Dude, you’ll freak out when I tell you who I saw yesterday.
John M. Hilgendorf!
Yeah! The guy on that 60’s Western TV show crap they show at 4:00 AM on cable. Between the infomercials and Good Morning America. You know. The show that started in black and white and then went to color. What was it–Crisco? Disco?
Driscoll! That’s right. Driscoll Peden. That’s what it’s called. I saw the guy from that. No! Not the lead. Not Driscoll Peden himself. He’s dead, isn’t he? What was it? Murder? Suicide? Didn’t they have something about that on one of the biography shows a couple of weeks ago? Not that guy. The other one. The funny one. The one that was only about five feet tall. The fat guy, yeah. What was his name? Swannie? Yeah, that’s it. “We gotta heap’a trouble brewin’ Marshall Driscoll! A heap’a trouble!” Yeah! That guy. I thought he was dead, too.
Here’s the thing. He wanted me to pay for an autograph. I’m serious! I asked him to sign a napkin–you know, so people would know I’d seen him. And that’s what he said. I only do my autograph at autograph shows. Where people pay $20.00 to get in and I get a percentage. As if I’d pay for shit like that! Do you believe the nerve of some people? What an asshole!
* * *
A click. Silence.
“Who is this?”
“Dad? Can you hear me?”
“I hear you.”
“Dad. It’s Ron.”
“Ron? What the hell are you calling me for?”
“Dad. . .”
“You haven’t called me in six months, Ron. Nine months maybe.”
“You call your mother?”
“I’ll bet you do. You call her every damn night, don’t you? You want to get your hands on her husband’s money. But do you call me?”
“She stayed with me, Dad.”
“Sure, she stayed with you. Susan had nothing better to do.”
“Susan wasn’t my mother. Susan was your wife before my mother.”
“Susan was your mother.”
“She wasn’t. Rachel was my mother, dad.”
“Your mother was Susan. Do you think I can’t remember who I married, you little shit? Susan was Christine’s mother.”
“Christine is Rachel’s, too, dad. Susan had Thomas, your oldest son.”
“I’m supposed to remember all these names when the three of you abandoned me? Just like the network. You abandoned me and you don’t think about me anymore.”
“That’s why I’m calling, dad.”
“Because you abandoned me?”
“Because of the network. I saw on the news they’re making a movie version of Driscoll Peden.”
“That’s what I said.”
“Are they using Swannie?”
“You should see your lawyer.”
“I don’t have a lawyer.”
“I’ll help you get one.”
“I don’t need your help.”
“Really. I don’t need your help, you little jackass. Leave me the hell alone.”
“I was just thinking. If they made a movie like that. They might pay you some money for creating the character–”
“So you can inherit it when I’ve kicked off?”
“I wouldn’t leave it to you anyway, you little son of a bitch. I’d leave it to the whore I picked up last night at a bar. You hear me? I’d leave it to her before I left it to you, you ungrateful son of a bitch. I’d bury it under a tree in the back fucking yard! I won’t leave a dime to you. Nothing! Nothing!”
* * *
Scanning channels at one in the morning.
There’s a new law in town. And that’s Driscoll Peden, U.S. Marshall.
A set of strings plays classical music. It swells. Then a steel guitar joins. An announcer. Driscoll Peden, starring Gary Lemon.
Camera dollies with Driscoll Peden, a mammoth man marching across a dusty western street. He walks through the shot and we wait, until a pudgy, frightened little man waddles into the picture. The announcer speaks again.
With John M. Hilgendorf as Swannie McGee.
Fade to black.
Fade in to a western street. Driscoll Peden marches, his eyes carefully scanning the horizon. There’s a scraping sound and, quick as lightning, he throws himself to the ground, a six-shooter in each hand, guns blazing. He catches one guy in the arm. Another in the face. A third and fourth together in the belly. A fifth, sixth and seventh in the knees, an eighth in the hip, numbers nine and ten standing back to back and one bullet goes through both of them, number eleven falls off a balcony, number twelve through a window, and a thirteenth, who unloaded his six-shooter at Driscoll, twirls and runs and Driscoll guns him down in the back.
