Rick,” she says to you. “Anyways, he’s been wanting to meet her for years, so now is the time.”
You tell Ava no, and that Lolita is technically, legally, your daughter. That’s all you can say. She tries to argue with you, threatening you with lawsuits, and you’re losing, but you can’t let this happen. You hang up. Ava calls again and again, so you unplug the phone.
You hear he’s having a show tomorrow at a hotel in Las Vegas.
She walks around the house to look.
The phone is on the floor. Unplugged.
She plugs it back in.
You pull out a cigarette and ask the limo driver for a light. He nods and fumbles for his lighter in his coat pocket. You keep Lincoln behind your back, so he can’t see the show you’re about to put on. It won’t be as great as Our American Cousin, but it’ll be fun nonetheless.
“Some place, ain’t it?” the driver says to you. “I was never one for all the lights n’ girls. All this silly big life stuff.”
You agree with him.
“So what do you do, then? Are you his roadie or somethin’?”
You say he can call it that.
“I gotcha. Do you get him all his ‘stuff,’ ya know what I’m sayin’? He’s just got pounds of all kinds—”
You quickly bludgeon him unconscious with Lincoln. He falls limp in your arms. Very good. No one’s around, surprise, surprise. You wonder if John Wilkes Booth was ever this conniving. He must have been. You snatch the keys from his back pocket and throw him into the limo. He should be out for a while.
I sit in his million-dollar mansion in California, overlooking the beach in all of its inky darkness. I pick up the phone and dial the same number I’ve been dialing all day.
“Damn it.” I slam down the phone again. No one’s answered all day. I can’t imagine where Rick could be. He is usually home by now.
I pull out a cigarette and struggle to light it. I try to relax, but my anger keeps shaking me inside and out. My hands won’t stop shaking, so I fling the lighter to the floor and crumple the cigarette in my hand. Fuck it. I pick up the phone again. This time he answers, but I don’t let him say anything and begin speaking immediately.
“Rick. I don’t know what you’ve been doing all day, but we need to talk. It’s not me, but…no. No. It’s both of us. We want our daughter back—”
“Mom?” A voice I don’t know. It’s her. It’s Lolita.
The Entertainer, 1970
He finishes doing his hair and someone brings him his obnoxious costume for the night’s performance. He takes off his silk shirt, undoes his pants, and slips it all on. The shoes are on the floor next to him.
He looks at himself in the mirror. His gut is starting to show. He promises himself that he’ll work it off later. He looks like a god. He rolls his head and shakes out his arms. Nothing to be nervous about, he tries to remind himself. He’s done this stuff before. It’s just been a long time, that’s all.
“Hey, you ready in there? It’s time.” A voice calls from the other side of the door. He wants to pretend he’s getting ready for a movie, but there’s no script for him to hold. Only a microphone. He feels insecure.
“Yeah. I’m coming,” he replies. He wants to pretend he’s walking onto the set, but there’s no director. There are plenty of cameras, but no lines to speak, no pretty girls to work with.
Lolita crosses his mind.
Ever since Ava came to him that night in Georgia, he kept his unknown child out of his mind, out of his life. He knew he could never be father material, so he pushed Ava and the unborn away. After coming to California, Ava pushed marriage on him. He tried to keep her occupied with clothes, cars, jewelry, small acting roles, and travelling with him all over the States. He finally gave in, and they’ve stayed married for five years. Neither of them ever mentioned their child to one another, until Ava got bored with his showering of gifts and decided she wanted to fulfill her dream of having a family with him, so she announced it was time Lolita came to live with them.
He doesn’t want to do the show.
He opens the door and looks at the man standing before him. He’s short. He’s fat. He’s bald. Disgusting. He hopes he never looks like this guy.
“Let’s go,” says baldy and he follows him to the stage. The cameras are already flashing. Rolling. Humming. He puts on sunglasses and walks onto the stage.
“Yes, it’s me,” mother says softly. “Lolita, honey. Where’s Rick?”
“Lolita, I have something to tell you.”
She can’t breathe.
It is time.
He slides into the back of the limo with some other characters from his entourage. You slide into the driver’s seat, start the engine, and go unnoticed. Being unnoticed is good. It’s what John Wilkes Booth did at Our American Cousin. You’ve read it a thousand times in different books. It’s your favorite thing to read about. You flip through the books to look for the pictures of the box in which Lincoln was shot in the head. It doesn’t feel real seeing it, but you know it has to be real. Just like this moment in Vegas. Just like the minutes to come. You drive the limo out on the streets and never come back.
Olivia Buzzacco is from Youngstown, Ohio, and recently graduated from Bowling Green State University, majoring in Creative Writing. She has works published in Prairie Margins, in the end pretty much everything is mostly water, Electric Cereal, and Zaum.