Tonight's Feature

The Square of Stars

It was a drizzly Monday, and the small crowd was distracted. As usual, it was made up mostly of tourists, so enraptured by the huge movie trailers that surrounded the Square—using new technology that made ads an actual part of the atmosphere, like clouds or birds or the rain itself—that it was hard to direct their attention to something as simple as a human being, even one who used to be famous.

Brad was philosophical about it, didn’t stress, as the old expression went; his cool, after all, had always been part of his appeal, one way he could be identified if his face wasn’t enough. Sometimes in his darkest moments he felt his face was unmemorable, blandly handsome, interchangeable with any other actor’s, and the only things that set him apart were his sandy blonde hair and perpetually flat stomach—no matter his age, the stomach was like a statue or a cobblestone street, the molded muscles like those rocks (“cob” meant “rounded lump,” he’d read that somewhere). Don’t be silly, Brad thought, he’d been talented, too, his nominations were proof; no wins, but how many handsome men had one? They only ever awarded ugly guys, they were the “artists”—and now he was being bitter, it was getting to him, being ignored while begging in the Square of Stars, and admit it, that’s what he’d been reduced to doing, why mince words?

When he was ranting like this internally, he remembered—to further rub it in—that he wasn’t even the original Brad, none of these problems or achievements had been his. He didn’t have the memories of success and defeat that had tickled and tormented his ancestors, he just had the exact same face and body they had had, the same exact hand now extended for money, the thick rain coating his impeccable skin like cream.

“Hey!” he heard someone say. “It’s him!”

At last, a tourist had seen him, really seen him, and was approaching. It was a woman (of course), middle-aged, middle-Western, middle-weight, who had been his fan in her youth, who had had his poster or his hologram in her room at home. She was way too young to have admired the original Brad, so it must have been one of the next or next next generation of Brads who had been her heartthrob. She pulled along her even more unprepossessing husband, as if to say, here’s who I had wanted, here’s who I had hoped to have, before I settled for you, before we settled for each other, here is my ideal. When she reached him, she was proprietorial; she manipulated Brad like a mannequin, arranged him like a piece of furniture, fondled him like a photo in a phone or tablet she might have clutched to herself as a girl. As most of these women did, while her husband took her picture, she pressed herself against Brad, her breasts disappearing into his back or side, to punish her husband or excite herself or just to let Brad know she was available. This one stayed against him for a long time, long enough for her husband to get wise and say, “That’s enough, Ingrid,” or whatever her name was. The rain grew heavier and streaked her mascara, giving her a lived-in look that was erotic for a second, which surprised Brad, who usually felt nothing but pity for himself and these people while posing.

“Goodbye, sweetheart,” she said, placing a hundred-dollar bill in his hand, and trailing her fingers down the sinewy muscle in his arm, sheathed in a shirt now growing sheer in the poisonous rain. “It was good to see you again.”

“Good to see you, too,” Brad said, and meant it, for it had been good, he had gotten as much as she had from the encounter, gotten a mild and momentary reassurance that he was who he said he was—was and wasn’t, it was hard to explain.

“What movie was he in again?” he heard the husband ask, as the couple vanished into the irradiated rain and ads that erased them.

“I can’t remember,” she said, then guessed, “Fighting Club?” which was close enough.

 

Brad took refuge from the worsening storm in the lobby of a closed bank, the cash machine area where a homeless family huddled in sleeping bags. He turned and saw someone who for a second he assumed was the clan’s adult daughter. Then he realized it was another star; it had been hard to tell because her trademark blonde hair was darkened and curled by the rain and plastered against her face. She was new to the Square.

“Horrible weather,” he said, to say something.

“Yes,” she replied, less eager to engage with him than he would have imagined; she kept staring out the bank’s filthy window and only glanced at him once. Brad had to remind himself that not everyone was a lonely housewife; other people in the Square were celebrities, too, no matter how far they had fallen from the original. Besides, she was younger than he, fifteen years at least, so maybe she preferred talking to men her own age.

Then, surprising him, still not looking, she extended her hand.

“Taylor,” she said.

“I know.” He shook it. “Brad.”

“Right.” Her eyes flickered over to him with fleeting good humor, just shy, he thought, or always being hit on and wary. He kept the conversation casual.

“Just started?”

“Yes.”

“It’s slow today.”

“I did okay.”

“Did you?”

“Yes. Different fan base from yours. Less worried about getting their wigs and toupees wet.”