“I always hated cowards,” says Driscoll Peden, cool as a cucumber, quick as lightning, loud as thunder, sure as rain.
“Oh, Marshal Driscoll,” says Swannie cowering in the shadows. He jumps up and down when he speaks, and substitutes W for R. “There’s a load a’trouble brewin’, Marshal Driscoll! A load a’trouble!”
“No,” says Driscoll Peden, rising and brushing away the dust. “The trouble’s all gone now, Swannie. Just remember. Good always wins.”
Swannie smiles, wiping his brow.
“You’re right, Marshal Driscoll. Good always wins!”
Fade to black.
* * *
“KLMN television. How may I help you?”
“I want my money for the show.”
“I’m Swannie McGee.”
“Swannie McGee is a fictitious character, sir.”
“I know that. I’m John M. Hilgendorf, the actor who played him, you blithering idiot! And I didn’t make the show for you. I made it for NBC from 1960-1968. But not for KLMN.”
“Right. But it’s the new thing on cable TV.”
“Reruns. We don’t produce new shows ourselves, you see. We leave it to the major networks. We just buy old episodes of the show and play them during the day.”
“But I’m not getting my cut.”
“That’s not my problem, Mr. Hilgendorf.”
“The hell it isn’t! I demand my fair cut!”
“Does your contract mention reruns?
“I didn’t think so. Perhaps you should’ve thought of this before you signed.”
“Thought of it? Who the fuck heard of reruns?”
“That’s not my fault.”
“If you don’t pay me for those shows, I’m going to burn down your fucking station and all the tapes you’ve got inside it.”
“Is that a threat?”?
“You’re damned right it’s a threat, you son of a bitch! You’re stealing from me!”
“I’m calling the police, sir.”
“You call the fucking police! You hear me? I’ll sue you bastards. Every one of you! Every fucking one of you! You hear me? Do you hear me?”
* * *
“Just let me read.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hilgendorf. You’re not right for the part.”
“What do you mean, I’m not right for the part? Tough talking wise guy that shoots his mouth when he gets in trouble. Sounds exactly like me!”
“Look! I need a paycheck here!”
“I understand that.”
“You think I can’t do anything else but Swannie?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Just give me a chance, here.”
“It’s a mobster series, Mr. Hilgendorf. You’re just not right for–”
“I’m fucking perfect for it, you cocksucker! I didn’t just get to Hollywood, you know. I’ve been around the block, baby. About three or four dozen times. So what the hell’s going on? Am I blacklisted? It’s not nineteen fucking fifty, you know. There’s no Senator fucking McCarthy breathing down your neck.”
“We can’t run the risk.”
“The risk of being associated with Driscoll Peden.”
“I didn’t do it!”
“We know that, Mr. Hilgendorf.”
“I didn’t do nothing! That bitch came up to me at a party and I didn’t do jack shit. It was all Gary Lemon. So why are you blackballing me for Gary Lemon!?”
“Screw the public!”
“Mr. Hilgendorf. The public is outraged by the whole Gary Lemon affair. We can’t afford to have that stigma associated with this show. I’m sorry, Mr. Hilgendorf. I’m sure you’d be a wonderful tough-talking mobster. Honestly, you were on my mind when I created the role. But the network–”
“The whole fucking network?”
“The network. Says no, Mr. Hilgendorf. We can’t run the risk.”
“So what the hell am I supposed to do?”
* * *
They sit at a party, both of them, socializing with other people, paying no attention to each other. Exactly the way it is anytime they’re not shooting. John wouldn’t say ten words to a sleaze like Gary Lemon if it weren’t for work. Perfect son of a bitch with his straight fucking teeth and his dark fucking tan and his blue fucking eyes and those full fucking lips. John’s an Everyman. Every man’s nightmare. Five feet two and one half inches tall–on tiptoes. Can’t shake that extra ten pounds to get down to 250. Thinning hair. Fishhook nose. God’s joke on mankind. But John has the last laugh. Oh, sure, Gary Lemon may get all the ladies. Every fucking one of the ladies. Two and three in a night sometimes. But John has the catch-phrase. It’s John they remember from the show. Take that you son of a bitch.
