The Golden Age

by Jean Ryan
Janie glared out the window at the trailer next to hers. Polly was taking a long shower and listening to Patsy Cline; she’d apparently taken her CD player into the bathroom and didn’t care who was forced to hear it. Janie liked Patsy Cline as well as the next person, but not on a Sunday morning at 8:15 while she was doing yoga, or trying to. “Back in Baby’s Arms”—how could she hold the mountain pose with that sailing into her living room?

She breathed in deeply, made room for her higher self. It was practice, she reminded herself, all these aggravations that came with life in a mobile home park. Who in their bright-eyed youth dreams of living in a trailer? These were places you found yourself in: no-fuss aluminum stalls in which to look back on the things you’d lost, through bad luck or poor choices or that waiting bandit, old age. This is where you went when stairs and repairs became too much, when your full-size home outgrew you.

Some made the best of it. Polly, for instance. Polly was game, Janie had to give her that, the whole-hog way she took on her little square of Destiny Park: fired up her mini Weber every Saturday night, filled her window boxes with vinyl geraniums, actually planted them in soil so they’d appear more real. She had installed a white plastic fence that handily snapped together, and she’d painted her walkway to make it look like flagstone, and though she had failed in this, though the stones looked like pink puddles, she was beaming when she finished. Seeing Polly standing back, admiring her work, Janie came out of her trailer and said, politely, “That looks nice.” Polly wheeled around, gave her a big yellow grin. “It does, doesn’t it? Came out better than I thought.”

Janie moved into plank pose and held herself there for one full minute, counting off the seconds. Infirmity had not landed her at Destiny Park, though given her age (82), some might assume this. Not that she didn’t have her aches and pains—twenty-seven years of stunt work leaves reminders—but so far she had kept the upper hand with her body, putting it through its paces each day and buying the right fuel. She also drank more water than she wanted to and generally kept away from booze. You had to treat your body like the machine it was or you wound up tethered to trouble.

Only with Rick, in those two years they lived together, had she betrayed herself. They met at a party, or actually at the end of one, where they wound up in chaise lounges beside a moonlit swimming pool. “High Noon” was in production then, and Rick was doubling for Gary Cooper. Janie, who was still a newcomer at that time, was enthralled by the stories Rick told her that night, all sorts of thrilling things about the stars he worked with: those lines on Gary Cooper’s face, that pained look? Well, he was in pain—the guy had a bad hip, back trouble and bleeding stomach ulcers. And Grace Kelly? She was hard on herself, thought her acting wasn’t worth a damn. Janie was half in love by the time the sun rose over the Hollywood hills, falling hard for Rick’s green eyes and slow spreading smile. He was a wild one, loaded with equal parts charm and Scotch. His voice was so deep that everything he said sounded reassuring, and Janie happily barreled down all the wrong paths with him. Eventually he drank himself out of the business, and if it hadn’t been for Amanda, Janie might have followed. Her pregnancy kept her off the bottle, which is when she learned what a no-count bastard her boyfriend really was. Having no use for a knocked-up teetotaler, Rick rode off into the sunset, leaving Janie with the only thing he was good for: Amanda. Lemonade from lemons.

Rolling up her yoga mat, Janie saw that Coco, her long-haired dachshund, had come out of the bedroom and was now sitting head-first in a corner of the kitchen. She was doing this lately, mistaking corners for a way out; sometimes she sat in front of the hinged part of the door, no longer knowing how the door worked, where to position herself. At night she would often pace, her nails clicking against the linoleum when she reached the kitchen. “Coco,” Janie would call out, “Coco, come sleep,” and the clicking would stop as the dog paused in the dark, trying to figure out her next move.