She was teasing him now, even though it was true, his people were, in comparison to hers, old. He smiled and she smiled back, this time actually turning from the greasy glass to see him. The sun emerged for a second, though the rain didn’t stop, and lit up her face. It was almost corny how pretty she looked, as if the whole thing had been staged to set her off. Why had Taylor fallen out of favor over generations? The public was too fickle, Brad thought.

Then the room grew dull again. At the same time, each heard a rustle from the family sleeping feet away, near the shells of ATMs. One of them started whistling a Taylor tune—what was the name of it? “Shake” something?

“We love you!” a hoarse voice cried from the heap of fleece.

The girl smiled to show appreciation. Yet her expression was as streaked with sadness as the window was with rain.

“Let them pay for it,” she whispered to Brad, in a surprisingly weary voice, linking them enough that he asked her out to lunch, on him.

 

They entered the Automat on the Square, one in a new chain of diners without servers, with only stations for credit cards, cafeteria-style troughs of soup, and be-clubbed security guards patrolling. They were waved at by a table of other stars, and while Brad wished they could be alone, he thought it impolite to demur. He led Taylor to them, and their trays bumped against each other, as their egos often did.

“How is everybody?”

As Brad and Taylor sat, he realized that this group of beggars was not on his or her level. They were not actual clones of celebrities designed to maintain—to keep recreating—their stardom over centuries. They were the experimental mix of one star with another, done in a desperate attempt to reinvent brands once it was discovered that no celebrity stayed hot forever, that the appeal of even a Brad or Taylor would eventually wear away, that even if your DNA was identical to a star’s, you could still—at least figuratively—die.

There was an element of the tacky sequel to these “blends”; they reminded Brad of the movie series manufactured in the nineteen-forties to recharge fading franchises, making Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Wolf Man. Or were they more like the monstrosities in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, the story of the mad scientist who bred animals with men? He had a hard time looking at the Woody who had been mixed with himself, a man with kinky, thinning hair and glasses and Brad’s own washboard abs who expressed comic observations too slowed by a stoner sensibility to make sense; or Bruce mixed with Michael, a half-hulking, half-elfin atrocity whose voice was at once a growl and a squeal, a sickening sound that made his singing unendurable. And about the blends of Cher and Prince, Meryl and Jack, Leo and the Grumpy Cat, the less said the better.

“Look who’s here,” Brichael (or Muce, as he was secretly nick-named) at once burred and purred, a soup spoon awkwardly held in his broad yet tiny hands. “Thanks for deigning to join us.”

“Right,” Chince (or Prer) boomed and whispered. “Thanks for stooping by.”

As they laughed, Brad smiled, unpleasantly, used to this kind of rib. Yet he could see that Taylor was fresh to this freak show and made uncomfortable by it. Did she see the future opposite her in some revolting shape or form? He had heard that there were already blends of Taylor and someone—who, Katy? Kanye? That must have been it—on the drawing board or teething or a toddler. He wouldn’t tell her: What good would it do to know she’d already been marked down?

“Can we go?” she whispered. “Let’s go. I’m not hungry.”

“Me, either,” Brad answered, discreetly slipping a roll into his pocket; it had been more than a day since he’d earned enough to eat. As they fled, they were followed by the yowls and mews of the voices at the table, the song of things that should never have been.

 

The day had cleared up, and some streets were flooded, others utterly dry, as if the neighborhood had been picked up and tipped like a tray of melted ice (actually, there wasn’t enough asphalt in existence for the amount of moisture dumped on the city these days). Brad watched Taylor parade around the puddles, humming unselfconsciously in a way he could only call enchanting. He understood how his own appeal had ebbed—people wanted another kind of man, softer, shorter, something—but how had hers? She should have been a perennial. He ran to catch her, and she cried out, comically—trilled was the word he wanted; she even sang when she was screaming, he thought. He caught her around the waist, her summer dress spun as she did, and her limbs—lithe, that was how she looked; it was the first time he had ever thought of anyone that way.

Taylor let herself be held by Brad, then placed her hands on his chest to steady them both as they came to a stop. There was something perfect about their pairing, and each was aware of it; the age difference aside, he had just enough heft on his side, she had just enough insubstantiality; each was the answer to the other and wanted to blend with the other, in the natural way. If their intimacy was automatic, maybe it was because they (falsely) felt they knew each other, as millions had felt this (falsely) about their earlier incarnations. In any case, they started toward Brad’s apartment, which was in walking distance and had to be; neither carried enough cash for a cab.

*

Brad knew it was rumored that he smelled—that all the Brads had smelled, hadn’t used deodorant, hadn’t washed their hair. But it wasn’t true: he kept clean, and Taylor attested to it now, approving of his aroma, inhaling deeply as she kissed his underarms and chest and moved down to the great gift of his gut, licking each small stone in his stomach, making marveling sounds about them before she undid his belt.