Oh, there’s a heap’a trouble brewin’ Gary Lemon! A heap’a trouble, you son of a bitch. A heap’a trouble!
There’s a girl eyeing him. Eighteen? Nineteen? Young and tender. Soft. Maybe even a virgin, trying to look tough. She wears a Goldie Hawn cut and a miniskirt just below her thighs, and she bends over a little so John can see down her top. He’s next to her instantly, touching the side of her arm. Hi, he says. Hi, she says. Are you in that show? Yes. You’re the guy that says heap’a trouble, aren’t you? Yes. You know the guy who plays Driscoll Peden? Yes? Do you think you could introduce me to him?
His stomach burns. He grips his vodka so tight he thinks he’ll shatter the glass. He wants to smack her across the face. Instead, he says, what do you want with a guy like that? He’s a real son of a bitch, and she looks him up and down and says quite bluntly, it’s because I’m in love with him, and John says, love, I’ll show you love, baby, and she slaps him across the face and moves to the other end of the house and doesn’t make eye contact with him the rest of the night. He watches her maneuver the party like a snake, slithering past guests, lurking in the shadows, until Gary Lemon, having pried himself loose from the girl that had been on his shoulder, makes his way to the bar. John watches her appear in front of Gary, toss her hair, bend down a little so he gets a view of the grand prize. She touches his hand, then leans into him and rubs herself against his chest. Gary touches her back. The girl he’d been with tries to join, but Gary shakes her off. John reads her body language. Asshole, she says. Bitch, she says to the girl. But Gary doesn’t listen. He takes the girl’s hand and they walk right past John M. Hilgendorf where he stands, alone, at the foot of the stairs, nursing a drink. She glances at him for an instant, a smile creeping over her face. He can hear her in his mind. I got it, she says. I didn’t need your help, you fat little man. I got what I wanted. Now go to hell.
* * *
“So, what’s your name?” asks John, watching as the bartender pours gives the girl a martini and takes his ten.
“Rachel,” she says, tossing back her black hair.
“Call me by my real name. John.”
“I prefer Swannie.”
“Swannie it is.”
She sips the drink and looks at him. “So, what have you done since Driscoll Peden, Swannie?” she asks.
“Oh. A little of this. A little of that.”
“Naw. Mostly stage. You know. Dinner theatres. That’s where I was tonight. You know. Shit like that.” He reaches down and touches her hand. She does not pull back.
“Well,” she says. “You should catch my act sometime.”
“Your act?” The bartender has brought him another vodka and water. He looks at her. “Where do you act?”
“The Pink Bunny,” she says, sipping her drink.
“Really? And where’s that?”
“On fifth street.”
“Well,” he says. “Maybe I’ll catch your act next time I’m in town.”
She moves closer to him. He feels a little burning sensation in his stomach. Maybe it’s sexual excitement. It’s been so long he doesn’t remember. Susan never touches me, he thinks. Never lets me touch her at all. Not since she got pregnant. Hell, he thinks. It’s been a whole gestation period since I’ve fucking got it up. Now? Now he’s got it up. Maybe the stomach burn goes with it. Now he’s touching this girl’s ass. And she likes it. She wants more.
“You married?” she asks.
“No,” he lies. “You?”
“No,” she says.
He leans back and looks her up and down. “You know,” he says. “Maybe I can see your act tonight.”
She smiles. “I don’t perform tonight.”
“What about a command performance,” he says. “For an audience of one.”
They sit and look at each other for a long, long time.
* * *
We begin this evening with a major breaking story from Hollywood. TV’s Driscoll Peden, actor Gary Lemon, was arrested this morning in connection with the death of a young woman, Lisa Tye.
Policeman: The girl died of an apparent overdose of barbiturates. We found her in Mr. Lemon’s home this morning at nine O’clock, after a maid discovered Mr. Lemon and the girl passed out in his living room.
Was there evidence of sexual relations?
And how old was the victim?
The victim, Lisa Tye, was sixteen years old.
The Hollywood community is shocked at the news of Lemon and his alleged sexual relations with an underage child. The backlash this morning has been the most extreme since silent film star, Clarence Fatty Arbuckle was charged with similar sexual crimes.