Janie hadn’t had her long, only four months. Coco had replaced Sam, who had replaced Sadie, who had replaced Kevin. Before these four, there had been Nova, the corgi she had when she moved in here. Janie had no idea she would wind up with all these senior animals. She’d had Nova fourteen years, and the trailer was so empty afterward that she found herself at the pound a month later. Oh my, what a lot of dogs there were, most of them frantic, up on their hind legs, barking and whimpering, paws against the cages, tongues ready to lick any part you offered. Dogs of all shapes and sizes—basset hounds with German shepherd heads, greyhound legs on pitbull bodies. Some cages were overflowing with puppies from the same litter, squeaking, squirming bundles of joy. Those were the ones people wanted, the soft ones, the cute ones, the dogs with years ahead of them. Janie walked down the row and stopped in front of a grey-muzzled dog, some sort of terrier, that was lying in his cage, making no noise at all. “Hello,” she said, and the dog rolled one cloudy eye her way but didn’t lift his head. It was hard to tell if he had lost all hope or didn’t care who took him. This dog was wise to humans, knew they couldn’t be trusted. “His owner died,” the attendant said. “We can’t keep him much longer.” So that’s the one Janie brought home, the dog no one else was going to take.

There were some advantages, Janie soon realized, in adopting older dogs, especially if you lived in a trailer park. They didn’t run anymore, so a pocket-size yard was fine with them. And they didn’t gnaw your furniture or beg for a walk every two minutes. And, realistically, there was her own age to consider—she wouldn’t want to leave a young dog high and dry. No, it was better to rescue the old ones. All they wanted was a quiet place to rest and someone beside them as their worlds closed in. It was so little to ask, really. They broke your heart of course, every one of them, but for Janie the pain was tolerable. If there was a limit to what the heart could take, she had not found it.

*

Janie and Coco reached the end of the lane and began to walk back. Janie had to slow her steps to accommodate Coco, who marched on stiff legs right beside her. That was another nice thing about older dogs—they did not require a leash. Coco would pause now and then to sniff the messages of other dogs, but she stayed on course, knowing her limitations. When she stopped to piddle, which was often, she would flatten her pelvis to the ground and peer about, checking for danger, and Janie, looking down, would be flooded with tenderness: this little red dog, this big wide world.

A steady breeze had cleared out the valley smog, and it was as perfect a spring day as anyone could want. Sunny, upper 70s, the snowy crags of Cucamonga Peak towering in the blue distance, below them a forest of palms trees. Say what you will about Los Angeles, how many people on the planet woke up to days like this?

And Destiny Park—it was better than a lot of others in the area. You had views, for instance, at least when you stepped outside, and most of the trailers were presentable. Everyone had an ample driveway; most had a shrub or two—stubby palms or Birds of Paradise. Real grass grew under the junipers along the roads, and here and there full-size trees had been planted. Probably the management was just trying to compete with the hundreds of other mobile home parks, but the greenery felt like a kindness. And they didn’t have to contend with shrieking children either, other than the occasional carload of bored grandkids for whom the management had grudgingly supplied a small, rusting playground.

“Good morning, Janie!”

Theda waved from her deckchair. She and Nikki lived in a pale turquoise trailer directly across the lane from Janie’s unit.

“Morning, Theda. Beautiful day.” Janie stopped walking. Coco took the opportunity to sit, dropping her scrawny hindquarters and slumping to one side.

“Yes it is.” Theda was a big-boned woman in her seventies with a cap of silver hair and a smile that involved her entire face. She and Nikki, who were a couple, had been living here for several years. When they were sitting outside in the evenings, their soft voices carried across the road, and Janie could often hear pieces of their conversation, pleasant patter about this or that.   Occasionally they would laugh or vigorously agree on something, and Janie would pause and smile. What a gentle arrangement it seemed, growing old with someone who was aging in the same ways, drifting ever farther from the vanities of youth. When they cast a kind eye on the other’s diminishments, did it help them love their own bodies more?

“Where’s Nikki?”

“Making breakfast. Denver omelets and home fries.” Theda leaned forward hopefully. “Would you like to join us?”

“I’ve already eaten,” said Janie. “But thank you.” The three of them dined together now and then, usually in Theda and Nikki’s trailer, which was more spacious than Janie’s. Their place was homey and welcoming, and they carefully avoided asking questions about Janie’s personal life. They just wanted to hear about the stunts she’d done and what it was like to work in Hollywood in the fifties. Were Roy and Dale as nice as they seemed? Had she ever met John Wayne? They thought she must have led an exotic life.

