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Appearances


by Curtis Pierce


“Only one ring away,”  I told myself while swiping the small glass screen of my cell phone with my sweaty thumb, repeatedly pushing down the illuminated green icon with the white telephone receiver. I was seated in a small crowded courtroom with hard wooden benches and no windows.  I wore an old dark blue blazer--slightly frayed at the edges near the faded brass buttons--gray polyester slacks, and thick red hand-me-down tie. I was waiting for a young woman I had recently met. She was from China and about to be deported unless I could prevent it.  I didn't want to be there. I kept looking down at my thin black device silently repeating, almost praying,  “Only one ring away.  The phone call that will turn your life around is only one ring away.”

I'm a lawyer--or so says my business card, Louis Claussen, Attorney At Law--and it's not like I was insensitive to this woman's trouble. I was preoccupied.  Yesterday's acting audition at Sunset Studios had gone well. Couldn't get over the bright  reception area with its long glass table and newly painted white walls to match the white leather couch between tall green leafy plants in clay pots.  The perfect air conditioning had a slight lemony fragrance.  I only got to appreciate it for a few minutes before being whisked away into the audition auditorium with red velvet seats and glossy wooden stage.  There were about 60 of us with the same basic look: male, early 30s, six foot tall, 180 pounds, blond hair.  

It was a small indie film with a cool title: Deception Game.  Gritty.  Edgy. Mametesque.  My character--if I got the role—-bank teller by day, contract killer by night. I'd be perfect for it.  

When my name was called, I jogged up the short staircase by the side of the stage and hustled to the center.  I took a deep breath under the glare of the bright orange spotlight and delivered the short lines with a subdued angry edge--a little De Niro and a little Clint Eastwood at the same time.

You think you recognize me? You think you know me from somewhere? Is that what you think? You'd better be sure.”

My amplified voice echoed off the walls of the quiet auditorium. I paused and lowered it before the last line.  

“Or someone might get hurt.”

Director with long thick brown hair in a ponytail and small gold earring was seated in the middle of the semi-lit auditorium. He was real upbeat all smiles when he stood up and said “thank you very much, we'll be in touch.”  

I know such remarks are meaningless.  But the way he said it. Emphatic. Enthusiastic.  As if he were really saying “we need to go through the motions of considering the others, but don't even worry about it, you are exactly what we are looking for.”

Wishful thinking getting the better of me?  Hopefully not this time.   Couldn't stop looking at my cell phone.  

“Louis, have you been waiting long?”  The voice with a slight accent belonged to an unassuming Asian woman with no makeup in a modest black dress and thin-strapped sandals.  Was that Ying?  I hardly recognized her.  The day before, when we rehearsed her testimony, she reminded me of one of those women you see pictured in the glossy pages of magazines tucked in the vinyl pocket of seats on 747s:  Long straight black hair, red glossy lips, white powdered complexions wearing navy blue skirts and matching jackets and berets.  Her perfume smelled like fresh red roses. Her round brown eyes made her look exotic, Asian but maybe also part French. She was chatty even laughed at times, although the matter was serious and the stakes high.   I knew something about her case, but little about her.

At the end of our meeting, she touched my arm lightly, smiled and said “I know I am good hands. If I win, we will go out and celebrate."  She spoke softly and slowly.  Despite the accent, I understood every word. She then handed me her business card that she pulled out of her small white leather purse with a gold raised Gucci insignia: Ying Yang, Realtor.

“Do you know anyone looking to buy a house?”  she asked.

“No,” I told her honestly.  

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Not long after passing the bar I realized law school had been a big mistake.  Should have pursued my passion, my true calling.  But I had been raised by a professional guitar player who worked in the daytime in the booth of an underground parking garage taking twenty dollar bills, handing back change, and saying “have a nice day” before raising the gate.  Few and far between were the days when he was paid to go into the recording studio, put on headphones, and pick and pull the strings of his beloved black hollowbody Les Paul.

He used to say, “you're the first person in the family to graduate from college. Don't end up like me.”

But then the rude awakening, reviewing  mind-numbing details of 30 page insurance contracts under high-stress deadlines. Not to mention the inability to fit in with the real lawyers who had been wearing charcoal gray pin-striped suits with the Frank Furillo vests since they could crawl in sand boxes. It didn't take long to see into what I had stepped.  

Changing careers would be a gradual transition. I would break into acting while making special appearances.  Translation: stand in for other lawyers in cases so crappy that the lawyers hired to handle them  didn't want to touch them: loud fat bathrobe-in-the daytime-wearing women on food stamps claiming bad back from minor fender benders, unshaven deadbeat dads shirking child support, angry f-bomb dropping drunk drivers with green tattoos on their bald heads copping guilty pleas to avoid jail time.  