A Director: It is my guess that Mr. Lemon, if he escapes prison time for having sex with a minor will never work again.
The fate of the popular Driscoll Peden series is still undetermined. Reporting from Hollywood, this is Daniel S. Moore.
* * *
“What are you calling me for?”
“I need some help.”
“I’m serious, John.”
“Me, too. You fucking killed my career, Gary.”
“Your career? I killed my life, John! My whole fucking life!”
“Give me one good reason to help you.”
“Pals? You ever say two words to me off the set, you son of a bitch? No. You were afraid I’d get in the way of you and your women.”
“You sent me that girl.”
“You knew how old she was.”
“What if I did?. I didn’t tell you to go poke her up the ass.”
“You’ve fucked my career, asshole! And you know how it feels? It feels good! Cuz I know, no matter how down I am, I’ll never be you, you son of a bitch! You hear me? I’ll never be you!”
* * *
My first memory of my father was on TV one afternoon, right after cartoons, when the cable station switched to reruns. This black and white half-hour western came on, and as soon as they announced the name, Mom stormed into the room and snatched me up from my place in front of the TV and growled, go play outside.
So that’s when I decided I had to watch the show.
I’d sneak back into the house after mom sent me outside, and then I’d turn on the TV real low. I thought I was seeing something dirty at first. You know. When your mom tells you not to watch something, it’s got to be something good. Something dirty. But it wasn’t that way at all.
The first time she caught me I was lying in the middle of the floor trying to figure out what was so bad about a gunfighter (I’d seen a hundred gunfighters) and his fat partner and mom walked in from the kitchen and realized the show was on. She said, “son of a bitch.” I remember that because I said “bastard” about three weeks before and she made me wash out my mouth with soap. So that night, before we went to bed, we washed her mouth out, too.
And she said to me, “Thomas. That man on TV is your father.”
I spent the night wondering how mother got out of the TV.
Years later I saw him for the first time. At an autograph show. I didn’t know what to say–what to do. He was there with all the sixties sitcom stars, you know, all the people you grew up watching on TV, your idols. But there weren’t very many people around his table. I waited until just before things shut down–I wanted to see him alone. To talk to him. To tell him, hey. Dad. I’m Thomas. You remember? Thomas. The kid who never once got a birthday card. Never once got a phone call on a holiday. Never once got so much as an acknowledgement of my existence. I’d wondered for years what I did to cause it. What did I do that was so bad? Took me six years of therapy to realize it. It wasn’t me. I didn’t do anything. And that’s when I started wanting to kill him. I wanted to stand up in front of the son of a bitch and pull him up by his lapel. Just stand him up in front of me and say, hello, dad. I’m the son you forgot about. And then I’d smash his face–smash that nose, those eyes. Kick him in his fat-ass belly. Pop him a couple of times in the ribs. Crush a vertebrae. But when I stood there. Stood there looking at that fat, balding old man, painting a plaster smile and speaking like Swannie McGee because they paid him money to do it–the only money the poor old buzzard could manage–when I saw him there. I just walked up and touched him on the shoulder.
“I’m your biggest fan,” I whispered.
* * *
“What’s this?” Susan asks, pulling the shirt from John’s bag.
“This.” She points to a lipstick stain around the collar.
“Guess you didn’t get it cleaned,” says John.
“That’s not my lipstick.”
“I only wear Pink Ice,” she says, waving the shirt in his face. “Does this look like Pink Ice to you!” She’s waken up the baby. It wails in the next room.
“Shit,” says John.
“Did you sleep with someone on the road?”
“I said no!”
“Then what is this lipstick doing on your collar?”
A long pause. “I haven’t slept with her yet,” says John. Susan stays silent, looking at him. “There’s a show opening in Phoenix,” he says. “They want me in Music Man at a Summer Repertory.”
“Is she meeting you there?”
Another silence. “I’ve got to take the job,” he says, finally. “We’re fucking broke. If I don’t take the job we’re not gonna have enough to feed the kid.”
She’s crying. John watches her, feeling the burning sensation in his stomach–that same burning sensation he had at the party. The same one he had at the audition. The same one he’ll have in six weeks in Phoenix when they carry him off the stage with a heart attack and he has bypass.