Janie wouldn’t call her life exotic. She had met plenty of movie stars, gone to plenty of parties, but her end of the business was not glamorous, it was arduous, especially for a woman. Men could wear padding under their clothes, but women didn’t always have that option (especially these days when they were doubling for size two actresses, half naked and in high heels). Back in the fifties and sixties, movie sets could get pretty dicey; Janie had worked with a few stunt coordinators who were a lot more interested in glory than safety. Now the dangerous stuff could be animated; when Janie was working, the bodies were real. And you couldn’t squawk, not if you wanted to keep working. The pay wasn’t great either—stuntmen made a lot more than stuntwomen, and that, from what Janie had heard, hadn’t changed.

How did she become interested in stunt work, Theda and Nikki wanted to know. What made her want to risk her life like that? Janie had pondered this herself; she couldn’t remember a deciding moment. As a child she loved to jump off things, trees, sheds, anything in her path, and she liked going fast, liked to rocket through the neighborhood on her roller skates and ride her bike, no hands, down long steep hills. She could make a clean dive at fifty feet and swim farther than anyone she knew. By sixteen she had not outgrown this energy, and her mother’s dismay, her ongoing entreaties, had no effect. Hoping to double for stars like Dale Evans and Jane Wyman, Janie started riding horses and working with trainers, and before too long her trick riding was good enough for auditions. It helped that she pretty and didn’t make any trouble, and meeting some of the people Rick knew didn’t hurt either.

“How’s Coco doing today?” Theda asked.

“Oh fine,” Janie said. “You know. She’s a little stiff right now.”

“Aren’t we all?” Theda grinned. Gazing at Coco, her expression grew serious. “I don’t know how you do it, Janie, taking in these dogs like you do.” She had expressed these thoughts before.

Janie shrugged. “They’re good company.” She smiled at Coco, who gazed up at her with wrenching adoration. What did she see, Janie wondered, with those milky brown eyes? A face, features, or just a familiar blur? Her hearing was definitely getting worse; often she would startle, not having heard Janie’s footsteps behind her.

Just then Polly’s door opened, and she emerged from her trailer in a rush, her brassy hair already tumbling from its elaborate arrangement. She was wearing plaid Bermuda shorts and a pink tank top that strained across the grand shelf of her bosom. Her legs, which were in decent shape, glistened with an orangey tanning lotion that had turned her knees too dark. She checked the lock, then caught sight of Janie and Theda.

“Oh hi,” Polly said with a quick wave. “Late as usual,” she apologized, hurrying to her car in precarious gold sandals.

“Hi Polly.”

Janie, surprised by the male voice, turned her head. It was Al of course. Al Shiner. The park lech. He liked to do this, hang out in the shadows, then startle you with his creepy voice. He was standing beside his trailer, in a light blue bathrobe, holding a can of Coke. He hadn’t shaved yet, and his hair—what was left of it—was sticking up on one side like a small dark horn.

Polly glanced over at him, too busy to mask a frown. “Hi Al.”

Al had a thing for Polly, had been trying to find a way into her trailer for as long as Janie could remember. Pot-bellied, pushing eighty, he hadn’t slowed down a bit, not as far as Polly was concerned. The fact that she was probably a generation younger and not the least bit interested had so far not deterred him. Which is something Janie had never understood about men: why they kept playing to an empty house.

Polly backed her red Impala into the road, and Al, his eyes narrowing with disappointment, watched her drive off.

“Ladies,” he murmured, raising his Coke and climbing back into the darkness of his trailer. Given the rotted latticework, the sagging shingled roof, the rust stains coming off the gutter, Janie shuddered to think what the inside looked. Despite the covenants listed in the office, the park had a live- and-let-live policy, and loafers like Al took full advantage. Fortunately there weren’t too many of his kind living here.

Janie turned back to Theda and said, “I’m going out later—do you need anything?”

“No, honey. We don’t. We did a big shopping on Friday. But thank you.”