Still a lawyer, but with the freedom to go out on casting calls and even participate in workshops.  Word got around that special appearances were my specialty and that's how Mr. Chen got my number.  I was in my small studio apartment in Silverlake eating Coco Puffs at a black resin folding table and looking for audition on my laptop when I got the call.  It was a Thursday before noon.  Hadn't worked at all that week.

“My name is Attorney John Chen,” said the voice on the phone in a thick accent sounding like Jackie Chan.   “I need a lawyer to appear in court for an immigration case,”

“Why don't you do it yourself,”  I asked.

“I am only a paralegal in the United States.   In China I am a lawyer.”  

“What kind of case?”  I asked.  

“Asylum.”

“Asylum?  Wow,” I said intrigued.   Asylum.   Berlin Wall, Cold War, John Le Carre.  This had potential.  

“Oh yeah.  I'm definitely interested,” I said.

 “Then please come to my office tomorrow morning. Do

you Know where Monterey Park is?”

“Monterery Park?  No. Can't say I do.”  

“Look on a map. You will find it,” he said sounding like one of the Shaolin monks in orange robes on Kung Fu.

I got in my old red Nissan and cruised east on the 10 about ten miles east of downtown until I found the Atlantic Blvd Monterey Park exit.  When I parked on Garvey Avenue and got out, Chinese characters of all sizes jumped out at me from every building.  Some painted bright red on the windows and glass doors of restaurants where you could smell the steamy spicy aromas coming from the kitchen. Some in the form of gold raised lettering on white concrete office buildings, like the one where Mr. Chen introduced me to Ying.

While waiting for Ying's case to be heard, I imagined sipping iced tea at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel and googling “IMDB Deception Game” on my cell phone and seeing the page open with my with my name in a blue font link next to my picture under the heading “Cast.” I had a slight bubble-bursting feeling when I recalled that among my competition was Rick Roberts.  Mediocre actor but great bs-er. He also had that toned athletic build and chiseled face with dimples. A handsome man, ok yes. But nowhere as good looking as he thought he was.

In the reception area just before the audition, I overheard him sweet-talking the blond buxom twenty-two year old in a tight low cut white satin dress trying out for the love interest.  

“You have the most incredible eyes,” he told her flashing that phony smile. “Did you know that?”   
     “Really?” she said beaming straight at him.  “That's so sweet.”  

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The courtroom, an interior office with no view, was on the upper floor of a gray tower in downtown situated between shiny skyscrapers and Skid Row.  On the steps leading to the entrance, a couple with chipped yellow teeth seated on a yellow nylon sleeping bag with brown stains had asked me for a dollar. I wondered where they spent the night.  Across the street was Pershing Square Park, concrete benches, fields of grass and a purple tower.  It was a stone's throw from the Biltmore Hotel.    

On the white wall behind the judge's high backed chair with black leather cushions hung a gold plaque with the textured head of an American bald eagle jutting slightly forward.  In front, there were identical square wooden desks for the attorneys. Side by side, adjacent, almost touching. Three rows of wooden-backed benches in the rear for any observers.   An intimidating woman with short grey hair and thin brown leather briefcase strapped to her shoulder, no nonsense personified, made her entrance.  

“Who is she?”  said Ying.

“Must be the prosecutor for Immigration & Customs Enforcement.”

"Why is she here?"

"To deport you."  

No Nonsense appeared immune to friendliness. The heavyset judge walked in next, long black robe and serious expression to match.  He was short, graying hair and looked like he had a bulging belly under that robe. I guessed him to be close to 60. I spotted a blue tie under his black silk robe. He said nothing. That's when it hit me.  This was a real courtroom.

"Are you ready for the questions we discussed?”  I asked.  

“Yes, I am ready,” said Ying in a controlled voice.  “Are you?”

"Appearances please," said the judge.  It took me a moment to get into character.   

“Ellen Stevens for the Department of Homeland Security,” she said with no hint of warmth whatsoever.  No doubt she meant it.

I imitated.  “Louis Claussen for Ying Yang.”

"Please proceed,” said the judge, staring straight at me. I retrieved a folded sheet of letter paper from the breast pocket of my jacket. There was the list of questions that Chen had written for me in his office with a thick black lacquer fountain pen in blue ink. I had thought of it as a script, a live performance where I would be permitted to read.   

“Why are you afraid of returning to China?”  My tone and delivery was serious.  I tried to sound a bit like James Spader on Boston Legal but with my own style and phrasing.  I fixed my eyes on Ying, glancing only occasionally at the judge.

“I am a Christian.   The Chinese government does not approve.  They arrested me once because of my faith and would do so again."   She looked straight at the judge without blinking. For the first time, I noticed that Ying was wearing a necklace with a gold cross over her black dress.   

