Creative Nonfiction: Punchline by Tara Stillions Whitehead

Photo by Jeremy Bishop

I never saw him fucking boys behind the trailers like that Feldman documentary said, but then again, I didn’t see much of him when he wasn’t on set. When I saw him, he was either chain smoking near the stage door or stepping all over Cryer’s lines in rehearsals. I was long gone by the time Jones grew out of his baby cheeks and got baptized by that YouTuber. I had tried going back to assistant directing, but I was too suicidal to work. By the time the show imploded, I was 2,900 miles away, anaesthetizing myself into the belief that I would die or rewrite my story, that laughter does not require blood.

You ask me if I miss it, if I ever wonder what could have been.

I’ve lost a child before it became a child. I lost my mother before I became a woman. I lost my childhood before I became a mother.

I’ll never stop missing what has been taken from me.

There are much more fundamentally entertaining questions to ask a woman assaulted out of her career. Like, how many times a day did someone tell me to uncross my legs in video village? Or how much did they pay that PA to lick the showrunner’s seat after he’d been farting all day in the writing room? Was it as much as they paid her to drink that bottle of Tapatio? Also: how much porn did Bernie buy A. on the daily? How often did the office laugh at the total on the receipts? Would Bob Dylan care that the man who wrote his liner notes trapped me in his house, threatened me against the deadbolt? Is L.’s third wife, whom he met in a Brentwood A.A. meeting really six months younger than his daughter? Why didn’t the VP of HR respond when she was sent those emails of E saying he couldn’t believe what he had done, he was so sick, he couldn’t live without me?

We need to be asking the questions we choose not to ask because we are culpable. Like why did two barely recovering alcoholics land a multi-million dollar sitcom deal about a rapey white millionaire in active addiction? They say that if you hang around a barber shop long enough, you’ll end up with a haircut. I say that if you play the role for seven years on Prime Time TV…well, you saw what happened after Season 5. The New York hotel fiasco. The divorce. And now, the whole HIV spin-off. You know, I was there for the McCarthy-Wagner episodes. She has every right to be livid. And, my God, what about Natalie Wood?

Ask who is responsible.

Ask why we pull down the stars and emblazon them with these names.

Ask how to hold evil accountable, at whose expense we let it entertain us.

Ask for the exact cost of a laugh.

(I have the answer to that one: rampant, unpoliced complicity.)

Ask what L did when I told him what his producer had done to me.

(I have the answer to that that one, too.)

L is the man in black jeans seated on the coffin-shaped Parnian. A sick and bloodless LA sky pulses through the window behind him in this office on the seventh floor of the Burbank building. The Stratocaster he shreds when he is done berating the writers for their stupidity is stage left. Every time I see it, I think about how he dropped out of college and worked his way up from nothing through the backdoor of animation, writing, and recording the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song in one take. I think about how he will never be a famous musician like Eric Clapton, whom had dated and proposed to L’s second wife K back in the 80s.

When I tell L what happened, I omit nothing. I show him the text messages and the emails, explain about the money and the drugs. I tell him about the door, the weight of E’s body, the crying, the fear.

After a long silence, L gets up. He circles behind the desk to his chair, hesitates slightly as he passes the beloved Strat. L sits down and sighs, folds his hands and asks me, “Which department should we move you to?” As if he hadn’t known me since I was fourteen. As if he hadn’t screened my films in his Pacific Palisades home theater. As if I hadn’t been at his house when I got the call that my mother had finally fled for the pipe and the bottle. As if he wasn’t a drink away from oblivion himself.

A writer and filmmaker from Southern California now residing in Central Pennsylvania, Tara Stillions Whitehead spends most of her time chasing small humans and unteaching toxic Hollywood tropes to aspiring writers and screenwriters. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Fairy Tale Review, The Rupture, cream city review, McNeese Review, Pithead Chapel, PRISM international, and elsewhere. Her full-length collection, The Year of the Monster, is due out from Unsolicited Press in 2022, and her hybrid collection, Blood Histories, is forthcoming at Galileo Press.

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