And it’s Rachel, not Susan, who will be at his side.
* * *
“What do you mean, canceled?”
“They’ve decided not to renew the show.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do now?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Hilgendorf.”
“I mean. Can’t you find someone to take Gary’s place?”
“The network says no.”
“Find another network.”
“Nobody will sponsor you.”
“Then get me my own series. The Swannie McGee show.”
“You want to stay associated with the character?”
“Why not? It’s brought me fame so far, hasn’t it?”
“There’s a chance it could–”
“Chance it could what? Fold and leave me out on my ass without work? What the hell do you think has just happened, you jackass? I’ve got a new wife I’m keeping care of here. Work with me, asshole. What kind of agent are you? This gig gets the heave-ho, you find me another gig. I won’t ask again. Find it for me, or I’ll find someone else.”
“Maybe that’s what needs to happen, John. Maybe you need to find someone else.”
* * *
On tonight’s episode of “TV Story,” we examine the amazing comeback of TV’s favorite Marshal, Gary Lemon.
Lemon: I did some bad things in the past, for which I am truly sorry.
And Lemon’s first role in thirty years, a critically acclaimed appearance in the independent film, Zoo Animals.
Zoo Animal’s Director: You know–I was crazy about Driscoll Peden. Man. I wanted to be Driscoll Peden. So when I saw Gary Lemon, like, lived in my hometown in Nebraska, I just called him on the phone and asked if he wanted a part and stuff. ?
And what a part. Gary Lemon plays a crusty old man willing to conquer his past. And some critics think he just might convert this role into an Academy Award.
Lemon: The past is the past. I’m ashamed of what I did. But I feel like I’ve paid my dues, and this is God’s way of opening a long-shut door and giving me back what I deserve.
Lemon: Yes. God.
Gary Lemon’s life is dominated by God. Last year he became a born-again Christian.
Zoo Animals Director: When I realized he’d repented–man. I knew he had to be a part of my project. I mean, the guy’s an icon, you know? The guy’s a national treasure. Why would we take away this guy’s right to get work anyway?
* * *
Who? Oh. Swannie. Right. Well, Mr. Hilgendorf. I don’t know. We usually approach the people we’re going to interview on TV Story. Well, there was a public demand for a story on Gary Lemon. He’s starring in a popular film right now. Right. But Mr. Hilgendorf–I don’t mean to be rude, but you haven’t done anything. Hmm. No, I don’t think the public would be interested in what you’re doing now. They don’t like shows like that. They’re looking for tragedy, you know. Murder. Suicide. Cancer. Things like that. That gets the ratings going, but a story like yours. . . I see. A tragedy. In what way, Mr. Hilgendorf? Uh huh. Well, Mr. Hilgendorf–forgive my being so blunt. But have you ever wondered if maybe you don’t get work because you’re not a very good actor?
Same to you, Mr. Hilgendorf. And I always hated Swannie McGee anyway.
* * *
She plans to surprise him in Buffalo. She’s brought the kids and everything, packed them on a plane and brought them down to surprise Daddy on closing night of Guys and Dolls. She’ll open the door to his hotel and find him asleep, poor thing, and then they’ll take the kids to Niagara Falls tomorrow before they all fly home and he waits a week before rehearsals for Man of LaMancha start at the dinner theatre in Philadelphia. The kids aren’t old. Christie holds her hand and walks–baby steps, down the hall. Ronald scouts ahead, counting the numbers on the doors as he runs. “Room 518! Five twenty! Five twenty two! Here it is, Mom! Five twenty two!”
“Shhhhh,” she says. She pulls out the key they gave her at the desk–the little man behind the desk kept asking--you are Mrs. Hilgendorf? You’re sure? before giving her the key but now she has it and she’s slipping it in the door and Ronald races inside and shouts “Daddy!”
She finds her husband groggy, his face ashen as he covers the naked woman by his side.
“Daddy!” screams Ronald.
She doesn’t move. Ronald turns to his mother and she yanks him by the arm, then her eyes meet John’s. There’s a moment of silence.
“John?” the woman asks. “What the hell is going on?”
“Nothing,” Rachel says. Then she pulls the children out and shuts the door.