“Well, enjoy those omelets,” said Janie, who could now smell the onions and peppers cooking.

“Oh we will,” Theda replied. “You have a good day.”

“You too.” Janie picked up Coco, who could not manage stairs, and carried her across the road and into the trailer, where, instead of cooking smells, there was the fragrance of sandalwood coming from the reed diffusers in the living room—it helped with the dog odor.

Janie’s own breakfast had been modest: yogurt and a slice of rye toast with peanut butter. Only on Saturdays did she allow herself the sort of ranch-style breakfasts that Theda and Nikki consumed every morning. Janie actually admired them; there was bravery in giving yourself that much rope, especially at their age. Maybe it was her stunt training, all those years of planning and measuring and caretaking, but Janie had a firm grip on her reins and would not, could not, let them go.

*

Heading for Santa Monica, intending to spend the day at the ocean, Janie changed her mind and took the 405 north. Traffic was already thickening on I 10, and she knew the beaches would be crowded, the parking lots jammed. How much nicer it would be to wander the hills of Big Sky Ranch; she had a lifetime pass there and could visit any area they weren’t filming in. She’d done several stunts at Big Sky, even doubled one time for Amanda Blake. They were the same age, same height and weight; all Janie had to do was pull on a red wig and get up the nerve.

Even before Gunsmoke went on the air, Janie knew that Amanda was headed for stardom. She was gorgeous, for one thing, the kind of looks people just gaped at, and she had this warmth about her, a whole-hearted love of everything. Amanda drew people in, she couldn’t help it; they’d watch her laughing, enjoying herself, and pretty soon there’d be a crowd around her. Janie met her one night at Taylor’s Steak House. She was sitting at a large round table, chatting and smoking (as they all did back then), her red hair and white shoulders gleaming, and when she looked up into Janie’s eyes and smiled, Janie felt it right down to her toes. In no time at all, they became good friends, consoling each other or celebrating, whatever the occasion called for. The day Janie’s daughter was born, Amanda was at the hospital, her arms overflowing with flowers.

One evening when Janie was watching Gunsmoke, her daughter, who was five at the time, walked over to the TV and put a finger on it. “Manda,” she said.

“That’s right. Did you know I named you after that lady?”

Amanda shook her head.

“Well I did. I knew you were going to be just like her. Pretty and strong.”

And she had in fact grown up just that way. Amanda loved being on movie sets and watching her mother trick-ride; she listened closely to everything that was said and studied the careful way her mother approached each stunt, leaving as little as possible to chance. Despite this, Janie had her fair share of injuries—dislocated shoulder, cracked ribs, numerous sprains, bruises and cuts—all part of the business. Janie’s favorite stunt was “horse boarding,” where, standing up, she rode two galloping horses. “It’s okay to be scared,” Janie used to tell her daughter. “Fear comes with the territory. But you can’t let it have the last word.” It was no surprise to anyone when Amanda joined the Screen Actors Guild and began performing her own thrilling stunts—only hers were done on motorcycles, not horses. Sign of the times. Janie didn’t like motorcycles, was bothered by their noise and speed. Of course there was nothing she could say.

No one was shooting at the Big Mesa lot, so Janie parked her car and began walking through the grassy meadows, bright green after the wet winter. Just she and the cows were out today, and she sat for a while under a massive oak tree and watched them graze. Off to the right, mirroring the sloping hills, was the near perfect circle of a manmade pond. Countless scenes had been filmed there, cowboys from Rawhide, Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, stopping to fill their canteens and water their horses.

Janie recalled the morning when a script required Miss Kitty to ride a horse, sidesaddle, down Dodge’s main street. Amanda Blake was terrified of horses and begged to be taken out of the scene. They called Janie to come in and double, but by the time she arrived Amanda was sitting on that horse. In her dogged way, she stayed there for hours, stayed as long as it took. After that, the only time Janie had to do any riding for her was a scene where Kitty’s horse was obliged to gallop—the studio wouldn’t allow their star to do that.