“Ms. Yang,” said the judge.  “Please notice that in front of you on the table is a microphone.  Everything you say is being recorded.  You need to speak into this microphone; otherwise, I cannot hear you and your answers will not be properly recorded.  Do you understand.” asked the heavyset judge with a slightly annoyed tone.

Ying nodded.

“Please don't nod,” said the judge raising his voice. “The recording device does not pick up nods.  You need to answer the question yes or no.”

“Counsel, please resume,” said the judge.    

"Please tell us about your arrest,” I continued, noticing there were no spectators present in the quiet enclosure, only the four participants.  

"I was at a Bible study meeting in a small private home on the outskirts of Shanghai.   The police arrived, 5 of them in black uniforms, they broke down the door.  They handcuffed me, blindfolded me and took me in the back of the car to a police station.  They confiscated all our Bibles.”  

I looked up and caught the judge rolling his eyes.  It was quick, almost imperceptible.  No Nonsense bit her lip and stopped writing to wipe her forehead.  

“I was imprisoned for many days," Ying continued.   "All alone in a dark cell.  I was warned that if I was ever caught practicing Christianity again, the consequences would be very harsh."  

"What did you understand that to mean?" I asked.

“Long years in prison. Beatings. Torture.  Maybe even death.”    Heavyset and No Nonsense kept writing. Between questions, the court was as silent as a law library.

When I got to the bottom of the page, I said to the judge “the defense rests.”  

The judge shook his head and rolled his eyes.  “We will take a recess.  When we resume, Ms. Stevens will do her cross examination.”  Intermission at last.   

I promised Ying I would be “right back” before creeping down a cramped corridor to a tiny wooden waiting area where I was greeted by a cacophony of foreign languages.  Next to me was a man with cowboy boots and green tattoos covering both forearms.  He was angry about something in Spanish, berating a much shorter man in a pin-striped blue suit.

“No hizo nada.  No hizo nada.” he repeated in a loud harsh voice.

I tried to ignore them.  I spotted a message from my agent Dave on my cell phone and felt a surge of excitement.

“Possibly good news,” read the black font surrounded by a gray bubble.    Even though Dave was not the most sought after agent in Hollywood, persuading him to add me to his roster had been no easy task.   “It's down to you and Roberts,” the message continued.

Exactly what I feared.  The master of self promotion, the man with no conscience strikes again.  Then I remembered what I had overheard him tell the director with a straight face as I was leaving the audition.  

“Oh yeah, I've done musicals.  I was in a production of Chicago at the West End when I was living in London.”  

Two weeks ago a bunch of us from the workshop were having beer at the the bar of the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel.  Jane, a pretty brunette whose father was a well known plastic surgeon in Beverly Hills, was telling us all about her trip to Paris.

     Rick said “I've always wanted to go to Europe but I can never find the time.”  

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"How do you think the case is going?"  said Ying.  suddenly hovering over me. She had discovered my hideout.  

"Oh, I think it's going well."  I said, smiling trying to sound reassuring.   

"Do you think the judge believes me?”   She placed her hand on my arm and pursed her lips. Her eyes were wide open.  

“Hard to say.  I believe you.”   

“If I said that I was beaten and tortured in prison, would that improve my chances?”

“I beg your pardon?”    I looked around to see if anyone had overheard.   

“What will happen now?”

“Questions from the serious woman.”

"How much longer will it last?   I am supposed to show a potential buyer a condo this afternoon."   

"Isn't this more important?"

"Yes, of course.  But Mr. Chen told me that even if the judge denies my case, we can still make an appeal.  Is that right?”

"Yeah, sounds about right," I said. “Can you excuse me a moment?  I  need to call my office.”  

I chewed on this unexpected exchange while waiting for Act II.  When the case resumed, Ying was moving around in her chair. No Nonsense pitched a series of follow up questions about her Ying's confinement.  Ying hit them out of the park.  Then the curve.

“You have testified you are a Christian.   Can you please tell the court:  what was the Last Supper?”   What is this, I wondered, Bible school?

“It was the meal before Jesus Christ, my lord and Savior, was crucified.”   I breathed a sigh of relief.

"What did Jesus say to his disciples when asked about the end of days?”

I waited nervously, but no answer was forthcoming.        "Objection," I said.  It was my first--almost involuntary. No Nonsense nodded at me, looked mildly impressed.  “Aren't we getting a bit esoteric here?” I improvised.   How many Christians would know that?"  

"I'll allow it," said the judge.  

Ying was stumped, without expression.  

"Would you like me to repeat the question?"   No Nonsense made good on her offer and even provided the answer.  “Jesus said ‘watch out that no one deceives you.'  Does that sound familiar?"    

"Move on counselor,” said the judge, who had been taking copious notes.   

"Did you ever live in Las Vegas?"   

"Yes."  

“Were you ever arrested for solicitation?”  

