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The Land of Make-Believe

by Ron Van Sweringen

Buddy Marsh had finally arrived in the land of make-believe. His stomach quivered a little at the sight of the Sunset Boulevard street marker as the Greyhound bus passed.

Hollywood! kept bouncing back and forth in his brain like a ping-pong ball. It was real; he could smell Hollywood when he pushed his nose up against the slightly opened bus window. It smelled wonderful, a mixture of overripe oranges and tacos, which reminded him he hadn’t eaten in 48 hours.

“No matter what,” he said to himself fifteen minutes later, as he left the almost empty bus terminal at 4:30 in the morning, “I’m gonna give it a try.”

And so the eighteen-year old cowboy from Plain View, Texas, made himself at home sitting on an overturned trash can, sipping a cup of coffee while he waited for the sunrise.

He was tall with a trim, yet muscular body, used to hard work. A thick mass of curly blond hair occasionally found its way over wide hazel eyes. He was good-looking in an all-American way; the guy girls went crazy over. That was the reason Buddy Marsh had arrived in the Land of Make-Believe; he’d been told one time too many, “You should be in the movies.” He decided they might be right.

* * *

When Buddy told his father he was going to Hollywood to be in the movies, his father had exploded. “No son of mine is going to the land of fruit and nuts to be a movie star! Now git on out there and herd them cows!”

An hour later, Buddy had packed a suitcase, slung his guitar over his shoulder, and was in line for the bus to Los Angles, California. He’d made up his mind, and nothing was going to stop him. Besides, he had had an insurance policy: Mom was on his side.

* * *

Neverland wasn’t exactly what Buddy expected by daylight. Trash littered the gutters as a shroud of gray smog slowly burned itself off. A patch of rich blue sky finally appeared, accompanied by golden rays of sunlight.

“That’s more like it,” Buddy said to himself, turning his face toward the warm glow. “Now let’s see if some of these movie people want to hire a real live cowboy.”

A sign on the weathered stucco building said: “Marco Inc. Motion Picture Casting Co.” Buddy had picked up a copy of Variety and scoured it for want-ads. The most promising, a full-page ad seeking extras for Victor Manning’s 1955 western musical production, Covered Wagon.

“Male and female extras needed. Transportation and lunch provided. One hundred dollars per day.”

A hundred dollars a day, Buddy thought, shaking his head in disbelief as he headed up the steps of the building, two at a time.

A short hallway led him into a large room filled with mostly women. He stopped cold as if an alarm had gone off. He stood in the open doorway with every head in the room turned toward him in his cowboy boots, worn Stetson and snug jeans.

“Hi, hon,” the platinum blond secretary behind the desk winked at him as she picked up the telephone. “Let’s see what we can do about getting you in the movies. Mr. Marco, I think we might have just what you’ve been looking for.”

“Oh, Lordy,” Buddy whispered with a broad smile, “welcome to the land of make-believe.”

Two hours later, Buddy Marsh had a hard time recognizing himself when the make-up artist pulled the sheet off of his shoulders. “How do you like them apples,” she beamed at his reflection in the mirror.”

Buddy’s face flushed. “Mighty grateful, ma’am,’ he managed to stammer. “What’s your name?”

“Vida Malone,” came the quick answer, “but my friends call me Vi, and that includes you.” She was short with red hair and the bluest eyes Buddy had ever seen. He wasn’t good at guessing ages, but he put her somewhere in her mid-thirties.

“Where you staying?” she asked, cleaning her brushes and make-up tray.

“Nowhere,” Buddy answered. “Just got here this morning and I ain’t got much money.

“Well, you’ll make a hundred today and they’ll be more, trust me. I’ll put the word out about you, I know everybody on this lot. In the meantime you can bunk at my place. I’ve got a king-size sofa that should fit you, and my girlfriend likes to cook.”

Before Buddy could reply, a man in horn-rimmed glasses grabbed him by the arm. “Can you ride a galloping horse?” he gasped almost out of breath.

“Yes, sir,” Buddy replied.

“Good, come with me,” he shouted. “Six would-be cowboys at a hundred dollars each and not one of ‘em can stay on a running horse!”

Vi waved to Buddy as he was dragged away. “Told ya,” she called.

* * *

Vi’s apartment was small, located in a 1930’s Spanish stucco building in a rundown neighborhood. She had been right about the sofa: it fit Buddy well and he slept like a rock until the telephone rang in the middle of the night.

“Rise and shine,” Vi announced flipping on the light switch. “The director wants you on the set in an hour.”

“What time is it?” Buddy moaned.

