Remember Herman Baxter? Herman Baxter was a bit actor who played Uncle Emil in the popular television series The Six Sisters, and soon after his contract expired, he broke down in the middle of an online interview, admitted his problems with drinking and drugs and pornography, and checked himself into a detox center to get sober.
This change to sobriety—though the smart choice, as his liver hurt to the touch and his eyes had turned the color of rust—ruined his acting career. Poor guy lost his hardened allure. Not that when he quit drinking he looked like a young Kirk Douglas or Brad Pitt (when he dated Jennifer Aniston). Even cleaned up and spiffy and smooth shaven he looked more like a wizened Burt Reynolds, and who doesn’t want to look like Burt Reynolds?
Herman was rugged with hemp-rope colored hair and a rascally moustache. Mature. Craggy like an old mountain side. The alcohol did that to him. The cigarettes, too. The drugs. All the vices, really. Even the pornography. Especially the pornography. That late-night internet fiddling led to saggy eyes and a crimped right hand, lots of squinting, a depleted bag.
For years Herman played the seedy character. The burglar. The rapist. The disheveled monster in the police line-up. The pedophile. Roles most men couldn’t appropriate. Herman was perfect for Uncle Emil, who was a bit of a dog, a louse. He cracked wise. Leered at all of The Six Sisters. Wore a white t-shirt with a stippling of forest green paint stains and drank Miller High Life from the can and worked as a janitor. It was the role of a lifetime and could’ve bridged the gap to movies, even stardom.
But that did not happen. Herman did one season and the contract was never renewed because the show was canceled soon thereafter. Devoted fans were upset. The Six Sisters was a terrible show. The acting was second rate. Three of the six sisters were ex-meth addicts. Two were border-line psychopaths and heavily medicated. Xanax. Valium. Their eyes hung low and laggard. One sister attempted a country music career, the watered down tripe with tractors and bear traps and raunchy innuendo in the lyrics. Her album bombed.
People watched The Six Sisters because it was racy. The girls were roughly the same age and dressed like Thai hookers. Skimpy outfits. Lots of décolletage and fishnets and cat fighting. Played late at night when college boys were drunk and alone and horny.
After rehab, Herman didn’t draw any work, just walked around in a decaying bathrobe in his small Hollywood apartment and wrung his hands. Fighting the urge to drink and powder his nose. His nasal cavity lusted for the burn. His eyes begged to water.
Herman was scared. There had been steady employment. He’d carved a niche, though he hated the word ‘niche.’ He relied on the work. Car payments. Rent. Insurance. SAG dues. Websites he belonged to but was afraid to cancel. He couldn’t give up all his vices. The porno had to keep him going.
Herman scoured the scene. That’s what he told friends. He scoured. He applied for legit jobs, too, but there was nothing else to do in California but act or be governor. Herman would even do voice-overs if they asked, the lowest of low.
Weeks melted into months and Hollywood became unbearable. Summer. Rain made the streets stink and kept him indoors. Herman went to the gym and avoided old haunts, the strip. He went to AA meetings, got buff and auditioned for two low-fat cereal commercials and a sports drink ad. Electrolytes. High-carb replenishment. But he didn’t even get a call back. Herman called his agent over and over again but that bastard never answered. Typical for LA agents, even though his agent was from Minnesota and the prick still carried his o’s like he was a Norseman.
Sobriety for Herman was a mixed bag. He was relieved, but there was also pain that wouldn’t go away with a simple night’s rest. It hurt no one wanted him around. Directors wanted rugged and raspy more than sleek. Directors wanted the Marlboro Man strung out on well-whiskey. Bottom shelf. Cigars, chewing tobacco. A week’s worth of scruffy beard.
Though unemployed, his liver thanked him, and physically he felt better than ever. Since coming to LA, Herman drank every night. He’d wake up with his face in the toilet or a garbage pail. His skin sagging. Unable to shave. Unwittingly adding years to his acting resume. He had to soak his face in ice water every morning just like the Huey Lewis video.
With his remaining funds, Herman moved out of LA. Packed up his Lexus and winded his way through the desert. He ended up in the south end of Scottsdale, Arizona. It was all golf courses and retirees. The heat was magnificent. He bought a small trailer in a trailer park called The Downriver Oasis, though there was no river and no oasis. The trailer faced south toward Mexico and for weeks Herman lived meagerly on his funds. Ate light and drank espresso from his espresso machine, looked for work in the local paper. Mexico sat in the distance. In the afternoons, the white hazy sky would swarm him like the glowing lamps on a studio set, and though he was often reminded of his acting career back in Hollywood, he felt good.