She took him in her mouth, and along with her movements her moans were rhythmical: love-making, like music, came naturally to her. Brad didn’t want to finish, didn’t know at his age if he could manage it twice, so without warning he lifted her onto his lap and she cried out, excited to be carried, and held the muscles in his arms as he somewhat roughly pulled down the straps of her sun dress, exposing her impeccably shaped, slightly blonde-downy breasts and kissed and bit her tense nipples as she grinded on his erection, which had remained hard since she’d made it so with her mouth, going faster and faster until she came, without him even being in her, without her underwear even being off.

“And that’s just the beginning,” Taylor whispered, slumping against him slightly. “That’s how it’s going to be with us.”

She was right—it was just the start of their love-making that afternoon and evening and early morning. Brad was amazed by his own stamina, as if he had absorbed Taylor’s energy, which seemed to be endless; she made love the way Taylors over time had carried on in their concerts, willing to entertain an audience until the sun came up and set again, calling other celebrities onstage to do duets, except now Brad was the only star moaning and making noise with her, finding variations in each rendition: He was reminded of how earlier Brads must have said the same lines again and again, diversifying their delivery until the director felt one reading was the best, the way he and Taylor now finally got the most pleasure from the reverse cowgirl position, Taylor sitting over and over on him while turned away, spanking her own small behind on the hard surface of his wide thighs, each looking in the same direction, both of their faces in the clear as if posing perfectly for paparazzi, who weren’t there anymore, who no longer cared about them.

While his anonymity had always consumed him, as he fell in and out of a drowse, Brad felt something new with Taylor: the hint of indifference to the person he was created to be, the place he was expected to occupy; he had an astonishing idea that just being someone’s beloved might be identity enough. Huddled with her in his small apartment—which he hadn’t had time to clean and the slovenly condition of which he was relieved she didn’t mention—Brad saw himself for the first time doing other things and living somewhere else.

“As just a person,” he whispered to her, “with a normal job. Maybe even fat and bald. Before I’m too old to be anything else. You know?”

Maybe it was his comparatively advanced age that had inspired this notion (the way that ambitious older men are calmer with their second families and don’t neglect and abuse them the way they had their first), because Taylor seemed uninterested in the idea of retiring.

“You would never get fat,” she said, touching his rigid flanks, “or bald,” his dense thatch of hair, appearing to miss the point completely, he thought.

If anything, their connection made her more eager to parse their shared predicament, to express her anxiety about being perhaps the failed final one in her line, as if she had never explored it until now, for who else would have understood?

“Why is she—am I—no longer of interest?” Taylor asked, wearing only Brad’s T-shirt, running her fingers over his sweaty, almost hairless chest.

Brad was struck by the ambition that had been masked by her unassuming façade; then he wondered whom he was fooling: he was not just an easy-going slacker, either, despite his persona.

“Don’t drive yourself crazy,” he said, as if he had not done so himself—about himself—for years.

“Too white? Too blonde? Too dull?”

“It’s not a good use of time.” ­

He felt Taylor withdraw from him then, shutting down, as if she’d been dismissed. He could feel it in the small shift in her position; he was sensitive to slights; all performers were. It panicked him; Brad knew now that his need of Taylor was greater than any aging quest for ease; that could come, if it ever did, later on. For now, he only wished to keep her close, and he tried to do so in the form of a confession. “I feel I’ve let everybody down. All the other Brads. That I’ve failed.”

“Me, too.” And she came back against him.

Soon, seeking to further soothe her, he rolled them a joint—something else Brad had always been said to enjoy to excess, a rumor which in this case was true—but given the extreme level of her agitation, the drug didn’t do much good. Brad felt Taylor’s tears scatter on his chest, like pesticide sprayed on pavement. He decided to introduce an alternative treatment for her upset, one he hadn’t tried in years and about which he had no idea how Taylor would feel.

“I have a friend who brews beer,” he said, and Taylor nodded, indifferently, of course, her head shake raining more tears into the valley of his clavicle. “He makes peast, too,” he said, with calculated casualness, using an old acting trick (why let it all go to waste?). He meant the genetically altered yeast strain that mimicked poppies, that made possible cheap and mass-produced poppies from an original, as Brad and Taylor had been produced, though they were not synthetics, they were the real things.

Being young yet not innocent, Taylor sniffled and didn’t say no, and Brad—using the doggedness of the actor he had been born as but never been allowed to be—took this as a yes.