“4:30. He wants to catch you riding off into the sunrise. Besides, you’ll get the regular extra’s pay plus a hundred dollars for the call.”

“Two hundred dollars!” Buddy exploded, jumping up. “I used to git two hundred dollars a month for punching cows!’

“This is Hollywood, sweetheart, everybody is judged by the amount of money they make,” Vi shot back. “Now get a move on. You never keep a director waiting, that’s a cardinal rule.”

Vi’s girlfriend, Nola, made him a quick plate of scrambled eggs and a cup of black coffee that put him on autopilot. A car picked him and Vi up twenty minutes later.

“This is a good chance to make friends,” Vi said as they were driven through the darkness. “You’ve been singled out, which means they’ve noticed you. The more friends you have in this business, the better.”

There were a dozen people on the set when they arrived, and Vi started setting up her station as Buddy took his seat in front of the make-up mirror.

“No.” The same man with the horned-rimmed glasses from the day before stopped her. “Mr. Manning wants Charles to make him up. They are going to do a screen test and close-ups after the sunrise scene.”

Buddy looked at Vi, confusion on his face.

“It’s all right,” Vi assured him. “This could be your chance. Just be who you are.”

Victor Manning greeted Buddy from the director’s chair. “I saw the rushes from yesterday, young man. You ride very well and, because of that, we’ve decided to add a little excitement to the scene. You are to ride down the valley as fast as you can, only this time you cause your horse to rear up as you dismount. Then you climb out on a high rock ledge and throw your arms up in the air as the sun rises.”

Manning turned to the assistant director. “Show him how I want it, Joe, and, while you’re at it make, sure he signs the necessary insurance forms for the studio.”

* * *

The surgery took almost three hours and felt like a lifetime to Vi, as she paced the hospital halls going over the filming crews description of what had happened. The shot had been going well until the last minute when Buddy was up on the ledge raising his arms to greet the sunrise. Without warning the sandstone ledge had crumbled, throwing Buddy forty feet onto the rocks below. He remained unconscious until he went into surgery.

A few minutes later, the surgeon left the operating room and was immediately met by two studio representatives. Their conversation was brief and, as the doctor moved away, Vi stepped in front of him.

“Please,” she said, “I’m the only friend he has out here. Can you tell me his condition?”

“Off the record,” he replied, “he’s a lucky young man; he’ll be able to walk again, with a cane. He came very close to being paralyzed. There’ll be no more horseback riding, ever.”

Vi found a chair as the doctor proceeded down the hall. Suddenly, without her realizing it, tears rolled down her cheeks. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “Oh, my God.”

* * *

Three weeks later, Buddy came home to the small apartment with Vi supporting him under one arm and a cane in the other hand. Nola had tried to make the atmosphere cheery by baking a chocolate cake with the message, “Welcome Home,” written on it in pink icing.

Buddy made a half-smile when seeing the cake and sat staring at it. “Reckon that’s it,” he said finally. “This is home now.”

“Don’t you want to go home to your family?” Vi said softly.

“No,” Buddy replied, “I don’t want them seeing me like this. I’m not going back to Texas. Right now I need to work on getting my strength back and walking again, that is if you two can put up with me for a while longer.”

A week later, Buddy began a regimen on his own. A three-block walk to a row of shops with a small café, near the apartment. He took his time, usually arriving at noon each day. Having become friends with the owner, they often shared an outside table together.

A month later, Mr. Brady, an attorney from the studio’s legal department kept an appointment with Buddy at the apartment. When he left, there was a check for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars on the kitchen table.

“Wow,” Nola said when seeing the check. “That’s a lot of money. What are you going to do with it?”

“I reckon that depends a heap on you two,” Buddy answered, waiting for a reaction.

“Us?” Vi said as she and Nola came closer.

“Tell ya what,” Buddy smiled, “suppose I take you two girls to dinner tonight, and we can talk about it.”

The three of them arrived at The California Café at eight o’clock that night. Buddy had never seen it after dark and, although it was charming, the outside could have stood a new coat of paint.

Once seated inside, enjoying glasses of red wine, Buddy asked, “What do you two think of this place?”

“It could use a little updating and some elbow grease,” Vi replied, “but it’s definitely got possibilities.”

“The menu’s outdated,” Nola added. “It needs a lot of help.”

“That’s the general idea,” Buddy smiled, “How about the three of us buying this place together? As I see it, you’d be doing me a favor, being my partners.”

Buddy continued, “The owner wants one hundred thousand dollars. That leaves us enough to spruce her up and run her. There’s only one problem: the name needs changing to, “Chef Nola’s Land of Make-Believe.”

Copyright © 2016 by Ron Van Sweringen

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