“Yes.”   

“How many times?”

“Twice.”  Ying was matter of fact.   “But the charges were dropped both times.”   My mouth opened.  What the hell was going on?   The judge raised his eyebrows.  

“Do you know a realtor named Charles Wang?”

“Yes.  I worked for him.”    

“Were you employed by him when he was arrested for real estate fraud?”

“Yes.”  Ying's expression was blank..  

“Have you ever gone by any other names?   Ever use the name Susie Song?”

“Objection,” I said instinctively, starting to get the hang of it.   

The judge asked No Nonsense where she was “going with this.”   I had the same question.  The hearing had become a wild ride.  I wanted to get off.

“We have reason to believe this woman is not who she claims to be.”

"You have reason, do you?  Do you have evidence?  Or are you simply hoping your questions will persuade Ms. Yang to incriminate herself?”    His Honor sounded irritated.  

“Nothing concrete at this time.”   

“If there is nothing else,” the man deciding Ying's fate paused a moment, “I'll render my decision."    I exhaled.  

“I have heard your testimony,” said the judge glaring at Ying.   “I have my doubts.  But you have stuck to your story. Truth be told, it's a story I have heard before.  Nevertheless, if I don't grant your case, a higher court will probably undo my decision.  So I am going to save everyone a lot of time and trouble and grant your request for asylum."  Then with a  snicker, "You can now practice your religion freely.”

"Congratulations," I said to Ying while riding down the elevator.  "Glad it worked out.”   I was confused by what happened but genuinely happy for her.    

"Thank you.  You were great,”  said Ying as we exited the elevator.     

As soon as we stepped outside, I saw Mr. Chen fast approaching.  Chalk Stripe Black suit, shiny shoes with leather tassels, and briefcase.  He and Ying were soon engaged in an animated conversation in a foreign language that was harsh and guttural. I envisioned a red velvet curtain coming down.     

I walked across the noisy street to the purple bell tower at Pershing Square.   Colorful characters with sleeping bags and shopping carts filled with bulky plastic bags were moving slowly.  They eyed me with belligerence until I found an isolated enough spot in front of the tower for a quiet  conversation.   I turned and faced the Biltmore Hotel where the corridors near the lobby are decorated with black and white pictures from Academy Award ceremonies held there over a half century ago.  

I called Dave and actually got him on the phone.

Brace yourself,” he said. “Roberts got the role."   

"The prick."  I said, in a loud hard voice tinged with contempt.  I felt suddenly nauseous.

"You might be right.  They may have been impressed with his resume.”

“His resume is bullshit,” I said.

“But they don't know that.  Or maybe they don't care.”

“He's a scumbag.  A total phony.  And his acting skills are nothing special.”  I continued and Dave indulged me for a polite duration.

 “Listen,” he cut me off, “ I got something else, an audition for a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare's As You Like It.   Can't say I'm overly familiar with it. Are you?”

“That's the one with the line ‘All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.'”

“Oh yeah?  Anything in there about talent agents?”

“Only that they should all be blind folded and taken to the Tower of London to have their heads chopped off.”       

“That's good.”  Dave laughed heartily.  “Will sure got that one right.  Anyway, listing says ‘Elizabethan theatre experience strongly preferred.'  Whaddya think? Wanna give it a shot?”

Dave knew as well as I that the only place I had performed Elizabethan drama was my studio in Silverlake in front of my full length cloudy mirror that hung on the other side of the front door with chipped paint. But--couldn't that be embellished?  Couldn't that just as easily have been summer theater in some small town?  Maybe Shakespeare in the park in the middle of Western Pennsylvania.  

I pictured myself as Richard III wearing a gold paper crown and black denim jacket,  on a stage built with leftover wooden planks used for bleachers for the little league baseball diamond. Poor yellow lighting from some outdoor flood lamp as I looked out onto the grassy field and announced over background noises of crying babies and barking dogs with a contrived English accent: “Now is the winter of our discontent.”   Hoodie clad teenagers with acne covered faces from the local high school huddled together on blankets over the lawn watching with eyes glued to the stage. Accompanied by a polite plain Jane 40something teacher wearing a frumpy white summer dress and thick horned-rim glasses nodding attentively pretending to comprehend the old English dialogue while making sure her short attention-spanned students didn't talk too loud, smoke cigarettes, drink beer, or wander off.   Further back by the lighted green asphalt tennis courts, grey haired couples with aluminum folding chairs, plastic wine goblets, and wicker picnic baskets full of strawberries, Ritz crackers and sliced American cheese. Enthusiastic applause and standing ovation for a full two minutes at the end. Rave review with color picture praising the performance of Louis Claussen on the front page of the local newspaper, the Name-Escapes-Me Township Gazette.     

“Go ahead, Dave.  Set it up.” 

 

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