* * *
“I wanna be converted,” John M. Hilgendorf says to the man standing at the door to First Baptist Church. He feels a little queasy as he stands there, scanning the man’s dark brown eyes. The man smiles a bit, and stretches out a hand. He smells like Old Spice Aftershave.
“What did you say, Brother?” he asks.
“I’m not your brother,” says John. “Do I look like your brother?” Oops. Too aggressive, he thinks. Don’t piss the old fart off. He pauses and licks his lips, then looks around to make sure someone is watching. “I want to be converted,” he says.
“Halleluiah,” says the man. “And what brought you to this wonderful state?”
John fidgets. “Uh,” he says, thinking. “It’s the only thing I haven’t tried.”
The man frowns. “I beg your pardon?” he says.
“Uh. I’ve tried all this other shit and it isn’t working.”
“Trying to erase the guilt?” asks the man.
“Yeah. That stuff. Whatever.”
“So you want to try conversion?”
John fidgets again. “Sure.”
“Do you most heartily repent of your sins?”
“Is that what I’ve gotta do?”
“Then, yeah. What you said.”
“Halleluiah,” says the man.
* * *
“I’ve converted,” John says over the phone. He waits for a response. “You hear me?” he asks.
“I hear you.” The voice still sounds like Gary–just a lot older and more unsure. There’s a long pause. “So what do you want me to say?”
John hesitates. “Say–I dunno. Say you’re proud for me.”
A pause. “I’m proud for you.”
“Say you’ll help me.”
“Help you what?”
“Walk in the way of the Lord.”
Another pause. “I’m not sure I’m the right person to do that–”
“Help me meet this director kid,” says John, blurting it out. “I’ve paid my dues, Gary. I’ve played fucking dinner theatres and summer stock for thirty years. I need a break.”
There’s another long pause. Then, in a soft voice, barely perceptible, Gary snarls, “Fuck off, you freeloader.”
“What was that?”
“You son of a bitch. You haven’t called me in since the show died. What the fuck are you doing calling me now?”
John digs his fingers into his glass of vodka. “You’re a fake,” he hisses. “You didn’t convert to anything.”
“Neither did you, you freeloading son of a bitch!”
He swigs his drink and rises, as if Gary can see him through the phone. Then, mustering kindness, he tries again. “Gary,” he pleads. “You broke me, pal. I need a freaking favor here, buddy. I’m getting thrown out of everything. I ain’t got no insurance. I got shit eating me up from the insides, Gary! I gotta have a job so I can keep my house–my shack, Gary! I live in a freaking shack. Can’t you help me?”
There’s a long, deadly pause.
“Go to hell,” says Gary Lemon.
John hurls his vodka glass into a mirror.
* * *
So, you’ll never guess who I saw last night. The fat guy from Driscoll Pedan! And you know what that loser was doing? He was sitting in a bar, about ten shot glasses spread around him, and he was signing autographs for shots! I’m serious! And worse. If you gave him a couple of bucks, he’d pull his hat halfway to his ears, you know, the way he wore it on the Driscoll Pedan show, and he’d do Swannie McGee at the top of his lungs. It was a great laugh! So I’m talking to this guy and watching him for about an hour last night. And he’s bumming cigarettes and taking hits of vodka for his signature, and finally he turns to me and he says, “hey, buddy. I need a place to sleep tonight. You got a room?” Can you believe it? And I says, sure I’ve got a room, old man. If you suck my dick. And you know what? He says he’ll suck it for fifty dollars! Yeah! I got my dick sucked by a TV star! And after I done my business, he looks at me and says, “I’ve converted.” And I said, you’ve come out of the closet? And he says, “no, I’ve converted. You know. I got religion. So if you can just tell one of those directors or producers out there I need a job or something.” So I say I’ll tell him, and he says, “I gave them the best years of my life and they turned their back on me, those sons of bitches,” and stuff like that, and talking to himself until I get kind of scared. So I give him the fifty and start back inside and he staggers down the street like he’s just got a starring role or something. And as I watch him stagger away, I’m thinking, damn. That’s Swannie McGee walking down there. You know what I’m saying, man? It freaks me out when I think about it. Freaks me out.