Nineteen years Amanda played Miss Kitty. When she finally left the series, people kept asking her why, as if two decades in the Long Branch Saloon were not enough. “Those swinging doors—I just couldn’t walk through them anymore,” Amanda told Janie, “couldn’t wear that damn bustle one more minute.” Her real interest, all along, had been animals (she wouldn’t permit the use of any furs on the set of Gunsmoke), and up until she died, she spent her days working for animal organizations, creating refuges and leaving her entire estate to PAWS.

Gazing at the pond, remembering all this, Janie frowned. A woman like that, dying at 60, and from AIDS, of all things. The last time Janie saw her, she looked just awful. She knew she was going to die, but she was far more concerned with her animal retirement home. “I just hope word doesn’t get out,” she told Janie. “People might stop donating.”

*

When Janie opened her trailer door, Coco rose from her bed beside the sofa—it took her three tries— and approached the kitchen, wagging her draping tail.

“Hi sweetheart,” Janie said, squatting to stroke the dog’s head and neck. Coco gave a low whine and gazed at Janie in boundless expectation. Her face was nearly white, though the flyaway hair on her long ears was still a reddish brown. With her short legs and long coarse fur, her body, lean as it was, barely cleared the floor.

“Dinner?” Coco lifted her ears and wagged her tail harder. Her appetite was not reliable, but the word itself excited her, as if it were a ball she remembered chasing.

Janie made Coco’s food, as she had for all her dogs, boiling up assorted vegetables with ground turkey or beef. She could not imagine that canned food tasted very good, and anyway it was expensive. There were vet bills to pay, carpets and upholstery to keep clean.

She was not poor. She had worked in enough films to wind up with a modest pension, and there were the residuals, but when Art got sick, most of her savings flew away: first the ineffectual treatments, then the long-term care. And before the medical expenses, there had been the bad investments, ill-fated enterprises Art could not resist. Myopic in matters of business, he had been an adoring husband, and he spent loads of time with Amanda, standing in for her absent father. He bought a Harley Sportster just so he could ride with her, and he learned enough about motorcycle stunts to help her with the staging. When Art married her mother, Amanda was thirteen, that hormonal, impossible age, and it was Art’s indulgent manner, the way he leaned in when he listened, that won her over.

Janie pulled a baggie of dog food out of the fridge, warmed it in the microwave, then poured it into a bowl. “Here you go,” she said, setting the dish on the floor and standing back. Coco approached with caution, touching the food with her pointed nose and waiting a few seconds before taking a bite. “Good girl,” Janie encouraged, and the dog looked up, the white crescents of her dark eyes showing, and took another small bite—whether she was genuinely hungry or just eager to please, Janie didn’t know. Coco did manage to eat about a third of her meal before turning away and heading back into the carpeted living room, where she immediately slumped to a sit and waited for Janie to say or do something.

Not yet hungry herself, Janie drank a large glass of water while standing at the sink. Polly was back from her outing, and Janie had a clear view of her broad plaid behind. She was on her knees, planting red petunias in a clay bowl. A couple feet away was a new whirligig, a white horse with movable wings. There was no breeze at the moment, but it looked nice—better than the pooping dog she had stuck next to her fence.

Turning away from the window, she noticed that her answering machine was blinking: two messages.  All those years of leaping for the phone when it rang, waiting for call-backs and jobs, and now she often forgot she had a phone. Polly, Theda, Nikki—they all had cell phones, as most everyone did these days, but Janie had skirted the need. Nor had she any use for a computer, no matter how handy they were: she was here, in person, and she wanted to see the world that way.

The first message was from her dentist—she had a cleaning on Monday. Along with the other parts of her body, Janie had been good about taking care of her teeth and still had nearly all of them. The second message was from a young woman who had gotten her number and was interested in interviewing her for an LA Times article. She wanted to write about Hollywood’s golden age. Could they meet somewhere?

Janie walked into the living room, lifted Coco onto the sofa and sat down beside her. Coco immediately settled alongside Janie’s leg and gave a sigh. All afternoon she’d been waiting for this, this small allowance; there was nothing more she required. Though she was slight enough to fit on Janie’s lap, she did not venture there, nor did Janie encourage her to. People, animals, all creatures had a right to their limits.