 

Brad bought the homemade heroin from his friend, Alan, at the low cost of whatever he’d saved in a shoebox in his closet, plus a hand job Alan demanded become a blowjob right before Alan ejaculated, betraying Brad after he believed they’d made a deal.

“Beggars can’t be, etc.,” Alan said, holding Brad’s head as it bobbed, knowing how little Brad liked thinking of himself this way (Alan was a commodities trader whose great-­grandmother had been a fan of the original Brad and so kept this one around as a friend for fun).

That night, Brad and Taylor started by inhaling it, and Brad showed Taylor how to fire up the foil and keep it moving, then how to suck the fumes into her mouth like soup. He had forgotten how much he enjoyed doing it, but seeing the powerful pleasure it gave Taylor brought it to a whole new place, and the good feeling it gave him about how it tethered them together was greater than his guilt for initiating her.

Brad was too weak not to want more, which was the reason he’d stopped in the first place. Soon this pleasure wasn’t enough for him or took too long, and they started sharing a spoon (swiped from the Automat), a lighter (taken from a tourist), a tie (one of Taylor’s costumes, an homage to a movie—“Annie” who?—made by Woody before he was blended with Brad), and putting the drug into veins which became like the streets coursing with dirty liquid that they walked and begged upon.

Then it had been weeks since they’d made love, even though they had so enjoyed doing it, but this was better and, anyway, made it impossible for Brad, though Taylor, too, had started to lose the girlishness that had caused her sexual avidity to be so unexpected and erotic; she noticed and lamented the loss, Brad could tell, it wasn’t just him. But that didn’t make them stop, that was out of the question.

When Brad and Taylor worked the Square now, they did so with new desperation, because they needed so badly what the money would buy. This changed their behavior in ways that got them less of what they wanted: those who wished to be photographed with Taylor needed her to be fresh, pretty and, above all, nice, and she couldn’t be any more, looking stringy and not slim, singing in a cracked and phlegmy falsetto, snapping at them to shut up and get on with it, and why was that a fifty, not a hundred, what, were they poor, they didn’t look poor, your fanny pack alone must have cost fifty bucks at least, for fuck’s sake, and Brad, far from being cool, was belligerent and threatening, slapping a camera from a husband’s hand when he’d had enough shots or pushing away a woman pressing herself against him, self-conscious about how un-muscular he must feel now, his stomach for the first time vague and undefined, as if someone had taken a knife and scraped all his abs into the street, a few flying off on their own and shooting into a subway grate or something.

At least they did this together, that’s what Brad told himself, as he and Taylor fell asleep at night or in the afternoon or the late morning, in each other’s stained and skinny arms, now shadows, as the old expression went, of themselves.

 

“Wake up,” Taylor said, a week (or a month) later. She was shaking him. “Wake up.”

Brad managed to open his eyes, confused as to where he was. He had been dreaming that he was the original Brad and attending the Oscars; on his arm was not Taylor but the original’s wife, an actress who had not lasted long enough in the public imagination to be recreated; it was arbitrary who remained famous and who did not, he thought. Understanding his actual circumstances—sleeping slumped where he’d last sat, on the floor near the coffee table—was a painful comedown. Still, there was Taylor staring down at him, at least Brad had her, what was left of her, anyway, in his quest to keep her: Today she looked particularly peaked and smelled of sweat, beer, and something else. Rust? Was that it?

“I’ve got good news,” Taylor said.

“What’s that?”

“They want us.”

“Who? For what?”

“For a film. We’ve got an offer for a job. To play ourselves.”

For a second, Brad didn’t reply, the sentences so foreign to most he had heard in his life. He straightened up and stood, and the action forced him to focus, the words coming closer and becoming clear, like oncoming cars, but in a good way, bringing him food when he’d been famished.

“Really?” It was the best he could do, his lips were so dry. Excitedly, he clutched her wrist and for the first time truly perceived how thin it was: his spidery fingers crawled up her starved forearm; he was appalled at what he’d done to her.

“Yes,” she said. “I worked while you slept. I met an actual producer. They’re small parts, but…”

Brad nodded. What act had she performed for them to get so lucky? Maybe nothing; maybe she had more pride than he. He would never ask, so he would never know.

“When? When?” was all Brad did ask.

“In six weeks,” Taylor said, implying they had only that long to become themselves again, there was no time to waste.

