“The Movie Star’s Secret” by William Walsh

William Walsh


A man from Heartland Plumbing surveyed my postage stamp of grass
this morning,
            searching for water, a modern-day dowser
looking for a leak in the system, any reason
why a million gallons flushed through the pipes
last month to drop a $6,522 bill in my lap.
Like all of us, he searches for the answer, but rarely
finds what he’s looking for. He keeps at it, water-witching
                        his way through a lonely job, a divining rod
of uncertainty pointing toward the heart of the matter.
God knows
man is alone, a defective
temperament walking the Earth forever.
            I followed behind the meter man, bending his ear,
kicking up dew as we wedged between the azaleas and Steed Hollies,
watching the gauge’s nervous jiggle.
I worried he may need to dig up the yard. I realized
my chatter was irritating
                  to this rebel of Virgula Divina, as Sebastian Münster
      would call him.
Muck-caked boots on the porch,
            inside, I channel-surfed—until snared by her lonesome face.

* * *

Chicago, late winter 1991,
for twenty minutes I barely noticed the woman cheering for Duke,
until her high-five on a critical Christian Laettner three-pointer,
            and perhaps because I had paid so little attention,
she found me interesting, maybe even attractive, somehow
through a shower of potato skins, burgers, and beer,
a happy hour of solitary people laying-over in a snow storm …
            … but not as isolated as the “Lone Woman of San Nicolas”
who, first discovered in 1853 by an unlikely otter hunter, died just weeks later,
or the “spider-monkey man” choosing
to be left alone, the last survivor of his anonymous Brazilian tribe.
                        Thirty miles deep, he knows there is no God
in the jungle, no woman
named Eve—he waits for a new journey.

I have been poor and lonely
most of my life, no money for the smallest bauble …
… at O’Hare I’d planned to sleep in the terminal, scrunched up
            with a duffle bag for comfort, alone with strangers
claiming a corner or tight angle of wall, a carved-out plot
of relief for the ugly who stare, singular
in laughter for the disaster in our lives.
                        It is loneliness that drives us
to make small talk
because as Mother Teresa understood The most terrible poverty
is loneliness.
                  … no one will admit
to being alone as they jabber about their hometown
and what waits for them back in Blissville.

What else do we have to travel on if not faith
that eternity holds the comfort of others.

* * *

Clapping and cheering college basketball on Saturday,
big-screen TVs scattered throughout
the airport bar, I paid no attention to this woman,
            completely disengaged
in the clean, clear lights of waitresses humping it for a good tip.
            How could I
            or anyone
have recognized the Hollywood glamour through the dark hair,
baseball cap, and rimmed glasses of disguise? How could any one
of the world’s beautiful people compete
with college basketball? One bar stool away,
she spoke first, casually—who’re you cheering for?
                  … Duke, of course.
She was visiting, returning to California
after her childhood friend’s wedding—now a school teacher
in the same high school where they kissed in the library.
She bought the first round of Hamm’s Winter Stock.

So many years have passed—my withered heart
                  has a hard time
recognizing that I’m even alone anymore—just a natural extension
            of the thickening crust—to most people I am just a stick,
a thrown rock, kicked away dirt on a shoe—she and I talked. I never considered
anyone would be interested
in anything about me.
            I think of Octavio Paz, who understood
how only man knows he is alone—
                  which must mean the other animals
each think they are a powerful God.
Still, unaware, I asked
if we went to school together—it’s possible—I once lived in Chicago
for a few laps around the calendar.
                  I had no idea
she was six months removed from a tabloid divorce, laying low
into a quiet life, her new film starting in a month.
What draws people together …
                  … some magnet of curiosity?
We like to imagine ourselves being the center
of some universe
where we can be anyone from anywhere
in our imagined lives when traveling to foreign countries
or just across town, the excitement of pretending
to be someone else …
                  … but the truth is … no one knows
or cares who we are.
I was six weeks away from meeting my wife on a blind date.

* * *

My grandfather walked his backyard with a witch-hazel branch
                  shaped like a Y, gripped loosely in each hand, bent
            as crooked as a politician.
He searched for water
the City told him didn’t exist—the well had dried
and for more money than God has they would connect him at the street.

“Billy-boy, I know there’s water here. See this!” as the divining rods x’ed
like magnets over the aquifer of Biblical proportions.

We rabbit-crossed the backyard, his nagging wife
            in tow, passed the McIntosh
and Granny Smith trees, leaf-full and sweet canopy of drooping fruit
hanging on slug branches, low enough for a boy
with a baseball bat.

* * *

She dropped a dime to her agent, “I’m staying
one more night,” then she whispered in my ear
                  her name
—removed her glasses, ball cap, shook her hair
like some wild thing
                  then quickly back on as her soft breath
brought the marquee lights alive, lifting high
in big Marilyn Monroe letters, the dazzle
and glitter of Rodeo Drive.

Isn’t this why we explore the world, to find what makes us whole?
      … another person to tumble down the hill with.

Two hours from O’Hare, she usually traveled with a bodyguard, but not at home
where family laughter echoes from the kitchen, where
she’s still her parents’ little girl, the unsophisticated
expectations of farm life, how she can walk downstairs
in her flannel pajamas, kiss her mother,
            scold her father for eating too much bacon.
Later, in the garage, pumping her bicycle tires
she rides down a gravel road to visit old friends
who work their family farm. Her sisters still tease her,
a perpetual initiation into the club of womanhood—how she dyed her hair
midnight black for the junior prom …
                        … to earn money for an acting class
she delivered sixty-four newspapers over the rambling back roads
            of cinder stone,
      seventeen miles on a second-hand Huffy
before quitting after three days.

What was I to do?
I could only smile and laugh
at my ignorance, because
            I have always been just a man
who needed a marquee sign the size of the HOLLYWOOD billboard
or a woman standing naked in front of me
to understand my next move.

                  I’d seen most of her movies
because she’s the kind of woman men desire …
                  … but fear
talking to—there’s no way
to compete with whatever is out there
in her other world, men
with so much money
      it’s as if I’m drowning
on a raging river
and the cure for my loneliness is a tow-line
of barbed-wire.

* * *

At our quiet table she sat with her back to the crowd,
a position of vulnerability—she hadn’t been kissed in more than a year,
            the dark cloud of marriage holding her
inside her Malibu home, retreating
into a quieter world—reading movie scripts
and novels … some traveling.

      Next morning, after room service,
she asked me
to covet our secret time
together—she did not need any publicity.

      … what courage must be drummed up
to curb the desire there is
not to be alone in the world.
            There was a boy in high school
she had a crush on,
      but now, being famous
it’s difficult to call, because what if he’s married—how
does his wife with curlers in her hair
      and babies spilling food on the floor
compete with a movie star calling her husband.
      … if just to say hello—how’ve you been doing?

* * *

The man from Heartland Plumbing drove a ten-foot metal stake
through the heart of my Bermuda grass, through red clay
and builder-grade landfill refuge, searching
for moisture underground, seepage, but found none.
            My grandfather, never to be misled or cheated, refused
to pay the City, and for years
the water petered out the tap.

* * *

When she kisses a leading man on screen, a man
who is tall, with an ivory smile, abs and pecs of Adonis
with hair bouncing in wild abandon, lucid syllables
flowing from his lips,
      does she think of me?

I know a secret,
how an ordinary guy
sitting in a Chicago airport bar can bump into
a glamorous Hollywood actress and forever
fold up into a little square of memory
everything we have always wanted
to brag about to our buddies,
                  that one of us broke through
to that mysterious island, if for just one moment.

from Rattle #39, Spring 2013
Tribute to Southern Poets

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