Eventually, Herman started staying up late, worrying about work. The money was running thin. Poor bastard didn’t have any skills he could market. The janitor he played on The Six Sisters was bullshit. He wouldn’t know how to install light fixtures or hammer up drywall. Perhaps he could unclog a toilet with a toilet snake, but he didn’t want to do that for a living. He didn’t mind getting his hands dirty. Dirty? Yes. Shitty? No.
Only thing Herman knew how to do was drink beer and whiskey and look like hell and act, but he tried not thinking about those things.
One night, alone in his trailer, Herman caught an episode of The Six Sisters on a local cable station. He was flipping for the Naked People Channel when he stumbled upon Kitty, the youngest of The Six Sisters. Kitty had strapping legs and cropped hair like a lipstick lezzie. She wore a silk nighty and held a teddy bear when she answered the front door, her cooze atwitter. On the front stoop was her sister’s (Brenda) boyfriend Chad. Chad wore a motorcycle jacket, ripped jeans and a pair of tea shades. Brenda was not home so Kitty invited Chad in for a drink. Lemonade perhaps?
Chad accepted and instead of lemonade they drank bourbon from Kentucky and got tipsy. The following scenes were steamy and pushed the boundaries of network television. There was a glimpse of nudity. Not like the time Dennis Franz showed his wrinkly, lumpy ass, but close. When commercials interrupted the romp, Herman was ashamed he was ever part of the show. The episode didn’t include Uncle Emil, so he was saved from seeing his ashen face on screen, but he felt dirty, like he’d watched a snuff film. There was kink and there was the line and Herman felt he’d crossed over that line.
He was a sickee now. A perv. A dead-person toucher.
Next night, he flipped through and again stumbled upon The Six Sisters. The show was regularly scheduled, played every night at eleven. It was the episode where Janice finds out she’s pregnant with a black man’s baby. The drama was tense. Tears were shed. A fight between black and white students threatened the safety of the high school. But, in the end, with racial equality shining through like a scuffed penny, the rest of the five sisters did the right thing and supported Janice and accepted her jive-talking boyfriend, Tyrone.
Herman watched the entire episode. Entrenched, glued to the screen. Sleep came hard and heavy to him that night, which hadn’t happened in years without the sauce. He tuned in to The Six Sisters every night. Whether to catch a glimpse of his face, or to relive the weeks he spent on set with the girls and the director and the coke and the drinking, or so he could sleep better at night, or whether he was just horny and desperate and alone, he wasn’t sure, but the weeks went by, and Herman watched the show from beginning to end.
That he hadn’t come across any Uncle Emil episodes pleased and worried him. Perhaps Uncle Emil wasn’t as endearing as the reviewers made him out to be? Perhaps he wasn’t as delightful and sleazy as John Larroquette’s Dan Fielding? Perhaps the episodes just weren’t part of the syndication effort?
Then Herman started drinking again. It started out with a few beers when he sat down every night to watch The Six Sisters. Halfway into the episodes, with his pants down to his ankles, he progressed to liquor and soon Herman found himself on a serious binge. Nights crept into mornings and he stopped shaving and going to meetings in Scottsdale. The muscles flattened out. His face hurt. Herman caught repeats of repeats of The Six Sisters. It was frustrating, so he drank more. Janice and the black boyfriend again. Brenda and her missing panties. Josephine and her mild case of chlamydia.
Everything was degenerating around Herman. The trailer was a mess. Plants died. His bank account was on tilt. His body stank of something organic and mossy.
In town one day, kicking around a coffee shop, down to his last few dollars, a barista called out to him, “Hey! Uncle Emil!”
Herman was hung over, didn’t look up. He wiped his nose and hung his head down near the cup of coffee he’d bought with the change found in his car seats. Delirium? Someone teasing him? He’d never been recognized before. Not even in Hollywood.
“Hey! Uncle Emil!” she said again, a playfulness in the barista’s voice. Sincerity. Hope. The voice sank deep into his chest.
Herman looked at the girl. She was smiling at him. She had hair as dark as black garbage bags and eyes that begged for a quick death whenever it happened. She was wearing some kind of animal claw around her neck (crab claws Herman later found out), which settled nicely into the gentle nook of her windpipe. Sondra. Sondra with the beautiful windpipe. Sondra with a face like dirty snow. She was a drunk, too, and they fell for each other. Went out over the next few weeks and ate roasted chickens and burritos and creamed soups and drank peppery zinfandels and fruity shiraz. They’d end the night at Herman’s trailer where they’d trash the place with their lovemaking and pillow fighting and take ranitidine tablets because the food and wine gave them heartburn.