 

Taylor decided to go cold turkey, which she believed she was young and strong enough to do. Brad opted for warm turkey, using Xanex and Oxycodone he again had to get from Alan, who this time demanded only that he beg, repelled as he was by Brad’s physical condition. The regimen solved nothing, since Brad started taking all of the drugs, and Taylor—whose withdrawal had been quick and relatively painless—insisted that he attend a clinic where they administered Suboxone. This drug mimicked the effects of heroin the way the peast mimicked the poppies and Brad and Taylor did not mimic the originals, because they were the originals—oh, forget it, Brad thought, he was not thinking clearly about anything now.

And, of course, Brad found himself addicted to the Suboxone, too. It made him nauseated, his pee dark and his eyes yellow, which meant that it had given him liver damage, which sent him to the hospital where, despite everyone’s best efforts, in the space of several weeks, he died, saying, as Taylor wept beside him, “I wanted so much to live, with you.” As a final indignity, the chart at the foot of his bed misspelled his last name as “Zitt,” as if he had been but a blemish upon and not—as his actual last name suggested—the core of the original star.

 

When Taylor returned alone to the Square, she found herself the object of sympathy from the other celebrities. Most of them were motivated by schadenfreude, she felt, and secretly relieved that Brad’s and her relationship had been squelched; she had never been as sentimental or idealistic about life as she looked. (Taylor had heard nothing from the film producer since Brad’s death; he had not even shown up to say he was sorry.)

Only Brichael (or Muce) seemed genuinely put out by Brad’s passing; to her surprise, the blend even offered her a couch in his apartment when she was evicted. Though Taylor had stayed clean, fewer and fewer fans wanted photos; while she could gain weight and wash and color her lifeless hair, her lack of spirit appeared permanent. It wasn’t just the drugs; Taylor felt that the loss of Brad’s love, the first real love in her life, had aged her like an illness. And forget singing: she had a laryngitis caused by her having been crushed: her fading life force was taking her talent with it.

Still, one day, when she saw the young producer walk swiftly as if escaping across the Square, she made sure to make the effort to accost him. (Taylor had done nothing with him except wear no underwear and lift her skirt as he touched himself, so she had nothing to regret.)

“He said he’d been thinking about me,” she told Brichael later, in his apartment. “But I’m sure he was lying.”

“So what?” Brichael shrugged, with his usual gruff gentleness. “Life’s full of indignities. Get used to it, girl.”

Taylor told him the rest:  how the producer said the movie scene had been altered to erase Brad but—if she were still interested—she could be seen for a second on a TV in the background, as the original Taylor in an old clip (it was cheaper to film a fake clip than lease a real one). The problem, the producer said directly, was that, because of her self-abuse, Taylor now looked older than the original had at her peak, and the makeup budget was too small to make a difference. If she could come up with an answer, the part—and the one day of non-union work—would be hers.

Taylor sat on the bed while Brichael loomed above her. She leaned her head hopelessly against his thick left leg, which was sturdier and more comforting than his spindly right one. “It’s too late,” she said, with unprecedented despair. He reached down and with his full and skinny fingers stroked her face.

“It’s not,” he said. “I know something that’ll make you as good as new.”

After Brichael explained, Taylor was too grateful for words and ashamed of having initially judged him on appearances alone. Yet she had no money to pay for dinner, let alone something as expensive as this.

“It’s okay,” he said. “You’ll just owe me a little more.” And his high-low laugh told her he intended to hold her liable for nothing.

Not long after, at a private clinic, Taylor had performed on her a simple plastic surgery she was assured would restore the youth and freshness that had been lost from her face, a way to recapture at least some of the essence of the original.

When the bandages were removed, Brichael waited with excited impatience. Yet before she looked at her face, Taylor could tell from his that something wasn’t right. Still, he tried to shrug it off.

“It’ll be fine,” Brichael said. “Everyone looks like hell at first.”

But while the inevitable swelling went down, Taylor’s cheeks had been left permanently uneven, and her lower eyelids were stubbornly lumpy.

“The doctor said the fat grafts from your lower back would work,” Brichael said, with dismay. “You know, for your tear troughs.”

Her strange new look made Taylor ineligible for the movie job. She returned once more to the Square, where she was met with confusion and derision from tourists and celebrities and dismissed as an imposter. To all of them, she looked like a star who had never been born rather than one born and born again, a fact which disoriented her.

Today, Taylor continues to wander the general area, speaking to the absent Brad, singing to a non-existent crowd. But she no longer feels allowed to enter the Square of Stars—the name of which denotes the number of a star multiplied by itself, something she had never understood until now, and the realization of which might have been the last rational thought of her steadily unraveling mind.

Laurence Klavan has had short work published in more than forty literary magazines, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," was published in 2014 by Chizine. His novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” were published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London in 2011. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, "The Show Must Go On," was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015.