For several moments Janie stroked Coco’s fur and studied the photos on the opposite wall, some of which she’d taken herself. A smiling Dale Evans in her cowboy hat and embroidered shirt—Dale always dressed the part, figuring it reassured people. Barbara Stanwyck, surrounded by fans, holding court in front of a fireplace, arms waving imperiously. John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara on the set of Rio Grande, John standing tall in a cavalry uniform, Maureen glaring up at him, magnificently indignant. Susan Hayward stepping out of a cab looking beautiful and aggrieved—Susan was a cold one, never chummed around with the other actors after a shoot was over. Amanda Blake in boots, jeans and a flannel shirt, leg hiked on a fence rail, admiring the impalas she saved from hunting ranches. Agnes Moorehead as a Mongol in “The Conqueror”—now there was a bad movie, not just because it was awful, but because everyone on the set was exposed to the fall-out from atom bomb testing, and many of them, including John Wayne, knew it. Stunt people weren’t the only ones risking their lives in Hollywood’s golden age.

Janie would refuse this interview as she had all the others. Chatting with Theda and Nikki was one thing; divulging tidbits to a scandal-driven reporter was quite another. Though Janie had not been fond of every star she knew back then and could recall more than a few unsavory anecdotes, she was not inclined to offer them up as currency. These people were in their graves; they deserved some final respect.

On the table beside her was a close-up photo of Art taken at their wedding reception. People said he looked like Chuck Conner, and he did, before he got sick. That great jaw, his keen, knowing eyes. He had a laugh Janie could hear now, one that came suddenly and all at once, a belly-deep guffaw. Amanda used to say he could blow a roof off with it.

Art had been good for Amanda, helped her have the sort of fun she too often denied herself. She’d been a serious child and had grown into a serious woman. “Focused” is what people called her, which of course she needed to be, riding motorcycles through mayhem at fabulous speeds. She was good at it, too, getting work in two major films and doubling several times on Charlie’s Angels.

Coco was already sleeping. In the throes of a dream, her breathing quickened, her front paws twitched. Janie’s thigh, where Coco’s chin rested, was warm. When they were together, in a chair or on the sofa, Coco slept this way, her muzzle keeping a steady connection between them.

Amanda’s pictures Janie kept in her bedroom, safe from questions or comments. She died  at twenty-eight, practicing some elaborate motorcycle stunt, fortunately not in front of an audience. At once, Janie’s world darkened, shrunk to a pinpoint, a tiny distant light far beyond her reach. She did not work, did not do anything but sit in a hard chair at her dining room table and think of all the things she had done, or hadn’t done, that led to this fate. She had set the stage, bringing a fatherless child into the world, a child she could not adequately provide for, a child who was forced to spend more time with her grandparents than her mother. And though Amanda had plenty of love, and from so many, what a peculiar way to grow up. And later, what right had Janie to take her daughter to the studios, to take her on location, with all those cameras and cables and floodlights?

How close that other world had been! The one without the moonlit swimming pool, without Rick, without Amanda.

For a time she tried to live there, fending off the hurt, avoiding the pitfalls, but a world where Amanda had never been left Janie with nothing at all, and in the years that followed, to her slow surprise, she managed to find her way back.

Coco woke with a shudder, looked around in confusion, and then, seeing Janie’s face, she settled down again and closed her eyes. Janie gazed at this small red dog she had brought into her home, a creature to whom now she was everything.

It was not an unreasonable arrangement. There was the having and there was the losing. Janie was not done with either.
Jean Ryan, a native Vermonter, lives in Napa, California. Her stories and essays have appeared in a variety of journals, including Other Voices, Pleiades, The Summerset Review, The Massachusetts Review and The Blue Lake Review. Nominated for several Pushcart Prizes, she has also published a novel, LOST SISTER. Her debut collection of short stories, SURVIVAL SKILLS, was published in April 2013 by Ashland Creek Press. Please visit her website at http://jean-ryan.com/

© 2014, Jean Ryan