Things went on. Herman had yet to find a job. But the trailer was paid in full and he sold some belongings for spending money so that he was able to spend the nights with Sondra. They were happy. They pretended like they had been together for a long time.
The change came quick.
Watching television after a dinner of lentils, browned chicken and snap peas, Sondra and Herman flipped through the channels and came upon an episode of The Six Sisters. Herman had stopped watching since he met Sondra. He had the remote, tried quickly to change the channel, but Sondra urged him to go back.
“Please? It’s my favorite show.”
“It’s sexy.” She wrapped her palm around Herman’s crotch, and together they watched The Six Sisters. When the introductory credits rolled, Herman realized it was an episode with Uncle Emil. The one where the production crew set up the faux-backyard and the girls were sunbathing near the pool in string bikinis and they needed Uncle Emil to fix the cleaning system and pour chlorine into the water. Herman remembered the way he played with the fake palm fronds in between takes, the way it felt between his fingers, waxy and wet and plastic, how interesting it all was because he was so high on pain pills then.
Before the grand entrance, Herman again tried to switch to Sports Center, but Sondra balked. “Please?”
Uncle Emil trounced on screen with a cigarillo in his mouth, toolbox in hand and laugh-track provided. Herman watched and got upset. When Tricia, the eldest of The Six Sisters rolled her eyes at an off-color and racist joke (You can’t call them chinks!) Uncle Emil made, Herman grabbed the remote and turned the television off.
“No more,” he said. “That’s not me.”
“I know it’s not you,” Sondra said. “It’s just a character, right?”
Herman threw the remote across the room where it hit the cupboard and bounced onto the floor and the batteries spilled out. Something clanked in the sink, adjusting to the outburst. A fork perhaps? A ladle?
“What’s the matter?” Sondra pleaded.
“Just leave it be.”
“Don’t keep this in, baby. Tell me.”
Herman wouldn’t have it. He didn’t want to talk. It was too soap opera to talk.
Instead he thought of his old life in Hollywood, got more upset. Sondra put her hand on his back and then, throatily, begged him to fuck her, but Herman pulled away. Blind. In a rage. Does he hit her? No. This is not that kind of story. Instead, Herman retreated into his head and remained silent for several minutes like a whiny bitch.
Soon, Sondra got bored and said, “If you’re going to be a sour puss, I’ll just leave.” Though she made no indication of leaving.
“Sondra,” Herman said and looked deep into Sondra’s eyes. He loved those eyes. Saw Hollywood in those eyes. Saw good scotch and lines of cocaine. Speed. Good porn. The nasty stuff. Degrading to all involved. Even the horses.
He couldn’t finish his thought. He sprang from the couch, walked over to the small door of the trailer and opened it. The night air smelled like left-out porridge and ruin.
Sondra understood. She’d been in bad relationship before. Beaten. Berated. Even burned with matches once. Yeah. Seriously. But this? This she couldn’t handle. Herman needed something else, and it wasn’t her, so she picked up her shit, all huffy-like, and on the way out she said, “You were really talented.” And she kissed Herman on the cheek. Soft. Some might say there was love in that peck. Others might say there wasn’t.
Then it was all over. She was gone. Hours later, sweating in that trailer with those dirty dishes festering in the sink, Herman decided to leave Scottsdale and head back to LA. He gathered his belongings, packed up his Lexus and started the engine. Fuck Scottsdale, he thought. Fuck this trailer. Fuck sobriety. Hollywood needs me, and I need Hollywood.
Herman hit the pedal hard, peeled out and nailed a mailbox leaving the trailer park. It was Mrs. Goldberg’s mailbox. Poor old jewbird wouldn’t get mail for the next few weeks, but Herman soon forgot about that. Halfway home, roaring across the desert, he looked in the rearview mirror, a pint of cheap whiskey in his lap, trucker’s speed in his veins, his face rugged and haggard and employable all over again, and said to himself, “This is for you, Sondra.” Herman took a chug of whiskey, charged on to the edge of Orange County.
Scott Miles is from Downriver Detroit and lives in Chicago. Twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, he’s had his short stories published in nationally distributed magazine such as LIT, Cimarron Review, Atticus Review, Storyglossia, Crime Factory, Beloit Fiction Journal, The MacGuffin, Oyez Review, The Summerset Review, and Pebble Lake Review. He is the author of the short story collection The Downriver Horseshoe.